The site of the ancient Alleman prefecture was heavily wooded, but broken walls could still be glimpsed through the soil and brushwood. Ruprecht walked the woods with the owner, a prosperous dairy farmer who also owned most of the meadowland to the north of the river Sprungsee. He turned out to be an earnest scholar of the past in his own right, though his interest ran towards the period of the Noble Wars.
‘Minheeren, I was quite convinced this was an outlying castle of the local Graf, a member of the ancient and distinguished house of Vohrpfalz; twenty-one Gerhardts one after the other. It would have been Gerhardt IV who gave his name to Gerhardtsheim: one of the more enterprising members of the dynasty. Gerhardt XXI died only thirty years ago. I remember seeing him in his carriage when I was a teenager working in the demesne fields of the estate. No children, and the title passed to distant cousins … very distant, as they live on the northernmost island of Dreiholmtz. They’ve never even visited here. The estate has been broken up and sold in parcels since. Of course, I’ve done well out of it, as you see. The land my father held at lease, I now own in freehold.’
They admired the prospect of rich green river meadows and fat buffalo peacefully grazing. Ruprecht found no difficulty in persuading Herr Walther to let them unearth the foundations of the ancient structure. He would not dream of charging them for the privilege, just asking that they keep him updated on progress and take his younger son, Matthias, as a worker. ‘A very keen young fellow, and obsessed with history. We’ll be sending him off to university soon, but in the meantime he’s finished his secondary education and is bored with the farm routine, so he’ll be very happy to help you instead.’
These were not conditions to which they could object. And so the archaeological team drove upriver from Gerhardtsheim in carriages and dog carts, setting up camp just outside the Turwald and next to the river. They could use a nearby barn to store finds and tools.
It took two days to clear the underbrush which concealed the ancient enclosures and buildings. The young team got very excited when they encountered the footings of the ‘telegraph tower’ as Joerg had decided to call it.
Young Matthias Walther proved a huge asset, especially, as Joerg later said, when he removed his clothing down to his waist. The seventeen-year-old had a pleasant, intelligent face and thick blond hair, but it was his physique which was the most remarkably aesthetic thing about him: a muscular, slim and flawless body which rippled with effortless strength as he moved.
‘Your tongue is hanging out, little bull,’ Ruprecht remarked, noticing the attention Joerg was bestowing on Matthias as the boy worked to remove a mass of roots. It was unusual to find Joerg gazing so obviously at another man, but he could understand the impulse in this case. Both the female workers were also surreptitiously eyeing this exceptional vision of young masculinity.
The boy looked up at that point and caught Joerg’s eye. Both blushed. ‘Matthias is a homo, though he may not know it,’ Ruprecht whispered in his flustered lover’s ear.
‘You know that?’
‘It’s a talent I have. He’ll make some fellow very happy one day, I’m quite sure. Now, my little bull, let’s start exposing the site. Have you found the tower base and dome?’
‘Yes. They’re clearing the dome now. Let’s go over.’
The workers finished exposing the concrete structure, then at Joerg’s direction set to around the hatch area, finding this one corroded but otherwise intact. There were gasps from the team. Farmer Walther had loaned them his steam traction engine, which was simmering and idling just outside the wood. His son went racing to back it up into the trees and attach chains to the metal door of the dome. He then engaged gear, let off a shriek from the whistle and with a rending creak and ringing snap the hatch was free, dragged after the engine by its chains, and a dark entry was exposed.
‘I wonder what we’ll find this time?’ Ruprecht mused out loud. ‘A bolthole, a bone dump, a corpse or something else? Erwin, you’ve done this before; lamps and ropes please.’
A lamp lowered down by a rope provided the first disappointment. It reflected off dark waters flooding the cellar.
‘Dammit, things were going too easily,’ Joerg swore.
‘Matthias? Has your father got a pump?’
The boy blushed, which it appeared was his usual reaction to being noticed. ‘Yes, Excellency. It’s back at the farm. I don’t think it’s in use.’
‘Perhaps you and Herr Wenzel can go and negotiate renting it.’ Erwin and the boy headed off promptly for the Walther farmstead up the valley.
‘Everyone, back to work!’ Ruprecht bellowed. ‘We need to clear the site. Ladies!’ Adela and her colleague Hextilde Rampuy hurried over. Both had adopted male clothing for the work, which disconcerted Ruprecht considerably; they looked like overly pretty teenage boys, and Adela in particular inspired the occasional erection, which he hoped was due only to her physical similarity to his beloved Joerg. ‘Della and Hextie, I need you to begin scouting for the massacre site. Sadly, we know there’ll be one in the vicinity somewhere. The one at Champs Dolent was about two kilometres upriver of the prefecture, so walk upstream and see if anywhere fits the bill. Bones may have worked to the surface; check the river bank in particular.’
The two young women trekked off towards the river, leaving the rest of the team to carry on scouring undergrowth from the site. After an hour a cart brought a very intrigued Farmer Walther along with the pump. He soon had its canvas hose in the water below and its engine sputtered into life. By late afternoon the drainage was complete, all the waters piped down to a ditch which emptied into the Sprungsee. The cellar did not immediately refill as it was emptied, so it seemed the flooding was from penetration by surface water rather than any subterranean source.
Joerg in the meantime began the first proper excavation of one of the domestic buildings in the large enclosure, which he and the male associates worked on. Ruprecht watched the draining of the cellar, and when the pump began sputtering dry climbed down a metal stairway revealed by the fall of the water. It creaked but proved able to take his weight. Erwin and Matthias followed him down.
The cellar floor had only a thin coating of mud, with the odd pool of water remaining. No new inflow was evident. ‘What can you see?’ Joerg called down from above.
‘Smells pretty dank. Not much sediment deposited,’ he called back. ‘I’m thinking the flooding may have been a recent phenomenon. There is stuff here we’ve not seen before. Lots of boxes and wiring, and many cabinets. I’ll try to open one.’ He rattled the doors, but couldn’t loosen them.
Joerg in the meantime had come down with Erwin. More lamps were set up, and the two assistants began making plans and exposing photographic plates.
‘We’ll have these cabinets up straightaway. We’ve not seen technology of this sort before. I suppose we’ll not find much we can understand, but it does look like it ran on voltaic energy, just as our own is beginning to. Maybe the ancients were not so far away from us on the technological road that they’re out of sight. We must preserve it all, and maybe in time our engineers will be able to learn a great deal from it. Do you think this is what King Kristijan had in mind when he took over our little enterprise?’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised, but he’s such a devious bundle of contradictions that I’m sure there’ll be a lot more to his ambitions for this project. When the site recording is done we’ll get these boxes out of here and catalogued. Now, how about the other cellar?’
The door to the inner cellar was promptly levered open. A gush of brown water surged out, soaking their trousers to the knees, but it soon dissipated and added little to the standing pools outside. Within was a passage and the further door to the bolthole they expected.
Once the lamp had illuminated it Joerg was straight inside the room. There were seven human skeletons within.
‘Della and Hextie back yet?’ Ruprecht had come up above ground for a breather and buttonholed Kurt Wolling, one of the male associates.
‘No, chief. You want me to go fetch them? They’ll be upset they missed the big find below.’
‘They’ll be back soon, I’m sure.’ As he said this, the two women indeed came walking downriver towards them. They waved.
‘Anything?’ he asked as they approached.
It was Adela who answered. ‘No bones yet, chief. But there is something very unusual in a meadow about a kilometre north of here. Hextie made a sketch plan. Look! The field contains these nine tumuli, set in a square pattern of threes.’
‘What? Let me look at that.’
‘You recognise it, chief?’
‘D’you know, I think I might well do, and what you’ve just found may be as important as what’s turned up below.’ He responded to their raised eyebrows by suggesting they go down into the cellar and see what had been uncovered.
Having cleared the outer cellar, Ruprecht sought out Joerg in the smaller one. He was standing, abstracted, musing over the bodies and holding a notebook. He smiled his little-boy smile when he looked up to see his lover watching him.
‘Sad one this, I think. Three mature women and four children between maybe the ages of four and ten. No remains of any clothing or personal possessions. The bunks here were just bare metal, and they were huddled together on the cement floor, for warmth I guess, the little ones surrounded by their mothers. It seems most likely they died of exposure or starvation, but maybe there were other causes. It’s really sad how they seem to have tried to make a fire: look at these bundles of sticks! But it appears they were unable to strike any light.’
‘I’m not sure I’d have any idea how to start one without matches and a servant,’ Ruprecht responded.
‘This time, however, we may learn more about our deceased ancients,’ Joerg added. He picked up some slimy wallets of transparent alienware from the floor. ‘There are a dozen files here. Most have been spoiled by water, but two are intact, just like Jean-Charles’s scientific report at Champs Dolent. I can see handwriting on the sheets within one, and it’s in Old Allemanic.’
Before the sun went down the whole team was at work on the salvaged cabinets. Each was numbered and photographed before it was levered open. All but one of them was full of enigmatic machinery and wires, the exception being Cabinet 8. In a mess of sludge at the bottom was a pile of alienware folders, many utterly spoiled by water penetration, but some still intact and readable. They were carefully removed, wiped over and stacked, though not opened. The research assistants began detailed external examinations.
While this was going on, Ruprecht, Adela and Joerg trekked to the meadow and inspected the nine grassy mounds.
‘You know what this reminds me of?’ Ruprecht asked.
‘It’s the same arrangement as the burials under the White Basilica,’ Joerg responded.
‘I think that we’ll find dead royal erdbeesten under these, laid out ceremonially.’
‘Wow!’ Adela breathed.
Joerg made his decision. ‘I’d like you, Erwin and Matthias to dig out at least three of these tomorrow, Della,’ Joerg directed. ‘Do you feel up to taking charge of it?’
‘Yes, Herr Doctor-Professor!’ she replied, beaming.
‘Fine, then it’s time to pack up for the day.’
Turwald was too small a settlement to support a tavern or even a church, but local farmers were happy enough to sell jars of their home-brewed ale, which were more than acceptable to the team gathered around a campfire the youngsters had built. The swift success of the expedition had elated them, and they were in a mood to sing and dance to the accompaniment of Adela on her guitar, which Kurt and Hextie did charmingly. It was clear enough to Ruprecht that there was some heterosexual chemistry at work between the dancers.
Even though it rained overnight and the morning was dismal the good spirits of the team were unquenchable, and the mound-diggers squelched off happily enough, mattocks and shovels over their shoulders.
Those remaining behind turned to the new priority, the opening of the alienware folders and the preservation of their contents.
Joerg had strict instructions. ‘I want plates taken of each as soon as they’re open. The sheets found with the skeletal remains are not of that strange shiny substance we found at Champs Dolent, but ordinary wood-pulp paper I think. They may not survive long once exposed, so I want them immediately photographed. We’ll need plenty of light over here.’
The work progressed with deliberation. The splitting of the folders produced four handwritten sheets on lined paper and quite a stack of what turned out to be personnel records on impermeable alienware sheets.
Ruprecht looked in astonishment at the living faces of his remote ancestors, the Allemans of the Landing, some carrying names that he could still recognise. Young Kurt was staring thunderstruck at the file of a Carlmann Wolling. Some faces were serious, others smiled. They had all been dead for over eight centuries.
Hextie stared at them too, and murmured ‘Coloured photography … who’d have thought?’
Joerg was intent on the handwritten sheets. They had not deteriorated on contact with the air, but he was not taking chances. Plates of them had been exposed, which gave some insurance, but he was busy transcribing, moving his lips as he scribbled rapidly in his notebook.
After an hour Joerg snapped his notebook shut and said he needed a walk, suggesting Ruprecht take his turn reading through the ancient memoranda; there were some phrases that had left him puzzled, but for now he had to think.
Ruprecht took his place, and after a while realised why Joerg had reacted as he had. Joerg had sorted the four sheets in order. There had once been others, however, for the first sheet was continuing a narrative in a large hand:
‘… of September, almost as if there was an invisible signal just as on the day of the attack. Freya was digging grubs with the females and had Adelice and little Martin with her. I and Marta were watching her two as they played with the calves. Alpha, the dominant bull, was patrolling the wood line. He stood tall and gave a new signal. Young Gamma replied, then came up behind a female and mounted her without ceremony. Beta did the same to Marta; she knew better than to resist and went obediently on all fours to accept him. Alpha came up behind and took me. It was rough, protracted and painful from his size. While he copulated with me, I had to smile at the children who were standing watching with the curious calves, so as to reassure them. Once they had finished with us, the three bulls mated systematically with all the other mature females, including Freya. She kept little Martin with her as she was serviced, just as some of the erdbeest females do with their calves, suckling them as they are mated. All we could do was sit on our haunches and let the erdbeest semen evacuate itself, reassuring the little ones until the herd ritual was over. The older adolescent male calves were tumbling and play-fucking with the females of their own age while this was going on, and their noise and vigour frightened our small kids, though young Peter innocently joined in the wrestling play, treating it as a game.
Once the mass mating was over, the herd simply turned south into the woods, the bulls in the lead. As I walked with the others, carrying Adelice, I suggested that the mass copulation was a seasonal event. We were already moving away from their summer hunting grounds and trekking south. They were heading to warmer climes for the winter, perhaps to the Great River Valley and the French zone. The females would gestate and give birth in the spring. We know from the science team that erdbeesten have a seven-month pregnancy. “Won’t they be disappointed in us,” observed Marta drily.
We were herded south by the bulls further than we had ever been before, the pace was slow but it was hard on our feet. Peter valiantly padded along on his own for as long as he could. He even had the energy to play chase with his friends amongst the male calves. We encountered another mixed herd as we crossed a river, larger than ours, herding ten women and well over a dozen human children. I recognised and shouted at a few, but their bulls kept them closely herded. A human teenager, Karl Mertovsky, was however on the edge, one of the oldest boys to be spared and now maturing fast. The generous size of his genitalia was giving him herd respect, and though our bulls warned him off when he got too close, I was able to pass and hear messages. He shouted. “Do you know this river, Maria? It’s the Sprungsee! We’re twenty kilometres upriver of Neues Berlin! Did they … do you today?” I nodded silently. “Us as well. It was gross! I had to wrestle one of them off my sister, so he did me instead up the ass with everyone watching, my mum too. Then he did her. Discipline, y’know. Wish I had a fucking gun.”
Then they were driven off and we were in the woods on the other side. We all pissed and defecated with the rest of our herd before sleep and moved on to a clearing not too far away from the river as the night fell. We huddled together with the little ones and for once the erdbeesten females and their calves did not take us into their own groups. The bulls settled on the far side of the night camp, alert for leopard attack from the landward side.
It was almost how the erdbeesten communicate, by telepathic signals. Freya, I and Marta rose as one and silently picked up the sleeping small ones. I put Peter on my shoulders, where he dozed, holding me round the neck, and we stole off towards the river. Starlight was bright and forced nudity at least means that splashing through shallows is no labour, apart from stubbed toes, especially as the river water was still warm after the day’s heat. We kept to the river until near dawn, and then took to the grasslands on the north bank as the sun came up behind us. There was no pursuit, and no sign or sound of leopard packs, mercifully. Perhaps our traversing the river meant we left no scent for them to pick up.
Herd training has taught us where to look for ground grubs, which we now can eat without wincing. Freya is still lactating and the four children are well used to drinking from erdbeest females at will with the calves, so all four suckled on her, Peter the last. She grinned and nursed the boy as he cuddled into her warmth and took a nipple. God knows what these experiences are doing to him, but he seemed happy then.
We slept for a while, and seeing no more migrating herds we walked slowly downriver till the comm tower came into view. We passed the killing field, but there was little to see other than some mounds the creatures had raised, probably over burial pits. We stood for a while and remembered our loss, then finished our journey.
The place was cleaned out. Nothing. No power. No food. No comm. Everything portable systematically burned and trashed, our homes gutted and roofless. It was heartbreaking. We couldn’t even find a stitch to cover our nakedness or shoes for our feet. All I found was a pen and notepad fallen down the back of a file drawer. The erdbeesten have truly had their revenge on us, more so than even we deserved. How could we have been so blind about them? How could we have been so arrogant as to treat them as laboratory animals?
Living with them as we have now, we can see their gentleness and protectiveness, and that they are not evil creatures. We took them for dumb cattle, but though their physical bodies act mechanically as animals act, we did not see that their minds are elsewhere, united in a vast continental gestalt. Once we began taking members of their herds for our experiments we became their world’s problem, and their austere and merciful solution has been to attempt to cure us by making us herd like them: destroying in one brutal act of surprise and murder the males that could resist, then stripping us of our technology and all the trappings of our civilisation, even our clothing. The English and French must have been dealt with in the same fashion; their thousands of women and children being herded the length and breadth of Terre Nouvelle. There’s no sign that ships or vehicles have come here from New London or New Paris. But why nothing from …’
Dazed, and his eyes unaccountably full of tears, Ruprecht left the barn and went across to the remains of New Berlin. He descended to the cellars and found Joerg where he expected to find him, brooding on the remains of Maria, Marta and Freya, and the four children.
‘So you read it?’ his lover asked.
‘Indeed.’ Ruprecht could find no more words.
‘For a priest, I don’t often pray. But I’ve spent the last hour doing so for these waifs lost in time. The way they chose meant that they died together that winter; refusing to go back into servitude under the blind tyranny of the herd. Now I know why the royal erdbeesten are extinct. When our ancestors got free of them, they took kin vengeance in the most basic human way, the mode to which the erdbeesten had themselves reduced them. Don’t ever call me “little bull” again.’
The next day the team was updated, and listened solemnly to the story of the end of the human colony on Terre Nouvelle. ‘So questions are at last being answered,’ Joerg concluded. ‘It was not an enemy from the stars that destroyed the colony and not the English, but its own hubris. But new questions rise in their place. There is that last enigmatic question from Maria: “Why nothing from …” From what? How did the English weather the massacre in the summer of the Year Four? How did they fight back against the Great Herd? What drove them away from their own base if it wasn’t the erdbeesten?’
Ruprecht stretched. ‘The answers of course may very well be in Hartland, where we cannot as yet pursue them, but here at least we have a lot to do. Della, what did you find on the killing field? I’m sorry that what we found in the cellars rather sidelined what you were doing.’
Adela came to the front. She consulted her notes. ‘What we found, chief, was not exactly what you found at the massacre site in Vieldomaine. We broke into the central mound and sampled two others at a diagonal. Those two paralleled exactly what you found under the White Basilica. Two erdbeesten bulls laid out on their backs, and one of them had in fact been killed by a gunshot to the head, so the colonists inflicted some damage on their attackers before they were overwhelmed. Under the central mound was something different. There was a human male corpse arranged under a large erdbeest bull, as if the dead bull were, er … sodomising … the man.’
Joerg’s eyebrows raised. ‘And what do you make of that?’
‘Well, professor, after what we’ve heard here it’s possible that the erdbeesten were making a symbolic statement in their own terms about their triumph over the colonists.’
Joerg nodded. ‘You may well have a point. Anything else?’
‘Matthias dug around the field as you suggested. The pattern of bones he uncovered indicated that the rest of the massacred human males had been laid in a precise ring around the nine central mounds, almost like an audience to witness the humiliation and subordination of their species enacted in the central mound.’
Ruprecht pondered this. ‘All the symbolism is concentrated here in New Berlin, not at the English and Francien prefectures. I wonder if that’s because it was the Allemans who had commenced experimentation on the erdbeesten? Maria implied as much. The creatures may have singled out the Allemans for special treatment as the offending herd, as they would look at it.
‘Then there’s the aftermath,’ Joerg continued. ‘Putting together what we found here and at the Francien prefecture, it looks like the erdbeesten did not think of the humans as captives or slaves, but members of their herds to be protected and treated as their own, for good and ill. Humans could escape if they wanted to risk the threat of hunting leopards. Young Jean-Charles from the Val de Rougiet site must have been another such runaway who had the same idea as the women here had, to get back to the settlement and try to scavenge what he could. When I think of his hide-out, it seems to me that his picture of the boy being sodomised was not pornography, but what happened to him as a young adolescent male who came into conflict with a dominant bull, perhaps when he had illicit sex with a human girl, or tried to prevent a bull rape, as that brave Alleman boy did.’
Ruprecht asked, ‘And what of the bog people at Heilige Moss, who were they?’
‘My theory would be that many who stayed in the safety of the herd adapted to its life and rhythms. The female humans were bred by the human boys as they grew into adolescence and they roamed the land as gatherers, their children growing up and knowing no other life than that of a nomad. The herd would have taught them some survival tricks, and they might in the end have formed tribal human versions of the erdbeest herd. They would be our bog people, who I’d guess lived and roamed Terre Nouvelle at least a decade after the massacres, the older females teaching their children language, and some version of their past, while the young human males took the place of leading bulls. The adult female we found in the bog had been bred often and the young one was already pregnant.’
Hextilde looked uncomfortable. ‘It’s a horrible vision, women herded as breeding animals at the disposal of abused boys with no sexual conscience or restraint.’
Ruprecht agreed. ‘Not much of a social contract, that’s for sure. But that phase too ended as the Kingdom of Kholnai rose, however it managed to do it. I can see King Kevin and King Connor raiding erdbeesten herds and liberating Franciens and Allemans who wandered in range of their warriors, assisting the survivors to form proper settlements where they could. The fact that Allemans started in the north but ended up in the south shows that their seasonal migrations with the erdbeesten took them within range of English help, just like the bog people. The Franciens hung on in the Great River Valley, and there they built their villages. Both Allemans and Franciens would have been dependent on the aid, education and military support the English could offer, which explains the early English empire over the humans, though it doesn’t explain how it later fell.’
Joerg clapped his hands. ‘Dear friends, we now have a working hypothesis of human origins, grim though it is. Our next task must be to thoroughly investigate our trove of documents and begin to reconstruct what it was that they were actually trying to do here before they came to such grief.’
After a week, the expedition’s work was complete. Ruprecht despatched regular reports to the king via Baron Meisel, not wishing to needlessly antagonise his Ardhessian sponsors after his summary treatment of Dr Tribecs. As far as that was concerned, the Baron merely noted the man’s dismissal and promised a replacement, suggesting a military man might cause less of a problem. Ruprecht even got a replacement letter of credit to make good his expenses. It looked like King Kristijan had made his displeasure clear to Meisel.
Everything was boxed and the team began to leave. The associates would assemble after Holy Week at offices in the Carolinaean University which had been put at their disposal. As Ruprecht was checking off the last box of finds a polite cough behind him indicated that his seneschal wanted a word.
‘Excellency, could I make a suggestion about our household?’
‘And what would that be?’
‘Minheer Graf, I’m finding both the archaeological and domestic work enjoyable, but somewhat demanding. My feeling is that I can’t give our establishment at Blauwhaven the attention it needs.’
‘So what’s your suggestion, dear Erwin?’
‘Why sir, I think you really do need a valet with special responsibility for your professional work.’
‘Erwin, have you been fucking young Matthias?’
The seneschal looked both amused and miffed. ‘Er … well, sir, I’ve been assisting the lad in his journey of exploration, and well, yes, he really did need to experience sex between males, since he clearly is a homo. He’s an excellent pupil, you’ll be glad to know.’
Ruprecht laughed. ‘I can imagine which direction you both were exploring. Very well, you are my seneschal and staffing my household lies within your competence. Matthias is a fine fellow, and I’ll be happy to have him join us at Blauwhaven. I imagine Felix and Gilles will be even happier to find him there. Is Farmer Walther in agreement?’
‘Obviously not with my activity with his son, sir. He knows nothing of that, but he does endorse the overall idea.’
‘And what about the university plans?’
‘He’ll be working closely with the projects and personnel of the Archaeological Institute, sir. No undergraduate could ever have such advantages.’
‘Get him a plum jacket then, Erwin. He can sleep with you at Blauwhaven.’
‘Excellent sir, that was my plan. Here are the papers up from Gerhardtsheim. It appears our friend the king has been very busy of late.’
Curious, Ruprecht took the newssheets. The headlines glared at him. GREAT BATTLE NEAR AIX : MANY CASUALTIES. EMPEROR FLEES HIS CAPITAL.
He scanned the reports. It appeared that King Kristijan had bypassed the great fort at Rivières and struck directly at the Imperial capital. The emperor had thrown his available forces in the way, but in a three-day battle his army had been worsted and driven to abandon Aix, which now lay at Kristijan’s mercy.
In other moves, Kristijan had erected Westrecht into a kingdom for his loyal cousin, the Grand Duke, to the consternation of the other three ancient kingdoms, whose position was implicitly eroded and challenged by this unprecedented action. What right had the King of Ardhesse to confer such a presumptuous honour? It was a direct insult to his fellow Kings, destroying the old order.Ruprecht snarled to himself. ‘You wait, your majesties, a lot worse is to come, believe me.