by Michael Arram
Karol was coming to realise that he was a blissfully happy boy. He jumped out of his bed in the morning with huge enthusiasm, running to be gathered up in a hug by Reggie in their kitchen. He had cool friends, and it was obvious that his foster dads adored him. Best of all, his beloved cousin Dana had found him, and he ached to play with her again. She had said his uncle Anton was somewhere in Rothenia too. Maybe Maxxie would bring him along the next time he came.
The idea of school wasn’t too depressing to him therefore. He’d not spent much of his young life in such a place as yet, even before the Horde blighted his existence. His mother hadn’t gone out of her way to make sure he attended: too drunk a lot of the time. His clothes then had been shabby and dirty. He had been made mercilessly conscious of his poverty by the other children.
Here in Kaleczyk, all the novachekij were in the same situation as he was, and it wasn’t clothes that declared what sort of person you were. It was beginning to occur to Karol that there was something about his appearance which made adults smile at him and caused other kids to defer to him, which they never had before.
He bounded along the fortress’s corridors to the new third-level schoolroom, where a former barrack dormitory had been kitted out with data projectors, kid-size tables and stools. Along the way he enjoyed beating his wings so he could make giant, slow-motion leaps.
As Karol went he began singing to himself for no reason other than his joy. He paused in his progress when he noticed how beautifully the song resonated in the empty corridor, his pure treble tones making chords with their own echoes. He began singing more deliberately. His voice seemed far more under his control than it ever had before, as it swelled and crested. It was a wonderful noise!
The distant ringing of a hand bell abruptly told him he was expected elsewhere. He ran as fast as his sturdy legs would take him, wings tightly folded into his back. When he reached his classroom, he found the last of the novachekij filing in past Mr Hackness. Grinning, Karol took his place at the end of the line, slapping his teacher’s hand in a high five as he entered.
Todorpéc was as the Cubs remembered it. On this visit, however, the girls in the town square were a lot more interested in Marsin and Radovan, whose grooming and clothing were distinctly superior to what they had been on the boys’ previous visit. Tovyan had spared no expense in fitting out the Cubs in Wien, where they’d spent the best part of an afternoon cruising the stores of the Graben with his plastic. He had bought each boy a special gift. In Radu’s case it was a chunky Patek Philippe watch, far too complicated for him actually to use but mightily impressive to the girls. Kristijan had simply asked for a pair of matching platinum rings, one of which now adorned each young man’s left hand, pledges of their mutual devotion.
Klement, Kris and Tovyan were sitting at a café table contemplating the unopened letter to Vuk from his family. ‘I’ll do it,’ said Kristijan finally, sensing his lover’s reluctance. Tovyan shot him a grateful look. Kris slit the envelope with his finger and settled back to read the Cyrillic script in which it was written. Finally he tossed it to the table with a disgusted expression.
‘It’s from his bastard of a father. I can’t tell you how sick it makes me. It’s full of blame and self-pity. How could a man like Vuk ever have had a dad like that?’
‘Does it say where they were going?’ asked Klement.
‘The old guy mentioned they were heading back to their home. Does anyone know where that is?’
Klement nodded. ‘Just over the river around Bogojevo. Vuk told me once.’
Tovyan was disturbed. ‘It’s still a war zone. The Horde may be in retreat, but it’s occupying Serbia. Why would the old fool take Janko and his wife there?’
‘He says he wants to make sure the Croats don’t plunder his farm when they cross the river,’ Kristijan explained. ‘He says Vuk’s needed to get the place ready for winter … he doesn’t say he’s wanted because he’s loved and missed.’
Tovyan grimaced. ‘I didn’t think we’d be going into battle again, not without Vuk.’
‘Not sure I believe you, Tovyašin. Why else did you stop so Radu could dig up the weapons cache we buried on the way to Austria?’
‘I learned from Vuk that you have to be ready for anything, although I didn’t actually intend us to use the guns. Now I’m not sure we can avoid it. Cubs, we have all the fuel and food we need, and we’re armed to the teeth. Are you ready to follow me into danger?’
The other two seemed surprised to be asked. ‘So which way do we go, our brother?’ Klement enquired.
Tovyan consulted Vuk’s dog-eared road atlas. ‘I can see only one possible crossing point on the Dunav: the bridge at Erdut, if it’s still intact. The Cirics have to cross there, so we’ll head south to Pécs. That’s the route the camp manager said the bus convoys were following – no Horde soldiers there – and as far as they were going to take anyone. After that we’ll stay on the main roads through Croatia in hopes. We might well overtake the Cirics before the river if we’re lucky.’
Klement looked fondly after Kris and Tovyan as the pair went over to the others to get them used to the idea that they were going to be leaving for Pécs in half an hour. They expected resistance to the suggestion.
Klement sipped his fizzy orange and felt good. He knew he would feel happier if Tovyan looked at him the same way he looked at Kristijan, but Klement was neither selfish nor foolish. He was happy just to be near the beautiful young man who treated him with such kindness, and who had once freely let him enjoy his beauty. Klement was coming to the conclusion that it was boys whom he most desired, but he was philosophical about his chances. He was a thin-chested teenager with bad teeth, an acne-ravaged face and wispy, sparse hair. There was nothing obvious about him to attract anyone. That was why the freely-given affection of his fellow-Cubs meant everything to him. He would offer his life for Tovyan if it were ever asked.
He squinted round the sunlit square. There were lots of Hungarian kids out, all staring up as a party of men draped flags from the Todorpéc mairie – tricolours with a coat of arms in their centre – between lavish bunting of yellow and black. A group of younger children went running and laughing past his table, but one hung around and gave him a conspiratorial grin. He then nearly made Klement fall off his seat by addressing him in Serbian.
‘Hey! Can we talk?’ The boy had a cheeky, confident look about him, under his bright gold hair.
Klement rallied. ‘You’re Serb? A refugee?’
The child perched on the seat Kristijan had just vacated. ‘No. I’ve got a home to go to. How about you?’
‘My family … are gone. The Horde. All I’ve got are my friends now.’
‘I’m sorry,’ and the child looked genuinely as though he was. ‘But friends are good.’
‘Mine are the best. We’re called the Cubs.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Me? Fifteen and a half. What’s going on with the flags over there?’
‘Didn’t you know? Hungary has a king now. He’s actually my cousin, Lajos.’
‘Oh … really?’
The boy laughed, quite unoffended. ‘You don’t believe me? Doesn’t matter. That’s the royal arms in the middle of the new flag. There, now it’s hanging down, you can see it clearly.’
Klement looked carefully. ‘I can see a crown with a bent cross, and what’re those things holding it up.’
The younger boy smiled. ‘Oh … they’re winged people.’
‘You mean angels? I don’t believe in them either.’
‘But wouldn’t it be cool to have wings, to soar up into the sky?’
Klement thought about it. ‘Yeah, s’pose. It would have been great to fly away from all the bad things that happen down here.’
The child seemed to want to let his fancy run on. ‘Imagine a place where everyone has wings, and where everybody is like you and your Cubs. Would you like that?’
Klement glanced across the square to where a less than amicable dispute had just broken out between his four friends on the subject of their imminent departure. He grinned. ‘Yeah, I’d really love that,’ he agreed. He looked back, but the kid had gone.
Kurt Osterwelle moodily paced the Schlossplatz of Stuttgart. Finally he took a seat at the base of the column where he could survey the long, limestone front of the Neues Schloss, looking, as it did, very like the royal Residenz of Strelzen, where he had once briefly been a guest.
Kurt had not settled with his mother’s parents, stiff old Calvinists currently locked in a battle with his father’s family about the administration of the estate. He was looked at askance by the old couple, who found it difficult if not impossible to deal with a teenage boy around their clinically clean and well-ordered villa. Kurt loathed the Gymno in which he had been placed. He had made no friends as yet, though even he had to admit his experiences in Thessaloniki had not helped him in that regard. He was still trying to deal with the legacy of his week of terror. He was cautious with strangers, having lost his childish trust in others’ kindness. He had seen the darker side of people.
There was another problem. Malik-rammu had contaminated his sexuality, as he saw it. The man had forced him to mount the Nameless One and insert himself in another male’s anus. He was appalled to find that, every time he recalled the moment, the memory of the hot grip on his cock by the strange boy’s sphincter deeply excited him.
It seemed Kurt was a queer, since all his jerk-off fantasies were about other boys’ backsides. This was further retarding his social integration, as well as adding to the distance from his guardians. His grandparents were of the firm belief that sodomy led to eternal damnation.
Roaming the city, his only diversion, was leading him into trouble. He had caught the eye of a good-looking young Turkish guy in a club doorway on Ludwigstrasse. When he held the man’s gaze they had fallen into a suggestive conversation, whose conclusion was that he found himself on his knees in an alley giving the guy a blowjob. He was all too ready to venture there again, seeking any sort of relief, however dangerous.
Half-defiantly, Kurt crossed the square and climbed the ancient stairs of the Altes Schloss into the renaissance glories of a handsome galleried courtyard. He found enough coins in his pocket to pay for the admission, and so entered the Landesmuseum. He brooded on the exhibition, which eventually provided a degree of healthy distraction in disentangling the history of his new home city. Though it was a Saturday, parties of children with clipboards were everywhere, sitting on the floor in front of exhibits, or roaming the place in chattering crocodiles.
To escape them, Kurt took a stair and ended up in a chamber high in a castle tower, which featured the sparkling Napoleonic regalia of the former kingdom of Württemberg. He soon discovered the room wasn’t quite empty. He noticed a stray kid sitting on a padded bench and gazing with some interest at the royal crown. The bright golden hair looked very familiar, even from the back. ‘Maxxie!’
The boy turned and grinned, then ran over to leap into Kurt’s arms, hugging and kissing him.
Kurt hugged him back hard. His gloom and pain were instantly gone in the presence of this magical child. ‘I thought you’d forgotten me!’ he half-sobbed.
Maxxie shook his head. ‘You’re my friend. No way could I forget you.’
Kurt released him and they took the bench. Soon he was telling all his woes to the boy-king … apart from the gayness. That was something he thought better kept to himself.
Maxxie nodded wisely. ‘I knew you wanted me. Look, I can do something for you, but it’ll mean sorta running away … this time for good. Your grandparents sound like the pits, but they’ll still miss you. Trouble is, staying with them will do you no good at all. So … you’d better go home for now, but get ready to leave. You won’t need to take anything much in the way of clothes where you’re going, just a bag you can hang round your neck for important stuff that means a lot to you: pictures of your mummy and daddy, that sort of thing. Write the grandparents a letter saying you’re leaving and not coming back and say … oh, I dunno, that you’ve got a job somewhere. How old are ya?’
‘That’s surely old enough to do adult stuff, right?’
‘Er … yes it is.’
‘Great! I’ll see you soon … promise!’ Then he was gone, leaving Kurt in emotional turmoil, but possessed now at least by hope.
Tovyan pulled up near the bus station in Pécs. The Cubs disembarked to find the town crowded with travellers and the main square thronged. Many were there looking up at a great flag flapping lazily from the county hall. It was the royal banner, for the king-elect was still in residence in Pécs while he prepared to move to Székesfehérvár, traditional coronation site of the Hungarian kings, to receive the crown of St Stephen. Renewal of all that was ancient and good was in the air.
Tovyan searched out where the buses from Austria were unloading. There were huge queues for connecting services to the south and east. Rail links remained cut. The boys spread out and scouted the throng, but found no sign of the Cirics. They might have passed through Pécs two days ago now.
There was nothing else for it but to take to the truck again and turn eastwards. An hour later, when they came upon the railway crossing where they had engaged the Horde in battle, Tovyan stopped the truck for a while so they could sit with their memories. Radu delved into their cache, and they solemnly tooled up with pistols and ammunition clips. Kristijan brought the rifle into the cab, for they were moving into more dangerous territory.
The countryside looked peaceful and there was little traffic, though every now and again the truck passed a burned-out vehicle pushed into the roadside ditch. It was when they got closer to Mohács that they encountered blackened houses and the sort of wasted landscape in which the Cubs had lived near Beli Manastir. Now they began encountering road blocks and Rothenian army units.
‘Wouldya look at that!’ shouted Marsin from the back. Picketed along a kilometre length of straight road was a full brigade of cavalry, the dragoons and lancers dismounted, the officers consulting at the head of the column. Tovyan’s heart was strangely warmed to be pulled over by Rothenian voices, while his ability to converse with the soldiers drew smiles and an offer of chocolate. He explained the Cubs’ mission, but was cautioned by a friendly lieutenant that though the Horde had abandoned the right bank of the Donau, marauders and armed gangs of deserters were still being rounded up by Croatian patrols on this side of the river. The bridge at Erdut had been blown by the retreating Horde as it struggled to prevent outside help reaching the insurgent Serb populace.
Tovyan reported this to the others. Kristijan observed that at least old man Ciric couldn’t carry through his suicidal scheme to cross into Serbia. The family would have to wait out the allied offensive as it massed to liberate the Balkan states. The question was, where would they now be?
While the Cubs were in deep discussion over the road atlas laid on the truck bed, cheers suddenly began back along the line of cavalry. The boys climbed atop the cab for a better look, to see a large party of horsemen cantering down the road. Behind a section of guard dragoons, their rifles slung across their shoulders, rode what appeared to be a general on a white stallion with his staff in close attendance, but the gold and red banner fluttering behind him revealed he was more than that.
‘It’s the Red Elphberg!’ screamed Klement and threw his Hungarian army cap into the air. All five boys joined the tumult of cheering and applause as the marshal-prince drew level. The great man saluted the brigade flag as he rode past, the column’s officers lining the road, stiffly at attention. Tovyan however caught the eye of one of his staff, whose face he recognised all too well.
General Cornish reined in his mount and walked it back to the truck, removing his cap and giving a wry smile at the astounded boys. ‘Well, well! Tovyan Bošvic, as I live and breathe.’
Nestled in her father’s powerful arms, clasped close against the warm skin of his wide chest, Bogdana Tsvetanova stared adoringly up into his glowing green eyes as they smiled down at the beautiful little novachek curled up in his tight embrace.
Anton Tsvetanov’s vast scarlet pinions thrashed the air as they sped high above Rothenia. His daughter looked down to see small clouds actually below them. The power and speed of an adult avian were astounding, as demonstrated by this one carrying not just her but a heavy sack of the possessions and tools he had decided to salvage from their old lives.
Behind him a ragged flight of a half dozen more avians followed their lead to Kaleczyk: three young workmates of Anton’s with their girlfriends. Two of the females were also carrying novachekij, and the third, close behind Anton, had a nursing baby feeding at her breast as she flew.
The baby’s transformation by Maxxie had been a matter of curiosity to everyone. The little one turned out not to have wings, just buds at his shoulders where they would one day open out – who knew when? Bogdana heard a curse from the mother. She giggled to see the baby letting loose a strong stream of pee, which the wind splashed back all over the mother’s lower abdomen and legs.
Bogdana looked back. Her father’s wings lifted his body as they worked, giving her glimpses of the dark, heavy object which hung down from his groin, so much bigger than what the novachek boys deployed. She had to get used to seeing her father’s equipment on permanent display. Then it occurred to her that she had soon enough got used to Karo’s, so maybe it was just the strangeness of it. ‘Do you know the way to Kaleczyk, daddy?’ she asked.
He grinned. ‘I can feel it, Dana … can’t you? It’s like a lighthouse drawing us in. It’s oh … so glorious up here! I’ve been reborn.’
‘Oh!’ Bogdana exclaimed with shock and delight. ‘I felt Karo touch my mind. I can feel with his feelings, he’s so happy we’re on our way.’
‘You can hear his thoughts, Dana?’
‘No … but I can feel his happiness. It’s all so wonderful. Look! Are those the mountains? Are we there yet?’
Her father laughed, and shouted out to his flight to bank and glide downwards. They knew to obey him, for scarlet horns adorned Anton Tsvetanov’s brows, and Maxxie had explained that this made him a prince amongst their people. They were soon spiralling down to the dark slot of a valley, in the midst of which rose a conical peak.
A host of their people rose to greet them on a storm of wings, cheering them and escorting them in. The party landed at the obelisk, to find the Radkornatij awaiting Anton and his followers. Damien and Helen kissed and embraced each male, female and child in welcome. Females swarmed around the baby, while the three new novachekij raced over to the excited crowd of avian children awaiting them.
Dana and Karo embraced long and hard. He introduced her to Reggie and Lance.
Reggie was clearly sad. ‘So this is goodbye, Karo. We’ll miss you, you know that.’
‘But we’re so glad you can be part of a family with your uncle and cousin,’ Lance added.
‘He’s my father and she’s my sister,’ Karol asserted in his now confident Rothenian. ‘So you can be my uncles.’
‘The boy’s a diplomat,’ Lance laughed. ‘We’re expecting great things of you, Karo. Better go and show Dana your new quarters.’
The boy bobbed respectfully at Lance, murmuring ‘Durchlaucht.’ Dana copied him, then the two were off, their wings lifting them in great bounds as they headed for the entrance to the fortress.
Lance took Anton round the shoulders and escorted him to the council chamber. Once there, the man went to his knees before Damien and kissed the young king’s hand in homage. Lance reflected how much his old friend had grown, that he presided over avian rituals with such dignity.
‘Okay, mates,’ Damien said, ‘all take a seat, including you, Anton. Your horns tell us you have a lot to offer this council, and I think I can make a guess why Maxxie brought you and your friends over. Question is, how many others has the kid been recruiting behind our backs?’
‘Morale’s gone up amongst the people since it became clear that Maxxie’s at work,’ Davey responded. ‘Even if we haven’t got a plan, it looks like he does. Has anyone pinned him down?’
Damien shook his head and laughed. ‘No. He learned evasiveness from the master … me! But something tells me we’re going to find out soon what it is. As a result, I’m asking you guys to work out plans to evacuate Kaleczyk, and what we must take if and when we do.’
The awe-struck Cubs gawped at the military vision who had ridden into their lives. The general spoke from the saddle. ‘So, young Tovyan, what brings you into a war zone once more?’
‘A mission of mercy, General Cornish. I’m trying to find the Cirics, Vuk’s family. They need to know what happened to their son.’
‘Good answer, young man.’
‘Can I ask some questions, sir?’
‘Ask away. I’ll answer if I can.’
‘What happened to Malik-rammu?’
‘Wish we knew. Most people think he died on the field of Ostberg, and I tend to agree with them. Had he survived he would have resurfaced by now. His empire is predictably falling apart, but there are still some mean bastards who wear his black uniforms and think they can take up where he left off. Then we have to deal with the Kosovars and Albanians who allied with the Horde and are at war with us as a result. They can’t go unpunished.’
‘What’s happened with Lance and the other … hybrids?’
The general shot him a keen look. ‘Can your friends understand Rothenian?’
‘Then it’s like this. They’ve set up a nation, and are growing fast in numbers. My Henry is sheltering the avians in Kaleczyk for the moment, but it can only be a temporary measure. Why do you ask? What do you know, Tovyan?’
‘Only clues, sir. But my feeling is that this is a scheme long brewing between two of the great Powers Beyond. Had I known of it, I would never have done what I did. But it’s the solution to the problems not of humanity so much as the Orders.’
‘What does that mean, boy?’
‘It’s what you might call evolution, sir. The angelic and seraphic orders are in decay, as I now see. They lack the adaptability and dynamism of humanity, and worst of all, they don’t understand the fullness of love. The World Beyond is dysfunctional, which is why your world is too. Correct one, and you rebalance the other.’
‘Did you just tell me the answer to the mystery of Life, the Universe and Everything, Tovyan?’
‘It’s just my guess, sir.’
‘And the avians …?’
‘Their purpose is to save both Worlds.’