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Authors: Stephen R. Lawhead

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Historical, #fantasy

The Paradise War (7 page)

BOOK: The Paradise War
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The farmer nodded slightly. His wife, who had been hovering over the table, broke in. “Oh, that’s no the half of it. Tell them about the spear, Robert.”

“Spear?” Simon leaned forward. “Excuse me, but no one said anything about a spear. There was nothing about a spear in the—ah, report.”

The farmer permitted himself a slow, sly, prideful smile. “True, true. Ah haven’a told anyone else, have I?”

“Told them what, exactly?” I asked.

“The beastie in ma field was kilt wi’ a spear,” Farmer Robert replied matter-of-factly. “Clean through the heart.” He turned his head to his wife and nodded. Morag stepped to a small nook beside the big stove. She reached in and brought out a slender length of ash-wood over five feet long. It was tipped with a flat, leaf-shaped blade of iron which was affixed to the shaft with rawhide. The blade, rawhide, and wooden shaft were much discolored with a ruddy brown stain that appeared to be blood.

She brought the ancient weapon to the table. I stood and held out my hands. “May I?”

At a nod from her husband, she gave it to me, and I held it across my palms. The weight of the thing was considerable—a stout, well-made weapon. I turned it over, examining it closely, butt to blade. The wood of the shaft was shaved and smooth and straight. The blade, beneath the patina of dried blood, was hammered thin and honed razor sharp. And it was decorated with the most intricate pattern of whorls imaginable; the whole surface of the blade to the very edges was covered with these precise, yet flamboyant, interwoven swirls.

A curious feeling drew over me as I stood holding the spear. I felt as if I knew this weapon, as if I had held it before, and as if holding it now was somehow the right thing to do. I felt a strange sense of completion, of connection . . .

Silly of me. Of course I had seen such a blade before, many times before—in countless photographs and more than a few actual specimens— and knew it well enough to identify: iron-age Celtic, La Tène Culture, seventh to fifth century BC. The British Museum has hundreds, if not thousands, of the things in its collection of iron-age artifacts. I had even handled a few of them in the research department at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The only difference that I could see between this one and the rust-encrusted relics of the museums was that the weapon I stood holding in my hands looked for all the world as if it had been made yesterday.

5
T
HE
C
AIRN

 

I
t’s all a prank. A hoax. And you’re a stupe for falling for it. I bet they’re laughing at us right now. Conned some city folk with the ol’ vanishing aurochs stunt. How clever we are! What a great joke! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

 

Simon shifted the Jaguar into gear and the car rolled onto the road. “You don’t believe Robert and Morag. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Well, I didn’t see any extinct beasties. Did you see any extinct beasties? No? Golly, what a surprise,” I scoffed.

“What about the picture in the newspaper?”

“The rag probably gave him a hundred to pose for the picture and another hundred to keep his mouth shut,” I rallied. “But
we
didn’t see any aurochs, because there was never any aurochs to see.”

“We saw a fine example of an iron-age spear.”

“Grant made that up himself to make a good story better. Give me half a day in a machine shop and I’ll make you one just like it.”

“You really think so?”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Simon. Wake up and smell the porridge! We’ve been conned. Let’s give it up and go home.”

He turned his head and regarded me placidly. “
You’re
the one who asked about the cairn,” he said. “Never would have occurred to me.”

Simon
would
drag that in. “Okay, the excitement of the moment got to me. So what?”

“So it was your idea. We’re going to see the cairn.” He downshifted and we barrelled along.

“We don’t have to do this on my account,” I pleaded. “I’ve changed my mind. Look, it’s barely nine o’clock. If we leave right now we can be back in Oxford by tonight.”

“It’s less than a mile up the road,” Simon pointed out. “We’ll swing by, take a look, and then we’re off. How’s that?”

“Promise?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Liar! You don’t have any intention of going home yet.”

He laughed. “What do you want, Lewis? Blood?”

“I want to go home!”

Simon took his right hand from the steering wheel and pointed at the atlas. “See if you can find this cairn thingy on the map.”

I retrieved the atlas and scanned the page quickly. “I don’t see it.”

Me and my big mouth. The cairn thingy in question had come up because, as we were sitting in Farmer Grant’s kitchen, my head filled with thoughts of iron-age spears and extinct oxen and such, I suddenly blurted out, “Is there a cairn nearby?”

“Och aye,” Farmer Bob had said. “Near enough. Used to be part o’ this steading, but ma grandmother sold off the bit wi’ the cairn. The Old’un was of a superstitious mind.”

Then he had gone on to tell us how to find the cairn because Simon had immediately insisted that we should go and check it out since we were in the area. Farmer Bob seemed to think this a proper line of investigation and was only too happy to tag along. Simon cautioned him against that, suggesting that more university chaps might show up any moment, wanting to have a word with him. We had then made our farewells, promising to keep in touch and pop in again soon for a visit.

And now we were on our way to see this heap of rocks or whatever passed for a cairn in this dank hinterland, following one of those narrow, twisting, brush-lined farm roads built for head-on collisions. We met no one on the road, however, and in due course came to the gate Grant had told us to look for. Simon stopped the car and we got out. “It’s across this field, in the glen.” He pointed down the hillside to a line of treetops just visible above the broad descending curve of the field.

We stood for a moment gazing across the field. I heard the bark of a dog and swiveled toward the sound. Behind us, the way we had come, I saw a man approaching with three or four good-sized dogs on leads. They were still too far away to see properly, but it seemed to me that the dogs were white. “Somebody’s coming.”

“It’s just one of Robert’s neighbors,” Simon said.

“Maybe we’d better go back.”

“He won’t bother us. Come on.”

Without further ado, we climbed over the gate and jogged across the field. It felt good to work my legs and feel the crisp air in my lungs. At the lower end of the field we came to a stone wall, scrambled over it, and slid down a dirt bank into the glen.

It was little more than a crease between two hills, deep and narrow. A lively brook ran among the roots of the bare, twisted trees that lined the sides of the glen. Mist rose from the brook to seep among the trees. Away from the sun and light, the dim glen remained chill and damp.

In the center of this hidden pocket of land stood an earthen mound: squat, roundish, perhaps nine feet tall, with a circumference of thirty feet. But for a curious beehive-shaped protuberance on the west side, it would have been almost perfectly conical.

“How did you know there would be a cairn?” Simon asked. His voice sounded dead in the still air of the hollow.

“I guessed. With a name like Carnwood Farm, I figured there must be a cairn in a wood around here someplace, right?” I looked at the odd structure. “And here it is. Now we’ve seen it. Let’s go before someone comes.” I expected the man with the dogs to appear any moment.

Simon ignored me and walked closer.

A clump of holly grew on the north side of the cairn, and a thicket of something else on the south side. The exterior was covered with short grass. The air in the glen smelled of moldy leaves and wet earth. In the near distance I heard a dog bark.

“I don’t want to be caught trespassing,” I told Simon. He didn’t answer but continued his inspection.

“What’s the deal with these cairns?” he asked, after walking slowly around the odd structure.

“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing whatsoever.”

“Be a sport. I really want to know.”

I took a deep breath and sat down on a rock while Simon undertook a second circumnavigation of the cairn. “Well,” I began, “nobody knows for certain, but apparently people used to heap up stones and such into shapes like this to mark things.”

“What sort of things?”

“Any old thing—a crossroads, a well or spring, the spot where something important happened.”

“Like what?”

From the hilltop above the glen I heard a dog bark; I turned toward the sound and thought I saw a glimmer of white through the trees. “What do you mean—like what?”

“What important happenings did they want to mark?”

“Who knows? Maybe the place where somebody struck gold, somebody killed a giant, somebody carried off somebody’s wife, somebody found religion—who knows? It’s all conjecture, anyway. Maybe they just wanted to tidy up the landscape, so they tossed all the rocks into a pile.”

“Then these cairns aren’t hollow,” Simon concluded, continuing his slow pacing around the turf-covered mound.

“Some of them are,” I allowed. “What difference does it make?” I heard the crack of a broken branch from somewhere behind me. I whirled toward the sound and saw a brief flash of white flicker between the dark boles of close-grown trees. “I think someone’s coming. We’d better get out of here.”

“The hollow ones,” he said, “what’s in them?”

“There’s no buried treasure, if that’s what you’re thinking.” I watched him for a few moments. He seemed so intent on understanding this ancient monument, I had to ask, “What’s got into you, Simon?”

He paused in his third circuit of the mound. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t give me that.”

“Give you what, dear boy?” He peered at me blandly.

“Don’t ‘dear boy’ me. Why this sudden interest in all this Celtic stuff ? What’s going on?”


You’re
the one who asked about the cairn, not me.”

“Yeah, we already established that.”

“You’re as intrigued as I am,” Simon concluded. “The difference is that I own up to it, and you, my friend, do not.”

“Come off it, Simon. Don’t play innocent with me. What’s really going on? What do you know?”

He had disappeared from my line of sight around the back of the mound. I waited, and he didn’t appear. “Simon?” My voice sounded muffled in heavy wool.

I got up from my rock and walked to the other side of the cairn. Simon was on his knees, fighting into the thicket at the base of the structure. “What are you doing now?”

“I think this one is hollow.”

“Could be.”

“I want to see inside.”

“Do we have to do this? Why can’t we just say we saw it and go home like you promised?”

“Just let me get a look inside; then we’ll go.”

I shook my head hopelessly. “All right. Have your look.”

Breaking branches with his hands and wriggling like a snake, Simon pulled himself further into the thicket. I stood looking on and saw what he had seen—a small, dark opening at the base of the cairn, all but hidden by the undergrowth. Simon succeeded in pulling his head and shoulders into the mouth of the opening and then backed out.

“Satisfied?” I asked. More fool I.

“I need a torch,” he told me. “There’s one in the boot of the car. Be a good egg and get it for me, would you?” He shoved his hand into his jacket and withdrew the keys. “Here, you’ll need these.”

I grabbed them and climbed back up to the car, found the flashlight, and slammed the lid of the trunk. Just as I turned from the car, I glimpsed a flash of white out of the corner of my eye—as if something had dashed across the narrow road behind and disappeared into the brush on the other side. I watched for a moment, but saw nothing more, and made my way down to the cairn once more.

I returned to find that, in my absence, Simon had cleared away some of the brush and enlarged the opening of the mound somewhat. “Here you go, sport.” I gave him the flashlight. “Knock yourself out.”

“You’re not coming in?”

“Not on your Nelly,” I told him.

Simon doffed his driving cap. “Take this. I don’t want to get it filthy.”

I took the hat and put it on. “Be careful, okay? There could be a badger in there.”

“I’ll give you a yell if I bump into anything.” He crawled into the brush and pushed himself into the opening in the mound, where he squirmed for a few moments. Then, with a last kick of his legs, he slid in.

I did not hear anything from him for a few moments.

“Simon? Are you all right?”

From inside the mound I heard him say, “Fine. Fine. It’s dry in here. I, uh . . . I think I can stand up. Yes.”

“What do you see?” I hollered. No reply. “I said—What do you see?”

“It’s smooth—well, fairly smooth anyway,” he answered. His voice sounded as if it were coming from inside a sofa. “Some of the stones look as if they have some sort of mar . . .”

BOOK: The Paradise War
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