by Michael Arram
‘What was all that about, Tovyan?’ Radovan demanded. ‘That man knew you! Where did you meet him?’
Tovyan shot a quick glance at Kristijan before answering. ‘He’s Edward Cornish, a friend of my relatives in Strelzen. He was born in England, but he’s now a Rothenian general on the Red Elphberg’s staff. That’s all.’
‘What did he want to know?’ Radovan pressed.
‘Just how I’d got here and what I was doing. He’s ordered the colonel over there to detail an escort to help us. He says we’re heading into bandit country if we go south.’
A file of heavily armed Rothenian dragoons began clambering into the back of the truck as Tovyan was speaking, casting cautious looks in his direction. Tovyan was struck yet again by how extraordinarily sensitive Rothenians were to the supernatural. They clearly knew him to be no ordinary teenager, even without the clue of General Cornish’s interest in him.
The Cubs surveyed the soldiers without much enthusiasm. They had become very self-reliant young men. After Tovyan and Kristijan climbed back up into the cab, and Tovyan revved the engine, Kris expressed his disquiet.
Tovyan sympathised with him. ‘The point is, Kris, the general has a good idea what’s happening to the south. He said it’s very dangerous. He also said that having his men with us will make our mission more believable if we encounter Croat forces. Otherwise, they might just turn us back. He did want to help us. I could hardly say no.’
The truck pulled away and took the road towards Beli Manastir. On the outskirts of the town they encountered a Croatian road block, where the Cubs got an edge over the Rothenian soldiers by explaining to the Croatian lieutenant in his own language who they were and where they were going.
The lieutenant confirmed that Beli Manastir was their army’s easternmost position. ‘The place is a mess. The Horde sacked it thoroughly. We’re just finding the mass graves. It’s vile what they did to the churches. You’ll need these Rothenian boys if you want to go along the ridge towards the Dunav. There are gangs hiding out in the hills, and we’re not letting locals return to their homes. But your escort should at least deter any hajduki.’
The Cubs spread out and searched the town, finding parties of Serbs sheltering in the barns and ruined churches, but not the Cirics or anyone who knew of them.
The group camped for the night on the perimeter of Beli Manastir, and lit a bonfire, since the Croatian troops and the refugee groups were all doing it. The Cubs passed around their wine to the Rothenians, who were most appreciative. It turned out that the corporal and one of his section were boyfriends, General Cornish having instructed the colonel to include gay soldiers amongst the escort. Tovyan was very grateful, though he doubted the troops would have had a problem with Kris and himself, Rothenia being on the whole a tolerant nation, for it had a lot to put up with.
The next morning, Marsin spoke for the other Cubs in saying they wanted to go back to their old refuge at the quarry. ‘Look at it this way, Tovyašin. If the Cirics were trying to head east through these hills, Janko might tell his mum and dad about our old hideout. It’s worth checking out.’
So they loaded up and were waved through the Croatian roadblock with good wishes and more warnings that they should be cautious.
The truck took them up the ridge towards the quarry woods. They entered the village where they had sheltered, and found it still empty. If any of the inhabitants remained alive somewhere, they didn’t think it safe enough to return as yet.
Tovyan parked amongst the houses. When they took to the fields, the Rothenian dragoon corporal wanted to send scouts ahead. Radovan argued against it, saying the Cubs were familiar with the land around the quarry, where they’d lived for weeks. They would make better scouts. Without further argument, he and Marsin set off along the paths they knew well.
The dragoons and the other Cubs followed slowly, filing along the hedgerows and then the narrow paths of the quarry woods. Kristijan assumed the lead as guide, the rifle slung over his shoulder.
They stopped dead as Marsin came haring back to them. Breathing heavily, he reported to Tovyan, who translated for the Rothenian corporal. ‘Hajduki in the quarry! Lots of them, wearing black, like the Horde people.’
‘He’s keeping an eye on them from the lip of the quarry. He’s under cover.’
The corporal frowned at the news and addressed Tovyan. ‘It doesn’t seem to me as if we should stay, kid. If marauders are holed up in your hideout, the Cirics won’t be there. We should get out of here and tell the Croats. They’ll mop up the Chernemenschij and enjoy doing it.’
Tovyan saw the sense. ‘I’ll go get Radu. Give me the rifle, Kris.’
He trotted along the path, and well before reaching the quarry began hearing evidence of the marauders’ presence: distant shouted oaths and rough laughter. Tovyan slowed down at that and stole quietly to the quarry edge, worming through the grass to join his friend. ‘How many of them are there, Radu?’
‘Can’t say, they come and go. But I tell you what, some of them are only kids.’
‘Look there!’ Radu pointed out two short, thin figures in black lugging assault rifles. ‘They can’t be more than eleven.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘They’re forcing children to fight for them: kidnapping them, or arming their own sex slaves, I’d bet. They make ruthless fighters, no morals … you know little kids.’
‘But the kids do as they’re told … with guns?’
‘It’s the way it goes. Better shoot who they tell you to than get shot yourself, or raped. Look, there’s another teen gunman … hey!’
Tovyan focussed on the black-clad figure coming out of the quarry building. His heart sank. Even at that distance he recognised Janko Ciric.
Henry turned as the familiar tones of his son’s voice reached him on the trail up the Kaleczyke Horja. However, the dark, horned figure who towered above him was anything but familiar, for all that the face was Lance’s.
Henry put his hands on his hips and stared up. ‘Missing you, baby.’
‘It’s mutual. You know that.’
‘Where’re your brothers and sister?’
‘Sisters. Rafe’s a girl at the moment. They’re around. Once they know you’re here, they’ll come running.’
‘Good. We need to talk. Just us Atwoods. Rafe’s a girl you say?’
‘He shifts about; he’s weird even for an avian.’
‘And where’s that spear of yours? You lost it?’
Lance shook his head. ‘I had a mission for it.’
‘Tell me more.’
‘Well ... okay. I’ve had too many secrets from you of late. One of the things it can do is cross the barriers between worlds. It’s not really a spear.’
‘I knew that. So what is it?’
‘If anything, it’s a symbolic word.’
‘God’s word,’ Henry observed quietly.
‘Well sorta. But not the Word, the one that became flesh. Anyway, in the World Beyond it sings and speaks. I sent it to sing a song to my abandoned people.’
‘Yeah. It’ll join with their choir and give them my message.’
‘Which is ...?’
‘Tell you another time.’ Then Lance laughed. ‘Ya didn’t think you’d get the whole story didya dad?’
Shaking his head and smiling to himself, Henry followed Lance up the hill. A flight of avians took off from the peak as he approached. They were soon high in the blue sky above, pairing and flying entangled in couples. He assumed he was witnessing a myelhei.
‘Where are all your avian kids, baby?’
Lance grinned. ‘In school. Danny, Marky and Bazza have got them well in hand.’
‘That’s encouraging. Barry’s found his vocation then?’
‘He’s got a real way with kids of all ages … he’s just a big one himself. They sense the kindness, and they love him for it. He’s best with the novachekij … our little ones. But he’s quite the sports master too. The meledhij are insane about a game they’ve invented. They already have three teams, competing madly. They spend most of the time playing when they’re out of school. Barry’s just as keen.’
Sure enough, whether it was avian telepathy or not, all the Atwoods were in Lance and Reggie’s quarters when Henry arrived. Henry was passed around from hug to hug, and it was only when the more petite Yuri took him that his feet once more touched the ground.
His kids sat around on the floor, finding sofas and backed chairs awkward. There were not enough stools to go around in Kaleczyk. The female Rafe, which to Henry was the most disconcerting sight of all, sat cuddled tight to Gabe.
He rallied. ‘Babes, I’m not sure why I’ve come, other than to see you guys and tell you how much me and Ed miss you. I guess I need some reassurance about you too. Are you sure this is what you want? Living permanently as avians?’
It was Mike who answered for them. ‘For some of us now there is no choice, father. We cannot return to the human state. Either the change has become irreversible, or there is no human body to return to.’
‘You have no idea how the finality of that makes my heart ache. It means that in the end, I have to say goodbye to you, my family. And even though you angelic four have been Atwoods for no more than months, you’ve all become my children in my heart.’
Gabe replied, ‘That is the truly great thing for us, our father. The possibility we could so enter the heart of a man such as Mendamero is one of the most enduring triumphs this Universe has witnessed. Don’t forget why the Great Council sent us here. The traitor-seraph may have intended our destruction, but the Council wished to observe the effects of human living on the angelic mind. The result has been shattering for the World Beyond, even more so when the obnoxious seraph was himself snared in his own trap and succumbed to the human condition. We sense there is tumult now beyond the skies. Your act of kindness has caused the heavens to shake.’
‘Er … not sure I needed to know that, my babes. I just wanted you to be okay. Please tell me there’s some plan to keep you safe and happy.’
Lance spoke up. ‘The Radkornatij expects imminent developments, dad. We’ve discovered that Maxxie has been active. We can tell from our own experience that things are speeding up.
‘We think the borders between this world and the World Beyond have been loosening. All sorts of new avians have been flying in over the past few days, scores and scores of them, and they have the same tale to tell of a magical young boy who offered them a new and better life. The hill’s filling up. We’re a large village now.’
Yuri took her turn. ‘We can see a pattern in the way the One is selecting and changing humans. They’re this world’s outsiders: the poor, the discriminated-against and the abused. Once they’re here, though, we discover they’re people with huge gifts: designers, musicians, craftsmen and poets. When they’re free of the constraints of human society – naked amongst the naked – their gifts just blaze out of them. They are the stones the builders rejected.’
Henry finished for her. ‘And now they’re the cornerstones … of something. So it’s selection for a purpose?’
Lance confirmed it. ‘Yes, and I think it’s about to be fulfilled.’
‘Why do I suddenly get the idea that you’re saying goodbye to me, kids?’
‘Strip? Here? Now?’ Kurt Osterwelle was confused. True to his word, Maxxie had come for him. They were standing in the Spartan bedroom that was Kurt’s only space in his grandparents’ villa. He had packed a Gola bag full of personal items, and left a goodbye letter on his table.
Maxxie shrugged. ‘On second thought, don’t bother. If some of your clothes don’t disappear with you, your grandparents will get more worried than they will be anyway. I’m gonna do a thing, Kurt, and when I do you’ll be different. Don’t worry, you’ll feel great, but you’ll never be able to come back here again.’
‘Don’t want to. I just want to escape to somewhere I can be myself with people I like.’
‘Okay. Look. I’ve not done this to anyone your age before … to younger kids and grownups, but not a teen. I think there may be complications.’
‘I dunno.’ The boy squirmed with embarrassment. ‘It’s something I saw at … you know, when you get … I mean, boys start liking girls and sometimes other boys, like Reggie and Lance.’
‘I’m not getting this.’
‘What I mean is … you’ll really want the sexy thing, bad!’
Kurt blushed. ‘I already do,’ he confessed. ‘What’s the difference?’
‘It’ll be a big difference. And in this case, I gotta feeling it’ll be a shock.’
‘Do it, whatever it is.’
Kurt was staring in the wardrobe mirror when it suddenly seemed to distort. He looked down as his jeans and tee-shirt ripped and abruptly flamed to dust. Mesmerised, he saw his briefs grow taut with what was within them and then simply dissolve away. The cause of it flopped down over a much swollen ball sac. He looked up and saw a mighty creature with glowing sea-green eyes, naked and yet still Kurt Osterwelle.
He stared at the mirror just as a prickling at his back heralded the bursting out of amber and gold wings that opened and beat of their own accord. He felt his face and found it to be free of its former wispy beard, while his body was likewise devoid of any hair. The skin was still human in tone, though his genitals and big nipples were a darker brownish shade. His hair was the same bright gold it always had been. His ears had acquired a pointed, elfin look. A further prickle at his forehead indicated something emerging above his brows. He moved closer to the mirror and found bright amber points, two centimetres long, jutting out from beneath his skin
‘You okay?’ Maxxie asked
Kurt looked down and found the boy was a bit further below him than before. He must be way over two metres tall now. But he was not scared at what he had become. To begin with, even his teenage uncertainty could not deny it was extraordinarily beautiful and potent, whatever it was. In addition, he could feel somehow that he was not alone, that there were others like him awaiting his arrival … somewhere.
‘Okay?’ he gasped, becoming progressively aware of the new vitality and lust for life raging inside him. ‘I feel totally amazing!’
‘Great! Time to go. Can you put me on your shoulders?’
‘You’ve got wings. Bet you wanna fly. And I need a lift. Don’t worry, I’ll wish us most of the way. Hey! Don’t forget your bag.’
Yuri walked with Henry to the base hospital. There were still human staff around, tending the less-damaged of the Horde’s victims, of which the hospital housed a couple of dozen until they were fit enough to transfer out. In a side ward lay the comatose figure of Nathan Underwood. He was not alone; a winged figure was brooding on him from the end of the bed, perched on a tall stool, its wings tightly folded to its back. Justin was dozing in a seat next to Nathan’s head.
Henry addressed Damien. ‘Any change?’
‘Nuh.’ The avian shook his head. ‘We even tried option Talisman this morning. Nothing. It cured Fritzy when he was wounded. But it won’t help my dad.’
Yuri had in the meantime gone to the opposite side of the bed from Justin and was stroking Nathan’s hair. The bandages had been removed, showing little apparent damage beneath. Only a patch of hair had been shaved where the shrapnel had been removed.
Justin had surfaced in the meantime. ‘Lo, Henry. Thanks for coming. Nate appreciates it … probably.’
‘Dad! Why don’t you let me bring him over?’
‘No. I’ve told you before, son. You take him into your tribe, I have to go too. I can’t live without Nate, but I don’t want to be a winged monkey. There’s too much tying me to the human race.’
Henry snuffled. ‘Not everyone would agree with that last comment, Justy. But I think you’re right. Daimey, you can’t change Nate, even to bring him back to us. Not without a lot more thought.’ He stood pondering for a moment. ‘How about Maxxie? He’s got some quite amazing powers.’
Damien shook his head. ‘One of the first things we thought of. I rang Queen Harry, who chatted with him about it. She said he got quite shifty, saying he couldn’t do anything. He told his mum Nate was “someone else’s job”. That’s why I tried the Talismanic power. Nothing. So it isn’t me, whoever it is.’
There was a period of silence, broken by a small cough from Yuri, who had as usual kept to the background. When they all looked at her, she addressed Damien. ‘My king? It occurs to me that there is one person in the world who still has the great power.’
She was answered by puzzled looks. ‘Tobias? Or, what does he call himself now? Tovyan Bošvic?’ Henry suggested.
‘Oh no, father. The Creator rendered him entirely human. But there is one the Creator endowed with seraphic abilities who is still amongst us. I rather think the power Tobias lost found a new vessel when he was drained of it, or rather, it was poured into an old one.’
‘We all have gifts in this avian form, father. Reggie can read souls; Barry can enthuse and inspire the young; our new horned prince, Anton Tsvetanov, is a builder of great genius. My gift is that of healing body and mind, and I can see within both to distinguish health or sickness. Father, I have been aware of the presence of seraphic power since I came to Kaleczyk. I can sense it is in you. Mendamero is come once again.’
‘You mean, I’m back the way I was in the Eschaton? Why didn’t someone tell me?’
‘As I recall, father, you were unaware you had the power in those days. You had to be taught it was there.’
‘Oh my God! Why do they never ask if it’s alright with me?’
‘It can only be that Mendamero has been brought forward again, because the new world needs him.’
Henry looked inside himself. It was not obvious to him that the power was there, any more than it had been in the old days. There was only one way to find out. Trying to remember how he had exerted his abilities long before in the time of the Eschaton, he let his mind rise free in a way he had not attempted in years. He fixed on the peak of Kaleczyk and moved his body to where his consciousness had settled. And there he stood in the afternoon sunlight, watching the avians wheel above him. He was indeed Mendamero once more, and his travel costs had just nose-dived.
Radovan and Tovyan pounded the path back to give the rest the bad news.
‘He’s been captured and forced into their gang. We’ve got to get him out!’ Radu declared.
The Rothenian corporal was sympathetic when Tovyan explained, but his reaction was negative. ‘If we go in there with full force, you can be sure the kid soldiers will be made to fire back, and I can’t guarantee they won’t be killed in the crossfire. Besides, the odds are beginning to look bad. Best plan is to get the Croatian lads.’
Tovyan passed the corporal’s words on to his friends, who bridled at them.
‘No! We’re the Cubs, we look after our own!’ Marsin declared. ‘If the Croat guys are willing and they come back with heavy weapons, it’s even less likely Janko’ll survive.’
The ten Rothenian soldiers picked up the message without translation, but it was obvious they weren’t going to co-operate in any assault on the quarry. Tovyan was missing Vuk more than ever, though it wasn’t obvious what he might have done in this situation, other than to pray.
Tovyan walked away from the unhappy group and looked up at the sky. His neck prickled. A dark spot was flying fast out of the north; he could see the wings flexing even at this distance, which told him the object was very large. It could only be an avian. Suddenly hope came.
Kristijan caught his gaze. ‘What is it, Tovyašin?’
‘Heading our way, it’s one of those magical creatures I told you about on the way to Linz.’
‘Really?’ The boy’s face came alight. ‘Is he coming here?’
The others were now staring up at the sky. Gold and amber wings glowed in the sunlight as a winged male descended from the sky into their clearing. The Rothenian soldiers shouted in surprise but did not level their weapons, for perched on the great shoulders was a figure they easily recognised as their own boy-king.
The avian took the child off his shoulders and placed him gently down, then scanned the crowd. Catching sight of Tovyan, he visibly stiffened, a scowl clouding his handsome face.
The king smiled up at the Cubs, and addressed them in perfect Serbian. ‘You Tovyan’s friends? Hi, I’m Maxxie.’
‘What are you doing here, lord?’ Tovyan demanded. ‘It’s dangerous!’
‘Oh, Kurt here’ll look after me. I cleared it with my mummy. She likes Kurt.’
Tovyan’s jaw dropped. ‘Kurt! You mean the German boy from Thessaloniki?’ He studied the avian’s face, and indeed it was he, which accounted for the glare Tovyan was getting. ‘Why are you here, lord?’
‘Oh, come to pick up some more friends for Daimey, and because you wanted me. Together, we can get Vuk’s brother away from those wicked men. But first, I need to change these boys.’
‘Change?’ Radovan had regained his voice. ‘What does he mean?’
Tovyan shook his head. He was getting a bad feeling about this. ‘This is Maxim, the boy-king of Rothenia, and he has great power. He’s suggesting you might like to become winged men, like Kurt here. Then I think he plans that together you’ll take out the Horde marauders.’
Consternation greeted that explanation. Marsin and Radovan drew back, but with a dreamy expression on his face, Klement came forward, staring mesmerised into Kurt’s eyes. Kurt focussed on him, and smiled back.
‘You’re Klement, right?’ Maxxie chirped at him. ‘We met before, remember? It was at Todorpéc. You’re brave. You wanna have wings, like the men on the banner?’
‘Yes … please … er … king.’
‘If you don’t like it, you can go back. But first you have to undress.’
Klement lost his smile but started pulling off his clothes. His skinny, pale body looked ghostly next to the vibrancy of the avian’s.
Kurt took Klement’s hand and offered some encouraging words to the boy in German.
Maxxie translated. ‘He says you mustn’t be scared, and that it won’t hurt. He also said you’re a very brave boy.’
As Klement bent to push his briefs to his ankles, the change hit him. Straightening, he found his shape had swelled while great brown wings burst out of his suddenly broader back. His colouring resembled Kurt’s, his straw-blond hair framing a face now quite celestially handsome, with silver-grey eyes fixed intently on Kurt’s. He was slighter than Kurt, and more obviously immature in development, with a smaller butt and slimmer physique.
‘Hmm … another meledh,’ Maxxie observed. ‘Now what about you others?’
‘I’ll do it!’ declared Kristijan.
‘I’m sorry,’ Maxxie replied regretfully. ‘I can’t change you, Kris, or Tovyan. The Uprising isn’t for you two.’
By now Radu and Marsin were standing naked, and soon two mature avian males were in the clearing, flexing their wings.
Maxxie turned to his soldiers, ‘Now, you know who I am?’
The corporal saluted. It seemed that, like many Rothenians, he already had a good idea of the nature of their young king. ‘Yes, majesty, you are the Golden Elphberg, whom we serve with our lives. Command us.’
‘Then listen to this avian warrior here, and do as he says.’ He pointed to what had been Radovan, currently staring bemused at the size of his new – and much enhanced – package.
Radovan’s attention snapped back and he finally revealed the gifts of leadership he had always pretended to. ‘Oh! What we must do is this. We’ll arm ourselves with grenades, then take to the air. I’ll drop one in the quarry, and when they start running about, we’ll swoop to take up Janko and the other children. Once they’re clear, you will open fire on the rest from the quarry lip. Explain that to them, Tovyan. Now. Are we agreed?’
Tovyan and the Rothenian soldiers shouldered their weapons and followed the path back to the quarry. The avians meanwhile took up their own weapons, which caused their physiology to react to the adrenalin or whatever else it was that surged round their systems. Their bodies readied themselves for battle, as was very evident when they looked down. With a black glare at Tovyan, Kurt led Maxxie to Kristijan and indicated he was to keep the king safe. Then all four avians launched themselves skywards.
Damien grinned when Henry reappeared next to Nathan’s bedside. ‘Seems right that you’re back to being Mendamero, Uncle Henry. I can look up to yer again, well, in one sense anyway.’
Justin shook his head. ‘So Henry, what can you do about my Nate?’
‘I can but try. I could do the healing thing last time I went seraphic, so it stands to reason I can still do it.’ He went up to Nate and cupped the man’s cheek. Concentrating, he projected his consciousness into his friend’s head, where he quickly discovered the dark clots and disrupted neural pathways. He let his mind soothe and mend what he saw, till Nathan’s brain was whole once more, his skull intact.
Henry withdrew, and as he did, Nate’s eyes fluttered open. He smiled while looking blearily around, not seeming to pick up the winged figure sitting at the end of his bed. ‘What have I missed?’
Justin had him in his arms straightaway, while Henry moved to Damien and edged him out of the ward. ‘Give your dad a chance to break all this to Nate. If you went to hug him now, horns and all, you’d give him a heart attack, and I’m not sure how to cure them. Come and walk with me a while.’
‘When you say walk …’
Henry took Damien by the wrist and, with a broad grin, materialised the pair of them beside a stream in a very green landscape in the light of an eternal morning.
‘Uncle Henry!’ Damien protested.
‘Just seeing if I could still do it. Apparently I can. Now let’s see to you, your majesty. I’m getting a little bit fed-up with being so dwarfed by your mighty physique. Gives me a crick in the neck.’
‘But I can’t go back to being human!’
‘Yeah?’ And Damien shrank back to an eighteen-year-old youth, naked on the sand apart from his armlet, until Henry clothed the boy in his own favoured designer gear, summoned from his home in Fridricsgasse as an afterthought.
‘But I’ll die!’
Henry rolled his eyes. ‘Do you feel dead? I take your Talisman and raise you my seraphic power. Now, how do you feel?’
‘You … took away the Talisman?’
‘You don’t need it. It stops you growing; it removes the challenge from your life. Your people need a king, not a god. So, how do you feel?’
Damien shook his head and felt himself, then he gave his usual grin. ‘Well, great actually. Why did you do it?’
‘To give you back your choices. You can be human now, if you had rather be. You and the other hybrids need time out from all this, and I think I can now give them it. Besides, I think it’s time the conversion of humans to avians stopped. I’m running out of places to put you all. From now on both you and Lance will find it difficult to bring people over. I can’t do much about Maxxie, but you two, I can.’
‘Then how do I go back to being avian?’
‘Don’t worry, Daimey, I’ll return your wings in a little while. I’m not anti-avian. There’s a plan behind you, if only I can work out what it is. Anyway, Nate must see you first in human guise. You need to explain things to him. Right now, though, let’s you and I talk. Nice day here in Eden, innit …’
Rifle over his shoulder, Tovyan paced the line of prisoners. The dead marauders were being thrown into a pit by the Rothenian soldiers. The liberated child soldiers were clinging together, some in tears, all staring with wide eyes at the figures of the avian warriors towering over them.
Janko emerged from the quarry building dragging his bewildered mother out into the light, the other prisoners the Horde had taken stumbling after them.
Kristijan joined Tovyan, bringing Maxxie with him. They went over to the four avians. Tovyan took Klement’s hand. ‘So this is goodbye. You Cubs are eagles now! We’ll miss you so much. But we envy you too. I have some idea what Maxxie has in store for you. Just remember us after the Uprising.’
Klement hugged Tovyan and Kris, tears brimming in his grey eyes. Then he retreated to Kurt’s side, where he found some comfort in the hand that was cautiously laid on his shoulder.
Marsin and Radovan followed. Radu smiled through his tears. ‘I’ve still got your watch. It’ll always be with me. Bye, Tovyan. Gotta go. They’re waiting for us, I can feel them calling.’
With a leap, the four avians soared into the sky and beat their way northwards, in the direction of Kaleczyk.
The little king beamed up at Tovyan and Kris. ‘Well, you’re not leaving me, at least.’ He looked at Janko. ‘You Vuk’s brother? Great to meet ya. Gotta go. My mummy wants me home.’ He was gone, instantly.
Janko had slumped to the ground, head in hands.
His old friends sat on either side of him. ‘What happened after you left Austria, Janko?’
‘Dad was impossible. He dragged us nearly to Beli Manastir despite the danger. Mum and I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t listen. In the end mum had enough; she left him and took me with her. Dunno what’s happened to him. We headed towards the town, but walked straight into a Horde ambush. We were herded up here with the rest of their captives. I had to join them or they’d have shot mum, or worse. We saw what they’d done to some of the other women. I’d have made a run for it, but they had my mum. Then you came looking for us, Tovyan, and you saved us.’
Kris took Janko’s hand. ‘You know why Vuk wasn’t here to do it?’
‘He’s dead, isn’t he. That’s the only reason he wouldn’t have been here with you, Tovyan. Poor mum, Vuk’s the reason why she told dad to go to hell. All the time, running Vuk down. He’s demented on the subject. How did my brother die?’
Tovyan cuddled Janko close. ‘Heroically, as you might expect. Let me tell you the story.’
Kurt paced the shredded woodlands of the Kaleczyke Horja in agitation. It was his second morning waking up as an avian tribesman. He had slept in a barrack room with other young unattached males – Rothenians mostly, so he was able talk to them easily. Many of that people were bilingual and Kurt himself had a good grasp of their language.
That morning he had eaten in the commissary with a number of his bunkmates, who seemed to take some pride in being seen sitting with him. The covert stares at his emerging horns might have been part of the reason. He was apparently the youngest of the avian fuersten, and no one was quite sure what that meant.
Kurt had awoken to an edgy restlessness, which would not let him be and had soon taken him out on to the mountainside. There he found several more males loitering near the peak. When they gave him a frank appraisal, he boldly returned the compliment. The epic-size members on display quickly turned his restlessness into something that burned: he was seized by the zharpulavnij, the adolescent avian sexual frenzy. Three of the males moved close and a particularly broad-shouldered one stood behind him to run his fingers down Kurt’s flanks, fondle his tight balls and stroke his stirring cock. This was avian mating dance, the myelhei.
It suddenly occurred to him why they were waiting. Trembling with excitement and lust, Kurt launched from the hillside. He gained height rapidly, the others in close pursuit. He soon discovered he had the edge in speed and manoeuvrability. He danced and dodged between his would-be mates, his excitement rising ecstatically. His cock was a great curving bar of iron and his loins were on fire.
With a shout of laughter he evaded the lunge of one of his younger bunk-mates, but as he did the biggest of the males had him. Muscular arms folded round his chest, and struggle as he might there was no getting away from his captor. Howling his shock to the skies, he felt his anus surrender to a great thrust. It opened out and admitted something no human could ever have taken. It ran deep into him, swelling in a rectum which accepted, embraced and explored the intruder. The erotic surge was awesome: burning sparks were surging through his body. He felt himself climax almost immediately, screaming out his ecstasy as his straining penis volleyed his load into the air. And that was just the beginning, as his captor began epic thrusts inside him, the climaxes coming again and again, each more powerful than the previous one.
When he eventually broke free of his exhausted mate, another avian collided with his back and it began again, as good as the first time.
They fluttered back to the peak after hours of slaking what seemed to be inexhaustible lust. The men of the myelhei hugged and kissed unselfconsciously in front of the community, slapped backs and butts and parted, promising to do it again and soon. Kurt wasn’t quite sure how seriously that was to be taken, but his restlessness at least was gone and his body seemed to be filled with a languorous contentment from his toes to the tips of his amber horns.
Kids and meledhij were out of school, one or two of the latter grinning enviously at him, not quite ready to take to the skies in the avians’ sexual dance, but clearly thinking about it. Then he caught once more the shining grey eyes of the Serb boy, Klement. A surge of a different sort swept unexpectedly through Kurt.
He walked over to where Klement was hanging out with a group of his usakamaradij. The meledh was exceptionally beautiful even amongst a handsome people, slimmer and more elegant than his fellows. As he reached Klement and the boy looked shyly up at Kurt through long sandy lashes, the German found he had almost lost the ability to speak.
‘Er … prosim!’ was all he could manage in Rothenian, a tongue of which he usually had some mastery.
The answer came back in a primitive version of the same language. ‘You friend of Golden Elphberg, yes?’
‘Umm … yes.’
‘Why you … unhappy … with my friend Tovyan?’ Klement’s tone was not quite as warm as Kurt had been hoping for.
‘Tovyan … you mean Tobias?’
‘He Tovyan … he save me and all my friends … I love him.’
‘Oh! I’m sorry. Er … love him?’
Klement stumbled out with the phrases slowly, plainly determined to get his message over. ‘He my great friend. He beautiful. He healer. Hero. We all love him.’
‘I’m sorry I upset you, Klement, but when I first knew … Tovyan, he wasn’t the boy I met with you. He was a sorcerer … er, a magician.’ He faltered; Klement was clearly not following him.
Kurt stared with a growing yearning at the avian adolescent. The body was a delight to look at, with a human-tinted skin and reddish nipples and genitals, the latter smaller than the full adult version would be, yet still large for humans. The boy’s brown wings unfolded and refolded. Was that a sign of agitation or interest? The myelhei had given Kurt a new sort of confidence. He held out his hand to Klement, who looked around at his usakamaradij and then slowly took it, to their cheerful whistles and grins.
Kurt walked off down the hill leading Klement. Somewhere near the bottom, in a secluded and undamaged grove, their lips met, and Kurt found that, with the right boy, kissing was just as fulfilling as full-on sex.
As they kissed, the full implications of the avian empathic sense hit them both. Their minds fell into line, the one with the other. Klement’s devotion and innocence blossomed in Kurt’s mind, while Kurt’s strength and care enfolded Klement’s soul into its embrace. They were one almost before they knew it, and each had found his life partner.