The refugee camp was as Tovyan remembered it: the flags still fluttered at the gate, and the smell of camp kitchens hung in the air as lunch was being prepared. There was, however, movement. A line of several buses was loading up in the car lot, the passengers dumping their few possessions on a truck behind it before embarking. Hungarians and Croats were returning to find what was left of their homes, now the NATO armies were rolling back the Turkic Horde. The stunning victories of the Red Elphberg had restored heart and confidence to the West.
Budapest had been liberated that morning by the Czech and Polish armies, while Croatian forces had expelled the Horde's troops from their soil. The Rothenians had linked up with the Croats, and were advancing south to the Iron Gates. Kris had seen reports on the hotel-lounge TV that the Hungarian provisional government had proclaimed the restoration of the Habsburg monarchy, to wild acclaim.
The same cheerful young Rothenian aid worker was on duty at his desk, though things were clearly less busy for him these days. There was no long queue in front of him. He remembered Tovyan and the Cirics. 'Gone yesterday. I had this letter for their son Vukašin if he turned up.'
Tovyan gave him the bad news, and the man was very sorry. When told they had plans to find the family, he shrugged and offered them the letter, saying, 'Maybe it'll give you some clue as to where they've gone in Serbia, which I think was where they were heading.'
He knew about Radu and the others. 'Still here … nowhere else to go really, like too many of these kids. Some of them are becoming a real problem. Locals are complaining about thieving and there was an incident with a girl down the valley yesterday. The police are stepping up their presence round the camp.'
Tovyan and Kristijan meandered down to the vehicle lot, to find their truck parked just where they had left it, though the field was emptying. Kristijan still had the keys, which Vuk had entrusted to him. Noticing the wheel clamp, Tovyan knelt down to examine it. Within two minutes it was off, with the help of a three-inch nail he found nearby.
'How did you do that?' marvelled Kristijan. 'I thought you had no magic powers left!'
Tovyan grinned up at him, a smear of grease on his otherwise perfect cheek. 'I told you. I just know how things work.'
'Are you planning on using the truck again?'
'Might well do. I can drive it, I think. With the mess Eastern Europe's in, no one's going to ask for my driving licence. If we have to go in pursuit of the Cirics, our old friend here may be the only option. No trains or buses where they've gone, at least not for a while. And this time, we've got the resources to travel in style, don't you think?'
'I saw this brilliant Mercedes top-of-the-range hybrid six-wheel. Maybe it's time to splash out, Tovyašin!'
Tovyan chuckled, which Kris made him do a lot. 'No chance. This old friend is good luck to me, and I've learned luck is not something you turn your back on in this Universe. Right, let's check the engine. Hold the hood up for me, Kris.'
Bogdana Tsvetanova picked her way down to the banks of the Starel. She did it most days, always in hopes that she might again find that magical boy she had once encountered on the decaying wharf. This morning, sure enough, there he was, sitting with his legs over the water, watching the many tugs chugging downriver hauling long strings of barges behind them. River traffic had hugely increased in the past week as the armies of the West began their movement towards the Balkans. Rail and road were limited options.
Bogdana quietly took a seat beside the boy. He shot her a small smile.
'I know who you are,' she observed.
'You're the king, Maxim, son of the Red Elphberg.'
He didn't deny it. 'How are you?' he asked.
'Oh … happy and sad. Happy that those evil men have been driven away by your father. Sad for my daddy. He's a good man and the best carpenter ever … but he has no job, and no nice lady friend. He's so lonely.'
'I promised you that things would get better.'
'You did, Maxxie. I'm so pleased at what your daddy has done. Soon his soldiers will be in Svishtov, and they'll save Karol maybe.'
'That's why I'm here. Karol Tsvetanov came within the borders of my kingdom, so I've found your cousin for you.'
'What! That's amazing! Is Karo close by? Can I see him?'
'I'm going to take you to him. But something's happened to Karo. Those horrible Chernemenschij caught and tortured him in terrible ways. In the end he was saved and my cousin Daimey – he's a king too now! – gave him a new body, a really beautiful one. He's got two new dads who're being so good to him, but he's not happy. When he sees you he will be, that's a fact.'
'What …?' This was all too much for Bogdana to take in.
'I've got some time before my mummy wants me back home. So we can still see him and I'll show you what I mean.' The boy stood up and offered Bogdana his hand. 'Are you ready?' Somehow the boy's question seemed to ask more than the words implied.
The joy of the Cubs' reunion soon turned to grief when Tovyan gave the news of Vuk's death in Strelzen. Klement was crying uncontrollably on Kristijan's shoulder. The other two were expressing their pain in different ways. Marsin was kicking the wall of the administration block in what appeared to Tovyan to be fury, yet there were tears running freely down his cheeks. Radovan was gazing at the sky as if he could see something there, though it was obvious he was registering nothing. Then he turned and stalked away.
'Don't follow him, Tovyašin,' Kristijan cautioned. ' He needs to be alone for a while.'
Staring after the big boy as he wandered out into the camp, Tovyan realised he still had a lot to learn about human emotion and its expression.
When Marsin and Klement had quietened down, the boys went to their tent, where they found Radu in his sleeping bag, his head covered, shaking with silent sobs. Waiting for him, they sat outside and chatted quietly. Kristijan took charge of explaining what had happened to Tovyan and him in Rothenia, relying on a heavily-edited version of the truth. At some point, a red-eyed Radu joined them.
Kristijan wound up in this way: 'So, Tovyan's relatives are really rich – he never said how rich. They're Peachers! He's back together with them and they've allowed him to use his trust fund again. But he's returned to us because he loves us and wants to find the Cirics and Janko, in particular.'
'And you met the Red Elphberg in Strelzen?' Klement was enthralled. 'What's he like?'
Kris replied, 'Apart from tall and red-headed? Just like you'd imagine: stern and masterful. Couldn't understand a word he said, but he seemed a kind man. And we saw the little king too.'
Radu shook his head. 'Why are you really here, Tovyašin? Why would a boy like you want to hang out with the likes of us?'
'Because I owe you everything, my Cubs. You taught me so much and saved my life, though you didn't know quite what you were doing. Mostly, I guess, it's because I love you and I know Vuk would want me to do this. You're my Cubs, my real family. I'll never be happy unless I know you're safe and taken care of, and I've come to make sure you are. Now, will you join me looking for Janko?'
The three looked at each other, and it was Radovan who answered, 'Yes, our brother. We'd follow you to the ends of the earth.'
Keeping her hand in Maxxie's, Bogdana gazed around her. She was high in an alpine woodland. It was the same autumn morning, so much was clear, and it was quite chilly up in the mountains. Across the valley, nearly a kilometre away, she could see a tall, conical hill, at its peak a great tricolour flag flapping next to a monumental obelisk, bright in the sunshine. Most of the trees cloaking the hill had been splintered and uprooted, as if a vast storm had swept across them. Far above, in the blue vault of the sky, great colourful birds were swooping and diving.
'Where are we, Maxxie?'
'That's the Kaleczyke Horja, where the great battle was. It's where Karo's living now with his foster fathers, after my army saved him from the Horde.'
'So why are we on this side of the valley?'
Bogdana concentrated. Eventually she heard children at play, apparently in the woods below them. There was a lot of laughter going on. Maxxie led her down towards the sound. When they reached a clearing, he put his finger to his lips and drew her into the cover of some bushes. The sound of children was louder now, even if she still couldn't see them. One thing was clear to her, however: they were talking in Bulgarian.
Eventually she realised the children were in the trees , climbing. She looked up and caught flashes of colour. Then she gasped. A child had launched itself from a branch into open air, but instead of plummeting to its death, it glided and fluttered safely to the ground.
It was a naked girl of about ten, but not like any girl Bogdana had ever seen. Her skin was a light tint of aquamarine, darker in tone around her crotch and large, green nipples, while her hair was a grey-blue. But it was her spread of sea-green wings which astounded Bogdana.
The child shouted up to the others in the tree, and with a flurry of feathers a whole flock descended to the forest floor, whooping and laughing. Among them was a young boy, his hair a familiar dark red. His face was equally familiar, though more beautiful than she had ever seen it. It was Karol, but with skin of a pale purple and wings of carmine and shining gold. He alone of them wore clothes, a cheap pair of briefs.
Three other boys gave Bogdana her first clear sight of what made male children so different from her. She snapped back to Karol, for lithe and gorgeous though the others were in their colours and proportions, his beauty far transcended theirs.
The y were all chattering now, mostly in Bulgarian, though a few of them seemed to be of a different nationality and were struggling to understand the others, with whom they spoke a hesitant Rothenian. It seemed the scheme under discussion was to find even higher trees to leap from. The three naked boys were particularly urgent about it. The girls seemed inclined to go along with them, but Karol shook his head. He watched as his peers frantically beat the air while leaping from the ground. Despite being unable to lift them into the sky, their wings allowed them to make extended airborne leaps up into branches, and from branch to branch. They were soon out of sight, although their distant whoops continued to echo through the woods.
Karol turned away as the others disappeared and wandered up the hill. A shove from Maxxie sent Bogdana out into his path. He stopped and stared down at her. 'My … Dana!'
'My little sister! Oh! Is this a dream?'
'It's me, Karo. Maxxie brought me.' She hurled herself into her cousin's arms.
The boy himself stepped out grinning. 'She means me. I brought her here.'
'Ah!' Karol nodded. 'I understand. The boy-king. You are mighty in magic, so Reggie and Lance have explained to me.'
The king laughed. 'Mighty in magic! I like that. You're a cool kid. Good to meetcha. Your Rothenian has come on quickly if you can talk to Reggie.'
Karol separated from Bogdana. 'I thank you for bringing my Dana to me … but why?'
'Well, so you can play, and … maybe for other things. Everyone needs families, especially after what you've been through, Karo. So, wanna play with Dana? I gotta go home, but I can come back and fetch her later.'
The two looked at each other, then nodded to Maxxie.
'Okay then, but er … you gotta get undressed, Bogdana. I'm gonna lend you some wings for a bit.'
The girl stripped down to her panties, then hesitated. Karol caught her eyes. When he slowly lowered his briefs and stepped out of them, she followed suit. A moment later, two novachekij stood on the path, their colouring much the same, though the avian girl who had been Bogdana Tsvetanova had wings of a darker shade than her cousin's, shot with a more brilliant red.
Maxxie beamed. 'You both look really amazing. Wish I could stay, but wings aren't for me, more's the pity. Be back after lunch. Don't worry, I'll find ya!'
The truck purred for Tovyan like a friendly beast. His first gear-change was smooth and faultless, causing Kris to look his admiration from the passenger side. In the back, the other Cubs cheered and banged on the top of the cab.
Tovyan pulled out of the lot and tagged on to the tail of another departing convoy of buses. The police just waved them through onto the autoroute to Wien.
The traffic was a lot heavier than Tovyan remembered it. Big gas-powered rigs with French, Dutch and British registrations were heading in the same direction as they were. There was the feel about it of a continent stirring into life once more. A long column of Italian military transports took a full half hour to pass them, crowding them into the slow lane.
Tovyan remembered the truck stop where he and Vuk had last shared sex as a couple. He was determined to spend the night there, in order to make a symbol out of it. Under the moon, as the others slept, Tovyan leaned across to Kristijan, pulled back his sleeping bag and ran a finger down the channel of his back. When Kris stirred they joined hands and scampered naked into the woods. Once away from the road, Tovyan went on all fours and offered himself to the other boy.
'You want me to do you, Tovyašin?'
Tovyan looked back over his shoulder. 'Yes, my Kris. Back in those woods on the other side of the road, Vuk and I did it for the last time as just the two of us. Here we are, going the opposite direction and I want you to know you're my lover now, my only one. I love you, Kris … even though we've not managed to beat the foot-odour thing. Just make it quick … it's f-f-f-freezing!'
Kristijan was still chuckling as his cock was pulled into Tovyan's welcoming hole.
When they'd finished, the two lovers returned to the same sleeping bag.
Waking with the sunrise, they found the other three sitting up and grinning at them. 'Knew there was something between you,' Marsin asserted. 'Vuk'd be pleased.'
Maxxie walked hand-in-hand with Bogdana up the lane to the back of her tenement. She was bubbling with delight.
' … and Maxxie! I flew from the top of this pine tree down to the bottom, and Karo and I had this game where we jumped across a big stream, where it got wider and wider till one of us fell in! And that was the loser. But I won every time. And it didn't matter anyway because you don't feel cold as an avian! Water just slides off your skin. Karo says the big avians fly through thunder clouds.'
Maxxie smiled to himself. He could guess that Karol, bigger and stronger than his cousin, had happily let her win their game. 'So did you like being a novachek ?'
'It was a dream come true.'
He nodded. 'You can be one again, if you want. But don't do it too often or you'll get stuck. I'm serious. Now, before you go in, I want to talk to you about your father. You say he's unhappy?'
Her face lost its elation. 'He never smiles anymore.'
'Do you think he'd be happy as an avian?'
'I … don't know.'
'He sounds to me just the sort of man their king needs. Talk to him about what happened. He may worry about you, that you're spending too much time daydreaming. But do it anyway. And if the idea seems to make him smile or if it turns out it's one of his daydreams too, call for me, and I'll come. Do you understand?'
'Yes, Maxxie, I will. Shall I tell him I met Karo?'
'That would really worry him. Did he love his nephew?'
'Oh yes. They would play football together when my aunt came around. Karo's father went away to England when Karo was a baby and never came back.'
'People shouldn't do that. Just think about what I said.'
Henry was inspecting a road block when the startled look in the soldiers' eyes and a sudden breeze caused him to look round. A horned avian with blue wings and dark hair had alighted close behind him. Henry grinned. 'Nice entrance, bird-boy!'
Davey laughed, held out his arms and they hugged. As they did, Davey's wings beat strongly, and they took to the air. 'Hey! I'm army, not air force,' Henry protested, as he watched the ground disappear fast beneath him and his stomach sank to his boots.
'Enjoy the ride, Outfield. There was no way I was gonna make an appointment through Major Ruprevic.'
'This is kidnapping.'
'Nah … midget-napping.'
Henry laughed. 'You're still my Davey under the feathers.'
'I'm still your Davey, and I will be till I fall off my perch,' his old friend affirmed, and Henry felt deeply comforted.
They alighted on an otherwise inaccessible ledge, sheltered and sunny, with a magnificent prospect of the Glottenberh massif's blue ridges fading towards Slovakia in the hazy afternoon sunshine. The two friends settled with their backs against a warm rock face.
'Nice up here,' Henry observed. 'So what's it like, being avian?'
'The vitality is indescribable. And the libido … it's all I can do to stop myself stripping the clothes off your little bod. I was in the sky with Max yesterday, renewing our sexual acquaintance. I swear I was fucking him for two hours straight, and I still came twice in Danny when I mounted him. Lance says the horniness ebbs after a while; it comes in cycles. But at the moment I'm up everything that offers. I even took some young kid up the ass while he was screwing his girlfriend. Neither objected, since my new cock is intensely admired amongst the community. Still don't know who they were.'
'Tell me you didn't do Lance!'
'Easy, Henry! Of course not. There are some guys who are exclusive, and you know who they are, but if you go into the sky at what they call the myelhei then anything goes, gay or straight.'
' Myelhei ?' Henry snorted.
'Apparently a Rothenian-avian borrowing from English.'
Henry shook his head. 'I'm almost envious, apart from one or two things.'
'You'll be stuck up here in the mountains for the foreseeable; you can never go to one of your clubs again unless you open a new disco bar in Kaleczyk … and I'm told feather rot is a bugger.'
The avian's big arm took his friend round the shoulder and pulled him close while an exotically scented blue wing folded over him like a comforter. 'I still have my friends, even if I lost my Terry. And more and more are joining us. Lance brought over the orphan kids still in Kaleczyk today, along with the six adults who were on life support. The kids were desperate to be like the ones who're already avian, so our numbers of meledhij and novachekij have leaped.'
'Yeah, well, keep expanding and I'll find it hard to keep you a secret from the world. Tell me, what're these horns about? Only a few of you have them.'
'It means I'm a fuerst , a prince, a durchlaucht .'
'Start at the top why don't you.'
'For now it doesn't mean much, but I'm on the Radkornatij .'
'The Horny Council? I can believe that after what you just told me.'
'Join us, Henry. Come over. You'd be an amazing avian. I can see you now: the petitest birdman that ever was; you'd have horns for sure. Did I mention that anal sex is incredibly intense for the guy who goes under? Different arrangement of the rear plumbing. The pressure makes you shoot like a water pistol, hands-free.'
'Is that what this is about, Davey? A recruiting drive? You're playing me: you know how I miss not just you, but Lance, the other kids, and Reggie, Daimey and all my friends. Did Damien set you up to do this?'
Davey shook his glorious head. 'Nope, it's my idea. Think about it, baby. Talk it through with Ed. Your Yuri says the avian lifespan may be more than twice that of humans, and we won't age as humans do. I'll still look and feel like this when I'm a hundred and fifty.'
'Unless your much-admired dick has dropped off through over-use.'
'It is an amazing dick though. Must be three sizes bigger than the one I remember. I'd never get it in my mouth nowadays.'
'Oral's not a big thing amongst us, that's for sure.'
'Take me back, Davey.'
'You mad at me?'
'No, I love you as much as I ever have, Bounder. But I wish you'd not done this. It'll just make things harder.'
'Sorry, Henry. But I miss you so. After Terry, you're the man I most love and adore.'
'And I know that, which is why I can put up with the separation. I know a good slice of your heart is and always has been mine.'
They kissed for a long time, until Davey stood, swept Henry up and launched them both into the void between the peaks of the massif.
Damien, Lance and Helen were occupying the former fortress briefing room, which was currently the home of their people's governing council. Stools had replaced the backed chairs, for obvious reasons.
At the other end of the long table, Yuri and Mattie had laid out a stack of files they had been compiling as she examined each member of their tribe. The couple had rapidly become the community's medical resource. In professional mode, Yuri lost her shyness and hesitancy; she was now one of the key avians in Kaleczyk.
Helen looked grim. 'So how many?'
'All the females who are eighteen years old are pregnant, including you. It had to happen. The younger girls who are sexually active aren't carrying, so it must be part of our life cycle. The ferocious sex drive begins around sixteen for most, we think. It's a little earlier for some; my twin brothers, for instance. Then avian youths have two years free of consequences, but at eighteen we're programmed to breed. It's difficult to be sure exactly when fertility kicks in, however, since our avian bodies don't experience periods.'
'Have you used the hospital scanner?'
'I started with the Radoveski girls. They're each carrying three healthy foetuses. So are all but one of the other mothers-to-be we've examined, and even she has twins'
A big, slow grin had taken possession of Damien's face. The shock made him revert to English. 'A dad! I'm gonna be a fookin' dad!'
'Yeah,' Lance observed, 'but it won't be for long. As soon as he finds out, your dad'll murder you for making him a grandfather before he's forty.'
'I'm carrying three babies!' Helen was for once lost for words.
'Probably. I rather think three will be the usual number, which makes me believe this may be something that happens only once in our female life-cycle.'
' Just one pregnancy in a lifetime?'
'Yes. Three can't be an accident. If it's to be the optimum number for population replacement I wonder if that's because homosexuality will turn out to be more prevalent amongst avians than humans? First indications suggest it might be so. The recruitment pattern may echo our natural balance of sexualities. Currently about a third of the avians are gay.'
Lance continued the questioning. 'Any idea of the sex ratio in the wombs?'
'It's too early to tell with the resources I have, but as with humans, I would guess it'll balance out in each generation at roughly 50-50. But we need a lot more evidence before we know for sure. It may be there'll be a male predominance as a population control.'
'And how long will the pregnancy be?' a dazed Helen wondered.
'Not much longer than that of humans, I would imagine. We're bigger than they are, and carrying three won't be too burdensome unless our babies are a lot bulkier than human ones. Even so, towards the end flight will be difficult if not impossible, though I don't expect that stage will be too prolonged. But I'm trying to make comparative projections based on observable growth of the foetuses. It'll be a few weeks before I can be sure.'
There was a long silence. Eventually Lance spoke up. 'I think this brings the question of planning right to the top of the agenda. This hill will be crawling with kids within a year. I have no problem with that, but I do want our novachekij to have some sort of life and future to look forward to.'
Damien had returned to his customary focus. 'Back to that again. And we're no nearer an answer. Still, we're at least in a good place for now. We have shelter and supplies, and for the moment no one's asking us for rent. Even if they did, my Peacher trust fund's huge enough to pay for us all, and as many more avians as this hill will hold. But you're right, Lance. Roosting in Kaleczyk is no long-term future for our … for my … kids.'
Helen had also regained her composure. 'School begins for the novachekij and meledhij tomorrow; holidays are over for the youngsters. If there is to be a future for them, they have to be ready for it.'
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