HENRY IN FINKLE ROAD
Henry intercepted Oskar and Fritz as they descended the stairs to the side door of the palace. Oskar was still in his uniform, while Fritz had changed into black trousers and a plain white shirt. Oskar carried a long leather case, which Henry assumed contained the swords for the duel.
‘You may not come, Henry. It will not be allowed,’ frowned Oskar.
‘Will you two please come to your senses?’ Henry pleaded. ‘This is the twenty-first century.’
‘That may be so, Henry,’ replied Fritz stiffly. ‘But there have been counts of Tarleneheim for ten centuries and, in all those years, our honour has been unassailed. A blow, even from a king, touches that honour too closely. There will be satisfaction.’
Henry began to get angry, yet it came out not as resentment but as a considered rebuke. ‘You are fools, the pair of you. This isn’t honour, it’s vanity masquerading as dignity. You are not the man I took you for, Franz of Tarlenheim. I will be leaving this house. I can’t bear it.’
Fritz was hurt by Henry’s words, so much was clear. He looked sad. ‘Then at least wish me well, my old friend.’
Henry’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I can’t do that, Fritz. I can only pray you come to your senses before it’s too late. I won’t be here when you return.’
Fritz hesitated, looking at his brother, but the prince surfaced again behind his eyes. Without a further word, he passed out of the palace into the dim and empty streets of the city, where a black car waited in the dawn light.
Servants were already moving around the palace. Henry asked the under-chamberlain to pack his and Gavin’s gear. Then he used the hall phone to secure a double room for them at the Holiday Inn. He woke Gavin gently, telling him to dress quickly because they were leaving. He explained things to Gavin while his puzzled lover shaved and a servant removed the bags to the hall.
Gavin was mute as they went down. Helge was waiting at the door with the dog, Marietta. ‘There is no male of our house to give you the parting blessing, my dear friends, so I hope you will accept it from me.’
Henry said they would be honoured. The countess pronounced the words and kissed them both on the forehead. There were tears in her eyes as she did so. Henry grasped her hand and fervently wished that things would end happily.
The taxi ticking outside the main palace arch whisked them away south in the direction of the airport. As they went, Henry raised Matt on his mobile and, without apologising for the early call, filled him in on the serious turn of events.
‘My God!’ Matt exclaimed. ‘I must rouse Will and Tomas. If this gets known to the media, all hell will break loose, let alone if one of those idiot boys kills the other. Tomas needs to be at Eastnet to monitor things. Henry, get a taxi over to the Strelsenermedia studios as soon as you finish checking in. Charge it to our account. I’ll meet you there.’
It was seven when Henry reached the studios in the Old City. The streets remained empty. In the newsroom, however, there was a subdued bustle and great curiosity as to why the CEO and the Director of News Programming had turned up unexpectedly before the night shift left the offices. Matt was waiting for Henry at the door.
‘Felip is at the statue of King Henry in his car,’ Will informed them. ‘He’s keeping an eye on traffic in and out of the palace. He says a military ambulance arrived ten minutes ago, lights flashing.’
‘Oh God, doesn’t look too promising does it.’ Matt groaned.
‘No,’ Will agreed. ‘Curses. There’s no penetrating the Residenz and we have no one inside we can contact.’
Henry piped up at this point. ‘Fool that I am. There is someone!’ He rang Ed’s mobile number, and after a minute a sleepy voice murmured, ‘Yeah?’
‘It’s Henry. Ed, get your bum out of bed, and listen to me.’ He explained what had happened the previous night. ‘Now if you’ve got that, shift yourself and scout the palace. Find Colonel Antonin, he’s a mate of yours. He’s Rudi’s second.’
Ed sputtered, but seemed to have taken it all in. He rang off in a hurry.
The men in the studio paced silently up and down waiting for news. Felip called to say that the palace seemed quiet. There was no sign of a returning ambulance, which could either be good news or the worst.
Henry’s mobile chirped and he flipped it open.
‘There’s been a casualty, that’s for sure. Soldiers have sealed off the palace gardens, and Colonel Antonin is there looking very stern. I saw paramedics at work on the terrace, before a guardsman insisted I return inside. I had no choice. He pointed his gun at me.’
Henry relayed the news to a shocked Matt, Tomas and Will.
Will looked at Matt. ‘It’s in the public domain once blood has been spilled. Matt, I’ve got to do this.’ He turned to his news editor. ‘Tomas, get on to the palace and challenge them to confirm or deny that there has been a duel involving the king.’ Tomas nodded and went off to find a phone.
Henry tried in the meantime to get more news out of Ed, who could only report that the entire garden front of the palace had been closed off. Even the servants were being turned away.
Tomas returned after fifteen minutes. ‘The palace press office has denied the stories about a duel, but does say there was an unfortunate accident in the park as the king was jogging with his friend, the prince of Tarlenheim. A statement is to be issued in an hour.’
Felip rang at that point to tell them he was in pursuit of the ambulance, which was speeding out of the palace gate with police outriders. Another ten minutes and he rang again to let them know the ambulance was heading towards the military hospital.
The morning bulletins were holding off on the news until the palace statement. Will drove across the city to hear it being given live. Eastnet cameras went with him. The statement was not read by Oskar, but by one of his under-secretaries. Henry watched it in Matt’s office.
‘This morning at six-thirty, His Majesty the King took his early morning exercise, running circuits of the palace park. He was accompanied by his private secretary the count of Modenehem and by his good friend the prince of Tarlenheim. In the course of running, the prince lost his footing and fell badly on some gardening equipment. He is currently in critical condition at the Strelzen Sector Military Hospital. His Majesty and the count did what they could to assist the prince, but he had lost a lot of blood by the time paramedics reached the scene. The king will join the prince’s family at his bedside.’
‘Jesus Christ!’ Henry exclaimed. ‘The poor fools went through with it. What are you going to do with the story, Matt?’
‘I imagine Eastnet will repeat the palace line. Anything else would be too damaging to the king. If word gets out about a duel, it can only be rumour. It makes me wonder what to make of Rudi. How could he endanger all he has accomplished by such an obviously reckless act?’
‘He has that Elphberg temper, Matt,’ sighed Henry. ‘We saw it on display enough at school.’
Henry, Gavin and Ed went to the hospital late in the afternoon, but Fritz was receiving no visitors. Oskar was in the foyer, looking awful. He kissed Henry and hugged him tightly. ‘You were right little Henry, so right.’
‘How is he, Oskar?’
Oskar gathered his wits. ‘The duel was ill-matched. The king can handle a sword like a master-of-arms. I suppose I might have guessed it would have been a skill he acquired. He was in the Eton fencing team, apparently, before he went to your school at Medwardine. He is as stern a man as any of his ancestors. He was fighting to kill from the beginning, or so it seemed to me, whereas Fritz fought like a boy at an exercise. He hesitated far too often. The king took first blood with a deep slash across Fritz’s nose and right cheek. Alas, his looks will never be the same. Despite the pain and the blood, Fritz fought back hard and had the king open for a stabbing stroke, but he paused, giving the king the chance to run him through the gut. He was unconscious as he dropped. Like a man woken out of a dream, the king fell on his knees beside Fritz. I only hope the woman they fought over was worth the horror of that moment. It was the most terrible thing I have ever witnessed. I cannot talk to Helge. The look on her face when I told her was dreadful. She is with the boy now, and will not leave him.’
Peter Peacher arrived at that point to take Oskar away. Ed looked at Henry and Gavin. ‘Babes, there doesn’t seem anything we can do here.’
‘I want to stay, Ed,’ said Henry.
‘Me too,’ echoed Gavin.
And so they did, though Ed left after a while. Henry was not reassured by the appearance of an army chaplain carrying the Host in a bag round his neck and wearing a purple stole. He knew too well what they signified. While the chaplain was inside the room, Helge came out and looked solemnly at the young men.
She sighed. ‘He’s sinking, dear boys. The internal bleeding was too great and his organs are failing.’
Henry felt hot tears in his eyes. ‘He can’t be dying, Helge!’
But she shook her head. Then Henry remembered something. ‘Helge, the black coach did not enter the palace last night! There was no omen of the death of a Tarlenheim. There is still hope.’
‘Not in medical science, Henry.’ Suddenly she caught her breath. She moved forward and clasped Gavin’s face between her hands, staring deep into his eyes. An instant later she took his hand and pulled him with her into the room. Henry followed them.
Fritz lay with his eyes open, pale and wired up to a lot of equipment. His lips were moving in response to something the chaplain had said.
Helge asked the priest to give them a moment. He looked surprised but did as she requested. Helge went up to her brother and whispered into his ear. He gave a mute nod and his eyelids began drooping.
Helge stood Gavin opposite her. He appeared a little scared, looking down on poor Fritz. Helge took Gavin’s right hand and placed it on Fritz’s forehead. She said a few low words to Gavin, who closed his eyes. Then she took from a pouch around her neck a metal object. She touched it to Gavin’s forehead and said some more words. He stiffened involuntarily, and began swaying slightly where he stood.
Everything went very quiet. Henry felt rather than heard an insistent hum in the air. He thought he recognised it. There was no doubt that something was happening. Gavin’s hand on Fritz’s forehead took on a strange look, almost as if he were clasping the head of an electric torch. The hand became translucent the way alabaster is. The hum in the air became yet more insistent. Fritz suddenly arched on the bed, and took in a great gulp of air. His eyes shot open, and he stared round wildly.
At that moment, Gavin collapsed. Henry ran to his boyfriend, dropping down beside him on the floor and nestling his head.
Henry looked up at Helge. ‘What just happened? What did you do?’
Helge gazed at him with a strange, almost compassionate look and said only, ‘The warrior of God is come and his hands bring healing, not death.’
‘Is Gavin Mendamero?’ Henry demanded.
‘No, Henry, but like David of Israel, he is both prophet and prophesied. The crisis is upon us, and you must help me.’
‘So you are the Levite!’
‘I am the Levite.’
‘You bloody well deserve that scar,’ Henry growled unsympathetically.
‘You are a hard man, Henry.’ Fritz, still a little pale, was by then sitting up in bed. The tubes had been removed from him, though the monitor had yet to be disconnected. The doctors were finding it difficult to forgive him for recovering so abruptly when the prognosis had been so grim.
‘The plastic surgeons will make most of it disappear. What’s left will remind you not to be such a bloody arsehole in future.’
‘I am very contrite. But I couldn’t stab the king when it came down to it, even though I had him at my sword’s point. Give me some credit for that, Henry the Merciless.’ He paused. ‘You think it makes me look a little dashing, romantic even? The fencing scar used to be highly regarded in the old days.’
‘It makes you look as though your face is falling off, Fritzy, you idiot.’
‘Kiss me Henry.’ Henry pecked him on the lips. ‘No, properly.’ And Henry reluctantly closed in for the sort of deep kiss he liked to share with David and Justin. Fritz surprised him by responding with real enthusiasm, and their tongues duelled briefly. Henry sternly told himself he had not enjoyed it.
‘What was that about, Fritz?’ Henry wondered as he broke off, excited as well as troubled by the oral encounter.
‘I needed to find out if I was still attractive, of course. I shall not be needing my looks to pursue Harriet Peacher any more. So maybe I’ll try my luck with the boys. I had better hope Harriet never finds out what the king and I did, or she may decide to finish me off. It seems she and Rudi really are falling for each other. Oskar says the two of them are off on a joint holiday before university resumes. A bit immature and hasty, don’t you think?’
It had been a week since the duel. Strelzen was buzzing with rumours of a royal romance, which had already spread to the English-language tabloids. The idea of HM Queen Harriet of Rothenia was exciting the world’s press. Nowhere was the interest more intense than in the States. The potential queen was after all a US citizen, and this was a far bigger thing than Princess Grace of Monaco had been.
Henry took his farewell of Fritz after promising to visit again and let him know how Gavin was doing. Henry frowned. Gavin was not exactly ill, but he was not himself at all. When he had come around in Henry’s arms, he had been weak and distant. Henry had taken him back to their hotel room, where Gavin had finally been able to get about on his own feet. Once on the bed, however, he had gone off into a somnolent state as if what had occurred had drained him.
‘What happened, Gavin?’ Henry had asked as soon as his lover appeared more connected.
‘I’m not sure, Henry. I was standing there feeling sorry for Fritz, who is a really lovely human being and was so horribly mangled. Then I met Helge’s eyes and I felt someone telling me I could help him. She put something cold on my forehead, and the next thing I knew I was down on the floor.’
‘Don’t you remember anything?’
‘There was that nice warm feeling again, and – don’t think I’m being silly here – it seemed I was very close to someone who loved me. It was the same way I feel when we’re together, my Henry, but even deeper.’
‘Did you know you cured Fritz?’
‘I can’t believe that.’
‘A light came from you, baby, and some sort of power. Something uncanny happened.’
Henry had been unable to get anything further from Gavin. He finally had to accept that Gavin really knew no more than he was saying.
After leaving Fritz, Henry picked up Gavin from the hotel and they made their way to meet Helge at the Veronkenkirk, the church of St Veronica. It was a small, fifteenth-century guild church in the Old City, tucked under the walls of the Benedictine abbey of St Waclaw. It clearly had some deep meaning for Helge. She had said she had a lot to ask Gavin and a lot to tell him. Henry perceived that Gavin was in for a crash course in religious expression.
Henry delivered Gavin to Helge at the church door, but was not allowed to stay as they talked. He had found the Levite, but she would not answer any of his many questions. He frowned in frustration.
In any case, Henry had to go back to the Strelsenermedia offices on the other side of the hill for a consultation with Matt. The next day they would be off to Medeln once again, this time to film Dr Bannow, and Matt wanted to be fully briefed.
When Henry returned to the Veronkenkirk at five, Helge and Gavin were still talking. They were sitting together in a large box pew at the head of the nave, Helge holding Gavin’s hand. Henry looked intently at his lover’s face, and what he saw there did not reassure him.
Gavin had always been open. His emotions usually chased themselves across his face with no attempt at concealment. Now a veil had descended. Henry could not tell whether it was because of some inner turmoil or because his baby had been changed by his recent experiences. What he did know was that it deeply troubled him.
He decided he was not going to let Helge get away from him again. When she and Gavin stood up, he was quick to buttonhole her.
‘Helge, I must know. What is happening to Gavin?’
She gave him an unfathomable look. ‘I wish I could tell you Henry, but I really don’t fully understand it. We Levites only know that one day a crisis will come and the Face will be threatened. St Fenice does not tell us the nature of the threat, only that a warrior will be found to defend the great relic. How he is to do it is unknown.’
‘Do you think Gavin is changing? Does he have … powers?’
‘No, I don’t think so, Henry. It is only that he can be a channel for a very great power, something that has been slumbering for many centuries but is now awakening.’
‘He is the key to the mystery. I imagine that Mendamero will be the one with the answers, not I. We Levites are only keepers, Henry. We keep the secret safe. We are no more than caretakers, but even such a lowly charge is one of great trust and honour. “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of ungodliness.” The psalmist had it right. It is the watchword of our order. Look at this.’
From the same little bag about her neck that Henry had seen in Fritz’s sickroom, Helge produced a silver object. Henry stared at it as she held it up in the palm of her hand. It was a skull badge, and Henry needed no great expertise to conclude that it was medieval in origin. It was set in a figured band, around which was embossed the legend: CONSISTERE MALO IN LIMINE DOMVS DEI MEI: QVAM MORARI IN TABERNACVLIS PECCATORVM.
Henry was awed. ‘Is this the same brooch that St Fenice wore in her day?’
‘And what about the brooch the Elphberg Levites wore?’
‘That was buried with Queen Flavia in 1880. It was thought her line had come to an end, of course. Now it seems we were premature, and should have had more faith in the prophecies.’
‘What do you know about these skull talismans, Helge?’
‘I believe they were made for Countess Fenice and Duchess Osra when they entered the abbey of Medeln. However, there is more to them than simple ornament. The silver from which they were made is older than their fashioning. I believe the metal was once in very close contact with the Face itself, perhaps as clasps on its framing. They may have been brought up out of Constantinople, Satala or even Edessa. You may touch it, Henry.’
Henry gingerly extended a finger towards the skull. The metal was strangely cold, despite having been held in a human hand. It seemed to shiver very slightly or vibrate to the touch. Henry gasped, ‘It’s alive, Helge!’
‘Yes, I think it is. It draws its life from the relic, which is why I had to see what happened when it touched Gavin. As I had expected, it opened up a channel between him and the relic, whose strength could then flow through him. Nor did it just flow. Gavin was able to direct it. He feared for Fritzku’s life. I’m sure he was praying for Fritz in his way, and so the power turned to my brother’s healing.’
‘Have you ever seen the Face, dear Helge?’
‘No, Henry, only in the greatest peril and necessity may we so much as approach it. Like the Ark of the Covenant, it is not safe for even the godly to touch. Our task is to conceal it.’
‘But you know where it is.’
‘It is in the possession of the handmaiden, dearest Henry, and its servants lie wakeful about it. That is all you need to know. It is safe.’
‘If it really is safe, Helge, why are you so concerned? And why is Gavin now revealed as the prophesied warrior?’