The full might of the army of the Emperor François descended on Westrecht with brutal decisiveness. There was no opposition that could be offered to an invasion by three army corps totalling over 150,000 men. The size of the occupation force left little doubt that Westrecht was only the first step on the Emperor's road towards the sacking of Ardheim and the capture of its king. It would not be long before Ardhesse would feel the wrath of the Empire.
'Somewhat predictable,' Ruprecht observed over the breakfast table to Joerg, who was sharing the morning's papers with him.
'What is, Rupe?'
'The Allemanic press is in full support of the brilliant young King of Ardhesse, a hero at bay, lonely standard bearer against Francien aggression, the only Alleman patriot left in the modern world and so on. The Allemanic Alliance is decried as a flock of cowardly razorbills in the pay of the emperor.'
'Ah … I see. Pity you're not a feature writer isn't it? You'd put them right, Rupe. Are the boys all packed?'
'Erwin and Meister Andrecht are sorting them. Mutta will meet the pair when they make their connection at the station in Schwarzwald, and then we have the schloss to ourselves for at least ten weeks. They won't be back till after First Mass Sunday.'
'I'll miss them badly. They're enjoying the sort of youth I so sadly missed out on. It's a vicarious pleasure just to watch them at play.'
Ruprecht smiled warmly at his small lover. 'There are other, more mature joys, little one mine. In just a couple of weeks the winter snows will have melted in the southern valleys of the Alps, and Hartland will be open to our academic curiosity. Now I suppose we'd better wave our little treasures farewell as they make their first steps towards independence.'
The treasures in question were currently standing bemused in the castle's entrance hall amongst a stack of trunks and other luggage. Erwin Wenzel had a list of items he was checking through with a second figure in the Aalst livery, whom it took Ruprecht several moments to recognise.
'Ludwig? What's going on?'
The gardener's boy, now approaching fifteen years and a well-grown youth, blushed and put his knuckles to his forehead in the rural salute of the neighbourhood. 'I'm to go with the young lords, minheer Graf, as their footman.'
'It was Erwin's idea,' Gilles commented with a grin. 'Ludo knows Kreech and me better than anyone, and he's used to the way we carry on. So sorry, Rupe, but we need him more than you do. Mutta thinks it's very sensible, so he's officially our first employee. Looks good in a plum jacket doesn't he?'
Ruprecht offered the boy his hand, which Ludwig took gingerly. 'I wish you the best, young fellow, and I'm sorry to see you go. Just make sure these two remember to pay your salary. Their memories are a little selective when it comes to money.'
Ludwig was strong for his age and seemed to manage the carting of the luggage into the waiting carriage without too much of a struggle. After taking an affectionate leave of his father, he mounted the boot, placed his new cockaded hat on his head and crossed his arms, trying to look impassive.
With hugs and kisses, his new masters said their own farewells and climbed up to their places in the landau, where their tutor had already taken his seat. They were still boy enough however to stand and wave to Ruprecht and Joerg as the carriage lurched off and bowled smoothly down the tarmacadam drive that Ruprecht had ordered laid the previous year.
He heaved a sigh as the carriage disappeared into the woods. 'Well, I already feel this place has lost some of its charm and life. No matter. Let's go down to the pool, where we won't be likely to be interrupted any more. There's a standing position I want to try out in the pool; the boys seemed to enjoy it rather a lot when they were … er … demonstrating it for me, and with our difference is height it could be quite intriguing.'
Joerg made no resistance to stripping, and even undressed at the house before walking naked across to the pool with Ruprecht. He took Joerg standing in the pool, and after climaxing he turned the little man. Joerg placed his hands about his bigger lover's neck and whimpered and shifted on him happily as Ruprecht waded back through the water to the bank, where he lifted Joerg off and laid him gently on the grass with a kiss, lying out beside him.
They stared up at the sky in a mood of wellbeing. Eventually, as his libido subsided Ruprecht remembered something rather more cerebral he wanted to bring up. 'I went to see the erdbeesten of Ardheim while I was in the south. It was still the Advent open season at the king's park.'
'The thing that struck me was exactly what struck you when you saw them. They're a bit like razorbills when they flock: they seem to know exactly where they are in relation to each other in the herd. They turn, stop and start as one. It's a little uncanny. Have you ever read anything about it?'
'Only encyclopaedias. The articles suggest that the prime bull has a way of communicating, maybe by hoots so low that they don't register on the human ear. Another suggestion is that the prime emits scents that alert his herd as to his intentions.'
Ruprecht shrugged. 'Scent takes time to carry through the air, but the beasts move as one. Also, wouldn't even the human nose catch it? I think I'll go with the hoot theory. How do undomesticated horses move in herds?'
'The only wild herd I ever saw was on a range in Hochrecht. They ambled about cropping grass with no rhyme, reason or direction until they were spooked, then they ran away from what they perceived as danger, just like antelopes. Erdbeesten don't run from danger. The bulls rear up and head towards the threat giving out a deafening chorus of very audible hoots, while the cows and calves huddle together, the better to be protected.'
'Did I mention what I saw the prime do to a smaller bull?'
'You did. It seemed to fire you up. Look! You're getting hard again.'
'C'mere little sexy bull, I want to …'
'No chance!' Joerg was up and running across the grass.
Ruprecht laughed as he chased his lover, his long legs carrying him close enough to grab Joerg and hold him squirming under him. 'Submit, little bull!' he hooted.
Joerg looked back at him over his shoulder. 'What're you going to do?'
'What do primes do?' Ruprecht was pushing the barriers, but he somehow sensed that Joerg was ready to abandon them in search of more intimacy and sexual excitement. The little doctor made no resistance to reenacting the episode of herd discipline Ruprecht had witnessed in Ardheim.
'That was a turn on,' was Ruprecht's verdict.
'For me too a little, but I'm not sure I'll be in a hurry to do it again. My legs are all wet.'
'Still, if ever I'm caught short in bed and the maid hasn't put out a chamber pot, there is at least an alternative, little bull.'
'Don't even think of it.'
The next morning Joerg came down to breakfast in just a loose shirt open to his navel, a first. He grinned at Ruprecht's raised eyebrow.
'Now those two boys aren't bouncing around the house I feel a bit more secure in displaying myself.'
'Erwin might have seen you.'
'I don't think he would have said anything. He's a grown man and I'm quite sure he wouldn't mind. It's not that he hasn't seen it all before.'
'He might jump you, you look so sexy like that, your hair all dishevelled. You are the most gorgeous little fuck, did I tell you that? And you get sexier by the day.'
'Good. Because we're going back upstairs and it's my turn to go on top.'
'The pleasure will be as much mine as yours, little bull. Just let me bring this toast with me.'
After a very energetic bout they subsided back into post-coital sleep. It was going to be a lazy day. The house seemed comatose without the bounding liveliness of Felix and Gilles, as if it too was dozing.
Ruprecht finally awoke and slapped the small and pretty bare butt next to him.
'Time to get up, little one mine. We have work to do.'
'Leaving aside the matter of all that pottery you've amassed, and which still needs sorting, I think we have enough material to hand to make a first stab at a grand theory.'
'You mean, about the Landing and its aftermath?'
'Exactly what I mean. Get yourself dressed and I'll get shaved. I'll meet you in our workroom in half an hour, so come prepared with ideas.'
With a quirky look at Ruprecht, Joerg went in search of his day clothes. His lover admired the small man's slender body as he crossed the room picking up items of dress as he went. Then Ruprecht went to the bath chamber with his shaving gear, a towel slung over his shoulder.
When he got to the workroom, he found a hot drink waiting for him and Joerg puzzling over boxes of finds from Vieldomaine.
'Did you come to any conclusions about the brownware?'
'Nothing radical or original, I'm afraid. It's made of alluvial clay from the Great River Valley and all pretty crude handmade stuff, unlike the wheel-thrown glazed blueware the English were making at the same time. They were using fine chalky clay from the southern Bernician coastal flats and the Holy See. I think all the pottery can tell us is what we already know. Technology collapsed utterly amongst the early Franciens, but persisted at a certain level among the English. Francien products only began to acquire sophistication in the third century, when the rise to modern civilization began.'
'So the collapse: what happened?'
Joerg shrugged. 'Something violent. The Francien prefecture was sacked and burned. The adult males were massacred and the women and children enslaved.'
'You think it was the English turning on their fellow-colonists, the Franciens and Allemans, don't you?'
'I do. All the facts point that way.'
'Then the question is why. Everything seemed to be celebratory and hopeful at the Landing, when the medallion was struck. Why should they have turned against each other so tragically within four years? These were civilized people, more so than we are. Yet by your reconstruction they had got to the point where the English were so filled with fear and hatred of the rest they were ready to murder their fellow colonists.'
'Maybe mass psychosis … perhaps there was something in the new planet's ether or foodstuffs that people brought up under another sun and on another world reacted to badly?'
Ruprecht considered that explanation seriously. 'It is possible, I suppose, though to my mind not very likely. But does that explain why even the English abandoned their superior technology? By the end of the first century they may have been more advanced than the savages whose remains we found in Heilige Moss, but they were no longer a people capable of sailing through the stars.'
'Could there have been a religious schism amongst them? Those people we found in the bog could have been adherents of a sect so austere they abandoned all the trappings of civilization … y'know, like the radical Eremites in the second century.'
Ruprecht nodded. 'D'you know, I'd forgotten them, you clever, sexy little priest. That's an interesting suggestion. It may be that the Eremites were some sort of survival of that earlier way of life. Though they were all male and foreswore sex as well as clothing, so it's no wonder they died out. So you think they might have been relics of an ideological struggle amongst our ancestors as to how to live on their new world?'
'People do weird things … like pretending to be erdbeesten.'
'You want I should put you through herd discipline again, cheeky little bull?'
Joerg grinned back. 'Maybe, but not for a while. The fact is, Rupe, we still don't have enough to go on. If there are answers they're wherever the ancient English prefecture was, which makes our expedition to Hartland the possible key to the whole question.'
The growing international crisis was having its impact on Bernicia. When Ruprecht and Joerg changed trains at Schwarzwald a fortnight later the platform was full of soldiers in fatigues and forage caps, lounging around and smoking. There must have been a couple of hundred of them.
Joerg looked askance at the troops, who were not making any effort to be unobtrusive; one old sergeant removed a cigarette and spat copiously on the ground in front of them.
'Are these Bernicians?' he asked Ruprecht.
'Mercenaries on a contract I'd think, heading south to take service with Ardhesse. It's on the brink of out-and-out war with the Empire, so there's money to be earned. Their colonel must have hired out a couple of companies or even a whole battalion. It's a pernicious system. It's like throwing dry wood on a bonfire. It makes profit out of misery. The Emperor will be doing the same, buying the services of cavalry and infantry from all over Terre Nouvelle, even some Alleman regiments: money has no nationality.'
Joerg walked on pensively for a while. 'The situation seems to be getting grimmer all the time. Will the east coast states stay free of the war?'
'You mean apart from providing manpower to the highest bidder? Yes, I think so. It's Ardhesse and the Empire in a death struggle, and the Emperor's road to Ardheim is through Westrecht and across the Fresch valley. The Montenards guard their valleys too tenaciously for either the king or the emperor to attempt that route. The problems for Bernicia and Hochrecht will come later.'
'What d'you mean, Rupe?'
'Whichever of those two powers wins will be ruled by a young and hot-headed sovereign with a taste for blood, and I don't think he'll be satisfied with just one bite out of the carcass of the Mainland. It'll be like the eighth century, when the Four Kingdoms were engulfed in decades of warfare against an insatiable Empire. Only this time it'll be worse, because the terrors of modern technology will add to the misery tenfold.'
'Maybe you should have stabbed that shit of a king when you had him at your mercy in Chasancene. It'd have saved everyone a lot of suffering.'
Ruprecht raised an eyebrow. 'My, what a savage little fellow you are! And a priest too. Could you contemplate committing a single murder if it might – but only might – prevent many thousands more? How could you be sure? How would you ever know you were right to do so?'
Joerg snorted. 'It's the sort of essay question we had in the seminary. It was designed to test the quality of our moral theology. But it basically comes down to your cutting off an arm infected with the Black Rot in the hope you'll save the rest of your body and your own life.'
'I'm not going to argue it with you, little one mine. The fact is I sometimes wish I had, but then you see there was my honour to take into account. True noblemen just don't do that sort of thing.'
Ruprecht thought he caught another snort from his lover at that reflection, but chose not to pursue it. They made their way to the right platform for the Sint-Willemsborg train and found Erwin already there, leaning on their stacked luggage and perusing a paper. When they approached he straightened, inclined his head to his master and indicated he wanted a private word. Joerg shrugged and wandered off to take a seat under the platform clock.
'An odd thing, excellency,'
Ruprecht looked a query.
'I believe I saw a familiar face just now in an unfamiliar situation. It was a man looking very like our former friend Captain Vinseff, except he was dressed rather better than the good captain ever was, striding at a great pace across the main concourse with what looked like several servants and a secretary hurrying after him.'
'Are you sure, Erwin?'
'I don't think I could be mistaken, sir.'
'Well, well. He's made something of himself since he fled Ostberg then. I wonder if his shady patrons provided him with an opportunity?'
'Very possibly, minheer. Although he was in a civilian frock coat there was something of a military air to his valet, if that was what the man was. The party was heading for the Ardheim express. My guess is that the captain was here acting as a recruiting commissioner, but if so he can only be working for the Ardhessian government. I think we may conclude that he has found himself a convenient billet in the South Kingdom. Troubled times are good for the likes of him.'
Hartland was a valley not much different from Neuhausen in geography and the appearance of its little stone-built townships. The southern alpine winter had by now passed, though there was still much snow on the surrounding peaks and high pastures. The distant rumble of an avalanche caused Joerg to look up as they walked the main street of the cantonal capital of Lindern. None of the natives so much as paused in their step.
Erwin had laid a local map on the parlour table of the small house they had taken in a back street behind the cathedral.
Joerg gave his little-boy frown as he pondered the task ahead. 'As well as Lindern, the canton has five substantial settlements: Yorck, Divelein, Kherditz, Emborg and Bielevaast. I haven't picked up any clue from local place-names about early English settlement in the area. You'd expect some sort of name like Connorsborg or Kevinstatt, but no such luck. We need to think logically therefore. My feeling is that the English prefecture would be in a flat and open area, just like the Francien one was. So we will need to search the valley bottoms. I worry that it's now under one of the present settlements, though if it were you might think the oddities under the soil would have been disturbed and remarked upon.'
Ruprecht rubbed his chin meditatively. 'You're assuming that the English prefecture did not meet the same fate as the others, and that its technology and fireships survived at least for a while to dazzle later generations.'
'By our reconstruction of events, they must have done.'
'That being the case, it's perhaps all the more likely it now lies under one of the present towns, but which one?' Ruprecht pointed to the map. 'Yorck and Kherditz are on the flats of one of the broader river valleys, the Saberndaal. Lindern is a fortified site on a low hill which the little river Tiems loops around before it reaches the Sabern. Emborg is much the same, though its site is above the tributary of the Vorth. The other two towns are quite high on the valley slopes. So it would seem that Yorck and Kherditz are where we should begin, in Saberndaal to the north of us.'
'Agreed, Rupe. Erwin's secured us mounts and pack animals for tools and any finds. So we can be off tomorrow. There's no railway to Upper Saberndaal, so it's horseback from now on, my dear.'
The upper reaches of Saberndaal formed a deep glacial trench with the shining, shallow river that gave it its name tumbling down from the high mountains to meander from side to side of the trench till joined by several tributaries west of Lindern, after which it broadened and deepened till it in turn became a major tributary of the Fresch south of the Ardhessian frontier.
The explorers took rooms at the small town of Yorck, a riverside settlement of some eight thousand souls clustered around an ugly church with a stubby tower. It was not a prepossessing place, the houses simple and in the suburbs roofed with turves. The dominant local industry, such as it was, revolved around herding and its by-products. The people were cheery enough however, and their landlord was glad to be able to lease his house on the market square so early in the season.
Joerg was unconvinced after his survey of the town that it could have been the site of the English prefecture. 'You'd expect some indication of the original precinct to be preserved in the street plan, but look how the lanes wander all over the place. The town's cut through by channels for little mountain streams, which doesn't allow the large rectangular enclosure we saw near Champs Dolent; even the market square is a triangle.'
The second day they mounted up and rode upriver towards Kherditz, across a mixture of rough pasture and boggy heathland. Untethered horses were grazing everywhere, barely glancing at the party as it trotted past. Precipitous mountains reared up like black walls on either side, streaked with snow, and the dark shapes of blood hawks hovered high in the pale sky, scanning the ground for any small prey scuttling through the whin bushes.
'Not a great place for a prefecture, wouldn't you say?' Ruprecht asked.
'It's defensible at least, and strategic too. You have access to cross valleys and passes running south, east and west. It's only closed to the north. The original colonists might well have planned to use it as a transport hub. I'm rather surprised that the modern rail network hasn't seen its potential.'
'Oh, the rail barons prefer the coastal routes. The engineering's easier. The Central Line to Neuhausen caused so many problems there's no enthusiasm for further Montenard projects.'
Just six kilometres north of Yorck they crested a low hill, around which the Sabern curved as it rushed over yet another set of shallows, and suddenly there it was. The prefecture, it could be nothing else. It stood on what had to be an artificially constructed platform, four metres above the level of the river bed and with the exact dimensions and shape of the enclosures they had uncovered in Vieldomaine, only this time the soil that covered it was shallow and broken by exposed foundations.
The three men sat astride their mounts looking down upon the object of their search, delivered into their laps so very unexpectedly.
'Damn me, little one,' Ruprecht finally observed, 'you're the luckiest, as well as the cutest, fellow I've ever met.'
Erwin's response was more practical. He was already unpacking the tools on their sumpter pony. 'Where shall we start, minheeren?' he enquired politely.
In fact, excavation could not start until they located the landowner, which proved to be a problem, as the moorland was held in common between four local ranchers. One of them made difficulties, as he'd had earlier problems with prospectors setting up an illegal camp on the river to sift for the occasional small nugget of gold that rolled down from the mountains. In the end, Ruprecht had to resort to cash to induce him to allow them to proceed.
The negotiations took a frustrating week, and involved the services of a local notary and a formal multipartite short-term lease on the enclosure, with a covenant reserving half the profits of any valuable finds to the ranchers. Ruprecht left them to fight out between themselves how they would divide the non-existent treasure beneath the grass. He also was obliged to employ several of their herdsmen as labour and (unofficial) monitors of what their spades might turn up.
In the end work began and under Erwin's efficient direction the site was exposed with far less toil than that at Champs Dolent. Knowing the plan meant they located the bases of the pylon with ease, not surprisingly as rusted metal shards of its beams still poked through the soil. Just as in the Francien prefecture, the English one had a residential compound, this time made up of two dozen large houses, the floor plan and rooms clearly to be seen and a lot of domestic debris still within their broken walls. The concrete dome was exactly where the one at Champs Dolent had been, though it too had lost its hatch. They postponed penetrating the cellars below it for the moment.
Ruprecht caught a brooding look on his little lover's face. 'What's up?'
Joerg shrugged. 'This prefecture was abandoned, Rupe. It shows every sign of having been trashed too, though not quite so thoroughly as the Francien one. It seems just to have been left to decay.'
Erwin called them over at that point. 'Here, minheeren. There's another one of those blackened circles that were once huge bonfires.'
Joerg looked even more troubled. 'Then who pillaged this place? I don't get it. The English were the conquerors of the other colonists. So why would they trash their own town?'
Ruprecht shook his head. 'New evidence, new hypothesis, little one. That's how historians work. It seems that each of the prefectures was laid waste at much the same time, so now we have to work out who by. At least the state of the remains here may tell us more.'
'Then we need to get digging. Tomorrow, we go below the dome.'
Joerg continued to agonise over his beer in the inn parlour of the Blue Stallion on Yorck's market place.
'Could it have been a retaliatory raid for what the English did to the Franciens? But if that's the case, how did the English gain their primacy over the others when their technology too was destroyed? I don't get it. How can you be so even-tempered about it all, Rupe?'
'Me? No, I'm as frustrated about the evidence as you are. It's just that my mind doesn't expect clear answers, and the new material just makes the problem all the more attractive. But it seems to me that we have now to be looking for a fourth party in the post-Landing catastrophe.'
Joerg's puzzlement was evident. 'What do you mean?'
'Well, if it wasn't the Franciens, English or Allemans that destroyed these prefectures then someone else must have. To be honest, that makes a lot more sense than a civil war on ethnic lines between the colonists, who had happily shared the voyage to Terre Nouvelle and worked in harmony for the first four years of the settlement. But, whoever it was had considerably more force at their disposal than the colonists could deploy, for all their advanced technology. So my first thoughts are that the unknown enemy came likewise from outside our world.'
'What! … I hadn't thought! Oh!'
'Indeed yes, little one. Alarming isn't it? Not least because humanity's unknown enemy might still be lurking out there between the stars.'
Joerg was still pondering this when Ruprecht noticed a stir at the bar and a sudden babble of conversation around the postmaster, who had just entered. He was intrigued enough to go up to the bar with the pretence of getting another beer, just to find out what was causing the fuss. He asked the tapster.
'Oh, minheer! The telegrapher's been busy. It appears the Imperials have invaded Ardhesse in force: they've already swamped the South Kingdom nearly as far as Freschdaal. Why, the Franszkis aren't more than forty kilometres from where we are, and some of their cavalry had the nerve to cross the Republic's frontiers in pursuit of fleeing Ardhessian troops. The reserve has been put on alert and there's to be a muster in the square tomorrow.'
Ruprecht took the news and more beer over to Joerg. 'By the way,' he added after imparting it, 'I asked Rancher Simonsen what local people knew of the site we had been digging.'
'It's got no local name, as it turns out, but there is a legend that the pastures around our site are shunned by the horse herds. They won't graze in them, and bolt rather than approach the site. There are vague stories of malevolent beasts that live under the hill nearby and lurk along the river bank there at dark of night to waylay and do away with isolated travellers. Now what do you make of that?'
Joerg shrugged. 'Any old site collects legends, just like Préaux du Sang with its skeletons. People like to make uncanny stories about unaccountable things in the landscape.'
Ruprecht took a meditative sip of his beer. 'I wonder. Maybe for once there is more to the ghost stories than just legend.'
The next day the diggers began excavating a shaft to penetrate the cellars beneath the dome. It took most of the morning, but by midday Joerg could easily worm his way down into the dark opening, taking lamps. 'Bodies!' he shouted up laconically.
The local diggers looked nervously at each other. Apparently the bad reputation of the site was well known amongst the ranch-hands of Saberndaal.
Ruprecht struggled to join Joerg, and brought a lot of loose earth down with him. He stood and dusted himself off. He found himself in much the same sort of space they had found in the Francien prefecture, but this time there was a large quantity of human skeletal remains carpeting the rendered cement floor.
Joerg was already intently examining the bones. 'The ones I've seen so far are all adult and male, with the vertebrae of the spinal column broken at the neck; two of the heads were in fact pulled clean off. It's a massacre of grown-up men, just like at Champs Dolent.'
Ruprecht looked around. 'There's a lot less of them though. Maybe the English escaped the holocaust the Franciens endured. That might explain their later resilience as a people. Fascinating.' He looked around. Unlike the Francien example, this subterranean complex had several doors. All were open, so he took up a lamp and picked his way first to the one that corresponded with the "Jean-Charles" refuge they had found in Vieldomaine. The cell beyond held much debris, but nothing immediately identifiable. The second led to an empty storeroom. It was the third which proved the most interesting.
By now Erwin had joined them, having made sure the shaft was secure. Ruprecht angled his lamp to shine through the entrance. 'What do you make of that, Erwin my boy?'
'It looks like a tunnel, Excellency. It seems to lead quite a way south of this place.'
Joerg had by now abandoned his search through the bone pile. 'You see the direction it's heading … towards that low hill we cross to get here.'
Erwin coughed deferentially as he interrupted. 'More to the point, minheeren, do you see what's painted over the entrance way. Can't read it though. It's English I think.'
Ruprecht raised his lamp to find the words in deep red.
BY ORDER : CONNOR O'CONNOR : INTERIM PRESIDENT: EU COLONY ONE
!! RADIATION HAZARD !!
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