His Fateful Heap of Days

an excerpt



Chapter One

Sometimes, Ben reflected, it was hard to tell who was leading whom when he watched the dogs patrolling the grounds together. Nikolas always huffed when he used this grand term and said they were skulking, more like, seeking out mischief. But Ben knew in their minds the dogs considered themselves to be protectors, guardians of their large two-legged pack. But it was comical seeing the negotiations and accommodations that went on between them. Puffball had working eyes, which was clearly to his advantage in the leading stakes, but Radulf was uncanny in his abilities, despite his blindness. Again, Nikolas contended, the old dog was faking his disability, and could cite some oddly persuasive arguments to back his theory.

So when it seemed as if Radulf trotted happily into the shrubbery behind his permanent companion, it could also be said that he was merely lagging behind, observing his young charge to make sure the puppy went exactly where Radulf had planned to go in the first place.

Which dog, therefore, found the remains in the shallow grave first was debatable.

They'd both been digging at something--that was obvious from the state of their paws when they'd returned to the house.

And it was very evident which one found their discovery more disturbing.

Radulf didn't settle all that evening. On being released from his attachment lead, he drifted unhappily around the large, glass kitchen, trailing a faint residue of his earlier activity across the stone flags.

Finally, Nikolas glanced up from his paperwork, which he had been frowning over for some time. "What is wrong with that stupid dog of yours?"

Ben ignored him and held up a bottle of olive oil. "Seriously? You want me to put this in with everything else?"

Nikolas nodded.

Ben glanced at the blender. "But it's chocolate and milk. Olive oil and chocolate and milk?"

Nikolas inclined his head again.

"I make all this great food and you want olive oil, chocolate whey and milk."

This time Nikolas merely gave him a knowing smirk.

Ben was well aware that many, most, of Nikolas's recreational pursuits would be classed as unhealthy, perhaps even dangerous, but he'd never thought he'd come to categorise a fitness regime so. Ben had lived his whole life treating his body like a temple, eating and exercising to glorify its perfection. Initially, he'd been glad when Nikolas appeared to be doing the same. Appeared to be. To someone who didn't know better, it might just look as though Nikolas Mikkelsen had suddenly and surprisingly taken up running, working out, and following a nutritional plan. Ben, a few months into living with these changes, saw it a little differently.

His confusion at events over the last few months was so great, however, that despite how much this strange new obsession of Nikolas's worried him, he didn't voice his real concerns. After all his professions of faithfulness, of love, after the commitment of changing his name--giving Nikolas a ring, for fuck's sake--after all that, he'd up and left him more easily than he'd renounced his Ducati, his gym equipment, and his boxed set collection of The Walking Dead--or at least, this is how Ben knew his desertion must have struck everyone else. He knew none of this was true. He'd lived the heartache of his need to respond to God's call, to fulfil the promise he'd given Him. He'd only just survived the pain of leaving Nikolas.

He had not done what he'd done lightly. On the ice in Svalbard, he had genuinely sensed someone or something seeking him. He had spent his whole life preparing for such a summoning. It was why he'd joined the army, although he allowed his friends to think it was because there was no other outlet for someone with restless energy like his. It wasn't that. He'd been searching for something lost to him since he was eight, when his mother had not been home one day on his return from school. Martin and Sarah had explained it to him--God knocks, and if you open the door He will enter.

Ben had heard something, and he had been very willing to open that door.

So he would cut a hand off, offer penance, crawl on bloodied knees to wherever, and for as long as Nikolas required him to, if only Nikolas would ask for these things. But he hadn't. Nikolas resembled a man marching dangerously to a drum roll that only he could hear, some imperative he was unable or unwilling to ignore...

Ben clenched his jaw, regarding the light shining through the pale green oil.

His stomach roiled. Guilt and jealousy. What painful twins to carry.

Because it wasn't really Nikolas's new obsession or his remorse that woke Ben abruptly in the middle of the night, which turned food to acid in his stomach, it was the other matter...the other one...

Ben realised his jaw clench had turned into teeth grinding and made a conscious effort to relax as he poured in the required amount to the blended concoction.

Self-recrimination and suspicion sickened him as much as the foul liquid in the jug.

Radulf began scrabbling at the door. It was toughened glass, but it didn't withstand such insults, and there were already a number of impressive scratch marks on the surface. Radulf frequently implied, by an air of martyred innocence and refusing to acknowledge the damage when told to by Nikolas, that the annoying young furball had created them, but as some of them were seven feet from the floor, it was fairly obvious to all who was the culprit.

Nikolas hurled a scrunched-up ball of paper at Radulf and hissed, "Zatknis."

Ben measured out the shake in a tall glass and brought it to the table with his steak, eggs, and large hunk of bread. "Maybe he needs to go out again."

Nikolas took the glass and pushed his papers to one side. "Not without Petookh, it's too dark." Nikolas had renamed the annoying one a number of times, and when it was just Ben present usually referred to him with this dismissive name, which he said, in all innocence, was just a translation of Puffball. In a way.

Ben's Russian didn't cover the translation, and he wasn't about to ask Babushka, so he usually filed it away with all of Nikolas's other bullshit and called the puppy PB.

Radulf sank to the ground, chin on front paws, turning his sightless eyes to Nikolas with a fixed stare. Nikolas went back to his paperwork, but Ben could tell he could feel the reproachful accusation between his shoulder blades.

A sense of peace fell on them as Ben tackled his steak and Nikolas drank his shake. Just the two of them. It was something of a rare treat and only possible because Tim and--Ben clenched his jaw and refused to allow the name to come, which then ensured it did, over and over, a maniacal child's cackle of repetition--Squeezy, Squeezy, Squeezy--Tim and Squeezy weren't there for once.

It seemed to Ben as if he could never have enough of Nikolas all to himself just now. Which was ironic, as he was the one who'd voluntarily given him up for some months...He shifted uncomfortably as, yet again, his thoughts returned to his theme--how fragile this all was.

Ironic: a glass relationship inside a glass house.

One exclamation: I can't do this anymore. One stone thrown...

This new awareness of the fragility of their relationship was the main reason why, when Babushka had made the very reasonable suggestion that when Molly Rose came to live with them permanently she actually move into her cottage in the grounds and not the big house with them, Ben had readily agreed. Molly Rose, her new nanny, Sarah, Babushka, and their close neighbour, Enid, in her little bungalow, created a formidable female presence--but not in the main house. Here it was all male--Ben, Nikolas, Radulf and PB.

And perhaps, Ben reflected sadly, that was part of the problem. Some essential balance between him and Nikolas had changed. In many ways their relationship had been harmonious. Whilst they were similar in some respects, in other important ways he and Nikolas were very different. Indolence and energy; guile and straightforwardness; intelligence and...well, he knew how to use the internet if he needed to know something. But now the indolence was wholly gone. Nikolas was as a man possessed. The only reason he was sitting down now, and not swimming or in the gym, was because--there it was again, the jaw clench...Sometimes Ben's jaw was stiff on waking, and he wondered if he was clenching it in his dreams too--because Squeezy was somewhere else. He, Ben, was right here of course. The one who had dedicated his life to working out, who knew the name of every muscle in the human body...But his services weren't required apparently. Nikolas spent hours in the gym every day--but not the same ones as Ben. Their old style of workouts--Ben getting about half a dozen reps in before being taken down to a mat and shown a whole new definition of the plank position--were long gone. Even the brief, bright time of their reunion, the running on Dartmoor together, which had turned into other activities in the shelter of the warm granite rocks, had only lasted a few weeks until Squeezy had, once more, returned to live with them.

So, things had changed between Ben and Nikolas since God's little intervention into their lives. Ben observed the differences, noted them, and stored them in his mind to worry over in the long hours of sleeplessness, but he couldn't make any useful conclusions to his study. If they'd been about someone else, he'd have consulted Nikolas, who would initially claim not to even know who Ben was talking about, then pretend not to have noticed anything amiss, and only then would he come up with some very reasonable suggestion as to why these alleged alterations might have occurred. Sometimes, Ben was almost tempted to do just that--ask Nikolas. But he only had so many good years left to him--why waste them?

Alternately, it had of course occurred to Ben to ask the other one. The one who appeared to be in Nikolas's confidence--Ben always left it there. Squeezy being in anything else of Nikolas's was a thought that brought cold sweat out on his brow and a clench in his belly that ruined his appetite. But Ben wasn't that far gone yet. He still remembered a conversation in Tim's apartment where Squeezy had shown an unwelcome and unasked for--he'd been asking Tim, not the moron--interest in and knowledge of Nikolas--as if his friend had been thinking...Ben was going to finish that 'thinking about Nikolas', but it worked equally well just left there.

So, not so much like a glass house then, Ben reflected. Nothing about their relationship was crystal clear. Fragile, yes. Transparent, no. All the disadvantages, none of the advantages. No, that was unfair. Ben shook himself, gave himself a mental kick up the backside.

"You are staring at me, yet again, Benjamin."

Ben smiled and turned to look out at the dark March night. "Stop being so beautiful then."

Nikolas huffed and muttered, "You seem to find it quite easy to ignore all this perfection when it suits you."

Ben sighed at this pointed reminder of his infidelity. He understood what he'd been doing, but he allowed that it might be difficult for others to get it quite so easily. If you hadn't heard that voice, how could you know?

But Ben knew Nikolas well enough to realise that if his infidelity with God really still bothered him, he wouldn't mention it. That Nikolas made a frequent joke about such things only told Ben that something else was at the heart of the trouble between them.

Radulf suddenly decided that silent, blind glaring wasn't doing it at all. He rose from his reproachful hunch and came to Nikolas's side, dropping one large, heavy paw into his lap. Nikolas ignored the gesture, but after a moment said, "I think I'll give him a last walk before it gets too dark."

Ben smiled sadly. He never understood the silent communication between his two damaged companions, but he knew it went on.

Lack of understanding seemed to be a feature of his life at the moment.

But then he'd earned this all by himself, hadn't he? Maybe the next time someone called for him to join them, even God, he would make more effort to remember that he was already claimed, and that such summons must remain unheeded. Loving Nikolas Mikkelsen, after all, was an all-consuming pastime. A man should only ever have one God. Such apostasy leaves a void, and another had stepped in to fill it.

Once more, Ben gave himself a mental shake. Nikolas was here with him. It was enough.

During their long relationship, Ben had experienced moments when he'd thought life could not improve in any way, that things seemed so ideal they should be held in abeyance, a miniature, perfect existence suspended under glass.

Recently he'd come to wonder whether he'd been seeing it all wrong. Their lives more resembled a roller coaster. All he'd occasionally enjoyed were the brief pauses when it halted at the top of a long, painful rise. One pure instance of relief that the grind and pull were over, that now they could just stop and savour the view.

But roller coaster moments of still calm had deceitful provenances.

Ben knew only too well what came after those pauses for breath.

So, rather than acknowledging those tiny clock-ticks of perfection and thinking that all was secure in their lives, he'd started accepting them now as merely respites. Welcome--appreciate them while he could--but don't let go the fucking handrail for a moment.

He sighed and suggested, "Let's climb the tor."

Nikolas nodded and glanced at the puppy, but he was asleep, for once, and so did not get roused for this last exercise of the day.

***

They turned towards the back of the house and the bridge over the stream, but Radulf had other ideas and shot off in the opposite direction into the woods, thereby adding some considerable veracity to Nikolas's belief that he was entirely faking his disability.

It didn't matter all that much. Ben pushed his hands into the pockets of his jacket and hunched a little against the cool evening and followed the disappearing figure. "He's probably scented badgers again."

"Deer most likely."

"Enid reckons he's a Scottish deerhound."

"And that is why he was called Radulf?"

"Maybe his original owners made a mistake." Ben recalled some of Radulf's particular talents that his original owners might have discovered and didn't pursue this train of thought further, but Nikolas seemed fascinated by the idea of the dog masquerading as something he wasn't for some reason.

"Come. On. We will lose him in the dark."

"You worry too much about him."

"I wasn't worried. I was being hopeful."

Ben's scathing reply to this blatant fiction was cut short when they heard Radulf's distant bark, then after a few moments another frantic volley. Nikolas began to hasten his steps and then to run. Ben followed, difficult as it was in the tangle of old oak roots and mossy rocks that formed the outer edges of their ancient woodland.

They paused together to listen for another bark, then Nikolas frowned and muttered, "Cut across to the chapel."

Ben nodded. The barking was faint but did appear to be coming from that direction.

The path to the little stone building was easier to navigate, but as soon as they emerged into the clearing in the woods they realised Radulf was still some distance away.

"Bugger that fucking dog!"

Ben was striding past the gravestones and towards the path that led to the moors. "He's obviously found something, Nik. It could be an injured walker or a...I don't know! Something important, anyway."

"Uh-uh. You have clearly forgotten the incident with the dead sheep last week. The crow's wing he had stored under his blanket? The--for fuck's sake, do not tell me he is not even in sight." They reached the dry stone wall that marked the limits of their land.

The moors beyond lay silver and ethereal under the cold white light of the moon, and Radulf was nowhere to be seen.

But, timed to perfection, they heard him.

This time, his call was a howl, and Ben sensed a distinct chill run down his spine.

Nikolas apparently felt the same, and he vaulted the wall then began to jog towards the sound. The ground was slightly frosty out of the shelter of the trees, and it crunched as they pounded on its hard surface. "Can you see him?"

"No. Call him."

Nikolas didn't even bother to respond to that. It had occurred to both of them, Ben was sure, that far from them calling Radulf, it was the dog doing the summoning--and they were obeying nicely.

After a few minutes the moonlight cut off, dark clouds scuttling across the sky, denying them the light they needed to run. They slowed to a walk, but stepped it out still, Radulf's occasional bark leading them forward. "How far has that bloody dog gone?"

The light brightened again and another wailing summons made them turn and adjust their path, and then there he was, silhouetted against a patch of clear sky on the top of a small, nameless tor. Radulf shot off as soon as he heard them, and when they caught up to him, he was scrabbling at the moorland peat at the base of the rocks. As they approached, he raised his head to stare blindly in their direction and then gave an encouraging and rewarding thump of his tail. It was possible it was an apologetic one; Ben couldn't tell in the dark.

Nikolas clearly thought the same and began his usual litany of curses and rebukes in Russian, which Ben and Radulf tuned out with practised ease. The dog returned to his interesting find.

Nikolas was about to grab his collar to pull him away when he said distinctly and in English, "Fucking hell."

He was staring at the newly dug hole in the moonlit grass.

Ben glanced down but just as he did a cloud scuttled over the moon once more and the night darkened. He wasn't unduly alarmed until Nikolas swore again and began to fumble in his pockets.

"Wha--?"

"Where's my fucking phone?"

"What?"

Nikolas suddenly plunged his hand into Ben's pockets and began to search. Ben jerked back, annoyed, but Nikolas had found what he wanted. "How do you work this fucking torch thing?"

It was on the tip of Ben's tongue to make a joke about Nikolas training too much with Squeezy, picking up his way of speaking, but the joke had lost some of its appeal recently, so he kept quiet.

Ben took the phone back, clicked the app and shone the light into the hole.

He literally felt the roller coaster begin its descent.

"Oh, fucking hell! What is that?"

For once, Nikolas didn't appear to know what to say in reply.

Radulf had dug up the body of a satyr.