Terre Nouvelle

by Michael Arram


Nothing much happened on the Day of the Dead, when all the city's houses were draped in black. All inns and business premises were closed as families went in mid-afternoon to the city's graveyards to light candles on their relatives' graves and join the many solemn torchlit processions which followed the Cross of the Seneschal through the streets to the darkened cathedral. It was a day of fasting.

Ruprecht escaped the dark and silent ducal château with Felix at sunset, both bundled up in the black hooded cloaks customarily worn on this day. Even the guards were wearing them. The streets of the city below were empty apart from the occasional hooded figure flitting through the shadows. Black Friday was as usual a dismal and eerie occasion.

When they reached the Auberge aux Falaises they found it empty, for the Parmentiers would be with the rest of the natives, processing between the city graveyards, the churches and the cathedral.

'I'm glad we're not at Freiborg,' Felix commented as they stood waiting. 'I've always hated this day. The watch amongst the graves in the family vault was awful, especially as all you could do was spend it contemplating the slot awaiting your own coffin.'

'It's not for children, that's for sure. But the day has a certain solemn dignity, and of course it is very much about families. I've always thought the gloom was more than made up for by the evening banquet, and then there's the Feast of the First Mass on Sunday, all the more joyous an occasion for the misery that preceded it, and of course there will be the fireworks. Chasancene puts on quite a show, with stars bursting over the castle on Sunday night. It's a glorious sight. Or it was the last time I was here for it.'

'Gillot said that too. Oh, Rupe! I do so miss him. I feel like a girl; it's embarrassing. Sometimes I just want to cry.' He giggled. 'Of course mostly I want to wank. Girls can't do that.'

'They do something similar, but let's not go there. I'll knock on the door. Joerg will be at the cathedral of course, but maybe someone's left indoors who'll hear.'

Rapping on the solid inn door produced no result, and they had an impatient half hour before people began filtering back from the cathedral, carrying the lit purple candles blessed by the bishop which they would use to begin the illumination of their houses as soon as they were within doors.

The Parmentiers arrived with Gilles's father carrying their tall candle, Joerg and Erwin walking with the family. Ruprecht and Felix silently followed them indoors and waited while the flame was applied to other candles about the inn by Gilles and Cecile. Before long the whole place was blazing with light, as indeed now was every other house in the city, for the fast was over and the day's dark clothing was put off.

Gilles beamed as he introduced his parents to Felix. They bowed low to the young prince, and Madame expressed volubly their delight that he was under their roof for the breaking of the fast.

'Not just that, Madame Parmentier,' Felix said with a broad smile, 'but I hope to share your table. Gillot has told me so much about the skills of his father in the kitchen. My stomach is rumbling at the smells of the slow roast my nose can detect coming from that direction.'

'Your Serene Highness's Francien is so excellent that I can barely detect a trace of accent,' the lady of the house confessed. 'This is Gillot's little sister.'

Felix bent down to kiss the blushing girl, who took his hand and led him to the back parlour where a table was already laid with fine crockery and shining cutlery. Monsieur Parmentier brought in fresh-baked bread, its wonderful aroma filling the room. He asked Joerg to pronounce a blessing and break the bread, and all sat to enjoy what Felix later confessed was the finest meal he could every remember enjoying on Black Friday. After the meal was over Cecile was sent off to bed and the men and two youths sat over jugs of the red wine of the country.

Monsieur Parmentier did not initially have much to say for himself, other than observing how much taller his son had grown in his time 'down south'.

'Messieurs,' he said, 'the clothing he left behind just doesn't fit him, and I'm sure we're much obliged to Monsieur le Comte for providing for him now the lad's shot up the way he has. He has three centimetres on me!'

'Yeah, but my Schwang's sprouted more than three centimetres further than Gillot's, growing boy or not,' Felix whispered to his brother in Alleman.

The conversation shifted to the next week's proposed investigation of local sites for excavation. Joerg had compiled a list of the historic fortified sites in the duchy which might be candidates for the ancient lost centre of the Francien colonial zone, and Erwin had hired the necessary carriages and bought tools for any potential excavation.

Gilles's father followed the discussion with some interest. And much to Ruprecht's surprise eventually chipped in, as he removed his pipe from his mouth. 'Young Gillot's been telling me something about what you gentlemen have been doing. I was particularly taken with his story about the bog people of Blauwhaven. It brought to my mind the stories the old folks out at Champs Dolent tell. We went out to my family's little property there after we fled the city, you may remember.

'Now, it just so happens that down by the River Rougiet at Champs Dolent is a wide meadow they call "Les Préaux du Sang". The story is that there was a battle there in olden times, in the days of the Noble Wars, as they say, where thousands were slaughtered by one of the dukes. They buried the dead where they fell, and every now and again the river scours out the bank and bones are exposed, whole skeletons sometimes.'

'Really?' Joerg responded. 'Do weapons and armour turn up?'

'Not that anyone's said,' the innkeeper replied, 'but I've seen skulls piled up in the church cellar they say came from the field.'

'That's a pity, because the metalwork would help date the burials.'

'How is that, doctor?' the man asked.

'You may have observed, Monsieur Parmentier, that different ages adopt different styles of weaponry and dress.'

'Indeed so, your reverence. I've observed that very thing in Cecile's picture books. So the style of armour and swords and such would help you fix a date to the old battle.'

'Exactly, monsieur. I'm interested in what you say. Does anything come to your mind about a fifth-century battle out at Champs Dolent, Rupe?'

Ruprecht tapped the ash from his cigarette. 'Not really. Champs Dolent is well outside the city liberties of Chasancene. It was a major episcopal estate in the time of the Noble Wars. I think the ruins of the old manor house of the bishop of Chasancene are still to be seen above the town. The noble houses generally kept clear of Church land when they campaigned. On the other hand, the same did not apply to the days of the Patriarchal Wars of the third century, when the bishops were in the front line of the fighting. That might be your explanation.'

'Monsieur Parmentier,' Joerg continued, 'that's all very useful. I'll add Champs Dolent to my list.'

The man beamed, and returned his attention to his pipe.

As midnight approached, Ruprecht tapped his brother on the shoulder. 'Time to say your goodbyes, Kreech.'

'I don't want to say my goodbye to Gillot,' he objected.

'Whatever you do get on with it, and don't get caught.' The prince gave a perky grin and disappeared, leaving Ruprecht and the doctor alone.

Joerg looked hastily around and leaned in for a kiss. 'It's not just the boys who are feeling the separation, Rupe,' he added.

'I miss you too, little one. How long has it been since we were in the same bed?'

'Too long, Rupe. I'm so missing what we do. It's like the fire in a peat stack: invisible, smouldering, and ready to burst into flame. D'you know I never thought I'd ever be talking to any man like this.'

'It's your little tail that enthrals me, my sweetheart. I want to put all sorts of parts of my anatomy inside it. Are you willing?'

'Yes. There's nothing you ask of me I wouldn't do.'

'That's all I need to know. The rest can wait.'

'How long will that boy be?'

'How long does oral sex take?'

'D'you think that's what your brother's doing?'

'I think if you went along to the public jakes you'd find him on his knees in front of the son of the house.'

'I wish you hadn't said that. I try not to think of them doing it. It charges me up.'

Ruprecht shrugged. 'I know for a fact that they're just as fired up by what I do. They just don't know I do it with you.'

Felix eventually reappeared. 'Ready, Rupe?' He gave a broad grin in the direction of Joerg. 'Kissed goodbye to your little doctor?'

'What! How in blue blazes did you know, you little rat! I don't believe Erwin spilled it.'

The boy flounced. 'Oh come on, Rupe. Gillot and I were bound to notice. You're happy! But you're never happy. So it had to be you've found someone. And Dr Joerg is always looking at you whenever you're together. We worked it out all on our own. We're sensitive we are.'

'Come here, Kreech.' The boy cautiously approached his big brother to be grabbed, kissed and hugged. As he let his brother go he said 'Yes, you are. And I'll never underestimate the pair of you again.'

Joerg was ushered up to the château early on Saturday. But instead of exploring its courtyards with Ruprecht and Monsieur Valmont, the archivist, he said he wanted first to examine his patient.

'Is there a problem, Joerg?'

'Not that I know of, but my first duty is to the prince and you must have observed how long periods of stress can culminate in an attack. The constant public exposure he's undergoing here in Chasancene might be considered stressful, even in such a remarkable young man. So I need to check his pulse, sound his chest and monitor his breathing. I feel safer when he's with Gilles; the boy is very vigilant with Kreech's moods and physical condition.'

'I believe he goes so far as to undertake internal examinations,' Ruprecht observed drily.

The doctor shot his lover a quirky look and disappeared without a word into the state apartments. He did not return for a while. When he did he was noncommittal, other than saying that the sooner Felix was away from the court and the city the happier he would be.

They found Monsieur Valmont in the upper courtyard, where a fourth-century tower incorporated in a domestic range marked the earliest remains within the ducal residence.

'You believe that this was the approximate site of the old chapel, Philippe?'

'There is a rough sketch of the old castle before it was torn down two centuries ago, and the chapel appeared to be round about here, about twenty or thirty metres to the south of the tower we're looking at. But there's nothing to see under the grass of the court, not even the marks of foundations.'

Joerg nodded, but remarked that at least it was not paved over. He therefore walked up and down the lawn scrutinising the ground. Every now and again he pulled out a small trowel and scraped at the soil. Ruprecht amused himself in the meantime watching the artificers setting up the tubes and frameworks for the next day's pyrotechnics. One of the pits they had dug had exposed a stretch of dark brown soil and rock, to which Joerg gave particular attention. He picked up a dozen or so likely objects and pocketed them, before observing that there was indeed not much to see. The weather was not promising; it remained overcast and dull, and the view from the castle heights out over the Central Plains towards the Great River was misty and obscured.

Following the abortive excavation they were invited into the archive, next to the treasury building in the lowest of the castle courts, just above the great gate which gave on to the Place des Armes. Ruprecht engaged the archivist about their list of sites.

'Champs Dolent? I'd not heard about any battle fought near there, but the records of the episcopal estates are in the cathedral library, and you'd need to pursue your researches in their collections.'

'I don't think we'll have time, Philippe. We're off tomorrow. But if anything turns up out at Champs Dolent I'll know where to look to follow things through.'

'Where will you be exploring first?'

'The most promising site has to be Rochefort, above the Great River at Lire-sur-Fleuve, which all the books say is the oldest castle in Vieldomaine apart from the ducal fortress. There're only ruins there now and the owner, the count of Lire, is an old friend of my father's, so he doesn't mind us taking spades to the place. He's even offered the services of his estate workers.'

Joerg chipped in at this point, reluctant though he was to give his Francien an outing, and explained that if the site proved profitable they'd not be moving on to the others. After some more inconclusive discussion about their forthcoming expedition Ruprecht and Joerg said their farewells and headed out into the castle courtyard. It was busy, with a company of the guard marching up to the next court, several couriers taking their mounts to the stables and palace functionaries going about their business.

'Have you time to go down to the inn, Rupe?' the doctor tentatively asked.

Ruprecht grinned at the light of hope in the little man's eyes. 'Love to. Perhaps we can go up to your room. You'll have to keep the noise down though. I may have to gag you.'

The Auberge aux Falaises was quite busy and Ruprecht was unsurprised to see Gilles once again in a bar apron, serving in the taproom. The boy waved to his guardian, and came over asking if they wanted anything.

'Haven't your parents taken on any new staff since you left, Gillot?'

'There's a potboy that works here now at nights, but they're on their own at midday. So I like to help. Can I get you gentlemen anything?'

'No, we're going up to Joerg's room.'

'Oh … er … umm.' It was Gilles's turn to stammer, as his mind leapt to conclusions but, just in time to spare Joerg's sensitivities, managed to stop his tongue vocalising them.

Joerg predictably coloured bright red. Ruprecht gave an internal sigh and made a mental note to have an earnest talk with the doctor before they returned to Blauwhaven. This constant coyness was silly considering that the boys now knew exactly what they were up to and the constant dancing around Joerg's modesty was putting Gilles on edge, even though he was a sexually very confident young man.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Ruprecht had the little man in his arms. Joerg was getting very good at kissing, and Ruprecht undressed him as they did it. He stripped himself and made Joerg mount the bed on all fours, his backside displayed.

'Here's something new, little one. You'll like it, and it won't distress you.'

He knelt so that he had the small swelling of the man's buttocks in each hand, and pushed them apart. The crack was entirely hairless, and the wrinkled flesh of the anus exposed. It was quite as small a slit as he had feared. It would take quite a while to prepare Joerg for full intercourse, but it was time to begin, for they had both agreed they wished to try.

He gave a swipe across the opening with his tongue. Ruprecht was expecting what he encountered, but he soldiered on. Joerg wriggled and cooed, pushing his bum back on Ruprecht's tongue. He teased, sucked and nibbled at Joerg with persistence. The little man's excitement became very evident as Ruprecht took his stiffness in his hand, fondling and stroking it, pulling it back between Joerg's legs to suckle it. Ruprecht managed to keep exciting Joerg for a good twenty minutes before the man finally lost control and spurted into his mouth.

Ruprecht gathered him up and hugged his small body. Joerg always looked very contented when he did this, and on this occasion burrowed into his shoulder. 'That was good. We've never done anything bottom-related before. Thank you. Do you want me …?'

'Not immediately, but I would like you to suck me as soon as you feel able.' Joerg's hand was in fact already searching for his erection, while Ruprecht's finger was back massaging and circling round the wet and slippery ring. He managed to press just inside and searched around the warm softness within while Joerg shifted and groaned.

'Is that good?'

'Yes … but I think I know why Felix and Gilles get through so much lubricant.'

'I'll buy our very own bottle when we get back to Blauwhaven. The factor might very well give the household a bulk discount.'

'Excellent. We'll be encouraging local commercial activity and having a good time simultaneously. Everything a positive.' Joerg gave a laughing chuckle. It took a while before Ruprecht realised what was new about it. It was completely carefree.

Joerg's happiness survived the disappointment of Rochefort. It was, as he said, a remarkable excavation in its own right, and the count of Lire was very happy with the remains of the walls and towers that the clearing of brushwood and topsoil revealed. The count was so enthused in fact that he was swearing he would reconstruct the old place in the way he fancied it would have looked at the time of the Noble Wars, though with water closets and hot water.

'Unfortunately there was nothing much earlier than the third century,' Joerg shrugged when the boys asked for the verdict.

'Nothing much?' Gilles asked.

'There was that coarse brown ware in the footings of the stone fortifications, not unlike what I found at the bottom of the trench at Chasancene. It seems to be local pottery of the Middle Plains. I've also found it in the northern Montenard cantons; it seems to be characteristic of the early Francien Empire in this region, quite possibly as early as the second century. The third-century material's much finer, a sign of the emergence of towns, workshops and trade networks I think.'

'So where now?' Felix enquired.

'The next on our list is the old bridge at Rivières, where the border of the Empire marches with that of Vieldomaine.'

'Why there?' Gilles wanted to know. 'I thought we were looking for a town?'

'Bridges are always important sites, Gillot. Before there was a bridge there was a ferry and fording site where cattle and horses could swim the Great River. It was one of the main routes south from Francien to Alleman lands in the old days.'

'There's a town there now. How do we find anything when it's all built over?'

'To be sure I'm not really that hopeful,' Joerg admitted. 'There'll be no digging possible, but we can walk the banks, examine the bridgeheads and just see what turns up.'

'Yes minheer doctor,' Erwin smiled down at the three of them as he passed, carrying tools back to the cart. 'The good thing is that we'll be sleeping in comfortable beds for a couple of days: those of us that use them for sleep that is.'

'Oy!' Felix called after the seneschal. 'You're just jealous, Erwin.'

They put up in a commercial hotel near the station and it was a pleasant stay as it happened, though Rivières was not exactly a picturesque town. Industry was growing up on either side of the river, which was clogged with barges and steam tugs. The big new iron railway bridge was however impressive for those with a taste for modernity.

The Empire had erected a massive new artillery fort along a low hill across from Vieldomaine, so as to command the Great River at this point. The Vieldomainois had not done likewise, but then the duchy was and always had been ruled by offshoots and cadets of the Imperial House, so there was no threat intended to the duchy's sovereignty by the fortification of the bridge approach on the west side.

The sixth-century stone bridge was intact, its massive piers still resisting the power of the flood waters from the Southern Alps. 'It's the latest of many,' Joerg told them. 'Before this one there were a succession of timber bridges going back I don't know how far.' He, Ruprecht and the boys were promenading along the embankment on the Vieldomainois side of the river. 'Now look down there, boys. You can see in the mud the stumps of the ancient timber pilings of the first great pier from the right bank. It was probably left to act as a breakwater for the stone bridge.'

'How old are those timbers?' Gilles asked, deeply impressed.

'They'll have been in use till the stone bridge was constructed by the Emperor François V on his first campaign into the Southlands. They could date centuries before that. They just rebuilt those old timber bridges whenever the river broke them down. Now then, who wants to get muddy down on the exposed foreshore? I have sacks I want to fill with whatever bits and pieces the river churns up.' It said a lot for the two boys' investment in the project that they cheerily took up the offer.

As they surveyed the results, spread out on a sheet on Joerg's bedroom table, it had to be said that they were not impressive.

'Lots of pottery,' Ruprecht observed.

'Indeed,' the doctor agreed. 'And more interesting than you might think. The sketch-plan I made of the location of the finds puts the fourth- and fifth-century material just upriver of the timber bridge, and that matches the location of the ancient town church, itself upriver of the connecting road. That was where Old Rivières was to be found.'

'Does it help our project, Joerg?' Ruprecht asked.

'No, not really. Though it is interesting.'

'So we move on?'

'Tomorrow I suppose.'

Ruprecht determined that while they had the luxury of beds he was going to make his first serious attempt on the little doctor's butt. He purloined the boys' bottle of lubricant and knocked on Joerg's door after they had retired. He was expected. Joerg was wrapped in just a towel, which Ruprecht promptly removed. He loved Joerg's reaction to being stared at naked, the man shifted from small shapely foot to foot and always blushed, though he clearly got excited by Ruprecht's open lust for him.

He drew him over to the bed and threw off his own clothes. He lay facing Joerg and toying with the man's penis till it stiffened and the threat of a hair-trigger reaction grew. Then he took his cheeks between his palms and kissed him softly, an activity that both men enjoyed. The feeling of Joerg's small tongue searching around his mouth deeply excited Ruprecht, for reasons he could not immediately explain to himself. When the consequences of his excitement began to leak on to the bed, Ruprecht turned the little man on his belly and then sat back across Joerg's calves, burrowing his face between the small buttocks and beginning a leisurely engagement with his backside.

This time however after a few minutes he pushed a well-lubricated finger through the wet ring as Joerg gasped and writhed, the force and the sudden discomfort pushing him up the bed.

'Is it painful, little one?' Ruprecht asked.

'N-n-no. Weird though to have something wriggling inside my bum. Am I very tight?'

'Yes, but you'll loosen. Now I wonder …?' He hooked his finger downward and probed around to find the small bump of Joerg's prostate. The man tensed and gasped as he prodded and massaged it. 'Was that alright?'

'It was like pins-and-needles going off in my genitals … oh! It's wet under me. You must have set me off … but I didn't ejaculate. You know what happens when I do that.'

Ruprecht got a leisurely motion going in and out of Joerg who relaxed, placed his head on his folded arms and sighed as his ring allowed and enjoyed the penetration. Then he reared up as a second finger forced its way into him.

'Oww! No, don't stop. I just wasn't expecting it. Not so much fun now. Don't worry, I can take it.'

Ruprecht did his best to flex his fingers and widen Joerg's hole, but was not immediately able to get a smooth motion going; the little man's anus was a thick and very tight muscle. 'Push out like you're taking a crap. That usually eases the opening. Oh! I can feel something on the way out!'

Joerg actually giggled. He hopped up and scampered to a commode to do what was suddenly necessary, and Ruprecht found it strangely erotic to watch the man squatting naked over a chamber pot to evacuate himself, his little face frowning like a child's as he completed the task. Joerg stood and wiped his crack as best he could with a rag. 'I suppose that's it for this session. The smell's a bit off-putting.'

'What happened to your body-shyness, Joerg? You just did the most intimate and exposed act a man could do in front of another, and you're not bothered. Not so much as a blush.'

The little man moved back to the bed and embraced his lover. 'It was just too erotic, Rupe. I liked it. Am I mentally ill?'

'No, I don't think so, what I do think is you're the sexiest bed partner I've ever had, and we've not even got round to fucking yet.'

'Tell me about your relatives in Champs Dolent, Gillot,' Ruprecht requested as their little convoy of carts and carriages made its way back to Chasancene, with little to show from their first digging campaign in search of the ancient Francien homestead.

The boy glanced across the closed carriage to Ruprecht; Gilles was sitting hand-in-hand with Felix, both boys for once silent and idly watching the world go by through the windows. They were dressed as young gentlemen rather than in the workmen's clothes they had adopted for the excavations.

'We Parmentiers have lived there I don't know how long … maman's family too. The churchyard is full of Parmentier tombstones. My aunt and cousins live in the town. Tatie Isabeau occupies the cottage next to maman's property. We could stay in maman's family cottage if we're at Champs Dolent for any length of time. Tatie won't mind. Not that it's very big.'

'What's the town like?'

'It's a small place, though it has a post-house and mairie. There's an old ruined manor in the woods on the hill above the river Rougiet. I used to play there with other boys when I was small and we were on holiday with Tatie. Are we going to dig up the place?'

'We don't have permission. I think it belongs to the Bishop of Chasancene. But we do need to investigate the Préaux du Sang which your papa mentioned. Bored yet, you two?'

Felix shook his head. 'We think it's been fun, and we've learned ever so much. Your sexy little doctor is so clever.'

'Sexy? Joerg?'

Gilles rolled his eyes. 'Felix thinks he's hot, but the Kreech is kinky. He just fancies the idea of doing it with a priest. But … is it working out between you?'

Ruprecht smiled at his youthful charges, who like most teenagers were anxious to believe in true love and happy endings. But he had no hesitation in agreeing that it was going well between him and Joerg.

'Excellent!' Felix pronounced. 'That captain was bad news. Though he was sexy too. He jammed his finger up my bum when we wrestled. Remember that time we watched him do you by the pool while Gillot did me?'

Ruprecht groaned. 'As if I could forget.'

'We're not wanting to draw the doctor into sexy games,' Gilles made clear, then shot an impish sidelong grin at his lover. 'But you can if you want, just to keep the Kreech happy.'

The two punched, laughed and scuffled on their seat for a minute, causing the carriage to rock and Ruprecht to tell the pair to cut it out when his brother's flailing foot kicked him painfully in the shin.

They arrived at Champs Dolent late in the afternoon to cause quite a local stir. Erwin Wenzel had been sent ahead and secured rooms at the post-house, which made a stay at the Parmentier property unnecessary. No one seemed to recognise the elegant and handsome Allemanic jonker who alighted from the princely carriage as the former urchin Gilles Parmentier, not even the local mayor who in earlier days had set his dogs on Gilles when he and some little friends had raided his orchards. The mayor was on hand to offer whatever assistance he might to His Serene and Most Excellent Highness Felix XI, Prince of Ostberg, in his tour of local antiquities.

Early the next morning, dressed down in digging gear, the party headed up to the ruined manor house on the hill to get their bearings. It was a fine day and the towers and roofs of Chasancene were clearly visible twenty-five kilometres to the east, the rising sun occasionally flashing off the windows of the distant city. The little River Rougiet curved around the wooded hill on which they were standing on its way to join the Great River.

'And those would be Les Préaux between the wood and the river, yes?' Joerg asked Gilles, indicating several large closes of meadow below, domestic buffalo slowly cropping the grass in a couple of them. Gilles nodded. Joerg then embarked on his usual patient survey of the standing ruins of the bishop's manor with his preferred partner, Erwin Wenzel, suggesting Ruprecht and the boys carry out some field walking below. He issued them with sacks to collect any likely finds and painted sticks to mark where they'd been found, so he could make a distribution plan later.

The three strolled down through the woods and hopped over a hedge into the nearest close. 'I don't suppose buffalo shit counts as a find?' Felix enquired. 'We could fill all these sacks if it did.'

Gilles clapped his hands and shouted, so as to drive the beasts into a field nearer the village, then all three formed a ragged line and systematically walked the enclosure, up and down, to find nothing much. The next close bordered the river and was empty of buffalo. The three walked over to the bank and watched the slow green waters slide past them. An occasional silver line furrowing the water indicated a shoal of large freshwater eels on the hunt for surface insects. A weir further downriver had nets out ready to catch any eel ill-advised enough to venture in that direction. They sat for a while above the water to enjoy the morning sunlight.

All of a sudden Gilles hopped down from the two-metre high bank to the water's edge below, and picked at an object lodged in the soil. 'Rupe, come and look at this.'

Ruprecht scrambled down, asking his brother to pass him one of the markers. He stuck it in the bank where Gilles was at work. The boy had levered out a long curved object.

'Is this a rib?'

'Looks somewhat like it, but only Joerg could tell us what creature it belonged to. See if there're any more.'

Gilles dislodged several further objects, clotted with the alluvial clay of the meadow, two of them clearly also ribs. He bagged them all. Ruprecht called a halt until the doctor arrived, and clambered back up. They walked the second close until he appeared, and this time found a number of small but unidentifiable objects, meticulously marking the places they had been found with coloured stakes.

When the doctor and Wenzel finally arrived, Gilles dragged him to the marker fixed in the bank, where Joerg sized up the site and the possible nature of the deposits.

'Yes Gillot, these are indeed human ribs. The skeleton must have been partly washed away. I think it's time to break out the digging tools and cut down through the bank to the level where the bones were found.' He looked around. 'This is one of the two fields whose tenant gave us permission to excavate so go bring the tools down from the hill, Erwin.'

He marked out a three square-metre area while the seneschal was retrieving the necessary implements. When he returned the men and boys got to work. After two hours they had cut a neat trench a metre deep. Four human skeletons were lying prone at that level, one with its lower half washed away by the action of the river's erosion.

Joerg contemplated the results. 'It seems your father was right, Gillot. All are males and I think the necks have been broken, though they have no other obvious sign of battlefield trauma. Time now for some careful sifting of the area. Look for corroded metal or any leather fragments the clay may have preserved; coins would be good.'

The quick eyes and fingers of the two boys rapidly began to accumulate small objects. Some had been metal, but more and more were disks and plaques of the same smooth and coloured glass-like substance that Ruprecht had found in the catacomb under the White Basilica.

Joerg held up a small disk he had washed off in the river water. 'This is a button, but like none I've ever seen! These objects don't belong to the Noble or Patriarchal Wars. The skeletons are far older. These were people of the Landing!'

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