Ruprecht took a while to gather his thoughts before responding. Even so, he beat Joerg and the colonel to it.
‘Gillot! What in the Seneschal’s name are you up to? Why did you lock yourself in? And look what you and Fran have done to a beloved and respected geographical feature! The locals may sue. They used that hill for pasture.’
‘Not any more. They were just borrowing it anyway. The dome’s only been parked here.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s not a hill, or a dome; it’s a fireship … well, sort of. Why don’t you come in?’
Joerg climbed up on Ruprecht’s shoulders to be hauled up by Gilles, then they let down ropes to pull the others up. The three men entered a very strange world. Light within was ambient, and the interior of the dome was as well lit as if it were full daylight. They found themselves in a long, curving and empty corridor.
‘Where’s Fran?’ asked Joerg.
‘He’s talking to Charlot.’
‘And who’s Charlot?’
‘He’s the artificial consciousness in this installation which the Herd Mind knew about but couldn’t talk to. Now it can, because we’ve rebooted him. The two minds have been catching up on nine centuries of history.’
‘He’s a male? What’s a “reboot”? Is that an English word?’
Gilles shrugged. ‘We shut him down and turned him on again. He’s not male, but you have to choose one name or other and his official title is Charlemagne, which he says means ‘Charles the Great’ and Charles is a boy’s name. He appreciates Charlemagne’s a bit of a mouthful, so he’s happy with Charlot. The ancient Allemans called him Karl, he says. He keeps on calling us “French”. He speaks all sorts of languages but he’s happiest in English, so you two won’t have a problem.’
‘What happened to “Oracle”?’
‘That’s just his function, but he’s a real person too so he has to have a name. He’s really nice and so very grateful to be cured. Come and say hello!’
They followed Gilles as he strode confidently along the corridors, leading them deeper into the interior and then up spiral stairs to what appeared to be a central domed chamber. A great dark pillar occupied its centre, sparkling with dots of many-coloured light which blinked in and out, and occasionally moved.
François was on his back working inside a hatch in the wall, only his lower body sticking out. He was talking to someone. ‘That better?’ he called out in Francien.
A voice as ambient as the lighting answered back in the same language. ‘Thanks! I now have full visual imaging. Let’s see.’
Suddenly another person appeared in the room, as if by magic out of nowhere. He was apparently in his forties, tall and dressed entirely in white. He somehow seemed familiar to Ruprecht. He looked down and flexed his hands. ‘Excellent,’ he said, his voice this time apparently coming from his mouth, rather than the walls and floors. He smiled at the newcomers. ‘You must be Ruprecht, Joerg and someone addressed only as “the colonel”. I would shake hands, but this is just an image from my databanks constructed as an interface, the semblance of a man once called Kevin O’Connor, a friend of mine.’
‘You have friends?’ Joerg asked in English.
‘I do. And I have to tell you I’m pretty picky as to who I choose to include amongst them.’
‘“Picky”? That’s an English word?’ Joerg was puzzled.
‘Discriminating. Selective. Judgemental. I do love the synonymous nature of the English language, such fine shades of meaning appeal to me. It’s nice to speak it again after all these many years, and a relief to find that people still know it, though Gillot tells me that you’re rather special people. Your accents are heavily Germanic, but you are comprehensible.’
‘Are you fully briefed on what’s currently happening out in the world?’ Ruprecht asked.
‘Yes, from both sides,’ Charlot replied.
‘I mean from what Gillot and Fran can tell me, and from what the Great Mind has to contribute. Wait … I think I can do a thing.’
The image of Kevin O’Connor briefly flickered, and then there were two images in the room.
‘Good gracious!’ Colonel von Ampfeld cried.
The new manifestation was in the shape of a towering royal erdbeest bull, though it had human eyes and a mobile mouth, for it smiled.
Charlot looked pleased with himself. ‘Welcome to the day-to-day reality of life … what do we call you? “Great Mind” seems rather formal.’
The image looked around and its smile broadened. ‘Some of us know this place well,’ he observed. A number of us think “Legion” might be appropriate as a name, though ill-omened. Many of the humans amongst us think a female form would be better than this, as we do not wish to be intimidating to the living. Can this be arranged?’
Charlot’s image flickered once more, and the bull was replaced by a less alarming erdbeest cow with full breasts, again with human eyes and a mobile mouth. ‘Call us Eve, for we are the mothers of many of you,’ she said, smiling warmly around at the humans. ‘I have to say that the People … I mean, the erdbeesten … among us find this necessity of naming difficult. It disrupts the … gestalt. But we now understand individuality, with each human, though sentient, isolated from the others, at least till they join us. We have learned in the Herd.’
Ruprecht shook his head to clear it. ‘Lady Eve, can you tell us about the Patriarch? How is it that he is on his way to this very place?’
She swept Ruprecht with her smile. ‘Robby, your Herd greets you. The Patriarch is of the same English line as you; he is a child of Cory, so like you we can talk to him in his dreams. He is coming here because your Great Bull asked him.’
‘And what will he do once he is here?’
‘That is not up to us. We can shape, but not determine events. But tomorrow we will have brought to this place the Patriarch and the Emperor, not to mention the King of the Franciens. We will also have the one who calls himself Allemanic Emperor.’
‘Kristijan? He has escaped your spell?’
Eve’s smile faded. ‘He could not be contained once the choice was made. Yes, he is coming, but not at the head of an army. He is already at the borders of this land, and its Protector will permit him to enter it to join us tomorrow, providing he rides with only a small escort and that he comes prepared to discuss peace. They will all meet here, as is only suitable. This was the place where the fate of the People and the Humans in this world was decided for good and ill nine centuries ago. It will be the place where your people must decide a new future for themselves.’
‘I knew your race’s birth world, the Earth,’ Charlot added solemnly. I am updating the centuries of data that followed the colonists on their flight here. The stream ended five hundred years ago, abruptly. If that world any longer maintains human life, it is at a basic level; the last communications mention only unrest and plague. Humanity here must avoid that fate, and with the help of the Great Mind, it may do so, for it offers an existence without conflict or fear of final extinction, the one your religions only promised, but which it can deliver.’
François emerged from under the console wiping his hands on a rag. His fingers danced across a coloured board, and suddenly the air shimmered between him and the others. He turned and reached into the coruscating air. He laughed. ‘The control surfaces recognise my genes. They take my instructions.’
The coruscation stilled and instead they could see a view outside the dome, as if through a window floating in the air. As François waved his fingers, the view changed and swooped, then arrowed down the River Sabern to Yorck.
‘What are you doing!’ Joerg yelped with surprise, his tender stomach lurching. ‘Is this technology?’
François grinned with delight. ‘Oh yes. And it’s amazing! The scientists of Dreiholmtz will wet themselves.’
The window in the air focussed on the town, which was already busy. Streams of people on horseback, foot and in carriages could be seen thronging the roads to Yorck from the south. The Montenard military had arrived and fields were filling with tents along the banks of the Sabern. Poles had been erected and the flags of the major nations were fluttering from them. Ruprecht noted that the flag of Dreiholmtz was missing.
‘Gilles,’ Charlot announced, ‘I have accessed the telegraph network.’
‘What?’ Joerg marvelled. ‘How can you do that?’
The image smiled over at him. ‘I can focus electromagnetic radiation on the cables that pass by here and send pulses to make signals. I am now conveying the Emperor François’s summons to representatives from Aix and all the continental nations to a Congress of Yorck in the name of His Imperial Majesty and His Holiness the Patriarch.’ Charlot’s smile became a grin. ‘I have to say it’s a wonder and delight to me how the political landscape of this world has unrolled over nine centuries. I shall be revelling in it and studying it for years. I have some hopes I can make comparative studies with Earth’s socio-political development. You seem here to be in a state comparable to America and Europe during the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Fascinating. Do you know, I’ve always found the study of the humanities more absorbing than the science and technology I was constructed to monitor and dispense. Displacement I imagine.’
Ruprecht was beginning to get the idea that Charlot was more than overjoyed to be able to communicate once more after centuries of silence. He turned to Von Ampfeld. ‘Colonel,’ he said, ‘I think it’s time you left now. Go and brief your master on what’s happening here.’
‘I have to insist. We all know you’re here as an Ardhessian agent, but it’s no longer appropriate that you should be able to offer Ardhesse privileged information denied to the other nations.’
The man nodded. ‘Very well, Excellency. It has been most interesting to witness all this. Have you a message for my own Imperial Majesty?’
‘Only that he should come prepared to shape a peace for both Franciens and Allemans, one that will last for the ages. The rewards to his people for his cooperation will be immense, giving him fame as a great King rather than a notorious warmonger.’
Gilles grinned. ‘Can I shake your hand, colonel? You’ve been decent enough to us. Will you do us a last favour? Will you tell Minheer Wenzel to ride out here with our bags and some supplies? We’re all going to stay with Charlot from now on. I’ll bet the landlord of the Blue Stallion will be delighted. He can rent out our rooms for something phenomenal.’
The colonel complied, bowing low over Gilles’s hand and thus acknowledging his royal status, if tacitly.
After Gilles had led him out of the control room, François refocussed his window on the world. ‘Look there!’ he observed. ‘Montenard soldiers are showing up outside. It’s a company of Jäger taking up positions around the Oracle. Their captain’s having a difference of opinion with Rancher Simonsen. Pity we haven’t got sound with the pictures. And now the colonel’s joining them. He’s sorting the soldiers out.’
Ruprecht shook his head. ‘Montenards don’t like their property rights messed with. It’s legal to shoot intruders on your property in the Republic. Yes, there the soldiers go. Chased off by an irate rancher who’s probably calculating how much profit he can extract from access to the site and how to close out his three colleagues from their share. He may sue Charlot for illegal trespass.’
The O’Connor image smiled. ‘It would make for an interesting legal case. Am I a person in Montenard law? If so shouldn’t I be suing the good rancher for trespass on my property? I have so much missed the complications of daily human life. It used to absorb a large amount of my available processing power.’
François closed down his screen and stretched. ‘There are living quarters below, Rupe. No food of course, but otherwise this old place is still habitable.’
‘You said this installation is a sort of fireship. What did you mean?’ Joerg asked
‘The Oracle was the advance ship for the colony,’ François replied, ‘designed for planetary landing to house pioneer explorers, on-site laboratories and a computer core … that’s Charlot, though he’s elsewhere too.’
‘Charlot’s also installed on each of the mother ships … the Three Sisters. When we triggered the failsafe, the computers on each of the three great starships came out of stasis. So when we purged and rebooted Charlot down here he automatically regained his memory and capacities, which had been stored up there.’
‘My head’s reeling,’ Joerg confessed. ‘But are you saying this is a ship which can take off into the sky?’
‘Oh yes,’ Gilles confirmed. ‘We shifted all the earth off the outer skin by testing the main engines. We can lift off if we want to.’
Joerg grinned like a little boy. ‘So finally, I’m on a fireship. Amazing!’
‘I’ll give you a tour while Fran carries on working on the control interface. Lady Eve? Can we all meet later? The conference room is set up for multiple holographic projection.’
The image generated for the hybrid Mind inclined her head and then faded away.
Erwin Wenzel appeared at the perimeter established by the Montenard soldiers not long after midday. Gilles alerted the rest of the crew and Ruprecht followed him down through the ship. Rancher Simonsen was still in the neighbourhood and rode up with a dozen of his hands, all ostentatiously carrying unholstered rifles. There was another altercation, during which Erwin trotted his horse and the pack pony he was leading through the lines and up to the dome. He stared at the smooth white cliff above him until a door appeared in the sheer surface. Gilles poked his head out and cheerily waved.
‘No room here for horses, but I can throw a rope down for you and the supplies,’ he hallooed. Then he yelled across to the Rancher. ‘Herr Simonsen? Can you take Erwin’s horses and return them to town?’
The man trotted his own horse across, a nervous look on his face. ‘Is that you up there, Jonker Gilles? What have you got yourself into?’
‘All sorts of trouble, sir!’ the boy replied cheerfully. ‘There’ll be hell to pay when the Patriarch turns up tonight!’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ the man said. ‘You’ve made a right mess of the pasture hereabouts, and the river’s running brown with the dirt you kicked up. What is that thing?’
‘It’s a fireship, Herr Simonsen! That’s why His Holiness is coming. This is the Second Landing.’
The rancher frowned. ‘Well if that’s so, I would hope that someone will ask before landing any more of your ships on my property.’
‘This one’s been here since before you were thought of, sir!’
‘I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, young man,’ the Rancher bridled.
‘Sorry, sir. Can you help Herr Wenzel scramble up? He’s getting on a bit.’
A couple of ropes snaked down. Erwin tied one to the largest basket of provisions, which Gilles hauled up. He struggled up himself next, and the last baskets were hauled up with the Rancher’s help.
‘Thank you, Herr Simonsen!’ Gilles shouted, as the man rode off, shaking his head and grumbling. Gilles turned to the seneschal. ‘Where’s Mattie, Erwin?’
‘He’s with Master Kreech at Ostberg, sire. He got him ready for the journey and never left him. He’s sitting with him now at the Residenz.’
Gilles stood rigid a moment, and then walked off without a word. Erwin looked at Ruprecht. ‘Er … Excellency, should I have kept my big mouth closed?’
‘No my lad, you did nothing wrong, it’s just that for some moments Gillot forgot his grief. Now I imagine it’s back, along with a lot of guilt that the love of his life left his mind for even a few minutes.’
Erwin marvelled at the kitchen in the Oracle ship. ‘I have no idea what most of this stuff is, but some things don’t change. I’ll guess this is an oven, Charlot?’
‘Correct, Master Seneschal,’ came the ambient and disembodied voice. ‘So is that glass-fronted box next to it; it heats whatever you put into it invisibly. I’m afraid you’ll have to remove the remains of the stores that have been mouldering, irradiated here in his kitchen for centuries. Do you have refrigeration out there in the world.?’
Ruprecht butted in. ‘We do have something like it: an artificially cold environment produced by moving ice in great quantities from the mountains to store in underground rooms lined with straw bales. Very useful for the mass storage of meat. But you have more economical ways of doing that?’
‘Indeed, Excellency.’ Charlot had rapidly and indeed enthusiastically acquired the social register of the society in which he now found himself. He continued. ‘Those tall white cabinets will keep whatever you put in them cool or frozen. But you’ll first have to empty them. Then I’ll turn them on. I have restored power to the bathrooms. I flushed and replenished the water tanks of this vessel before disconnecting the valves for the engine test. You will have hot water and full sanitary facilities. I believe there are even towels, though they may well be musty after being sealed in plastic all these years. There is a laundry too if you want to freshen the fabric.’
‘Plastic?’ asked Ruprecht.
‘I believe His Francien Majesty once called it “alienware”.’
Ruprecht began to think that Charlot was trying a little too hard to acquire and employ the correct forms of address appropriate to his new shipmates. ‘You had best call him Gillot, and Minheer Wenzel is Erwin.’
‘And are you happy to be “Rupe” or “Robby”?’
‘Rupe would be best. Robby is my herd name. It’s special to me and Joerg.’
‘Ah yes. You and “Georgie” are mostly Anglo-Irish in descent and in the ethereal world of the Great Mind you’ve joined your British ancestors. Most remarkable. It seems that the Anglophone colony is reasserting itself after dozens of generations.’
‘Er … yes. Are there replies from your telegraphy?’
‘Indeed. His Imperial Majesty’s council is on its way to Sint-Willemsborg and then south to Hartland and sends loyal greetings to their lord. They have had Gillot proclaimed King of the Franciens and Prince Imperial in Aix according to the Emperor’s command. The governments of Vieldomaine, Hochrecht and Bernicia have all responded with varying levels of incredulity, but are despatching senior envoys in advance of their princes. Nordrecht is temporising while Westrecht and Athalante are obeying the Allemanic Emperor’s order to send representatives to join his own mission. The government and military of Dreiholmtz is outraged that I can monitor its radio transmissions and send it signals. They were quite rude about my trespassing on their wavelength. I got the impression that the Easterners intend to carry on warfare regardless and will ignore the invitation. My belief is that the Congress will be mostly assembled in two days, though the Athalantiens may take a while longer to make it, and the Nordrechtners even longer.’
‘Thank you, Charlot. The Patriarch and his cardinals are now entering Yorck. There is an immense crowd to greet him. I hope the old fellow takes a rest. He’ll have a lot to do to chair the Congress.’
The religious procession from Yorck arrived at the Oracle at noon of the next day. The Patriarch was still walking so as to complete his pilgrimage; many of his cardinals were less steadfast, and followed in carriages. The Patriarch seemed very fit despite his days on the road. A large number of diplomats and one or two heads of state were included in the long tail of people on horse and foot that followed the Patriarch, though the scanner didn’t reveal Kristijan among them.
‘That’s the Protector of Bernicia and the Margrave of Schwarzwald, my overlords as Lehensherr of Blauwhaven,’ Ruprecht said for Charlot’s benefit. And I think that’s the so-called King of Westrecht with a couple of Alleman marshal-generals.’
‘He was elevated by Kristijan, so the validity of his coronation is not accepted by Nordrecht and Dreiholmtz.’
‘Will they accept the elevation of Gilles as King of the Franciens?’
‘They’d better,’ François remarked. ‘I am the undoubted Emperor of Terre Nouvelle, and that title is within my gift. Patriarchs and emperors have the right to create any title, which was of course Kristijan’s excuse for making a king out of a grand duke once he had created himself emperor. But in fact we’ve settled on the Empire and Four Kingdoms as the political structure for humanity on this world since the third century.’
‘Is the Golden Ladder to be restored then, Fran?’ Joerg asked. ‘Is that one of the matters the Congress will consider?’
‘Since both I and His Holiness are here, it would seem to be the right time and place,’ the emperor said. ‘I think the time has come to go down and greet the Patriarch, Gillot and I. Is it alright if we wear these old colonial uniforms we found, Charlot?’
‘By all means, Your Imperial Majesty. You have a right to anything you find on this ship and on the greater ones outside the atmosphere. For I recognise you as true heir to the Colonial Administration of the European Union, which once owned – or rather employed – me. I will consequently answer to you and to His Francien Majesty, your herd-brother, in all things, as my superior officers.’
Unfortunately the tunnel to the comm centre had collapsed when Charlot had tested the engines, so the only way down was from the lowest outer hatch by sliding down ropes, which neither François nor Gilles managed to make look majestic or even elegant. In fact Gilles collapsed to his knees heavily on landing. Ruprecht, being taller, made a better job of it.
‘Merde! I’ve got grass stains over my white uniform trousers,’ Gilles swore.
François sniggered and straightened both his face and his jacket before turning to face the crowd of onlookers and pilgrims, which had not dared approach the great white dome nearer than three hundred metres. ‘Come along Your Majesty!’
‘Behind you, Your Imperial Majesty!’
The two young monarchs strode side-by-side towards the knot of dignitaries around the white-robed Patriarch, seated on a camp chair. As they got closer, the old man laboured to his feet. To Ruprecht’s eye he did not seem the worse for his days on the road; the stiffness was to be expected in a man in his late seventies.
He peered through his round spectacles at François and Gilles as they reached him. ‘You are François, the Emperor?’ he hazarded, looking at Gilles.
‘No, Your Holiness. That’s me!’ François declared.
‘My word, young man. It is you! I had no idea you had a brother. In fact I’m perfectly sure you don’t; I certainly don’t remember one from your coronation two years ago. Yet this other young man is your very image.’
‘It’s a long story, Your Holiness. But this is Gilles Parmentier, my cousin by blood and herd-brother in soul. I have created him Prince Imperial by right. How are you, sir?’
The old man smiled. ‘All the better for some fresh air. I would think you may be one of the few who knows why I walked to this place.’
‘Yes, sir. I imagine you have been visited in your dreams by a blond young man who claimed to be your grandad, and who spoke in English. He told you his name was Cory and introduced you to his herd with whom you walked. Were you in the guise of a child?’
‘So it’s true what he said. That if I came here, I would witness the promised Second Landing and that all the princes of Terre Nouvelle would gather before my throne?’
‘It is true, Your Holiness, and not least among those who will come is another of Cory’s line, Kristijan of Ardhesse. Did you meet him in your stay on the celestial plain? A small and very pretty curly-haired child?’
‘We played. He was charming and open-hearted, not at all like his adult version. He clung to his grandad piteously when he was told he must go home. So what then is this shining dome, Imperial Majesty?’
‘It is one of the fireships of olden days, hidden beneath this hill by the Ancients. It is inhabited by a … spirit of great power, who once served them before the catastrophe that led to the Fall of Man. He has slept for nearly nine centuries, but I and my brother with our combined … er, power … have awakened him. He has undertaken to return to the service of humankind and is willing to reveal to us all the lost knowledge of the Ancients, but only on one condition: that humanity will first unite in peace.’
The Patriarch removed his spectacles and stared silent for a while beyond François and Gilles to the enigmatic structure looming above them all. ‘Your angel offers great gifts, but his price may be difficult to meet. Both the East and South Kingdoms will not be easy to bring to the table, and King Kristijan – I will not call him emperor – has opened up a rift between Francien and Alleman which will not readily close again. How do you propose to proceed, sire?’
‘I would hope you will take the chair of the Congress, Your Holiness. I would ask you to open it with the coronation of my brother Gilles as King of the Franciens, the first prince so honoured in several generations; my household is bringing the appropriate regalia from the treasury of Aix. No better place or occasion could be found for such a consecration. Then I would ask you to preside over the discussions. I and my advisers have drafted a plan, which the technology of the fireship will be able to publish across the world by telegraphy and telephony. The heads of the proposals will be known in all the capitals by tomorrow morning.’
The Patriarch pondered, and then laid a hand on François’s shoulder. ‘My boy, you have my full support and that of Holy Church. The Way of the Seneschal is the Way of Peace. You’re proving yourself a worthy occupant of your throne; your powers are truly miraculous, sent from God for the healing of the nations. My blessing on you.’ He looked around. ‘I’d best get back to the college of cardinals. They’re scared out of their wits, poor dears, and missing their palaces. The Imperial delegation is expected this afternoon, and the Protector of the Republic is rising to the occasion. I’ll inform him of your plans, and we’ll make the necessary arrangements. The Congress will commence tomorrow at the eighth hour. They tell me the weather is going to be very fair for a coronation.’
Flares lit up the vicinity of the Oracle all that night, workmen and soldiers toiling in their garish light.
‘The Protector certainly has the bit between his teeth,’ François observed as they watched the work through the screen. ‘It’s not often the Republic is in the centre of international events, so maybe he feels he has to live up people’s expectations.’
A huge marquee decked with brocade and banners was rising downriver, raised to house the Congress’s discussions. Other pavilions made a small tented town around it, each ensigned with the tricolours and armorial sovereign banners of each nation present. Tables, carpets and chairs were stacked around the marquee. More practically, the Montenard army installed camp kitchens and dug latrines downstream of the Congress site.
They all retired to the narrow single beds which were all the Oracle had to offer. Joerg clung tight to Ruprecht. ‘Do you think we’ll dream tonight?’ he asked.
‘I’d be surprised did we not.’
They drifted off and, as was the way of things, awoke in a sunlit woodland clearing. They sat up this time as young adolescents, maybe thirteen or fourteen years of age.
Joerg giggled as he looked down. ‘I’ve got hair now, and your dick is as long as is normal for you; though not for most people. Listen, can you hear?’
Ruprecht cocked an ear. ‘It’s singing. The sound of deep male voices,’ he said. ‘And it’s coming from over there through the trees.’
They got up and clasped hands. They walked along a dappled path and broke out into sunlight again into a broad forest lawn. It was full of human and erdbeesten bulls, and all were singing, even the erdbeesten. There were no words, just an entwining of voices in harmony. In the centre of the lawn was raised a great flower-covered mound, high on which stood the first Great Bull of the Human Herd, Jean-Charles. Sitting at his feet were his son and namesake the first emperor and his brother Armand, and lower down again many other young and vigorous males, all of the same dark cast of Francien beauty.
‘It’s the emperors of the first centuries, all gathered around the founder of their dynasty. But where’s the first Emperor François and his lover, Cory?’ Ruprecht asked.
Joerg looked around. ‘Here they come, and they have our two boys with them!’
Cory led Gilles by hand in a lane through the crowd while from the other direction came the first François, with his descendant, the twelfth of that name. Both boys were now their proper age and in this place there was no way of telling them apart other than the identity of their conductors. They led them together up the mound. Ruprecht and Joerg squirmed through the throng to get to the front of the crowd, and there they found many boys of all ages, sitting cross-legged at the feet of the ring of bulls at the base of the mound. The boys smiled up at them and made space so they too could sit and watch. A boy his own age, lean and brown in body, took Ruprecht tightly around the waist when he sat, kissed his cheek and bade him welcome. He was fair of face with rich curling dark hair and smooth perfect cheeks, though he was mature enough to have tight black curls at his crotch. His nipples were small and faint against his dark tan. His feet were long and narrow with well-shaped toes, between which the boy was picking unconsciously with his right hand, absorbed as he was with what was happening on the mound.
Ruprecht surreptitiously looked around as much of the ring as he could in hopes of seeing Kris and maybe his brother Felix amongst the children, but there were no blonds in that group of Parmentier males, in fact the only ones to be seen were Cory and his own Joerg.
‘What’s your name?’ Ruprecht asked his neighbour, but the only answer he had was a smile and a chuckle. ‘What’s happening?’
‘The Great Bull of the Herd is raising up the new Primes for our living family, Robby. They will accept his lordship. From now on the Herd of both this world and yours will be one and the Great Bull will no longer be separated by death from his family, his rule will be universal. Watch!’
The elder Jean-Charles took François and Gilles by the hand and embraced them. Then he presented them to the assembly.
‘Let the leopards run from us!’ shouted Jean-Charles.
‘Let them run!’ the assembly answered. ‘The Herd will sleep safe!’
‘Greet our new bulls! Emperor and King! Brothers and Lords of Men!’
Ruprecht’s companion whispered in his ear. ‘Come with me, Robby, but quietly.’ Ruprecht went to reach over and prod Joerg, cross-legged and absorbed in the rite a little further along from him. But the strange boy held his arm and put a finger to his lips, then he crawled through the legs of the crowd of men and erdbeesten behind them. Ruprecht followed the boy’s smooth brown backside close enough to see the light hairs around the pit of his anus and feathering his inner thighs. When they were clear of the crowd the boy stood, and Ruprecht stood with him. His hand was taken and he was pulled rapidly to the tree line surrounding the lawn.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
The boy took his hand and tugged him under the trees. ‘Look up, Robby!’ he said.
Ruprecht did so and saw several pairs of boy’s legs dangling from a high branch. Four blond youngsters were sitting together watching the ceremony. His companion leapt to catch a low branch and swung his lean body athletically up into their tree, pulling up Ruprecht behind him.
He came up unsuspected behind the boys, absorbed in the doings at the mound. He padded along the thick branch and grabbed hard the biggest of the blonds. ‘Gotcha, Chrissy!’ he laughed.
Chrissy swore in English as he struggled to maintain his perch. ‘Fuck you Frankie! I’ll kill ya!’
Frankie laughed and settled next to the blond, taking him affectionately around the shoulder. ‘Only fair, I guess.’ He looked at Ruprecht. ‘Come sit here, Robby. You know little tyke, donchya?’
A delighted little face beamed at him. ‘Robby! It’s me, Kris! Give me hugs!’ Ruprecht settled next to little Kristijan, who swarmed on to his lap.
‘What are you doing here, tininess?’ he asked.
‘I’m in the herd now! See, you met Chrissy. He was my grandad! He’s taking care of me with his boyfriend, Frankie. They do sex all the time.’
Startled, Ruprecht looked at the grinning boys. You were Kristijan II of Ardhesse? And Frankie? You’re François X … the emperor who stabbed him to death?’
‘Oh … we’re over that,’ said Chrissy. ‘I do a lot of stabbing him now, but not with a metal pointy thing.’
‘I didn’t know you were homos?’
Frankie laughed. ‘In life we weren’t, but things are different here. We join in the Herd with the bodies of those who can love us back best. In his forgiving me I learned quite how awesome a guy Chrissy is, and after that … well, I can’t exist without joining with him …’
‘… All the time!’ giggled Kris. ‘I’m going to have a real boyfriend one day, Grandad Cory says; someone just like Frankie is to Chrissy.’
Ruprecht was puzzled. ‘You’re here in your sleep, Kris?’
The boy shook his head vigorously. ‘No, Robby. I’m Herd now. Grandad Cory let me stay forever, I don’t know how many days ago and I’ve not been sent back.’
‘But … that’s not possible. You’re at Yorck!’
Chrissie grinned over Kris’s head at Ruprecht. ‘Little bro’s really here for good, Robby.’
Ruprecht was momentarily stunned. ‘Then, who’s at Yorck?’