Count Oskar


By Michael Arram

The going began to get more uneven as they left the highroad to Kesarstein and took to the hills above the Arndt valley. The carriage swayed wildly, causing Gus to feel more than a little uneasy in the stomach, used as he was to English macadamed turnpikes. He had much rather been riding on horseback with Captain Antonin and his detachment of chevaulegers, trotting ahead and behind the carriage. He would even have been happy sitting beside James up on the box with the coachman. The weather had continued fine, as it had been since they crossed into Ruritania, and he loved the feeling of the wind fluttering his hair. After three-quarters of an hour of steady progress up and down hills, past villages and post houses, the carriage suddenly turned north and west into a more rugged and wild landscape, the forest of Hentzau.

'Who's been looking after the estate since your father died?' Gus asked.

'There's a law firm in Strelsau which appoints a steward and manager. Father came out here quite regularly, or at least every couple of years, to see what was going on and hear what the locals had to say about the way things were being managed.'

'Is it worth much?'

'Nowhere near as much as the improved farmland in Norfolk, and it's all dwarfed by the property portfolio we have in London. However, Father had plans to improve the agriculture here. He at least built a few modern mills before he died. Part of the problem is the legal status of north-Ruritanian peasants. They enter into copyhold agreements with the lord which give them security on their small tenements for life, and there is an expectation that the children will succeed the father on the same terms. As a result, it's not easy to consolidate holdings. Although the stewards have begun the slow process of buying out heirs, it'll take another generation before the effects will really be seen. It's a very traditional society, another world even from Strelsau, let alone Norfolk.'

'I see you've done your research, Bobby.'

'I always intended to come here one day soon, but mother resisted the idea. I think I begin to see why.'

The carriage had passed amongst pine woods and the road had become extremely rugged. Rushing water was churning away in a nearby ravine. Jagged towers and battlements could be glimpsed at a distance through the trees.

With the carriage now swaying in an increasingly troubling way, a cold sweat broke out on Gus's forehead. 'Hentzau's quite an old castle then?' he asked to distract himself from his internal anxiety.

'It's been there since the thirteenth century, I think. There's an ancient monastery and a town in the valley below, but the castle's up on a rocky hill.'

'What about modern conveniences?'

'The previous owners let it get run down, and I don't think father agreed to any major building works, only maintenance. I wouldn't get your hopes up about tonight's accommodations, old chap. You are far beyond the frontiers of the land of water closets and hot-water taps.'

The carriage and horsemen clattered down a steep gradient through the trees into a bowl of land below the castle ridge, and entered a small town, no more than a jumble of old houses lying around two churches on either side of the central square. They jingled up the main street and into a marketplace surrounded by gabled brick houses. A rather remarkable sculpted calvary, its figures life-sized and indeed lifelike, stood in its centre under a stone canopy. A knot of men were gathered next to it, with a small crowd looking on from the windows and doorways.

The carriage drew up. Captain Antonin dismounted and opened the door while James let down the steps. Bob raised his eyebrows at Gus, put his hat on his head and emerged. The knot of old men removed their hats. The mayor introduced himself and then the officers of the commune of Hentzau. As he did, the bells of the churches began to ring, at first slowly, and then with something resembling the joy of greeting.

Bob shook hands with the civic leaders and exchanged a few amiable words in German. Gus noticed with some relief that the general mood seemed quite relaxed. He also wondered who had told the people of Hentzau that their lord was on his way.

Bob did not resist the invitation to share a drink in Hentzau's modest Raathaus. Gus admired his sense of occasion when he removed his hat on the steps of the town hall and bowed around to the onlookers. Subdued applause greeted his gesture. He spent the next twenty minutes charming the burghers of Hentzau and their families.

Gus walked with him through the smiling crowd. At one point he whispered out of the corner of his mouth, 'You're rather good at this, aren't you, Bobby?'

The carriage lurched forward once more and began climbing though the town, past a park gate and a screen of trees. Beyond, the road led up a sloping lawn studded with stone outcrops, towards a barbican gatehouse heavy with baroque armorial sculpture. The heraldry of Hentzau seemed to lean towards the animal kingdom, with tusked boars as crests, mastiffs as supporters and lions as charges.

Finally rolling through the open gate, over a drawbridge and beneath a huge twin-towered gatehouse, they found themselves in a large courtyard faced by a stone range of domestic buildings, including a great hall. All about them rose tall round towers with pepper-pot turrets and conical roofs. It was almost a trip into the middle ages. Clearly, however, the domestic range had been modernised within the past two generations, while the curtain wall had been breached for artillery emplacements, with muzzle-loading cannon on slides still occupying the deep embrasures. When he saw pyramids of rusty balls next to them, Gus wondered if the cannon still fired.

The soldiers dismounted and helped unload the carriage. A man in a black suit and tall hat appeared and introduced himself as the agent for the estate. He in turn presented the castle's caretaker. Apparently there would be some difficulty in supplying the kitchen, and indeed in finding a cook, but the town's post inn would send up a meal. The horses could be accommodated in the stables in an outer courtyard. Bob nodded at James, who took the caretaker off to one side and began to organise things.

The agent led them into the domestic range and gave them a tour. Most of the furniture was still shrouded with sheets, and straw matting lay over the Turkey carpets, but it looked habitable. There may have been only candle light available, but at least there were plenty of candelabras.

Captain Antonin, Gus and Bob sat down for an evening meal at one end of the long table in the great hall, the only available dining room. A bright, wood fire crackled in the enormous medieval hearth, holding at bay the cold of approaching autumn they could feel in the evening air. Counts of Hentzau past, seemingly stern and uncharitable men, stared down on them with no friendly faces.

When James entered to serve the main course, a disappointing roast, Bob asked him where the last count's portrait was.

'Your father had it moved, sir, saying he would not keep company with a murderer. No one in the town or castle objected, I believe. Black Rupert was a hard man to his tenants and an ever-present threat to the womenfolk. He used up all his capital in money and in his people's loyalty before his vicious career came to an end.'

'What did father do with the portrait, James?' Bob asked.

'It's been moved across to the north drawing room, sir, the former buttery. A poky, badly lit little room. No one goes there, and indeed it is one of the rooms with an... infestation.'

'What, rats?'

'Er, no, sir. Ghosts. The castle is allegedly the most haunted in central Europe. All the murders, mutilations and rapes, sir. It has a deleterious effect on property value. But some families, like the Hentzauer, are quite reckless of the future.'

Gus looked at Bob and smiled. James definitely had a dry sense of humour that was emerging the more he approved of his young master and his course of action.

'Does the last count supposedly haunt the north drawing room?'

'No, Mr Underwood. He is reputed to be the damned horseman who rides the park on moonlit nights, pursued endlessly by a pack of slavering silver mastiffs. It is death or madness to see him.'

'Ah,' Gus murmured, 'no midnight strolls in the park then.'

'I'd advise against it, sir.'

Bob looked a little more serious. 'Are there any Hentzauer left?'

'A number of women in the village claim to be the mothers of the late Rupert's bastards, but no legitimate scions remain.'

Captain Antonin spoke up. 'He was a ferocious duellist and bully. He took offence at the merest slight when the mood was on him. He would pin quarrels on innocent young boys who could not offer any resistance to his sword, and would kill them mercilessly. But he would recklessly take on hardened soldiers, too.

'However, at last he went too far in his arrogance. He was cashiered when he did the unacceptable and attempted to quarrel with his commanding officer; he was then a captain in the guard hussars. His colonel had him arrested, stripped and whipped from the barracks in his breeches. The hussars – who hated him – pelted him with horse dung, count though he was. The colonel and his wife were later murdered by unknown hands. The examining magistrates never were able to prove that Black Rupert procured the assassination, but he had to leave the country soon after. The world was a cleaner place when he was killed by the king's own hand.'

'Amen to that,' James agreed earnestly.

They took their glasses of port and cigars to the north drawing room, where they viewed the portrait. 'A handsome devil, ain't he?' decided Bob.

'As seductive a face as evil itself,' concurred the captain.

Gus contemplated the flashing eyes, perfect brown face and crimson lips of Black Rupert of Hentzau. To his open and acknowledged shame, he reflected that the count could have propositioned him any time he liked, and Gus would probably have fallen as easily as the village girls.

That first weekend in the castle was surprisingly comfortable. Bob secured further good opinion from the neighbourhood by attending mass at the small abbey of St James in the town below. He was apparently the first lord of Hentzau to occupy the count's pew in several decades. Black Rupert in any case had been excommunicated by the archbishop, even if it had ever occurred to him to attend church. There was again subdued applause when Bob appeared, shaking hands with the abbot and prior as he left the church by the north entrance. He raised his hat, and before climbing with Gus into the carriage, threw a handful of small coins to the crowd of children. They ran after the coach cheering until it reached the park gate.

Most of the new comfort was due to the employment of a capable cook, the former undercook of the castle who had retired to marry a farmer and raise a family. The Saturday market did good business supplying the castle, which added to the satisfaction of the town at the sudden arrival of the long-absent count.

The cavalry detachment and Captain Antonin did not leave, but were to stay with Bob until further orders reached them. Gus was cheered to see an armed sentry pacing the battlements and another on the castle gate.

'It is only because they need something to do,' commented the captain. 'I foresee no threat. The men simply like playing soldiers. It is what they signed up for, after all.'

They were suddenly cut loose from the rest of the world. There was a telegraph office in the town, however, so they could be reached. The Strelsau morning papers came with a day's delay by the post wagon from the Hentzau station, five miles away down in the Arndt valley. But they received no information as to when they were to be recalled to the capital, and no intelligence as to what was going on at the royal court. The medical bulletins on the queen that were being published daily indicated little change in her condition for the moment. There was no news at all from Rome, Vienna, Ernsthof – the Thuringian capital – or Berlin.

'You're pretty damned cool about all this, Bobby,' marvelled Gus at dinner that night.

'Oh no, not at all, deep inside I'm twitching like a galvanised rabbit.'

Gus laughed. 'You really are a special sort of man. How long are you going to be kept here, d'you think?'

'I doubt we'll be summoned back to the capital for at least a week. It'll take that long before the nuncio can consult with the Vatican and get its view.'

'Look, old thing, I'd like to go off for a few days, starting tomorrow.'

'Oh yes? Where to?'

'Over the hills behind us is the Starel valley and the province of Lower Husbrau, and on the other side of Husbrau is the château of Tarlenheim.'

Bob looked at Gus seriously. 'Aha! Is this your revenge for the time I spent with Kitzi in Vienna and Carlsbad?'

'Oh come off it. How would I know whether you-know-who is actually in residence in Tarlenheim? I think Prince Rudolf and the rest of the family usually live away in the south at Festenburg when they're not at the capital. No, I just want to see more of the country. I can look at the upper Starel Valley, the famous Marienkloster at Medeln and then the old castle at Tarlenheim. May I borrow a horse?'

Bob looked a little resentful, Gus thought, but soon shrugged. 'I can't spare James, you know.'

'Of course, I quite understand. Look, I'll be back in probably no more than four days.'

Bob suddenly looked woeful and repentant, which rather embarrassed Gus. 'Oh damn it, Gussie. I'm sorry about all this. I have no right to drag you round central Europe. You didn't sign up for it. By all means go. You will come back, won't you?'

The rather tragic look on Bob's face could only lead to one answer, and Gus reassured his friend that he would definitely be back. Still, he was itching to get away from the involuntary confinement he had wandered into. It was as bad as the months at Haddesley Hall after he had finished at Oxford, with the solicitude of James Antrobus standing in for the grave and oppressive concern of his mother.

Captain Antonin and Bob waved him off from the courtyard. Bob had pressed a roll of Ruritanian banknotes on him, and James had packed his saddlebags with clothes and food. The captain had gone over his route with him, and made some recommendations about inns. With a wave, Gus trotted his horse out under the arch and cantered off down towards the town, feeling strangely liberated. He had not quite realised how burdensome the weight of public affairs had been upon him.

His mount was called Berthe, an even-tempered bay mare who normally served the needs of the Hentzau agent. She had an amiable and smooth pace with a light rein.

Gus trotted north into the forest of Hentzau, on a ridge of heavily wooded hills north and west of the castle. Fortunately, a post road ran through the forest, so there was no chance of getting lost. It was just as well. The seemingly endless trees eventually became oppressive. This was ancient woodland, unchanged since the Roman legions marched through it on their way to conquer Dacia. It was eerily silent and the gloomy space under the trees seemed to stretch away into infinity. If he had turned the corner to see a gingerbread cottage or a wolf in a grandmother's clothing, Gus would not have been unduly surprised. He certainly saw a woodcutter, his axe over his shoulder, who saluted him gravely in incomprehensible Rothenian. Gus smiled, nodded and bade him good day in German.

The road rose with the hills and the trees turned to birch and conifer. The aroma of pine resin was in the air, along with a definite tang of autumn cold. Winding up rocky slopes to the pass of Murranberg, Gus reined in Berthe at a turn which offered a fine view across the treetops of the forest below, with the towers of Hentzau a dim blue in the distance. It was about one o'clock, and time for lunch. He had sandwiches and a stoneware jug of beer, which tasted very fine in the circumstances. Berthe companionably cropped some thin grass, and snuffled amiably at him. He patted her nose affectionately when she swung it in his direction.

He resumed his way, following the road up into the defile of the pass, where mossy crags towered overhead and hawks wheeled above him in the sky. The top of the pass was marked by a wayside cross, which had a rosary hanging over one of its arms. Gus had not lost all his boyhood piety, despite an Anglican schooling and three years at Oxford. He reined in Berthe, said an Ave Maria and, nearer to God as he felt he was in that high place, prayed for his family, his friends and Queen Flavia. Finally, he confided himself to the protection of the special saints of travellers. Berthe waited patiently.

Mounting up again, Gus gave only a gentle tug at the reins. The mare trotted through the pass and took the zigzag way down across the moorland that was the western face of the Murranberg ridge. As the afternoon advanced, the post road at last descended into the rich farmland of the Starel valley. By six o'clock, the two travellers had reached the town of Strelfurt, with its many-piered medieval bridge across the great river. Finding several post inns next to the crossing, Gus engaged a room and a loose box at the Schwartzes Löwe.

After dinner, he took a stroll to enjoy the evening air and a cigarette. He was not surprised, given the current state of Ruritania, to find sentries at the toll house on the other side of the bridge, and police officers checking travellers' papers. He finished his cigarette, flicked it into the Starel as it rushed between the piers, checked on Berthe's comfort, and returned to the inn.

Stiff from an unaccustomed day in the saddle, Gus was contemplating an early bed. But the bar of the Schwartzes Löwe was crowded and welcoming. He paid for a pottery tankard of light beer and stood at the counter to drink it.

'How long have the police been checking papers on the bridge?' he asked the host.

'Two days now,' was the answer. 'They say they're on the lookout for German agents. They arrested a commercial traveller from Dresden today and were interrogating him in the cells. The government seems to be in a panic.'

'I'm a foreigner,' Gus explained. 'I don't really understand what to make of it all.'

'No more do we. Everyone knows the queen is dying. Although we may not like it, the German duke is the next heir. We're resigned to it, even if we aren't happy about it. Now this. My nephew is in the jäger regiment Neder Husbrau, which was recalled from leave a week ago before being moved up to the frontier. It is said half the army is deployed between Ebersfeld and Mittenheim. What are they going to do? Invade Saxony?'

'What if there were another candidate for the throne?' suggested Gus after a while.

The host looked puzzled. 'But there's only the German.'

'But what if there really were a choice? A Catholic and an Elphberg.'

'What are you suggesting? Everyone knows her majesty is the last of them. Are you saying the government might offer the throne to other foreigners?'

'I have heard there are English relatives of the queen who might be considered.'

'This is news to me.' The host glared suspiciously at Gus, wondering if he might be an agent provocateur, before quickly moving on to serve other customers.

Gus drank his beer and made himself scarce. He reflected that if the queen wanted to prepare the people for a surprise candidate for the succession, she was not proceeding with any care or skill. Surely her agents should be out canvassing for Robert Rassendyll by now. Or maybe she was being frustrated by her opponents in the council. Gus retired to bed, not much comforted by what he had heard.

He rose early in the morning, and he and Berthe were at the Strelfurt bridge before eight. Even so, the police were already there to examine his papers carefully.



'And what is your business in Ruritania?'

'Visiting friends.'

'Why are you travelling towards the German frontier?'

'I have friends in Ober Husbrau at Tarlenheim. I hope to stay with them.'

He was given a closer scrutiny. 'And what friends would they be?' queried the sergeant.

'Count Oskar and Count Hugo Maria.'

The men stiffened, and the sergeant added cautiously as he waved him through, 'Have a safe journey, sir. But could I advise you to take care on the road. These are troubled times, and all sorts of strange folk are to be met with. The Black Riders were out in Mittenheim a week ago. They burned three frontier posts.'

Gus wondered what was afoot. Who were these Black Riders? He had never heard of such a group before.

The bells of the Marienkloster at Medeln chimed softly in the wooded hills around the ancient abbey. It was the hour of vespers, not the best time to arrive at the gates, but Gus had determined to ask the nuns for hospitality rather than seek a room in one of the neighbouring cottages.

The abbey of Cistercian nuns at Medeln was a royal foundation, tracing its history back to Duke Waclaw II in 1224. Built with an intention to impress, it had been generously endowed. The abbey church retained its Romanesque simplicity, but the domestic ranges next to it had been rebuilt with baroque splendour the previous century. It was famous as the resting place of Duchess Osra, the last native ruler of the Rothenians before the Elphberg succession. Several female saints were buried there as well, including the enigmatic visionary, St Fenice of Tarlenheim, an ancestor of Oskar and Hugo.

The site was beautiful. The white limestone buildings rose out of broad, green river meadows surrounded by wooded hills, through which wandered the small river Taveln, its brown waters flecked with autumn leaves. Gus dismounted at the abbey gatehouse, where he found the iron handle that rang a bell deep inside. He pulled it twice and waited. After maybe ten minutes, bolts were drawn and a white-robed figure looked out. 'Yes?'

'I am a traveller looking for a room for the night. I was hoping to trespass on the abbey's hospitality.'

The aged lay sister squinted at Gus. Having ascertained that he was respectable, she eventually said, 'We offer one night's lodging only. There won't be much of a meal, young man. Enter then.'

Gus led Berthe into the stable yard behind the gate, and placed her in the indicated stall. There seemed enough food for her. Then he followed the sister to a range of half-timbered lodgings at the west door of the abbey church. He was handed over to a domestic servant who brusquely indicated a small and sparsely furnished room up a flight of dusty stairs. He was told there was no hot water, but a basin of cold would be placed for him to wash in. A meal would be provided at the almonry, no more than bread, a few parboiled vegetables and a horn cup of rough red wine. Evidently the sisters of Medeln believed that what was good enough for the middle ages was good enough for their guest.

Gus had no clear idea why he had ridden to Medeln. The place was famous, of course; there were sights to see there, well-known tombs and a perfumery run by the nuns. The main point for him, though, was that it lay only five miles from Tarlenheim. A visit to the abbey would allow him to cross over nonchalantly and pay his respects at the château – if the family was in residence, of course.

Finding out about that was not easy. The domestic servant looked at him dumbly, and the choir nuns were at their evening devotions. Finally, Gus went to the open west door and entered the church, silent now as the office had finished.

The church at Medeln still adhered to the primitive principles of the order. It was plain and whitewashed. The windows were without stained glass and the building looked austere. A gaunt black screen sealed off the monastic choir from the nave, which meant there was little chance of viewing the historic tomb of Duchess Osra of Rothenia in front of the high altar. There were, however, some relatively recent and elaborate memorials in the radial chapels of the north side. Gus amused himself inspecting them for a while, finding in the process that Ruritania was doing for him something which the Oxford schools had failed to do: giving him an interest in history.

Eventually a choir nun passed by. When he addressed her politely, she smiled and stopped. Gus introduced himself as an English visitor and raised a few questions about the church. The fact that he was obviously a Catholic seemed to be noted with approval. Finally he asked about friends of his, the Tarlenheim family, who lived nearby. The sister, who turned out to be the prioress, was well acquainted with those particular neighbours. The abbey had long maintained a close relationship with them, there having been several Tarlenheim abbesses down the ages since St Fenice. Yes, she believed members of the family were currently in residence, or so the carrier from the town had told her.

Gus retired to the rough sheets of his bed, a little cheered. His strategy was now clear. Tomorrow, he would ride up the valley of the Taveln and call on the château.

It was a brilliant morning as Gus and Berthe trotted along the country road running beside the Taveln towards Tarlenheim. His breakfast at the abbey had been as meagre as his dinner, but he had expressed his thanks to the lay sister and left a twenty-krone note for the work of the convent.

At one point the road ran up out of the valley to a hilltop, where he found himself with a beautiful view down the valley towards the abbey, nestling amongst the trees. In the other direction, he could see a church tower and a jumble of red-roofed houses that must be the town of Tarlenheim. As his gaze swept south, Gus saw columns of distant grey smoke rising into the sky. It appeared farmers were burning stubble after the harvest. Yes, autumn was well on its way despite the bright weather.

Half an hour later, Gus and Berthe reached the outskirts of Tarlenheim. A passing labourer did his best to direct them to the great house, although it was not easy, as the man was the first monoglot Rothenian Gus had met so far in Ruritania. He took a riverside track which eventually brought him not to the front of the house, but to its stables at the rear. Clearly some of the Tarlenheims were in residence. Carriages were being cleaned and harnessed in the stable yard, and a white and red flag was fluttering over the house.

Gus dismounted and asked for the family. The ostlers summoned a footman to whom Gus presented his card. Leaving Berthe to be taken care of, he followed the man through some kitchen passages and into the reception hall of a rather handsome house of the late eighteenth century. As he awaited a response from the family, Gus looked over the hall. It was paved with a remarkable mosaic of polychromatic marbles. Blank-eyed Roman emperors and authors stared down their noses at him from the top of pillars on which their busts had been placed.

After five minutes, an upper functionary in Tarlenheim livery appeared and bowed, asking him to follow. He was led to a long reception or morning room where two of the family were standing politely to welcome him. He recognised the dowager princess Helga, and supposed the other must be the current prince. Although Rudolf did not much look like his younger brothers, having a receding hairline and dark hair, he seemed as affable as they were.

'My dear Herr Under-vood. How very kind of you to call upon us. I believe you have met my mother.'

Gus bowed. 'Your Serene Highness is very good to receive me. My travels took me to Medeln, where the nuns told me the family was in residence. I wished to pay my respects.'

'It is a great pleasure to see you again,' said the princess. 'And where is your friend, Lord Burlesdon?'

'He is on his estate at Hentzau, ma'am. I took advantage of his stay in the country to borrow a mount and explore the region.' He caught the look between the prince and his mother. They clearly knew what had brought Bob to Ruritania. 'Are Count Oskar and Count Hugo Maria with you?'

The princess smiled. 'Hugo will be arriving sometime today. I hope you can stay. He will be delighted to see you, I know he thinks very highly of you. Oskar has gone on one of his jaunts, I'm afraid. He could be in Paris, Biarritz or Vienna. He is not very good at letting me know where he might be.'

Gus was invited to sit, and they talked about the current political situation while coffee was brought in. Gus asked about what the police sergeant at Strelfurt had told him. 'Who are these Black Riders that people mention?'

He noticed an apprehensive glance between the Tarlenheims. Prince Rudolf answered, 'They first appeared in 1848, which was a very troubled year in this country. There was the rising in Strelsau, of course, and the demand for a constitution which caused Rudolf IV to abandon the capital. It was several months before the failure of the other risings across Germany gave the king the confidence to march on Strelsau and put down the revolutionaries. Moreover, there was a pan-German rising that affected the east of the country, particularly the region of Mittenheim. Do you know that area?'

'No, sir.'

'It is an ancient German duchy that was tributary to Ruritania for many centuries, but never ruled by our dukes and kings despite much intermarriage between the dynasties. Bonaparte united it with Bavaria in the days of the Confederation of the Rhine, which was one reason why there was a war between the Bavarians and Ruritanians in 1813. The Congress of Vienna finally took Mittenheim from Bavaria and annexed it to Ruritania.'

'I presume the Mittenheimers were not too happy at this annexation.'

'No they were not, though they weren't too happy with Bavaria either. In 1848, they saw the chance to be absorbed in a new liberal and united Germany, and there was a general rising throughout the province. That is when the Riders appeared. They were large bands of masked and cloaked horsemen who terrorised the province. They lynched Ruritanian government officers, intimidated loyalists, ambushed Ruritanian troops and more or less expelled us from the duchy, apart from one or two isolated garrisons. There was not much the king could do about them at the time, as he had even bigger problems with the capital. Once he regained control there, however, he marched the army into Mittenheim and put down the rising with his usual severity. A whole mile of gallows was erected between Mittenheim and Ebersfeld to execute known Riders.'

'And now they have reappeared.'

'So it is said. There is strong support for the Thuringian succession in Mittenheim, and the queen's deployment of the army along the German frontier has been intended to persuade likely dissidents not to oppose her plan to arrange an alternative succession. But with a German king in the offing, it seems the Mittenheimers are not easily intimidated. I heard yesterday that the Riders were out in force and part of our estate at Festenburg was pillaged. It is one reason why we are here in the north. My other brother Franz, who is a colonel in the army, has mobilised the local militia around Festenburg and is attempting to seal the lower crossings of the river Ebrendt to limit the Riders' activities. It is not an easy job.'

As they were talking there came the sound of several galloping horses on the drive outside, and it was all Gus could do to keep both his seat and his equanimity at the noise. The prince caught his eye and held it, giving a small smile. 'I do not think they are the Riders of Mittenheim; the whole province of Merz is between us and them.'

The door was thrown open and in strode Count Oskar dressed for the saddle, in the company of two cavalry officers. He stood rooted to the spot when he saw Gus sitting with his family. 'Good heavens!' he cried. 'This is an answer to prayer. August! I never expected to see you here.' He turned to the prince. 'Brother, we are in haste. The Riders are out and raiding between here and Ebersfeld. The army is pursuing some of them, but we are just ahead of one of their columns. They are coming here and they mean to take you.'

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