‘What do you think “radiation” might be?’ Ruprecht asked.
‘I have no idea, though I don’t think it can be a good thing, judging by the tone of that warning,’ Joerg replied. ‘Connor O’Connor. He must have been King Connor I of Kholnai, do you think? Except here he’s called President, just like Guillaume le Rou on the medallion. Is “president” an English synonym for king?’
‘I think it’s something different. Kingship is hereditary after all. You can’t be an interim king. How dangerous might “radiation” be after more than eight centuries?’
‘I’d imagine that whatever it was has long faded away and perished. And that warning is not going to prevent me going down that passage.’ Joerg’s face was set and determined.
Ruprecht had his doubts. ‘I’d guess it was pretty poisonous in its day. Whoever painted the warning got in and out damn quickly. They made no attempt to deal with the bones down here. In fact I think they deliberately sealed this cellar up behind them as a tomb for their dead compatriots; they may even have placed the corpses here themselves. Don’t forget that at Champs Dolent the bodies were just heaped in an open field and left for the beasts; these poor men received more consideration than their enemy offered.’
That gave Joerg a moment’s hesitation, but he soon came back. ‘How do you know the warning wasn’t already there when the massacre happened? Anyway, there’re answers down there, Rupe. I can’t not go.’
‘I know, little sweetheart. I’m going with you too. Erwin, you stay here and cover our backs in case the worst happens.’
The seneschal raised an eyebrow. ‘And what precisely might “the worst” be, Excellency?’
‘I’m pretty sure when it happens you’ll know exactly what it is. So, off we go.’
Without waiting for Joerg Ruprecht took a lamp and headed through the dark aperture, holding the light high. Joerg hurried behind him. The passage was rectangular, even and lined with concrete. Water seepage through the concrete had created thin stalactites above their heads, one or two now hanging half a metre down, but the way was not too wet apart from the odd shallow pool. The smell was not fetid, though there was a cold earthiness about the atmosphere and something else too, a sort of metallic tang to the air.
‘We’re heading straight for that hill,’ Ruprecht commented, his voice flattened by the confined space. ‘The passage can’t go on for much longer.’
In fact within another fifty metres they came up short against an intact metal hatch which entirely closed their way forward. It was uncorroded and made of a substance new to Ruprecht, white and ceramic-like in its texture. ‘I think it’s another form of alienware,’ he commented.
The portal echoed slightly when Joerg tapped it with the handle of a spade he had brought with him. ‘There are words painted across it, but they make no sense to me. I suppose they must be in English of the technical sort, just like in that scientific report on erdbeesten we found in Jean-Charles’s bolt hole.’
Ruprecht in the meantime was scrutinising the hatch carefully. He had found a lever inset in the right hand side. It was metal but of an alloy unknown to him, and quite untouched by time. ‘I’m going to try this, Joerg. If it snaps off in my hand we’ll be no worse off than we are now, I suppose. Ready?’
He strained at the handle till his muscles cracked and the sinews stood out on his neck, but it did not give. He was hardly surprised.
‘Let me try levering it with the spade handle,’ Joerg suggested. ‘You’re going to rupture yourself if you carry on like that.’
The smaller man gave it his best, and when a sweating Ruprecht joined him they were startled when the handle simply gave up and, with a creak, turned ninety degrees to the upright. There was a slight hiss and the door retreated into an alcove and folded into the floor. A cell was revealed, with a further hatch barring progress beyond. Everything within was fashioned of the same clinical white substance, apart from a body sitting on the floor, its back against the right-hand wall. It was entirely swathed in a green suit, its head covered with a helmet, the front of which was glazed, rather like a deep sea diver’s headpiece.
Joerg knelt and stared through the visor, holding the lamp close. He gasped and looked up at his lover. ‘Human, and very well-preserved. A middle-aged man, I’d guess. He’s in quite a mess, there’s what looks like dried vomit plastered all over his face. Still, though he’s been dead for nearly nine centuries you’d never know, there’s just no visible decay at all. I need to get him out and conduct an autopsy. Clearly something killed him that was not a blunt instrument or a gun. Perhaps he’s a victim of the “radiation” we were warned about?’
Ruprecht moved past him to examine the inner door. ‘Why’s he here? Was he trying to get in or out of whatever’s behind this door? Dammit. This one has no handle to it.’
Joerg joined him. ‘This is a puzzle. What about this box on the right hand wall? No handle, just an array of buttons and some sort of gauge.’
‘I think maybe we’d better go no further for the time being. Not till we know whether the radiation thing has affected us. I don’t feel as though it has, but they do say some poisons take a while to make their effects known. I’ll go get Erwin and some sort of stretcher for this deceased gentleman. Will you be alright here on your own for a little while?’
‘It takes a lot to creep me out, Rupe.’
‘I think I’m beginning to understand that.’
Three of the four ranchers turned up the next day, tipped off by their workers as to the fact that there had been discoveries below their land. They were duly impressed by the mass of skeletal remains, and seemed satisfied that what had been found was an ancient royal burial site of a lost kingdom from the dark times of the earliest centuries of their world.
‘It’s more or less true,’ Joerg commented. ‘Once they were sure there was no treasure, they lost interest in any case.’
‘Rancher Wilberts was a little too interested in the tunnel for my liking. Just as well you’d put the mummy on a table in front of the entrance; somehow he couldn’t bring himself to push past it.’
Joerg returned to his interrupted autopsy. He surveyed the opened cadaver, the cavity lit up by an overhead lamp. ‘I would say this fellow was in his forties when he died. Incredibly little decay, all things considered, it’s as if the moisture was leached out of him. He was well-built and well-nourished before his death. Rather fine set of teeth too for a man of his age, no decay there either.’
‘So what was the cause of death?’
‘Choked on his own vomit, it would appear. Soiled himself very badly too, poor man. I’d say poison of some sort caused all this, but none like I’ve ever heard of.’
‘I imagine so. How do you feel?’
‘Me? I’m alright. If I’ve been poisoned, it’s a remarkably well-mannered and unobtrusive sort.’
‘The rapidity with which it killed this fellow means that if there was any potency left in it, it would have affected us by now. Apparently it’s lost its bite over the centuries. Bit of a relief really.’
‘I’ll say. So we can return to the tunnel reassured that we aren’t going to end up like this fellow. Anything in his clothing?’
Joerg indicated a pile of objects. ‘He was wearing a coverall under his green protective suit. His name was stitched on a tab on the breast pocket. He was Anthony Phillips. English, of course. Somehow, having a name for this man brings the reality of all this home in ways the bone dumps did not. Inside his pockets was a range of objects. Here’s another of those cards, just like the ones we found at Préaux du Sang, but this one’s intact. Look at this! It’s a miniature photograph of the man himself, but in colour! That such things are possible.’
Ruprecht took it, and the original of the dead face stared back at him: a man indeed in his mid-forties, rather ordinary looking, his hair thinning. It was the sort of face you could see on the streets of Ostberg. ‘What are these interlaced gold patterns inset in the alienware rectangle?’
‘They were set in the ones we found in Vieldomaine too, but there they were broken and perished. Here they make a tiny elaborate tracery across the surface. There’s no guessing their purpose, I’m afraid. There’s so much about the technology of the ancients we can never hope to understand. We would seem very primitive to them, I imagine.’
‘I think we’d better remove these bodies and give Mister Phillips a proper burial after all these centuries, alongside his colleagues and friends. Then we need to tackle the inner entrance. I cannot guess what we might find within, but it intrigues me beyond reason.’
Ruprecht’s curiosity was not destined to be satisfied easily. The door could not be got to move. When he struck it with is crowbar in frustration the tool rebounded leaving barely a mark.
He marvelled at the resilience and strength of the material, unlike anything his world had devised.
Joerg pondered the box to its right, with equal frustration. ‘You can push at them and they go in a way, then spring out. But unless there’s a sequence to the way they’re to be pressed, I can’t see what purpose they might serve. They may not even have anything to do with opening the door.’
‘Shall we try explosives?’ Ruprecht suggested.
Joerg rolled his eyes. ‘I have a feeling that a substance this strong is not going to be moved much by whatever force gunpowder might bring to bear. We might try a large drill, but only steam power is likely to make any mark on it, and perhaps not even then.’ He looked pensive for a while, then slapped his forehead. ‘Of course! Rupe, I’m not thinking here. We have another option. The approach tunnel has brought us directly under the hill to the north side of this sunken structure, so let’s try another avenue. I’ll get the hands to commence a shaft down into the interior to find the roof of this chamber. There may well be other hatches to be found.’
Joerg didn’t take long to calculate the point to commence the shaft down through the hill. A day’s work measuring and surveying allowed his meticulous draughtsmanship and topographical skills to produce a remarkably professional-looking plan, detailing the underground complex, the prefecture and the contours of the landscape.
‘A fine piece of work, little one,’ Ruprecht commented over his shoulder as Joerg worked on their rented house’s table. ‘That hill – have you got it right? It’s rather regular for a natural feature.’
‘I think so, though my artist’s eye may be smoothing out mundane irregularities in a search for inner meaning.’
‘You’re sending me up, little bull, and you know what happens next. C’mere.’
Half an hour later, lying out on the bed, Ruprecht again scrutinised the plan. ‘It’s a pointed oval, what d’you call it …?’
‘An ellipse? Mandorla?’
‘One of those. That hill looks artificial.’
‘I think we’d worked that out. It’s a feature of the complex, one that the Francien prefecture didn’t have. I wonder why?’
Ruprecht nodded. ‘I was giving that some thought. We observed earlier that this English prefecture was not in the most convenient site for the capital of a “zone”. I wonder if they had to put it here, in fact.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Maybe the fireships couldn’t land just anywhere on Terre Nouvelle. Maybe they had to land here.’
Joerg’s face fell into a dreamy sort of smile. ‘I hope you’re right, Rupe. I’d like that so much to be true. So could this be the colonists’ sky harbour, the genuine place of the Landing?’
‘Les navires en feu ardant/ Enfin la terre ils gagnent/Guillaume le Rou li bon capitain/Et tous ses peuples débarquent.’
‘That’s part of the Landing passage from The Voyagers. You know it off by heart.’
‘Our damnable tutor made me and Hans memorise it. Still, I’m glad I have it in my head nowadays.’
Joerg sniggered and cuddled into Ruprecht. ‘I think answers are waiting to hatch within that hill, if only we can crack the very hard shell of the egg surrounding them.’
‘What do you think it is?’
‘I can only wonder. But it stands to reason that every harbour has to have a harbourmaster’s office and a lighthouse. I’d like to think that’s what’s under the hill: the signal office or telegraph or whatever those people had to communicate with their fireships above the sky and guide them down to earth.’
The next day the workmen commenced the dig down from a point that Joerg had determined at the crest of the hill. He didn’t claim that he had a particular reason to choose it, other than that he calculated the shaft would bring them down to a point south of where the underground passage had met the door.
The shaft was ambitious, three metres square and braced on all four sides. Joerg calculated it would take four days work in fair weather to get to the structure within the hill’s crust of earth. But to his surprise a pickaxe clunked hard against an impermeable surface early on the second day after they had begun, when they were no more than four metres down. It was the white ceramic substance, this time horizontal, like a roof. The workmen stared at it, scratching their heads and muttering.
‘Jesus the Seneschal!’ Ruprecht exclaimed. ‘What exactly have we found here? If this is the roof, this structure must be at least three storeys high, and that’s not including any basements.’
Joerg’s eyes were shining. He had the men begin clearing the earth from the exposed surface. Once it was scoured and washed, it formed a shining white and pristine floor to the pit they had dug.
‘No marks of any sort on it,’ he observed. ‘Now we know the depth, we’ll cut another shaft ten metres to the east and see to what depth it sinks.’
The second shaft was complete before the end of the day, with similar results. A white and unbroken floor was below their feet, though as they were packing up Joerg observed that the floor was curving down to the east in the same manner as the hill. ‘The structure too is curved, or dome-like, beneath its covering of earth. The hill merely follows its contours. Unbelievable. To think this has been lying here unsuspected for over eight centuries. Did our ancestors deliberately entomb it, I wonder?’
‘Because of the poisonous radiation?’
‘It’s a thought.’
The two were still intently discussing the possibilities when their mounts brought them around a corner of a lane into the marketplace of Yorck. The horses pulled up short, startled. The square was full of men in uniform. For a moment Ruprecht thought it must be the local Montenard reservists drilling, but there was something alarmingly familiar about the uniforms of the men who were knocking on doors and dragooning the locals into lines. Montenards wore brown and grey; these soldiers were in dark blue double-breasted greatcoats and wearing forage caps, apart that is from the officers.
‘Oh shit! The officers are in Allemanic helmets. It’s the Ardhessians. They’ve damned well invaded the Republic. They’ve seized Hartland. What the hell’s going on?’
Rifles pointing in their faces were a persuasive argument that Ruprecht and Joerg should dismount. They were escorted over to the front of the inn where several dozen local men were under guard. Women and children were ordered indoors.
‘They arrived only half an hour ago, minheeren,’ the innkeeper told them. ‘We had no warning. Their uhlans were out in advance of them and cut the telegraph wires. We didn’t have a chance to warn Sint-Willemsborg, though I’d guess they’ll know soon enough. Lindern has a small garrison, though it won’t have been able to resist long unless they holed up in the fort.’
‘What d’you think they’re playing at?’
A local who introduced himself as a reservist lieutenant chipped in. ‘The last we heard the Imperials were having a bad time of it in Freschdaal. The young king let them penetrate western Ardhesse till they were brought up short by strongly fortified lines along the river, but by then the Imperials had pushed too far. A whole corps was trapped by his counterattack in a salient of its own making. That was the news as of yesterday.’
‘So what in God’s name is King Kristijan playing at invading the Republic?’
The lieutenant gave a slight shrug, saying he was not a general. But he continued, ‘Mind you, if you’re asking me I’d say he was aiming to secure the pass west across the Black Ridge down into Westrecht. That mad young genius isn’t just waiting for retaliation from the Imperials occupying the grand duchy, he’s going to outflank the Franszki bastards and eliminate them at one stroke.’
Ruprecht frowned. ‘You almost sound as though you admire the man who’s just violated your homeland’s frontiers.’
The man scowled. ‘Of course not! But as a soldier, you can’t but admire the lad … hardly eighteen years of age: he’s a prodigy!’
Ruprecht subsided and looked around. The Ardhessian soldiers seemed remarkably relaxed, confident even. Ruprecht rather guessed this was the effect Kristijan had on his men. They had come to believe that whatever he asked of them, and however insane the situations he put them in, he would carry them through it all in triumph.
Joerg too had been looking around. He caught Ruprecht’s eye. ‘I thought it was generally held to be military suicide to invade the Montenard Republic.’
‘So common report has it, but it looks like King Scumbag is changing all the rules. When his ancestors led their armies up into the mountains in past generations, all too often they didn’t come back. But that was because they invaded in order to conquer the Montenards and were stupid enough to fight them on their own territory. Kristijan’s not interested in conquest, at least not at the moment. He’s after a highway through the republic’s borders which’ll serve his greater purpose and doesn’t care about the diplomatic niceties of asking for permission first. He’s ploughing his own furrow.’
‘Doesn’t promise well for the future then,’ Joerg grunted.
‘My thoughts exactly.’
Ruprecht kept a cautious eye on the activity of the Ardhessians who were occupying Yorck. Aides-de-camp with despatches frequently galloped up to the town hall, in front of which was now hanging a general’s ensign, the door below guarded by a party of flamboyantly-dressed horse grenadiers in red and black. An opening between the houses allowed Ruprecht to see that a large army was toiling by the town across the heathland to the west of Yorck, squadrons of cavalry and batteries of horse artillery in the van.
Before he could come to any conclusion as to the army’s strength a detail led by a sergeant arrived to march the captives into the town church. A black-uniformed captain had set up a desk at the head of the nave and the townsmen were interrogated by him one by one before being escorted down to the crypt for safe-keeping.
Ruprecht’s heart sank at the intelligence of the appraising look on the captain’s face as his turn brought him to the table.
‘Not a native of this place I believe, minheer? Are these your papers?’ He produced the laissez-passer Ruprecht’s consular days had provided him with and which normally resided in his saddle bag, which it seemed had been carefully searched. He checked the name against a list, and his head shot back up. ‘And what would a Hochrechtner diplomat be doing in such an obscure little highland town, minheer Graf?’
‘Indeed sir. I cannot commend your taste, though I understand the air is generally regarded as particularly clean and pure in the mountains.’
‘Regrettably the place has become too crowded lately for the solitude I prefer.’
The officer laughed. ‘My dear Excellency, I regret I must detain you for further questioning. Sergeant!’
Ruprecht was marched off. He made a point of not looking back at Joerg, who had been in the line behind him. There was a chance that the little doctor would not be associated with him by the Ardhessians, and indeed it turned out that Joerg was not marched off after him to the town hall, where Ruprecht was lodged in a cell with the reservist lieutenant he had previously talked to, but who was now singularly uncommunicative.
Ruprecht’s stay in the cell lasted only that night. The Ardhessian army passed through the valley and its temporary garrison vacated Yorck with the rearguard as the sun came up. The town of Lindern to the south remained occupied however, and it was to the capital of Hartland that an escort of uhlans took a handcuffed Ruprecht in the first light of morning. Unsure of the countryside, the Ardhessians rode hard for Lindern, where they found the Montenard fort occupied by a Southern garrison and the blue, white and black tricolour of Ardhesse flying over its walls.
There was no further interrogation of Ruprecht. This time he was confined to a single cell and there he stayed more or less ignored except for mealtimes for two days. He imagined that his captors were awaiting further instructions by telegraph from Ardheim, if that were still possible now the Montenards were in the field, as he assumed they would be.
Correctly so, as early on the third day of his captivity there the fort shook with an explosion. There was a pause, then a steady bombardment began. Ruprecht went to the high, barred window, and though he could see nothing it took little to work out that the Montenards had rallied from the shock of the audacious raid across their borders and were retaliating in the enterprising manner for which they were famous. Every adult male Montenard under sixty was a reservist and kept a sniper’s rifle by the head of his bed. Likewise, their mountain artillery corps was capable of transporting heavy pieces to great heights in their mountains and targeting deadly falling barrages with uncomfortable precision, as the Ardhessians in Lindern were now discovering.
There were shouts and tramping outside his cell, and for a moment Ruprecht half hoped that the fort had already fallen, but black-uniformed Ardhessian gendarmerie opened the door with a jingle of keys and he was hauled out and bundled down a passage into a court where a closed carriage was waiting, surrounded by a troop of uhlans. As soon as he was inside the horses were whipped and the carriage lurched and rolled down through a postern, heading south for the Ardhessian frontier as the smoke of war rose from Lindern behind it.
The carriage carrying Ruprecht stopped at the first Ardhessian town it encountered. The gendarmerie lieutenant was a courteous young man and offered Ruprecht the chance to stretch his legs, though closely watched by two armed troopers.
The carriage had drawn up in an enclosed inn courtyard, and townsmen were eyeing the state prisoner in their midst with no little curiosity. The lieutenant companionably offered Ruprecht a cigarette. The sky above was clear and blue, but his ears caught a rumble as of thunder in the hills.
The lieutenant caught the question in Ruprecht’s eyes. ‘No minheer, it’s not the Montenards being unforgiving of our trespasses. That’s the Marshal Duke of Oppenberg taking out his anger on the surviving Imperial positions fifty kilometres to our west. I believe their trapped corps is being stubborn about surrender. There’ll be maybe thirty thousand prisoners when they accept the inevitable. His Majesty’s a marvel. And it’s just a beginning. The rest of the Emperor’s army is surrounded north of the Westrechtner capital by his push across the Montenard mountains, trapped next to the coast with our battle fleet pounding its positions from the sea.’
‘Who is this Marshal Duke?’
‘His Majesty created five Marshal Generals at the commencement of the campaign, one for each corps in the new Army of the South. There’s never been a force like it. The mercenary regiments have been dissolved and reconstituted as a national army to defend the free Allemanic peoples from Franzski oppression. All good Allemans have been flocking to the standards. There’s never been anything like it in all our history. Noble status is not enough to get you a commission in our army; promotion is on ability alone. I, minheer, was merely a corporal of horse before the campaign began!’
Ruprecht observed the pride and glowing enthusiasm in the young officer’s eyes. Kristijan of Ardhesse had clearly created and harnessed something new in his kingdom, and it was something infinitely dangerous: national ambition without moral restraint. Ruprecht thought he caught a revealing conflation in the lieutenant’s explanations between the interests of Ardhesse and that of the Allemans; one that Kristijan must be fostering in his own interests. All his worst fears about the young king of Ardhesse and his deadly talents were coming true.
After some refreshment, Ruprecht and his escort resumed their journey. Though he had not been informed of it he was confident he knew his destination, and indeed when they reached the railway station at the next large town the lieutenant and two troopers marched him to a compartment of the Ardheim train, where he was placed between the troopers, the officer relaxing opposite him. Late in the afternoon the train reached the northern outskirts of the capital, but he was taken off it at the stop immediately before the city’s Hauptbahnhof. Another closed carriage took him through the streets of the city, and not unexpectedly his nose picked up the salt smell of the sea, and his ears the cawing and squawking of razorbills. It made him sick for his home at Blauwhaven.
A steam launch was awaiting his coach’s arrival on a naval pier, and soon the boat was surging and bucking through heavy waves out to a long dark shape at the harbour mouth, the fortress prison of Bornholm. It was not just the motion of the vessel and the stench below its decks which made Ruprecht feel nauseous.