Ruprecht kept a careful eye on his little brother throughout the excitements and trials surrounding his sixteenth birthday and Schwulene. A lot of the time Felix was serenely happy, not least the day he offered his lifeblood to the boy he had selected for his partner for as long as his life should last. But there were occasions when he believed Felix was labouring under some internal trouble, as much mental as physical, for all his usual happy-go-lucky demeanour. Ruprecht rather thought Gilles detected it too, but his unease about his brother was not so deep that he felt he could bring it up with his ward, who needed to enjoy what happiness he currently had.
Summer was not the time to renew their excavations, so a further visit to Chasancene was not planned till after the harvest and the release of labour from the fields. The Parmentiers were again their hosts, and Ruprecht was a little uneasy as to how the son of the house would be treated. There was no hiding Gilles's homosexual union with his prince, and it had not been attempted. The boy had written to his parents and explained what he could of his feelings. He said the replies were not hostile, though his papa was obviously unclear as to what it was all about. His maman was more positive and accepting.
The Auberge aux Falaises was therefore its usual welcoming self, but Felix felt he could not insist on sharing a bed with his sworn lover, and Gilles admitted that it was probably best not to. This visit to Vieldomaine was not a state one, and though the Bernician embassy had notified the ducal court of the prince's visit no formal reception was planned to greet him. The ambassador unguardedly expressed the view that Francien susceptibilities (and indeed hypocrisy) about homosexuality being what they were, it was as well to keep the visit low-key.
Joerg and Ruprecht rode out to Champs Dolent and visited the farmer Leblanc. He was happy enough to see them again, not to mention their money. The success of the earlier excavation had intrigued his fellow tenant-farmers and they and the bishop's agent were most eager that Joerg should walk freely around the estate, looking for the lost Francien colony. Where Joerg walked, day-trippers and tourists might very well follow.
The two men made their way up to the ruins of the old manor house on the hill above the Préaux du Sang; now thickly green and ready for haymaking.
'So you ruled this site out, little one. Tell me why.'
Joerg smiled up at his lover, happy to be back in the field. 'The identifiable stonework is fifth-century at the earliest, Rupe. It's not a fortified site and there's none of that old brownware you find at early Francien sites. It's just the bishops' former country house. The woods behind were probably a hunting park. Look here, see! There're erdbeest bones in this ancient midden heap.'
'No, Rupe. The last of those was dead centuries before this place was built. These are common erdbeest bones. The old bishops must have stocked the park with a herd, staking a claim to equality with princes and magnates.'
'And they hunted them?'
'Most likely. Haven't you ever seen them?'
'Only pictures. I know there are still big herds in the Imperial Reserve and in the West Kingdom, not to mention the royal park of Ardhesse, but I've never got to see a live specimen. There are a few skulls gathering dust in the rafters of Freiborg, killed by Von Aalsts of ages past when there were still wild ones in the forests of Hochrecht.'
Joerg smiled a little smugly. 'I've had a chance to see the Royal Ardhessian herd. They used to have public viewing days at Ardheim twice a year, during Lent and Advent. It's quite a sight. There are several hundred of them in the great park. The way they move as a herd is almost uncanny; it really is worth seeing. They seem to sense the place of each and turn almost as one when the bulls lead them. Ardhesse has about two score bulls, which are the ones the king hunts. They rear up to nearly three metres when they go on their back legs. The Ardhessians breed for size, and I think the idea once was to try to recover the dimensions of the old royals, though without much evident success. The prime bull establishes himself by mounting and sodomising the lesser ones, feminising them I suppose. If the smaller ones resist, it's a fight to the death. The lesser bulls have to mate when the prime's not in view, and if a cow doesn't like it she hoots and the prime comes running to avenge the trespass. With that sort of limited pool, they can't breed for intelligence, that's for sure.'
Ruprecht pondered that. 'And the royal erdbeesten were the same?'
'Just bigger, and of course they were principally bipedal. A zoologist friend at university reckoned the earliest erdbeesten were tree-climbers. They would have been smaller than those of today, and might have had to shelter up in the branches from now-extinct beasts of prey, like giant ancestors of the hunting leopards. From what the finds of bones tell us, royal bulls and cows moved across the landscape in herds just like the common variety.'
'I've been wondering about the ritually buried ones we found, you at Schwarzwald and me at the Holy City. Both near ancient human sites, as it happens.'
'Yes, I think we can conclude that our ancestors used them in primitive hunting rites; ritually burying the royal bulls they hunted and killed as a tribute to the animals' strength and the superior prowess of humans. They certainly didn't eat them. No one eats common erdbeesten nowadays either, though the cows can be milked and the milk is supposed to have health-giving properties. If you survive trying to milk one, you're lucky still to be healthy, I guess. I hear the flesh tastes a bit like horse.'
Ruprecht chuckled at the thought. He looked out across the landscape from their vantage point. The river Rougiet was shining in the noon sunlight but the horizon was somewhat veiled with mist, so they could not see far across the plains to the west, while the roofs and towers of Chasancene were quite invisible.
He ruminated. 'We found the massacre site down below the hill, so we have to assume the Francien males had been captured and penned in down there before they were executed.'
'So … their settlement cannot have been too far away.'
Joerg shrugged. 'Or settlements! The men may have been rounded up from several villages and farms, and brought together to be disposed of. The other question is where were the females and children? It looks like a slave raid, doesn't it? You kill the mature males, rape their women and reduce them and the younger ones to forced labour.'
'It looks to me like the human colony fell apart and they began fighting one against the other. Maybe it was Alleman raiders who did this?'
'Or English. In fact most likely English, since they were running Kholnai for a century after the massacre.'
Ruprecht had an odd feeling he should be defending the Kingdom of Kevin Lengleis and the Connors at this point, but instead he returned to his original train of thought. 'The Francien capital really can't be far from here. You've surveyed the hill and found no trace, nor was there any reason to think it was under the modern town, so we're looking at somewhere in this stretch of the Val de Rougiet, yes?'
'Yes, Rupe. I suppose it would need to be near water for sanitary and agricultural purposes, but not so close that there's a danger of flooding. I suppose there'd need to be a nice flat space on which to land fireships.'
'You believe in fireships, Joerg?'
'Why not? Everything else in The Voyagers seems to be true. In fact I'd expect something like one of our naval dockyards, though to harbour ships from the air, not the sea. Guillaume le Rou set foot on Terre Nouvelle from a fireship, and he was Francien so there has to be a fireship dock where the Franciens built their city. It stands to reason.'
'My little doctor has quite the imagination.'
In the end the party hiked down the Rougiet valley the next day, and five kilometres below Champs Dolent encountered their first likely site. It was a flat stretch of ground a little elevated above the flood plain of the river.
'Does that stream look canalised to you?' Joerg asked Ruprecht.
'The one running down the side of the hill? Yes it does, and it's not a field drain either. Though it's flat, this area isn't arable or pasture, just brushwood with scattered barren clearings.'
'Those bare patches of ground interest me. I need to go up the hill and look down on the site to get an idea of its extent. Can you and the boys measure off and make a sketch map down here?'
'I'll leave them to get on with it. I'll come up the hill with you. Your pretty little butt might be threatened by a bull erdbeest, and frankly it's mine to sodomise.'
'Heard that!' Felix called over. 'You pair are disgusting.'
The outlook from the hilltop was sufficient to give them a good idea that the landscape below had been shaped by human agency.
'I think I can make out four separate enclosures, though nothing indicating streets, walls or buildings,' Joerg finally said. 'If it's what we're looking for it all seems to have been quite open.'
'A fireship landing field? Could this be the legendary Place of Landing after all?'
'Who knows? We'll have to dig. But if fireships did land here, you'd wonder why there aren't any traces of what must have been very big vehicles.'
The sketch maps and measurements Felix and Gilles had made confirmed what could be seen from above.
'Very well,' Joerg decided. 'This is the Lemarignier holding, and he's one of the local tenant farmers who's on board with the project. Not only that but he's obviously not using this land at all, not even for plantation purposes. So we'll get the carts down here with the labourers tomorrow, and I'll peg out places which need to be cleared. We'll dig along the evident perimeters of the enclosures and cut trenches across those interesting bare patches. According to my copy of the bishop's estate map, the Lemarignier farm is a kilometre back up the valley, so we'll go knock on his door and see if he has any objection to the plan.'
By mid-morning the next day all was in place and the hired labourers had their instructions. Monsieur Lemarignier turned up to view a site he thought had just been an abandoned old farmstead. 'And you think this might actually have been where the Landing happened? My goodness!' The farmer's eyes went unfocussed at the potential for enrichment that might lie underneath his property.
'Tell me, monsieur,' Ruprecht asked, 'is there anything odd about this part of your land which you can recall?'
The man scratched his head. 'Well monsieur, not that I can properly recall. We don't use it for more than occasional grazing, as the grass always grows thin here. In fact the only thing that does grow here is brushwood, which we crop every two years. The odd thing, which my father observed – Dieu le benisse, for he died ten years back this week – is that trees don't root here. They never have, not even when the brush is left. Anywhere else, you have to cut back the saplings. But not here.'
'Any idea why not?'
'Papa believed that the soil is thin, and there's barren rock just below the surface.'
'Well then, monsieur,' Ruprecht smiled, 'it will be a brief dig!'
It only took an hour for the trench cutters to realise the truth of the farmer's belief. Wherever they dug, their shovels scraped against an intractable surface.
Joerg scraped and brushed away at the ground. 'It isn't rock,' he pronounced. 'It's far too level. It's a finished concrete foundation.'
'Artificial then, my God! It's the jackpot.'
Joerg got all the crew clearing what was emerging by the end of the day as a series of level building platforms. 'Signs of plumbing here, so definitely not eighth century or earlier and look at that portion of pipe! It's alienware.'
The boys cheered. Gilles wiped the sweat from his forehead. 'Foundations Joerg, but what about the buildings that were put up on top of them?'
'No sign yet, Gillot. The ones we've uncovered have been deliberately levelled. But we have a lot more digging to do yet.'
The third day exposed fifteen building platforms of various sizes within the enclosure they had targeted. It was not till they cleared a corner that they found something more telling than concrete: a blackened circle three metres across, with ash to a depth of ten millimetres.
'So, the buildings were systematically demolished and their contents incinerated,' Ruprecht mused. 'Raiders again, Joerg?'
'Tempting to speculate isn't it? But we don't have enough evidence. I need to bag samples of this ash and try to analyse it. Look!' He held up several thin and curling grey strips. 'Alienware film, warped by the heat. I wonder what these sheets originally were?'
'I doubt we'll ever know. It looks like everything that was flammable in this precinct was piled here and torched, but there must have been other material. We need to extend our search.'
They considered the plan and assessed the likelihood of each of the other compounds turning something up. In the end all were agreed that the largest and most irregular of the enclosures must be next, though it would be a far longer job.
On the first day, as Ruprecht was cutting turves to expose the underlying soil, Gilles sidled up to him under the pretext of offering him a drink of water. 'Rupe, Kreech would kill me if he knew I told you this, but he's not too great at the moment.'
'What's happened, Gillot?'
'He's overdoing the digging, and he's flushed at night. I'm beginning to get worried. Can you get Dr Joerg to take a look at him?'
'Without giving away that you snitched on him?'
'You get my drift, Rupe.'
'It will be done … and thank you, Gillot. I know you'd not have said this if you weren't really worried.' The boy nodded and sauntered off with his usual easy grace. Ruprecht admired his shirtless brown torso as he walked away, a mattock over a shoulder. Gilles was putting on muscle now he was maturing into manhood. There was a deep channel down his spine; he boasted broad shoulders and swelling biceps. Gilles was more beautiful now than ever, even though he was losing the slimness and vulnerability of adolescence. Not for the first time, Ruprecht envied his little brother.
His gaze switched a little guiltily to his own lover. Joerg too was shirtless, crouching down and scraping at some exposed soil with his small trowel, looking like an intent child at play in his parents' garden. His skin was tawny down to his trouser belt, where the untanned whiteness could be seen as his position exposed his lower body. Joerg's blond fringe was in his eyes as usual. He looked up suddenly to find himself being stared at, and an involuntary shy smile turned up his mouth. For a moment, Ruprecht was all but overwhelmed at the feeling of passion for the little man that surged up from his belly and left him feeling empty; such an uncontrollable reaction to another man was not something he was used to. He could not stop himself going over, squatting next to Joerg and kissing him. He slid a hand down the back of Joerg's trousers and cupped a small, hot buttock. 'I could fuck you here and now,' he growled in the man's ear.
Joerg blushed. 'It'd shock the natives, though Kreech and Gillot would be amused.'
Ruprecht withdrew his hand and remembered his errand. 'Felix isn't too well at the moment, had you noticed anything?'
Joerg shook his head. 'Maybe I've been too fixated on the dig. I'll make sure to examine the boy when I get a chance.' He looked across the site to where Gilles and Felix were cutting through the turf. Felix was taking his time, resting on his mattock. Gilles was doing much of the work.
Felix was exiled from the dig with his tutor for twenty-four hours and ordered to relax in Chasancene, and so he spent the day with Gilles's parents and sister, who had come to the conclusion that his union with Gilles had indeed made the prince part of the Parmentier family, unlikely though that might seem. Felix however seemed to find it perfectly natural. He spent his time reading the papers in the back parlour, and was well-primed with news from the south to share when he returned.
'It's in all the papers, Rupe. King Scumbag has the Regent penned up in Ardheim. The city's under siege and Ardhesse is in his hands. Rumour has it his uncle's going to flee to the Empire on one of the warships he still controls. The war's over.'
Ruprecht shook his head. 'I wish I could believe the troubles of the south will end with the civil war. But with a king like that, there's not much to hope for.'
Gilles agreed, saying fiercely, 'I don't think either of them would be anything other than a tyrant, but even so Kristijan will be the worse for Ardhesse in the long run. If they think the war's over once Ardheim falls they'll be wrong.'
They returned to the dig in a sombre mood. It took two days to clear a workable area after Felix returned to the site, and when they had the result was very different from the first enclosure. The foundations this time were smaller: concrete blocks rather than platforms. Several of them retained the stains and fragments of the corroded footings of steel beams. They were bases for metal pylons, though the superstructures had long rusted away and collapsed.
'Look at the soil, Rupe,' Joerg urged. 'It's red with iron oxides, and there are lots of brown flakes from fallen and corroded beams. I think a careful soil distribution map might just tell us where the metal towers fell and even give us some data to calculate how tall they might have been. The soil's highly acidic. Iron sheets and beams have little chance of survival here.'
Felix was put to the task, having been indefinitely barred from digging detail in addition to his enforced absence and rest. He was not happy about this, but could not deny he had overtaxed his frail constitution.
'Do you think they might be tethering posts for fireships?' Joerg asked hopefully.
'You're keen on finding one aren't you? We don't even know what we're looking for.'
'It'll be big.'
'So I imagine. Too big to be buried by the accumulation of soil, and too big to be corroded away to nothing. So where is it?'
'Rupe my darling, you can be a wet blanket. It pains me to tell you this.'
It was not until near the end of the week that the excavation finally encountered something undeniably significant. At the highest part of the second compound the diggers encountered a new sort of concrete structure; not a building platform or foundation but a squat, circular building in its own right. It took several days to clear it, and when they had it was very mysterious indeed.
'C-c-could those s-s-slits be windows? Surely that wa-wa-was a hatch of some sort. This is really interesting.' Joerg was undeniably jittery now he was finally face-to-face with an intact structure fashioned by the Ancients.
'Only one way to find out, I suppose. Dig it out. That portal might have once had a hatch but now it's just a soil plug. What lies beneath I wonder?'
There was only room for one worker on the delicate task, and it was given to Gilles to do as he was smaller than the workmen who had been engaged for the dig. He toiled away steadily, chopping away the clay that had been washed into the aperture by centuries of rain sweeping down the hillside. The aperture he was revealing sloped downwards below the concrete dome. Eventually Gilles was beneath the surface, and with no space to swing a spade he was cutting through the soil with a large trowel and handing up buckets of spoil.
'Take a break, Gillot,' Ruprecht ordered, and hauled the boy out. He was filthy, with earth in his hair and ingrained into his sweaty body. 'Go take a wash in the river. Kreech will be glad to assist I'm sure.'
'You stink, Gillot,' said his lover with a lecherous grin, 'and it's quite a turn on.'
Joerg took Gilles's place, and Ruprecht was impressed at the wiry strength the little man possessed, filling dozens of buckets before Gilles returned. It was as Joerg squirmed out and Gilles jumped back down into the pit that there was a rumble below and a cloud of dust billowed up, accompanied by a sharp cry from Gilles.
'Gilles! Can you hear me? Gilles!' Ruprecht yelled.
'Is he alright?' Felix called anxiously.
'I'm fine,' came the muffled reply from below. 'It's a cave or something. I need a lamp. Can't see a thing.'
'How far did you fall?'
'Dunno. Not that far. I sort of slid rather than fell. Can you see me?'
Ruprecht craned and saw Gilles dimly about four metres below him, waving. 'Rope coming down, Gillot. We'll pull you up.'
With some scuffling and more falls of earth down the shaft they'd cut, Gilles was hauled out.
'Filthy again, Gillot,' Felix commented. 'Such a dirty boy. What … No! No … Umff!' Gilles had grabbed him, held his head in a vice-like grip under an armpit and tried to force a handful of earth into Felix's mouth.
'Get up, you pair,' Ruprecht growled as the two rolled around wrestling on the ground.
Joerg ignored the sideshow. 'We'll need to come back with ladders and lamps tomorrow. In the meantime, better cover up the hole with boards.'
'And post watchmen tonight,' Ruprecht added.
'Is that necessary?'
Ruprecht shrugged. 'There are always rumours of hidden treasure on old sites. You never know what some idiots might attempt.'
Joerg was very randy that night, despite all the day's physical activity. He stripped naked to wash in their room, without keeping his drawers on as he usually did, casting his eyes back over his shoulder at his lover, who was pretty much fired up himself. He moved behind Joerg and began soaping and washing him intimately, heedless of the water splashing from the bowl on the board floor. He worked his fingers into Joerg's tight hole and then carried him to bed, sitting the small man on his erection and letting him work it inside him, making sweet little gasps as he did. Joerg put a small foot on each of Ruprecht's knees, while Ruprecht steadied him. He go to work and shot across the room in several copious spurts in rapid climax.
Afterwards they lay together and kissed a while. 'That was good, little one. You're very excited aren't you? Is it the scent of discovery making you horny?'
'Mmm … probably. There's also the way you've been looking at me all day. I can barely believe that a man like you is so hot for someone like me.'
Ruprecht clasped the little man hard, the way he knew he liked it, surrounding him with his much larger frame. 'You funny little fellow. Have you any idea how slim and sexy you are? Your gorgeous little butt … the way it opens to me despite my size, and what my size does to your opening. Then there's how much you want me in you. What's there not to be obsessed about?'
A kiss was the only answer to that, and not long afterwards they slid into a satisfied sleep, waking together in the early morning.
They encountered raised eyebrows over the inn's breakfast table. Felix felt obliged to observe 'We could hear you going at it right through the wall last night. It sounded like you two were having great fun. We were too knackered. Today's big question. Can we go down into the hole first?'
'We're smaller and more agile,' Gilles asserted. 'It'll be safer.'
Joerg shrugged. 'I think I defeat you in the smallness department, though maybe you win on agility. What do you think Rupe?'
'It obviously wouldn't be me. But there are issues about making the entry pit safe. It was unstable yesterday, and I'd be happier if it was better excavated and shored up before we got going. But I'm just as desperate as the rest of us to know what's down there, so maybe a cautious initial exploration by our two sharp-eyed young heroes might be acceptable, as long as they promise not to be adventurous.'
Two pious faces greeted that caution, so it was agreed that the boys would descend into the open pit and take the first look at what might be there.
Gilles and Felix were equipped at the mouth of the uncovered shaft with miners' helmets which had oil lamps attached. It appeared that Joerg had long had them amongst his digging stores in case the need for underground exploration ever arose. The boys were also roped to body harnesses as they gingerly descended the ladder that had been placed against the side of the pit. Workmen were setting up an A-frame with pulleys in case anything bulky below might need lifting.
There was a small fall of earth into the pit as the boys descended, but the shaft otherwise seemed stable. Larger lamps were lowered down after them, and when given permission they began scouting what was to be seen within, taking the lamps with them. After ten endless minutes, Felix re-emerged into the circle of light from above.
'What can you see?' Joerg called down anxiously.
'There's a big square room below the dome, though we made a mess of one side of it when we broke in. There's all sorts of stuff down here we can't make any sense of: crumpled-up and rusty metal boxes and other alienware containers; lots of mixed-up debris, just like someone trashed the place.'
'Any sign of burning?'
'No, none. But there is a door on the side of the room towards the hill. Gillot says we're not to go through it until you say yes.'
'Not yet. Is it safe for others to come down?'
'I think so. The roof and walls look pretty thick and sound, apart from here, where the hatch fell in.'
Joerg gave his orders, and three of the hired labourers lowered timbers to shore up and consolidate the sides of the shaft. Once they were secure, Ruprecht and Joerg descended into the subterranean space.
Ruprecht found the cellar well-lit now, with the two boys, free of their harness, sorting through the debris scattered across the floor. Joerg first sketched a plan of the room and then had containers lowered to take up what was being found below.
Ruprecht picked up one of the alienware boxes, which seemed intact. 'They aren't for storage,' he commented. 'They're too thin and there's no obvious lid.'
'We'll analyse them later. There are characters painted on these walls. I need to sketch them. They're not all that damaged. Take a look at the inner door for me.'
Ruprecht turned to look at the portal. A metal door was still blocking it, though it was badly corroded and the remains could probably be pushed out of the way without too much trouble. The light of the lamp he held up to the gaps in the door revealed nothing of the dark spaces beyond.
Eventually, Joerg was ready. He had two workmen dislodge the remains of the door from its still surviving hinges and haul it out of the cellar. Beyond it, lamplight revealed a short passage and a further door, in a much sounder condition and firmly closed.
'It's drier in here,' Ruprecht remarked. 'The cellar had a lot of water penetration around the broken hatch. Here the walls aren't even discoloured. Do we break through the second door?'
'There's nothing to discover in the passage here, which is entirely empty.'
'Whoa!' Ruprecht warned. 'Not entirely. Look! The cement floor has deep dust at the edges and what looks like footprints going in and out.'
'You're right, Rupe!' Joerg agreed. 'I need to try and get a photographic plate of the ridges in the dust. Let me angle the lamp. Hah! Barefoot prints. What do you know? A woman or young male from their size, I'd guess.'
'The same foot, or more than one?'
'Looks like all the same print.'
After a long delay, the photographic plates were taken and they approached the door, which would not give to being pushed or pulled. So the workmen took crowbars and with a groaning creak pulled it outward on its hinges. A long rectangular chamber was within. It was sound, though the air was initially fetid.
'It's been effectively s-s-sealed against the centuries,' Joerg hissed with excitement. 'This could be good.'
Within were the metal frames of two sets of bunk beds, metal cupboards and much cluttered debris on the floor, including old cans and utensils.
'Human occupation, but no human remains,' Joerg concluded. 'What's that daubed on the wall? Jesus the Seneschal! It's Francien!'
On the far wall was a text, apparently marked in charcoal. It read:
2255-COL.5. FEVRIER. MARCEL. IF YOU FIND THIS I ESCAPED. STAYED HERE FOUR WEEKS. NO SURVIVORS IN PREFECTURE. NO POWER. NO COMM. MAMAN AND GIRLS UNABLE TO FOLLOW : HERD DRIVEN SOUTH NOVEMBRE. HUNTING BEASTS WEST OF HERE. LAURENT & ARMAND DIDN'T MAKE IT. GOING AFTER MAMAN. NOT SO COLD NOW. FOUND A GUN BUT NOT MUCH ELSE. J-C.
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