The prince stood, his face frozen in alarm. Thinking first of his mother, he rang a bell and ordered a carriage to take her immediately to the abbey at Medeln. All the time he was questioning Oskar. How far away were they? How did Oskar know that he, the prince, was their objective? What on earth was Oskar doing here anyway?
Oskar answered only one of the prince’s questions, and that was to tell him they had thirty minutes at most. Princess Helga was preternaturally calm. When the footman ran in to say the carriage was ready, she scolded him for forgetting himself. She was kissed by her two sons and departed, but not without shaking Gus’s hand first. In the meantime, the prince had ordered the guns from his cabinet to be brought out and loaded.
Grinning fetchingly at Gus, Oskar offered him a magnificent Purdey Express double rifle, the stock engraved with the Tarlenheim arms. ‘What a pleasant surprise to find you here, dear August. You timed your visit so well.’
‘And where did you come from, Oskar?’
‘A story for another time.’
‘Like so many of your stories.’
Oskar laughed. He seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly. He had two pistols in his belt and a heavy cavalry sword at his thigh. He had a long rider’s greatcoat thrown over his shoulders and a military cap on his head. Despite the turmoil, Gus had time to observe how exalted Oskar looked. All the signs said he was a man who lived for danger alone, and suddenly a lot of Oskar’s character became clearer to Gus.
One of the officers was detailed to arm the servants and make a defence of the house to slow down their pursuers. Then the Tarlenheim brothers, the other officer and Gus went to the stable yard for their mounts.
Berthe looked round questioningly at Gus as he rose in the saddle. She had clearly expected a longer rest in the Tarlenheim stable.
The four men cantered off along a track that led up through woods to the hill above the house, where they paused amongst the ruins of the old castle. The officer produced a pocket telescope. Gus looked around and found a more ominous explanation for the columns of smoke he had already seen rising to the west and south.
‘Your highness,’ he asked the brooding prince, ‘is this civil war?’
‘I would call it insurrection,’ Rudolf observed, ‘but the name given to it in the end will be decided by the winners.’
‘I think they are on the outskirts of the town, excellency,’ said the officer to Oskar.
‘Then it is time to be off. Strelfurt is too far. We need to head west and make for Modenheim, where General Weiss has his headquarters. Hopefully, we will encounter his patrols well before we get to the city.’
They rode down through the woods along bridle paths known to Oskar and struck an empty westward road. There was a distant popping of gunfire as the Riders approached the house, but it soon faded behind them. They made good progress for several miles, until Gus found cause to worry about Berthe. She was already tired and was no match for the stamina of the prince’s hunter and the cavalry horses. She began to lag behind.
Oskar observed the problem and reined back. ‘Your bay is not in the best condition. If it comes to a chase, we will be embarrassed to make our escape.’
Gus was still too intrigued to let Oskar off lightly from his curiosity. ‘Where did you come from, Oskar?’
‘Oh here and there. My dear August, here we are riding for our lives with bloodthirsty rebels on our heels, and all you are interested in is my social calendar. You English really are …’
‘I think I deserve more than just evasion.’
‘Ho hum. What a bore.’ Gus wilted, as he seemed to have annoyed Oskar, but then Oskar laughed lightly and continued. ‘Very well, a little explanation is probably in order, but only a little. When I was at the Rudolfer Universität in Strelsau, I took fencing practice very seriously and attended the military gymnasium. I drew some attention, especially from a gentleman who was one of father’s friends, and high up in the foreign ministry.’
‘Not another of your lovers?’
‘Don’t interrupt, August. You wanted this explanation. Where was I? Oh yes. Well, this old gentleman – too old for me to be interested in him that way, might I say – this gentleman asked me to assist him in some confidential work in the capital involving German agents working to build up a spy ring. We scotched that, rather bloodily I have to confess, and it was because of that little job I ended up at the Congress of Berlin. I was sent there to protect our mission and its secrets. I have told you the story of myself and Blowitz, have I not? Hugo said I was merely being mischievous, but that was not at all the case. It occurred to me that the best way to protect Ruritanian interests was to undermine the security of Bismarck’s entire mission. He had so many agents monitoring Blowitz and defending the Congress’s secrecy that he had no one left in the end to undermine anyone else. I turned the whole exercise into a nightmare for his people. I was quite proud of myself.’
Despite the tension, Gus laughed. ‘You had every right to be. I take it then that your trips to Vienna and Paris were not for the purposes of decadent amusement as you made people believe.’
‘Oh no, they were decadent alright, but they had a more serious side too. For instance, when we first met I was in Vienna in an attempt to find out whether the two emperors were discussing the Ruritanian succession when they met at Ischl. One of the frequenters of the Sophienbad is a coding clerk at the Austrian foreign ministry. Did you meet him … Friedrich? No? He is in love with me. He brings me copies of despatches relating to Ruritania, and he is the principal source of my intelligence. All for the price of a kiss and a quick fondle.’
Oskar suddenly looked angry at a recollection. ‘It is such a pity. If the queen had put me in charge of the mission to Lord Burlesdon, good Father Piotr need not have died. Or at the very least, I might have uncovered his assassins. Whoever they are, they have an excellent source of intelligence at court. They are very dangerous.’
Gus digested all this. After a while he continued his questioning. ‘What led you to Tarlenheim today, Oskar? Where have you been this past week?’
‘The queen’s illness has caught us out badly. The whole situation has deteriorated. I was sent in a desperate effort to gather intelligence about Thuringian support in the west of the country. I had the satisfaction of rounding up a lot of their agents, but their support goes far deeper than we had suspected. I see signs of that mastermind once again. These Riders did not appear out of nowhere. Munitions and money have been secretly poured into Mittenheim. I can only think that Prince Bismarck has been playing a far deeper and longer game than I had ever suspected.’
‘How did you discover that your brother the prince was the Riders’ target?’
‘Pure luck, really. I have had no time to penetrate their organisation, but their premature moves in Mittenheim at least allowed me to identify one of their cells near Ebersfeld. I had them under observation, and I took a detachment of dragoons to ambush them. We had to shoot most of them, they were very stubborn, but I took one of the leaders. Eventually he co-operated and revealed today’s plot.’
Gus’s blood ran cold at the thought of how this unknown Rider might have been ‘eventually’ brought to co-operate. After a pause he asked, ‘Why do they want your brother?’
‘Rudolf has a lot of influence in the Reichsräthe, the upper chamber of our parliament. No candidate for the succession could succeed against his opposition. Therefore, if he could be neutralised, the Thuringian succession would be more assured. We must get him to the protection of General Weiss and then to Strelsau. Events are moving faster than even I like.’
‘That is alarming.’
‘And is your insatiable curiosity now assuaged, dear August?’
‘A lot of things make more sense than they did before.’
‘I need hardly warn you that you must keep this to yourself. Only Hugo Maria suspects the truth about me, I think. Rudolf knows – or knew – nothing of my clandestine lives. Today’s events will take some explaining and I may end up unexpectedly with his respect. I’ve dealt with his dissatisfaction with me for so long I don’t quite know how I will cope with his approval.’
‘When you first met me, I think you were using me as a source of intelligence about Bobby Rassendyll, is that right?’
‘Are you upset? You aren’t going to lecture me about honesty and integrity, are you?’
Gus was indeed upset. He had convinced himself against all the evidence that Oskar had some personal interest in him, but it seemed that was not true. Throwing reason to the winds, he had deceived himself into supposing there could be some sort of relationship possible between himself, the stolid squire’s son from Suffolk, and this handsome, fascinating and dangerous aristocrat. He called himself a fool, recognizing that he could never really trust Oskar.
They rode on through the woods, finally emerging on the bluffs above the river Taveln, with a fine view up and down the valley. The going here was open, so they could make more speed, but they were also exposed on the skyline. It was soon evident that a detachment of Riders was in pursuit, and their party had to put on pace. Gus had no choice but to use spurs on poor Berthe. It worked for a while, but the foam around her bridle bit told him that she was nearing her limits.
Modenheim was still no more than distant spires and towers over the trees in the valley. There was no chance of any rescue from loyalist troops. Gus decided he had to do something. Urging an increasingly desperate Berthe to catch up with Oskar, he shouted, ‘I can’t keep up.’
Oskar looked across at him, he thought unhappily. ‘We can’t stop for you, August. My brother’s safety is too important.’
‘I’ll take up a position and try to hold them off for a while. If you run into troops, send them back for me.’
Oskar stared at him. ‘You are a brave man, Englishman. I wish I had given in to my worst impulses with you … maybe I will have a chance to do so one day. God be with you, but we must ride on. Take this.’ He threw a revolving pistol across at Gus, who providentially caught it.
As he watched the others draw ahead, Gus was beset with very mixed feelings: fear, loneliness but also a yearning that had redoubled after the intensity of Oskar’s last look at him.
Gus veered Berthe away into a small coppice on a rise. He reined her in and she drew up, completely blown, chest heaving and head down. Dropping to the ground, he slapped her rump and she staggered off, out of the line of fire he hoped.
Gus settled down behind a tree trunk and watched the approaching Riders. He had no time to feel scared. He unshipped the rifle from his shoulder. It had a breech bolt, but fired only two shells at a time.
Education might not be the family’s strong point, but one thing an Underwood was always good at was marksmanship, as the few surviving partridges from Haddesley Covert after the season could well attest. The rifle Gus was using was the finest Oxford Street could offer. Two shots – one to a man’s body and the other to a horse’s head – brought down two of his pursuers. They were unnerved and swerved off to take cover. So far so good. He had fortuitously chosen a site where he could not be approached unobserved. But there were at least twenty horsemen still, and they clearly had some sort of effective leadership.
Gus was soon pinned down by close carbine fire. Bullets zipped and zinged around his hiding place. He could only hope that Berthe had staggered off to safety. Lying behind the cover of the trunk, he reloaded the rifle from the pocketful of shells he had been offered at Tarlenheim. But he found less of a target now that his enemies too were under cover. Still, he let off two rounds at movement in the thickets to remind the Riders he was still there. He counted his ammunition carefully. He had ten more shots, and then he would somehow have to make a run for it.
Movement in the thickets below revealed that his enemies were attempting to work round his flank. But the bushes thinned off to his left and the Riders could not move further without revealing themselves. Even so, a party of four attempted a dash. Two shots laid two of them on the ground, one shrieking and rolling in pain from a leg wound, the other flat and still on his back. The remaining Riders lost interest in so bold a strategy and rejoined their friends, dragging the wounded back with them.
I may have killed a man, thought Gus to himself with mingled awe and horror. His hands were suddenly shaking.
Gus had no idea how long his rearguard action had been going on. It seemed like forever, although in fact he had probably not been up there for more than ten or twelve minutes. If they rushed him, he would have no chance, but it seemed the accuracy of his fire had discouraged them from anything so daring. Gus was beginning to get quite optimistic about his chances of survival when he saw doom approaching in the shape of a much bigger party of Riders, perhaps those detailed to attack the château. Had they been driven off from the house? He hoped so, but the result was to turn the odds firmly against him. He began to hate the remorseless dark figures on their black horses.
More carbine shots ripped through the leaves and bushes above him. It was covering fire to allow the new Riders join their colleagues unmolested. Gus had eight shots left, so he began a slow sniping at any promising target. They kept their heads down, but it was evident as he fired his last shot that a rush on him would not be long postponed.
He reckoned he had gained another fifteen minutes for his friends, which he could only hope would be enough. Now the time was come to get out. With some regret he put down the beautifully crafted rifle, drew the revolver that Oskar had thrown to him, and began squirming out the back of the coppice where he had sheltered.
He quickly realised he had little chance of escape. The bare hillside that had made approach to his position so dangerous from the front was repeated on the reverse slope, leaving him in open country and exposed. Nonetheless, he began running to the next nearest patch of woodland, nearly a quarter of a mile away.
All too soon he heard the thunder of hooves as the Riders charged his position. Although he dared not look behind him, he knew they were crashing through the coppice. Their yells alerted him to the fact that he had been seen running hard. He was only halfway to the woodland when the shaking of the ground beneath his feet warned him that he was the object of his own personal cavalry charge. He turned and saw the dark line bearing down on him. He pointed the revolver and let off a round. There was no accuracy in the weapon. He fired again to no effect and did not even hear the sound of his shot as the horses bore down on him. By the third shot they were upon him, brandishing carbines and swords. A blow caught his head and he was swallowed in a blinding star of pain.
It was the pain that told Gus he was still alive. He smelled an earth floor beneath his head and felt the bonds on his wrists tied roughly behind his back. His head ached worse than any hangover Oxford had ever given him. His arms were stiff with pins and needles, and he was sore all over. It took quite a while to work out how he had got where he was. He managed to roll himself around, but he could see nothing. It was pitch black wherever it was he was being held captive. His shuffling around at least attracted the notice of another prisoner, however.
‘Hullo,’ queried a voice in German, ‘are you alright?’
There was a familiar timbre to it. ‘Hugo, is that you?’ Gus croaked.
‘My God, it is you, August!’
‘Where are we?’
‘I have no idea. I was travelling in a carriage from Tarlenheim junction to the house when we were surrounded by horsemen who dragged me out and bundled me onto one of their spare mounts. They very uncharitably put a feedbag over my head. I spent the next half an hour or so sneezing at the dust and then maybe two hours more being bounced around by a horse’s arse.’
‘How long have I been here?’
‘Some considerable time. You arrived not long after I was shut in this place. They did not take the blindfold off until they had me in here. I barely had time to pace off the dimensions of this small cellar before you were pushed in with me. I just saw a dim doorway and two dark figures who dropped you on the floor. They certainly don’t like you. I heard one of them kick you in the side before they left. So what happened to you?’
Gus took his time piecing events together in his head and explaining them slowly. When he had finished, Hugo asked if his brothers had got away.
‘I would say so. I certainly hope they did. I may have delayed the pursuit for as much as half an hour. That would have given them time to get much of the way to Modenheim, unless another column of Riders intercepted them.’
‘Thank you, August, in the name of the house of Tarlenheim.’ Hugo’s voice suddenly took on a very formal tone.
‘Think nothing of it,’ Gus replied in the commonplace phrase, yet even as he said it, he was nearly overwhelmed by the temerity and desperation of what he had done. It was a while before he spoke again. Eventually he asked Hugo where he thought they were being held.
‘I imagine they must have brought us back to one of their camps in Mittenheim. There would have been swift retaliation from the army, and the Riders will be taking cover before striking back.’
Hugo was quiet for a while and then asked what had brought Gus to Tarlenheim. Gus blushed but said nothing. ‘Ah,’ Hugo laughed, reading the silence, ‘it wasn’t the hope of seeing me, was it?’
‘I did hope to see you, Hugo. You are a good friend, but no … it was your brother of course that I really wished to see.’
‘I think I warned you about Oskar.’
‘You did, and my head agreed with everything you said. Unfortunately, my heart has its own ideas. Oskar believes you knew about his secret life – not the sex life with men, I mean.’
‘Yes, he was right. I knew he was working for the foreign ministry as more than just an ornamental diplomat. One of my friends at university let something slip that he should not have done. He assumed I knew more than I did.’
‘I wonder what’s going on outside?’ Gus mused.
‘Nothing good, I fear. From what you tell me, the rising in Mittenheim has been planned for a long time, and there is some kind of mastermind behind it all, or so Oskar was suggesting. Does he mean Bismarck himself?’
‘I don’t know, but I’d guess not. Oskar seemed to believe the same man was behind your friend Father Piotr’s death. And of course the fact that the good father’s mission was known to our enemies means they have exceptional sources within the palace and government. These men are very dangerous, and being in their hands makes my blood run cold.’
The young men were silent for a long while. They became aware of noises on the boards above them, and after what might have been an hour steps descended to their cellar. The door opened, showing a dim square of light and the bulk of several silhouettes. Hands pulled them up, and then, when Gus fell back again, held him standing. He was dragged out and up some stairs. They were in a lamp-lit wooden room, and it was dark outside. Gus and Hugo were placed side-by-side in two chairs. They were still bound at the wrists. Five men were in the room. Only one was masked, which, when Gus thought about it, was a bad sign.
They were in discussion amongst themselves when Gus and Hugo were brought in. The topic seemed to be the security of their hideout. Before they shut up, it appeared the Riders were in what they regarded as hostile territory.
Two of them came over. The unmasked one pulled up a chair and looked hard at Hugo and Gus. He was middle-aged and portly, and had a look of distaste on his face. The masked one stood silent and tall behind him.
The fat man questioned Hugo first. ‘You are Hugo von Tarlenheim, I believe, a university student. Just confirm this for me.’ Hugo nodded but said nothing.
‘Now you, Englishman,’ his interrogator continued. ‘What is your name?’
‘Are you the Englishman who has been with the man Burlesdon.’
‘Lord Burlesdon,’ Gus growled.
‘Milord Burlesdon, if you wish. Have you been following him around on his tour this summer?’
‘I need to know a number of things. Who was it from the court of Ruritania who contacted you in Vienna last month.’
‘No one? You must try harder. We know letters reached you from the queen. Now, who was it?’
‘I have no idea what you are talking about.’
A fist smashed into the side of Gus’s face, sending a spray of blood from his mouth. The odious voice continued without a hint of passion. ‘You really must do better than that.’
‘Fuck you,’ snarled Gus through the pain, reverting to the language of the playing field at Medwardine School. He tasted blood and felt a tooth loose in his mouth.
‘That is not helpful. Now what was in those letters that the priest brought?’
How did this man know so much, was the question blazing in Gus’s head.
The interrogation resumed. ‘Now come along, Mr Underwood. It was a simple question. I ask again: Who is the channel of communication between Burlesdon and the queen?’
Gus simply glared at him. He saw the next blow coming, but could do nothing to avoid it, or the next. He was knocked off the chair and his defenceless body was kicked and beaten mercilessly. Eventually he sank into unconsciousness.
When he woke he wished he had died. He was back in the chair, and naked above the waist. A water butt stood in front of him, dragged in from a farmyard apparently. The same question was put to him, and when he still refused to answer, his head was plunged deeply into the water and held there till his lungs seem to have caught fire. He passed out on the fifth repetition of the torture.
When he awoke yet again he was back in the cellar. He moaned through his puffed and bleeding mouth.
‘Oh August,’ he heard Hugo’s tender voice near him. ‘I am so, so sorry. You have been brave, but they will carry on till they kill you.’
Gus was unable to make an intelligible answer. He sank once more into blackness, hearing Hugo reciting the litany of the saints above him.
Unbearable pain brought him back. He screamed as men took his arms and dragged him out of the cellar and back into the upper room. The raw state of his throat told him that he had been screaming a lot recently.
It was now daylight. One of his eyes had closed. He was wearing only a soiled pair of trousers, riding down obscenely low on his waist as there was no belt. It was clear to him that he would not and was not intended to survive this torture. The fierce core of resistance inside Gus resolved therefore that they would get nothing from him.
The interrogator sat in front of Gus, with the silent masked man slightly behind him as before. His voice had taken on a sympathetic tone. ‘Now, Augustus, it’s truly terrible what’s being done to you, and it is only a simple question that’s being asked. All you have to do is a small thing. Give me a name. It won’t hurt you or anyone you love. Can’t you do that? Then the pain will end, and we’ll be happy to send you on your way back to England. Be reasonable now.’
Gus stared at him with hatred. Did he think Gus was stupid? If these swine knew about Bobby, Oskar, the crown and James Antrobus, all hell would break loose and the Elphberg cause would be lost for good. He loved Bobby and he wished Oskar loved him. He would never tell.
Something of this must have showed in his face. His interrogator’s tone changed, he sounded both frustrated and impressed. ‘I see you will not be reasonable. What if we were to do the same to the Tarlenheim boy as we’ve done to you, on and on till you talked, what then?’
‘You daren’t,’ Gus spat out. ‘You need him too much as a bargaining counter.’
A third voice then spoke; it was the masked Rider. ‘I think we have no more time to waste on this futile exercise. Put him out of his misery.’
Gus recognised something familiar in the tone of that cold and emotionless voice. He knew he recognised it, but in his confused state he could not recall from where.
‘As you say, sir,’ said the interrogator respectfully. ‘There you are, Mr Underwood. We do not need you, and we have lost too many friends to your marksmanship to make killing you a matter of regret.’ He clicked his fingers, and Gus was hauled through a door into the cool morning air outside what was revealed as a wooden farmhouse. He was tied upright against a fence and a party of his captors stood around waiting for some sort of signal. They all had carbines. One or two were smoking. They avoided looking at him.
Gus wished his trousers were exposing less of him. What a bloody awful way to die. He began making his act of contrition. At least being Catholic gave you a way to say farewell to this world. He kept on thinking of his mother, and how she would feel thoroughly justified in her initial opposition to his trip to Europe. He had a quite bizarre moment of amusement when he reflected she would as usual have the last word.
It was as Gus was repeating the Ave Maria for the third time that he felt the ropes holding his arms to the fence loosen. His first thought was that he had been incompetently secured, and he regretted he would not be able to take advantage of the luck. Then he realised that a voice behind him was hissing at him to throw himself down. As he fell forward into the farmyard dirt, he reflected that throwing himself down was completely unnecessary; collapsing was so much easier.
Gus stayed on the ground while a volley of shots cut down the men who were to have been his firing squad. He did not move when other men rushed above him and burst into the farmhouse. There were more shots, some screams, and the galloping of horses. As the battle died down, arms gently picked him up and carried him inside. He was placed on a table, his wounds and bruises were washed with soap and cold water and then he was lifted and placed in a bed. He was too exhausted and confused to ask anyone so much as a question, and no one spoke to him other than to soothe and comfort him.
He woke an indefinite time later. ‘August, can you hear me?’ asked Hugo’s worried voice.
‘Yes,’ he murmured. ‘What day is it?’
‘It’s Thursday, you poor, poor man. You look dreadful.’
‘That’s nothing to the way I feel. Are we still at that farmhouse?’
‘Yes. Until you came around properly they didn’t want to move you.’
‘Loyalist troops. They found us and saved us. I will tell you more later. They want to take you to safety. A carriage will be coming for you soon. Do you think you could drink some soup?’
Hugo delicately spooned some beef broth into Gus’s mouth, dabbing gently at his swollen lip when the liquid ran down it. Even such little sustenance soon revived Gus’s interest in continued existence, despite the pain involved in breathing.
As if reading his mind, Hugo continued, ‘They broke three ribs and knocked out two back teeth. The rest is bruising and swelling. They were quite professional about the torture. I think they had not decided on killing you till the end, but they were running out of time and you were so very stubborn, you heroic man.’
‘No bloody hero,’ Gus mumbled as he sank once more into sleep.
‘Yes, you are,’ breathed another familiar voice quite near him, and it was not Hugo’s.
Gus swam back to consciousness as he was being stretchered into a closed carriage, laid along a seat and wedged in safely by blankets. Hugo sat opposite him. Gus groaned as they lurched away along a farm track, and continued to groan until the carriage ran onto the level tarmac of a highroad. After that, they bowled on in a more comfortable way. Through the windows Gus occasionally saw the members of a hussar escort riding alongside them.
The motion and exhaustion soon lulled Gus back to sleep. He woke as the carriage pulled up on gravel. Hugo’s anxious face was looking into his. ‘We’re here, August. Would you prefer to be carried in?’
‘Where is “here”?’
‘Our house at Festenburg in the forest of Zenda.’
The carriage door was wrenched open, and another anxious face peered in. It was a face on which Gus had never before seen the expression of concern. ‘Oskar?’
‘Hello, dear August. What a mess you are.’
‘You’ll live, dearest boy. Come, we’ll carry you up to your room.’
Gus managed a look around as strong arms bore him into the great house. The drive in front of it was full of soldiers who watched him curiously. Once in the room, Oskar and a servant stripped the shirt and trousers off him. Also present was a doctor, who looked him over with pursed lips. His chest was bound tightly, he was dosed and finally manoeuvred into a nightshirt.
‘Oskar?’ he asked as he was laid in a tall four-poster bed. ‘How did I get here?’
Oskar slid into the seat next to him, a gentle smile on his face. ‘Oh, that involves me talking about how clever I am, which I enjoy almost as much as monsieur de Blowitz does. When we left you behind, I did not expect to see you again, you know. You were so brave. But our party ran into a picket of General Weiss’s uhlans only ten minutes later. After sending my brother the prince under their escort to the general, I turned back along the trail, not wanting you to be the only foolhardy man that day. I heard your rifle fire in the distance, but by the time I got to the field of battle, it was only to see you knocked on the head and taken away.
‘The Riders gathered up their dead and wounded – you had hurt them badly and shaken their confidence, you know – and then toiled off southwards, with you trussed and unconscious on one of the spare horses. There must have been fifty of the raiders, yet not one military man amongst them. They failed to put out scouts, but just pressed on. They were easy to follow at a safe distance. The only danger was when I almost rode into them as they rendezvoused with another group, the one that had captured little Hugo Maria, as I later discovered.
‘They were heading towards Mittenheim of course, but by then our army had secured all the crossing points of the Ebrendt. They may take their time, but our troops know their business. There will be no more Riders venting their anger and hatred on the other Ruritanian provinces. So the daring column that had raided Tarlenheim was at a loss. North of the forest of Zenda, they made camp at an isolated farmhouse, and I crept forward in the evening gloom to find out what I could of their intentions and dispositions. It was clear they were going to billet there for a while, planning to scout out our troops’ positions perhaps. So I pushed my long-suffering stallion into one last great effort. I came up with the Guard Hussar regiment, my father’s old unit as it happens, ten miles away at Mayersbrück, commanding the river-crossing into Mittenheim with three batteries of horse artillery. The colonel kindly lent me a squadron, and we moved up undetected within striking distance of the Riders. The rest you know. One of the lieutenants swarmed close through the corn stubble to cut you loose as your firing party enjoyed their last cigarettes.’
Oskar paused. Eventually he said in a cool voice. ‘Their leader, the fat man who tortured you ... I killed him slowly.’
Silence followed that remark.
Gus’s memory gave him a jolt at that point. ‘Oskar, I don’t think he was their leader.’
‘Really, why do you say that?’
‘There was another man who was giving him orders. I never saw him, because he kept his mask and cloak on. But I did hear his voice, and I recognised it.’
Oskar sat up, astonished. ‘You are serious? Who was it? What man?’
Gus heard the voice again in his head. He was perfectly confident now. ‘It was Prince Albert of Thuringia.’