CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Malone strapped himself into the helicopter’s rear compartment. Professor Goulding sat beside him. An RAF pilot settled in behind the controls and fired up the turbine. A couple of minutes later they lifted off into a frigid, murky Icelandic morning.

A military transport had flown them both from London to a NATO base at Keflavik. En route Malone had spoken on a secure line with Stephanie Nelle, briefing her on what had happened yesterday at the Tower with the missile. He’d even managed a few hours’ sleep last night and adjusted his clothing for arctic conditions, donning thermal underwear, thick wool shirt and pants, gloves, and a fur-lined insulated coat with a hood. Goulding had done the same. He’d brought the professor knowing he might need some immediate expertise. The queen had personally requested the journey and Goulding had been anxious to go. On Stephanie’s orders he’d revealed to the queen all of what he’d learned about Arthur’s grave, but kept MI6’s involvement secret.

The official story from yesterday was that a military exercise had gone awry, the armed missile falling into the Thames and exploding underwater.

But Malone knew who was behind it.

Peter Lyon.

Who remained at large.

He had questions for Sir Thomas Mathews, but the head of MI6 was also nowhere to be found. No surprise, really. Considering the implications. He’d reported everything to Stephanie, including all of his suspicions. On the transatlantic flight, Goulding had briefed him on three important details left out of yesterday’s talk. The first was a journal, compiled during the Catholic occupation of Iceland, contained within the British Museum.

Irish settlements on Iceland were abandoned when the Vikings arrived in 90 °CE, but a few new monasteries appeared in the centuries after, all closed during the Reformation when Danes banned Catholicism. Before evacuating one of the monasteries near Skri?uklauster, on the eastern coast, an industrious monk had recorded what he’d found among the ancient records. The monk spoke of a cave haunted by a ghost where someone of great importance lay buried. The location was supposedly to the south of a pyramid-shaped peak, beyond a brown-and-red-striped gorge, in the face of a sheer cliff known only to birds. The journal was sketchy, reflecting a time when myth and magic predominated, and ordinarily the tale would be summarily dismissed. Yet Goulding had noticed drawings contained within the journal, etchings supposedly seen by locals who’d ventured into the cave, that matched the plates on the ceremonial vessel.

Further confirmation was found in the second revelation.

During World War II the Allies had operated a base on Iceland’s rocky east coast. A British colonel assigned there became fascinated with the legend of the haunted cave. His treks into the surrounding mountains were documented in a diary that Mathews had managed to obtain from the soldier’s grandnephew. The entries talked of a cave found in the shadow of a pyramid-shaped peak, beyond a brown-and-red-striped gorge. There were drawings and the beginnings of a tunnel map. Unfortunately, the colonel was lost in the mountains, presumably a victim of an avalanche, and never fully documented the extent of his find. Still, his fleeting references were enough to conclude that the legend may perhaps be fact.

The final piece of evidence came to light entirely by chance. A farmer in West Sussex was opening an old well when he discovered that several stones used to shore up its sides were engraved. Mathews learned that Yourstone purchased the stones and realized the inscriptions were 6th century in origin. They talked of a land where the ground erupted with fire, and ice soothed the flames. A faraway place where warriors dwelled, one in particular of great lineage and importance. There was no name mentioned, but the reference to a land of fire and ice seemed further confirmation that the trail for Arthur’s grave ended in Iceland.

“Yourstone was searching out there,” Goulding said as they glanced through the windows at a sky stained salmon from a morning sun. “Sir Thomas confirmed that to me.”

“But he never learned the location?”

“I don’t know. Mathews never told me.”

Deep fjords scarred the jagged southeast coastline, which gave way to tussocks of soaking-wet tundra. Sheep tracks were evident through boulder fields. Patches of birch and aspen dotted an otherwise barren landscape. A river flowed north, more a long narrow lake for much of its length, the calm water glittering blue from a glacial tinge.

The pilot kept the chopper trim in the cold air.

Malone said, “I’ve read some of the Icelandic legends. They talk about gnomes, elves, and dwarves that live in the mountains. Easy to see how a legend about a haunted cave would have survived.” He stared down at craters that dotted the barren surface. “This place is like the moon with water.”

“There’s a saying. If you’re lost in the Icelandic forest, just stand up.”

A column of vapor rose in the distance.

“Geysers,” Goulding said. “Lots of volcanic activity here. Land of Fire and Ice, remember? What a lovely contradiction.”

Off to the west glaciers dominated, one having withdrawn its icy paw and left a black gravel plain veined with verdant moss. And somewhere out there was a pyramid-shaped peak near a brown-and-red-striped gorge. Unfortunately, from the looks of things there were a lot of pyramid-shaped peaks. All of the slopes were tall and jagged.

The chopper banked right and lost altitude to escape an approaching patch of dense clouds. They cleared a short peak and Malone saw a village ahead, its buildings of wood, dry stone, turf walls, and corrugated iron roofs. Sheep roamed its perimeter. A group of reindeer clambered up a nearby slope. The pilot angled his approach away from both flocks. Goulding had learned of this locale from the World War II journal.

“This is the closest settlement to the area you mentioned,” the pilot said through their headsets. “I’m going to land.”

He settled the chopper onto a grassy field and they climbed out into the frigid air, quickly zipping their coats. It was a five-minute walk to the village. A paved road bisected the town neatly in half. There was a variety of stores, one a rock shop that displayed semiprecious stones in its front window, another a general store full of merchandise. A wooden church stood at the end of the long street. A woman wrapped in a wool coat was strolling down the street away from the church. She approached the general store and inserted a key into the lock.

He led Goulding over and did the introductions, learning that the store was hers.

“I heard the helicopter a few minutes ago,” the woman said in clear English, brushing brown, gray-streaked hair away from her eyes. She was middle-aged with a face round and red as a beet.

“This is going to sound a little strange,” he said, “but in the mountains, are there any peaks nearby shaped like a pyramid?”

“Many.”

“Here’s another stupid question. How about brown-and-red-striped gorges?”

She smiled. “Too many to even count.”

He told her about the legend of the haunted cave.

“Are you treasure hunters?” the woman asked.

“Not at all,” Malone said.

“The others said the same thing, and I thought they were lying, too.” Her declaration carried contempt.

He wanted to know, “What others?”

“The men up in the mountains.” She pointed to the west toward snowcapped peaks. “They said they were rock hounds. Looking for jasper and obsidian.”

“How long have they been there?” he asked.

“About a month. They come down every few days for supplies.”

He was now interested. “What made you think they were lying?”

“Too anxious. The hikers and scholars take their time. These men were in a hurry.” She paused. “They stay in a hurry.”

He was beginning to appreciate the woman’s perception. “You know where they are up there?”

“One of the herders told me they were beyond the midge lake, above the ?lar basin. The hills there are hollow. Lots of caves and tunnels. But there’s nothing there. People have roamed them for centuries.”

“Did you tell them that?” Malone asked.

She studied him with a rapt expression. “As I’m telling you.” She hesitated a moment. “Another reason they’re treasure hunters.”

“Why’s that?” he asked.

“They didn’t believe me, either.”

* * *

Half an hour of discussion was needed before she warmed to them. It helped that Goulding seemed familiar with the region and understood some of the local peculiarities. A hundred dollars U.S. secured the rental of her Range Rover for the day.

They headed off on the only highway from town.

The roadway cleaved a canyon through red rock walls that displayed a geological layer cake of history. The peaks and hills beyond were molded in rust and yellow hues, dusted with snow. Steep remnants of ancient volcanoes drew their attention.

The absence of ice caught Malone’s interest. “For somewhere so cold, there’s little moisture.”

“I’ve always thought the name strange, too,” Goulding said. “Iceland. Yet there’s almost none here. The air’s too dry.”

The shopkeeper from the village told them about abandoned sulfur mines, formed when steam bubbles lifted lava through rock and hardened before shattering, resulting in a maze of passages and chambers. And though all of the mines were now gone, their remnants remained.

They followed the directions she provided, the road progressively worsening until it was more gravel path than highway. He estimated they were a good thirty miles from the village, isolated, no sign of anyone or anything.

“According to what she told us,” Goulding said, “it’s a hike up through those hills just ahead.”

Malone stopped the vehicle, and they climbed out onto a lava flow colonized by lichens. Dwarf willows hugged the black earth in scattered patches. Tundra spread off toward the north, a snowfield to the west.

He led the way up a slope.

Hiking this ground was like walking on ball bearings and he was grateful for the boots the military had recommended earlier. They were looking for a nemeton, the Celtic word for a sacred place in a remote locale. The ancient manuscripts referred to door mountain, noting its location in reference to a pyramid-shaped peak. Mountain ranges pierced the sky in a variety of shapes, basalt, tuff, and rhyolite clearly mangled over time. He realized that what was pyramid-shaped in the 6th century might no longer exist — the forces of vulcanism, ice, and plate motion surely altering everything around him.

He glanced at his watch. 9:45 AM.

It felt and looked like 5:00 P.M., especially since he was working on only a few hours’ sleep.

Then he saw it.

On a ridge half a mile away, before a black opening in the sheer rock face, he saw a campsite of three oversized tents. He studied the peak above and noted that it was indeed triangular — a crooked pyramid, but nonetheless a pyramid. He spotted no one near or around the tents.

“Let’s approach from the far side,” he said, gesturing toward a sparse clump of ash trees.

“You concerned about something?”

He detected apprehension in the question. “Are you okay with this?”

“I’m not an agent, but I did serve four years in the infantry.”

He laid a hand on the professor’s shoulder. “Not to worry. Just follow my lead.”

* * *

The camp was deserted.

A low methodic hum from one of the tents and two black cables snaking a path into the mountain signaled a generator. An assortment of footsteps were framed by scattered snow, all leading into the mountain. The entrance tunnel was surprisingly wide, which helped with his distaste for enclosed spaces. Lightbulbs tacked to the rock dissolved the darkness, revealing rough walls, sharp in places, the floor a mixture of sand and gravel.

“This chute is natural,” Goulding whispered. “From lava eons ago.”

They exited into a room about forty feet square with a high, vaulted ceiling. At the far end, illuminated by a stand of halogen lights, was what appeared to be an altar, a rectangular slab of blackened stone supported by two stone pillars, the structure elevated by a platform hewn from the rock. Goulding was drawn to the altar and began to focus on knotwork designs behind and above on the chamber walls.

“Celtic. The symbol of man’s eternal spiritual growth. But there. See it? Overlays of Christianity.”

Spaced behind the altar were carvings of a man, lion, calf, and eagle.

“Man symbolizes Matthew. The lion, Mark. The calf, Luke. And an eagle, John. The four evangelists. Pagan caves like this eventually became churches.”

A cross caught Malone’s attention, in a shadowy niche off to the right. A circle filled its center, the lower arm longer and wider than its two sides. The circle was quartered and ornamented, giving depth and definition to an otherwise flat face.

“It’s Celtic,” Goulding said.

His nerves were alert. Where were the men who’d staked out the camp? Then he noticed something. Across the chamber, on the rock floor. He stepped over and bent down. Dark splotches. Dried. Hard to tell.

“Is it blood?” Goulding asked.

“Could be.”

Two gauges marred the sandy floor, about a foot apart, leading in a straight line into another tunnel, as if something had been dragged, heels down.

He found his Magellan Billet — issued Beretta.

“Stay behind me,” he said to Goulding.

“Should I be worried now?”

“Good question.”

They entered the far tunnel. More bulbs lit the way. The passage wound a path with no offshoots until ending at another chamber, this one smaller than the first but nonetheless Celtic — the same knotwork designs dotted the stone face. On the far wall, a bulb illuminated writing.

EFFIGIEM CHRISTI QUI TRANSIS PRONUS HONORA — ANNO MCCCVI

“You who are hurrying past, honor the image of Christ — AD 1306,” Goulding said, reading the words.

The tracks in the sand moved through the chamber and out another of the three exit tunnels. The same one where the cables fed. They followed, the new passage narrower than the first two, its walls sharper and lighter in tone. Bulbs were sparse, about thirty feet apart. The air was colder, truly like a tomb, their condensed breath leading the way. They passed openings that led into the pitch dark. Man-made niches appeared periodically in the rock face. Latin inscriptions were chiseled into the stone of a few.

The dual tracks continued ahead.

Was he being led?

The tunnel snaked a path deeper into the mountain. Their level changed twice, and the route rose steadily. The passage ended in another cathedral-like chamber, this one with a towering ceiling of jagged rock cast in a bluish tint by steaming halogen floods. A stone plinth dominated the center, about twenty feet square. Celtic symbols decorated the edges, along with more Latin letters.

But it was the bodies that drew their attention. Three men. Dressed in heavy coats and boots. Bullet holes to the head.

“Now you can be worried,” he said.

But he wasn’t surprised. The mess had to be cleaned. Nothing could be left.

“That’s horrible,” Goulding said.

Thanks to the cold, it was hard to tell how long they’d been dead.

He turned his attention to the chamber, concerned that they may not be alone. But they were too far involved now to turn back.

Had that been the idea?

“Is this Arthur’s grave?” he asked.

Goulding knelt before the plinth. “The writing talks of Christ, the Virgin, and the sanctity of a sovereign. But Celts never would have buried a chieftain in this manner. Their graves are more personal. Intimate.”

His internal clock told him they’d left Keflavik three hours ago.

“Look over there,” the professor said.

He saw it, too.

Another power cable, disappearing into a wall cleave. They moved closer and examined the exit, then he led the way inside. Twenty feet and they came to a man-made doorway, created from block fa?ades carved into the rock. Celtic designs decorated its base.

The chamber beyond was lit.

They entered.

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