by Michael Arram
Reggie Mayer sat moody and solitary at a dining-hall table. This was not usual. He was a sociable sort, and popular enough in the senior year of SIS where he had attended on and off for the last ten of his seventeen years.
Observing his isolation, Helen Debies took her tray and made her way to the seat opposite him. ‘What’s up, Reggie?’
Her friend sighed. ‘Quite a lot at Kaleczyk. Lance is having a whale of a time with Mike. They’re more or less the fortress’s cyber intelligence unit.’
Helen smiled. ‘And that would be just up your street were you there. But you can’t be, Reggie. You’re not old enough and, even if you lied about your age, you’re the wrong nationality. Believe me, you’re not the only one suffering. Daimey is fretting away, scanning the news channels and glowering down the Starel. He seems to think he should be given a regiment to lead. Even his dads are in khaki, but he can’t be. By the way, talking of Daimey, there’s something I wanted to …’
Helen got no further. The Atwood twins burst through the doors, highly excited, and raced over. ‘Where’s Damien?’ Rafe demanded.
‘You’re late today.’
‘We ran all the way from home! We had to sneak out just to get here! Tobias turned up yesterday at our place asking for Lance and our father! There were police and a man got shot! The traitor was arrested and the Prince of Elphberg took him away. The One is going to sort the bastard once and for all … or I hope he does. Gabe was so cool! Told the cunt exactly how big a shit he was. I was so proud of him.’
Reggie was bewildered. ‘What? Who got shot?’
Rafe shrugged. ‘Dunno. Some ape or other who was hanging out with Supercunt. Ugly bastard. He pulled a gun as Gabe dragged me back into the house. There was blood everywhere. Grandmother didn’t want to let us out today, but we came anyway. Gotta see Damien.’
Helen frowned at the pair. ‘There was nothing on Eastnet’s morning bulletin.’
Gabe rolled his eyes. ‘And are you surprised? There’s a cover-up going on. We were kept in our room after the police questioned us. The body was taken away last night, but there are tapes still across our road. We went out through the back fence. Has anybody heard from the palace? We don’t know anyone to ask there, and Lance is at Kaleczyk. But Damien can find out.’
Helen shook her head. ‘He’s somewhere with Mattie. Incidentally, where’s your sister got to?’
Rafe growled, ‘She’s home with Grandmother Atwood … always such a good girl, is Yuri. She stayed in her room. She’s grandmother’s favourite.’
‘You could learn a thing or two from her, Rafe,’ Helen snapped, ‘You don’t ever have much good to say of anyone, do you? You’re a foul-mouthed and resentful piece of work.’
‘Hey, leave my brother alone!’ Gabe retorted, as Rafe’s jaw dropped.
‘And you’re just as bad. You should know better, but you encourage him. No wonder the pair of you have no friends here. You’re so up each other you could spin like a top.’
‘Go and find your home-room teacher, and report your presence in school. Not that anyone would have much missed you.’
Gaping, the twins retreated, hesitated, and then edged out of the hall.
His eyebrows raised, Reggie observed, ‘That was ripping Rafe a new asshole.’
‘The pair of them deserve it. They’re such self-absorbed creeps. I’m fed up with them. What on earth happened at their house yesterday, do you think?’
‘Dunno, but … Tobias! That’s totally serious. Yet the police and Prince Rudi took him down. How could that happen? He could have disintegrated them with a look if he wanted. We really had better find Daimey. I’ll text Lance. I hope he’s still receiving. The Horde crossed into Rothenia this morning.’
Tovyan awoke to grapple with the dead weight of Vuk’s death, which pressed in on his soul once again after the temporary release of sleep. He looked out the window over the city. His refuge was a safe house to which the Rotheniske Sichertsdeinst agents had taken him and Kristijan after his interview with Maxxie. High on the bluffs of Strelsener Anhöhen, it was a former dower house belonging to the Elphberg estate, or so the chatty SD driver had told them, not that Kris had understood a word. Down in the garden, guards in body armour toting machine guns were smoking.
Tovyan showered and dressed in the new clothes which had been laid out for him as he slept. These were luxuries he now deeply appreciated. Although the house was quiet indoors, he knew Kristijan must be nearby. After they had been debriefed separately the night before, they had been fingerprinted and photographed, then offered tranquilisers (which Tovyan had refused) and put to bed.
Tovyan went out into the corridor and knocked at the adjacent bedroom’s door. Hearing a stirring within, he entered without pausing and found Kris sitting on the bed, fully dressed and looking disconsolate. His face brightened at the sight of Tovyan, only to cloud again.
Tovyan could guess why. ‘You must be very confused, Kris,’ he ventured, joining his friend on the bed.
The boy took Tovyan’s hand. ‘I’m all sorts of things, Tovyašin, and confused is just one of them. Vuk is dead, isn’t he?’
Dropping his head, Tovyan nodded. ‘He won’t be coming back to us.’
‘Then how come you can still go on? I know how much he meant to me … only God knows what he meant to you.’
‘It’ll take a long time to answer that question, but I know he’s safe now in an amazing place, where one day we’ll be reunited. That helps me a lot. I still miss him, and I’ll never lose that ache till he takes me in those strong arms once again. Waiting will be hard.’
‘They carted us off to the royal palace, Tovyan! I saw the Prince of Elphberg! He knew you!’
‘We’d never met before, but yes, he knew me.’
‘How? And you talked alone to the boy … the king! Why? Who are you?’
‘I’m Tovyan Bošvic, but I haven’t always been.’
‘This is going to be hard for both of us. Kris, I was once someone different … how do I say this? When Vuk found me in Croatia, I was on the run.’
‘Yes, from Malik-rammu. You told me. He abused you.’
‘What I didn’t say was that he hadn’t captured me. I surrendered myself to him.’
‘I thought I loved him … not that I knew what love was then. I had to wait for Vuk to teach me that. Before Malik, I was not exactly … human. There are powers outside this world that seek to change it, and I was one of them. That’s how Malik and the Prince of Elphberg knew me.’
Kristijan sat grappling with this for a while, then slowly rallied. ‘It’s crazy, but I think I believe you. Is that why you can speak all those languages so well?’
‘That’s one of the few powers left to me … that and the ability to understand how things work, not least the human body. The boy king sent me ... somewhere, where I was told I must go to train to be a doctor. My job from now on will be to heal people in body and mind. Today, we’ll both be given papers and a background story by the Rothenians. They may even give us money.’
Kristijan digested this, then asked, ‘Those cousins of yours … are they like you?’
‘Oh yes. They too have come down to earth from somewhere else.’
‘The twins seemed pretty mean.’
‘Hmm … all appearances to the contrary, they actually belong to the forces of good.’
‘What? But so do you.’
‘No, Kris. I was caught up with Malik, which has to tell you that I was on the other side. The Rothenians had good reason to point weapons at me.’
‘The boy-king, is he one of you?’
‘No, he really is human, and always has been. It’s just that he’s the ultimate human, the One long prophesied. He has power beyond anything you can possibly imagine. He’s been sent into the world by another force to make things better forever. And I’m beginning to think he can do it, which once I doubted. It’s because of him we’ve been released. They’ll take us to the border today, and we’ll go back to the Cirics, to Marsin and Radu … if you want, that is. If you asked, they’d let you stay here and they’d make some arrangements for you.’
The grip on Tovyan’s hand grew tighter. ‘But why would I do that? I can’t speak their language and I don’t want to leave you, Tovyašin.’
‘You’d stay with me?’
‘What other family have I got? You’re all I have, Tovyašin. I don’t understand half of what you’re saying, but to me you’re an angel.’
Tovyan shot a quirky look at his friend. ‘That’s not a thing I ever aspired to be, my Kristijan.’
Rudi himself called Henry at Kaleczyk to tell him of the events at his home. Henry was taken aback, to say the least. ‘Is everyone alright there? How come this is the first word I’ve had of this?’
‘Ed dealt with it. He said you’d need your night’s sleep. Don’t worry, I’ve been punished. Your mum tore me off a strip for allowing gunfire in the vicinity of the twins. But they’re all okay, though a bit stressed. Your daughter was really sweet about it.’
‘And Tobias has lost his powers … he’s human?’
‘Not just human, but very human. Some miracle’s been worked on him. I was taken with Tobias, quite against my will. He’s turned into an impressive and dignified young man, almost noble. Tragic that the man responsible for it, his Serbian lover, had to die so unnecessarily.
‘It seems my son has a plan for our ex-seraph, so we’re putting him across the Austrian frontier today with his friend, another refugee Serb boy. Tobias’ll have a passport and a backstory to help him integrate, as well as a bank account which’ll be sufficient for his needs for the next few years. After that we just have to trust Maxxie. He told me Tovyan Bošvic – as Toby’s now known – is going to be a big part of his schemes.’
Henry mused for a moment, before responding, ‘You realise this has levelled the playing field between us and Malik-rammu. He no longer has his supernatural advantage. The Nameless One now has a name.’
‘My thoughts exactly, Henry. I’m just approaching Luchau, in time to take over field operations. I can conduct this campaign as I want to, now I know that Malik and I are on equal terms. I won’t have the worry of surprises I can’t anticipate.’
Henry was about to reply when the floor of his bunker trembled under his feet. Even through the thick stone walls came the concussion of an explosion. He looked across at Major Ruprevic.
‘First ranging shot from the Horde’s artillery, sir,’ came the laconic response to his raised eyebrow.
Henry conveyed the news to his commander-in-chief. ‘Best of luck then, Outfield. Try to do better with this one than you did with the Hockey B team back at Medwardine.’
Henry laughed before replying, ‘I did win the one game, which with the material I had at hand was a pretty huge achievement.’
‘Then go for the goal, my old friend. See if you can triangulate on their artillery positions; your own gunners are more than capable of it.’
‘Don’t micromanage, Rudi. I’m on it.’
‘I have every confidence, Henry. Hold out for three days, and we may win this.’
Ed Cornish was briefing Rudi when he got the call from Justin. Ed sat down heavily as he listened. Catching Rudi’s eye, he told Justin to hold while he conveyed the news to his chief. ‘It’s Justy. He’s been tailing a group of armed Horde infiltrators from Wendel and they’ve wound up in the city here, at a house – get this – owned by your uncle, who’s currently in conference with them … and you don’t look surprised, Rudi.’
‘Nope. I’m not. I had intelligence that something like this was in the air. That it’s my uncle was hardly a surprise.’
‘It was one of the things Tobias the ex-seraph had to report to us. He also said that Malik’s closest henchman was in command of the task force now assembling in Luchau. His name is Atib. He met up with Uncle Robert at a refugee camp near Linz, and Tobias believes he’s currently masquerading as one of Robert’s bodyguards.’
‘Harry’s theory is that Robert made contact with Malik through the Russian, Byelorussian or Ukrainian delegations which are at his court. We know Malik uses them as a conduit for all sorts of purposes, not least for securing weaponry and munitions. He traffics drugs, people and loot in return. It’s difficult to say who might have made the first approach, but I’d bet it was Robert through my stepmother. She still has wide diplomatic contacts. I’d be willing to believe the old bastard is negotiating to become ruler of Rothenia and Bohemia after the Horde has finished with them.’
Ed growled, ‘And to facilitate this, he’s opened the backdoor to a squad of assassins who’ll help his chances no end by bumping you off.’
‘I imagine that’s the plan. I’ve already been pressured by his friends in the Adelsgenossenschaft to arrange a meeting with him before hostilities commence. Apparently he has concerns about the succession.’
‘Anyway, Benedikt tells me he’s just had a call, and it appears sickness prevents Robert attending me here. He would think it a great favour if I could call on my old, sick uncle at his Luchau home on the way to joining the army in the field.’
‘And … er, you will? Justy calculates there must be at least a dozen heavily armed terrorists in the house.’
‘Oh yes. A dozen, eh? That’s overkill. They’d have enough armaments to take out me and any escort I might bring, short of an armoured squadron.’
‘So why are you going? Why not send in the troops and round the bastards up? Why give them a free shot at the supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe?’
‘Rudi, for God’s sake, be serious. You can’t put your life on the line like this! Not now, not when the forces of Hell are breaking down our doors.’
The prince gave his friend a cool look. ‘Ed, you’ve lived and worked in this country for well over a decade and know its people better than most, yet you still don’t get the Rothenian mentality. You’re thinking like an Anglo-Saxon. Try thinking instead as Henry the Lion might.’
‘I don’t get it.’
‘Really? I think my uncle will, when I turn up at his front door. A noble traitor in this realm, however vile his crime, will expect a noble end. Have you forgotten the fate of an earlier count of Hentzau?’
‘Black Rupert? You’re surely kidding me.’
There was no answer. The prince was putting through his own call to Justin Peacher-White.
Mike and Lance Atwood had been moved from the communications console, now the siege had commenced. They were issued with flak jackets, helmets and rifles, and instructed to join the Sixteenth National Guard Battalion.
Major Willemin gave them a slight smile when they reported to battalion HQ on the fortress’s third level. ‘At ease, boys. It looks as though you made it in time for the war. I’ll put you in E company, that’s Kapitan-Leutenant Alexandric.’
Mike, hands behind his back and chest out, requested permission to speak. ‘What are the chances of action, sir?’
The major shook his head. ‘We’ll be taking our turn on the perimeter, private. I imagine the chances are all too good. Now go and introduce yourself to your new commander. My adjutant will direct you to the right bunker.’
They saluted, turned on their heels and left. The corridors were full of troops heading for their defence positions. The grumbling of distant guns and the trembling of the floors attested to the concussion of Horde artillery on the Kaleczyke Horja outside, whose pine trees were being shredded by the shrapnel. It was as the brothers reached their new quarters that a different vibration, followed by a metallic ringing in the air, caused the pair to stop and stare at each other. The guns of Kaleczyk had cleared their throats and replied.
Justin’s quick ear caught something on the afternoon breeze, as if thunder was rumbling in the distant mountains. He looked across at Hans, an SD operative from Rudi’s staff who had just joined him. ‘I’ll bet that’s not a rainstorm.’
‘No sir, it’s artillery,’ Hans replied. ‘War’s reached our frontier.’
Justin frowned. ‘Bugger it. I hope Nate keeps his head down.’ Sighing, he pushed that thought to the back of his mind. The tricky job in hand needed his concentration.
Smoothly and quietly, Rothenian Special Forces and SD agents had occupied the mansion adjacent to the duke of Glottenberh’s villa. A range of surveillance equipment now filled the lounge behind the picture window. As Justin watched a monitor, he saw two black-clad guards with machine guns nonchalantly patrolling the rear perimeter of the villa. The Turkic agents had re-adopted the Horde’s heraldry.
Hans put his handij to his ear. ‘His Royal Highness will be here in thirty minutes, captain. He requests you join his immediate staff for the interview with the duke.’
‘Okay, Hans. Have you got each hostile’s position pinned down tight?
‘Yes sir, and we’re continually monitoring. The strike teams are ready and in position. I’d suggest you put body armour on under your uniform. We’re going to at least try to minimise the gunfire, but plans go astray, as do bullets.’
Justin complied. Already in his life he’d had a more intimate encounter with a bullet than he wanted. After quickly checking the monitors once more, he headed out of the house into the street beyond. He was waiting when Rudi’s Humvee growled up the hill towards him. He hopped into the passenger seat next to the man himself, in battledress but wearing a Rothenian general’s peaked cap.
‘Ready for this, Justy?’ Rudi asked.
‘Yup. I promised my Nate not to get shot this time.’
‘And so say we all. Did Ed brief you about Tobias’s interrogation?’
‘Yup. Rudi, what you’re doing is mad, and I’m talking here as a bloke to whom mad is a way of life.’
‘Maybe, but I’m calculating your arrangements will bail me out. Only I can deal with Robert Rassendyll,’
‘So you say, Rudi. Not sure I understand you, though.’
The Humvee turned on to the front approach to the duke’s villa. The building looked unthreatening, the Horde’s agents well under cover. Justin knew they were in two groups at the back of the house. His calculation was that they planned to entice Rudi inside, separate him from his security and then assassinate him. It was simple and brutal.
As Justin expected, the duke emerged from the house alone, smiling absently, to welcome his nephew. Justin thought it a nice touch that he was wearing a grandfatherly cardigan sweater.
‘Glad you could make it, my dear boy,’ the man said heartily when Rudi climbed from the Humvee. He looked slightly less happy as Justin appeared from the other side.
‘You know Captain Peacher-White, I believe. He’s joined my staff.’
The duke nodded curtly. ‘We’ve met.’
‘You’re looking healthier than I was led to believe, Robert. Is Eleanor here?’ Rudi enquired politely.
‘Yes indeed. She’s making her arrangements with the … er, staff.’
Rudi showed no immediate inclination to move from the driveway. ‘You hear the cannon, Robert?’
‘Yes. The noise began late this morning, and it’s getting louder.’
‘That’s the sound of the assault under way on Kaleczyk. The enemy is within our frontiers and now our nation is fighting, not just for its existence but for the survival of the West. This is its last bastion.’
‘Indeed. I imagine you’ll be wanting to get away to your army as soon as you can.’
Rudi gave a chuckle, perfectly unconcerned. Justin was impressed at his friend’s awesome coolness, knowing that over a dozen armed men pledged to kill him were within ten metres of where they were standing in the tranquil suburban sunlight. Justin was taken aback at the power of a sudden resolve in him that he would put his own body between this great man and the would-be assassins, if he had to.
The prince continued, ‘I think my generals can manage things for a while in my absence. We’ve had plenty of opportunity to make our plans. It’s a tragedy these black-clad heathens were allowed to rape and loot their way across two continents before they reached us. But that will end here. Judgement catches up with all of us sooner or later.’
‘Perhaps a coffee …’
Rudi carried on blithely. ‘We’ve had a bit of a history, you and I, Robert. Myself, I regret it. For the sake of my father, who loved you, I had hoped our relationship could have been warmer than it has. But you’ve never been able to accept that you were not the one destined to wear the Crown of Tassilo.’
The duke frowned. ‘This is old history, Rudolf. I’ve long been retired. History’s had its fun with me and cast me up on the beach.’
‘Would that were true.’
‘What on earth do you mean, Rudolf?’
Rudi made a gesture at the house. ‘Were I to enter your doors, I would be a dead man.’
His uncle was clearly startled. ‘My dear fellow, what …?’
‘Are you trying to tell me that you haven’t been in communication with the emperor of the Horde, and that his agents aren’t waiting inside to kill me?’
As the duke struggled to rally at the abrupt revelation of his plan, the sound of concussion grenades and a flurry of sharp gunshots echoed from the back of his house. There was a silence, then a further rattle of machine-gun fire, screams and shouting. By now Rudi’s security detail had surrounded the duke, their guns at his head.
Rudi, unlike Justin, had not drawn his pistol. Ignoring the gunfire he merely said, ‘Robert Rassendyll, duke of Glottenberh and count of Hentzen, in the name of his most pious and steadfast majesty, King Maxim, I arrest you for high treason to the realm of Rothenia.’ He turned to Justin. ‘Perhaps you can check if the house is secure, captain?’
Justin nodded at one of his jäger commandos. Together they flanked the front door. Justin shouted through the now-silent house, ‘Clear at the front! Report!’
After listening to the responses, he called to Rudi, ‘Hostage situation at the back, sir! I’m going in.’
Justin found the front rooms of the villa undamaged and designer perfect, down to the numerous flower arrangements. At the back it was a different matter, with shattered glass on the floor and blood on the carpet. Two agents were unceremoniously dragging a wounded assassin out on to a rear patio. The tang of cordite was thick in the smoky air.
Hans came over. ‘There’s a conservatory in which one survivor is holed up. He has the duchess, and is threatening to kill her unless he’s given a car and free passage to rejoin the Horde.’
‘Let me guess … Atib.’
‘In one, captain. He had his wits about him. The others were too focused on the front of the house. Only two other survivors, both wounded. We didn’t go out of our way to be surgical, in the circumstances.’
‘Good job, and now I suppose I’d better see what scope there is for negotiation. To be honest, I’d as soon let him shoot the old bitch, but she has to stand trial, for some reason or other.’
Justin walked to the jamb of the conservatory door and called through, ‘You understand English?’
There was a pause, followed by the reply, ‘I shoot woman you not let me go. I know she mother of queen. Get car.’
‘Can’t do that, Atib.’
There was another long pause. ‘How you know my name?’
‘We know quite a lot about you: how you’re Malik-rammu’s bodyguard, and how you found him as a raped and abandoned child in the wreck of Baghdad. We also know you helped a boy escape him a few weeks ago.’
‘So … the Nameless One … he got away to the West. I thought he die. Hah! I laugh. So even our kindness destroy us. What joke.’
‘It may yet save you. I can offer amnesty, if you’ll surrender the woman and co-operate.’
‘I not turn against my lord.’
‘That’s not what we’re suggesting. But what have you got to lose in testifying against the duke and duchess? You know your so-called Nameless One was just a man. You can’t want to die for him, like the zealots of the Horde.’
‘Ha! I sent here to die. My lord not like lose his toy so I punished. But him I serve still.’
‘Your mission’s failed. Where do you hope to go if we let you free?’
There was a further long pause. ‘I die by my lord’s side, if that all left.’
Justin sighed. Logic was perhaps too much to expect from one of the Horde, though this man at least seemed to have preserved some vestige of personal morality.
Justin made his way back to Rudi at the front of the house, where he observed a handcuffed duke now under guard between two commandos. After explaining the situation, he concluded, ‘It’s not quite a standoff, Rudi. We have no hold on him, but he has a marginal hold on us. Harry and Pete Peacher wouldn’t like us to abandon their mum, despite everything she’s done. Can’t answer for Eddie, of course.’
Rudi brooded a while in his magnificent Elphberg way. Finally he looked over to his uncle. ‘Bring him,’ he ordered, and led the way into the house.