So which of our heroes is going to have the honour of dying to ensure a good harvest? Read on to find out…
We followed Master Clerk to the house and into the same room where we had first met Master Farmer, and he was there again now, sitting at the same table. Master Clerk went and sat next to him; the two labourers turned and left the room, closing the door behind them.
“Big Raoul tells us that he saw you talking to Olivier by the stone altar,” began Master Farmer. “So… I imagine that you know about the Quarter Day.”
I’d been thinking what to say on the way over, and I’d decided that attack would be the best defence.
“I do,” I said. “Master Farmer, you have not been fair with us: we were happy to stay and work here, and we would have been happy to stay and take our chance in the drawing of lots if you had told us about it from the start. But instead it seems you simply intended to fix the drawing of the lots to ensure that one of us went to the stone. And that is unjust.”
“We would have done no such thing!” protested Master Farmer, but I wasn’t looking at him: I was looking at Master Clerk, and it was clear from his face that fixing the lots would have been exactly what he would have arranged.
“Sir, that is hard to believe,” I said. “The reaction around the room when you introduced us to the commune workers showed clearly that they knew none of their own children would face the stone this year. Shut up, Stefi,” I added in English, because obviously poor Stefan had no idea what we were talking about and was trying to ask for an explanation.
“They were happy because your presence among us improved their odds, nothing more,” Master Farmer protested.
“Hmmm… Well, if you say that no fix would have happened I will, of course, accept your word on that,” I said. “But it’s a good thing that we found out about it, because otherwise the gods would have been angry. Neither of us would be an acceptable offering.”
“Why not?” demanded Master Clerk, looking worried all of a sudden.
“Because we are damaged. Am I right in thinking that Phiphi the Hunchback would never have been offered to the gods?”
“Of course. The offering has to be unblemished.”
“Well, we are not. I, in fact, am incomplete: something was done to me in my infancy to bind me to my god," and I lifted the front of my tunic and showed them my penis. ”As you can see, a small part of me was cut off when I was a baby. But there is a further reason: your sacrifice has to be ‘a pure child’, is that not so?”
“That’s true,” agreed Master Clerk.
“Well, we are not pure, either. See, in our country, when a boy begins to mature – that is, when his body hair first appears – there is a ceremony at the temple, and the boy dedicates his first ever experience of women to our gods by joining with one of the priestesses. I did it just before we left home, and Stefan, who is more mature than me, did it some weeks before I did. So neither of us is pure: we both have experience of women.”
They looked at each other in consternation – obviously if I was telling the truth then they had been very close to insulting their gods with a substandard sacrifice. The fact that I was making it up as I went along and lying through my teeth was beside the point, of course.
“What is going on?” muttered Stefan in my ear.
“I’ll tell you later,” I replied. “But if anyone asks, you’re not a virgin: you slept with a sacred priestess before we left home, okay?”
“But why should they ask that?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just remember to say it’s true and we’ll be fine.”
“Well… in that case I should thank you for telling us,” said Master Farmer. “And I am sorry that we didn’t speak of it before – to start with we assumed you would have a similar custom in your own country, and later… well, perhaps we should have spoken.”
“We do have a similar custom, but we sacrifice a lamb or a calf,” I said. “Our gods seem satisfied with that.”
“I see. So… I suppose you wish to leave us now?”
“Well, not really, no. We like it here, and we’d be happy to wait a bit longer – at least until the Quarter Day, I should think.”
I was watching them closely, and I could almost see the calculations going on in Master Clerk’s head: were we telling the truth or not? And even if we were, could he get away with claiming to the gods that he’d honestly thought we were pure? And I was fairly sure that the answers he came to were ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, though I couldn’t be sure.
“Good,” said Master Farmer. “I understand that you are good workers – you especially, Stefan: not many boys have achieved what you did in the far field. So you would be welcome if you want to stay.”
“Good. In that case, could we have our stuff back, please?”
Again, it looked as if Master Farmer wasn’t aware that our belongings had gone missing: it was Master Clerk who said that they would be returned to us next day. And then we were told that we could go back to the dormitory, though I hung around outside long enough to hear raised voices, which pleased me – at least, if it meant that Master Clerk was on the receiving end, it did.
On the way back I explained to Stefan what had happened, and he was shocked to discover that one of us had been earmarked for human sacrifice.
“I said that this was a primitive world, did I not?” he said. “I think we should leave at once.”
“Not yet,” I said. “If I’m right in thinking that it’s Master Clerk who is pulling the strings I think he’s going to be pretty angry about us finding out about it – and I’m ready to bet that it’ll be Oli who gets the call-up next, to pay him back for talking to me about it. If that is what happens we’ll know it’s fixed, and in that case I want to take Oli with us. I’m not leaving him here to be butchered.”
“Well… if that is what you think, of course we will do it,” said Stefan.
“Thanks. Oh, by the way, we might have another kid coming with us, too – or even more than one. Possibly as many as six.” And I explained what had happened in town that morning.
“But… what will we do with six or seven boys from this world? They cannot read or write – how will they live in your world or mine?”
I hadn’t really thought about that. And a further problem would be that they would have no papers, either, which I knew would be a problem in my world and I was pretty certain would cause them difficulties in Stefan’s world, too.
“Well, we’ll just have to find another world for them,” I said. “Preferably a nice one, somewhere where not being able to read and write won’t matter.”
“That will give us a good excuse to explore more tunnels… except that perhaps we should not stay for so long in every world. If we do not return to our own worlds for too long it will be thought that we are dead.”
That was a fair point. But I was determined to stay in this one long enough to find out who was going to keep the gods happy come Quarter Day, and if it turned out to be Oli, as I suspected, I’d make sure he left when we did.
We went back to the dormitory. Oli asked me if everything was all right, and I smiled and said that it was, and that I was confident that Stefan and I would not be set up as this year’s sacrifice.
But next morning I was assigned to work with Stefan instead of with Oli, and that made me think that maybe they didn’t want Oli and me spending too much time together: perhaps it was innocent, but perhaps Master Clerk thought that keeping us apart would prevent a bond forming that might mean us objecting when Oli’s name came out of the hat. But the bond was already there, and so when Oli’s name did indeed come out of the hat a week before the ceremony I already had a plan.
In theory it was an honour to be chosen, and those to be sacrificed were told that they would go straight to some version of Paradise to be with the gods. This meant that the more credulous victims didn’t try running. I assumed that in any event the chosen one would be watched closely in the days leading up to the ceremony, just in case, but I thought we could get them to lower their guard a little.
So as soon as Oli told me he had been chosen I told him to act as if he accepted it and was happy at the thought of a future with the gods.
“Yes, but I’m not,” he said. “I don’t even think I believe in the gods – it seems silly, somehow. I mean, why would a god want to muck about being responsible for every chicken in the world, or every cow? If I was a god I’d want to do something far less boring.”
“Right, but if you pretend you’re happy about it they won’t lock you away to stop you from running. Because you are going to run: like I said to Alain back in town, I’m not leaving you behind when we go. So act like you accept it and go on behaving normally, and then in two or three days’ time when they think we’re all okay about it, we’ll sneak off in the night.”
“But… won’t they chase us and bring us back?”
“Not where we’re going, they won’t. Trust me.”
The day after Oli found out he was going to be sacrificed Alain arrived at the farm. I was lucky in that I was feeding the pigs next to the house when he arrived, and so I got a chance to speak to him before he presented himself to Master Farmer.
“You don’t know me,” I impressed upon him, "or Olivier, either, so if you see him when there’s anyone else around, just ignore him. We can talk properly later. For now just say you’re on your way to visit your uncle in a town away to the north…”
“Which town? I don’t know the country this far from Columbarier.”
I presumed that Columbarier was the town where we had met him. I thought for a moment.
“Say ‘The fort on the crossroads’ I suggested, which seemed a reasonable version of ‘Strasbourg’ for this world. “And make sure they know that your relatives are expecting you – I’ll explain why later. Now go before anyone sees us talking.”
So he went and knocked at the farmhouse door and I got back to looking after the pigs. Good thing I’m not of the Orthodox persuasion…
After supper that evening we got a chance to talk, so Alain, Oli, Stefan and I went for a stroll round behind the dormitory. I was interested by Oli’s reaction to the arrival of Alain – he actually seemed happy to see the town boy here. Perhaps it was just knowing that there was another older boy to help him escape, but I got the impression that there was more to it than that. For his part, Alain was quick to tease Oli, calling him ‘My little yokel’ from the start.
“Right,” I said, “here’s what we’re going to do. For the next two days we carry on as usual. They’ll think that if we are going to run we’ll either go straight away or leave it until the night before the ceremony, so we’ll do neither: we’ll go in two days’ time. Alain, I want you to leave straight after breakfast – tell them you’re continuing with your journey. About two thousand paces along the road – heading north…”
“Which way is that?”
“Oh. Well, keep going the way you were, away from your own town. And two thousand… hang on: can you count that far?”
Alain shook his head.
“Don’t worry,” Oli told him, “I can’t, either.”
“Well,” I said, “just keep going until you come to a small stone bridge. Leave the road and follow the stream that runs under the bridge up into the mountains until you reach the first trees…”
“I’m not going into no mountains!” Alain interrupted. “There are demons up there!”
“No, there aren’t – at least, not close to the edge. You’d have to go right up high to meet the demons.”
Stefan stared at me, but I’d decided it would be easier not to go against something that had apparently been drummed into everyone on this world from an early age: agreeing that there were demons, just not in our part of the mountains, seemed likely to meet with less argument than an outright denial.
“When you reach the first trees, stop and find somewhere to hide,” I said. “We’ll come and find you there as soon as everyone at the farm settles down for the night. And from up there you’ll be able to see if there’s anyone following us, so don’t go to sleep!”
So for the next two days we all got on with our normal routine. Alain left after breakfast on the second day, having completely ignored the rest of us until then, and after supper we settled down as usual and pretended to go to sleep for an hour or so. Then, once we were sure the other orphans were asleep, we collected our things (our sacks had been returned to us as Master Clerk had promised, though I was fairly sure he’d had a good look through everything first) and went to the door…
It wouldn’t open: the locking bar had been dropped into place.
“Shit!” I said. “Obviously the bastard still doesn’t trust us. Now what? Can you get your knife through the door and lift the bar from this side?”
Stefan tried that, but the bar was too heavy and he couldn’t lift it.
“Now I think we are in trouble,” he said. “If we try to run during the day I am certain they will watch for it.”
“You’re right. Damn, I should have thought of this – if I had we could have got Alain to sneak back after dark and lift the bar for us. Now he won’t know what has happened to us… what are we going to do, Stefi?”
We looked around, hoping there might be something in the room we could use to prise the par up with, but there was nothing. There were two windows in the dormitory, but they were high up in the walls and (more to the point) they were barred. And then Stefan looked up, and five seconds later he was scampering up the ladder into the loft.
“Come!” he hissed down to us, and so we climbed up after him – and found him cutting a hole through the roof thatching. It took a little while, but his knife was sharp and eventually he made a hole big enough for us to climb through.
I suppose it wasn’t all that far to jump, but even three to four metres can look quite a long way when you’re about to leap into space. But Stefan didn’t seem daunted.
“I will go first. Then you throw me our bags,” he said to me, “and then Olivier can jump: I will try to catch him. And then you can come last.”
And two seconds later he was gone.
“Throw the bags!” he hissed up from the ground, so I did that, and then Oli lined up.
“Ready?” I called down, in a soft voice, and Stefan called back that he was, and Oli jumped – and gave a sharp cry as he landed. I was afraid that someone might have heard that, so quickly I jumped myself, stumbling and falling over as I landed. And there was Oli, sitting on the ground and holding his ankle.
“We have to go,” I said, getting up and grabbing my bag. “Someone might have heard.”
Oli stood up, took a couple of steps and fell over again, holding his ankle.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t walk. You’d better leave me.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, we’re not leaving you. Stefi, can you carry him first? You’re stronger than me.”
“Of course I am,” agreed Stefi, hoisting Oli onto his back. “I am a strong warrior, and you are a feeble subhuman.”
“And you’re going to get beaten up when we get home,” I threatened, making him utter a splutter of suppressed laughter.
To start with we headed towards the river. This was both because I didn’t want to risk walking right past the house – it was still daylight, after all – and because if they tried following our trail next morning I wanted them going the wrong way. And we kept heading for the river until we reached the track that ran between the maize field and the sheep meadow, and there – having laid the beginnings of a false trail onward towards the river – we turned off, following the track and keeping to the hard bare earth part of it until it petered out close to the edge of the farm lands.
We climbed through the fence and followed it back to the road, and then we headed north as fast as we could, because I wanted to meet Alain before it got too dark: after that finding the hut again would be a lot harder.
I carried Oli myself for a short distance, but Stefan was right about me being feeble, and after less than ten minutes I had to hand him back again.
By the time we reached the bridge it was getting distinctly gloomy, but we followed the stream upwards until it reached the tree-line, and there Alain was waiting for us.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” he said. “I was getting a bit nervous, to be honest: I didn’t want to sleep up here on my own, even if you do think the demons don’t come down this far. What’s the matter with Oli? Hey, little yokel, are you too lazy to walk, or what?”
“He’s hurt his foot,” I said. “We’ve had to carry him all the way.”
“Clumsy little peasant,” said Alain. “You’d better let me carry him for a bit, then – I’ve been resting for ages. Come on, little one - these two need to show us where to go next.”
He hoisted Oli onto his back and looked at us expectantly.
The problem was that we hadn’t marked the point where we joined the road. We knew it was not too far from the bridge, but we couldn’t be absolutely certain how far, and if you’re following a bearing and you start from the wrong place, you’re going to finish in the wrong place, too. And now that it was almost dark we wouldn’t recognise any landmarks, either.
“We’re going to have to go back to the road,” Stefan decided. “It’s important that we find the right place to start from… look, you should all stay here, and I’ll scout about and see if I can find it.”
He was gone for a while, but I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to find us again if we moved from the stream, and so we stayed where we were, and eventually he returned.
“It is four hundred and thirty-seven paces from the bridge,” he reported. “There is a fallen branch that I remember. But it will be dangerous to try the slope now – I think we must wait here until daylight.”
I wasn’t keen on that, because I thought there would be search parties after us at daybreak, and since we’d come from the north they would be expecting us to go back the same way. But in the end I decided that Stefan was right: we could cope with one member of the party who couldn’t walk, but two would make the journey next to impossible. So we moved a little further into the trees and settled down for the night, wishing we had brought a tent and some sleeping bags instead of leaving them all at home.
Stefan and I settled down in one place while Alain put Oli carefully down on a fairly flat piece of ground and then snuggled up to him.
“Don’t worry, little yokel,’ he said. “If any demons come, I’ll make sure they eat you and not me!”
“They wouldn’t like you, anyway,” said Oli. “You’re too dirty.”
“You’re not exactly fresh, either – so maybe they’ll leave us both alone and eat Jake and his friend instead. See, it’s sensible not to be too clean!”
“Demons like dirt,” I responded, and that shut them both up.
I woke up three times in the night, but the weather stayed dry and fairly warm and nothing came to trouble us. And when I woke up for the fourth time I found Stefan already on his feet. He had changed into his Orschwiller kit of shorts, tee-shirt and walking shoes, but I thought that might be tempting fate and so I kept my tunic on, though I did put my shoes back on – I thought the ground up around the hut would be very difficult in bare feet. I did up my belt and then we walked carefully to the edge of the trees and looked out, using the binoculars. At first we didn’t see anything, but then I noticed three men on horses heading north along the road.
“I think that’s our hunters,” I said, handing the binoculars to Stefan and putting my glasses back on – and it was good to be able to wear them again, even if I had been able to get by without them. “Have we got time to get down to the road, along to the fallen tree and back up into the trees before they get here?”
“No,” said Stefan. “They would certainly see us. I think it would be safer to wait until they have passed and hope that they do not turn back too quickly.”
I wasn’t keen on that. “Look,” I said, “why don’t we stay up here in the trees and move along the tree-line parallel to the road until we find the path?”
“Well… there was no path,” he pointed out. “We were just on a bearing, and we could miss the point easily. But perhaps we could move along up here as you say for around four hundred paces, and then I will go down to the road, find the exact point and return on the bearing. Then I should be on the road for only a very short time.”
That sounded like a good plan, and so I went to wake the other two and found them curled up together, still asleep.
“We have to go,” I said as they stirred. “They’re looking for us.”
Alain got up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and helped Oli to his feet. Oli’s ankle was better – it didn’t seem to have been as badly damaged as Stefan’s had been – but he could still only walk with a pronounced limp.
“Don’t worry, country boy,” said Alain. “I’ll carry you. And if a demon appears I’ll throw you at it and run away while it eats you. But first I need a piss.”
He stepped a couple of paces away and peed into a bush, and then he supported Oli while he did the same thing. I passed them both my water-bottle, which they stared at.
“It’s got water in,” I said. “Drink.”
Probably the Evian in the bottle tasted a bit different from the well water they were used to, but neither complained.
“Lie down and keep quiet,” called Stefan softly from the edge of the trees. “They’re coming.”
So we did that, and in fact our dirty brown tunics were far better camouflage than my white tee-shirt would have been. I thought Stefan’s red one would have been pretty conspicuous, too, but when he came back to say the horsemen had gone I saw that he had taken it off and smeared dirt onto his face and chest to camouflage himself.
“Let us go,” he said, quietly. “You three try to walk where you are and keep level with the road, and I shall count the paces from the edge of the trees.”
Alain and Oli had now stopped staring at my bottle and started staring at Stefan’s shorts, but I didn’t give them time to ask questions.
“Come on,” I said. “Don’t talk and try not to step on any twigs.”
So the three of us stayed about twenty metres above the tree-line while Stefan counted his paces closer to the edge of the trees and kept an eye out for the horsemen.
“Stop!” he called, when he had covered four hundred paces. “I am going down. Wait here.”
He took off his bag, put his shirt into it and came and handed it to me, and then lay down on his stomach and slithered his way down towards the road, using a tiny ridge in the ground as cover. I watched him admiringly, knowing that I could never have move that unobtrusively – clearly there was something to be said for military training.
He reached the road and wriggled through the long grass beside it, but eventually he was forced to stand up to locate the fallen branch he was looking for, although even then he did it very slowly and cautiously. As it wasn’t immediately in view he jogged up the road until he found it, and as soon as he was beside it he dropped down again and started to crawl back up towards the tree-line. He was moving very slowly so as not to attract the attention of anyone who might be looking his way, but I wondered if he might have done better just to get up and sprint, because it was taking him so long to reach the trees that I was sure the horsemen would be on their way back before he got there. And indeed he was still twenty metres short of proper cover when we heard movement on the road below. Stefan froze, and so did I: I had moved a little closer to the edge of the trees to monitor his progress.
But it was only a farm wagon heading north along the road, and it wasn’t the one from our farm, either: this was larger and older, and the man driving was someone I had never seen before. He did seem to look our way, but he didn’t stop, and soon he was safely past us. And at that point Stefan did get up and run – obviously he’d decided that a quick dash would be safer than a slow wriggle.
The three of us moved through the trees to where he was waiting, and then he checked the compass to make sure we were still on the same bearing and moved on up through the trees: at least here we should be safe, I thought.
The next problem was that Stefan wasn’t completely sure of where we had to move onto the new bearing: in our world there was a path, but not here, and while he knew how far it was from the hut to the point where the bearing changed, he hadn’t thought to count the distance from that point to the road. And that meant we had to guess, which is a really good way to get lost when you’re in a featureless forest.
We followed the new bearing for the correct distance, but it failed to take us to the hut. Stefan wasn’t too worried: he said that all we had to do now was cast up and down on the original bearing, and eventually we would be sure to find the hut.
First we headed back in a more or less easterly direction until Stefan said he was sure the hut couldn’t be this close to the edge of the forest, so then we turned west. We passed the point where we had started on this bearing – Stefan had marked a tree – and kept going straight ahead. We seemed to go quite a long way and I was starting to get worried that we might be completely lost up here, but Stefan remained confident in his compass – and eventually I caught sight of some whiteness ahead of us through the trees.
“I think we’ve found it, Stefi,” I said. “Let’s… shhh!”
I’d heard something behind us, and as we stood still I realised that it was voices.
“Get down!” I hissed, dropping into the undergrowth and trying to keep completely still as the voices drew closer.
“We shouldn’t be up here,” one of them was saying. “It’s not safe – if those stupid kids did come this way the demons will get them, and I don’t want them getting me for second course.”
“Well, that farmer said he thought he saw something, and you know that if we don’t make a proper effort to find them Master Clerk will be very unhappy. We don’t have to stay up here for long, just long enough to have a proper look round – and if we hear a demon coming I’d back the horses to outrun them.”
They rode past about thirty metres away on our right. There were only two of them, so probably the third one was waiting back on the road… At least, I hoped he was: I liked it better when I knew where my enemies were.
We waited until we were fairly sure they had gone and then stood up and started to run towards the mist. We couldn’t go too fast because Alain was still carrying Oli, but we kept up a steady jog, and soon the mist was only a short distance ahead of us… and then there was a shout, and the two riders appeared off to our right, heading towards us. We were right at the edge of the mist when they reached us, reining in about five metres away.
“You’re lucky we found you,” said one of them. “If you hang around up here the demons will get you. We only want Olivier, but if the rest of you are sensible you’ll come with us, unless you’re planning on being a demon’s snack.”
“Olivier’s not coming, yokels,” declared Alain, lowering Oli to the ground and drawing his knife from under his tunic. “Columbarier for ever!”
“Blut und Ehre,” proclaimed Stefan, drawing his own knife, which had that motto – ‘Blood and Honour’ - inscribed on the blade.
I only had a Swiss army knife, and I didn’t think even its biggest blade – which was maybe three inches long – would be a lot of use against a man on a horse. I could have joined in with the slogans, maybe offering something like ‘Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!’, but since my grandparents had all been Polish or French I thought maybe that would be a little over the top. I got the knife out of my bag anyway, but it seemed futile – even the larger knives that Stefan and Alain had wouldn’t be a lot of use against cavalry. We’re doomed, I thought…
…and then Oli pulled his catapult out from under his tunic and I changed my mind completely, because I’d seen him in action with it. He took a stone from the pouch on his belt and took aim.
“Go away,” he said. “You know I can use this. I’d sooner not, but I’m not going back to be sacrificed just because Master Clerk is angry with me. Just go back and tell him you couldn’t find us.”
“Look, Olivier, it’s not safe up here,” said one of the men. “And in any case you were chosen by lot – you can’t just turn your back on that. The gods will be angry.”
“I wasn’t chosen by lot, I was chosen because Master Clerk fixed it that way to get me back for telling Jake it was going to be him or his friend who got sacrificed.”
“He’s right,” I said. “Master Farmer didn’t know about it, but Master Clerk was going to make sure it was either me or Stefan who got chosen this year – he virtually admitted it. And when he found out we weren’t suitable he picked Oli instead, because he was the one who had warned me.”
The two men looked at each other.
“Well,” said the first one, eventually, “even if that’s true you can’t stay up here. It isn’t safe.”
“It’s safer than I would be back on the farm,” said Oli. “Look, it’s our choice this way. If the demons get us, we’ll know the gods are angry with us, and if they don’t, we’ll know we were right to run away. So just go, tell them you couldn’t find us and let the gods decide what happens to us. That would be fair, don’t you think?”
The men looked at each other once more, and whether it was Oli’s argument or his catapult that convinced them I don’t know. But something did, because they turned their horses round.
“As you say,” said the one who had done all the talking, “we didn’t find you – and I hope the demons don’t, either. Good luck!”
And they rode away.
“Shit, that was brave, little yokel,” said Alain, putting his knife away and hoisting Oli onto his back once more. “If I’d been where you are I’d have been running and hoping the rest of us could hold them off.”
“Don’t underestimate what he can do with a catapult,” I warned him. “If those men have seen him shooting birds out of the sky I don’t blame them for backing down. He’s lethal.”
“Come on,” said Stefan, turning and heading into the mist. “Let us find the cabin.”
In fact we found one of the ropes first, simply by walking right into it. We followed it to the left and found the tree it was tied to, so we untied it and followed it to the other end, where it was tied to the shed at the back of the hut. Stefan untied that end and coiled it up and then we moved round to the front and went inside.
“I will get the other rope,” said Stefan. “Get ready to block the door with the bunk – I do not think they will come back, but it would be good to be prepared.”
He disappeared into the mist, following the other rope, and Alain and I moved the bunk so that we could use it to block the door if necessary. Like the other huts I had been in, this one had no ordinary windows: instead it had a skylight in the roof, and while it might be possible for someone to get up there and break through it, I thought it unlikely, especially in the short amount of time we would need to get down the ladder and away.
Stefan returned, coiling the rope as he came, and we closed the door and pushed the bunk in front of it, and then I opened the trapdoor and went down the ladder, the others following me. The light in the small room surprised them, and the mopeds surprised them even more.
“What are those?” demanded Alain.
“A sort of mechanical horse,” I said.
We pushed them into the corridor and I got on mine and started the engine, and Oli and Alain both gasped at the noise. This moped at least had a seat that was big enough for two, although the other one didn’t, so I persuaded Oli to sit behind me and hold on (and that took a bit of doing).
“Keep your feet off the ground,” I told him, “and hang on tight.” And I twisted the grip and off we went.
Oli’s first shout was one of fear, but then he relaxed a little, and by the time we reached the room of doors he seemed to be enjoying it.
“What makes it go?” he asked as we dismounted to open the door.
“It’s called petrol – it’s a sort of magic juice.” Well, that was a lot easier than trying to explain the workings of the internal combustion engine, which I didn’t think I could have done, anyway.
Stefan, whose moped only had a small, one-person saddle, arrived just after us with Alain jogging along behind him, and we wheeled our way into the room of doors.
“Where do all those doors go, then?” Alain asked.
“We don’t know,” I told him. “That one goes to Stefan’s world, one – though I don’t know which one – goes to mine, and this one goes to the world we share, and that’s where we’re going right now. As for the others, I have no idea.”
So we made our way back to our hut, once again leaving the mopeds in the small room at the foot of the ladder.
“Can you find your way home without me?” Stefan asked me.
“Yes, I think so.” After all, I simply had to stick close to the bearing and follow the marks that Stefan had cut into the trees.
“Then take Olivier with you so that he does not have to walk and then bring the Citroën to where the track ends,” he said. “Alain and I will meet you there.”
And as we only had the one moped still above ground level here, that seemed to be the best thing to do. This time Oli was a lot less reticent about getting on the bike and he enjoyed the ride down to Orschwiller immensely, whooping in my ear every time I went over a bump and urging me to go faster.
And he liked the car even more, though his eyes almost popped out of his head when I opened the door and got in.
“Is this more magic?” he asked.
“Well, it’s the same sort – it’s the magic juice again. Get in.”
And he did, and by the time we reached the end of the track he said he liked this magic world a lot.
Alain was a little more sceptical and wanted to sit on top of the car instead of inside, but in the end we persuaded him that it would be very dangerous to do that, and that it would be much safer inside, though I still think we would have lost the argument if he hadn’t seen that Oli was quite happily ensconced inside the car. But he didn’t want to be shown up by the younger boy and so eventually he got in, looking thoroughly nervous.
I drove us back to Orschwiller and parked – fairly tidily – outside the house.
“This is where Stefan and I are staying at the moment,” I said. “There’s nobody else in this world as far as we can tell – all the people are dead or gone – and so this is our place now. So come and see what you think.”
Obviously neither of them had seen anything like the carpets and wallpaper, and the furniture only distantly resembled the things they were used to.
“Okay, first things first,” I said. “I think we all need a bath. I’ll go and start heating some water.”
I went into the kitchen and found the two biggest saucepans in the house and turned on two of the rings on the cooker: I was sure the water would have gone off by now. And yet I absent-mindedly stuck one of the saucepans under the tap to fill it anyway, and when the water ran normally it took me a few seconds to work out that I wouldn’t need to heat water after all: either the generators at the water works were still running, or the water works was far enough away from Sélestat to be on a different power grid. So I turned the cooker off again and ran upstairs, and when I turned on the hot tap in the bathroom water appeared straight away.
I filled a bath and went downstairs.
“I’m not sure how much hot water the tank holds, so we’d better do this two at a time,” I said. “Stefi, if you and I go first we can then let these two soak for as long as they want.” Or need, I didn’t add, though Stefan and I weren’t exactly fresh, either.
So we told the other two to sit back and rest for a bit while Stefan and I went up to our room and got undressed. I was still wearing my tunic and rope belt, so it didn’t take me long to undress, but he was only wearing his shorts and briefs, so it didn’t take him long, either – and then we kicked off our shoes and jumped into the bath. We took it in turns to wash each other down, and when Stefan was washing me I quickly got an erection as usual. Obviously he teased me about that, so equally obviously when it was my turn to wash him I spent long enough soaping his genitals to make good and sure that he was stiff, too.
“I think we were going to have another contest, were we not?” he said, grinning at me.
“I think we were, but let’s wait until Alain and Oli are safely in the bath. That way they won’t burst in on us.”
“That is a good idea. So, let us wash quickly and get them in here.”
I was really happy to see how keen he was, so we washed each other’s hair quickly, got out, dried ourselves, drained the bath – the water was pretty dirty, though probably most of that came from running about a farm in bare feet all the time – and went back to the bedroom, where we put on a clean piece of underwear each. Then I went downstairs and brought the others up to the bathroom, making them take their clothes off outside.
They both stared open-mouthed around the room – everything here was, of course, completely new to them. They loved the idea of a flush toilet and both insisted on trying it out at the same time, jostling each other until I told them that anyone who pissed on the floor would have to clean it up. And then I ran them a nice hot bath, got Oli to climb in and sit down, and began to wash him with soap and a flannel.
“Okay, Alain, you take over,” I said, handing him the soap. “Make sure he’s really clean all over. Use the stuff in that bottle to wash his hair… no, I’d better show you that,” and I applied shampoo to Oli’s very dirty hair and used the spray attachment to wash it out. “Do that at least twice more, and don’t forget to turn the tap off when you’ve finished or you’ll flood the place. When he’s clean, swap places – you might find the water’s too dirty to use again, though, so maybe you’d better call me when you’re done. Okay, have fun, and I’ll see you in a little while.” And I left them to it and went back to the bedroom, where I found Stefan stark naked on the bed, idly toying with himself and grinning at me.
“Hey, that’s not fair,” I said, whipping my boxers off. “You’ve got a start on me.”
“You had better catch up, then,” he said.
So I plonked myself on my back right next to him and started to get myself hard.
“I didn’t tell you, did I?” I said. “When Alain and his mates grabbed me and Oli in town they all wanted to feel me, and it made me shoot, even though none of them actually rubbed it properly. So I’m obviously more mature than you think.”
“Is that true?” he said. “Then perhaps I should try to make that happen.” And before I could react he took hold of my erection and started to caress it gently – and it felt absolutely incredible.
“Oh, shit, Stefi, that feels really amazing,” I gasped.
“I knew that you would like it,” he said, tickling my balls. “I could tell that you are one of those boys who wants to do this.”
That brought me down to earth, and I rolled over to stare at him, but before I could start stammering out denials he said, “It is all right, Jake: I do not care if you are warm. We are friends, are we not?”
“What do you mean, warm?” I asked. “I’m nice and cool, actually.”
“No, I mean… that you are a boy who likes other boys. That is true, is it not?”
“Well… yes, I suppose so,” I mumbled. “In English the word is ‘gay’, though.”
“How strange – I thought that this word meant ‘happy’, but… well, it does not matter. So - we are told that for boys to do sex acts together is a bad thing, and I understand that they want us to do sex only with girls so that the Reich obtains more children. But I do not understand why we cannot do both. I am still too young to go with a girl, and in fact I do not wish it, though I know that some of my comrades do, and I think that I may come to wish it when I am older. But to me it seems good for friends to explore sex together, so that when we begin to go with girls we are not completely inexperienced.
“So I would like very much to explore sex with you, Jake. I do not know if I will be warm… I mean, gay, when I am grown, and for now it is not important. You are my friend, I trust you, and I like very much to be with you… and I very much like your penis, also. It feels different than mine. So, may I make it stand up once more?”
I’d lost my erection because I’d been terrified he was going to react badly to finding out I was gay, but now I felt… well, happy and relieved and excited and…
“Of course you can, Stefi,” I said. “You can make it stand up any time you want.”
“Good. Then now would be a good time to start.” And he took hold of me and stroked me some more, and then he began to rub it properly, and in no time at all I could feel the orgasm rushing towards me…
And this time I spurted three times, which was a new personal best, and it felt ten times better than doing it myself.
“So, today your sperm arrived before mine,” he said. “Perhaps you could help me to catch up?”
“Oh, God, yes,” I replied, and I took hold of him – it was already really hard, which pleased me, because it proved that he had enjoyed handling me – and I stroked it slowly all over for some time.
“Please will you rub it now?” he begged.
“Well, since you said ‘please’… okay,” I said, and I began to masturbate him slowly. He was bigger than any of the boys I had wanked in Columbarier, and so it was much easier to get hold of him properly, and soon I was in a nice steady rhythm – and then he put his arm round me and pulled me close to him, and that felt really nice. I smiled at him and he smiled back.
“That feels so good, Jake. Please could you stop for a moment? If you do, this will last longer, and I would very much like that.”
So I did that, and he pulled me closer still and hugged me, and I felt so happy that I wanted to stay here for ever, lying in this beautiful boy’s arms…
And then we were interrupted by a call from the bathroom.
“Oh, bugger,” I said, with feeling. “Stay right there, Stefi – I’ll be back in a moment.”
I pulled my boxers on, grabbed my specs and ran through to the bathroom and found Oli standing beside the bath while Alain was drying his back. And I guessed that he’d been drying his front, too, because Oli had a very solid little erection.
“Hey, Jake,” said Alain, “Don’t you think my little yokel looks different now? Now that all that muck has come off him he looks quite pretty, don’t you think?”
I looked in the bath, where the water looked more like liquid mud, so I pulled the plug and watched it drain away. While it was draining I checked Oli over, and I found that Alain had done a really good job and all the mud had gone, even from the soles of Oli’s feet.
I nipped back to the bedroom, found my comb and took it back to the bathroom.
“How shall we arrange his hair?” I mused, comb poised.
“He hasn’t got any yet,” said Alain, grinning and stroking the base of Oli’s little penis.
“Well, nor have you,” I pointed out.
“Yes, but I’ll get some before he does.”
“Obviously – you’re three years older. Now, shall we try a side parting, like Stefan’s?” I started combing Oli’s hair and found that it, too, was nice and clean (in fact it was now several shades lighter than I had thought it was – it was now a light brown shade), though there were still a few tangles to sort out. But eventually I had his hair arranged in a parting like Stefan’s.
“I’m not sure,” said Alain. “I mean, we can change it later, can’t we?”
“Of course,” I said, turning on the spray attachment and using it to rinse the remaining mud out of the bath. Then I put the plug back in and turned on the tap, hoping that there would be enough hot water left. I stayed until the bath was ready, just to make sure it didn’t start running cold, and then told Alain to get in.
“Now make sure he’s as clean as you are when he gets out,” I said to Oli, handing him the soap.
I ran back to the bedroom and found that Stefan was now in the bed and apparently asleep. Somehow I didn’t believe that, so I removed my boxers, put my glasses back on the bedside table and got in next to him, and he wriggled close and put his arm round me.
“I think you were doing something before, were you not?” he said.
“I think you’re right,” I said, sliding my hand down his body and taking hold once more. “But you’d better warn me when it’s going to happen so I can get the bedding out of the way – otherwise you’ll be sleeping on the wet side tonight.”
I started to rub him gently and he made a sort of purring noise and wriggled a bit closer, suggesting to me that he’d decided that if it was okay to experiment with other boys he was going to experiment properly. And I didn’t mind that at all.
It wasn’t long before he began to wriggle about.
“Do you want me to stop again?” I asked.
“Well… I would say ‘yes’, but I think we should start to make a meal for our guests soon,” he said. “So perhaps we should finish now.”
He threw the quilt back so that he was now fully exposed and I went on rubbing until he gasped, jerked hard against me and then spurted onto his chest and stomach. I held on tight until he finished and then let go, found another handkerchief in a drawer and handed it to him to clean himself up.
“That felt wonderfine. Thank you, Jake,” he said, sitting up and reaching for a clean pair of briefs. “It was much better as to do it to myself.”
“Better than,” I corrected. “The same as, but better than.”
“English is a stupid language. So, it was better than to do it to myself.”
I didn’t bother with any further corrections. “I’m glad you liked it,” I said. “And you’re really sure you don’t mind doing things like that with me?”
“I am certain. I will want us to do that again many times, if you want it also.”
“Oh, I do,” I assured him. “Right: you go and sort us out some food; I’ll go and make sure Oli hasn’t drowned Alain yet.”
I pulled the boxers on again and went back to the bathroom, where I found Oli washing Alain’s hair. I checked the result and suggested that another go would be a good idea, and Oli went at it happily, and when he had finished I got Alain to stand up while I rinsed him down with the spray attachment, since once again the bathwater was an impenetrable brown colour and I thought it would be better if it all stayed in the bath.
Alain got out and Oli started to dry him while I drained the bath and rinsed it out. This time I had brought the comb with me, and at Alain’s suggestion I tried combing his hair back, which worked while his hair was wet but which I thought would need some gel later. And as there was none in the house I thought he might have to change his style fairly soon. (Alain's hair colour had not changed a lot – it was still a very dark brown, darker than mine. Obviously that was its natural colour, and not the result of a long period between washes).
Oli’s attentions with the towel had left Alain good and stiff, just as Oli was himself – I was getting the impression it might be fun to watch the way these two behaved with each other in future. I led them back through to the bedroom to find them some clothes, and quickly came to the conclusion that Alain could use the stuff I had ‘bought’ for myself, but that Oli was too small.
Alain pulled on a tee shirt and a pair of shorts – he even accepted a pair of boxers when I explained that it was normal to wear something underneath the shorts. He wasn’t interested in socks, though, and as we weren’t going anywhere for a bit I thought bare feet would be fine – in fact I didn’t bother putting anything else on myself except the same pair of shorts I had worn as far as the farm at Irtengarde.
But Oli was a problem: we didn’t have anything small enough.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Alain. “Oli can run bare – can’t you, little yokel? You haven’t got anything worth looking at, anyway.”
“Shut up!” responded Oli. “How would you like it if Jake and Stefan made you go naked? After all, it’s their clothes you’re wearing.”
“I wouldn’t mind, to be honest. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
I went to the wardrobe, just in case there was something we could cut down, and there I found a plain white tee shirt. From the size of it the late householder would have been quite skinny by adult standards, but on Oli it was very baggy. And a garment that would have reached an adult’s waist, just about, came to just above Oli’s knees.
“That’ll do for now,” I said. “We’ll find you something better later – probably there were quite a few kids in the village before, so if we go and look in some of the other houses we’ll probably find some stuff you can use. Now, you need a belt…”
I found a belt in the wardrobe and borrowed Alain’s knife to cut it short and to make a new buckle-hole to fit Oli’s waist. And once that was on the garment wasn’t so very different from Oli’s tunic. He seemed to like it, anyway.
Next I took them into the spare bedroom.
“Do you two mind sharing a room?” I asked. “To sleep in, I mean.”
“No, I’d like that,” said Oli.
“So would I,” agreed Alain. “Although if it turns out that country boys snore I’ll kick him out into the street.”
“Right. Well, you’ll have to share the bed for now. There’s probably a spare quilt somewhere – I’ll look after supper. If you don’t want to share we’ve got some sleeping bags…”
“No, we’ll share,” said Alain, straight away, and Oli nodded enthusiastically. I thought it would be fun to be a fly on the wall in their room once it got dark, but then I realised that I wouldn’t want anyone spying on me and Stefan, and so perhaps I should leave the two of them in peace.
“Okay, shall we go and see if Stefan’s got us something to eat?” I said.
“In a minute. See, I remember you promising me something,” Alain reminded me. “You said if I came back to your place and cleaned myself up you were going to do something for me. Can you remember what it was?”
“Oh, come on, Alain,” complained Oli. “You can’t make him do that, not after they rescued us and shared their stuff with us and everything.”
“He swore,” said Alain. “Didn’t you, Jake?”
“Yes, I did,” I admitted. “But… well… I mean, I’ve never done that before, and I don’t know how, or anything, so I might not be very good at it.”
“I can tell you what to do… well, probably… all right, look, I’ve never had it done, either. But I want to try because this boy I used to know said a girl did it for him once and it was really good. So even if neither of us really knows how, can we try?”
“Well… I suppose…”
“No!” interrupted Oli, firmly. “It wouldn’t be fair after all he’s done for us. But… I’ll have a try if you want, Alain. I don’t know anything about it, either, but if you don’t mind me messing it up I’ll have a go.”
“Okay,” agreed Alain. “See, Jake? Even a little country boy has the guts to try.”
Rather like being fucked, this was something else I’d thought about doing some time, and now I had the added incentive that I’d really like to be able to do it for Stefan. So…
“I promised I’d do it, and I still will if you want,” I said. “If you two want to practise and work out how to do it, afterwards you can teach me and I’ll do it for you as well. Is that okay, Alain?”
“Yes, of course. And I was teasing before: I knew you’d keep your word. I reckon you and Stefan are good friends to have, too: you could easily have run off and left us when those riders found us, but you didn’t: you stuck with us, even though it wasn’t your fight, or even your country.”
“It wasn’t your fight, either,” Oli pointed out. “But you were the first one to stand in front of me to protect me. So I think all three of you are real friends.”
“Look, I’m hungry,” I said. “Let’s go and eat. You two can practice… you know, this evening, and show me tomorrow. Come on – let’s see what Stefan’s got for us.”
Tonight it was a choice between rabbit with rice and vegetables or ravioli. Alain and Oli had no idea what ravioli was, so they chose the rabbit, which left me and Stefan eating pasta. To be honest I’ve tasted a lot better, but it was hot and filled a hole. Oli and Alain thought the rabbit tasted okay but that there wasn’t really enough meat, and they found the rice a bit tasteless – obviously they’d never eaten it before.
“Okay,” I said, “tomorrow I’ll cook us a corned beef hash. If I can find anything to go in it except for corned beef, that is – maybe there are some potatoes in the village shop that haven’t started sprouting yet. So, what are we going to do tomorrow? I think a day to rest up might be a good idea: Oli ought to rest his ankle, and it’ll give us a chance to find him some clothes…”
“It’s all right,” said Oli. “I like this.”
“Well, we’re going to need another couple of toothbrushes, at least. I don't think the village shop will have some, but I'll look, anyway – I don’t want to have to go back to Sélestat.”
We went to the main room and sat down, me and Stefan on the sofa and Alain, with Oli on his lap, in the armchair opposite us. Stefan had taken a piece of A4 paper from the printer in the office and was drawing a diagram of the room of doors, marking the ones we knew and leaving gaps for the rest. Actually I was finding it hard to concentrate on what he was doing, because opposite me Alain had his hand up underneath Oli’s shirt and Oli was giggling a lot.
“So,” said Stefan, “we will rest tomorrow: which door should we try the day after? Olivier, you are the youngest, so you decide. Come here and point at a door.”
“But I don’t know where any of them go.”
“Nor do we. It is a lucky guess that we need.”
“All right.” Oli jumped off Alain’s lap, came over to the table, closed his eyes, wiggled his finger about and then stabbed it at random at the diagram. Then he went back to the chair and got back onto Alain’s lap, this time sitting sideways on so that he could put an arm round Alain’s shoulders. And Alain pushed the tee-shirt up and tucked it into the belt so that Oli’s genitals were completely exposed and started to tickle them, and Oli just sat there giggling, not caring that we could see.
“That is number twelve,” said Stefan. “Next time I am there I will paint the numbers on each door. So we have a new place to explore. Let us hope that Olivier has found us a good world to visit…”
So in the next chapter our growing collection of explorers will be heading back for the tunnels... but there's going to be a diversion before they get to Oli's lucky door.
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