CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Malone stared into the lit room, his gaze focusing on what looked like an enormous high-backed couch. He stepped close and caressed the top edge. “Bronze?”

“Celts were good with metal,” Goulding said.

Its blackened face was embossed with dancing figures and horses pulling carts. The workmanship was intricate and had survived intact.

Lying across the couch were the remains of a skeleton.

From end to end the figure appeared about six feet tall. Only bones remained. Bits of cloth lay scattered among the bones — perhaps, he thought, burial robes long gone to dust. A gold ornament rested where the neck had once existed. Malone suspended his hand above the band. The diameter spread the width of his extended fingers. “He was a big man.”

Malone knelt before the bier and noticed that it rested on eight metal statues, each a woman, bare-breasted, atop a unicycle, the wheel of each cycle forming a caster. The design was ingenious and sophisticated. He traced the outline of lettering with his gloved hands.

“Latin,” Goulding said. “It’s a hope the deceased finds the other world and is happy. Only leaders were given this honor.”

He studied the rest of the room. Dark shadows signaled more objects. On the far side, to the right of the entrance, sat a wagon made of what appeared to be wood. He stepped toward it and saw iron wheels festooned with bronze chains and figurines. Like the couch, the workmanship was astonishing.

“Probably ash, elm, or maple,” Goulding said. “I’ve read about these. Seen drawings. Bits and pieces have been found. But nothing has survived whole. This is quite an archaeological discovery.”

The cart bed was piled with bowls, plates, platters, and knives.

“What’s the point of the tableware?” he asked.

“Necessities of the afterlife. Celts believed in an afterworld. Death was but a brief pause in an endless cycle of rebirth. So their dead were equipped for the long voyage. The grander the deceased, the richer the grave.” The professor pointed. “Bowls and plates were for eating, knives for hunting.” Two rows of ornamented drinking horns hung from iron chains. One horn was larger than the other six. “A mighty cup for Arthur, the rest for his companions.”

“Cup of what?”

“Over there.”

In the remaining corner sat a bronze cauldron. Its handles were crafted as lions, but the images were distorted, more caricatures than faithful animal representations. He followed Goulding over to it. Sediment filled the inside, black and hard as stone.

“Fermented honey mead. A common drink for Celts in the 6th century. The drinking horns would have been used to empty this cauldron. Can’t go to the afterworld thirsty.”

He knelt down and studied the odd-shaped lions.

“Celtic representations,” Goulding said. “There were no lions in Britain. They would have learned about them from Romans. These are the artist’s imagination at work.”

“You know this stuff.”

“It’s my world. Finding a tomb, like this, is the coup of a lifetime.”

He noticed etchings in the side of the cauldron.

Goulding bent down close. “Incredible. It’s a battle history. Mount Baden, Cat Coit Celidon, City of Legion. Those are all places where Arthur supposedly fought Saxons. The last line speaks of gueith Camlann, the Strife of Camlann, where history notes Arthur supposedly died. Incredible. This is his obituary, 6th-century style.”

Malone noticed the intricate carving of a horse, a warrior perched on top, his chest protected by a cuirass, the head helmeted. The right hand wielded a sword, the left a lance. The man sat tall atop the animal, ready for a fight.

“Arthur would have fought on horseback,” Goulding said.

On a slab beside the cauldron lay more items. Buckles of bronze. A sword hilt and scabbard embellished with blackened silver. Armlets decorated with elaborate filigree. Thumb rings of enameled copper and tin. A boar’s tusk carved with more scenes from battle.

“His things?” he asked.

“It was tradition to bury a warrior with his possessions. They would be needed in the afterworld.”

Porticos notched the wall, and a few contained the remnants of skulls.

“Defeated enemies,” Goulding noted. “It was a sign of respect to bury their skulls with the dead warrior.”

A cross filled one niche, fashioned from stone, its face divided into clear panels, each a maze of animals and knotwork designs. A burst of light caught Malone’s gaze, and he stepped close to see the center filled with a crystal the size of his fist.

“Diamond?” he asked.

Goulding shook his head. “Celts would not have known diamonds. Quartz of some sort, more than likely. Oh … my.”

He caught the surprise in the voice and saw Goulding heading for a container lying on the rock floor. It was shaped like a house with a gabled roof and ridgepoles attached to the crown. A band adorned with a beast head wrapped the eaves and sides. Its exterior appeared a combination of bronze and silver inlaid with gems.

“It’s a cumdach. Portable shrine. They were used to store books and manuscripts. I’ve only seen drawings of them. Yet here’s one in absolute pristine condition.”

Malone studied the construction. “It appears it’ll take us both to open it.”

“Is that wise?”

“We’re not on an archaeological dig. We need to see what’s inside.”

He gripped one set of the ridgepoles and Goulding clasped the other. They lifted in unison and the lid came free, sending a cascade of sand showering off as they laid the gabled top on the ground. The interior was lined with more bronze, the space empty save for a single volume, which measured about six by eight inches and two inches thick.

He carefully swiped the air above the book and shooed away centuries of dust. Faded writing could be seen.

DE EXCIDIO ET CONQUESTO BRITANNIE

On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. This is a Gildas manuscript.”

He listened as Goulding told him about Gildas Sapiens, who lived in Britain and died somewhere around 572 CE — but not before penning a scathing attack on his contemporary churchmen and political rulers.

“His words were a history of post-Roman, pre — St. Augustine Britain, a clear denunciation of secular and ecclesiastical authority. Most historians, though, regard his observations as more fiction than fact. But they remain the only firsthand account of 6th-century Britain.”

He caught Goulding’s excitement.

“There are about seventy editions of his work still around. I’ve seen the one in the British Museum. It’s a 10th-century handwritten copy of an 8th-century text.”

“Double hearsay?”

“Exactly. Who knows if it’s accurate. It’s also badly burned in places, and less than half the pages are legible.”

“You think this is an original?”

“If this tomb was fashioned in the 6th century, it’s entirely possible. Gildas lived during Arthur’s time. He was an ardent observer, a political critic at a time when criticism was not tolerated. He was learned in Latin and could read and write.” Goulding caressed the top sheet, as if carefully probing a sore. “Vellum. Much better than parchment or papyrus, and this giant refrigerator has preserved it. So, yes, Mr. Malone, this could be an original.”

“Go ahead.”

“Disturb it?”

“Why not? You know you want to. Frankly, I’m curious, too.”

Goulding reverently lifted the book from its container, balancing it on one palm, studying the pages, which rested on top of one another with no binding. A quick count revealed about sixty, and the vellum was waffled from time. The professor laid the bundle across one corner of the chest and carefully lifted off the top page, using both hands from underneath, cradling the sheet before setting it aside. Each one possessed a creamy white patina, an almost unused look, the writing faded to a light gray, the penmanship small and tight, words running the entire length with no paragraphs or punctuation.

Malone knew about Dark Age manuscripts. Writing materials were scarce, so every bit of surface was used with no margins.

“Can you translate?”

Goulding read in silence. “It’s Latin. But readable.” A pause. “It’s a bloody record of Arthur’s life. I’ve read some of the other Gildas translations. Nothing like this was ever part of those interpolations.”

“Maybe because you’re reading the true edition.”

“There’s actually another explanation. Gildas was the son of Caw, king of Scocie, one of twenty-three siblings. His brothers were, to a man, warriors. One in particular, Huail, plagued Arthur by pillaging and burning villages. Finally, Arthur pursued and killed Huail. When Gildas was informed of the murder he reportedly threw into the sea all of his writings that mentioned Arthur.”

“Which explains why there are, to this day, no contemporary accounts of Arthur’s life. The only reporter of the time purged the record.”

“But this manuscript survived,” he said. “And if it’s authentic, this represents the proof historians have long sought regarding Arthur.”

Goulding returned his attention to the words, lifting off more sheets as he scanned the pages. “It’s decipherable. The punctuation is nonexistent. So are paragraphs. But I can adjust the prose. Listen to this.”

A summer’s night brought a gathering of nobles in Wessex forest, near the river. They sat upon a litter of straw and the fleece of wolves and dogs. Cauldrons and spits overflowed with meat and children served elders. The bravest of warriors, as was tradition, received the finest portion of flesh. Arthur led the talk, though he was not a man given to stories. His mustache hung long and thick and milk soaked the mane, at times making it difficult for him to eat. There was laughter from his attempts to keep the hairs clean, which he did not seem to mind. He neither rejoiced in victory nor was downcast in defeat. Both states be but temporary, he was given to say. His was of only one purpose. To rid the land of Saxons. On this night he spoke of the battles at the River Glein, three at the River Dubglas, and another at the River Bassas. At another nearly a thousand Saxons fell in one day from one charge, he alone standing at the end. There is no doubt that Saxons fear him. His voice echoes of a man who long ago abandoned family for the sake of nation. When one of the nobles challenged his account of a battle he was quick to confront the objector. Their disagreement led to combat and he drove the breath from his challenger with a thrust of his sword. All agreed the fight was fair, the insult satisfied. After, he sat alone and no attempt was made to include him in conversation. His solitude stands him apart, but also makes others follow. He is the will of Briton.

“Amazing,” Goulding said. “Absolutely amazing. Some of this can be found in scattered references we have to Arthur in other writings. But here is a complete, contemporary, historical text. Finally, Arthur is no more the exclusive province of poets.”

Goulding scanned more pages and read aloud.

Warriors gathered in the Gorsedd woods, crowded around a slab of oak shaved flat by swords. Mead was drunk to continued victory. Arthur was there but did not participate. He stood alone and watched with silent satisfaction. One of the nobles approached him with a full tankard and he accepted the offer. When asked what troubled him, he said their fight was in vain. He foresaw a day when Saxons ruled their land. When Britons will speak in the rough Saxon language. He said a people without language is only half a nation. To be forced to learn another’s tongue was the worst badge of conquest. He suddenly stopped speaking. Cuckoos sang from their perches. A group of calves with their mothers grazed in a distant field. The harvest would soon be ready, he finally said. Winter was coming not only to the land, but to the people. His fondest desire was to be in the afterworld when that happened.

“He sounds like a patriot,” Malone said.

“He sounds human. A man fighting for a cause, like a million other revolutionaries that came before and after him. He fought Saxons, but eventually the Saxons, in 1066, battled invading Normans. Those Normans and Saxons became Englishmen and eventually repelled the Spanish and the Germans, surely echoing the same sentiment.”

Malone glanced back toward the doorway. They needed to leave. The bodies still bothered him. Those men were killed for a reason, and he was beginning to understand why. “Any more interesting parts.”

Goulding was already lifting more pages, scanning the prose.

“Here’s a reference to Huail, Gildas’ brother.”

Caw of Prydein possessed two sons of many. I being one, another was Huail ap Caw. Huail sought the love and affection of one of Arthur’s mistresses. A day occurred when Arthur was waiting for Huail at his mistress’ house. There was much discussion between the two before swords were drawn. Huail landed a blow to Arthur’s knee. To save himself the humiliation of being bested, Arthur agreed to a reconciliation provided Huail did not taunt the blow to others. Arthur returned to Caerhass and was nursed back to health, though he walked with a slight lameness whilst he lived. Much later Arthur fell in love with a woman in Rhuthun. He visited her dressed in the clothes of a girl. Huail was there and discovered him playing dance amongst the girls and recognized him from the lameness. “The dancing was good were it not for the knee,” Huail stated. Arthur heard the insult and knew the words were directed to him. Huail was later fetched to Arthur and questioned on the breaking of his pledge. He was then taken to the town market and his head cut off on a stone lying on the ground. Because of this deed the rock is called the Stone of Huail.

Malone glanced again out the crypt’s open doorway.

“The text goes on and notes that Gildas never particularly cared for his brother. He does not seem to fault Arthur for what happened, but he does note that people did not approve of the execution. This is not the vengeful historian I’ve read about in other accounts. And Arthur seems more tyrannical, fanatical. Given to impulse. Not to mention cross-dressing.”

Which was fascinating. “You think that’s true?”

“Hard to say. But, why not?”

Why not, indeed.

Goulding’s attention returned to the pages.

“This passage talks of how Arthur fell at the Battle of Camlann. He gave orders that he be taken to Venodocia so that he might sojourn on the Isle of Avalon for the sake of peace and for the easing of his wounds.”

“Where is Venodocia?” Malone asked.

“It was later called Gwynedd. A kingdom that spread across North Wales. This confirms Avalon was in that locale.”

On arriving in Avalon, Arthur became aware that his wounds were fatal. Three bishops were summoned to administer last rites. In time Arthur died, his body embalmed in balsam and myrrh. He was taken to a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Its doorway would not accept the funeral pyre so the bishops performed the rites inside while the body waited out. A storm arrived driven by a thick mist. When the rain stopped and the mist cleared, Arthur’s body was gone. It was learned later that the nobles had met. There was much discussion concerning Arthur’s passage to the afterworld. Priests made the final decision. They knew a place where he may rest without risk of Saxon desecration. A faraway land with fire, ice, and huge creatures that dwelled in the sea. A place where it was possible to become close to God, where he would dwell until needed again.

“Here,” Goulding said. “They put him here 1,500 years ago.”

A few moments of silence passed, as they both realized where they were standing.

“You think Yourstone found this place?” Goulding asked.

“Yep. Then somebody else found it after him.”

And he knew who.

“The manuscript is priceless,” Goulding said. “More valuable than anything in this tomb.”

“Words always are.”

In the light he noticed an image on the front of the cumdach. He knelt and saw the outline of a man etched into the metal. He was thick-featured and cast a look of unbending determination. A scar ran from the hairline to the corner of the mouth. The eyes, captured so well by the artist, seemed pools of anger. Something uncompromising could be seen in the expression, a message from the pinched lips and tight jaw that made clear there would never be subservience. Not from this man. The dress was the uniform of a Roman emperor — knee-length tunic and breeches, leather jerkin with metal-studded fringe across the abdomen, a cloak pinned at the shoulders with a brooch.

“Celtic warriors aped Roman parade dress,” Goulding said.

“Is it him?” he asked.

“That we’ll never know. But this is good enough for me.” The professor pointed to the base of the reliquary where a simple label was inscribed.

ARTVRIVS. SUPERBUS TYRANNUS.

“Arthur. Outstanding Ruler.”

“We have to leave,” he said. “Bring the book.”

He stepped over to the wagon and retrieved two of the bronze bowls. He had Goulding lay the pages into one, then he clamped the other on top, binding them together with his belt. They then hustled through the doorway and carefully made their way back through the mountain, outside, following the power cables and lightbulbs.

But the campsite was no more.

All three tents were charred and burned.

The equipment remained, the generator still working, but nothing now shielded anything from the weather, which had turned wet, bitter cold, and windy. The sun was gone, dreary and stained behind a mask of freezing mist.

“What’s happening?” Goulding asked.

“Let’s take a look for the Range Rover.”

They hustled past the camp, toward where the vehicle was parked.

An explosion rocked the silence.

They whirled and saw the entrance to the cave being sealed by an avalanche of rock and debris.

“Mr. Malone, what is this?”

He knew. “No need to go look for the Rover. It’s gone.” And the shopkeeper back in the village wasn’t going to like that. Whoever killed the three men had used the time they’d spent exploring the tomb to ready this surprise.

Apparently, they needed to die. Out here. Naturally. Which would not take long. Sure, they both wore coats and gloves, but prolonged exposure to these elements would mean certain death.

His internal clock, which had never failed him, told him they’d been gone right at four hours.

He yanked up the hood of his parka.

Goulding did the same.

“Keep those pages dry,” he said.

“What are we going to do?”

He led the way back to the clump of ash trees they’d used for cover earlier. As Goulding had first moved toward the camp, Malone had hesitated and laid his watch at the base of one of the trees.

He bent down and retrieved it.

“Standard issue for the Magellan Billet. Contains a GEOSAT transceiver. I told our pilot to wait four hours then start a search pattern.”

He could see that Goulding was relieved.

So was he, actually.

“Who wants us dead?” the professor asked.

“You’d be surprised.”

In the distance he caught a glint of light in the dim sky. Slowly, the outline of the Sea King Commando chopper became clear.

Right on time.

“You knew there’d be trouble?” Goulding asked.

“It was a good bet. But we had to come for a look.”

He saw the professor agreed. “That we did. Thanks for bringing me along.”

The helicopter settled nearby, atop more rhyolite formations. They ran through the wash of the blades, and he allowed Goulding to enter the passenger compartment first.

He followed.

But as he did, he hoped no one was watching.

His newfound status as a corpse would come in handy.

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