by Michael Arram
Henry was in his command bunker on the peak of the Kaleczyke Horja when the news reached him of the fall of Budapest. His staff took it grimly.
An adjutant signalled from the communications desk. ‘There’s a problem, sir.’
‘The frontier posts in our command area are reporting a surge in the number of refugees at the Slovakian border. They’re being let through by the Slovaks but our men have no instructions about what to do with so many. Encampments are forming, and the Slovaks aren’t offering much humanitarian assistance. There are more people arriving every hour.’
‘Have you contacted the Ministry of the Interior? What about the local border police?’
‘On it, sir.’
Henry turned to Major Ruprevic. ‘We’d thought the refugees would reach Rothenia up the Starel valley, but it looks like desperation has driven these poor people into the mountains. Better get in touch with the Red Cross at Wendel, Leon. They must have contingency plans. In the meantime, I’m having unhappy thoughts. Most of these people will be desperate, homeless folk looking for shelter, but they may also include less-harmless types.’
‘Gangsters? Criminals?’ The newly commissioned staff colonel, His Serene Highness the Prince of Tarlenheim, was clearly intrigued at the thought.
‘I was thinking more in terms of an advance party scouting for the Horde, Fritzy. I’d not underestimate Malik-rammu. His actions against Hungary were breathtakingly swift and well-judged. He had information from somewhere, and it wasn’t air reconnaissance.’
‘You think this is a danger or an opportunity, Henry?’
‘One or both. And I know just the men to help me decide. Piotr, will you get Major O’Brien and Captain Peacher-White up here fast?’
Toby was feeling puzzled, but he was confident enough with Vuk now to ask for guidance. ‘What are they doing?’
Vuk followed his gaze. Several of the Cubs were making an exhibition of themselves in the sunlit market square of the town where they had stopped for lunch. ‘Well, baby, Marsin is in agony trying to do more press-ups than he is capable of; Kristijan has just fallen over a bench because he’s taken off and concealed his specs; and Radu is making extravagant and unrealistic claims about his masculinity to those girls opposite. Probably as well they don’t understand a word of Serbian, as they’d be desperately disappointed if they could see what he keeps in his underpants … or would if he had any.’
‘They’re attempting male courting behaviour? Is that what this is?’
‘They’re making dicks of themselves,’ commented a jaundiced Janko. Klement just tittered.
Vuk surveyed his lover fondly. North of Pécs they had managed to find a functioning truck stop with public showers. The personal grooming of the Cubs had consequently been transformed, and with it their morale, once they had got hold of shampoo, soap and toothpaste.
Vuk and Toby had turned their shower session into a highly erotic episode while the other Cubs kept watch outside. The scent of mingled soap and sperm was now deeply impressed on Toby’s memory. He had been fucked hard while standing, his body spread against the cold cracked tiling. The friction on his penis and the pressure on his prostate had brought him off without the usual assistance of a hand. It had been yet one more awesome experience of human sexuality. After Vuk’s tender and selfless love-making, Toby could not recollect his episodes with Malik with anything other than deep self-disgust.
No longer straggling and greasy, Toby’s hair was rich and golden enough to shine with its own light when it caught the sun.. His skin was clear and brown, his teeth a white almost as dazzling as the seductiveness of his shy smile. Even in his shabby clothing, he was the most beautiful human being Vuk had ever seen, male or female, and it seemed the girls across the square agreed. Toby and Vuk were the ones they were covertly staring at, making comments behind their hands and pausing to put their heads together and giggle. Toby was coming to the conclusion that the human female was a very mysterious creature indeed.
A waitress came over and Vuk ordered more oranginas in his somewhat primitive English, of which Toby could tell his lover was a little proud. Toby relaxed under the umbrella shading their café table. He was discovering that, although the disposal of bodily waste products might be undignified and indeed utterly disgusting, there was compensation in the process of creating them. He found he loved fizzy sweet drinks.
The little town of Todorpéc nestled in a fold of the Transdanubian Mountains. The local people might have been edgy, but normal life was continuing. The everyday world of the village made the boys feel odd, as if the last month of danger and terror had been a horrible, sleepwalking dream from which they’d awoken in a place they didn’t recognise. The war seemed a long way off, though the Horde was plundering Budapest only a hundred kilometres to the east.
Vuk shook his head and returned to his trusty roadmap. ‘Boys, we’re coming to the point where we have to choose directions. The easiest choice is Austria, less than fifty kilometres west of us. The most dangerous is Bratislava, ‘cos that means going directly north across the path of the Horde. Then there’s the idea of heading to Rothenia. It’s maybe the safest place.’
‘Why?’ ventured Klement, who was ever more willing to speak up.
Vuk smiled at the pale boy. ‘Cos it’s where the Red Elphberg is. Everyone says if anyone can defeat the Horde, it’ll be him. If there’s no safety in Rothenia, there’s none anywhere.’
Toby felt torn. He wanted to argue against Rothenia as a destination, but he couldn’t find any convincing reasons to bring forward.
Vuk carried on blithely, ‘These relatives of yours, Tovyan, where do they live?’
‘Er … Strelzen, I think.’
‘That’s the capital,’ Janko announced confidently. ‘Where’s it on the map, Vukašin?’
‘In the west of the country. The safest way to get there is to make for the Austrian border here at Sopron, head up past Vienna and cross over at Rechtenberg. Now, a good thing is this: if we take that route we can check out any camps south of Vienna for mum and dad. There may be people we can ask, picture walls and stuff. Then we can check any camps in the south of Rothenia.’
Toby was suddenly more enthusiastic about the plan. Vuk’s idea meant they might never get to Rothenia at all, if they encountered his parents en route.
They didn’t eat at the café, but managed some more shopping with Toby’s dollars. At a cheap retail outlet Toby found a pair of trainers which fit him, as well as a couple of second-hand tee-shirts and unstained jeans. He pulled on socks and underpants for the first time in his human life. He saw the point of briefs, for they contained and protected his testicles, which otherwise got squashed into painful positions. The jury was out on socks. The other boys also found items of clothing they needed, and when they climbed into their truck it was as a much more respectable bunch than the gang of tattered vagrants who had left the quarry near Beli Manastir five days before.
Toby took his accustomed seat next to Vuk and they drove out of town. There was not much traffic and refugees were not taking the mountain routes, so the truck made good progress, even though the road was narrow, turning and twisting along the valley floors.
‘One detail that’s gonna complicate things when we get to Austria, baby, is this truck and the small arsenal we’re carrying.’
‘What do you mean, my wolf?’
‘I have a feeling the Austrians will ask questions at their frontier, and may want papers. Do you have any?’
‘ID documents, passports, stuff like that.’
‘No, I have none. Do you?’
‘I’ve got my ID card, though Janko’s was with mum and dad. Don’t know about the other lads, but I doubt they have anything. I don’t suppose we will be unusual in that regard, but it may cause complications. Likewise our guns. ‘Fraid we’ll have to ditch them as soon as we get to the border. I’m worrying about this truck too. We have no documents for it, and no insurance either.’
‘We couldn’t afford it.’ Vuk chuckled, and Toby joined in, though he didn’t get the joke. ‘We’ll be at the border in maybe two hours thanks to the truck. I’m suddenly feeling optimistic.’
Vuk pulled up as the road straightened, the valley walls fell away and they reached the first signs indicating SOPRON-WIEN. The Cubs packaged up the assault rifles and grenades and buried them on the verge next to a memorial cross, using a spade that had been strapped to the side of their truck. Radovan levered up the boards of the truck’s bed and found a place to hide the pistols, the knives and Vuk’s sentry rifle, which they’d decided they could not abandon because they all saw it as a good-luck token. Then the truck joined the flow of traffic heading westward towards the looming massif of the Alps.
They were back on the main refugee route, and passed several families walking, dragging carts and carrying babies. When Vuk came upon a single woman labouring along with two small children, he stopped and the Cubs helped her into the back. No matter they couldn’t understand a word she said, they found food for her and her little family. The children were ravenous.
‘She’s thanking them,’ Toby reported to Vuk as they resumed their trek. ‘She says she’s been walking for three days, and the children hadn’t eaten since yesterday. No one would help her till we pulled over.’
‘These are terrible days when people are losing their humanity, my Tovyan. That’s why, when we can do something, we must.’
Toby digested this. ‘You’ve not lost faith in humanity, Vukašin, despite all you’ve been through?’
‘I never thought I would ever see such scenes with my own eyes, though I know our homeland has experienced similar things in the past. I admit that the barbarities the Horde have inflicted are obscene and deranged. They are the worst of humanity. But you and I have both seen the best too … not least amongst our Cubs. Those soldiers at the bridge were kind and helpful, and we owe them a lot. And there is you … my miracle. Gentle, beautiful and sexy, you’ve changed my life from top to bottom. You’ve changed me: I know my fate now, and it’s to love men, or at least one man in particular. You are my true angel come down out of the sky.’
Toby shook his head. ‘Whatever I may be, I am no angel, my wolf. You are a far better man than I could ever be.’
‘Like old times, Terry.’
‘Maybe, yer urchin, but you’re nowadays worth somewhere around ten thousand of me in terms of personal wealth.’
‘Nah, it’s not real money. You never think of it.’
‘And yer talks posh. When did that happen?’
‘God knows. Nathan probably had a lot to do with it, he and the kid. Rough edges rub off, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The kid, though, still talks like he comes from the wrong side of Barnsley when he speaks English.’
‘But in Rothenian, German or French, there’s no doubt which social class he belongs to. Who would’ve believed it? That potty-mouthed little tyke yer found in Walbrough hospital is now on his way to university, a fluent polyglot, a Peacher heir and shagging a major piece of femininity too.’
‘Helen? She’s amazing. Almost makes me wish I were straight. Couldn’t ask for a better daughter-in-law … if they ever get married. Now then. Got the coveralls? Who’s this guy we report to?’
Terry and Justin fitted themselves into Red Cross-issue gear in the back of the white van they’d driven the forty kilometres down from Kaleczyk to the small city of Wendel. They shouldered medical packs and sought the town’s fairground, which had been designated as an emergency campsite for the refugees, the first of whom were being bussed in from the border that afternoon. Tents were going up all over the open space, while portable toilets were being deposited by trucks and ranked along one edge of the field. Rothenia was not turning away from its duty to help and succour its flood of forced immigrants.
Terry and Justin sought out the site administrator and reported in the guise of volunteer health workers there to assist in the screening programme. They were directed to a local doctor who had been hastily appointed health officer. He was relieved to have a team. ‘You’re Anglo-Saxons with good Rothenian. I don’t suppose either of you have Magyar or Serbo-Croat in your linguistic repertoire? No? German might be useful though. You can take swabs and create records? Good. The nurses will arrive from the regional hospital later this afternoon so we haven’t got long to get organised. The marquee here is our clinic, such as it is. I’m expecting colonic infections, heart problems with the elderly, dehydration, and malnutrition amongst kids who have been on the road for any length of time.’
Terry and Justin got wholeheartedly to work. Apart from following their own agenda, they fully intended to do the jobs they were being given. Terry had the advantage of advanced first-aid training, and Justin could easily manage the simple tasks required.
The arrival of the nurses coincided with the first buses from the frontier. Soon long queues of woebegone, exhausted refugees had formed in front of the clinic, waiting to be processed. Terry and Justin went down the line swabbing and taking details, in company with a Rothenian border policeman. It was hot under the sun, so Terry created a fuss till packages of bottled water were broken open and handed out to the refugees.
The first buses had prioritised young families and the aged; it was the second wave of arrivals that interested Terry more. As the queues formed once again, he and Justin carefully scanned the many young men who sat awaiting attention, both patiently and impatiently.
‘Thing is, Justy, if the Horde is sending in fifth-columnists, they’ll not want to draw attention to themselves at this point, so the fact that those guys over there are being stroppy and arrogant just means they’re arseholes, not that they’re Malik’s men. ‘Scuse me.’
Terry went over to a grinning youth harassing and inappropriately touching a female nurse, who was increasingly distraught. Terry smiled in his face and with two economical blows reduced him to a squirming mass of agony, then stared down the youth’s companions. The group went quiet and stayed passive as a policeman loomed over them in Terry’s wake.
Terry returned to Justin. ‘See what I mean? Human trash gets caught on the refugee tide too. We gotta keep our ears and eyes open.’
Before the Cubs reached the Austrian frontier they encountered major traffic jams caused by roadblocks manned by German Bundeswehr units that had crossed into Hungary to set up a defensive perimeter around the city of Sopron, where the Hungarian government had taken refuge. The Cubs had hours to wait before a squad of troops banged on the side of their truck, got them out and gave the vehicle a cursory search, causing Toby considerable nervousness.
The interrogation was carried out in the broken English which was all the boys had. Toby did not reveal his linguistic facility, simply answering in Serbian when questioned. Vuk interpreted for him, though Toby was aware Vuk knew he had English.
Vuk’s Serbian ID card was the only documentation the gang could muster between them. Their harbouring of the refugee family seemed to tell in their favour, however, especially as one of the toddlers had taken to Kristijan, who was carrying the child around for his mother. They were passed through, issued a permit and had a Bundeswehr clearance pasted to the windscreen. Evening was falling when they were finally waved across the frontier, where signs directed them northwards to camps set up in bleak heathlands along the grey waters of the Neusiedler See. Police pickets prevented the vehicles leaving their assigned route.
Buses, vans, cars and trucks were abandoned in large numbers on the approaches to the camps. Vuk parked up, then the Cubs helped their guests down and joined the queues to where federal aid workers were issuing temporary immigration permits. Discovering the first camp already full, they trudged along a dusty track to the second. They found space for the woman and her children and took their leave of her, delegating Toby to do his best to say suitable words of farewell in Magyar. She embarrassed them all by insisting on kissing their hands.
Vuk was in the meantime looking around keenly. ‘Over there’s a Red Cross centre. I suggest we check it out. Maybe they’ve got Internet access or some sort of searchable database.’
There were huge queues at the information point, where refugees had been allowed to set up a picture wall with scrawled notes attached to pictures. Toby found it heartbreaking in its hopefulness. It stretched already along ten boards, and others were being set up as they stared. Janko found paper slips and pencils and was set to writing their own notes to pin up, while the other boys scanned the board. For most of them it was wasted effort, but the pull of the wall of heartbreak was too compelling. They joined the many drifters hoping against hope for the sight of a familiar face in a scanned photograph. They scouted up and down the wall for nearly an hour before giving up, leaving their own wistful messages pinned to the boards.
Vuk had in the meantime taken Toby and joined the queue at the Red Cross information point. Eventually they found their way to the front, but once there Vuk’s broken English was inadequate to explain his predicament and the desk staff had no Serbian. Toby took Vuk’s hand and a deep breath before breaking into fluent German.
The man in front of him perked up. ‘Makes a change. I’d have sworn you were Carinthian with that accent … but you’re Serb, yes?’
‘Er … we’re together. My friend’s looking to find his parents. They were separated maybe a month ago just after the invasion. I’ve got the names written down here. Can you check your database?’
The man put his head down and tapped away. Soon he looked up with a smile. ‘For once I can help. They came through this camp twenty days ago.’
‘What? That’s excellent. Are they still here?’
‘No. The first camp had already filled by then and they were bussed to the camps on the Rothenian frontier north of Linz. So far as our records go, they must still be there. Hmm … is your friend called Vukašin Ciric and has he a brother, Janko?’
‘Yes … yes!’
‘There’s an alert that they’re looking for the boys. Hold on, I’ll e-mail Linz, let them know they’ve turned up. Now how about you? Is there anyone who’s going to be looking for you Mr … er … Tovyan Bošvic?’
‘No,’ Toby answered quietly. ‘No one at all.’
It was a warm night, so the Cubs camped out in their bags and blankets. The news about the discovery of the Ciric family had delighted all of them, almost as if the other boys had found their own relatives. Janko was nestled in his brother’s arms bubbling away about it, looking his fourteen years for once. Toby however was increasingly troubled. He knew that in human families parents took responsibility for their children, and concluded that his beloved and heroic Vuk would have to return to tutelage, difficult though such an idea was to comprehend. Toby’s sensitivity to his lover’s moods was growing and he thought he could detect unease there.
He was not surprised when Vuk took his hand later and led him down to the lakeside. They sat on a stone beach, the hubbub of the camp and its arc lights behind them. Vuk was quiet for some while. When he eventually spoke it was not about his family, however. ‘So, Tovyan. Sixteen years old and you can strip a gun like a sergeant major. You’re fluent in Serb, Greek, English, Magyar and German. How do you do it all?’
‘Oh … just a gift I suppose.’
Vuk favoured him with a long, speculative stare. ‘These are unusual talents, my angel. Are there any other languages you want to confess to knowing?’
Toby took on a sheepish air. ‘I can manage Rothenian and Czech.’
‘Very useful. We’re going where they’ll be needed.’ Vuk took his lover by his shoulder. ‘You’re a gift from God, baby. You’ve brought us this far.’
‘No, my wolf. That’s your courage and leadership. You’re our father.’
Vuk remained intent on Toby. ‘Bošvic? That’s an unusual name you gave for yourself.’
Toby went red. He was dreading the point when serious questions would be asked of him for which he had no answers. ‘It’s the only one I have.’
‘You didn’t go looking for anyone at the wall.’
‘There’s no one to find.’
‘My father threw me out.’
‘Was that because he discovered you were gay?’
‘No. It was because I was stupid and unbelievably arrogant.’
‘How can you be sure he’s not looking for you now? He must know you’re sorry. Are you saying he’s dead, Tovyan?’
‘No. He’s very much alive. But there’s no going back there.’
‘I don’t get it, baby. Someone so beautiful and talented …’
‘My beauty’s on the outside only, my wolf. You’re far more … beautiful … than I, in so many ways. You’re my father, brother and lover. It’s only you that matters to me now.’
The passion behind his own words left him trembling. When he got up and moved away, Vuk stood too but did not follow him.
Terry and Justin had the use of a mobile home after their extended shift came to an end. It was comfortable enough, apart from being parked next to the portable loos, whose chemical stench was less than a good neighbour to them.
They dined on crisps and beer, being too tired to get anything else. Justin sighed. ‘This is when I miss my Nate. I resigned our kitchen to him when I was nineteen and I’ve not looked in there since, apart from a fresh beer from the fridge every now and then.’
‘So yer never thought of a housekeeper like the Atwood-Cornishes got?’
‘Nah … Nate woulda been ever so offended. His cooking and gardening are a large part of what he is. The fighting Nate in camo gear’s a surprise to me, I can tell you.’
‘Iss times like this when people do surprise yer, babe. Nate’s fighting for everything he values, I think: his kid, the environment, beauty and justice. Iss no surprise really. Feeling up to a bit of analysis then, Justy?’
‘Go for it.’
‘While I was courting sunstroke out there this afternoon, it occurred to me that we know one of the Horde’s problems.’
‘What, like the uncontrollable homicidal frenzy sorta thing?’
‘No, Justy. What I mean is that the Horde sucked in young, violent males from dozens of cultures as it swept across from the east. Its origins are somewhere beyond Armenia. We call it “Turkic” ‘cos a lot of its recruits come from the northern areas of the Middle East, but I doubt if any one word could describe it, especially a linguistic one.’
Justin brightened as the penny dropped. ‘Language. How do the buggers communicate?’
‘Zactly. Yer always were a clever lad. They have only one fall-back, the former world language.’
‘English. An oddly disturbing thought.’
‘Iss the only way their mixed-up legions can talk to each other, and Malik-rammu can issue his commands. His generals come from the entire region between Persia and Kosovo. So, I did a headcount of the obvious male groups out there this afternoon using broken English among themselves.’
‘By a worst-case scenario – which is the one we usually end up with – I identified a minimum of two hundred suspects, with more coming all the time.’
‘Shit a brick!’
‘Takes me back, that does. Thass the old Justy speaking.’