The previous time Ruprecht had been resident in the Holy City he had rented a cheap, sunless room at the back of St Michael’s Seminary, where he was often disturbed by theological students banging doors and shouting, which for some reason they did quite a lot. This time he had leased the Casa Levitica, a handsome country residence in the hills south of the city itself, with a remarkable prospect of the spires and towers of the ancient city to the north and views of the deep blue sea to the east.
The villa had a large pool to the rear, enclosed by hedges of dark ilex and fashioned out of the white, grey-veined marble of the region. Felix and Gilles were laying out on recliners enjoying the fresher warmth of the morning. They were wearing silk robes, since Felix’s mother had arrived the previous day. Hans had taken seasonal leave and escorted her south. He was at that moment lazily swimming the length of the pool while chatting with the boys, for both of whom he had a great affection. His robe lay discarded at the pool’s edge.
Ruprecht’s grandmother was financing their stay in the Holy See, so he wasn’t feeling any guilt at the sum it took to secure such a lodging for the Christmas season, always a busy time in the Holy City. Many flocked here from the northern states as much for the delightful climate as the dramatic religious ceremonies and festivities. The villa had been a country estate of one of the more luxury-loving and corrupt fifth-century cardinal bishops, and still retained a castellated tower at the south end of its range, though the whole house had been modernised within the past two decades.
It was the beginning of Christmas week, the feast of the Holy Archangels, but although the Patriarchal Library was still open Ruprecht had other academic concerns on this trip south. He was pretty confident his researches into early historical sources had gone as far as he could take them. He shared Joerg Tannerman’s belief that answers were to be found now under the surface of the earth, rather than in books.
A knock on the door from Erwin Wenzel announced his cab had arrived. He took his place in it and was carried down from the hill on which their villa was situated and up into the suburbs opposite. The Holy City was much like any other conurbation until one reached the ancient and monumental city walls, fashioned in bands of white and pink stone and climbing to a height of fifteen metres, with massive octagonal mural towers reaching higher again. But above and beyond them were the spires, ranges and belfries of the Inner City’s twelve cardinalatures, each with its cathedral and residence, the mass of the Patriarchal Palace and, cresting the hill like a shining crown, the awesome grandeur of the White Basilica itself. That was where he was heading, for, by the intercession of his grandmother, he had secured the permission of the Proctor of the Basilica to penetrate its crypt and catacombs.
The cab laboured up the steep and narrow inclines of the Inner City till it emerged at one of the entrances to St Michael’s Square, beyond which vehicles were not allowed. Ruprecht paid the cab and walked the colonnades, lined with statues and the impassive armoured figures of the Patriarchal Guard, till he reached the wide stairs which led up to the west front of the great church. He walked under the sculptures of God and His Seneschal welcoming all true believers and found the Proctor in his black cassock and purple cincture awaiting him.
‘Minheer Graf. Right on time, very good.’
Ruprecht bowed to the Proctor, who enjoyed the rank and wore the ring of a bishop. ‘Reverence, it’s very good of you to meet me in person. I would not have thought that satisfying my intellectual curiosity would merit a guide of such rank.’
‘Not at all, minheer. Your grandmother and I are very old friends and what little she had to say about your researches piqued my curiosity no end. You wish to examine the catacombs beneath the Chapel of the Landing, is that right?’
‘Yes reverence. I believe that you have no objection to my making measurements and sketches.’
‘None whatsoever, dear boy. The nearest access stair is over there, below the north tower. Do come along. It has been a while since I was in the lower catacombs, and it will be a joy to see them again through your young eyes.’
They descended a narrow spiral stair to the parallel church which lay beneath the basilica, the Proctor’s robe sweeping the steps as they went. The great crypt’s five tunnel-vaulted aisles had been the burial place of the Patriarchs and certain favoured cardinals for eight centuries. It was consequently rich in marble statuary and sarcophaguses of the finest fashioning, which few eyes ever saw. A dim light shafted down through apertures in the outer walls. It was when they finally got to the west end that they encountered torches and lamps.
‘They’re not here for your benefit, my boy. The faithful are allowed in this section of the crypt to make their devotions at the chapels of the sainted patriarchs, which lie under the transepts. We’re going beyond them to the undercroft of the sanctuary and to the Chapel of the Landing, which is located directly under the basilica’s high altar.’
The Chapel was raised some metres above the level of the crypts to its west. It had an airy vault and proper windows so was dazzlingly bright after the gloomy passages Ruprecht had just traversed. A great star of twelve points was set in its marble floor in pure gold tesserae, and right in its centre was a low altar with six candles and a central pyx in which was reserved the Blessed Sacrament. In the blank apse to the east were sixth-century mural sculptures of the Last Supper of the Seneschal and the Angelic Visitation, flanked by stylised scenes of the descent of the fireships drawn from descriptions in The Voyagers. The altar of the chapel was said to have been erected on the very spot Willem den Rot (in Alleman) or Guillaume le Rou (in Francien) first set foot on Terre Nouvelle. Both peoples claimed him as one of their own, though the Holy See was neutral on the subject, avoiding the issue by labelling him ‘William Redhead’ in ancient English.
‘A place of great beauty,’ Ruprecht commented.
‘Indeed it is, minheer. A fine spot to meditate in for all sorts of reasons, and I often avail myself of the opportunity. But you want to go to the catacombs below. I hope you’re not wearing any clothes you’ll be sorry to have spoiled. It’s very dirty and dusty down there. I’m going to leave my cassock here.’
Having divested himself, the Proctor, now in shirt and trousers and looking more like an off-duty lawyer than a cleric, led Ruprecht to a small door on the north of the chapel. He picked up a large oil lamp, lit it, unlocked the door and ducked to go through. Beyond was a narrow stair which wound down by steep steps into the roughly carved limestone catacombs directly beneath the chapel.
Having reached the first level below the chapel, Ruprecht called to the Proctor to stop and got out his drawing materials, a measuring tape and compass: a surveying kit he had assembled with the advice of an envious Dr Tannerman, who was not happy that he could not accompany his patron. He had to remain in Blauwhaven to preside over the town’s own seasonal celebrations.
For the next two hours Ruprecht paced and planned the cavernous and interlinked cells, with the Proctor’s willing assistance. At midday they broke for lunch, and the clergyman led Ruprecht up again into the fresh air and sunlight, blinding after the gloom of the catacombs.
The two men pored over Ruprecht’s sketch plan in the dining room of the Proctor’s lodging.
‘My dear boy, this is quite remarkable,’ the cleric stated. ‘Do you know, I looked but we have no surveyor’s plan of this particular part of the basilica. What am I to make of these features?’
‘By my reckoning many of these cells were artificially excavated, notably the largest of them, directly below the chapel, but others are I think natural formations, in part at least. The central one may well have been used for religious purposes, but look here and here at these perimeter cells. There are blackened areas of wall which look like the remains of domestic fires, some still have the scattered and scorched cobbles which may once have been hearths. It’s a very diverse complex I think, and not principally religious in origin. There’s a lot of broken pottery which I’d like to take samples of. Then there’s the smudges of what might have been mural paintings of some sort. I need to scratch around in the central section which clearly relates to the church above. Would that be acceptable?’
‘Minheer Graf, as long as you keep this to yourself, I would say yes. However, I’m pretty sure my Evangelical brethren might well have a different opinion, so I would suggest you keep what you are finding quiet for the moment, particularly your opinion that the catacombs are not necessarily religious in origin. That would very much upset those who believe that the Blessed Michael the Proto-Patriarch had a prophetic vision of a Second Landing in those very caverns. I’ll let you get on with the rest of your exploration in peace. I have more routine concerns to keep me busy this afternoon.’
Ruprecht headed back down into the catacombs having borrowed a number of tools and several sacks in which to place any objects which might come up. He also took several lamps to try to make more of the smudged murals on the walls.
He took a sample of floor debris: shattered bones, pottery fragments and anything that looked like it might have been an artefact. There was a good deal of material which at first sight resembled pottery, but on examining it he was not so sure, as it had the features of glass, including sharp edges, on which he managed to cut himself. He was particularly intrigued by a number of small crushed and corroded brass metal tubes whose purpose he could not even guess at. That was the easy part. He then used a broom to scour clean the large central cell immediately below the chapel. He found no domestic rubbish there at all, which was probably significant, but he did find a sequence of nine long depressions in the floor in three lines of three running east to west, which he would have taken to be graves, but they were simply far too large for any human body, though maybe not for a buried sarcophagus.
Ruprecht took the westernmost central depression and scraped away at what he imagined might be the head end with a hoe. The soil was dry and friable, so he got down to a half a metre without too much difficulty, though he would need spades to go further. He was not too keen to ask for them and so alert the authorities to his activities in this sacred site.
He was about to give up when his hoe struck on a hard object. Ruprecht fell to his knees and used his hands to push away the dust and debris. Two large black holes stared back up at him from the earth. It was a skull, but not a human one. More shovelling with his fingers uncovered its nature: it was the head of what he imagined must be an erdbeest, for it was too flat in the face for a horse, antelope or buffalo. Some more work allowed him to dislodge it and lever it out of the ground. He quickly concealed it in a sack and went back to the pile of debris he had shifted. Sifting through it produced more pottery fragments and a large metal disk, which he judged to be of copper or some copper alloy as it was corroded green. He pocketed it, then backfilled the hole he had made and smoothed it over, kicking white dust from the surrounding surface over it and tamping it down with his foot.
When a shout announced the return of the Proctor, Ruprecht was innocently sketching the smudges on the walls of the cells, and was more or less finished. The two men tidied up and, having expressed his great gratitude to the Proctor, Ruprecht took his satchel of notes and three sacks of finds to go in search of a cab.
Gilles and Felix were predictably enthused at the result of Ruprecht’s rudimentary excavation beneath the great church, both the illicit and legitimate one, but particularly the great skull, which Gilles carefully emptied of packed dirt, washed, oiled and polished. It stared back at them from a console table in the drawing room like a rather macabre ornament. It was not entirely intact, and had a round hole in its left side.
The table was sheeted and neatly displayed the cleaned-up finds of pottery, bone and the various metal objects from the debris, which Felix had taken upon himself to organise.
‘I don’t know what it all means, but it is amazing!’ Felix declared. ‘What about this coin?’
‘I think we’ll have to leave that till we get back to the doctor. He’ll know what to do with it. In the meantime I’m going to rework my plan of the catacombs.’
Gilles volunteered to draw elevations of each cell wall with the location of each mural clearly marked. He had a very good draughtsman’s eye. Felix sharpened his pencils for him and calculated the scale for the drawing. In the end Felix got so caught up in his measurements that he himself began a three-dimensional drawing of the whole complex. His mother and Hans came in and admired their work, while Hans scrutinised the enigmatic disk.
‘It’s got letters on it,’ he eventually said.
‘How can you tell?’ Ruprecht enquired.
‘The eye of faith. Also, being a naval officer, I have an affinity for anything made of brass.’
‘Can you clean it up?’
‘It’s trickier than you might think. If I used acid to dissolve the verdigris it might just pit the metal beneath and obliterate the surface decoration.’
‘Then what would you suggest?’
‘I’ll go ask your man Erwin to find me a brush and a rag.’ He looked around innocently. ‘And would anyone happen to have some clear mineral oil to help dissolve the dirt?’
Felix went red and shot a covert glance at his mother. ‘I … er … think there may be some in the … bathroom between mine and Gilles’s chambers. A … workman may have left it there.’
Hans beamed mischievously at his little brother. ‘Now isn’t that so very lucky!’
Dinner was served late in a loggia overlooking the villa’s handsome formal gardens. Flambeaux burned out on the paths and they dined by candlelight in the warm southern night, according to local custom, wrapped in gorgeous silk robes. Hans and the two younger boys wore nothing else since they had come from the pool. Ruprecht observed that in this light and with his smooth chest exposed by the open robe Gilles looked more elfin than human; his eyes glittered and his ready smile flashed in the candlelight. Felix looked nowhere but at him. There were garlands in the hair of the barefoot boys and of the countess, as was traditional at formal dinners in the Southlands for women, children and adolescents of both sexes.
The stars were bright in the black sky, except where the city’s glow stained it a dull orange to the north. The Three Sisters burned low in the south. Large hunting moths fluttered white across the garden, courting the flambeaux, whose tempting flames kept the insects from approaching the house. Erwin Wenzel marshalled the meal in his new gold-laced seneschal’s livery coat, a white staff in his hand to direct the lesser servants.
Ruprecht felt very much at ease with the world. He had enjoyed his first attempt at investigative excavation, even if he had little idea of the significance of what he had found. Joerg Tannerman would no doubt take care of that.
He was meditating on the quality of the red wine being served with the main course when his mind was dragged back to the conversation, which had turned to the latest news from Ardhesse. The countess had paid a call that afternoon to the duchess of Grenzheim, an old schoolfellow of hers.
‘My dear, she is more or less a refugee in the Holy See. Young King Kristijan has commandeered her estate on the borders of Westrecht, where he has rallied his supporters. They say he has only a small force, no more than ten regiments of infantry and five of cavalry, all his supporters could field. The Regent has three times as many troops and all the artillery he might need. He also has the backing of the late king’s friends. It’s just a matter of time. But the young king is causing no end of damage to the west of the country: blowing up bridges and railway lines and raiding towns. They say not even church treasuries are safe from his marauders.’
Gilles chipped in, to Ruprecht’s surprise. ‘I’ve been reading the Francien papers that have made it south, Mutta. The Mercure Impérial has been praising Duke Horst and it is said the Empress Regent will recognise him as rightful king, which may clear the way for an Imperial intervention. The Vieldomainien press says Kristijan is trying to gain the support of the Grand Duchy of Westrecht, which has been insulted by the Regent’s insinuation that Kristijan’s mother, a princess of that land, had him by an affair with a cavalry officer. The Regent has her in prison. They say the poor lady is being kept under duress till she makes a confession. It is all very bad, I think.’
The countess smiled at her Francien foster-child, whom she adored quite as much as did the Princess Regent, her mother. ‘It is very bad indeed when men make war on women, Gillot my dear. If the noble code has any usefulness it is that it is an obstacle to those who would hurt and exploit the unarmed and defenceless. But there are too many hypocrites amongst the princes and minheeren of the present day. Their nobility is all posture and no reality.’
Felix quirked his lips. ‘Not all princes, lieblen Mutta! Some of us are quite nice people and even tidy our apartments when we feel like it! But it seems to me that it’s money which is at the root of the problem.’
‘How so?’ asked Ruprecht, increasingly intrigued at the evidence that his two young charges were becoming intellectually engaged with their world and its society.
‘Gillot and I talk about this a lot. We have different standpoints obviously, but we both think that traditional nobility and its code was a good thing in its day. It did make it a disgrace for a lord to be brutal and unfeeling to his dependents, and it did make lords listen to the Church even if they didn’t want to. But since the opening of trade and manufactories and all the modern inventions like steam power, voltaism and railways, it’s falling apart. Some nobles are getting hugely rich by financing industry and the rail network, attracting people from the countryside into big and unhealthy cities, exploiting and taking no responsibility for them.’
‘We’re doing pretty well out of that ourselves, my Kreech,’ Ruprecht observed.
‘Maybe,’ the boy replied, ‘but if the world’s problems are changing, then the nobility has to change with it. If we can’t protect and do justice for our people, like in the old days, we have to find new ways to justify our privilege.’
Hans became engaged at this point. ‘Little Kreech has a point. The old military system makes less and less sense. As a naval officer, I lead a professional and highly-trained crew where noble status is entirely irrelevant to anyone’s ability to do his job. Our officers are trained up nowadays in our Naval Academy, just like the Royal Navy of Dreiholmtz has been for a century and more, and you get into it by examination, not by family contacts. It’s talent which makes your career in our navy. Why isn’t the army like this? Instead it’s a money-making machine for the colonels and their noble officers, and the quality of their troops is all too often just what you’d expect. The specialist corps of artillery, telegraphers and engineers have no status despite their obvious importance in modern warfare.’
Ruprecht laughed. ‘Cover your ears, Mutta! Don’t ever repeat these heresies to our father! He’d put Hans in the dungeons of Freiborg. The fortunes of the House of Aalst were built on the old way of war.’
Felix had been meditating, and came back at this point. ‘Gillot and I think that in our new world the commoners will eventually have a lot more to say about how things are done. Since many lords no longer take their responsibilities seriously they may ask what use the noble class is to them anymore.’
Ruprecht demurred. ‘That they may well do, but the nobility still has all the power through its control of land and industry, and by the swords and rifles of its regiments. As long as the emperor, the kings and the great princes are on their thrones, and the nobles are at the heads of their regiments, I don’t see much changing.’
His mother mused. ‘I see changes. It’s not only the nobles who are acquiring wealth. I see new sorts of characters appearing at my drawing room receptions: managers, businessmen and speculators. They’re not noble, but they are staking a claim to a higher place in society than commoners have had till now. The fact that they and their wives are being invited within my doors and that their children are entering our universities tells me our world is indeed changing, Ruprecht my dear.’
Hans agreed. ‘Boundaries are loosening, Rupe. You don’t see it, stuck in your ivory tower.’
Ruprecht sniffed. ‘I don’t deny that there’s travel up and down in our society. But there always has been. Take the Church: clerics with children have always been promoted and they use their stipends and prebends to get their kids schooled. They can buy decent marriages into noble families. Not all of their offspring become clergy. Sometimes they buy estates with what they inherit from their episcopal fathers, and the end result is that they rise quietly into the lesser nobility and Lehensherren. How are capitalists any different? Take the present margrave of Schwarzwald. He’s given one of his daughters to the son of that man Wilders who made a pile on the construction of the extension of the Grand Southern Line into the Montenard Republic. So Herr Wilders’ grandchildren will be first cousins to the margrave; they’ll have big estates and get to be Ritters, maybe even noble Lehensherren. But old man Wilders still started out as a signalman.’
Hans shook his head. ‘It’s not people like him I’m talking about, Rupe. They’re the steam from the escape valve. It’s the overheating boiler I’m thinking of.’
‘Good naval metaphor, Hans!’ Felix applauded. ‘You think maybe the engine’s about to rupture?’
‘Un bouleversement.’ Gilles commented.
‘What does that mean?’ Hans asked: his Francien was not so good.
‘A complete upheaval,’ Felix translated. ‘Interesting times are coming. Gillot and I will be fine though if the princely business folds. We’ve got an alternative career going as a musical duo. Me on flute and Gillot singing.’
The countess applauded. ‘Excellent! Minheer Wenzel, can you put lights in the music room for us? I want to hear the boys perform after we leave the table, and I feel the need to accompany my son in Eisenschmidt’s sixth duet for flute and keyboard.’
Ruprecht’s mind continually recurred to that conversation in the loggia over the next few weeks. But from where he sat in the Casa Levitica, the grand hall of the Patriarchal Library, and the western gallery of the White Basilica during the sumptuous patriarchal celebration of Christmas, his world looked much the same as it ever had.
Felix recovered fully during the two weeks of holiday, and once again regained his colour and even some weight. His vitality also returned, as Gilles sheepishly confessed to Ruprecht when he was asked.
‘Kreech is pretty much insatiable. I was always told the fever of the consumption inflames desire, and it’s true he’s always wanting to be inside me … even in the pool when no one is looking. I don’t mind though really, even if I got no sleep last night. I want him back just as much.’
Ruprecht smiled, kissed the boy and wished him all the strength he needed. Just before they left the Holy See, papers came out announcing the first battle in the west of Ardhesse. Early reports talked of King Kristijan’s ambush on Christmas Day itself of a column of the Regent’s army near his base in Grenzheim, and the subsequent rout of his uncle’s forces.
Hans shrugged at the news. ‘The boy’s lucky. But in military affairs it’s weight of numbers which counts in the end. He won’t get another such chance. The Regent was stupid to split his forces.’
A gazette from sympathetic Westrecht which came their way portrayed things nonetheless very positively. Kristijan’s force was it seems heavily outnumbered, but caught the Regent’s column unsuspecting while it was crossing a river, his infantry digging in and holding up the vanguard while his cavalry regiments swam the flood at an unsuspected ford and circled round to take the Regency troops in the rear. There were heavy enemy casualties and an artillery train was captured, a severe reverse for the Duke.
Most interesting to the boys were several pages of wood engravings depicting the action, from sketches made by Westrechtner correspondents in the field. A particularly striking print showed the heroic young king in the course of the battle riding with his cuirassiers, himself unarmoured, pistol in hand and shooting dead the enemy commander. When the Von Aalst party took the northbound express at the Holy City’s St Mikhel Hauptbahnhof, pedlars were hawking colour lithographs of the same scene and making brisk sales, along with half-length photographic portraits of Kristijan III looking very handsome in military uniform.
‘I’ll bet the bastard shot the poor general down after he’d surrendered,’ Gilles growled, unimpressed.
For the second time in his life Ruprecht von Aalst felt a sense of unlikely homecoming. The first time had been when he led the refugee Kristijan of Ardhesse to his old haunts in Chasancene. The second was when he sighted the ugly old Schloss Blauwhaven as his carriage reached the paddock. The place was his and he felt he really belonged to it. His two boys clearly felt the same. They whooped and leapt out of the moving carriage, throwing off their clothes carelessly as they scampered across the broken ground towards their favourite resort. They were naked well before they were out of sight.
‘Shall I recover their clothing, minheer Graf?’ Erwin, who had travelled ahead of the main party, smirked as he greeted his master at the front door.
‘They’ll not need it for a few days, I’d guess. Not till Meister Andrecht returns from his holidays. How are you Erwin?’
‘How are things developing now you’re my seneschal?’
‘Minheer Graf, I’m rising to the challenges.’
‘You are indeed’ Ruprecht affirmed. ‘I am very pleased indeed with my choice of Antrustion.’
The man bowed low and welcomed his lord to his castle. Ruprecht issued his instructions as to dinner and an invitation to the rector was sent off in due form.
The dark old furniture, the gloomy seventh-century portraits and the smoke-scented great hall had lost their intimidatory air to the Lehensherr of Blauwhaven. The place had given him too many good memories, and even the pain of the Vinseff fiasco had not disenchanted Ruprecht with it. It was now simply home, and he welcomed his new friend the rector into it with suitable ceremony. The boys bounded over and hugged the doctor, whom they loved for his kindness and comfort to Felix, talking ten to the dozen about their adventures in the Far South. The little man was both bemused and amused.
‘So, then. When do I get to see the fruits of your first excavations?’ Dr Tannerman asked.
‘After dinner, Joerg. The cook has been saving up some of the Christmas leftovers for us. She was not happy we were elsewhere for the feast. She took it as a personal slight.’ Ruprecht led the way to the table.
Erwin was back in his plain jacket, declaring his seneschal’s livery was far too grand for ordinary use. Despite the threat, the meal was wholesome and well-presented. The boys drank the glass of wine they were usually allowed, and listened with attention to the doctor’s reflections on his new cure of souls.
‘Taking your advice, Rupe, I engaged the services of a couple of assistant clergy, one a clever but financially embarrassed young man from Schwarzwald who thought he could marry on the salary of a priest assistant, forgetting that children inevitably follow. The other is a worthy old fellow I met years ago who hasn’t ever had much preferment, but whose abilities with parishioners I’ve always envied. I’ve set them up in two houses belonging to the church: a gloomy view of the graveyard but I expect they’ll adapt. The younger fellow is fierce about liturgy and music while the other is so pastoral I feel guilty taking up his time about anything else. I’ll just leave them to get on with things.’
‘Should I invite them up to the schloss?’
‘I think twice a year will be sufficient. They’ll be properly flattered.’
‘Tell me about things in the town. This is where the priest and the Lehensherr are traditional allies, you understand.’
Joerg mused for a couple of moments, scrutinising his wineglass. ‘It’s an oddly diverse place. There is the fishing community, all interrelated – some would say to an incestuous degree – but incredibly supportive of each other, necessarily so since most years bring the loss of one or more vessels and their crews. Their Friendly Society is quite a force in the town. But it’s the business community which is the burgeoning concern, with a number of outsiders shaking things up since it’s their money they’re investing in the town and its development. The holiday business may be the future of Blauwhaven, and though the fishing families know it they don’t necessarily like it, even if they make money providing boats for excursion parties. It’s the commercial folk who’re agitating the town council about improving the railway to a double track. The fishermen aren’t so keen. All in all, local politics could get interesting, and both sides are looking to the Lehensherr of Blauwhaven to be their ally.’
Felix was impressed. ‘My dear doctor, you’re quite the social analyst. Take care or I may make you a bishop!’
‘My father would be horrified at the thought, Serene Highness,’ the cleric said with a smile.
‘Please doctor …to you, I’m the Kreech or Felix. But I like Kreech. From now on you’re Joerg to me and Gillot.’
‘I’ll remember that, and thank you. But now … I’ve been patient long enough. Can we get on to your finds in the Holy City?’
‘Sure, Gillot’s laid them out in the drawing room.’
The party adjourned to look over the finds, artistically arranged by the two boys. He exhaled loudly on seeing the skull, set in the centre. ‘My word,’ he said, ‘that’s a handsome example of a royal erdbeest, a bull I think.’
‘How can you tell the difference between them?’ Gilles enquired.
‘The size principally, but the bull has those three pronounced bumps across the forehead, which may be the relics of horns its species once flaunted.’
‘What, like horses and antelopes?’
‘Horns are common to the males of many of the larger mammalian species on Terre Nouvelle, though obviously not humans as we come from somewhere else. The females don’t have the bumps. Their smaller size makes the female skull difficult to distinguish from the common erdbeest. Of course the royal erdbeest was bipedal and the common variety is more or less quadrupedal, so there’s no doubt which you’re looking at if you have the whole skeleton. And you found it ceremonially buried?’
‘There may have been nine of them beneath the Chapel of the Landing, laid out in a deliberate pattern,’ Ruprecht replied. ‘Do you think they were sacrificial? I hadn’t thought our ancestors did that sort of thing.’
‘They may have done all sorts of things in the first century we have no idea of. We do know that they hunted the species more or less to extinction well before the Noble Wars. The hunting of the royal erdbeest was the particular recreation of the Allemanic kings, hence their name. No cut marks on the skull, so it wasn’t butchered, but then I never heard that the royal erdbeest was hunted for food, unlike the common variety. It was the feat of catching and killing them which was prized. There are still several surviving trophy skulls to be found exhibited in the halls of certain of the more ancient noble houses in the Empire and Kingdoms, and of course the erdbeest is one of the more common heraldic devices. The bulls were dangerous and cunning beasts, according to the old poems and tales, capable of taking down a horse and its rider with their talons alone. At least three ancient kings are recorded as being killed in the erdbeest hunt.’
‘What do you make of the hole in its head?’
‘Interesting. It looks like it must have been the result of a projectile weapon, though it’s too large for an arrow and too regular in shape for a javelin. But I imagine that’s what killed it. It must have struck with real force to make a hole in such thick bone. Now let’s look at the debris.’
Joerg began to sort and examine the finds. Despite the questions bubbling from the boys he kept his counsel, though a crease of concentration grew deeper on his forehead. Finally he indicated the shards and fragments of the odd glasslike substance. ‘I’ve seen this material before, smooth, sharp and shiny. It appeared in my dig at Schwarzwald at the lowest levels. Like glass and pottery, it’s highly resistant to decay. The pottery you’ve found is classic English blueware, as I call it. So you can take that as additional evidence that the Holy See was founded by the ancient English of Kholnai.’
‘And the brass tubing?’
‘Well there’s the interesting thing. You found all this material scattered in one of the domestic cells, yes? Of course being on or just below the surface of a cave there’s no way of knowing how long it was there. But first, look at this corroded ironwork you found. You say it was a dry environment, so to get in this state it must have been under the basilica for centuries, likewise your pieces of tube. Now, let me take these pieces and rearrange them. Do you recognise what they might be? No? Well, if I put them together like this what do you see, Kreech?’
‘Well … it looks like …. but it can’t be. Can it?’
‘Damn me!’ exclaimed Ruprecht. ‘It’s a goddam handgun!’
‘Yes, and the tubes are in fact used shell casings. The hole in the erdbeest skull looks suddenly more accountable.’