THE GREEN SIDE
The woods rustled in the dark as the night wind took the branches and shook them about. Danny and Gus hurried along the path till, through the noise of the trees, they heard the gurgle of a stream ahead. Danny pulled Gus into the margins of the forest. Still hand in hand, they moved more cautiously towards the sound of the little river Vwyszh.
They were heading steadily downhill now. It was Gus who tugged Danny to a halt as voices reached them. In the moonlight, they could see a party of men at the small bridge in front of them. The group seemed to be in battledress, and several were armed with machine guns. Battledress or not, they were not regular soldiers. Their gear was miscellaneous, and two had bandanas tied in their hair.
Gus breathed in Danny’s ear, ‘We’ll cross upstream of the bridge, though that means we will get wet. I don’t think these people will be the sort willing to assist two escapees from a kidnap.’
‘Where will we find help?’
‘The monastery sounds a good place to start. I can’t imagine the monks – eastern or western – will refuse to help either us or the Adamczyc family.’
‘Do you know the way?’
‘From Mr Adamczyc’s description, I think if we follow the stream uphill, we’ll come to a lake which is within the monastery’s grounds.’
‘Good plan. We’ll not cross till we’re out of sight of those blokes, though. Which way would the military installation be from here?’
‘It’s the opposite direction, down the stream towards the village. I imagine it’s on those hills you can glimpse in the distance, dark against the sky. Is it my imagination or can I see strings of floodlights up there?’
‘Yes, I can see them too. But that’s not our problem. We need to get in touch with the police and bring help for the Adamczycs.’
‘True, Danny, we must focus. The sky’s lightening, do you see? Dawn is breaking. Follow me then.’
Gus led the way up through the trees, guiding them along the stream by keeping in earshot of the rushing water. As the going got more tangled and forced them down towards the bank, they decided it was safe to splash to the other side. There they found the going a lot easier once they came on a track leading in the right direction.
Not far above the bridge, the bulk of a large house began to loom out of the darkness, a few early lights reflected in the black waters of a lake retained behind a dam. The house and its outbuildings nestled in a shallow valley, which was growing increasingly visible as dawn dimmed the moon and banished the stars. Danny checked his watch. It was six-thirty.
The Pave Hawk settled at the crossroads where the A44 met the Vwysberh road. Two burnt-out police cars had been pushed into a ditch. It was evident that one of the roadblocks set up after Justin’s disappearance had met more than it could deal with in Josseran’s people. The cars appeared to have been hit by the same type of shoulder-launched RPG found on the dead mercenaries at Piotreshrad.
A long column of green British Warrior IFVs was parked along the Vwysberh road awaiting the king. Ed Cornish in full battledress was talking to his unit commanders. They all snapped to attention when the king emerged from his helicopter.
The major’s eyes widened on seeing the two small figures who followed the king, especially when one of them ran towards him shouting, ‘Uncle Ed!’ He picked up Damien and gave him a hug, while his officers grinned.
‘What on earth are you doing here? Nathan? You too?’
‘We’re on our way to rescue me dad from the bad guys. Uncle Rudi says!’
Ed raised an eyebrow at the king. ‘Are you sure about this, sire?’
The king shrugged with impatience. ‘If you were Damien, what would you want? Now, give me a status report.’
Major Cornish handed Damien over to Nathan, still in his jeans and button-down Oxford shirt, and briefed the king on the forces he had available. ‘I assume you’ll be taking my command vehicle, sir. I have a reserve company in APCs at the rear of the column. Nathan and the boys can accompany them. I suggest we use the Pave Hawk to scout out enemy positions and target them for the Growlers and Apaches.’
‘We must move quickly, Ed. I want us at Red Zone in half an hour. We go in fast and hard. You understand?’
‘Yes, sire. But we need to insert an advance squad to do what it can to estimate the enemy’s capabilities and interdict his movements, as well as provide coordinates for the aircraft.’
Ed produced a map. ‘It’s not easy. We have no paratroops available, and the appearance of gunships would alert the enemy to our proximity. However, the Pave Hawk has a near-stealth capacity. It can approach Vwysberh at low altitude and hopefully evade notice. If it comes in from the west and drops its squad off near this place – a Buddhist monastery or something like that – that will be close enough to Red Zone for us to move in, assess the situation and take action, if action is needed.’
The king gave Major Cornish a close look. ‘Right, you go in with the Pave Hawk, Ed. I’ll take personal command of the Fusiliers. You can feed us advance information, but do not engage until we’re close enough to give direct support.’
‘Thank you, sire. That’s exactly what I would suggest.
‘And sire, the men would like the blessing.’ Ed and his officers removed their helmets and went to their knees for the Pensk Prozechnen, the traditional royal benediction.
Rudi gave a smile as he said the ritual words. When he had finished, the officers sprang to their feet and ran along the line to find their vehicles, while engines awoke, revved and roared.
Ed climbed up on the turret of the command Warrior, took a small gold and red banner and attached it behind the cannon turret. He grinned down to Rudi. ‘Sire, your royal banner. You’ll go into action as Henry the Lion did at Luchau!’
Rudolf of Rothenia gave a singularly carefree laugh. ‘But a lot faster,’ he shouted over the gunning of the engines.
‘Your helmet, sire.’
‘Thanks, Ed! Rudi firmly settled it on his head before climbing in through the rear hatch. The command Warrior gathered speed and raced to the head of the column. Then company after company of the Guard Fusiliers of Modenehem rumbled after the royal banner towards Vwysberh.
Ed in the meantime led his squad at a run for the black helicopter. It was already rising as the last Fusilier leaped on board. It headed low over the treetops into the west, the noise of its engines sinking to a thin whine when the modified exhausts kicked into stealth mode.
The monks and Justin had been herded into the prayer room after Josseran’s men had taken over the monastery. The young men looked around at each other dismayed and confused, apart that is from Vedayah, who was muttering in the abbot’s ear.
Vindahayah called Justin over. ‘My son, we seem to be trespassing into your area of expertise, from what Vedayah has been telling me. What do you advise?’
Justin was sufficiently absorbed by the monks’ way of life that he gave a little bobbing bow and grinned at the abbot over his steepled hands.
‘Well, your reverence, I guess yer won’t want yer boys to do any fighting, yeah?’
The abbot caught Justin’s grin, and it seemed to brace him. ‘Apart from Vedayah here, I don’t think any of my monks would want to fight, except in the direst necessity.’
Vedayah looked a little hurt. ‘Father, you know I believe in the Way!’
‘You believe in short cuts, too, my child. But never mind, I know very well that, with you, it is all done in love.’
Vedayah’s eye sparkled with a tear. He dropped to his knees and kissed the older man’s hand. The abbot stroked Vedayah’s smooth head, then looked back at Justin. ‘What do you advise, Chavindar?’
Justin glanced around at the room. ‘Can yer ask the guys to sit down, chief? We need to have us a talk like.’
The abbot bade the monks gather round Justin, who found himself in the centre of a small semicircle of men staring curiously up at him.
‘Right … okay lads. Now, me name isn’t really Chavindar. Course, yer knows that. What I mean is that I’m not really a monk at all. Chris – I mean Vedayah there – with Malcolm came and rescued me from the same people who’ve just taken over our – your – monastery. Vedayah and Prema disguised me as a monk to save me life, for which I’m very grateful.
‘But it looks like the bastar … rotters, I mean, have followed us back to the monastery and are up to somefink really big and bad. Wish I knew what it wuz, but somefink tells me that even the – whassername, Lady Benefactor – doan have a clue whass going on. Whatever it is, iss taken out all the communications in this part of Rothenia, so we can be pretty damn … I mean pretty sure that Josseran and his men are after somefink really big.
‘Okay, guys, now listen up. I ain’t gonna hang round here like a rat in a trap, no chance. And no way am I gonna let Josseran get away wiv what he nearly done to me. I need to get out there and get busy. I’ve been in security for years and I gotta trick or two up me sleeve. I knows you guys aren’t into violence and stuff, but yer can at least cover for me when I disappears. After all, one bald headed guy in a crimson robe looks much like annuver, dunnee?’
Justin laughed. His blood was up and, though he lacked weapons, he had a well-justified regard for his own cunning and wit. But how to get out? Two armed guards were in the hallway and another was patrolling the terrace outside the prayer room.
Prema had his hand up. ‘Chavvy? Couldn’t one of us pretend to be sick and you could slip out while everyone’s attending to him?’
Justin smiled. ‘Good try Mal, but thass the sort of idea that only works in films. I gotta better one.’
He motioned to Vedayah. ‘Chris, didnya say that you guys has to service Mrs Marquesa when she’s here? Does Recic know this?’
‘Certainly. She always brought a couple of Josseran’s men here with her as security guards. It’ll have got round his gang for sure. Do ya wanna offer her your body, Chavvy? I’ll come with ya for the laugh!’ Vedayah was grinning all over his handsome face.
‘I’m game. But we can’t do anyfing till morning. I fink we’d better settle down and get what sleep we can. That okay, reverence?’
The abbot agreed. To distract the monks from their fraught situation, he led a long prayer session. He smiled to see Justin adopt the proper prayer stance and join in the chants. He rather thought that what prompted this unusual young man was more than just the need to maintain cover.
Justin spent an uneasy night wrapped in his robe. The monks slept on the wooden floor in a communal space, lying on thin foam pallets, cocooned in their crimson robes. There was a trick to it which Justin did not get. Whatever way he lay, part of his body was exposed and cold. He missed his mattress and Nathan’s big, warm body cuddling around him.
The monks did not snore but breathed steadily, curled immobile in a foetal position. Prema had whispered that sleeping like this was very good for your back. Justin did not doubt it, but also didn’t see it as being that good for his slumber, upon which he set a high value.
After he finally dropped off, it seemed barely a moment before he woke again in the predawn darkness. He was lying spread out on his mat naked and cold, his discarded robe balled up at his feet, his morning erection well-displayed for everyone to see. He blushed as the naked monks grinned at him on their way to the showers.
In the communal bathroom opening off the dormitory, he freshened up along with the others. Their morning ablutions took no time at all without hair and stubble to worry about. They just stood under the spigots of the gang showers, soaping and washing. Then they dried naturally, without the benefit of nonexistent towels.
While he cleaned his teeth using a borrowed brush, Justin scrutinised his bare groin. There was no sign of a returning bush, and it made him feel disconcertingly child-like. The monks had done too good a job.
Before the community could begin its morning exercises he took Vedayah to one side. ‘Ready Chris?’
Grinning broadly, Justin and Vedayah gave each other a high-five and promptly moved to the hall door. They bowed humbly to the guard, who stared at them a little contemptuously.
‘What do you want, monks?’ he snarled impatiently in Rothenian.
‘We were supposed to go up to the lady, sir, myself and Chavindar.’
‘Oh … were you now!’ He made an obscene remark to his colleague, who gave a harsh laugh.
‘Who’s gonna fuck her? You or this school kid you have with you?’
Vedayah bowed again. ‘Chavindar is a virgin, sir. She requested him specially.’
The gangster sneered, ‘She don’t make requests anymore.’
‘I only ask, sir, because I know she discussed it with Mr Josseran.’
The gangster’s smirk suddenly became uncertain. Josseran’s links with Mrs Marquesa were known. Although he no longer had any obligations to her, she was wealthy and he might yet have further dealings with her.
Looking at his colleague uneasily, the guard shrugged and motioned the two monks towards the stairs with his gun. ‘Go up, do your stuff, and stay there unless we tell you otherwise, got it?’
‘Oh, yes sir. Come along, Chavindar.’
Justin bowed low. ‘Yes, Brother Vedayah.’
Vedayah and Justin padded quickly to the second floor and tapped on the door of Mrs Marquesa’s suite.
They found her already awake, pacing up and down like a caged panther. ‘What in the name of the gods do you two want at this stupid hour of the morning?’
Vedayah bowed as politely as ever. ‘Lady Benefactor, Chavindar and I have been sent upstairs to do our duty to you.’
Mrs Marquesa’s attitude lightened somewhat as she cast her connoisseur’s eye over the two young men. ‘You I remember, but not the boy. What’s his name?’
Justin too bowed politely. ‘Chavindar, lady.’
She motioned towards the bed. ‘I suppose it’ll pass the time, and you’re both acceptable enough. Drop your robes.’
Vedayah looked at Justin and gave a faint grin. They both let their robes fall to the ground at the same time. Mrs Marquesa walked over and eyed Justin critically. ‘Get yourselves ready, then.’
Vedayah took his friend’s hand and led him to the bed. He pulled Justin down on to his lap facing him. In between kissing Justin and stroking him erect, he whispered, ‘When she’s over here nekkid, we’ll give her a shock, Chavvy.’
Justin was getting into the act with some enthusiasm. After the two of them lay back across the coverlet, Mrs Marquesa joined them on the bed. Staring pointedly at Justin’s groin she commented, ‘You’re maturer in that department than you appeared at first sight. Have you ever been penetrated by another man?’
Justin raised his eyebrows in an effort to appear shocked. ‘No, lady.’
‘Then I’ll enjoy watching this young man deflower you, while I bring you off.’
‘No, I don’t think so, you degenerate bitch!’ Vedayah was up on his elbow now, glaring at Mrs Marquesa with some contempt.
‘What did you say?’
‘I said, your days of dragging your corruption into our monastery are over. You pollute everything beautiful that sex should be about.’
‘How dare you …’
‘Chavvy, do ya stuff.’
Justin grinned. Before she could even resist, he had a naked Mrs Marquesa face down on the bed, gagged with her knickers and tied at the wrists and ankles with her nylons.
As they resumed their robes, Vedayah nodded to Justin. ‘Ya know your stuff, Chavvy. What do we do now?’
‘We? Who said you’re coming along?’
‘We make a good team, fella. Be fair.’
‘Then keep in the background. Damn, I wish I had some shoes. Okay, we goes out the window on to her balcony, and then down the drainpipe. The guard’s patrolling the terrace round the corner. Once we make it to the lake, you can lead us to the village. There must be ways to get in touch wiv the outside world.’
Justin opened the casement window and, with the help of ivy and the downpipe, was soon below on the grass. Vedayah dropped gracefully beside him.
As they loped across the grass and into the trees fringing the lake, Vedayah was saying, ‘I could really have got into the sex thing with ya, Justin. You’re a hot guy.’
‘You too, Chris, but I fink we both got partners already.’
Vedayah chuckled. After he led Justin into the undergrowth, they stopped to catch their breath. ‘You seem to be getting used to wandering round wearing very little, Chavvy.’
‘Tell me about it. Iss weird. I doan notice the cold anymore, and iss great feeling me cock and balls swingin’ between me legs and the air over me skin.’
‘You’ll be amazed how weird clothes will feel when ya get back into them. Westerners forget how much their bodies were designed to operate nekkid.’
‘I could get used to it. Iss different from bein’ nude on the beach, cos thass holiday.’
‘You should come back one day, Chavvy, and take a retreat with us. Bring your guy, what’s his name?’
‘Nathan. He might well like it, he’s half a Buddhist already from his work wiv plants an’ trees. Also me kid, Damien. He loves runnin’ round bare-arsed. Iss hard getting’ him into cloves at times.’
‘So you’re a dad.’
‘Yeah. Long story.’
‘I’ll bet. Shhh! Hear that?’
There was the sound of movement through the fringe of woodland. As movement goes, it was plainly intended to be furtive.
Justin and Vedayah hunkered down in the undergrowth.
A crackling noise caused the progress of the strangers to stop. ‘Gussie, you’re supposed to avoid snapping sticks. We’ll be noticed.’
A didactic voice replied, ‘I thought we wanted to be noticed, Danny. Aren’t we looking for help from these monks?’
‘Yes, but the point is that if the gangsters or whatever they are took over the Adamszycs’ farmhouse, they may have the same to other places nearby. We have to be cautious till we’re sure.’
Justin grinned and whispered to Vedayah, ‘Well fuck me! Iss Danny and Gus.’
‘You know those two?’
‘Yeah. Gussie is my Nathan’s cousin. But what the hell are they doin’ here in the heart of bandit country? No time like the present to find out.’
Justin, followed by Vedayah, stood and blocked the boys’ path. Danny nearly leaped out of his skin. ‘Oh, right! It’s monks. Hello. I’m sorry if we’re trespassing, but we’re in a spot of bother, and we need some help rather badly. Have you got a phone we can ring the police from? Oh! Can you understand English? Okay Gussie, I’ll try him in Rothenian.’
Justin grinned and did the bow over his hands, as did Vedayah beside him. Danny and Gus tried to reciprocate the gesture. Returning to the vertical, Justin chortled, ‘Okay, you two babes, what the fuck’re you doin’ here?’
‘Good heavens!’ exclaimed Gus, who tended to be quicker on the uptake. ‘Justin! Shouldn’t I ask rather what you’re doing here? What happened to your hair? The robe is elegant, however.’
‘Chrissake!’ echoed Danny. ‘It really is you, Justy! What they done to you?’
‘Long story, babes,’ Justin began to reply. Just then he heard the distant whine of high-powered engines, which was suddenly cut off. He paused to listen. ‘Did that sound like a helicopter to yer?’
They all four stood and listened, but it was not a helicopter they heard. The woodland was suddenly alive with activity.
‘Shit!’ hissed Danny. ‘They’ve followed us up the river.’
Justin cursed. ‘Josseran’s on the move. He must be gathering his forces. But why here?
‘Josseran?’ Gus exclaimed. ‘So he’s behind all this!’
‘Yeah, and now he’s on our tail. We can’t run. We’d better try and bluff it out. Oh crap!’
Major Edward Cornish, battalion commander of the Guard Fusiliers of Modenehem, was well aware of the importance of his mission. He had a heavily equipped strike team able to take out anything up to and including a tank. He also had a mobile communications team, essential if he was going to assist the king’s attack on the Red Zone.
As soon as the Pave Hawk had made its stealth descent, he and his men were out through the doors. The crew were to delay for half an hour before taking off to provide air cover for the king’s column as it began its assault.
The troops moved steadily over the hilltop that had shielded the noise of the helicopter from the Red Zone. Just below them was a large, rambling farmhouse beside a small lake.
After his communications sergeant determined their position by GPS and transmitted it to the king, Ed Cornish asked, ‘Have you raised the Growlers?’
The sergeant nodded, then began directing the complicated process of targeting their equipment.
‘Anything out of Red Zone?’
‘No signals, sir.’
‘Time to move. We need to get down to that farmhouse or monastery or whatever it is and see what the monks can tell us. For the purpose of the exercise, the area south of the zone – this area – is Green Side, then Yellow, Blue and Orange going clockwise. The king and the rest of the Fusiliers will make their assault through Blue. Is that clear? We’re going up there through Green Side.’
The infantrymen worked their way rapidly down the wooded hillside to emerge on the edge of the lake. Ed drew his pistol and ordered them to fan out and take cover. He crept on. He soon discovered an armed group in front of him, intent on something on the ground. He instantly realised what it was: Four men, two rather eccentrically dressed, were sitting in a clearing, their hands on their heads. Staring at them curiously were at least a dozen gunmen in flak jackets and a miscellany of battledress gear topped with berets.
The situation was clearly getting mean. One of the four was lifted by his throat and placed with his back against a tree. He looked like a Buddhist monk in crimson robes, a skinny westerner apparently. A gun barrel was in his face.
Ed Cornish didn’t have to think very long. It seemed clear that the monastery had been taken over by the mercenaries, and that one of the monks was about to be killed. As an officer in the Rothenian army, he knew his duty was to protect civilians and eliminate the king’s enemies. He raised his arm and made gestures to his squad to surround the mercenaries.
The Fusiliers slipped silently through the undergrowth. Once they were in place, Ed leaped to his feet. He and his squad closed rapidly on the group, which was still absorbed in the interrogation of the monks.
‘Stand where you are!’ Ed bellowed. ‘You’re surrounded. Don’t try to resist!’
But the mercenaries, though taken by surprise, did resist. Several spun around and automatic fire filled the woodland. Unfortunately for them, they were irregulars confronting an élite unit which had distinguished itself in the Balkans and Afghanistan. The mercenaries’ ragged bursts of automatic fire probably did more damage to their own men than to the Fusiliers. The professionals dropped prone, firing single rounds. It took less than a minute before the mercenaries lay mostly dead or wounded. Only two were still on their feet, weapons thrown to the ground and hands on their heads.
‘See to the civilians! Corporal, secure the prisoners! Sergeant, take a detail to reconnoitre the house.’
Ed was stalking across the clearing when he caught sight of two boys in jeans, apprehension plain on their faces, staring up at him from the ferns in which they had found refuge. He pulled off his helmet. ‘Christ almighty! It’s Danny and Gus!’
Danny climbed to his feet. ‘Ed Cornish! It’s you! Where’s Justy? Is he alright?’
‘Justy? He’s here? Where?’
‘He’s disguised as a monk. There’s another monk too. Look over there, the two guys in robes.’
Ed sized up the situation rapidly. ‘Medic!’