HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
Henry was bewildered and panicking, but for the boys’ sake he mastered himself. He looked at the Lady Fenice.
‘Is there a problem?’ she asked.
‘I … can’t seem to find my way.’
The lady’s face took on deep concern. ‘Mendamero, you must leave, you know that.’
‘But the way’s no longer there!’
‘Oh! But nothing has been changed. How could this be?’
Henry began to wonder if he’d done something wrong in the initial crossing. But what could it have been?
Fenice was concentrating. ‘Do you think the apostate has somehow devised a way to prevent your return?’
Henry shook his head. ‘He has no influence outside the present moment. I can’t see him involved in this unless he has assistance as powerful as the seraph’s. No, this is something I’ve done … or failed to do. Rats!’
He could feel the boys shifting restlessly in the box under him. There was no help for it. He got off the lid and opened it. ‘Out, babes! Your flight to the twenty-first century has been delayed.’
The three clambered out and the situation was explained. Damien looked at Reggie, who was recognised as the brains amongst the Mendamero Men.
‘Well, sir, I had a feeling this might be a problem.’
‘Yes sir. One of our research projects was the Director’s – I mean Daimey’s – time travel last month. We have a report on our laptop back in our base; Mattie typed it.’
Henry was intrigued. The fact that a research institute comprising three nine-year-olds was pushing the boundaries of what was known about time and space was unsettling to say the least. ‘So … er … can you summarise the conclusions for me?’
‘One of our theories was that the box may not have travelled at all, only Damien inside its space.’
‘Yes sir. He says he seemed to go into a trance on the journey. With the new evidence we have, it looks like Tobias the seraph put him out and then shifted him, but not the container he was in.’
‘Sounds plausible. So in your opinion, what have I done wrong?’
‘To coin a phrase, sir, you failed to think outside the box.’
Henry felt further depressed; the Mendamero Men were even out-wisecracking him. ‘So when I moved the box and you guys inside it …?’
‘You must have switched boxes, sir. The past box and present box were swapped, which meant you erased the time track as you went. That’s what I’d guess, sir. Maybe collapsed the worm hole might be a more accurate way of putting what you did.’
Damien was beaming at his friend and accomplice. He didn’t seem at all disturbed at being trapped in the fifteenth century. Mattie too looked approving rather than nervous.
Henry turned away from the boys and explained as much as he could to the lady. She too appeared less troubled than he felt. ‘You don’t seem bothered, my lady,’ he observed.
She gave a small smile. ‘It seems to me this is a problem, but not one beyond the abilities of Mendamero. Perhaps, if we pray for God’s assistance, He may answer through the being you call the seraph Tobias.’
Henry shook his head. ‘Not yet. I must think this through. In a way, we have no shortage of time. If I manage to crack this problem, I should be able to deliver us back to where and when we started. I just have to work out how.’
The lady agreed. ‘I’m sure that’s why your young esquires seem confident in you, excellency. Now, perhaps I can offer you some proper hospitality.’ The lady rang a hand bell loudly at the door, and within minutes a scuffle came up the stairs. The two young pages Henry had observed sleeping in the chamber below raced into the room. Bleary-eyed and yawning, they wore nothing but linen shirts they had hastily stuck their heads into. Inspecting them closer, Henry decided they could have been little more than eleven or twelve. They gawped at their mistress’s unexpected guests.
She clapped her hands and ordered them to take the three new boys below and find a bed for them. They led Damien and his associates down the stairs, all the while staring at them in curiosity.
‘As for you, Mendamero, I’ll have an appropriate chamber prepared elsewhere in the castle, unless you had rather stay here and think. I must myself repair to my own chamber. Matins and lauds are just before sunrise.’
‘I’ll stay here, my lady. If I get tired I’ll sleep in the chair.’
‘As you wish.’ She took her leave.
Henry paced about pointlessly for half an hour, then went downstairs to check on the boys. The pages were back asleep on their pallet. The Mendamero Men were also asleep in a single bed at the opposite wall, their clothes piled on the floor and all three tangled together under a coverlet. Reggie was between Mattie and Damien, who was spooned up behind his smaller friend hugging him comfortingly, as it seemed. Henry smiled, and returned upstairs.
Henry awoke, stiff of body and confused of mind, as dawn filtered through the cracks in the shutters of the high chamber. After bundling up his jacket as a pillow, he had dropped off on a settle which was long enough for him to lie flat out on.
He could hear laughter and shrieks down below. Rubbing his stubble, he went to see what was going on.
Buckets of water for washing faces and hands had been brought up by maids. The two pages had begun splashing the Mendamero Men, who were quite happy to escalate the fight. The shrieks were from Reggie, whose pale, skinny body had caught the complete contents of a bucket of cold water. None of the boys had any clothes on.
Henry’s attention was drawn to Damien and the large leather pouch he wore on a cord round his neck. Henry’s mind twitched at the sight of it. He had a dawning awareness that he might have a solution, if only he could remember something. In the meantime, he told the boys to sober up and get dressed.
‘I needs a pee, Uncle Henry,’ Damien rejoined.
‘Well, your new friends can tell you where to go. Don’t wander off too far, and I’ll make sure you get breakfast.’
Addressing the two Rothenian pages, he told them of his boys’ requirements. They grinned, bowed and called him ‘my lord’, promising to look after his esquires and then bring them back to him in the high chamber.
Henry was still awaiting the Mendamero Men when Countess Fenice arrived, preceded by a party of servants in livery. A table was spread with a white cloth upon which vessels made of maple wood, silver and gold were laid out. The delicious aroma of newly baked bread and pastries filled the chamber. There were bowls piled with fruits and others with meat pies. Great silver flagons, some full of small beer and others of wine, were on offer. The servants were leaving as the two pages and the three twenty-first century boys came in.
Apparently Damien had by now established his ascendancy over the Rothenians, despite some initial difficulties of communication. Henry was nonetheless introduced to ‘me mates’ Waclaw and Wladislaw, who gave him the jerky bow Rothenians reserved for their social superiors. They grinned incessantly.
The countess sent all five boys over to the window to make their depredations on the food. Damien first asked Henry, ‘They got any juice?’
‘Sorry no, sweetheart. That flagon there’s got beer in it, you can have that.’
‘Beer! Oh brilliant! Hear that, lads?’
Henry forbore from commenting that ‘small beer’ was not alcoholic, being little more than a hop-flavoured malt drink. He watched out of the corner of his eye as the boys grinned, took cups of beer, toasted each other, sipped some, grimaced and then reluctantly swallowed the bitter brew, not daring to spit it out on the tiled floor. Damien shot Henry a resentful look.
As that sideshow was going on, the countess once more addressed the problem of travel back to the future. ‘I have a possible solution, excellency, though it is very dangerous.’
‘Any solution has its dangers, my lady.’
‘The Icon stands outside the universe and yet within it. It’s a fixed point of God’s love and concern with His creation. It is timeless although still within time. It may assist Mendamero to return home, whereas its light would burn up any other who approached it.’
Henry sighed. The idea had occurred to him, but he had rejected it. ‘What would happen to the three children from my time, lady? They could not bear its light, even if I could.’
‘I would of course take them into my service and they would have the upbringing of noble esquires for as long as they were with me. And it may be that you will soon find a way of reclaiming them for their parents.’
‘Who knows whether the coming crisis with the apostate would give me time to do that? I must try some other way.’
Damien had regained his good humour. While the boys ate, they all had been leaning from the window as Waclaw and Wladisaw pointed out features of the castle. They were now gathered round the lectern, where Waclaw explained to Reggie the book on display. He was also showing him how to write with a quill.
Quill. Writing. Letter! The three ideas suddenly came together in Henry’s mind. ‘Damien? Can you come over here?’
‘Dun nuffin,’ was the automatic response, as Damien complied.
‘I know, sweetheart. Have you still got Countess Fenice’s letter round your neck?’
‘Yuh, Uncle Henry.’
‘Can you hand it over?’
Damien shrugged and removed the pouch from his neck. Henry took it and extracted the familiar square of parchment, the seal still hanging from its silk tags. Countess Fenice smiled to see her letter once more.
Henry weighed the letter in his hand. He let his mind caress it, its feel different from that of the iron chest. This had once been a living thing, in which he detected faint traces of the past life it had originally possessed. His mind seized on the track and found it looped away from him in another direction. That familiar disappearing shadow was there. It could take him back.
‘My lady, I think I may be leaving you soon. This letter will be the way.’
‘And the boys?’
‘I'm sure I can take them with me if they’re in my arms.’
The countess smiled. ‘Then the time has come for goodbyes. Waclaw and Wladislaw, you must say farewell to your new friends.’
The Rothenian boys startled the modern ones by hugging them hard and kissing them on the mouth. Reggie was the only one who returned the kisses with some enthusiasm.
The countess took her seat and Henry sat on the box. He had Mattie and Damien on either knee and Reggie held between them. ‘Ready, babes?’
Henry concentrated, found the track and let his mind flow freely along it. Soon he was rushing once more through time, in the direction opposite to the way they had come. Perceiving how the track bent on itself at a particular point before returning, he fixed his mind on that point, then willed his body and those of the boys together to that place. The universe lurched, and they found themselves sprawled on the floor of Damien’s room at Wenzelsberh, some unknown time after they had previously departed it. In front of them sat the iron box.
Max and Gavin would have liked to lie together longer and just neck the afternoon away. Gavin could kiss like no other boy in Max’s admittedly limited experience. It was nothing to do with Gavin’s peculiar powers. He was just deeply and passionately in love. He lost himself entirely in sexual play with his Max.
But Lije was making banging noises about the tower and coughing outside the common-room door rather louder than was necessary, especially as he was long past being a victim of any virus or chest infection. So Gavin and Max broke off, smiled and walked out to meet Lije’s dissatisfaction with them.
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Gavin rolled his eyes. ‘What’s left to do, Lije?’
‘We need to sort the defences. Henry breached them without our getting any warning. What if Himself or the dog demons try it?’
‘We’re bound to know. Henry walked through the perimeter because the spells weren’t made against the likes of him.’
‘Spells?’ Max was intrigued.
Lije nodded. ‘That’s one word for it. We can manipulate the space around this tower. Mortals like you can’t see it, but if they try to push themselves towards us they get badly disorientated and lost … throw up even.’
Gavin added, ‘It’s strong enough to make a Hellhound puke acid, but we guess the Antichrist will be a different case.’
Max wanted to know more. ‘What about the Icon? Henry says it can look after itself.’
Lije shrugged. ‘The Icon can’t hurt us because we’re not exactly part of this world. It would fry you, Max, just as much as it would a Hellhound, though for different reasons. But we know the Antichrist can approach it, because it’s foretold that he will do so before destroying it. Problem is, we don’t know how he’ll manage it.’
‘No idea at all,’ Gavin regretfully agreed. ‘But we’ve got other stuff; come downstairs and see.’
The three young men trotted to the bottom of the spiral stairs. Max was very much intrigued to be visiting the crypts beneath Biscofshalch at last.
When they came to the basement level, Gavin took his hand. ‘Feel it, sweets?’
Max pondered and was about to shake his head when a prickle like a sort of static seemed to tingle on his skin. He nodded, and a squeeze of his hand was Gavin’s acknowledgement.
Lije looked quizzical. ‘You’re taking a risk coming down to the level of even the upper crypt, but you survived that close to the Icon when Gavin first brought you here. I’ll bet you’ll feel it more this time.’
Gavin added, ‘Also, we think … well, you’re a Jamroziak, and because of your family’s history there may be more to you than most mortals. I still can’t get Soho out of my head.’
Lije agreed. ‘There’s something about you, Max, which perhaps the Icon will tell us the way it told your ancestor.’
So still holding Gavin’s hand, Max passed down to the pillared crypt and recognised the same dimly lit space where he began his first visit to Biscofshalch. Again he noticed that such light as there was came from no particular direction. This time there was also a definite edge of foreboding in the atmosphere, and it was not just because he knew he was approaching a relic of power and peril. He could feel a chill in his bones and a great reluctance to move in one particular direction: toward the stairs leading down one further level.
Lije took his shoulder. ‘You don’t want to go that way, do you.’
‘No. I feel sorta guilty, like I’ve done something wrong and I’m about to be told off. What if I do go down there?’
‘It’ll get worse and worse. Anything could happen if you still push yourself on past the barrier. You might go catatonic, insane or – worst of all – get caught in its radiance. You have to be a special person to survive that. The old Levites who used to look after the Icon were permitted to live in the light, though it changed them, like sorta spiritual gamma rays. But touch it and you’re definitely a late homo.’
Gavin made a moderating gesture. ‘The idea’s not for you to touch it, but if we can get you as far as its light, it would help us a lot to know what exactly you are, Max.’
‘Are you sure? Will it be alright?’
‘Yes, I think so. If something goes wrong, don’t forget I can take you out instantly.’
‘Well … okay.’ Max unconsciously clenched the beautiful curve of his jaw, making him look like a determined and brave little boy. Gavin’s heart nearly melted at the sight; he loved this man more than ever.
He led Max by the hand to the stairs. Max walked as if he were being buffeted by an increasingly strong wind. He reached the first step and faltered. Whatever was slowing and discouraging him was rising from the depths of the crypt.
Gavin let go his hand. ‘I can’t drag you down there, Max. You have to want to go.’
‘How can anyone want to go down there?’ Max gasped.
‘To find answers, sweetheart. Answers.’
Max was biting his lower lip now. He thought of Henry Atwood, who, while a captive of terrorists in the Tarlenheim mausoleum, had forced himself to do the same thing Max was trying to do now. How had he accomplished it?
When Max shifted his gaze to the profound eyes of the heroic boy next to him, he knew how Henry had succeeded. He saw such love for him there that his heart pulsed with joy, despite his circumstances. The pressure beating on his mind suddenly eased. He began slowly to descend to the lower vaults of Biscofshalch.
‘Well, iss the right place at least, Uncle Henry.’ Damien looked around his room.
Henry was a little offended at the implied rebuke. He glanced at the PS3, which was still running, and at the litter surrounding it, which had not yet been cleared. It seemed he had managed to return them to a moment not long after their disappearance.
He heard distant shouting outside on the terrace. It sounded like Matt and Ed calling the boys’ names. So they had been missed at least.
‘Downstairs, babes. We’d better tell Andy what you’ve been up to.’
‘Us? It wuz you that sorta kidnapped us. Sides, you’d never have got back wivout us!’
Henry was beginning to realise there were aspects of his visit to the fifteenth century that were going to take a while for him to live down. It was true. Without the boys he would have found it difficult to return to where he had started.
They were in high spirits, all three whooping down the stairs together to announce their return.
Henry composed himself. He had finally answered some questions, but new ones had also been raised.
The bishop would be in Rothenia soon. The latest news from Terry warned of his departure for the Czech Republic with his staff that very day. Henry had less than a week to prepare himself for the inevitable confrontation – and not just himself. He also had to mobilise his friends.
He had unconsciously turned on his mobile as he was pondering what to do next. It bleeped, alerting him to scan the couple of texts that had accumulated since he had been away. Magda wanted him to contact her, urgently. All her calls were urgent, and he always danced to her tune. So he rang.
‘Henry? Good. We’ve had this English bishop – or rather his office – supposedly confirming an interview date on Eastnet you’d arranged. But you’re on leave! You’re not supposed to be doing features.’
‘Oh … uh! Right. I sorta did. Look, can you arrange to have a team and a studio for next Monday afternoon in Strelzen? Make it at three. We’ll tape it.’
‘The CEO won’t like it.’
‘Yes he will, Magda, cos he was the one who told me to do it,’ Henry lied.
But just like his mother, Magda could always detect his deceits. Her concurrence was framed in a way that told him she did not believe a word of it.
Henry was musing this opportunity on his way down the stairs to the lounge. He could hear a tumult of explanations and exclamations coming from three nine-year-old boys who had an amazing story to tell.
As Henry entered preparing to weather the storm, he noticed new additions to the group. Damien was holding forth to the gathering from the lap of his father, Justin Peacher-White, who was alternately kissing his son’s dark hair and grinning across at his own adoptive parents, Matt and Andy.
Henry became aware of a presence behind him in the room. Easily recognising the mind, he spun with a grin. ‘Terry O’Brien!’
Henry hurled himself at his old friend, who hugged him in delight. Suddenly he felt a lot safer. Terry did that to him.
Max's foreboding and fear returned with greater force at the foot of the stairs. When he began to find breathing hard, he leaned against the stone wall of the lower crypt to try and gather himself.
Lije gripped his shoulder. ‘I didn’t think you’d get this far, Max. You’re doing great!’
The arches around them were heavier and the vaults lower. The diffuse light was a little stronger, overlaid with a definite pulse of brighter radiance ahead of them through the piers of stone which upheld the tower. Other articles caught the light and glittered. Great jewelled chalices, patens and bowls were grouped in an alcove. Heavy chests and boxes stood along the walls. In another alcove, further shrouded objects were stacked.
Gavin held out his hand once again with an encouraging smile. ‘It seems you’re going to be allowed closer, Max.’
Max lurched forward, finding walking a problem. His eyesight was fuzzy and he felt dizzy. He pushed himself along the wall towards the light. By the time he passed the third stone pier, he knew he could go no farther. He dropped Gavin’s hand and clung to the pillar as if it were the only stable thing in the crypt. It also blocked his view of the brightness that lay beyond. ‘I can’t …’ he croaked.
Gavin stood out in the full light. Max gasped. Although Gavin’s image was blurred by the radiance as well as by his lover’s swimming vision, he looked different. His beauty was becoming ethereal now as he shed the vestiges of humanity he usually affected, his body more flame than flesh, clothing no longer present, eyes an incandescent black. The light raised itself like wings above his head. This now was Enoch the Guardian, not Gavin Price. But his love still blazed from his eyes. He reached out to Max, who staggered blindly into his arms and felt himself seized.
‘Look!’ Gavin whispered in his ear.
Max turned to stare into the pulsing light. His mind became full of more words than it could comprehend. Random surges of power ran through his body, which he knew was being changed. His clothing had gone, his naked flesh was glowing, his very humanity was burning away in the radiation from the Icon. He felt his hair lift and flair golden round his face, as if he were in a high wind. Wings of light sprang from his own shoulders.
Gavin stared wonderingly at him, clearly not having expected this.
Great tendrils of white flame began circling round the lovers, causing them to laugh with joy as they looked into each other’s changed face. The light enveloped and caressed them, binding them in spinning ribbons. Max knew they were being joined in spiritual ways to match the physical coupling of their bodies. What he was feeling now was an ecstasy beyond the sexual or physical. Neither of them would ever again be truly whole without the other.
Suddenly the ribbons of flame coalesced into something Gavin and Max could grasp with their hands. As their fingers closed on it, the light in the crypt gave a final flare and went out. They were human again, or at least human-seeming. Between them they held the ash shaft of a great spear, its head sharp, glittering and silvered.