'That's impossible! A gun in ancient Terre Nouvelle?' Felix shook his head in disbelief.
'It can't be anything else,' Dr Tannerman concluded. 'Tell me Gillot, did something other than dust come out of this creature's skull?' The boy searched around on the table, and held up a lump of white metal. The doctor scrutinised it. 'A bullet, I think, with an especially hardened tip. The impact has crushed it back into the softer metal behind and caused it to flatten. That explains the size of the hole in the skull.'
'My word!' Ruprecht commented. 'So our earliest ancestors were as technologically capable as we are.'
'I would imagine rather more so,' the doctor responded. 'If we accept that they really had come from elsewhere, as The Voyagers tells us they did, then they had traversed empty space to get here, presumably in their fireships, whatever they were. Unless of course you assume that God Himself cast humanity down on to our Earth, as our Evangelical friends maintain He did. I'm struck by how similar this handgun is to the ones of the present day: but then humanity has always invested rather more in military technologies than useful ones.'
Ruprecht marvelled at this observation for a moment. 'I don't get it,' he eventually said. 'If they were so advanced how come they all descended so rapidly into the barbarism of the first century, Francien, Alleman and English alike?'
'Maybe not all alike … this handgun came from what might have been an early English settlement. They at least may have maintained their technological edge for a while.'
Ruprecht shook his head. 'This is all too much to take in quickly. One thing of which I'm certain, though. We need to conduct more of these digs if an amateur such as me can turn up such momentous finds by poking around almost at random. So where do we look?'
Joerg chuckled. 'Now you're talking my language, Rupe old fellow. There are for instance three other sites which have been traditionally linked to the Landing of Man. One is in Aix, under the Basilica of the Saint-Emperor François I, but I'm willing to discount that one on the grounds that it's sheer Imperial bombast.'
'Where are the others?' Felix asked.
'The West and East Kingdoms didn't try to hijack the legend, as The Voyagers is clear enough that humanity landed first on the continental mainland. Ardhesse never claimed it because the Holy See's Landing site is right next door. But Nordrecht says it has the true site on the peak of Sterkhorn. Then there's Chasancene.'
Gilles perked up. 'Really, doctor? I'd never heard that, and I was born there.'
'Nonetheless, the Duke of Vieldomaine is traditionally the premier duke of Terre Nouvelle because he was once called "Guardian of the Footfall".'
Felix laughed. 'That's really silly.'
Gilles punched his lover lightly on his bicep. 'Don't insult my homeland, Kreech, or it'll be a duelling offence.'
Joerg pursued the point. 'It sounds better in Francien: Le Gardien du Pas Sacré.'
'Oh!' Gilles responded. 'I've seen GPS carved after the duke's name on stone monuments around the city, and never knew what it meant.'
'Well now you do, Gillot. Back in the fourth century you could apparently see the footprint of Guillaume le Rou pressed into a big round stone within the castle chapel of Chasancene. But the chapel and the footprint disappeared quite some while ago.'
'I don't believe it anyway,' the boy said.
'So Joerg, anywhere else we should go poking around underground?' asked Felix.
The man smiled happily. 'I shall begin a long, long list.'
Life at the schloss got back into its old rhythm with the return of the boys' tutor, who took a great interest in the discoveries at the Holy City, with which they were still bursting. Meister Andrecht even undertook to ponder the question of the damaged murals, though Ruprecht's sketches were not that revealing other than as to their size and position in the catacombs.
A new thing however was the regular appearance of Joerg Tannerman at the manor house. He came for dinner two or three times a week, and became more and more comfortable with the inhabitants, amongst whom his stammer rarely resurfaced. The boys were very fond of him. They recognised his essential body shyness and did not test it by too many double-entendres or open displays of homosexual affection. Cool weather in the early winter months and the chill of the waters emptying from the mountain into their pool meant that the place was abandoned till after the Lenten rains ended, when the constant sunny days would begin again.
Ruprecht spent time instead in his study acquainting himself more closely with the techniques of excavation and the processing of the finds they might throw up. Joerg was a patient teacher, and they would walk the grounds and the heathland below the schloss discussing their coming digging campaign. But oddly enough their first joint dig came to them, not as a result of their own initiative.
A messenger came up from the town one morning as the two men were leaning on the paddock rails, watching the stablehands exercising the horses.
'Minheer Rector!' the teenage courier called out, as he slid off his hack. 'A message from Minheer Mayor.'
Joerg broke the seal and read the contents. He looked at Ruprecht with raised eyebrows. 'It's my forensic rather than pastoral skills they want. Physical remains have been unearthed by peat diggers down the coast at Heilige Moss, and the district coroner wants me to examine them for evidence of foul play.'
'I'll have the horses brought round,' Ruprecht responded. 'We'll pick up your bag and some tools as we go past the rectory.'
'Best change into old clothes then, Rupe. Wetlands can be dirty and messy work, as well as inevitably wet. It'll be good experience for you though.'
An hour's ride brought them to the southern edge of Blauwhaven lordship and civil district, to the Moss, a shallow waterlogged valley fed by mountain streams. They found the peat cutters at work amongst the drying stacks and rather excited about their discovery. The foreman knuckled his forehead to the Lehensherr and the Rector. 'Minheeren, we were cutting into the lower levels of the old trench when … well, let me show you.'
A wide sloping trench cut through the heavy black soil, and they were led to the bottom end. The foreman pointed and Ruprecht was momentarily taken aback, for a human face, eyes closed, was looking out at him from the side wall. 'My God!'
The doctor was instantly absorbed, looking close-up at the face then taking out a measuring tape and assessing the depth of the corpse from the surface. He began busily making notes.
The foreman watched for a while and suggested they dig out the body from the side. 'N-n-no, Klaus,' Joerg said. I w-w-want you and your men to dig d-d-down from the top and g-g-go carefully as you approach the lower level where the body is.'
'What are you thinking, Joerg?' Ruprecht asked.
'That this is not a recent corpse but a very ancient one.'
'But it looks almost lifelike.'
'That would be the preservative nature of the soil, which entirely inhibits decay. But it has been here many centuries judging by its depth in the peat. This is not a case for the constable I believe.'
The foreman delegated a party of workmen to begin the task, while Joerg made sketches and measurements. It took an hour for them to get down to the level of the corpse, but they did a good job of exposing it. She was on her stomach, facing left, one arm underneath her and another splayed.
'Entirely naked. How odd, for the bog should preserve her clothing. A girl, maybe of thirteen or fourteen. Did she drown while swimming?'
'Her skin is dark.'
'It's taken on the colour of the peat in which it's lain for centuries, Rupe.'
'Minheer! Look, another!' A workman was indicating the side of the trench where a human foot could be seen jutting out.
'Let me m-m-mark out a new area for d-d-digging, gentlemen. Rupe, I think you and I had best take up our shovels too. This may be a longer job than I expected.'
A negotiation with the foreman and several coins secured the services of his crew for the entire afternoon.
By the end of the work an area some six metres square had been excavated, and four bodies exposed. They were delicately slid on to a tarpaulin that had been sent for. As well as the girl there was an adolescent boy, a woman and a boy child of about five years of age.
Joerg studied the bodies closely, and shook his head. 'Regrettably, there were two other casualties of this ancient tragedy. Both the woman and the girl were heavily pregnant.'
'They have nothing on or about their persons,' Ruprecht observed. 'No clothing or artefacts whatsoever.'
'The woman, girl and older boy have their hair tied back with strings of woven grass, but yes, they are utter primitives, not even so much as a tattoo on what's visible of their bodies. From their faces they could be Alleman or Francien.'
'… or even English?'
'Who knows? But their primitive state corresponds to no known stage of our history. I can only suggest therefore that they belong to the lost years of the first century. But how did post-Landing society degenerate to such a condition that our ancestors wandered about as naked savages without the most basic tools and amenities? And look at the splayed feet of the child and the youngsters: they've never worn shoes. The woman on the other hand has the compacted toes of someone who'd been shod throughout her years of growth, though the callouses on the soles indicate she'd been barefoot for a long time before her death. The state of her belly, breasts and vulva indicates she'd given birth to and suckled numerous children; she'd been bred like a mare.
'I don't know the answers to any of this, but what we see here does confirm the catastrophic discontinuity between pre- and post-Landing society. There was once an advanced society amongst our remote ancestors, but it was utterly destroyed in a very brief space of time. This poor woman saw it all happen in her forty or so years of life.'
The coroner rode up during this discussion and was reassured that the bodies were not his responsibility. He proposed to cart them back to the town and decide what to do with them in consultation with the mayor. The workmen's day was over, and once the bodies were wrapped and lifted on to the wagon bed they left with them.
Another horse approached carrying one of the grooms from the house; he had a basket of food and drink which the thoughtful Erwin had sent. Ruprecht and Joerg toasted the seneschal's good health in a flask of white wine.
'I stink of sweat and peat,' Ruprecht observed. 'I propose we go down to the beach and do something about it before we return home, otherwise we may spook the horses.'
Joerg hesitated, but agreed. They found a stretch of brown sand and a shallow bay. Ruprecht stripped off his stained clothing, threw it to one side then ran into the waves. He looked back to see Joerg down to his drawers and vest, but modestly going no further. The little man walked out into the sea and sat down, scrubbing himself. With his small face intent on the task he looked like a serious schoolboy. Ruprecht swam out into the deeper bay, enjoying the refreshing coolness. He hauled out on to a rock and looked back with interest at Joerg, who now stood, his soaked linen underclothing semi-transparent and revealing something of the pale body beneath. Ruprecht could see small dark nipples and a modest-sized penis outlined through the cloth. There was no hair evident on the man below his head, not on his chest, arms or legs; even his armpits were bare. Did the man shave himself? There was no darker area at his crotch to indicate a pubic bush. Ruprecht was very intrigued by the slim boyishness of Joerg's torso, to which the soaked cloth clung tightly, and when he turned to go back up the beach Ruprecht's connoisseur's eye was much impressed by the small tight behind, perfectly rounded and in his assessment superior even to Gilles's, which had a certain muscularity about it nowadays.
Ruprecht too sought the beach, but stayed naked as he laid out the picnic. The winter sunlight in Bernicia remained warm, so there was no discomfort in lying out on the sand to dry in it. The discomfort was clearly on Joerg's side, as he kept shooting uneasy glances at his friend, which Ruprecht caught out of the corner of his eye. He on the other hand took the opportunity to take as good a look as he could at this strangely modest young man's body, which he might conceivably never get to see again. They made fitful conversation, in which Joerg's stammer returned with a vengeance. He did not relax till Ruprecht reassumed his clothing.
At dinner that evening Ruprecht found that the boys' latest project was to map and record the progress of the civil war in Ardhesse. Their urgency to enthuse about it trumped his own discovery on the Moss, so he filed that for discussion with them later. After the meal he was taken to see a contoured map of the kingdom they'd created with their tutor's assistance and laid out on a work table in the schoolroom. There was a board to which newspaper cuttings were pinned, along with lists of Ardhessian military units abstracted from a copy of the Politikerischer Jahrbuch: Auflage 887, which Meister Andrecht had lent them.
Ruprecht burst into laughter when he saw a portrait card of King Kristijan III pinned to the top of the board, under which Felix had penned a note which said 'Murderous Psycho Scumbag'. Under an adjacent photograph of Duke Horst was a note by Gilles which read 'Probably Another Ardhessian Scumbag'.
Counters made of card marked the known locations of garrisons and units. The boys were updating these daily from the many newspapers and magazines that Ruprecht subscribed to, now he had the funds to indulge himself.
'So what's the situation?' he asked.
'The Regent's army's gone into winter quarters, they say, after the defeat at Grenzheim,' Felix responded. 'Don't know why, 'cos there isn't any winter in Ardhesse. But what do I know?'
'It's a mistake,' Gilles chipped in. 'King Scumbag is getting supplied by his relatives in Westrecht, and it's conceding him the initiative. His army's filling out with Montenard mercenaries, and he's conscripting manpower from the cities he controls. In the meantime his cavalry columns are raiding everywhere. There was a skirmish three days ago where he was allowed to seize a key rail bridge across the River Fresch. He's destroyed the other bridges, so he's more or less secured western Ardhesse.'
'Gillot's red hot on the military stuff,' admired Felix. 'You think Kristijan will take the fight to his uncle, don't you Gillot.'
'You bet. It's just like the creep, ruthless but with dash and daring.'
'Why Gillot, you almost sound as though you admire him,' Ruprecht observed with a touch of mischief.
The boy frowned. 'You can appreciate the genius which allows him to win with a poor hand. What makes him a scumbag is what he'll do when he wins.'
'So you think the duke is doomed? The magazines say otherwise.'
'Kristijan will have Ardhesse at his feet by the end of summer, I'll bet you Kreech's lube bottle on that.'
Felix scoffed. 'It's the thing I most value. Talking of which …'
Ruprecht was woken early the next morning by his two charges bounding naked on to his bed, squirming in next to him and snuggling up, Felix against his front and Gilles his back. Felix looked coyly into his face. 'Please, please, Rupe! Can you let us off school today?'
The smooth, warm skin pressing up against either side of him was disconcerting, especially as it had been a while since Ruprecht had any sexual relief. The boys were pushing the boundaries deliberately, for Gilles's groin was pressing up against his buttocks and the boy's arm clasped Ruprecht's waist. Gilles's fingers strayed down his lower belly and into his pubic hair. Ruprecht struggled to master his reaction and sat up.
'Is this a seduction?'
Gilles grinned up at him as he stretched languorously in the bed. 'If you want. But Kreech and I are desperate to go down to town. Ludwig brought up our hot water and told us there's an amazing exhibition opening in town with posters everywhere. It's called "The Bog People": dead bodies as old as the Landing they found in the peat diggings! There'll be big queues. It's educational. Meister Andrecht could take us.'
'I can tell you all you need to know about it. It was the doctor and I who dug them out.'
'You didn't say!' Felix exclaimed with an irritated pout. 'So tell us about them.'
Ruprecht lay back in the bed next to the boys and sketched out the discoveries and Joerg's first conclusions. 'I don't think he'll be happy that the bodies are being displayed. He'll probably want them reburied.'
Gilles concurred. 'They were probably Christians even if they were savages. It would be the decent thing to put them to proper rest in the churchyard, even if we don't know their names.'
'But not till we've seen them first,' Felix insisted.
'It's not my decision. It'll be up to Meister Andrecht. Now get out of my bed and go wash.'
Felix grinned at Gilles. 'Not till we've left you something to remember us by.' The pair let out loud farts and then tried to escape. But Ruprecht got Gilles by the ankle, wrestled him over his thighs and seriously laid into his backside as the boy yelped in real pain, trying to deflect the slaps with his hands. When Felix attempted to liberate Gilles it turned into a free-for-all from which Ruprecht did not himself emerge unscathed, though Felix's spotty buttocks too got a well-deserved smacking. Both boys were as erect as Ruprecht as they escaped him and ran off back to their room, the house full of their yelling and laughing.
As it happened, Meister Andrecht shared the boys' curiosity and declared their afternoon session would be a visit to the exhibition. Ruprecht called the carriage for them, and once he had waved them off took the opportunity of a particularly mild day to head across to the lawn by the pool. He undressed and lay flat on his back so as to soak up the warmth of the sun.
He was pondering the group of primitives he had helped discover. Had they been a family group? They were clearly nomadic hunter-gatherers, and from what he had seen they had been crossing the bog heading south when one of them, maybe the girl, had stumbled into a morass and been sucked down. The youth and the woman had perhaps tried to get her out only to become victims themselves, as had the small child, vainly trying to reach his mother maybe.
Had the youth fathered a child on the girl? They had both been young teenagers. What sort of brutish existence had it been where they eked out life from day to day, scavenging food as they wandered, with no other recreation than copulating as soon as their bodies matured? The mature woman had once known a civilised existence it seems. The despair she must have lived in to see herself and her children reduced to the level of beasts!
The calling of his name brought Ruprecht back from a half-doze. 'Come over, Joerg!' he shouted back, deliberately refraining from mentioning his nudity. The man's reactions to any sexually challenging situation intrigued him.
'Oh … I'm sorry, Rupe. I had no idea.'
'No apologies needed. Come join me.'
'What … take off my …?'
'Why not? You've got nothing to be ashamed of.'
The man was bright red as he took a seat, fully clothed, next to Ruprecht. 'You … er … looked at me on the beach yesterday?'
'Look, I'm sorry Joerg if my sexuality is troubling you. But you are a very good-looking little fellow.'
'No, I don't mind your being a homosexual, Rupe. I just find situations like this troubling.'
'Why? Is there a reason other than personal modesty? Oh hang on … have you taken a vow of chastity? I've heard of those.'
'Me! Well … no. But it's not unlike. The teaching of the Church on men in love with other men is not encouraging.'
'Though the Seneschal said we must not judge and we must accept others on their own terms,' Ruprecht thought he should assert.
'I'm not judging you, Rupe. It's m-m-me.'
Ruprecht sat up, putting his arms on his knees. 'What! You're queer too? Dammit Joerg you hide it well.'
'M-m-maybe not as well as I should.'
'So it's your vows as a priest that trouble you?'
'No, no. It's just that as a r-r-r-representative of the Church it seems wrong to publicly embrace a way of life it does not approve.'
'You're a virgin!'
Joerg stammered into silence.
Ruprecht put an arm round the young man's shoulder. Joerg tensed, but did not squirm away from him. 'So I am the problem. I'm sorry, Joerg. I've been pushing things and made you more uncomfortable than I realised. But you've never had sex?'
'No … but when I see a man like you all n-n-naked and beautiful, it gets harder and harder.'
'What, your …?'
The little man stared, and surprisingly he laughed. 'I wish I could be so r-r-relaxed as you with it all. No, I've never been with another man, or woman for that matter.'
'Damn it. But if you weren't queer you'd do it with a girl if she was willing and you felt an attraction? I know so many clergy who're married, and with big families. My half-brother got a girl pregnant before he married her, and he's now the Dean of Freiborg Cathedral.'
'I suppose …'
'And were you to do it with me – just saying – there couldn't be any consequences of that sort.'
'It's not just that but … sex scares me. I don't know if I'll do it right. It all seems so undignified.'
Ruprecht took a risk, and lifted his hand to stroke the lobe of the man's small right ear. Joerg shuddered, and half-unwilling his head followed the motion and he let out a little whimper. 'Joerg, I think your problem may be that your body wants sex so badly it scares you. You're very erotically responsive.'
The men's eyes met. 'Let me show you what I mean.' Ruprecht stroked down the ridge of the man's back. He was not wearing a jacket. Joerg squirmed with the action even though it was accomplished through two layers of clothing.
'How did your bum feel as I did that?' Ruprecht asked.
'It sort of … tingled,' came the whispered reply.
'Joerg, I think you may be a very lucky man. You're sexually highly sensitised and everything's wired to your ass.'
'What does that mean?'
'We can find out, if you'll trust me.'
'I'd like to, but there's a danger.'
'That I'll fall in love with you.'
There could only be one answer to that. He took the smaller man round the neck and closed to kiss. Joerg was inept to begin with but when his mouth opened to Ruprecht's probing tongue his education began. While the kissing went on, Ruprecht loosened the man's trousers and found his erection.
'Oh … oh my God!' Joerg broke off the kiss with the shock of feeling his genitals touched by another for the first time. Ruprecht knelt up over him and pulled off the small man's lower clothes, then ripped open his shirt and roughly pulled off his undervest. Joerg sat naked and exposed to his gaze.
'Jesus the Seneschal, Joerg. You're really a surprise!' The man's torso was like that of a teenager, with taut, slim belly and a small slit of a navel. The resemblance to an adolescent was all the more marked because he was the size of an average fourteen-year-old. He was entirely hairless apart from a small puff of light brown above his erect penis. It was perfectly proportioned, the purple head exposed by the retracting foreskin, the brown balls tight to his groin. Joerg met his approving gaze shyly. He lay on his back when Ruprecht asked him to.
'This is the decider, Joerg,' he whispered in the man's ear and stroked his nearest nipple lightly. It was dark brown and prominent. Joerg squirmed and whimpered, shifting his small butt on the grass. When Ruprecht sucked and slightly bit into its hardness, he arched and bucked. And when Ruprecht gave his attention to both his nipples, Joerg began groaning and fucking the air. Without warning his belly clenched; he arched and ejaculated in several heavy shots, one of which plastered the side of Ruprecht's face as he was nibbling on the left nipple.
When Joerg ceased panting and came off his climactic high, Ruprecht kissed him again and laughed. 'Joerg, you really are a lucky little homo.'
Back at the house, Ruprecht got Joerg a strong drink and sat him down in his study. He let the little man sip at it for a while before he said anything. It occurred to him he might say nothing about what had just happened by the pool, and maybe Joerg would himself prefer to pretend it never had. Joerg might assume Ruprecht just wanted some momentary sexual relief. But there had been too much of a connection when the two men had kissed, and Joerg's submissiveness had been a real turn-on for him, one he wanted to repeat, especially so as to fully deprive Joerg of his virginity.
'So there you have it,' he eventually said, with a smile. 'We're both homos and you've had sex. I enjoyed it and I hope you did.'
A shy and vulnerable smile answered that question. 'I did, thank you. Would you like to do it again sometime …?'
'Very much. There's a lot more to it, you know. That was just a taster. And Joerg … let's be clear on this, it was because I was doing it with you that it was so good. You're quite unexpected. I would like it if we could spend some time together in bed, mine or yours, whichever you prefer.'
'That would be … I can't imagine anything I'd like more.' He relaxed and beamed, and Ruprecht smiled back, leaning over to seek a brief kiss which was returned.
After a moment of silent communion, he remembered a packet the morning's post had brought from Hans, now back with his Leopard and in port at the Hochrechtner naval base of Luitpoldshaven.
'I've got one more find from my so-called excavation in the Holy City to show you, Joerg. I mentioned the large coin that was in the erdbeest burial. Hans took it off back home with him to clean it up. I think this is it back again. Yes, he says he got one of his more skilled sailors to restore it so far as it was possible. He says we'll find it very interesting.' Ruprecht ripped open the packet and the disk, now free of verdigris, clunked on to his desk. He scrutinised it briefly, his eyes wide, then passed it on to Joerg.
There was a silence followed by a long exhalation of breath. 'My God! So it looks like there still is some historical evidence to be found. Can you read the English legend around the rim of the obverse face? It's quite clear, unlike the central motif.' He passed it back.
Ruprecht slowly spelled out the still-sharp inscription: 'TO COMMEMORATE THE EUROPEAN UNION : EXTRATERRESTRIAL COLONY ONE : AD 2150'.
'And can you make out the design within?'
'No, it's a bit corroded. Is it a face? No? Oh … I see. A map: damme, it's the Mainland and Islands!'
'Hand it back, Rupe. I have a trick which may well tell us a lot more.'
Joerg took a sheet of thin paper and placed it over the medal, and buffed it lightly with the edge of a pencil. Then he handed the result to Ruprecht.
'I can see three embossed points on the map; they're five-pointed stars. They sit within what look like three kingdoms. There's tiny writing, but it's blurred apart from the top left-hand legend, which says, in Francien what's more: CIRCONSCRIPTION ADMINISTRATIVE FRANÇAISE.' Ruprecht pondered this for a while then flipped the medallion over. 'There's more here. Give me more paper and the pencil. Let's see what I can make out.'
A minute's work produced a central column of four names, the first three legible, which ran as follows:
GUILLAUME LE ROUX :
KEVIN O'CONNOR :
Administrator : Anglo-Irish Zone
JEAN-CHARLES MARTIN :
Administrateur : Circonscr …
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