by Michael Arram
Toby sat in the back of a squad car, his wrists cuffed. The car, otherwise unoccupied, was surrounded by a ring of armed officers, their rifles levelled at him. He stared bleakly through his tears out of the window at the sheet-covered body on the tarmac in front of the Atwood home. Spots of red were showing through the fabric. He could not see Kristijan, who he imagined was being held in another car.
Radio traffic was going on all round, but no one was talking to him. An ambulance drew up, siren dying. Behind it came a military vehicle, which disgorged a squad of heavily armed commandos. Following them, to Toby’s wonder, was a tall red-headed figure, the very person he had been desperate to see. The police turned and stared at the Prince of Elphberg, who called over their commander. There was an exchange and gesticulation. The prince ordered the officer out of his way and came directly to Toby, opening the car door. He leaned in. ‘You are Tobias, the seraph?’
‘I … was.’
‘Out of the car. You’re coming with me. My son wishes a word.’
Heart-weary or not, Toby had a mission to fulfil. ‘I have to tell you something.’
‘Say on, boy.’
‘I came here to tell you that Malik has a death-squad in Rothenia, whose mission is to kill you or the One. He’s being helped by members of your own family, people who have access to you. It could happen at any moment.’
The prince’s green eyes locked on Toby’s, weighing him up. ‘Why should I trust what you say?’
‘What have I left to lose? What have I to gain from a lie? All that matters to me has been taken. I would wish to die, but the torment would not end with my death.’
The man made his decision. ‘Out, boy. Who’s the other kid, the one with glasses?’
‘My friend, Kristijan. My only friend. Please spare him; he’s done nothing wrong.’
‘And who was the young man who was shot?’
‘The finest man I ever met; he was my lover, my life.’
Wonder was dawning in the prince’s eyes. ‘You’re not at all what I expected.’
Toby emerged from the car. ‘Where did these men come from?’
‘Surely you didn’t think we would not make plans to guard the vulnerable Atwood children? The alarm from the house brought out an anti-terrorist squad with orders to take every action necessary. Your friend was armed. They had no choice.’
‘He was only trying to protect me. He shouldn’t have died. Please treat his body with respect.’
‘Child, this is Rothenia. You need not ask. Come with me.’
Still cuffed, Toby was escorted to the Humvee. Followed by a line of police cars, the vehicle roared on to Fridricsgasse and down the hill. Toby slumped as they drove through the city, and stayed mute once they pulled into the palace stable yard. The prince put his hand on Toby’s shoulder when he emerged, and it stayed there to guide him up through the palace to the Hofkapelle.
They stopped at the great door, where he addressed the boy. ‘I am well aware that my son is more than human, and that a part of his life isn’t mine to share. That is of no moment. I love him with all my heart, but I rather think things may be said and seen beyond these doors that are not for me to witness. So go on alone, but assure me of this: you will not hurt my child?’
‘I cannot. I am a seraph no more. I have been cast out of Heaven. I have no power to harm the One.’
‘Then go on in. May you find what you desire. I understand little of all this, but I recognise a creature in pain.’
Terry O’Brien saluted Henry casually as he led his prisoners into the lower access tunnel of Kaleczyk. ‘Mission accomplished, general. We got the lot. No casualties. Were they surprised!’
‘Were they armed?’
‘They had suicide vests, concealed handguns and disassembled assault rifles. But they had to sleep and their sentries were drunk. There was little discipline.’
‘And the other group?’
‘Heading towards Luchau, with Justy and his squad in discreet pursuit. The car they stole has a tracer in it.’
‘How did Justy know which one they’d take?’
‘He made it easy for them. He left the keys in the SUV’s ignition. However, just in case they missed that incentive, he had all the vehicles in the staff park bugged.’
‘That’s my favourite petty thief and multi-billionaire. You have to admire the planning. Now we’d better get on with the main event.’
‘I’ve got Lance and Mike making imaginative use of the airwaves upstairs. They’re sending some misleading signals back to the Horde. Apparently, NATO forces are withdrawing from Andreshalch, which is more or less undefended.’
‘That should encourage their strike force no end. You’d better get one of the boys in on the interrogation. Mike, I think. He’s more aggressive looking than Lance.’
‘How’re things going, sir?’
‘The Czechs are withdrawing towards Bratislava in good order according to plan, and the Horde is less than twenty-four hours away.’
The Hofkapelle of the Residenz was at first sight empty when Toby passed the doors, which closed behind him. He stared around. He found himself between the stalls of the Knights of the Red Rose, their banners hanging above him. That of the Master of the Order, the king of Rothenia, was marked by a Classical canopy, and as perhaps was appropriate, it was beneath it that Toby’s eyes found him.
Surveying him solemnly was King Maxim II Elphberg, chin on forearms, which were resting on the stall’s prie-dieu.
Toby knelt on the marble tiles, but said nothing. What indeed was there to say? He was there for judgement, not to plead.
Eventually, Maxim got up from his seat and hopped down into the aisle. He approached his former mentor and stood arms akimbo, looking him directly in the eyes. With a clatter, Toby’s handcuffs fell to the floor.
‘What shall I do about you, Tobias?’ the boy asked.
‘Whatever you wish, Lord. But end it if you will. Snuff me out like a candle. Make it as if I never was. Give me peace.’
‘I can’t do that, Toby,’ Maxxie sighed. ‘It was by your choice that all this has happened, and you must live with the consequences.’
Toby hung his head.
The boy-king gave a small snort. ‘I gotta say you make a way better man than you did a seraph. So that’s how you’ll stay, human till you die. But my mercy is this: you’ll join the Dead. They say they’ll receive you. Apparently you have a friend amongst them, a powerful one.’
Toby’s head snapped up to catch the boy’s smile. ‘Vukašin?’
‘Toby, you made a very great man love you deeply, beyond death and the revelation of all truth. The Dead have a different perspective from the living. The fact of that love makes you their brother, despite all you did as a seraph. It’s as a man they’ll accept you.’
‘And am I forgiven, Lord?’
The boy didn’t reply directly. ‘You are a man now, Tovyan Bošvic. It’s your true name, the one by which you’re loved. Get up. It’s time for you to embrace it and forget the other.’
Maxxie took his hand and led him back to the door, beneath the chapel’s organ gallery. Just before they reached it, they turned to one side of the aisle to approach a fluted column bearing a marble bowl figured like a scallop shell. It was full to the brim with clear water. ‘Look into it, Tovyan.’
Toby leaned over the surface of the bowl, which reflected the vault above. He saw nothing for a while, other than the flecks of gold in the grey stone below, until the waters suddenly shimmered and seemed to leap at him. There was a wrench in his gut, and he fell forward. For a moment he was immersed, then emerged naked, sputtering and dripping from the waters of a dark lake. Above him were trees and the slopes of a hilly island. White buildings climbed towards its peak.
‘When’s your boss arriving, Benedikt?’ Having just observed the new arrival in the Luchau garrison, Major-General Cornish was wondering where Rudi was.
‘Delayed in the capital, general. But he’ll be here within an hour. He’s coming by helicopter. I’m supposed to be checking that NATO central communications is ready to function from here.’
‘It looked busy when I was there ten minutes ago. Field command of the Rothenian army is about to be transferred to the prince. This is to be his campaign, and our government concurs. General Antonin is ready for his instructions. I’m to be Rudi’s chief of staff.’
‘He’ll be pleased, sir. In that case we can check the preliminaries. You know his plans.’
‘I do. We’ve spent weeks kicking them around, and years before that laying the groundwork.’
‘Then maybe you’ll like to look over the situation room. The boards are already set up. Oh, and there’s an unwelcome distraction. The duke of Glottenberh has been requesting a meeting before the action commences. He’s in Luchau. Several government ministers are backing him. They’re demanding an official declaration of the duke’s place in the arrangements for the Regency in the event of the Prince of Elphberg’s death in action.’
‘Politicians. Wonderful timing as usual. Why can’t the Queen Regent deal with it?’
‘The argument is that the duke takes one step closer to the succession should Rudolf Elphberg die, and consequently new arrangements need to be formulated.’
‘So? There’re still Leo and little Ossie, not to mention the princess of Tarlenheim, the duke’s daughter. Rudi’s resigned his rights, so nothing changes. I thought the man had let it go. It’s a monomania. I wonder if he’s getting senile.’
‘I don’t get it either, sir. In the meantime, you’ll be wanting to inspect the units massing in the Forest.’
‘Certainly will. This is do or die for Rudi’s reinvention of twenty-first century warfare.’
Tovyan knew where he was. It was part of the realm he had once claimed for the erelim, in the days of his insanity. As he waded out of the shallows and stumbled barefoot over the pebbles of the lakeshore, he knew exactly where he must go, and anticipated with an aching heart what he would find there. But he was no less eager to reach it for all that. Breathing hard, he jogged up the woodland paths.
Before he reached the isle’s empty streets, he came upon a small spring gushing out of a culvert on to the path. He was aware of what it was and the temptation to kneel and drink from it was strong in him. Unlike Theo Lobowicz, the last mortal to pause there, he knew what would happen if he tasted it, for to do so would erase all his memories of the world he had just left.
Only one had ever drunk of it before, and that One was He who had just sent him back to this place through the waters of death. To drink might give him a sort of peace, if oblivion could be called peace, but it would also obliterate all memory of what he had shared with Vuk. Embracing his pain, he turned his back on the spring to labour onwards and upwards.
Tovyan reached the green lawn and the tower at the island’s peak. All was still. There was no breath of a breeze in the leaves of the trees. He entered the dark square of the structure’s portal and came to the stone table. To his disappointment the room was empty. Somehow he had imagined that Vukašin would be waiting for him. He slumped exhausted on to one of the seats, rough and cold against his buttocks.
A slight noise jerked his head up in hope, but it was not Vuk who sat opposite him. A dark-robed woman was surveying him critically. He recognised her: the seeress, Fenice of Tarlenheim.
‘Where’s Vukašin?’ he asked, a little timorously.
‘Your lover entered into his long home in glory and triumph at another place, young man. I rather thought you’d know more of this island than to imagine you might meet him here. This is a place of council and commerce between the Dead and our living cousins. So it is to me that you must account for yourself.
‘You can, however, at least have this much grace. He knows all now, and loves you not an iota less. He is as eager for your eventual meeting as you are. But he will wait, since waiting is not for us what it is for you. Impatience is for the living, who have so little time.’
Tears of reaction filled Tovyan’s eyes. He wiped them away. ‘Then why am I here?’
‘You make an unusual human being, young master Bošvic. Why did you choose that name for yourself?’
‘It seemed right.’
‘It was your salvation, child. It was your proclamation of penitence, lost Son of God, and a desire to return to your allegiance. It is why you are here, to be received back into the Kingdom through the waters of death into new life.’
‘Oh … then this is the baptism foretold! Through water and the Spirit!’
‘Yes, child. You have your forgiveness from your Creator. You may leave this place renewed, and if not yet in joy, then at least in peace and hope. You will never be reproached for your error again. You have suffered and redeemed yourself.’
There was a silence before Tovyan continued. ‘And is there more? I feel there must be.’
The Lady Fenice smiled. ‘You have much ahead of you, Master Bošvic, many challenges, and in time you will know joy again. You were made by and for love, so why should it be denied you? Don’t you remember how those lost boys turned to you instinctively in their need? They came to you for comfort and healing, which you freely extended to them even in your poverty. You gave all you had and would have given more if you could have. Giving is your instinct, and it will be your life.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘You will go out into the world of men as a healer and carer. And there will be so much to do after the dark days are over. The One is ready to take up his rule, and humanity will advance in new and better ways … indeed, in some very surprising ways.’
Finally it clicked in Tovyan’s head. ‘Oh … I see! It’s evolution.’
‘That’s one word for it. Now, Tovyan Bošvic, go back to the world of the living. Take up your burden amongst those who already love you. There will soon be many more. Forget Tobias the seraph. He made his mistakes in his pride and arrogance, but at least he meant well at the beginning. He has suffered for them, and now is forgiven.’
So Tovyan took his leave, stumbling back down into the lake waters, and diving under them. Once again he found himself under the vault of the Hofkapelle, where Maxxie was waiting to take his hand.
‘Time to go, Tovyan. My dad’s done his bit. You can’t stay in Rothenia; you have to go back to the Cirics. Janko will need to know how and why his brother died. His foolish father will have to come to terms with the family’s loss. You can help them. And what about your two friends whom the police arrested? They need you too. After that … it’s up to you. It’s your life and your choices after all.’
‘Will we meet again, Lord?’
‘Who knows? I hope so. I’ll always be thinking of you.’
Tovyan straightened his back and pushed open the chapel doors. Much to his surprise he walked straight into Kristijan in tears. The boy hugged him as he sobbed. Tovyan held him close and – as Vuk had done to him – kissed Kris’s wet eyelids.
Looking back over Kris’s shoulder he caught Maxxie’s eye. The wink left him puzzled.
Justin ordered the van to a halt on the outskirts of Luchau. ‘So they’ve taken us here, then. I was somehow expecting they’d head to the capital. Looks like it’s military sabotage they have in mind. Okay, sergeant, let’s go. They’re in the town centre according to this display, probably parked up. They may have abandoned the vehicle by now, but the local police will be tailing them.’
Their anonymous white van was directed by the Luchau police operations room to a pleasant suburb in the north of the city, built on low hills with a spectacular view of the great river to the east and the forested ridge of the domanial forest to the west. Justin pulled up barely within sight of a villa the police identified as the refuge of the Horde infiltrators. Breaking out the surveillance equipment, he set up his monitors and worked out a rota. Then, as was his custom, he took a nap.
Feeling a nudge at his shoulder, he came instantly awake. Two cars had just turned into the villa’s drive. Rapid clicks from the zoom cameras behind him recorded the new arrivals. When he scanned the screens, his jaw dropped. There was no mistaking the tall figure who paused to check his watch before proceeding indoors. It was Rudi’s uncle, the duke of Glottenberh.
Henry did not find it easy to sleep. He was hardly alone in that amongst his garrison, but for the sake of morale he had to pretend to keep up a routine. So he lay on his bed, doing the maths over and over again. He had a garrison of 3,500 men, which was about to be pitched against an army conservatively estimated at a hundred thousand. Suddenly all his preparations seemed rather pathetic. He had to hold back that human tide for three days to fulfil Rudi’s plan. It would give the outnumbered Rothenian army time and space to engage the main bulk of the Horde in the Starel basin. Malik’s pincers must not meet, and Kaleczyk was the nut between the jaws.
At six he rose, dressed and went up to his command bunker. The duty officer snapped to attention and began his situation report. Kaleczyk had jäger pickets out along the defiles of Andreshalch, who were reporting spirals of smoke rising into the dawn sky as the hamlets of the Slovak Republic burned.
Henry looked across at the monitors showing the scene from the borders through streamed helmet-cameras. ‘I want the patrols pulled back to the fortress as soon as they get sight of the enemy. The Horde moves on foot, not that their soldiers have much alternative in Andreshalch, which makes them a tempting target. But our units are not to engage; make sure Lieutenant Myr understands that.’
At seven Henry presided over a senior staff conference in his ready room. There was not much to be said, other than to go over their strategy once again. A discreet knock on the door admitted an aide, who snapped a salute to the general and field officers in the room. With a commendable coolness he announced, ‘Enemy units entered Rothenia at 08:35 hours, sir. Our patrols are withdrawing as instructed. They report infantry and mobile artillery, but no armour. First estimates put enemy strength in excess of 120,000 men.’
Henry thanked the aide and turned to his officers. ‘They’ll be within range of our guns in half an hour. Gentlemen, the siege begins. God save the King.’