by Michael Arram
The Cubs encountered the Horde’s work the next morning as they edged through the shade on the western edge of a thick hedge leading directly towards a main road. These moments were dangerous, and Vuk had gone ahead. The rest were to hide in the ditch till they got a signal, his usual piercing whistle. It was a long time coming.
They moved quickly to the crossroads when it did. It was abandoned, but the Horde had been there. Vuk was surveying the evidence dispassionately as his friends slipped out to join him. Radu and the others looked ill, Kristijan holding his mouth then turning away to retch.
Ten men had been impaled on stakes set up by the roadside. They were only recently dead, the blood on the hands of several of them showing where they had vainly attempted for a while to stop their own weight settling the slimy stakes deeper into them as they twisted in their inescapable agony. The length of the stakes had been calculated so that their feet were only inches from the ground when they died. Toby looked away from the horror that was their faces. The stench made them all uneasy.
Vuk gave an unfathomable look across at Toby. ‘You see the words carved on their chests, Tovyan? Can you read them?’
Toby forced himself to examine the lettering. It was in the Greek alphabet. ‘It says they were traitors and deserters.’
‘They’re killing their own, then. What a bunch of shits. Take a good look at what we’re up against, Cubs. This is true evil. Don’t hesitate to kill them, because they’ll do this to you, given a chance. We won’t be taken alive.’
Vuk led them into the fields beyond the crossroads without a backward glance. Once under cover again, he put his bulging bag on the ground. ‘Their executioners weren’t too careful about robbing the dead. Probably enjoying themselves too much, the animals. I found a group of four packs in the undergrowth where the deserters may have been hiding before they were caught.’ He produced bread, a small stack of tins and bottles, and several chunky pistols with clips of ammunition and boxes of cartridges, together with belts of grenades and knives as long as bayonets. ‘Tool up, Cubs! We just got ourselves some teeth.’
The evening of the same day, as the northern hills drew nearer, the Cubs realised they were not going to find a refuge with any ease. The fields were empty of farmers and cattle, the roads devoid of travellers; it was an ominous and threatening landscape. They had passed several settlements but kept their distance, not knowing if they might find the black-clad soldiers of the Horde, armed and fearful locals, or trigger-happy Hungarian military. Whichever it was would be equally dangerous to the Cubs. Janko explained to Toby as they walked together that one of the quarry burials had been of a desperate thirteen-year-old shot dead by a local Croatian hill farmer to whom he had gone to ask for aid.
New fires were continually raising smoke to their right as they trudged across country, keeping away from roads. The nearest plume was only maybe five kilometres off to the west, marking the edge of the Horde’s sphere of operations. It was too close for comfort. Distant heavy guns growled beyond the horizon, where warfare was still evidently being waged by contending armies.
The Cubs had covered upwards of twenty kilometres that day and were exhausted. They encamped as usual in the shelter of a wood. Vuk set two sentries that night. At least they all ate relatively well, those who had appetites.
More boys came to Toby during the evening with health concerns, mostly involving their feet. Although there was not much he could do for them, Vuk allowed him to light a small fire before it got dark so he could heat water to treat burst blisters and abrasions and boil up sterile bandages for a nasty, suppurating gash on the leg of a fifteen-year-old called Klement, who was becoming a cause for worry.
The sickliest of the Cubs, Klement was always withdrawn and sometimes in tears. He had been the only one of them at the quarry who had not sought sex with Toby. Now he was limping and slowing their progress, which at this stage of their journey was a perilous handicap. But the Cubs did not need to be told by Vuk to help him along. Janko had offered the boy the support of his shoulder for the last kilometre of that day’s march.
‘Alright, Klement?’ Toby enquired after binding up the wound in the boy’s thin leg. He had cried piteously when Toby cauterised it with a heated knife-blade, which he knew he had to do. It must have been agonising, and Toby’s hand shook as he did it. He was finding the pain of others less easy to bear than his own.
The boy snuffled something inarticulate and curled up in his blanket. There was not much more Toby could do for him, but he leaned over, moved the greasy hair from Klement’s forehead and kissed it lovingly. He turned to see several of the Cubs looking at him oddly.
He took Janko further into the woods to repeat the treatment of his penis. Janko dropped his jeans and Toby found that the inflammation had gone down, though Janko still complained of itchiness.
Janko’s erection didn’t deflate after treatment. Toby smiled as he speeded up his massage until Janko tensed, gasped, lifted his little butt and spurted his semen over Toby’s hand and the fallen leaves between his splayed legs.
‘You’re amazing, Tovyan.’ Janko stretched and grinned.
‘I’m better with anal,’ Toby asserted with a laugh.
Janko pulled his jeans back on. ‘Not what I meant. Since you joined us things have been so much better. You’re so kind and gentle and loving … all the boys adore you, even though they’re not gay. And it’s not just because you let them use your hole. They adore Vuk too, but in a different way. He makes them believe we’ll get out of this shit, and that we’ll survive. He knows what to do … or at least he seems to. His courage gives us confidence. But you bring love into our lives. They’d all die for you. It’s amazing that you and Vuk are boyfriends. It couldn’t be more right. You two make us a family.’
Vuk awoke to find Toby’s place next to him empty. The light of dawn was filtering through the trees and the birds above them were beginning their irrepressible din, war or no war. He found Toby on sentry duty. ‘It’s not your turn, baby.’
Toby smiled at him. ‘Couldn’t sleep, so I told Radu to curl up while I took his duty.’
‘You got the guns from my pack. What have you been …?’ Vuk saw one of the pistols in front of Toby. It had been knowledgeably unloaded and field stripped. Magazines were stacked beside it, meticulously checked and filled. Three other pistols were awaiting attention. ‘Where did you learn to do that?’
Toby blushed. ‘Oh … I have this thing with mechanical objects. I seem to see inside them. This one would never have fired. It’d been jammed by mishandling.’
‘Show me how you do it, Tovyan. I need to learn. Then tell me about the rifle.’
‘I have no idea if it’s even loaded. I only carry it as a bluff.’
‘You’re good. You fooled me, Vukašin.’ A chuckle escaped Toby. ‘Okay, bring it over. These pistols have accessories in their butts, including screwdrivers, wire brushes and gun oil, not that their late owners ever used them. I don’t think those poor men wanted to be soldiers. No wonder they ran for it.’
As the sun climbed, Toby worked intently on their armaments. The boys slowly trailed over and joined the seminar. Eventually Toby looked up at Vuk. ‘Would it be safe to let off a few rounds?’
‘Hmm … probably not. But unless we’ve fired these guns, how can we ever attempt to defend ourselves from those bastards? We’ll strike camp, go deeper into the wood and work out an escape route in case we draw attention.’
They encountered a deep stone gully where Vuk said the noise of shots would be muffled. He set up a few empty cans, and Toby found himself lecturing the intent Cubs, even Klement, whose curiosity was stronger than his malaise. Finishing his words of caution, Toby handed a pistol to Vuk, who took a bead on a can. The heavy gun bucked in his hand as he let fly, causing him to yelp. His second shot was more controlled, and his third sent the can spinning high in the air to clatter against the gully wall. There was a cheer from his loyal followers.
Each of the grinning boys was allowed to empty a magazine, and the most promising were awarded pistols for their use. Klement was proud to be one of them and Janko was fuming because he was not. Toby demonstrated once more how to reload each pistol, and he checked the safety catches before handing the weapons over to their keepers.
The Cubs shouldered their packs and made their way out of the wood along the route Vuk had already plotted. Finding all clear when they reached open ground, he took some time to orient himself, eventually striking off along a thick hedge. ‘There are a railway and a main road about a kilometre ahead,’ he told Toby as they headed the march. ‘Beyond the line, the hills begin and we’ll be less exposed. The artillery was quiet last night, so I guess the Horde has destroyed any resistance and moved further up the river towards Budapest. It’d be too much to hope the bastards lost.’
‘Still fires burning over there, Vuk,’ warned Radovan. ‘Their army may have moved away, but their hajduki are out.’
Vuk’s map-reading was faultless, so after about twenty minutes they were warily approaching a road which ran alongside a railway line. Vuk signalled everyone to take cover, then leapt the fence on to the tarmac. Very soon he jumped back again and ran low across the field to join the Cubs. They could hear the reason: vehicles approaching from the west. Two military transports led by an armoured car bowled along the road. Soldiers sat at heavy machine guns fixed on their roofs.
‘Not the Horde … wrong direction,’ Toby hissed in Vuk’s ear.
‘Hungarians,’ came the laconic response. ‘Look at the tricolour pennants.’
They sat up after the vehicles disappeared. ‘Seems like we’ve crossed into friendly territory,’ Kristijan conjectured. ‘The Horde hasn’t reached here.’
A certain degree of relief greeted that observation. Vuk was less sanguine, however. ‘We know how the Horde works, guys. Their marauders don’t fight in nice, tidy lines, they infiltrate, murder and plunder in gangs. So we keep moving cautiously.’
‘But where are we going, Vuk?’ Radovan asked. ‘Looks like we’ve reached safety; there’re soldiers between us and them.’
Vuk suddenly appeared nonplussed, and Toby wondered indeed whether their leader had thought beyond getting his Cubs to some sort of sanctuary. ‘We still need to cross the railway. If this is friendly territory, there’s a city in the valleys leading up into those hills where maybe they’ll have a refugee camp.’
No one had a better plan so they moved to the tracks. Vuk decided that a bridge marked on his map looked promising and that this time they might risk the road. As they were just beginning their march a deafening bang beat on their ears from a big explosion behind them. They turned to see a mushroom cloud growing out of flame in the direction the Hungarian column had taken.
‘Shit!’ swore Vuk.
‘What was that?’ Toby asked.
‘IED,’ came the answer. ‘Improvised explosive device. It’s a marauder tactic they brought with them from the Middle East. I don’t give those Magyar guys much hope.’
‘We gotta get outa here,’ Radovan insisted. The others were uneasy.
‘Along the road, boys. March! Radu, you go last and keep a sharp eye on what’s behind us. I want plenty of warning if anything or anyone comes back up that road.’
They trotted along the highway. The chattering of machine guns was distinctly audible now behind them, together with the sharp concussions of rocket-propelled grenades. They kept up as fast a pace as the road allowed.
‘Bridge!’ Janko called from his position on point. ‘Soldiers!’ came the next cry. Toby saw a roadblock set up at the railway bridgehead, where armed men in green uniforms had already spotted their small column approaching.
Vuk called a halt. ‘This could get dangerous. Conceal your guns in your packs. I’m leaving the rifle here on the roadside and going ahead with my hands in the air. Don’t want to get killed by friendly fire when we’ve got this far.’
The Hungarians were nervous and before Vuk got near the barrier a detachment came out with weapons trained on him. He went to his knees with his hands on his head, then lay flat. He was roughly searched before he was let up.
Following some sort of exchange, Vuk signalled the rest forward. By then the bridge guards had lowered their weapons, realising they were looking at nothing more than a group of refugee kids.
An NCO was gesticulating at Vuk, who listened uncomprehending to the stream of Magyar questions coming his way. ‘Anyone speak Hungarian?’ he asked the boys in despair.
‘A bit,’ Toby reluctantly admitted. Turning, he addressed the soldier in perfect Magyar: ‘My friends don’t speak your language.’
The man smiled under his helmet. ‘Ah! A local lad. How did you fall in with these foreigners?’
‘My, er … mother’s Magyar. I’m a foreigner too. We’ve crossed over from Croatia where we were hiding out from the Horde.’
‘Christ, you’ve come a way. You’re lucky to have made it; the countryside’s alive with those Turkic bastards. They’re heading this way too.’
‘Was that your unit hit by a bomb just then?’
‘The captain decided to send a patrol east to check the village. It seemed quiet and he thought their main force was a way off. Apparently he was wrong.’
‘Aren’t you going to help them?’
The sergeant looked grim. ‘Strict orders from General Hapsburg at Pécs to hold the bridge. The captain should’ve remembered that. I won’t leave my post. Boys, you’d best get across the bridge. Wish we could help you more, but our two companies are the only regular units between here and Balaton. Take the road north; that’ll get you to Pécs. It’s being held by a reservist brigade, so it’ll be safe. After that there’s only Slovenia or Rothenia to take refuge in. Please God the Elphberg comes soon.’
Toby conveyed the gist of this to his friends. Hearing the bad news, Vuk went back and retrieved his rifle, then formed up his little column. The soldiers were amused at the sight, waving the boys off to the hills and wishing them luck before turning back to face their fate.
It caught up with them before the Cubs were even a field away from the bridge. Mortar fire erupted all along the railway line. Vuk pushed the Cubs into the cover of a column of parked armoured personnel carriers as men shouted and ran to take positions. The guns mounted on the APCs began strafing the road beyond the tracks.
Vuk peered round the corner of their shelter. ‘The attack’s coming up the railway and across the fields beyond the road,’ he shouted to Toby. ‘Can’t see how many of them there are.’
‘They obviously mean business.’
‘Damn right. Stay down, Cubs! The road’s too exposed to retreat along.’
‘Vuk, we must move. They’ll target the armour with RPGs and mortars … it’s their tactic. We must move!’
To emphasise Toby’s point, the rear APC was struck just at that moment. The crew scrambled for safety, beating out the flames on the driver’s legs.
Vuk made his decision. ‘Janko, over the hedge on the other side of the road. Go first. Radu, help Klement. The rest by numbers when I say.’
Accustomed by now to Vuk’s charismatic leadership, the Cubs followed instructions without question, taking shelter in a well-maintained drainage ditch beyond the farther hedge.
The firefight raged along the railway, where black figures could be seen moving forward from cover to cover. Vuk was alert to their tactics. ‘They’re trying to move round the rear and outflank the soldiers on the bridge. Cubs, we gotta work north along this drain or we’ll get caught in their sweep.’
The boys kept low as they followed him to a brick culvert where the drain went under the road and out into the open fields beyond. ‘We can’t go any further this way. Janko, inside the tunnel! Radu, Kristijan, Marsin and Klement, draw your pistols and take position along the hedge – stay down! Tovyan, the rifle’s yours. Await my orders. The Cubs go to war. It’s payback time.’
Toby was astonished at the self-possession of these human boys, not much more than children. Their faces were set and they were silent. They must have been terrified, but not even the frail Klement showed any weakness at this instant of deadly crisis. It began to register with Toby that he too was unaccountably calm. Was it a holdover of his seraphic sense of invulnerability, or was it down to the determination and inspiration of his lover?
A well-armed squad of black-clad men had by then massed on the other side of the road, unaware of the Cubs’ presence behind and beneath them. Seeing them begin to move to take the besieged soldiers in the rear, Vuk lobbed several grenades amongst them. The detonations were followed by a fusillade of fire from the Cubs. Toby shot one of the marauders through the head and was mesmerised by the arc of blood that seemed to spray in slow motion from the falling man. Obedient to Vuk’s urging, he continued to fire into the press of black uniforms, to what effect he could not see.
The boys next to Toby were coolly reloading just as he had taught them, then emptying the second magazine. Soon there was only a mound of dead, dying and wounded men in the road, with several marauders limping across the field beyond to be picked off in turn by the Hungarian soldiers, now belatedly alert to the danger.
‘Well done, lads. Good job. You’ve avenged those men we saw impaled. These might even have been the bastards who did it. Be proud of yourselves. Now stay low.’
Toby scanned the battlefield through the hedge. Gunfire was dying down. Three of the APCs were in flames, but the Horde had disappeared, and was apparently in full retreat down the railway line. It was only then that Toby became aware of how hard his heart was pounding, and that several of his packmates were in tears as reaction kicked in.
‘Where did you learn to drive?’ Toby asked as Vuk changed gear in the surplus truck that was the soldiers’ parting gift to the Cubs.
Vuk shot a quirky look across at the boy beside him in the cab. ‘Where did you learn to strip a rifle, Tovyan? Who’s gonna ask to see my licence?’
The exalted Cubs were singing and laughing on the truck bed behind them. They had been treated as heroes by the Hungarians; Klement and Marsin were sporting soldiers’ caps that had been pressed on their heads. Toby more pragmatically had solicited replacement ammunition. They were heavily tooled up now with assault rifles and grenades they’d stripped from the corpses of the marauders while the soldiers turned a blind eye. The Cubs were looking hopefully at Toby in expectation of another seminar in weaponcraft.
‘Where are we going, my Wolf?’ Toby asked at last.
‘Well, the soldiers said we should head for Pécs. But that was before we got wheels and a full tank of petrol. We’re mobile now and out of the Horde’s immediate reach. Don’t you just love the sense of freedom? What do you think, Tovyan?’
‘I think you know the answer to that, my Wolf. I want to go wherever you go. But there is this. I was going to head north for Rothenia before I met you, and we’ve been travelling north ever since.’
‘Rothenia?’ Vuk pondered. ‘We can’t go back south to our homeland, and my parents were heading northwest when Janko and I lost them. If we’re to find them again, it’ll be in a refugee camp in Austria, Germany or Rothenia. We’ll have a pack council tonight and put it to the other lads. But I’m game. So why Rothenia?’
‘I … er, have family there. Cousins.’
It registered with Toby that this wonderful man whom he adored with every fibre of his new humanity had a right to question him, but he had no answers to give. Yet something had to be said that respected the truth about him. So he commenced, ‘Not really close, and I don’t actually get on with them. But they’re the only relatives I have in this world.’ Toby sighed. ‘Now I think about it, there’s not really any particular reason why I should go to them. When I escaped from Malik, it was the only place to go that suggested itself. I’m open to better ideas.’
‘How did you escape the Horde, baby mine? Don’t tell me if it makes you uncomfortable, but the more I learn of my Tovyan, the more awesome he gets.’
‘Malik has a bodyguard, a man called Atib. He felt genuinely sorry for me and what was being done to me … he …’ Strangely, the recollection of the relentless sexual abuse he had once perversely welcomed, now had the power to sting Toby’s eyes with tears and cause his throat to constrict.
Vuk heard Toby’s voice falter. ‘Enough, baby. We’ll not talk more about it till you’re ready. That will be a while yet.’
They drove on to Pécs, the hills rising around them. As they left the theatre of hostilities they began to encounter traffic. Cars and vans with possessions tied to the roofs and trailers towed behind filled the roads going towards the north and temporary safety. More people were just plodding on foot. There was a roadblock on the outskirts of the city, but the pressure of refugees had caused the police manning it to give up vehicle checks. They were too busy dealing with cars which had run out of fuel and were blocking the main road. Outside the local garages were long lines of abandoned vehicles whose drivers had finally realised there was no more petrol to be had.
The quaint streets Vuk took the truck through were less busy, and the boys hung out the back staring as they drove along. The presence of troops in the city had rallied the people, who were not abandoning their homes. There was even a busy farmers’ market in progress along the main road through the northern outskirts.
Vuk brought the truck to a halt. ‘Wish we had some cash,’ he mused regretfully.
That was when Toby remembered what Atib had given him as they parted. Scavenging in the back pocket of his jeans he found the wad of paper, still wrapped up in its plastic bag, where he had put it and then forgotten its existence. Pulling it out, he tendered it to his leader. ‘Is this any use?’
Vuk took the sheaf and his eyes widened as he counted it out. ‘Holy fuck! Where did you get this amount of money? There must be over two thousand American dollars!’
‘So it’s good?’
Vuk looked over and shook his head at his lover’s naivety. ‘Sometimes, Tovyan, you seem to belong to a different world from ours.’
That night there was a party in the car park of a hilltop viewpoint where the Cubs set up camp. A small sum in dollars had bought a lot of food and they did not feel the need to ration themselves. They lit a big fire off the road, had a barbeque and passed a bottle of wine around, followed by another. Radovan, Marsin and Kristijan performed a folk dance quite skilfully while the other boys swayed, sang and clapped, Toby among them. When the dancers finally got a little too intoxicated and Kristijan fell over, they hauled him off to his blankets, then laughed and sang some more.
By the time the moon had risen, only Toby was sober enough to be trusted to stand guard. When he cheerfully volunteered, the rest took to their blankets next to or in the bed of the truck.
As the fire died down, he listened to his friends snore and fart, rejoicing in his and their humanity. Janko, nominated to replace him, had also imbibed, but not too much as his brother would not let him have more than sips. He awoke after a lot of shoulder-shaking, and took the rifle yawning. Toby stripped off his top and rolled himself in the warmth of Janko’s bedding.
As he settled he became aware of a hand hesitantly stroking down his bare back. The fingers found the waistband of his jeans and Toby lifted himself so they could be pulled down below his knees. Then another naked body covered his. When it attempted unskilfully to find his hole, Toby reached back and directed the long thin penis he found, sighing as it sank deep into him. There followed a long session of frantic thrusting, until eventually the boy above him groaned out his orgasm.
Spent, the body lay for a long time on top of Toby, who took the opportunity to enjoy flexing his sphincter on the rod still inside him. Finally lifting off, his night visitor planted a soft kiss on Toby’s cheek. ‘Thank you … for everything, Tovyan.’
‘Night, Klement,’ Toby whispered back sleepily. ‘I love you.’
The Cubs were very much the worse for wear in the morning. Kristijan, too dozy even to put on his glasses, appeared rather different without them. Vuk was not looking especially great either, although the smell of the coffee Janko had brewed was rallying him. Toby was positively cheerful and could not quite work out why it was the other boys didn’t echo his good spirits.
Eventually Vuk announced a pack council. The boys struggled to concentrate. ‘Cubs, we have choices at last. We left the quarry to escape the Horde and we’ve done that. We’ve fought the bastards and avenged our families. So what now? Radu and Kristijan, you were refugees when Janko and I found you starving at the roadside. Your village was burnt and you have no idea if you have family left and where they might be. Marsin, you were in an orphanage and got out with Srecko just before the Horde reached it. Klement, we found you left for dead in a pile of bodies.’
Toby caught the tragic expression on Klement’s face. He sensed a story there that he did not know.
Vuk was continuing. ‘Tovyan, Janko and I are going to head north with the truck to look for my folks. We have enough fuel to get us to Rothenia if we need. But you guys have choices. You can stay in Pécs, which looks safe enough for the moment. We’ve got money and food to give you now, so you can get by for a while. Alternatively, you can travel with us and drop off on the way, wherever you want. Or you can stay as a Cub in our pack. Give it some thought. We’ll reassemble in half an hour, once you’ve worked it out.’
Vuk took Janko’s hand and they walked off to gaze out over the landscape from the viewpoint. Toby followed them. ‘What’s Klement’s story?’ he asked as they stared across the wooded hills and valleys.
Vuk looked sad. ‘We were on a scavenging patrol down on the flatlands and found a massacred party of refugees. The older ones had been bayonetted and the younger ones killed … eventually. Klement was with two girls, I think his sisters. Don’t ask what had been done to them. His parents were probably there somewhere as well. He too had been bayonetted, but the wound was superficial and just looked messy. He had played dead. We carried him back with us. He’s only now coming together, and that’s thanks to you, Tovyan.’
Janko smirked. ‘He’s in love with you, Tovyan.’
‘Oh! Really? I hadn’t …’
Vuk laughed. ‘I know you didn’t seduce him. It’s okay, he’s not shaping up for a fight with me over you. It’s just that he’s found something to reconnect himself with humanity.’
‘He did you last night? That’s good, I suppose. We’ve all had you now. Great way to bond, in my opinion.’
Toby stared at his grinning lover. He realised something was going on here. He was being played. He felt an odd thing, a sensation of being both amused and offended, and sought for an appropriate human response. He assumed a stern face. ‘Sometimes, my Wolf, I think I should assert my great power and start denying my ass to Cubs who piss me off.’
It was the right reaction. Janko and Vuk burst into laughter.
When the pack reassembled, Vuk posed the fateful question: ‘So what’s to be the decision, my Cubs?’
The others looked at Radovan who spoke for them all. ‘We follow you, Vukašin, our father.’