by Michael Arram
Henry set his peaked cap firmly on his head, and returned the salute of the guard as he entered the Residenz of Strelzen through the front. He trotted up the green-carpeted stairs to the top landing, where his pass was carefully scrutinised, despite his frequent appearances there as a guest of the Queen Regent and her husband, the Prince of Elphberg.
‘Morning, Harry, the boys up?’
‘Goodness, Henry, you’re out early. Ossie had me awake at five, so I’ve been here at the desk for two hours.’ The queen offered her cheek and Henry kissed it. She was in casuals, the day clearly being family time at the palace.
On entering the lounge Henry had removed his cap, which he placed on a coffee table before taking a seat on the sofa. ‘It’s military necessity, Harry. You may notice I’m looking particularly petite in my uniform this morning. I’ve had my orders from the ministry. Now that the engineers have done all they can, I’m to take formal command of Kaleczyk at midday. When the garrison moves in this afternoon, I’ll be there to receive them. Henry goes to war.’
The queen nodded solemnly. ‘The reserves are mobilising. War is on us sooner than I had expected. Rudi told me that NATO command was giving us more leeway before the descent of the Horde. But Tom was here yesterday saying the Rothenian General Staff differ from their allies’ timetable.’
‘I just follow orders, Harry, which means I’m on active duty for the foreseeable. I’ve come to say goodbye.’
‘It takes me back to the siege of Belvoir. You took your leave of me in this very room before going into battle. But let me get you breakfast at least. Any preferences?’ Henry communicated his desire for yet more coffee and toast, and the queen passed it on to the kitchen.
She sat back. ‘Who’s taking care of your present crop of fosterlings in your absence? Ed must be at work most of the day.’
‘While he’s still in town Pauline Willerby can hold the fort, but we’ve asked my mum and dad to move into Fridricsgasse and keep the four of them under control when the Horde moves and Ed joins the army in the field.’
Harry chuckled. ‘I hope they behave for Robert and Marjorie.’
‘My mum’s tough, and she has a way with teens. Yuri adores her. Mum’s constant barrage of advice and childhood Henry stories confuses Mike, who’s like a bull trying to deal with a yapping terrier. The twins are a different matter, of course, but so far they’re puzzled by her rather than truculent. They spend a lot of time discussing what grandmothers signify and attempting to fit her into their understanding of human hierarchy. The pair of them are born anthropologists.’
‘They still see humanity from the outside, you mean?’
‘I probably do. Yuri leapt into mortality with both feet and a whoop, going native bigtime; she’s more like Lance than the others. It’s all dresses, boys and gossip with her. She’s a delight. Mike has found true love with his boyfriend, and his vocation on the press bench.
‘The twins, on the other hand, are sufficient unto themselves. They haven’t the impulse to humanise other than within the family, and it’s a slow job turning them outwards. We thought school might help, but they’ve made few friends there, unlike Lance and Yuri. Fortunately, Damien and Helen are good to them, and Gabe at least gets on with Reggie. They’re not so very different.’
Maxxie wandered in just then in pyjamas, yawning. He hopped on to Henry’s lap and helped himself from the toast rack that arrived simultaneously, before lying back in his godfather’s arms and munching.
‘Morning, your majesty. Good sleep?’
‘You bet, Uncle Henry. You’re in uniform. You going to the army?’
‘Things are that desperate.’
Maxxie giggled. ‘Daddy says you’re a great general.’
‘Really? He’s not mentioned it to me. Anyway, baby, you’re my commander-in-chief, so it’s your opinion that counts.’
‘Me? I don’t like fighting. People get hurt. ‘Cept when me and Leo wrestle. That’s fun. He wins sometimes.’
‘Only because you let him, sweetie,’ observed his mother.
‘Not true. Leo’s a lot like daddy, a born warrior. He also cheats.’
‘What a thing to say, sweetie. But I do see your point. Now Henry, how many of the Ultras will be joining you? I only ask because I had to forbid Tommy outright from enlisting. I told him he was of much more use here. He’d hate a place where he might go weeks without shaving his legs and have to wear green perpetually.’
‘Tommy would do his duty, I’m sure. But I agree with you. There may come a day when the war will come to him. He can fight then. I imagine it’s because his Stevenage mates have all enlisted. They’ll be arriving at Kaleczyk tomorrow.’
‘Our prayers are with you, Henry. A lot depends on what happens at your fortress.’
‘Don’t I know it.’
Toby looked up through his fringe of matted hair as steps approached his open cell door. It was always open. Partly this was to humiliate him. Anyone could see his exposed body and the inventive things being done to it, though only the most trusted were allowed close enough to see that he was in fact the Nameless One. Partly the open door was to add to his torment. He knew he could leave at any time, but Malik calculated that he was trapped there by his need. He had a minimum of food and little rest. The activities of Malik’s interrogators further down the corridor allowed no sleep.
The approaching steps belonged to Atib. Toby was puzzled at how often the bodyguard came down. Perhaps Malik required frequent reports on whether he was being obeyed. The thing on which Toby was currently impaled would not allow the boy to move into any comfortable position. Resting on the object was too painful, so all he could do was balance in a half-squat. He was forbidden to pull off it even to urinate, a very difficult act in the circumstances. He was aware that he stank of piss, which had spattered back up his legs when he let loose.
Atib produced a water bottle and put it to Toby’s mouth. He drank greedily. He was unable to hold it by himself, for his wrists were cuffed in front of him and bound tightly to a large brass ring that now pierced his perineum.
When he had finished drinking, the man took some wipes out of a bag and cleaned his dirt-streaked face. They were cool and scented, and momentarily he felt cleansed.
Toby seemed to feel dirty all the time these days. His body was making him have strange ideas. How could this material thing of flesh, sinew and bone so dictate the ways and thoughts of his seraphic mind? Yet it was doing so.
Atib’s hand caressed his hair. ‘Child,’ the man finally murmured, ‘you should not put yourself through this. Go! Leave this place. You do yourself and others no good.’
Startled, Toby looked up at the man, really seeing him for the first time. Atib’s age would have been difficult to guess, even for a more experienced human being. Although his brown skin was weather-beaten and lined, his hair was dark and not grizzled.
It was the expression in his eyes, however, that most puzzled Toby. There was a softness in them which Toby had not yet encountered amongst the men he had fallen in with. Was this kindness? Toby’s heart did something he could not classify. His head fell between his shoulders. ‘I cannot,’ he whimpered. ‘My master told me to stay on this thing.’
Atib contemplated Toby solemnly. Eventually he reflected, as if to himself, ‘How could a being of so much power and beauty be such a fool with it? Child, what is it that makes you do my lord’s bidding, though it costs you great pain?’
‘I … I think he loves me. He makes me feel … good when he takes me.’
‘Is that it? Child, love is nothing to do with such abuse. My lord loves causing pain: the more innocent and beautiful his victim, the more gratification he gets from it. He will destroy your body if you stay much longer. He can’t help himself. It’s already begun. He will first break you, then change you. He’ll take your manhood from you, and delight in your mutilation and his ownership. You want that?’
‘I am no man, it is … immaterial.’
‘I am to shave all the hair off your body. You want that?’
‘Shave? Why should I care?’
‘I see it in your eyes, child. You do care.’
‘Then soon there will be the mutilations. You want to look down and see nothing between your legs?’
‘He would not … what practical purpose …?’ Toby was stammering.
‘It is nothing to do with practicality. It is what excites my lord. There is no love involved. You are merely a toy to play with, made the more enticing because of your great power. He was laughing that for the first time he had a plaything that could regrow what it had lost to the knife.’
‘Why are you telling me this? Aren’t you his servant too?’
Atib was quiet a while. ‘For a being of such power you are strangely unobservant. I too love Malik, and have done since he was a helpless and abused boy I found in the wreck of Baghdad, when the Iranians pulled out. Then he was called Mehmed, and I took him with me, though why I did so, I have no idea. It was clearly fate.’
‘You slept with him?’
‘No. Though he too was very beautiful … which was how he survived the sack of Baghdad. He never talks of it, but I can imagine. He burns with hatred and a need to revenge himself for the horror of his helplessness under relentless abuse. So he wishes to conquer the world. That sort of power would make him untouchable.’
Toby stared up at the man with wonder. It had never occurred to him that individual human beings could be explained and accounted for. To him, they were simply animals in pain. As he reflected on this, something finally clicked inside him and afflicted him with a degree of disquiet, as well as fascination. All those billions of lives and the complexity of their aspirations, fears and choices, suddenly seemed interesting, not merely confusing. At last, with a groan that arose from deep within himself, he lifted off the too-large dildo impaling him.
‘I can’t straighten fully,’ Toby observed. ‘My wrists are shackled under my crotch.’
‘So dissolve the chains, child.’
Toby concentrated, then stared at Atib, his eyes wide and wild. ‘Oh … oh! I cannot. My seraphic power … it’s gone!’
The late summer sunshine beat down on the white limestone of the Kaleczyke Horja, making the fragrant shade under the pine trees all the more welcome. Henry was nonetheless in full battledress to receive his garrison. The sixteenth (Sudmesten) battalion of the National Guard was first to appear, marching up from the valley where it had camped overnight. Its commander, Major Ottokar Willemin, led the way, entering the fortress with drawn sword according to Rothenian military tradition. Likewise, the battalion honoured the fortress by having its colour party to the front and the battalion band – music teachers and students from the city Gymnos and the Technische – playing German marches magnificently. Answering the salutes from its ranks, Henry swelled with pride to see his old unit looking so well turned out.
Loping behind came the regular mountain jäger battalion from Rechtenberg, running up the last slopes as if on level ground. Henry was mightily impressed, especially when he realised the massed buglers at the head of the column showed no sign of lacking breath as they greeted the tricolour flapping beside the Soviet memorial at the peak of the mountain.
The other two battalions of Henry’s brigade toiled up behind the jäger with nowhere near such ease. They had no bands, but mustered drums around their colours. They were local reservists from Glottenberh, familiar with the mountains and eager to defend their homeland. Theirs was the spirit of their forebears, the peasants who had in their day resorted to arms against Ottomans, Calvinist Transylvanians, and Croat Uskoks.
The four infantry battalions joined the artillerymen already lined up below the plinth of the memorial. Major Ruprevic, the brigade adjutant, called the parade to attention as the general took his place behind a rostrum. Henry gazed out at the ranked faces staring back at him, and the weight of the task he had undertaken came hard home to him. He felt nervous, the way he did not feel before cameras or concert halls full of thousands. But he looked down to the document laid out before him and steadily began the reading of his commission.
‘To all present and yet to come, know that we, Harriet, by the grace of God most pious and steadfast queen of Rothenia, regent and protector of our beloved son Maxim the Second, by the same grace most pious and steadfast king of this realm, do give notice that we have given charge of our fortress of Kaleczyk to our trusty and well-beloved Henry Robert Atwood KGCR, OHL, brigadier general of our army, to hold the said fortress against all our enemies at our pleasure, being always intendant to the advice and orders of his superior officers. And we charge all our faithful subjects and soldiers to be obedient to the said commander in the exercise of his office on pain of our displeasure and the penalty of law martial. Given this day at our palace of Strelzen, the twentieth day of August in the third year of the reign of the said our beloved son, whom may God save.’
As Henry folded up the document, his single-starred flag broke from the staff below the national tricolour and the first report of the eleven-gun salute echoed and re-echoed across the airy spaces of the Glottenberh massif, bouncing from face to rocky face.
Henry could not leave it there. He was well aware of the needs of an audience, and this particular gathering wanted more from him than the portentous words of an official commission. He stood silent a moment after the echoes of the salute had died away, and then let the words speak though him: ‘Men of the Kaleczyk garrison, reservists and regulars, soldiers of Rothenia all. We have been charged today with no little task. It is our duty to hold shut the gate of our land against those who would lay waste our homes and enslave our loved ones. That shall not be! You are soldiers of Rothenia, the finest under the sky. You know your duty to your king and will do it whatever the cost. He has asked you to do this thing, to hold back the black tide from the east. I know you will do what is asked. Our fellow-countrymen will find us an unbreakable wall. Our land will never be enslaved. It shall not be!’
He paused, breathing heavily. Then growling back from three thousand throats came the reply: ‘It shall not be!’ Out of the ranks of the sixteenth battalion rose the gathering chant, ‘At-vood! At-vood!’ Before the officers stopped it, it was loud enough to echo back, like the salute, from the massif around them.
Toby lay under a stinking blanket as the truck bounced him around its floor. He ached all over, not least in his genitals. Though bolt-cutters had removed the ring piercing his perineum, the process had been hasty and rough. He felt as though his balls were twice the size they had been. His backside was also swollen from the relentless abuse it had suffered. He dreaded defecation when he could no longer escape that terrible necessity.
He was barefoot, dressed in only a torn tee-shirt and filthy jeans. ‘But you will not at least look out of place. The roads are full of refugee Slavic boys in no better state,’ Atib had said when he bundled Toby into the back of a supply truck headed up towards the Hungarian frontier.
The bodyguard had thought quickly, apparently unfazed by the sudden catastrophic turn of events. He had thrown Toby naked across his shoulders and, unobserved, hauled him up from the cellar into an adjacent garage where the bolt cutters had freed his shackles.
As he meditated on the helpless, naked youth sprawled on the oil-stained concrete Atib had reflected, ‘Of course, you are the one captive in my lord’s cellars who will not be pursued on your escape. My lord will simply assume he pushed you too far in his game, so that you rebelled and returned … wherever it is you come from. But we must get you out of here to make him believe that.’
Atib had gone back down to the cellar and returned with the clothing, saying ominously that its former owner would not be needing it again.
As Toby laboriously dressed in the inadequate covering on offer, his human brain demonstrated its increasing hold on his seraphic intellect. Nothing else would account for the sudden inappropriate appearance of curiosity in his thinking processes. Indifference was the hallmark of the seraphic mind. ‘Did you help the German boy, Kurt, escape in Thessaloniki?’
‘Me? No. Though we never did find his body. That was strange, for the collapse of the house could not have destroyed it. But there was no trace.’
‘Why did you help me and not him? We looked alike.’
Atib shook his head. ‘It is your utter helplessness, child. The German was tougher. He was dealing with my lord, and though he would have been turned into a eunuch, he would have had a life of sorts. People adapt, as I know all too well. You on the other hand are doomed unless someone does something for you. That I have done, and now you must run for your life. With your magic gone, escape is the only hope you have. Death will follow unless you run – and it will be a real one, yes? You are no longer djinn to be imprisoned in a bottle or lamp, as in the old tales.’
Atib helped Toby to stand. The concrete was rough under the boy’s tender feet, and he ached alarmingly in his bruised crotch. His swollen rectum felt as though it had been turned inside out. He limped after the bodyguard to the garage door.
The hilltop villa got the benefit of the cool afternoon breeze. Vines stretched down to a river valley below. The horizon was vague and veiled in haze. The bodyguard pointed to the north. ‘That way is the Hungarian frontier. It is about thirty kilometres. Do you have friends in the West who can help you?’
‘Me? I know no humans other than some people in Rothenia, who could not be called friends.’
‘You must run somewhere, child. There is no help for you to the south and east. Here, take this, you may need it.’ Atib forced a wad of paper slips contained in a clear plastic wallet into Toby’s hand.
‘What is this?’
‘This is money … American dollars. You surely must know about currency?’
‘I have heard of it of course, but never seen any. Will it buy me food and fresh clothing?’
‘If you wave it around, it may also get you killed. There are many desperate people on the roads, as well as marauding soldiers.’ The man pondered for a while. ‘A supply truck will be up from the city soon. I will talk to the driver and see where he goes from here, and maybe I can hide you if he is heading in the right direction.’
And so Toby found himself under a concealing blanket in the corner of a truck transporting supplies north to the frontier zone under escort. Atib had taken no farewell of him, and had ignored his stumbling attempt at gratitude, brusquely silencing him. ‘You should not thank me, child. Your life as a mortal is likely to be very brief in the harsh world my lord has created. Brief as it is, it may also be very painful unless you find some wits to keep about you. The good that comes out of your escape will be for my lord rather than you. You distract him excessively, and he has relied over much on your magic. He is losing sight of reason.’
Apart from his physical discomfort and hunger and the fear for his mortal life, Toby’s increasingly undisciplined mind kept circling round the huge fact that he was no longer a seraph. His power was gone. But who had done this to him? Lance? Surely not; the Satan could not have grown that much. The order of archangels was shattered, and his other enemies on the Council were weak. The One? Too inexperienced. Then who?
‘Nice what you’ve done with the place,’ Terry O’Brien observed to Henry.
‘Thanks, major. Did I mention the No Smoking signs in the officer’s mess?’
‘Power’s gone to your head, little Henry. Brings things back though. Seems hardly yesterday we were out here in pursuit of Josseran and Dressner. Are all those caverns and tunnels still down there?’
‘So far as I know. Most of the engineering’s been done up the top here, with the old casemates opened and living quarters installed. There wasn’t time to bring the place up to Hilton standards. But Dressner’s generators and escape tunnels have been useful. He left us with a lot of power capacity inaccessible to any besiegers, and of course the water supply’s intact and unassailable. Dressner’s lower entrance had to be blocked, but our guys have found ways of installing and disguising a lot of unexpected exits. They may be useful. I suggest you and the Ultras get to know them.’
‘This mountain’s way too big to be successfully besieged by any army. You’ve a week or two to get to know every stone and tree trunk on it. The job for you and your men is going to be to work at night and hit their guards, keeping them constantly on the alert, ready to shoot at any shadow.’
‘That why we’ve been issued with black and grey digital battledress?’
‘In one, major. You need to get training your men. How are they all coping?’
‘They’re determined and ready, most of them. That idiot Wilshire is the exception. But even he’s able to do kitchen duty. His quiet boyfriend’s the surprise. Very fit and quick, and quite at home here already. It may be because he’s Welsh. He has an affinity for hills. He and your Gavin make quite a pair. It’s as well Max isn’t the jealous sort.
‘In fact, I’ve let the natural dynamic sort itself out. Gay men fight best in pairs, it seems; don’t ask me why. It’s not a sexual thing. Nathan and his cousin Gussie work very well together. Me and Justy you know about. Max and Rupert are a team, as are my Davey and young Danny Hackness. They have a similar sense of humour, despite Danny’s abysmal indifference to stylish clothing. Still, that doesn’t matter here. The one exception to the partnering rule is the straight couple, Eddie Peacher and his Tanya, but they’ve promised not to shag on guard duty.’
‘I’m impressed. That leaves Fritzy.’
‘Yeah, well, I think he’s better with you. I’m well aware you two make a pair. Keep him in your HQ staff.’
‘Recommendation accepted, major. Senior staff meeting at six this afternoon. It’ll be in Rothenian. You up to that?’
‘I think so. I’ve put a lot of time into it since the old days. I may not have your linguistic talents, little Henry, but I can get by.’
Despite his air of military indifference, Terry straightened and snapped off a creditable salute before departing.
Henry’s devoted staff had, as ever, excelled themselves in fitting out his quarters. Somehow or other they had found sofas and a coffee table, and installed them along with the pictures they knew he liked, not least the family groups which occupied the top of a bookshelf. There was his new favourite amongst them: the five angel-siblings, Lance sitting, cuddling a delighted Yuri on his lap, while Mike loomed stolid and puzzled behind them. The twins stood to one side, uncertainly peering at each other through their shaggy hair rather than at the camera, but they had their hands clasped, looking sweet instead of just disconnected. Taken together there was an undoubted family resemblance between all five, and not just in hair colouring. There was something about their faces which proclaimed a common genesis. They resembled Henry too, Lance much more so now he was an adult. Pirated Atwood DNA, Henry had concluded. He missed them badly already. But there was at least e-mail, and he applied himself to his laptop.
Toby’s escape had gone well for a while. The truck had been stopped at a road-block as the evening fell and been directed to a baggage park. When its driver went for a smoke with some colleagues, Toby had been able to slip out the back unnoticed. He even had the presence of mind to snatch packs which looked promisingly like food, and a plastic bottle which he hoped was drink.
Sitting out of sight of the road-block in a ditch concealed by a thick hedge, he tried the bottle and discovered he had regrettably stolen soy sauce. He spat it out disgustedly, his body seeming to know that would not satisfy its needs, which were pressing. But the packs at least were dried biscuit. He ate what he could, and crammed more into his pockets.
Waiting for the daylight to fade further, he became aware of rising pressure on his anus which would not be denied. Eventually he had to push his jeans to his ankles and squat. The process was agonising, stinking and messy, and confirmed all his prejudices about material existence.
Unable to clean himself other than with handfuls of prickly leaves, he pulled his jeans back up with a grimace, soiling himself further. Next time he would remember to steal toilet paper and wet wipes. All of a sudden, his body once again took him by surprise. The incongruity of that resolve caused his dirty face to split in a wide grin. For a moment he was on the verge of laughter, and unaccountably felt happier and more in control of himself. He shook his head. Was he on the edge of insanity?
Eventually Toby began creeping along the hedgerow, not daring to stand until he was far up the hill away from the road at the point where the hedge joined a patch of woodland. He looked back and saw lights appearing across the valley. There was some sort of large encampment, and now he was up the hill he could hear the distant sound of human activity: the drone of vehicles and distant calls, even the rattle of gunfire. Alarmed by this last, he drew back into the woodland. He was sure he must be close to the Hungarian frontier, and knowing that the sun went down in the northwestern sky, he realised he should head towards the lingering light on the horizon. This led him through the wood and there his luck ran out.
Toby’s naked feet meant he had to pick his way slowly and carefully through the undergrowth going uphill. Intent on sparing himself pain he blundered almost into the middle of a Turkic patrol, whose members would have been invisible in their customary black had they not been smoking, and cursing at each other in a variety of languages.
The boy froze to the rough bark of a tree, his heart hammering. One of the patrol passed so close Toby could smell the man’s sour body odour and tobacco. Fortunately he was on the other side of the tree. Then up the hill ahead there were shouts and a shot rang out. Panicking, Toby ran off back down the slope, indifferent to the way his feet and clothes were torn by stones and undergrowth. There were shouts and more shots. A heavy body was pounding after him through the trees.
Smacking hard into a trunk may have saved him. Winded and stunned, he rolled under a bush and lay barely conscious as his pursuer ran past him. He had no idea how long he huddled there while the sounds of the chase faded through the wood. Eventually he came to, staring up at the hard points of starlight in the sky.
His head was confused and there was a trickle of blood running down his cheek. Dazed, he limped back uphill, though for all he knew he could be walking into danger. Eventually he caught sight of the encampment again. It was behind him now and farther away. The moon rose over the hill, and with it his panic. There was more shouting; it was at a distance and behind him, but he feared it was coming closer. He struggled on, and as he did so thorns caught and tore his already tattered tee-shirt from his body.
Lurching, he fell over an obstacle in his way. He lay still, afraid even to breathe, the light of the full moon falling on what had caused him to stumble. It was the body of a dead youth, not much older than Toby appeared to be. He stared into the sightless eyes, and again his humanity ambushed him. He went to his knees and vomited up what little was in his stomach.
As he wiped his mouth, cold metal touched his neck and a voice hissed in his ear, ‘Not a sound, or you die!’