HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
‘Stop poking me!’ Max giggled. ‘It tickles.’
‘Gotta check what happened. You seem just the same, but for a moment there I thought it had done to you what it did to me.’
‘So I’m still alive then?’
‘Appears you are.’ Gavin looked relieved.
The two were naked together on their bed. It was not for the purpose of sex, though that thought was heavy on their minds. Gavin had been making a minute inspection of Max’s body. When the light had faded in the crypt and they had resumed their human forms, both were concerned about what the irradiation had done to Max. Gavin had led him directly to their room.
Laughingly declining the opportunity to join them, Lije had gone off ‘to check the perimeter,’ as he said.
Gavin sat up and folded his arms around his knees while contemplating his lover. ‘Your pulse is normal; so is your body temperature.’
‘And tell me how it was you had a thermometer available to stick up my …?’
‘Never mind that. You don’t seem any stronger than you did before. You also don’t have the mind powers … or do you? Let your consciousness go. Try it.’
Max frowned with concentration, then relaxed his brows. ‘Nothing, except …’
‘I really do want to fuck you raw.’
‘You read my mind?’
Max now sniggered. ‘Course. It’s easy. It’s exactly what I’m thinking all the time, Gav. No, honest. I can’t read minds either, though I do feel a sort of connection with you … like I go hot when I look in your eyes.’
Gavin smiled. ‘And when I do this?’ Suddenly the boy was replaced by the Enoch-being, skin glowing, eyes like obsidian, cloud of black hair floating in a non-existent wind. The great wings spread over them both and then curved down to enfold them, drawing Max half unwilling to the heatless flame of his lover’s transfigured body.
In the breathless cave of light Enoch’s huge pinions had created, dark lips sought Max’s. Suddenly, in kissing Enoch, he felt the change come upon himself once more; he was no longer the human boy Max Jamroziak. And before they embraced he looked down to become aware that this form had brought with it a glorious new potency to his maleness.
Enoch radiated delight, arching to accommodate Max’s size and the deep penetration it needed. His fresh scent almost overpowered the transformed Max with its heady sexuality.
Their shining bodies joined in a coupling of a different order to anything a human had ever experienced, with minds, souls and bodies united in ecstasy. Of their own accord, Max’s wings beat a gale around their heads as he climaxed inside his lover. And this time it was from Gavin that endurance was demanded.
Ed Cornish was smiling. Matt and Andy had handed over the logistics of Wenzelsberh to him as things began to escalate.
‘Well, at least a lot of our friends are happy with double beds,’ Matt observed.
Andy grinned. ‘And the kids are okay with sharing as well, even if they sleep less that way.’
The house at Wenzelsberh had become their operations centre. An army communications unit was parked behind the outbuildings in anticipation of the king’s arrival. Damien and his friends kept hanging around the unit, regardless of what was done to discourage them. Fortunately, the soldiers were very tolerant.
Ed had commandeered Matt’s study as his headquarters. He and Henry were sitting at Matt’s desk the morning after Henry’s return from the past, Ed holding a notepad in which he was making random jottings.
Henry was intrigued. ‘What’re you thinking, Ed?’
‘Babes, there’s going to be a battle next week. You’re going to be at the heart of it, but I’m thinking Mendamero’s contribution isn’t all there is to it. All good and loving people have a part to play in this struggle. Our side has some pretty mean dudes to put into the battle. I for one will be right there with you. Rudi, Terry, Eddie, Nate and Justy in particular will also want to fight alongside us, and I ain’t gonna stop them.’
‘And the more … ahem … intellectual portion of our friendship network?’
Ed chuckled. ‘Davey, Ben and Phil can help too. But it’s not doing them down to say you can’t really imagine them going in with guns blazing.’
‘Any more than me?’
‘Come off it, babe. You’ve been through the Rothenian army’s officer-training scheme, and God knows you deserve your uniform. You don't have to be told which end of a gun not to stand in front of.’
Henry pondered this. ‘So what have you in mind?’
‘The bishop’s chief auxiliaries are these demon dogs. They’re powerful, but both you and Max proved they’re not invincible. On the contrary, it’s clearly within the capacities of a human to take them down, so that's exactly what I propose to do. Any idea of how many there are?’
‘I could try and find out, I guess. I can certainly sense the filthy things. Trouble is, I’d have to scout out Bishop Jack's vicinity to do it, which might alert him.’
‘Agreed. They’ll come to us in due course, once poor Gavin and Lije have met their fates. God, is there nothing we can do to help at Biscofshalch?’
Henry looked sombre. ‘No. That battle is not for us, and the outcome is not in our hands. Indeed, if we intervened we might well seriously muck things up.’
‘It’s a tragedy. Ah well, back to events we can control. So tell me again what happened when you shot the monster which was attacking Max.’
‘It didn’t like it. On the other hand, I couldn’t swear I actually hurt it as such. Rapid fire knocked it down, but it got up again soon enough.’
Ed mused and made some notes. He turned to his laptop and began typing e-mails. In the end Henry asked him what he was doing.
‘Oh … I’m thinking that modern weaponry can’t be discounted altogether. It’s just how big a bang is needed, and how you deliver it.’ He gave a grim little smile. ‘There’s also the importance of teamwork and training.’
‘Any suggestion how I can fight the Antichrist while you’re at it?’
Ed shook his head. ‘These Hellhounds are my size of enemy, little babe. The big one’s for you, oh great Mendamero.’
‘How is it people only call me Mendamero when they want to be ironic?’
‘Pity the poor superhero.’
‘Mean sod!’ Henry pouted.
There was a tap on the door and in came Terry O’Brien, a knowing smile on his face. ‘Afternoon, supernatural babes.’
‘Leave me out of it,’ grunted Ed.
Henry went over for a hug and was caught up in Terry’s arms, a place he very much liked to be. He was pulled down into an armchair on Terry’s lap. Henry snuggled. Since he had been a boy, he’d always associated Terry with safety and affection, a feeling that strangely enough had never gone away despite age and experience.
Eventually Terry pushed him back a bit. ‘Got a question for you, Henry babe.’
‘Ask away, Uncle Terry.’
Terry laughed. ‘This Anthony Willis …’
‘The bishop’s queer chaplain. Yes?’
‘I’m putting together the story there, and it’s a weird one. Gavin seduced him in America last summer, forcing him to cooperate and feed us information about his master, right?’
‘So I understand. Gavin’s idea was to gain intelligence from the Antichrist's own household, and it worked … well, to an extent.’
‘To a surprising extent, babes. Perhaps it’s occurred to you that the guy should be dead by now. How could he keep his dealings with the enemy a secret from such a master? He should have been sliced into quivering strips of flesh and fed to the Hellhounds. But no, he’s still working on the bishop’s staff. I’ve laid off him recently as I don’t want to compromise him more than he is already.’
‘So your thinking is …?’
‘He’s more important than we realise. The bishop needs him for something other than just carrying his briefcase. Now why would that be?’
Anthony worked on his files while keeping one eye on the meeting. The conference room of the Prague Novotel was well-appointed but not too expensive for a poor diocese like that of Eastern Europe to afford. Minutes were being taken by Bishop Lewis's Czech-born chaplain. All six Anglican bishops from the province of Europe were present, half of them from what Bishop Jack called ‘the opposition’, the former liberal establishment he had ousted so effectively in England but which lingered on in other provinces.
The Bishop of Gibraltar was looking sceptically at his colleague of Cranwell. Bishop Jack was deliberately dressed in an open-necked shirt and slacks, perhaps to annoy him. The bishop of Gibraltar for his part wore a soutane piped and sashed in scarlet, a silver pectoral cross on his chest and a scarlet skullcap on his head. ‘So … er, you believe the end-time is now upon us, John?’
Bishop Jack spread his hands. ‘Aren’t the signs all around us, Peter? Dissension amongst the people of God? Perverts and decadents unchecked in lay life? Persecution of the faithful remnant? Yes, it is clear to me that these are the prophesied days.’
‘My dear John, those so-called prophecies were the anger and complaints of a persecuted Church under the heel of the Roman imperial authorities. They were a fist to shake at the Church’s enemies nearly two thousand years ago. They have no modern relevance.’
Bishop Jack rejoined silkily, ‘You’re talking of Holy Scripture, Peter, the very Word of God, as if it were no more than a tabloid astrology column.’
‘I would never deny the claims of scripture to be taken seriously. But they are texts generated by men in their own particular circumstances. They contain their truths, but cannot be accepted literally.’
Two of his colleagues scowled at Gibraltar and muttered beneath their breath, but the floor was Bishop Jack’s. He leaned back and folded his arms. ‘So what parts of scripture would you admit, Peter? Just the ones which suit your own prejudices?’
The bishop of Gibraltar settled into his own seat and eyed his colleague. ‘We’ve been here before, John. You know the arguments as well as I. Who is to say your interpretation of unerring scripture is more valid than anyone else’s? If you wish to use scripture as an infallible rule for life and God’s purposes, why don’t you use all of it? There are a lot of commandments in Leviticus which people like you are very quiet about. The Church in council is the only safe guide to scripture, but you set up your own will as judge.’
‘And the Church has been silent while sin and perversity has grown.’
‘Sin? Perversity? It seems to me western society has opened its arms and admitted the outcasts, said it was wrong to exclude them, and offered equality and acceptance. Is the Spirit in how society has changed, or in a persecuting, bigoted congregation such as the one you lead?’
Anthony was mesmerised. This was his first glimpse of the deliberations and disputes among the leaders of his faith, some of whom seemed to share his own doubts. He caught the eye of the Czech priest, who surreptitiously winked at him.
Bishop Lewis was red with anger. ‘This is nonsense! There is no salvation but through the Cross. Those who take Jesus Christ as Lord will live forever; all others will perish. Jack is right. These are the days when the sheep will be taken safely home by their shepherd while the goats are driven down to torment. The goats, bishop! The stinking, lascivious pederasts and abominations!’
Bishop Jack caught and held the eye of his angry colleague and quelled him. ‘Of course, no one rejoices in the damnation of sinners, but such is the nature of the end time.’
The bishop of Gibraltar gave Lewis a contemptuous look, then turned back to Bishop Jack. ‘So if this is the end time, tell me about the Scarlet Woman, the horsemen and the Beast.’
‘The Beast is certainly among us. There have been signs and prophecies – no doubt none you would recognise, Peter, but sufficiently clear to those with the charisma of interpreting tongues and visions.’
‘Oh yes, this Mendamero being. Is that what draws you to Rothenia?’
Anthony noticed the start Bishop Jack gave before he frowned and asked, ‘Why do you say that?’
The bishop of Gibraltar looked a little superior. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of St Fenice of Tarlenheim, one of the great spiritual writers of the Middle Ages … but of course, Alun here doesn’t read anything other than scripture, so how could he tell you?’
Bishop Lewis's face again reddened with annoyance and embarrassment.
Bishop Jack turned a ferocious glare on him. ‘Is this true, Alun? Is there some Rothenian prophecy associated with Mendamero?’
‘I … er … sorry. I had no idea …’
Bishop Jack collected himself. ‘We’ll pursue this at some later time. For now, we must return to the business of appointing the right sort of primate for Europe.’
Over the tea break, Anthony approached Bishop Lewis’s Czech chaplain, whom he had seen struggling to keep a straight face over his boss's Mendamero gaffe.
‘So, er … what do you know about Mendamero, Tomas?’
He got a grin. ‘I really did tell him about St Fenice. In reply I was given a lecture about papist error and so-called Catholic saints. The man is an idiot. I’ve resigned as of the end of this month. I left the Roman communion looking for a broader and more liberal church, only to end up with this moron and his bigoted friends.’
‘So what’re you going to do?’
‘Join the Free Episcopalians like any honest Christian. They have a new leader in Rothenia who’s organising an alternative Eastern European diocese based on Strelzen. No money of course, but then St Paul had none either. The chaplaincy here in Prague is in chaos, with the bishop’s people and his vicar at war with the congregation. The dissidents have found me a flat and are taking care of living expenses. I’m setting up a new congregation in a school hall. It’s quite exciting really. Excuse my saying, but you don’t seem too happy either.’
‘No,’ Anthony admitted, ‘I’m not. Have you heard what happened to the Conservative Coalition in England?’
‘The scandals? Oh yes. All of a sudden my bishop’s on the defensive. Quite rightly too. He’s involved with some woman who’s not his wife. And he thinks he’ll be the new archbishop of Europe! Look at him toadying up to Bishop Jack there. His affairs will be in print soon. The Czech and German press are on his tail.’
‘He’s not exactly been discreet. He used diocesan funds to send her husband on courses, then took her off to Austria for – what do you call it? – dirty weekends. These people, so secure in their sense of their own righteousness, they think they’re invulnerable to criticism and exposure.’
Anthony pondered this. For all Bishop Jack’s ebullience and achievements, the wheels were plainly coming off his bandwagon. The incompetence and corruption of those drawn to his vision of spiritual power were remarkable and depressing. He should be in England regrouping, but here he was in the Czech Republic and Rothenia, doing what?
Anthony needed to find more about Mendamero, so much was clear, both for the bishop and for himself. His Czech friend gave him a quizzical look, but recommended a bookshop near the Tyn church which specialised in Rothenian publications.
As soon as the provincial staff meeting ended, Anthony made his way across the city. He soon found himself sitting in a café near the old town hall, with a small stack of volumes in front of him. He had managed to locate a rare abridged edition in English of Fenice’s Revelation of the End Time, together with a number of her meditations translated into German, which he could follow. These had a historical introduction to her life and times.
And there was the passage about Mendamero: ‘I, Fenicia, wife of the venerable count Sergius, your sister in Christ and in his kingdom, to all those now living and those yet to be. Know that I was in the high chamber of my castle of Tarlenheim, pondering the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. It was a Sunday and I heard behind me a great voice as of a trumpet, saying, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last,” and “What now thou hearest so write and tell unto thy people.”
‘Hear then ye people and know that the Lord has set up His seat amongst you, and so may ye rejoice. For ye are His favoured ones. He will make of you a great people. Kings will He give you, strong in justice and firm in His faith. A race of saints shall ye be, chosen of the Lord. Though ye doubt and quail in the eye of the tempest, yet stay faithful to the Lord and to His anointed ones, and He shall calm the waters as once He did on the Lake of Gennaseret. Victory shall ye ever have. He will forgive you your weakness and exalt you among nations. His countenance will shine upon you and ye will bask in His glory. Their hair will be red as copper is red and gold as the sunlight is golden. Their race will never fail in their charge. Their line will always be fruitful of Levites. Impious hands may seize your ark, but theirs will be as the fate of the Philistines, for one will come, as bold as Samson, as wise as Deborah, and his name will be MENDAMERO. Yet as Samson suffered mortal loss in victory, so shall he, though his loss shall be the Lord’s gain. For by his sacrifice will a warrior arise, a very David to lead Israel unto great glory. The Lord is with thee, O my Israel. His Ark lieth amongst thee in its chamber of cypress wood. His servants lie wakeful around it, as Samuel in the Holy of Holies.’
‘Great,’ Anthony groaned to himself. ‘What in heck does all that mean?’ He pondered the passage. The first paragraph was a deliberate adaptation of the opening of the Book of Revelation. The appeal to the self-love of the Rothenian people that followed was as obvious as its intention was subtle.
Anthony’s commentary said that Fenice wrote in days of war between the incoming Elphbergs and the dynasty of Glottenberh. Her Revelation was intended to bolster the idea of Rothenians as a united people with a great future, though in fact, over three centuries of disunity followed the accession of Duke Rudolf I. But she was right about the elevation of the Elphbergs to a royal throne, and they were famous for their red hair.
But Mendamero, now. ‘As bold as Samson,’ so he was a warrior and leader of the faithful. ‘As wise as Deborah,’ a woman and a judge? Then Anthony remembered Enoch. The boy was homosexual, and so maybe was this Mendamero, for whom perhaps Enoch worked. But then the allusion to a warrior arising from Mendamero’s sacrifice threw him again. The reference to an Ark further confused him.
It was mostly impenetrable, he concluded, but one thing he was sure of: In Fenice’s prophecies, Mendamero was not the Beast. Quite the opposite. He was to be the saviour and leader of the faithful, a great warrior for God.
So who was lying to him? Bishop Jack was a pillar of the Church, one of the great evangelists of his time, a man who had rebuilt a failing religion and breathed life into it. He had swayed nations and their leaders. He did signs and wonders, cured the sick and prophesied. But it had dawned on Anthony that the bishop’s followers did not measure up to their leader.
Gareth and his sinister accomplices were alarming and uncanny, even though Anthony still could not fully believe what he had seen the night Enoch had come to the bishop’s house. Bishop Jack’s Conservative Coalition had attracted and promoted embezzlers, thieves, adulterers and sexual deviants, yet it was dedicated to purity and the gospel way.
As Anthony leafed through Fenice’s meditations, a phrase leaped out at him: ‘You shall know the quality of the leader by that of his followers.’
It was Friday and the house at Wenzelsberh was on edge. A van had deposited half a dozen Security Service personnel, who had assumed positions around the exterior. Army checkpoints had sealed the roads leading to the grounds and a military helicopter was buzzing back and forth in the sky above them. King Rudolf was imminently expected.
The boys had complained when they were confined to Damien’s room, but there were too many people about for them to be allowed to get underfoot. Terry had taken pity on them, however, so the ceiling below Damien’s room was bouncing to thumps as the Mendamero Men practised their unarmed combat training by hurling themselves on the hapless security chief.
The rest of the party was to be found scattered through the reception rooms. Eddie Peacher and Phil Maddox had cornered Henry and were questioning him earnestly about his excursion through time. Henry meanwhile could not help keeping an eye on the drive, where the appearance of the royal motorcade finally cut off the conversation.
The household surged into the entrance hall, while the Mendamero Men poked their heads through the banisters of the upper landing.
Rudi was in casuals and greeted the party with every appearance of friendliness. Unexpectedly, Fritz von Tarlenheim, acting as equerry, entered behind the king, beaming all over his handsome face. He was carrying a tubular leather case slung over his shoulder. Something about it attracted Henry’s attention.
As the king passed down the line, Fritz held back. He paused to hug and kiss Henry before drawing him to one side. He caught Henry’s gaze. ‘Yes, Henry, it’s a sword.’
‘You knew I knew?’
‘Everyone knows how weird you’ve got … but you read my mind and I’ll team up with the bishop against you. My perversions are private to me, thank you very much.’
‘You have perversions?’
‘You’re the chief of them. So tell me, what’s special about this sword, Mendamero?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Thank God! He’s not omniscient either.’ Fritz laughed. ‘The king asked me to show you this. Is that a lounge through there?’
When they entered the room, Fritz closed the door behind them. He unzipped the leather case to reveal a long, straight sword. The scabbard was elaborately engraved and the guard fashioned into a gold lion’s head, the eyes made up of rubies.
‘Are you going to draw it?’
‘No. This is the sword of Henry the Lion, and only the king of Rothenia may do that.’
Henry stared at the weapon with deep curiosity. ‘Wow! May I touch it?’
‘No. I was up all night polishing it, and I don’t want your fingerprints all over it.’
Fritz grinned. ‘You don’t change, Henry. Course you may.’
Henry took the heavy scabbard from him. There were stories about this sword. It was much older than the eighteenth-century warrior-king from whom it took its name. The blade was one of those long held to be Excalibur. A sword of that name, which was reputed to have been old even then, appeared in the inventory of the treasury of Waclaw III, the last reigning duke of the native dynasty of Tassilo. It had been refurbished with a new hilt for the coronation of King Rudolf I, in which it had played a symbolic part.
‘Is this the sword the king skewered you with when you two had a quarrel over Harry?’
‘Trust you to bring that up.’
Henry frowned. ‘Then it's what gave you the wound Gavin cured you of.’
Fritz lost his easy grin. ‘Yes, I guess so. Rudi says he needs you to … determine whether there is anything supernatural about it. He says that, as you are Mendamero, you may have the privilege of drawing it.’
Henry took the hilt and swept out the blade. Handing the scabbard back to Fritz, he held the steel across his upturned palms. ‘Beautifully balanced, isn’t it?’
‘I wouldn’t know.’
Henry looked at the straight, double-edged blade whose fuller was engraved with ancient letters. Henry knew that no one had ever successfully deciphered them. He gazed at the steel with its uncanny tinge of blue. When his mind reached out to explore it, he recoiled. Much hot blood had run down its thirsty length. This was not a safe object, nor was it entirely passive in his hands. It had been wielded by Henry the Lion on the day he personally executed a Bavarian assassin who had pulled a pistol on him in his antechamber. Henry sensed that, having dealt justice and death in the past, it was restless to do so again.
He turned it to focus on the gold letters let into the trench of the fuller. ‘Time for the weird stuff, Fritzy. You ready?’
‘Go for it, Henry.’
Henry’s mind felt for the differences in the fashioning. The letters glowed as he isolated and picked them out. He heard a gasp from his friend.
The inscription suddenly stood clear: I•N•X•QI•M•TR•M•CT. So far so good. Now perhaps the sword could tell him what they meant. As his mind sought back to that of the one who had fashioned the blade, into his consciousness came the phrase: IN NOMINE CHRISTI QVI ME TRAHIT MALVM CONQVEREBIT.
‘Okay, Fritzy, like all good Catholic Rothenian boys, you did Latin, so what does this mean?’ He repeated the phrase.
Fritz concentrated. ‘It could mean, “In the name of Christ. He who draws me will overthrow evil.” But it might also mean, “He who draws me in the name of Christ will vanquish the Evil One.”’
‘So this may very well be as important as Rudi believes,’ Henry mused. ‘What does he intend to do with it?’
‘Go hunting Hellhounds, I believe.’