HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
The Mendamero Men had to be let out. It was cruel not to, in Nate’s opinion. Justy grumbled but eventually gave in. They were strictly instructed to stay within the grounds and not to talk to strangers, especially if they were clearly supernatural. The Men should also dress up warmly and keep out of puddles. Needless to say, they fully intended to ignore most of the instructions.
‘Depends what they mean by “within the grounds”,’ Mattie Oscott observed.
‘Yuh,’ agreed Damien. ‘An’ how can you tell if some bloke’s supernat’rul or not unless you get up close? Juss doan make sense. Adults!’
Reggie forbore to comment. He had rather stay indoors on a cold November afternoon, but realised his two friends were keen on playing in the woods. The point was, it was not easy to say quite where the plantations in Andy’s grounds ended and the Wenzlerwald began.
Reggie knew his maps, and he also knew it was not wise to get lost in the Wenzlerwald, a wild stretch of deciduous woodland that helped give the Green Hills district its name. It covered hills and valleys in a broad belt twenty kilometres wide by six kilometres deep.
To be on the safe side, he had privately put a well-stuffed packet of coloured adhesive file tabs in his pocket. As an avid reader of Classical mythology, he had learned something from ancient stories of Theseus’s escape from the Labyrinth. So when the bigger boys evaded the perimeter guards and valiantly led the way over decrepit park palings into the deeper woods, Reggie trailed a little behind them, casually tagging the occasional prominent branch as they wandered.
‘S down here!’ called Mattie.
After trekking maybe half a kilometre along paths deep in fallen leaves, they found themselves in a rather beautiful green dell, overhung by ancient twisted oaks, with a deep, dark pool in its centre. Moss-grown standing stones were arranged in a circle round the pool. It was a mysterious and slightly intimidating place.
‘Spooky,’ commented Damien. ‘When did you find this?’
‘Your dad brought me down here last week when you were back in Strelzen having your hair cut. Nate said he was after these plants; he said they were special.’
‘Why’re they special?’
As usual, both boys glanced at Reggie for guidance. He shrugged. ‘They look like herbs for cooking.’
‘Oh yeah!’ Mattie agreed. ‘He said he wanted them for a special roast or something. He also picked some mushrooms, but they’re all gone now.’
‘How deep’s this pool?’ Damien asked.
‘Here’s a stick, push it down.’ So they tested the depth with a two-metre length of willow withy. It didn’t touch bottom.
A few large rocks tossed in the pool raised spouts of water and sent small waves coursing from side to side. Reggie thought it rather strange to see the ripples continue coming and going across the surface. Surely they should subside? But no, they kept crossing and recrossing the pool, making odd patterns.
He was about to observe this to the other two when a great bubble belched out of the depths, followed by others. Soon the surface of the pool was seething.
By now all three had backed away. ‘This looks supernatural. Time to get out, Daimey!’
‘Nuh! Let’s look. This is weird.’
‘No. It really is time to go.’
But Damien was getting closer to the pool’s edge, fascinated, so the others warily followed. Then a crack of thunder made them look up. A shaft of light arrowed down from the sky and plunged into the water. The pool sank, then rose in a great surge, washing the three boys off their perch and dragging them down into the depths in the wake of the celestial fire bolt.
Damien touched bottom without having had time to panic. All at once, three things struck him forcibly. The first was that it should not have been so light down here far below the pool’s surface. It was also warm. Most oddly, he didn’t seem to have any trouble breathing though he was deep under the water.
He sat on the sandy floor, staring about him. There were all sorts of objects: glinting gold and jewels, shields and rusty swords, and a great spear standing vertically, from which the light and warmth seemed to emanate. White bulbous objects scattered across the sand proved on inspection to be skulls.
‘Oh, cool!’ he exclaimed, then gaped in wonder as bubbles came out of his mouth along with the words. He struggled to stand up, but the weight of his soaked clothes dragged him down again. Pragmatic as ever, he shrugged them off. Body-shyness had never been a problem for Damien.
Naked, he felt more comfortable, so he began investigating the vicinity. He found Mattie and Reggie lying beyond a small thicket of weed. They seemed to be breathing too, although fast asleep.
As Damien was shaking Mattie’s shoulder a voice reached him, the words strangely distorted by the water. ‘Hey! Kid!’
He was startled to see another nude boy not much older than he, leaning casually on the shaft of the spear. The main difference was that the other had small horns sprouting from his forehead. Otherwise he seemed a proper boy, even down to the feathery pubic hair beginning to dust his groin.
Damien grunted. He had none and was getting sensitive about it. ‘Who’re you?’
‘I ain’t got a name. Waddja think it should be?’
‘How the fook should I know? You’re fookin weird!’
‘How bout … er, Lance? Yeah, Lance!’
‘Whatever. You live down here?’
‘Nah … just moved in. It’s sorta like a family property.’
‘Yer supernatural, innya.’
‘What gave it away?’
‘Funny little bugger.’ Damien could project an air of truculent confidence even when bare-arsed. His new acquaintance seemed to appreciate it. They looked at each other, then broke out laughing. Damien recognised a kindred spirit when he met one, and so, it appeared, did Lance. ‘Come over here,’ Damien invited.
Smirking cheekily, the boy calling himself Lance joined Damien. The two sat companionably side-by-side on a flat carved stone, thighs and buttocks touching.
Damien grinned at his new friend. ‘So what about yer horns?’
‘I was born with ‘em, Daimey. They run in the family.’
Damien’s grin took on a harder edge. ‘An’ when did yer get to know me name, Lance?’
The horned boy easily matched him for insouciant confidence. ‘Course I know who ya are. Damien Macavoy. Your dads are Justin Peacher-White and Nathan Underwood. You all are pretty well-known where I come from.’
‘Which is where?’
‘Oh, somewhere over the rainbow.’
‘So what brings yer under this pool?’
‘I was having trouble with a grown-up bossing me round. They do that. Think they know best, but they don’t. So I lost my temper and came back here. Used to come here quite a lot once.’
‘Why did yer stop?’
‘People changed, and so did my job.’
‘Oh … destroying things.’
‘I do that too.’
‘What? Stars? Civilisations? Cities?’
‘Not that ambitious yet, but yer never know, as me dad says.’
They laughed again, boys’ laughter that ended them up with their sides aching. When they eventually subsided, Damien watched Lance cross his leg and pick at the spaces between his toes. ‘Does yer have to have horns?’
‘Not really. There, better?’ They retracted and the boy now looked properly human.
‘Yuh! Wouldn’t want yer to have an unfair advantage.’
‘Advantage?’ Lance looked hopeful.
‘Yuh!’ And Damien suddenly launched himself on his new friend. Giggling hysterically they wrestled in the sand, throwing up clouds of murk. When Lance tried to break away, Damien grabbed his ankle, pulling him down. He soon had Lance on his back, holding his arms and sitting on his chest. ‘Pee on yer!’
‘No! You wouldn’t!’ Lance squealed, thrashing his head from side to side. ‘You wouldn’t dare! That’s not fair. Sides, it don’t work like that down here.’
Damien realised their play was at an impasse. ‘Truce!’ he called. Lance nodded, though his compliance seemed unconvincing. Damien got up and, as expected, Lance lunged at him.
Damien was instantly off in a slow-motion dash across the sand, but his opponent was quicker. Catching him, Lance wrestled him down and pinned him on his back.
Lance grinned with victory, only to be taken aback at the sly look on his adversary’s face. A hot yellow mist seeped up from under his buttocks. ‘Oh fuckin’ gross!’ He leapt out of the urine cloud that boiled up from Damien’s sturdy little dick.
‘Okay, draw it is.’ They sat together on the sand breathing heavily. Damien offered, ‘Wanna join me gang?’
‘Cool! What’s it called?’
‘The Mendamero Men!’
‘Watchu got against me Uncle Henry?’
‘Nothing, I guess, he’s just … bossy. And he thinks he knows what’s going on, but he doesn’t. Will he be surprised!’
Damien looked serious. ‘Me Uncle Henry’s a mate, so you gotta be his mate too if you wanna be in our gang.’
Lance glanced down moodily before looking up with his easy grin plastered back on his face. ‘Okay. I guess he’s not so bad. He can be funny.’
‘What about the others? Why did you put ‘em to sleep?’
‘I wanted to make friends with you first. You think I should wake ‘em up?’
‘Sure! It’s great down here. Best place I’ve ever bin!’
Lance looked pleased. ‘I’m allowed out down here.’ He suddenly turned shy. ‘Can we do more play?’
‘Sure nuff. Ever played Tag?’
Lance was delighted. This was clearly the fulfilment of his every desire. ‘No. How does it go?’
‘Let’s get their cloves off and wake ’em up. Then we’ll show yer!’
‘Sometimes, Outfield …!’
‘Okay, okay, I’m a twat!’
Rudi was not happy with Mendamero. ‘That spear was our best chance of defeating the Antichrist, and you pissed it off so much it ran away.’
‘He just got me annoyed, the wilful little sod! I could have killed the brat! He’s holding out on us about something, I’m pretty sure of that now.’
The Elphberg wrath cooled off a bit. ‘What do you think it’s up to?’
‘I don’t know, which worries me. Can we just focus? It appears we’ve lost the spear, although it was a dangerous weapon to use in any case. But we're now sure the Antichrist is not invincible; we’ve just got to work out how we take it down. It has a weak point it’s unaware of. Once it reveals itself and marches into battle, we’ll have a chance to destroy it for good and all.’
Rudi nodded, frowning with concentration. ‘My feeling is it will only join the battle line if forced to do so. It’s a king too in its way. Kings normally direct battles, they don’t fight unless trapped by necessity. That means we must ride the first wave of its assault and get the better of it.’
Ed Cornish agreed. ‘It’s down to us … and you in particular, Henry. You have powers you can use, even though you haven’t had time to get the measure of them.’
‘My disadvantage is that I am mortal, for all the borrowed finery. If they once get a crack at me, I’m dead.’
Rudi looked gloomy. ‘We’ll plan our dispositions accordingly. It’ll be dark in a couple of hours. Go and get some rest, Henry. Ed, we have to discuss tactics. Come and study this map.’
Henry left the command centre and descended the mound. He watched the Rothenian troops going about their business purposefully and confidently, their morale clearly high despite the weirdness besieging Belvoir. Not feeling tired he loitered round the chapel, trying to distinguish the themes of the ancient murals from their smudged and decayed remnants on the walls.
‘Oh … hi, Henry!’ Max had emerged from below.
Henry turned. ‘Where’s Gavin?’
‘He’s in the crypt. He said he wanted some time alone with, y’know, Lije.’
‘I think I understand what he means. How’re you doing?’
‘Okay, I s’pose. Bit of an anticlimax after the battle at Biscofshalch.’
‘You did great, Max, really great. You struck a heavy blow against the Antichrist.’ The praise was answered with a pale smile. Henry continued, ‘But you’re not happy, are you?’
‘It’s Gavin, isn’t it?’
Max blushed red. ‘Yeah,’ he replied in a small voice.
‘He’s not the Gavin you met at Stevenage.’
‘No … he’s different.’
‘What is it, Max?’
‘Well, the old Gavin – the sorta Enoch-Gavin – he was confident and powerful … sorta untouchable. Yet he put his feet in the air for me – ‘scuse the crudity – and was desperate for my cock. I mean, such a guy, so strong, just lying down for me. It makes me super-horny just thinking about it.’
‘And this Gavin?’
‘I dunno … he’s sorta the same, but different. A bit …’
Max blushed again but murmured, ‘Yeah. God, I feel like such a tart.’
Henry gave a rueful smile. ‘I made a similar mistake about Gavin once, only to learn better in the end. This Gavin here is the same one I fell in love with seven years ago, even though we were hardly sexually compatible. Max, he isn’t wet, he’s just incredibly shy. Although he may seem weak and indecisive, that’s simply because he hates the idea of hurting anyone and doesn’t have the confidence to risk it.
‘In reality he’s as strong as they come, believe me. Back in the Cranwell days I had some success bringing him out of his shell. The bar work was a revelation for me of just how strong he really was. He kept on growing all the time he was with me, until he got swept away by the whole Enoch business. With you the growth will continue, I’m sure of it. Don’t forget, either, that in real terms he’s two years younger than you.
‘My feeling is that, with your support and direction, he’ll become the old Enoch-Gavin once again. Also, sex with him was really good. I mean seriously good, some of the best I’ve ever had. He may be shy in public, but not when he’s naked under you. You wouldn’t believe the passion, and it’s still there. With you it’ll be even stronger because you answer his basic needs: a loving, tender guy who prefers to top.’
Max brightened considerably. ‘You think?’
‘I’m sure. Take control. That’s what he wants and needs, and when you do you’ll realise exactly what it is you have in your hands.’
‘Should I start now?’
‘No time like the present, babes.’
Max took on a look of determination. He returned to the crypt whistling.
Henry grinned and went off to seek his cot. He had done at least one good deed that day.
The three bedraggled boys trudged into the house at Wenzelsberh trailing along a pole wrapped in sacking as it seemed to Nathan, watching from the upstairs rear windows. ‘Oh Christ! Look at the mess the little buggers are in!’
Justin joined him. ‘What the hell have they been doing?’
‘Taking a mud bath, from the look of them. I’ll get down there and sort it. You carry on worrying about the end of the world.’
Nathan encountered the three as they tried to sneak up the back stairs. As usual Damien looked perfectly composed, Mattie shifty and Reggie nervous. ‘Okay, what have you been up to?’
‘Nuffin …’ commenced Damien.
‘Not you, I want Reggie to tell me.’
‘Well … er, sir … we went into the woods and er … we had this game, didn’t we, Mattie?’
Mattie gave an affirmative nod.
‘We … um … were playing War, and er … we dug trenches but the ground was wetter than we thought and er …’
‘What on earth is that?’ Nathan indicated the pole swathed in rags.
‘Umm … I’m glad you asked. It’s our … erm … radar installation. Mattie made it.’
Mattie gave another affirmative nod.
‘Well, it’s not coming in here. It’ll drip mud all over the carpets. Put it out the back yard where it belongs. And look at you. Head for the downstairs bathroom this instant! Strip your outside clothes off and leave them on the floor … I’ll collect them after. Then jump in the shower, the lot of you. I’ll put out some clean tee-shirts and underpants. Got it?’
They all nodded piously.
Mattie took the pole out the back. ‘We’ll get it later,’ hissed Damien under his breath as the three were escorted into the bathroom.
Half an hour later they were on the floor of Damien’s room, the spear from the pool at their bare feet. Reggie traced the involved pattern on the blade with his finger. ‘It’s amazing,’ he breathed. ‘Like something out of the Arabian nights. Do you suppose Lance is a genie?’
Mattie widened his eyes. ‘Do ya think we coulda asked him for three wishes? Probably too late now.’
‘Nuh, he’s a mate and a Mendamero Man, he wouldn’t trick us. He can be on our committee. Reggie!’
‘Do a new sign for the door and add: Lance D. Lake: Military Adviser.’
‘Great! He’s cool. That was such a brilliant game. Underwater too. I can’t believe what we did down there. Best playing we ever had!’
‘So how do we talk to him, Reggie?’
The boy pursed his lips. ‘Not easy. He seems to live in the spear like a genie does in its bottle. He was alright about leaving the pond, he said, but he did warn us that once we were out in the world he'd have to stay inside the shaft.’
‘But he also said he wants to play again. So that means he might come out. We’ll have to experiment and see what wakes him up.’
‘Okay, I’ll make up a list of things to try.’
‘Cool. You do that. I’m off to see Auntie Harry.’
Damien jumped up and padded across the landing to the other side of the house. He called cheerfully at the RSS security detail sitting in a chair outside the queen’s suite, ‘Hiya, Roman! Can I go in?’
The Rothenian guard stood and tapped on the queen’s door. He nodded to Damien and allowed him through.
Queen Harriet was on the bed watching TV. Damien squirmed up beside her and kissed her on the cheek. Then he made himself at home, propping up his head on her bump like a cushion.
‘Watchu gonna call the baby?’
‘That’s a thought,’ Harriet smiled. ‘He’s got to have at least six names, since he’s royal. Five of them should technically be his godfathers, but the special one we choose will be his everyday name, the one he goes by. It’ll be the name he uses when he’s king, too.’
‘So what will it be? Rudolf?’
‘No, his dad said he doesn’t want him to be Rudolf VII. He said people keep on making reindeer jokes about it when you’re a kid. Could be Henry, I guess. That would make him King Henry III of Rothenia when his turn comes. Leopold is another name Rudi’s wondering about, after one of his German cousins.’
‘We might go for other royal names. We like Ferdinand or Louis or Franz.’
‘Like Prince Fritzy?’
‘It had occurred to us. Do you want to know a secret?’
‘I’m good wiv secrets, me.’
‘I know. I want to call him Maxim, after the king of Rothenia who was Rudi’s great great uncle.’
‘Good plan.’ Damien counted off his fingers. So he’d be Maxim Henry Leopold Ferdinand Louis Franz, and thass even before yer gets to Elphberg! He’ll never remember them all.’
‘Do you have a middle name?’
‘Me dad says it’s Trouble.’
‘Nice. Mine are Helen and Elizabeth.’
‘Helen’s me favourite name. There’s a girl in me class called Helen Debies. She’s nice. We has a laugh. She’s not like you think girls will be: she dunn shriek or play wiv dolls. She helps me squash snails in the yard.’ Clearly the boy approved of this as a civic duty.
‘She sounds like my sort of girl. You must bring her round one day.’
‘She thinks you’re ace. She’s got a poster of you in her bedroom.’
Harriet widened her eyes. ‘You’ve been in her bedroom?’
Damien was suddenly flustered. He hadn’t meant to let that out. Nor had he mentioned that Helen was a fresh-faced, active, slim, blonde girl whose presence and smell made all sorts of strange feelings pulse through him.
There had actually been a moment in her bedroom when a sequence of increasingly reckless dares had led her hand to encounter something inside his jeans she had not expected to find. But she had not taken it away, nor had he resisted the dare to kiss her on the mouth. It was unfinished business he intended to pursue someday – and soon!
He covered desperately. ‘When’s King Rudi coming back?’
The queen paused before answering. ‘In a day or two I think.’
‘So the battle’s gonna be tomorrow or the day after?’
‘Fraid so. And a very strange battle it will be.’
‘Me dad’s ready fer anyfing, he says.’
‘I’m confident with him in charge here at Wenzelsberh. So … what have the Mendamero Men been doing today?’
Damien was a bit embarrassed to have to evade the question. He had made the queen an honorary Mendamero Man with a straight face, and technically she was bound to keep the organisation’s secrets. He rather thought, however, that her unfortunate status as an adult would mean she would not see the news of Lance in quite the same light as he and his friends had.
‘Oh … we wuz on exercises in the woods. We met another kid.’
‘Yuh! His family’s been round here for generations, he said.’
‘What was his name?’
‘Umm … think it was something like Hans.’
‘A German family then. The local foresters are Germans, I believe.’
‘Yuh. That might’ve been it.’
Uncomfortable at his deceit, Damien got up, offered the queen another kiss and trotted back to his gang.
He did not recognise the security detail at the door as he went. Roman had left and a bulky man with shades had taken his place.