HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
‘So here we are.’ Henry looked around the high chamber of Belvoir castle's keep. It was empty, but would soon be full of electronic communications equipment and assorted weaponry.
‘Uh huh. Great thing about castles is that they’re organised for defence. I don’t mean we’ll man the walls – they’re too ruinous for that – but the point is, castles occupy defensible positions and funnel enemies the way you want them to go.’ Ed was cheerful.
‘That’s my soldier boy.’ Henry smiled at his lover, back in his battledress. Henry had defiantly kept to his casuals, his instincts telling him it would be several days yet before he was called on to meet his nemesis. He was learning to trust those instincts.
‘I’ll get this place swept out. The troops are bringing in heating units and furniture. We’re setting up dormitories and a field kitchen down in the west range, the one that still has roofs.’
‘What units are going to garrison Belvoir?’
‘Rudi’s been on the case. He’s had commando units in training for a fortnight to confront the sort of enemies we think we’ll have to deal with.’
‘Blimey! How do you train men to fight Hellhounds?’
‘He’s had them visualising giant, rabid wolves – or more accurately, wargs.’
‘And they take this seriously?’
‘These guys are Rothenians, little babe. They operate outside the box more readily than others. Everyone knows this is a strange land. Also, Rudi is their king and as true a hero as any Rothenian monarch ever has been. They’ll do exactly what they’re told and consider it an honour to fight alongside the Red Elphberg, however bizarre the battle.’
‘Rudi himself will command?’
‘Try stopping him.’
‘It’s just I thought that with a child in the offing, he might step back this time.’
‘That is not the Elphberg way, Henry. He is the king of this land and its defence from pure evil is his business. You know it and so does Harry. Elphberg women also understand how to be heroes.’
Henry nodded. He was well aware you could not judge Rudolf Elphberg by the standard of lesser men. ‘There may be other things than Hellhounds to contend with.’
Ed shrugged. ‘Do you have any idea what?’
‘None. But the Antichrist will come armed for war, so much is certain. He won’t appear as the nice Bishop Jack at the end. I suspect he may have soldiers of some sort.’
‘We’ll have contingencies planned.’
‘How big will the garrison be?’
‘A company of the Royal Foot Guards to protect the king … the Guard Fusiliers have been outranked this time. My boys will be defending Wenzelsberh. Other than the Foot Guards, there’ll be two companies of commandos here drawn from all sorts of units. We have engineer and artillery detachments. I should say about 400 men in all, a small but élite corps of warriors. And you, babe, where will you fight?’
‘With you, my Edward. For once, we draw swords together.’
‘It will be a great honour for me, my babe. Did I tell you how proud I am of you?’
‘I don’t need to be told. And our guys: how are they to be accommodated in the battle?’
‘That’s Fritzy, Eddie, Terry, Matt, Oskar … oh! and Davey.’
‘He put up a fuss about being left out. Terry had his ear bent. Anyway, they’re to be with Rudi as a sort of Praetorian Guard. They’re being properly equipped and armed. Terry is their commander. He’s been commissioned as a major in the reserve.
‘Rudi’s not forgotten any detail; he’s had shoulder flashes made for your gear … would you believe pink triangles? Matt and Davey’ll look gorgeous in battledress. Armageddon as photo shoot!’
Henry guffawed. ‘King Rudolf’s Own Queer Militia. That I just gotta see! Eddie Peacher won’t like it.’
‘You’ll be in your reservist uniform?’
‘That’s my plan.’
‘Excellent. Mendamero is the warrior of God, and should look the part.’ Ed paused to listen. ‘That’s the first convoy arriving. We’d better get out there. The choppers will be flying in soon.’
Henry glanced from the high windows down into the courtyard. The last time he had done so was to see it full of knights and medieval soldiers. Now it was teeming with their twenty-first century successors, garbed in green camouflage, toting assault rifles and armoured with flak jackets. The parallels were very striking for him in his present mood.
During Saturday night the wind got up on the moors above Lake Maresku. The windows of Biscofshalch rattled in the gale, while cold draughts gusted through the rooms. Max however was cuddled warm against Gavin, who had been sleeping regularly since they began sharing the bed. He couldn’t get over it, he said, and there were no dreams either.
Max gradually surfaced from slumber. As his mind lurched unwillingly into motion, it registered the fact that Gavin had abandoned the sleep he so treasured and left the room. Alarmed, Max sat up, stretched, and pulled on sweater and jeans. When he padded out into Lije’s room he found it unoccupied. He checked the common room, bright in the moonlight flooding through the windows, which also was empty. By now thoroughly disturbed, he made his way to the tower’s basement.
At the stairs to the lower crypt he paused, uncertain. The stone flags were freezing his bare feet. He was thinking of returning to retrieve his shoes when he became aware of voices echoing up from below. Lije and Gavin were in hot dispute. Max listened, attempting to work out what they were arguing about, but it was no use.
He found the idea of entering the lower of the two crypts difficult to contemplate. The Icon's defences did not exempt him and, without Gavin's help, his feet simply would not descend the stairs. Even forcing himself to sit on the topmost step required a major effort of will.
The voices continued to funnel up the spiral staircase, sometimes low and earnest, sometimes with a definite edge of anger and annoyance. It was Lije’s voice that seemed to be angriest and even at times desperate.
Cold and uncomfortable though he was, Max stayed on the step, hugging himself and shivering fitfully. It might have been an hour before silence fell below. Not long afterwards, the resistance of the Icon to Max’s presence relaxed. He heard scuffling on the stairs and Gavin emerged, surprised.
‘Sweetheart, how long have you been here?’
‘Quite a while. I woke and you were gone. What were you and Lije arguing about?’
Gavin’s face took on a momentary look of tragedy, then straightened. ‘Strategy, Max. He has ideas I just won’t go along with, not while there’s a hope of getting out of this … I was almost tempted to say, alive.’ He gave a rueful laugh.
‘What’s Lije up to now?’
‘Oh … what we do – or used to do – quite a lot. Do you want to see? Here, take my hand and come along. The Icon will let you. I think it likes you.’
So Gavin and Max descended to the lower crypt, where the light from the relic burned on in the darkness. Max hunched his shoulders and walked out into its full illumination, expecting to feel the transformation which had happened the last time, when his clothes disappeared, his hair burst into an aureole of tangled gold around his head and wings sprouted from his shoulders.
Nothing like that happened. Both he and Gavin kept their forms. He saw Elijah kneeling four metres in front of the Icon, eyes closed and arms outstretched. Gavin adopted the same position to his friend’s right, and indicated that Max should take the other side.
Max knelt, and it was if he were sunbathing on a hot day. The radiance of the Icon beat upon his face, although this time unaccompanied by any huge surge of images and words in his head. The relic was in a softer mood, caressing his troubled mind, soothing him and bringing him peace. He was aware of the smiles on his companions’ faces and found he too was smiling. It was as if he were with an old friend who knew him thoroughly, warts and all, and still loved him – who would always love him whatever he did. Max’s mind calmed and fear for the future left him. He was also aware that the light was subtly changing him, though he did not yet know in what ways.
He had no idea how long he knelt there communing with the Icon, and with the being for whom it was a conduit into this world. It might have been hours or weeks for all he knew. Eventually the light pulsed lower, dimming from golden to dusky orange. The three stood as if on cue, and hand in hand returned to the tower to find dawn breaking over Lake Maresku, the night’s storm all blown out.
The carillon ringing of the Sunday bells for mass penetrated dimly through the double-glazed windows to Anthony, who was sitting at his laptop in the bishop’s suite in the Prague Novotel. His own tiny room did not give him much space in which to work, and besides, the bishop preferred him near at hand.
Gareth sat impassively on the sofa, paring his nails with a very sharp little penknife. Anthony wondered idly how he had got it through airport security. ‘Er … Gareth, how many of your men will be travelling with us to Strelzen?’
The security man looked blankly at Anthony from behind, or possibly beyond, his shades. Finally he answered, ‘Six.’
‘Er … seems a lot.’
‘What sort of danger could justify that?’
Gareth deigned to scoff. ‘Ask Colin.’
‘Any news about …?’
Gareth shook his head, but did not otherwise answer.
The bishop appeared from the bathroom in a robe, towelling his hair. ‘What time is it, Anthony?’
‘Then we have about half an hour to get to the prayer meeting at the embassy.’
‘Yes, sir. We’re taking the train tonight, if you remember. The Catholic bishop of Ranstadt sent an invitation through Bishop Lewis to an ecumenical event. It’s a bit last-minute, but I can fix up a hotel in the city if you’d like.’
‘Train? Why not? Good way to see a new country, and I’ve heard so much about Rothenia. Are there any security implications, Gareth?’
The security man grunted noncommittally.
The bishop beamed. ‘Then that’s fine. Book us in and we’ll cancel the first night at Strelzen. Bishop Lewis will be coming with us. Don’t forget my TV interview on Monday, though. We need to be in the capital for the afternoon. Who’ll be at this Ranstadt event, Tony?’
‘The two Catholic archbishops, some of their suffragans, abbots and provincial ministers, plus several Lutheran and Orthodox leaders. Bishop Lewis backed out on them, so you’ll be the only Anglican face there.’
‘A good thing one of us will be present. Why did Lewis decline?’
‘I believe he isn’t enthusiastic about ecumenism. He refers to Catholic and Orthodox Christians as “people of other faiths”.’
Bishop Jack laughed. ‘I’ll be very fraternal to our brothers in Christ. Besides, it’ll give me a chance to … er … scout out the local situation. Lewis will just have to kick his heels in the hotel and feel foolish. Gareth, I’ll want the security crew together for a … prayer lunch after the embassy. Arrange it.’
‘I’ll have the car downstairs for you in twenty minutes. Which of the security crew is coming?’
‘Oh, I think it’s the new feller, Boris. Is that right?’
Anthony closed down his machine and packed up, wondering how he could get the new intelligence on the bishop’s movements to Terry O’Brien.
It was Sunday and mass was being sung in the Hofkapelle of the Strelzen Residenz. The king in suit and tie knelt in his prie-dieu set just in front of the sanctuary. He prayed over his rosary while the choir sang the Benedictus to an arrangement by Mozart. The queen, in her state of heavy pregnancy, had been told by the dean of the chapel not to kneel, so she sat beside her husband.
Worship in the Chapel Royal had been restored to a state even better than it had been in the days of the great Queen Flavia in the nineteenth century. The last Elphberg before Rudolf, King Maxim, who had ruled in the days of the Great War, had not revived it. He had resided in the lesser palace along Gartengasse, the Osraeum, which had only an oratory.
But Peacher money and the king’s own love of music had restored the chapel’s baroque glory, while introducing a chamber orchestra, professional singers, and university choral and organ scholars. There was quite some competition amongst the cognoscenti of religious music in Strelzen for admission to the Hofkapelle services. The seats behind the king were all taken, and more people sat in the galleries. Of course, a few were there for the sole purpose of seeing – or being seen in the presence of – the glamorous couple beloved of celebrity magazines, Rudi Elphberg and Harry Peacher.
Communion was brought down for the king and queen and their entourage. Behind Rudolf sat his equerries for the day, Colonel Atwood in his guard uniform and the prince of Tarlenheim in a sober suit. Several of the congregation noticed with approval the intensity of devotion evident in the palace party, as well as the intention of the mass, which was the preservation of the realm of Rothenia from the enemies of God and the safety of its people.
After the service, the king shook hands with the bishop of Luchau, the celebrant, and led his party to the domestic wing, where buffet tables were laid out and servants in olive green Elphberg livery were on hand with drinks.
Rudi had felt it important for everyone to be together the Sunday before they expected the entry of the Enemy into Rothenia. A helicopter had collected the defenders of Belvoir, while their friends at Wenzelsberh were but a short drive from the capital.
Henry was collared by his mother. ‘You look unwell, love.’
‘Mum, I always look unwell, according to you. Either that or peaky, underfed or putting on too much weight.’
‘Well, anxious then.’
‘I’ll concede anxious. How’re you, dad?’
His mother leaped in. ‘You don’t know the news? Your dad’s been asked to organise the Free Episcopalian diocese of Central Europe.’
‘Really! Does that mean …?’
His father smiled. ‘Yes, the Right Reverend Robert Atwood will be consecrated next month, though it won’t be a spectacular service.’
‘Wow! My dad a bishop! That’s amazing!’
‘No salary, of course, and a scattered diocese of isolated congregations, but such as it is, this is a promotion. Archbishop Thornycroft was very nice about it.’
Henry quite forgot his own anxieties in the aftermath of such news. Even as he was insisting he would buy his father the episcopal gear, however, one aspect of his own mountain of developments that he could share came to mind. ‘I’m in Strelzen to interview Bishop Jack James tomorrow.’
‘I’d heard he was on the continent. The Wilmots at St Edward’s were full of it. There’s to be a seminar on the Spirit in Strelzen tomorrow. That’ll be after your interview, dear.’
‘Hear that, Ed?’
Colonel Cornish had sidled up. ‘Hear what, baby?’
Henry shared the news with Ed, who offered hearty congratulations to Mr Atwood and a kiss to Mrs Atwood. He then led Henry to one side.
‘Sweetheart, Terry had a text from the Willis guy. There’re at least six Hellhounds travelling with the Big Bad, and they’re stopping off at Ranstadt this evening.’
‘Ranstadt? That’s a bit close to Belvoir for my liking. Do you think they know where we are?’
‘Who can say? I tend to just assume the worst. Terry’s already heading back with Davey, Matt and Eddie. We have to get out of here as soon as this social thing’s done.’
‘No love, I can’t. I have to stay in Strelzen. I’m meeting the monster himself tomorrow afternoon. I’ll join you in the evening after I finish.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I think it’s for the best, even though there are huge dangers. I don’t know whether I can screen myself from detection without the protection of Tobias. I have no idea how he did it.’
‘Please can I come to the studio?’
‘No, Ed. We’ve discussed this. He may or may not be able to read me, but he’ll certainly be able to sense what’s in your head. We can’t risk it. When I stand up at last as Mendamero, it needs to be a surprise to the bastard.’
‘And the boys out at Biscofshalch?’
‘They have their defences. They may not be able to hide the presence of the Icon from the Antichrist, but Gavin and Lije seem confident that its strength and their own measures can shield it from the demons and their master, for a while at least.’
‘So a lot hangs on tomorrow.’
‘I’ll have a far better idea of the Enemy's capacities and powers after I’ve met him face to face in Rothenia.’
‘I was just thinking of one secret weapon we’ve forgotten.’
‘If all else fails we can set Magda on him. She’ll smother him with officious and unwelcome attention, organise him into extinction.’
Henry shook his head regretfully. ‘No, baby. She belongs to his side. She’ll be his natural ally.’
Anthony Willis sat at a table on the České Dráhy fast evening service from Prague to Ranstadt. They had left the last Czech stop at Budějovice fifteen minutes ago. The winter sun was already below the hills as the train, full of returning weekend tourists and students, clicked and rattled towards the frontier. A vaguely Germanic language which Anthony took to be Rothenian now predominated in the aisles.
Opposite him was Bishop Lewis, with Gareth and Boris in the aisle seats. Anthony was grimly delighted to see the bishop was as uncomfortable with the security men as he was.
Bishop Jack sat alone at a table across the aisle, working on his papers. Anthony noticed him looking up from time to time. When the train entered a narrow dark valley to run alongside a foaming stony river, his boss looked directly across at Anthony with a strangely fierce smile. ‘We’ve just crossed into Rothenia.’
‘Really sir, how do you know?’
‘I just do. Perhaps the air’s different.’
‘Then we shall be in Ranstadt in only twenty minutes. We’ll be in good time for the ecumenical meeting, which is at seven-thirty. We’ll probably be able to get taxis from the station to the hotel and still have time for a quick bite somewhere.’
‘Excellent.’ The bishop continued working, although Anthony caught him staring out at the darkening mountain landscape from time to time.
Despite how busy the station was that evening, there were plenty of taxis. Anthony’s German was sufficient to deal with the drivers, so the party was soon deposited safely at the Hotel Flavia, where the welcome was warm and the rooms well-appointed. Anthony’s first impressions of Rothenia were very positive.
He shepherded the two bishops on foot through medieval streets to the abbey of St Vitalis in the middle of the small city gathered below the floodlit fortress on its granite outcrop. Gareth walked some paces behind them, the invariable shades masking his eyes. For once Bishop Jack was wearing the purple shirt, cincture and cassock of his order.
Bishop Lewis, on the other hand, was in a grey suit. He had protested that he had already made it clear he would not be there, but Bishop Jack had overruled him. Lewis had meekly complied.
The abbot was awaiting them at the west door of his great Romanesque church. He greeted Bishop Jack affably in passable English, but Bishop Lewis with markedly less cordiality. They had apparently met before.
A reception was going on in the south transept, where damask-covered tables offered white wine, fruit juices and a light buffet. Anthony got a drink and retired to the margins, watching his bishop circulate amongst the assembled prelates in their varied and colourful attire. Bishop Jack excelled as usual at the flesh-pressing. Smiles and affable conversation greeted him everywhere. He seemed to know the Lutheran leaders present. Gareth had disappeared, which struck Anthony as odd in view the security scare over Colin.
When the gathering broke up into discussion groups, Anthony wandered off to look around the abbey. The high altar was one of those overly elaborate Catholic confections of which he usually very much disapproved. But for some reason he found the ascending mound of statuary in gilded bronze and marble comforting that day, though he couldn’t say why. Behind the altar in the midst of the reredos was set a large double-leaved door, in front of which burned a great blue-and-gold lamp. Anthony rather thought the door was of solid gold.
‘That’s the home of the Black Virgin,’ a voice remarked in his ear in German. A monk of the community had come up next to him.
‘You’ve never heard of it? It’s one of Western Christendom’s great treasures: an early Byzantine icon of the Virgin which the Emperor Otto III gave to his ally, Duke Tassilo of Rothenia, over a thousand years ago. It’s very rarely brought out for the veneration of the faithful, other than on the high feasts of Our Lady. It has accomplished great cures.’
‘Indeed?’ Anthony smiled a little loftily, as he always did when he encountered this sort of superstition. Then the smile faded from his face when he remembered who his employer was.
The monk, determined to be welcoming, led Anthony off for a tour of his monastery’s antiquities. Anthony managed to keep up a pretence of polite interest, though historical relics were no abiding interest of his. It was over an hour before he could get free and find Bishop Jack.
The seminars were winding up. The handshaking and swapping of e-mail addresses took a while, sufficient time for Anthony to retrieve the bishop’s case. He also attempted to find Gareth but could not raise the security man on his mobile.
‘Oh, he’ll have wandered off to a bar,’ the bishop explained. ‘Gareth’s very sociable, though being a teetotaller he won’t have drunk anything more intoxicating than lemonade.’
‘But I thought the security crew were on high alert here in Rothenia.’
Bishop Jack looked irritated. ‘I’m sure Gareth will have made contingency plans.’ As it happened, Boris was at the west door to greet them. The bishop cast an amused glance at Anthony as if to say, I told you so.
They returned to the hotel, where Anthony said good night to the bishops and took to the Internet to check the next day's arrangements. He had booked a people-carrier from Avis to drive them to the capital, where Bishop Jack was to record an interview with Eastnet at 2:30. Bishop Lewis was to stay with friends in Strelzen, while Bishop Jack and his entourage were at the Hotel König Heinrich II on the city’s main square. The rest of the security crew had driven there that morning as an advance party.
Closing his documents, Anthony gave a sigh. He had e-mailed copies of the relevant correspondence and associated files to Terry O’Brien. How was he getting away with this treachery to his employer? The bar was still open, so despite still wearing a clerical collar, he ordered a litre of the local lager. Taking a corner seat, he eyed the other tables, seeing no one of any interest until he had got halfway down his tall glass.
Just then a young man of some considerable beauty entered the bar. He was short but nicely proportioned, with light hair and vivid blue-grey eyes. Anthony stared fascinated at the denim-clad butt revealed by the waist-length padded jacket, then was forced to blush when the man turned back from the bar holding a glass of coke and caught his eye.
To Anthony's astonishment, the man came over and took the seat opposite. ‘Hi,’ he said with a tight smile. ‘I expect you’re with the bishop of Cranwell, am I right?’
‘Sorry, who are you? Have we met?’
‘No. We’re strangers sure enough. I want to see Bishop Jack. It’s important.’
‘Look, I can’t just knock on his door. He’s gone to bed.’
‘He’ll want to see me. Just tell him my name.’