Henry kept staring at the winged being across the bed from him. It was intent on the pallid figure of Nate Underwood lying there between them. Although clearly it was – or had been – Damien Macavoy, its size and power dwarfed everything around it, unnerving the medical staff. But Henry could not bring himself to tell the avian to leave. In whatever shape he was, Damien needed to be with his father.
A harassed surgeon came nervously up, glanced at Damien and delivered his report. 'General, Mr Under-vood here is in a bad way. There are fractures, many cuts and abrasions, not least the damage to feet and hands. Blood loss is heavy and we're keeping him under sedation. The most serious injury is to his head; the skull was penetrated by shrapnel.'
'And Davey Skipper?'
The surgeon shook his head. 'Appalling trauma to the lower gut, kidney failure and irreparable damage to the liver and other organs. There's nothing that can be done. His right arm could never have been used again; had there been a chance of survival it would have been amputated. He's conscious, but the end will be soon. Excuse me, but there are so many others.'
Henry nodded and went to seek his dying friend. He realised from the looks of people he passed that Damien was padding along behind him.
'I like the new gear, kid.'
The voice when it replied was Damien's, but far more resonant with power and masculinity. 'Thanks, Uncle Henry. I'm so sorry about Davey. Lance'll be devastated.'
'Where is Lance?'
The avian seemed to make an internal check. 'With Mike, Luc and the rest, harrying what's left of Malik's men towards the Czech army, which is waiting to round them up beyond Andreshalch.'
'And how long have you been able to do … this?'
'The avian thing? 'S a long story, Uncle Henry.'
'I'll bet.' Henry found the ward and didn't need to ask where Davey's bed was. The breath-taking sight of a white angel hung over it. It was Helen, who had put off her warrior form, though the golden horns remained. Nurses were staring and keeping their distance.
Henry went quietly to the bedside. Helen was holding Davey's good hand in hers as they talked in low voices. Davey was smiling – high on painkillers, Henry imagined, and not fully aware of what he was seeing.
Henry took station on the other side of the bed. Davey transferred his smile to Henry, who was sad he could not take the hand of his friend's mangled arm.
'Hullo, you fashionable git. Does it hurt?'
'Not really. Drugs. And I always swore I'd keep off them. Terry's dead.'
'Can you collect up what's left of him … give my man a decent burial?'
'Put us in the same grave. I'd like that. There's an angel lady come to get me. Thought they would at least send a nice-looking boy … no offence, love.'
'None taken,' Helen replied.
Gavin and Max hurried in at that point to join the group. Max was distraught, but he looked at Damien rather than Henry when he asked, 'Isn't there anything that can be done?'
Damien went over to Helen and, taking her round the shoulder, brooded on the dying man. Henry's head snapped up when the unexpected answer came: 'Yuh. But it'll come at a cost for all of us.'
'You can heal him, Daimey?' Henry demanded.
'No. But I can change him. Thing is, if I do, he can never go back to being human again. If he does he'll die. Does he want to be like us? How can I know?'
'Only one way to find out, majesty,' Gavin pronounced, and Henry was struck by the older man's deference to the young avian king. 'Do it, Damien. For me and all his friends.'
'I will, but when I do he'll be an avian forever. We couldn't let him live alone. If Davey is transformed, we all have to stay as avians from now on.'
Helen shook her head. 'Too many people have seen us, Daimey. We've already crossed that line. And there's you too. How much life is left in your human body? It's time.'
Max joined in. 'Gav and I know it. We have only one more change in us, then we can't go back. Gav, you thinking what I am?'
Gavin nodded. He went up to Henry and kissed him. 'This is a sorta goodbye, Henry my Henry. You'll never see me like this again.' And as he let Henry go, his eyes changed, his form swelled and two more winged men stood next the bed, gold and silver, their hands clasped.
Damien turned his attention back to Davey. The armlet clasping his right bicep glowed as its interlacings began to curl and weave patterns of their own accord. He placed his hand on Davey's forehead and leaned in to kiss him long on the lips. When he moved away a different being lay there, too big for the bed it occupied, its burning azure eyes momentarily dazed, and then startled.
Davey sat up. His body was well-proportioned, ivory and elegant, his face as handsome as it had ever been when he was human. There was no hair at his groin to disguise what were strikingly beautiful genitalia. The wings – in many gorgeous shades of blue – flexed and shivered, knocking over the monitoring equipment and the drip stand, which Henry was just able to catch. Then in a final metamorphosis, blue, silver-tipped horns burst out above Davey's brows.
'Great!' Damien shook his head wearily. 'Another gay avian prince.'
The Marshal-Prince of Elphberg alighted from the Humvee with Ed Cornish. A large squad of bodyguards fanned out from the infantry fighting vehicles which had followed them to their vantage point above the battlefield. A detachment from the Twelfth Division was waiting for them. Rudi looked them over. Seeming to approve of what he saw, he returned the salute of the major commanding.
Ed checked his watch yet again. 'Only five minutes now, sir.'
Rudi surveyed the dawn landscape of the plain below them. The first grey light of day was revealing columns of smoke rising grey-blue from the villages and barns of his homeland, and from the raging conflagration consuming the eastern suburbs of Ostberg to their right. To their left, Ed could now see the distant flashes and smoke of the massed enemy batteries relentlessly pounding the city. Pale morning mists rising from streams, drains and rivulets added a surreal edge to the battlefield.
Below them were lines of the well-entrenched infantry of the Sixth Division, engaging the Horde with heavy machine guns and mortars. Behind them, the IFVs began opening up with their cannon on the identifiable enemy positions below. Ed forbore to mention that this made the commander-in-chief a potential target; one did not say such things to Rudolf Elphberg. In any case, the Horde was about to have several serious distractions to deal with.
'This is it!' Ed announced. Within seconds the air was full of the howling of tons upon tons of high explosives as it completed its trajectory. Ruthlessly directed shells from the distant Rothenian heavy artillery, pinpointed by GPS and laser targeting, created red lines of flame and shrapnel along the Horde's positions. Ed flinched and ducked despite his long military experience. He had never seen the like of this bombardment. Salvo after salvo plummeted screaming from the sky and stunned the observers' ears, while the hellish sound of fire and steel was compounded by the thunder of the distant artillery pieces massed far beyond the Horde's reach. It went on for fifteen minutes, by which time the ditches, banks and hedges which had been the enemy lines were nothing more than shreds of vegetation and smoking craters. The barrage began moving further south, searching out any concentrations of troops, clearing a two-mile-wide lane through the Horde's lines.
'Now, sir?' Ed asked, his voice sounding tiny in his ears after the Rothenian artillery had spoken.
'Ruric is go.' Rudi walked over to the detachment from the Twelfth Division, placed his foot in the stirrup of a proud white stallion and settled into the saddle. The horse furniture was blue and gold, bearing the insignia of a marshal of Rothenia. A Life Guard in steel helmet and khaki next to the prince unfurled the Elphberg royal banner.
Ed mounted the fine bay mare readied for him. Trust his army to get things right: he liked the detail that his major-general's insignia was on the saddle cloth. He loosened his sword in its scabbard.
Ed looked to the hill behind them. The noise of a rolling thunder began. Soon there was the sound of things unheard on European battlefields for more than a century: bugles, the cries of horses and men, and the jingle of harness. But it was the sight rather than the sounds which caused hairs to rise under Ed's helmet. Line upon line, regiments and brigades of cavalry crested the ridge, one after the other, to descend with shouts and cries on the Horde's shattered lines.
The spirit of Ruric and his horseback warriors kindled again in his people. The great echelons pounded the dead beneath their bloodied hooves. Sword, lance and pistol slew the living as they fled. When the general staff cantered behind the Twelfth Division they found no-one alive to surrender to them. Two miles of the Horde's line was pounded to pulp, and through the resulting gap poured the Fifth Division, manoeuvring south – not dismounting, reinventing the classic cavalry tactics of two centuries gone by.
The horsemen cut off stragglers; they destroyed unsupported gun emplacements; they called down shattering barrages on any points of resistance. The assault on Ostberg, taken in the rear, faltered. When RPG rounds and mortar fire from Rothenian dragoons and hussars began plunging into them, the Horde divisions locked in battle in the city broke and fled into a countryside alive with mounted units and advancing infantry. Few prisoners were taken on that great field of death where no quarter was asked, and no count was ever made of how many fell there.
Henry sniffed the cool breeze of morning as he stood with Fritz atop his command bunker. His men were busy beneath them re-erecting the flagpole. The monument, though scarred, had survived the Horde's artillery pretty well. There was enough of an autumn chill on the peak for both men to have their greatcoats buttoned up.
'Any news from the south?' Fritz asked.
Henry shrugged. 'It's breaking now in the broadcasts. Operation Ruric has shattered the Horde, and what's left of it is in full retreat on Budapest. Bit embarrassing for them when they get there, 'cos I rather think the Czech and Slovak columns will beat them to it. The enemy units in Slovakia are all surrendering. Although the Horde divisions facing Sopron are still fighting, they're being encircled by the Austrians and Germans.'
'Heard from Ed?'
'He's safe and is marshalling the pursuit. Easy enough with cavalry, which don't need roads or fuel, apart from the odd nibble of grass. My baby's personal ambition at this point is to capture Malik-rammu. But no luck so far.'
For a while the two occupied themselves doing what everyone else on the mountain was, if they had no other tasks: scanning the sky. The avians were circling in the air above them, diving and swooping joyously in their squadrons. Colours flashed from their wings in the bright mountain sunlight. Henry felt a catch in his throat at the glimpse of the rich blue of one in particular: Davey Skipper was getting used to his new body and life. Henry felt a sense of loss which he guessed would soon be getting a lot worse.
'Look down there!' Fritz urged.
Henry observed a party of the released Horde captives warming themselves in the sunlight on rocks below, gazing enraptured at the sky. They were all children, or little more than. They were one of Henry's major concerns. It was a puzzle what to do with them, not to mention the scores more former sex-slaves now recuperating from their torments in the fortress hospital. The marks of their abuse would stay with them, and many were permanently crippled by their martyrdom on cross and pike. Most could have no surviving family.
Henry watched a white figure detach itself from the flock and glide down to alight near the children. It was Helen, who soon had them climbing all over her, tugging at her wings and feeling her golden horns. The sound of laughter came from below. She called down several others of her tribe. Barry Hignett caused a sensation by putting a young boy on his shoulders and taking him for a brief glide. Soon others were clamouring to try it, even the teenagers.
Henry was absorbed in the sight when two avians alighted beside him. 'Hey dad!'
'You're still a soldier, baby.'
'Yeah well. Can I take some leave?'
'Granted. Baby, what you did was awesome.'
'Cool, wannit, Uncle Henry?'
'The pair of you saved Kaleczyk and maybe the whole West with it.'
'Wouldya have fired down on Davey and those poor kids, Uncle Henry?'
'Wish you hadn't asked me that one, Daimey. I'll pass on the answer. You might think less of me.'
'I don't think so, dad.'
'We need to talk, boys. And now is as good a time as any. Question One: how are you people going to live as avians in a modern world?'
'Thass one we've thought of a lot. No answer.'
Henry sighed. 'What I'm going to do for now, babes, is quarantine the Kaleczyk military zone. You've just become a national secret.'
Lance growled, 'As I thought. You're putting us on a reservation.'
'You got better ideas, babe? You tell me. Think of it more as a Rothenian Area 51. Okay. Question Two: can you do this to anyone?'
Lance nodded. 'Pretty much, if they want. But I have a feeling there's a moral component to the transition, because the eventual form of the avian reflects the soul. I don't think it'd work on some people … maybe a lot of people. I suspect Malik-rammu would make a sorry avian.'
Henry mused on that. 'Interesting. Well, I have a million other questions, but they'll have to wait. I expect you want to go back to Nate, Daimey. Any news?'
'He's still under.'
'Boys, I want you to do something for me. There are a dozen really badly injured kids in the wards. Three will probably die and the others will never walk again. Two have lost limbs and the boys have been castrated. Daimey, would your transformation make them whole again?
Damien shrugged. 'It made Uncle Davey good – better than good.'
'Then, if it takes, you can make some additions to your tribe.' Henry's mobile sang. 'It's your other dad, Daimey. He's just reached the security point. I'd better go ahead and prepare him. He'll be pissed at you for all sorts of reasons.'
For once, the king of the avian race looked apprehensive.
Malik-rammu, Chosen of God, stole through the woodland. He had been separated from his guards when a section of those cursed Rothenian dragoons had ridden among them. Strange how cavalry caused panic even amongst warriors as hardened as his death commandos. He had urged them to stand fast and mow the bastards down, but the size and power of the animals suddenly bearing down on them had daunted his guards. They had run, falling piecemeal to lance thrust and rifle shot.
Now he was alone, but not without hope. He had survived much worse than this. He still had untouched armies in Serbia and Kosovo. Turkey and Greece were his. This was merely the first assault on the West. To mount another, though, he had to find his way south. He had some reason for optimism. He had good English, and there were few pictures of him in circulation. He could become a refugee with ease if he could just slip into a camp, or join a column of stragglers.
His excellent topographical sense told Malik that he was somewhere near the Rothenian border with the Slovak Republic. He had glimpsed steep hills to the north, the butt-end of the Glottenberh massif, he believed. This land had defeated him, but he would be back. The reasons for his military defeat he could understand, even admire. The Elphberg was the first worthy opponent he had faced. Malik's mind was beginning to calculate the parameters of this new warfare, and visualise his own horseback assault on the West. He had become intellectually lazy, he concluded. That little djinn bastard had taken his edge. He would sharpen it again, and carve his way to the English Channel.
Seeing a flash of white on the path ahead of him, he halted, drawing his pistol. The woodland was hushed; there was no sound of horse or man, though he could hear the rushing and chuckling of a stream close by. The pursuit had gone elsewhere.
Malik moved forward cautiously and as he did he heard singing, a child's voice burbling away to itself. He straightened and broke through a screen of bushes. Sitting on a rock by a stream was a blond boy about eight years of age, too young to interest Malik. But he could not be ignored. Malik dared not allow himself to be seen at this point: so, too bad for the boy. He levelled his gun and as he did, the child looked up and said in perfect Turkic, 'Hi, Mehmed. Been waiting for you.'
Shocked, Malik's arm fell to his side. 'What did you say, kid?'
The boy merely shrugged and did not answer directly. 'On that side of the stream is the land of the Slovaks … nice people. On this side of the stream is my land, great Rothenia. If I let you go across, you'll be someone else's problem, and I can't let that happen.'
Malik registered that the boy was in a military uniform: tight white jacket and trousers, braided in gold with heavy epaulettes. Two miniature stars of chivalry flashed on his breast. He looked as nineteenth-century as the dragoons who had just ridden down Malik's guards.
'Do you know who I am?' he demanded.
'Sure. You're Mehmed Torossian … or you were.'
'How can you know this? Only Atib knew me then.'
'Yeah. He's dead. Odd guy. Can't imagine how a kid like you could have a friend as good as that. He was good to my Toby too. So he at least went to the Dead, to my people. You, on the other hand …'
'What the fuck are you talking about, kid! See this gun? You want me to blow your head apart?'
The boy gave a terrifyingly innocent smile. 'What gun?'
And Malik-rammu was horrified to discover his hand was empty. A sense of danger began to break through the puzzlement. He started backing away from the stream.
Helen, Marky and Yuri shepherded their little crocodile along the corridors of Kaleczyk. The dozen youngsters chattered excitedly to each other in their pairs, but remembered to hold hands and keep their wings folded, as they'd been told. Soldiers stared as the child avians passed. They had all been kitted with white briefs for the trip through the base. They were told they should only take them off when they felt comfortable about it.
They reached an upper exit and stepped out on to a platform high above the pass. Yuri took charge for once. She got them all sitting down cross-legged and called them up to her, one by one, in order of size. The oldest of the children who had been transformed had been around fifteen. She was a girl called, appropriately, Angelika. She was clearly well beyond what humans called menarche and fully sexually mature in her new state. Yuri could only make a cursory inspection, but the girl seemed perfect and whole, if understandably body-shy.
The new phenomenon of the fledglings was absorbing Yuri intellectually. She was now looking at a boy called Karol, eleven when transformed. He was a stunningly beautiful fledgling with faint lavender skin, purple eyes, dark red hair and carmine, gold-shot wings. He shyly allowed her to look into his briefs to inspect his newly restored genitalia, as small proportionally as those of a human child of the same age. He showed no sign yet of the major development that would occur at puberty, since pubic hair was not invariable with avian males. The oldest of the boys was fourteen, and his bulging briefs indicated that he at least was maturing sexually. Although none had horns, Yuri had no idea whether they might appear as adolescence progressed.
It was their wings which were Yuri's primary concern. The five adolescents seemed to have a spread fully able to support them in flight. Indeed the shivering and compulsive flexing appeared to indicate that their bodies were already straining to take to the skies. The younger ones' wings were proportional to their bodies, however, so Yuri doubted they had the lift or muscle power for sustained flight, bigger and stronger than human children though they were.
She sat them in a circle again. The majority of them were Bulgars, swept up by the Horde in its invasions. Because they had no other tongue, she talked to them in that language, chipping in with Serb for the others. She explained what they now were, how they had come to be made whole again, and how they were the first avian children. They all had a lot to learn about the meaning of avian childhood as part of a new family, where they would be loved and cherished. They were all good people, or they would never have been given wings. Somehow this last observation was the one which seemed to have the most impact on the children.
It was Helen's turn next, for organisation was her strong suit. The children's smiles for Yuri became respectful concentration when the golden-horned queen began to speak. Yuri translated. The five fully adolescent children – two boys and three girls – were to form their own society, or meledhij … she used the Rothenian word for a youth group. They were to live together and look out for each other. She got the children to repeat their first Rothenian word. She turned to the smaller children. 'And you, little ones, are our novachekij, our fledglings.' They beamed back at her and repeated the word. 'Now, meledhij, it's time for you to fly.'
Hand in hand the adolescent avians moved to the lip of the platform, their wings already flexing a gale around them as their bodies realised they were about to take to the air. They lifted as one, whooped and shot into the heavens with all the quickness and delight of youth, circling and diving endlessly and tirelessly, calling out in wonder at what they'd become. Five pairs of white briefs fluttered down from the sky as they were promptly shed.
Helen took Yuri round the shoulder as they watched. 'Well, sister, we're a society now alright. Time to sort out foster-parents for our novachekij, and where their homes will be. Feel like nesting?'
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