Revelations: Book One of The Merlin Chronicles
Greasy smoke billowed and churned across the landscape like some living thing trying to devour the countryside. It seared the old man’s throat and lungs and stung his eyes, making them water fiercely, nearly blinding him. Stumbling through the matted grass, he hunched forward into the smoke while briars tugged at his gown, causing him to trip and lose precious seconds. It seemed like the very plants were in league with the soldiers who were attacking the tiny village.
The soldiers were now gleefully slaughtering men, women, children and livestock in their mindless quest to kill one old man they did not even know. They did not know him and did not ask why he was their target. They were simply carrying out an assignment and doing their best to enjoy their work. They had been doing this month after month and never seemed to tire of the game. Brutality comes naturally to some people.
The old man tried to gauge his progress by the decreasing level of screaming, shouting and drumming of horses’ hooves. If he could make it beyond the curtain of smoke without the soldiers cutting him down, he still had a chance. How many times over the past four years had this happened? Five? Six? Eight? He had lost count.
He had lost a lot of other things, too. Those few friends who had not deserted him out of fear for their lives were now dead. Even the king was dead; buried in some secret place so that evil woman could not desecrate his grave. Once her soldiers had killed the old man there would be nothing to stop her from wreaking vengeance on the entire kingdom. But he knew she would never stop there. Her greed could not be bounded by the shores of one small island. Nothing stood between the realization of whatever unspeakable goal she and her monstrous allies had in mind except one old man and the bag of scrolls and books he had pilfered from her library four years earlier.
When he finally broke through the smoke into the pale, salmon-colored dawn, Merlin slumped forward onto his knees and rolled to one side in the soft grass, careful not to damage the small object clutched tight to his breast. The wails of the dying and the shouts of their tormentors had faded into the distance, but the fear still clung to him like a leech. He could breathe again, but the tears would not stop coming. Rolling onto his back, he stared at the brightening sky and silently asked the single question. Why?
If he had been one-tenth the all-powerful magician the balladeers at Arthur’s court had made him out to be, none of this would have happened. Now, his only chance was to escape the carnage and find a way to stop that damned woman once and for all. He had to make it across the last few miles to the coast. If he could make it that far, and if Vivian was there as she promised she would be, he would have all the time he needed.
Hoisting himself off of his knees, Merlin moved as quickly as he could. Once the mounted bullies had trod over the last charred body in the village they would know he was not among the dead and start scouring the countryside. He kept as low to the ground as his seventy-three year old body could manage, but the sparse undergrowth of Cornwall offered little in the way of cover. If he were not in such a panic, he could have cast the spell to render himself invisible. But as it was, God, and the off chance that the butchers were not bright enough to figure out which way he was headed, were his only allies.
Just after dawn the next day he crested a small rise. There, a few miles distant, lay the cliffs of the Cornish coast. Beyond was the endless, heaving gray of the sea merging with an equally gray sky. Merlin turned and looked back over his shoulder. Still no sign of his pursuers. He leaned forward and pressed his ear to a bare spot on the earth. No drumming of distant hoof beats.
Four hours later, as he neared the edge of the world, he spied a tiny, wavering shape walking toward him along the cliff edge. Exhausted as he was, he pulled himself erect and walked toward the figure, which quickened its pace to meet him.
Even at this distance, and in spite of the sea wind, the woman’s voice was as clear and musical as a tiny glass bell. She rushed forward and embraced him, laying her delicate blond head against his chest.
“Thank you for coming to meet me, pretty lady. How on earth did you know where I would be?”
“I can find you because I love you.”
Merlin smiled and gently kissed the top of her head. Her hair smelled as fresh as the salt spray from the ocean.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
“You know you could have come to me at any time. She would never have found you.”
“Then why do you insist on staying here?” Her watery blue eyes stared uncomprehendingly at him from a childlike face.
He wondered how old she might really be. She looked no more than sixteen or seventeen; but she had looked that way for as long as he could remember, more than half a century, at the very least. He was too tired to think about it.
“I don’t dare leave until I can find a way to defeat her. As long as I remain here, I can keep her and those monstrous creatures in check. Eventually, I will find a way to stop them permanently but I need you to help keep me safe till then.”
She sighed and nodded. “You mortals are all the same. So involved in doing things. Plotting and scraping. You will never change and I will never understand you.”
“You never change either, my love.”
“That’s different and you know it.” She slapped his chest playfully with one tiny hand. Then, after a pause “But you know I will do anything I can to help you.”
“Thank you, Vivian.” He looked around at the landscape as though expecting it to reveal some bit of information. “Where is the place?”
“Just up here. Less than a Roman mile.” She tugged at his sleeve. “Walk with me.”
He fell in step beside the tiny, sylph-like figure as she trod barefoot along the edge of the cliff, her translucent gown floating before her in the gentle breeze. “Are you certain she won’t be able to find me?”
“The lines of earth-energy are very strong here. They will protect you from her scrying. You brought it with you?”
With one hand, he reached out and took her gently by the arm, turning her to face him. With the other hand, he held out the bundle he had kept clutched to his chest for months and pulled back the folds of tattered cloth that kept it hidden.
For a moment she simply stared at it. “Oh.”
“You were expecting something else?” A gentle, humorous, mocking tone had crept into his voice.
“I was not expecting anything. You humans have your own queer magic, we have ours.”
Half an hour later they drew to a halt.
“This is the place. You may put it down now, if you like.”
Merlin leaned forward, placing the object on the soft ground like some precious, votive offering. As he straightened up, the girl laid her hands on his chest. “It’s still not too late. If you were with me you would be safe forever. You know that.”
Merlin nodded. “I know.” He pulled his eyes away from her, scanning the watery horizon, afraid that if he looked at her face, his resolve might crack; just a little.
“Very well.” She rubbed a hand idly across his thin stomach. “Are you ready?”
Now he looked her squarely in the eye. “Yes.”
“Do what you must do and then I will seal it in the ground here...” she pointed to a spot a few feet to the left…“where the energy is strongest.”
They stared at each other for what seemed like a moment removed from time, filled with longing and impending loss. Then Vivian spoke again. “When you have done whatever you think is necessary to stop her, call me again. I will hear you and come for you.”
“I don’t know how long this may take. A year, ten years, I just don’t know.”
She laughed and hugged him. “You know such things mean nothing to me. And so long as you are here they will mean nothing to you either. A day, a century, they will all be the same to you as they are for me.” Merlin nodded silently as she spoke. “And when you have done this foolish thing you feel you must do, and I have come for you, then you will be free to be my love forever.”
Wordlessly, suddenly, the old man grabbed the delicate girl-thing whispering “Yes. I promise” and crushed his lips to hers.
“Good. Then it’s settled.” Her eyes sparkled like a happy child. “Do you have your precious scrolls?”
Merlin smiled thinly and patted the cloth bag slung over his shoulder. “If I didn’t, it would be a little late to go back for them now.”
“Then do what you must do.”
Merlin turned toward the sky, raised his hands and began invoking the power of God. “In nominos Patri... Wait.” He broke off, turning back to her. “I’ve been so confused and so tired, I almost forgot. The sword...”
“Do not worry. The women of your Christian Church delivered it back to me after they buried poor Arthur. I returned it to my lake where it was forged in the time of his father. That woman will never have it. At least that is one power she can never wield against you and the world of men.”
Merlin stroked her cheek with the back of one long, slender hand and returned to his work.
It was already well past ten p.m. but mid-summer evenings at the northerly latitudes of the British Isles seem to last almost forever. There was just enough soft, silvery light creeping across the rugged earth that, although objects were still distinguishable, everything looked like it was made from yellow-gray putty. Everything, that is, except the castle. The waning western light had reduced its mass to a craggy black thing lording its bulk over its surroundings be they on the land, in the sky or out at sea just to the west of the ancient fortress’ perimeter. This surreal trick of the light was enhanced by the dying rays of the sun, glinting off of the flint and granite blocks in the castle walls, washing them in an incandescent orange glow that made the ancient battlements look as though they dripped fresh blood.
Five hundred yards to the east, the young man stretched his long legs toward the fire, painfully working a kink out of his back while pushing his feet, squishy inside their damp boots, a few inches closer to the fire. He was too tired, and too distracted, just now to bother taking them off. Later, when he went to bed, he would do something to make sure they weren’t soaked in the morning, but not now. Highlighted by the flickering light of the fire, his thin face appeared more pretty than handsome as he stared across the windswept plain. In the near distance he could hear the others laughing and talking outside their own tents, huddled near their fires to ward-off the chill sea air; but his mind was too far away to care. He was totally engrossed in studying the formless outline of the castle. Tintagel. The name alone, even without its massive bulk looming up directly in front of him, was enough to send tiny shivers across his back. People thousands of miles away; people who couldn’t care less about castles and had no idea what Tintagel really looked like, had formed their own mental picture of this ancient, haunted place. There were few people anywhere, he imagined as he pulled his long, dirty-blond ponytail free from behind his back, who had not heard the stories: Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, the Holy Grail and the evil Morgana le Fay and her psychotic son Mordred.
And here he was, only a few hundred yards away from it. With a deep sigh he snuggled deeper into his folding chair, luxuriating at the simple fact that he, Jason Carpenter, was actually here. Ok, so the stories were all crap; legends invented by French bards centuries after the fact and elaborated on later by Thomas Mallory in his Morte de Arthur. The castle itself was now no more than a shattered pile of flint and granite, blasted nearly out of existence by eight hundred years of abuse and neglect, but it was still Tintagel, and it seemed to be everything it should be; especially in the ghostly half-light of late evening. Jason knew that as an archaeologist - ok, a grad-student in archaeology - that he should be more concerned with his work than with silly romantic stories. That was the realm of literature students. But what difference did it make? It was still Tintagel and irrevocably tied to the impossibly idealized Arthurian tales he had read in junior high school that had first gotten him interested in the past. And now, here he was. Tintagel. It was a long way from the archaeology department at Ohio State University and even further from his home in Canal Fulton, Ohio; but he was here, now, and that was all that mattered to him.
“Mr. Carpenter? Hello, Mr. Carpenter?” The voice shattered his cozy reverie and made Jason jump so hard he nearly tipped his canvass director’s chair into the fire. The fingertips of his large, sinewy right hand pushed hard against the grass and his left leg made frantic little circles in the air as Dr Carver Daniels stepped around the corner of the tent. The old man put one hand over his mouth to cover his amusement at his student’s awkward position, but in a few seconds they both recovered their dignity with a shared look that said neither of them would mention the near disaster.
“Yes, Sir, Dr Daniels?” Jason said as he stood up, brushing dirt from his jeans.
“Doctor” is quite sufficient, Mr. Carpenter. In England we tend to reserve the title ‘Sir’ for those who have earned it or were born with it.”
“Sorry, Sir. I mean, Dr Daniels. What can I do for you? You want to sit down?” he said, waving vaguely in the direction of a vacant chair near the fire.
“Oh, thank you. I believe I will, if you don’t mind.” Carver Daniels looked exactly the way a professor of archaeology should look. Not the Indiana Jones type archaeologist of the movies, but the type that appears in - and writes - books. His age was indefinite - somewhere between sixty and seventy, but it was impossible to tell because his round pink face bore too few lines to give any real indication of the passage of time. The top of his head was so bald it looked polished, but a massive halo of frizzy white hair around the edges floated wildly in the slightest breeze, making him look as though his head was perpetually engulfed in its own small cloud. At the moment, a pair of half-glasses - one of many he constantly fumbled to find in the innumerable pockets of his safari vest - was perched half way down his nose. As he stepped toward the fire his eyes peered across the top of the lenses so he could see where he was going. “Ahh, that’s better. So, young Master Carpenter, how are you finding this summer’s dig? This is your second year and, what, third dig?”
“Fourth dig, actually. Three with you and I worked on the excavation of that Elizabethan dry dock up in Whitby over the Christmas holidays last year.”
“Ah, yes, I remember that. Not an important dig, but interesting. I actually got round to reading the reports from the York Archaeological Society when they came out, you know. I found the references to the remains of the sixteenth century rowboat particularly interesting.” Jason wondered where this was leading. Daniels was never good at coming to the point and his student couldn’t decide if this was leading up to something good, if he was going to get a chewing-out, or it was just a social call. And now Daniels had gone completely quiet, just staring at the fire with a hint of a smile on his face, tracing some invisible design on one trouser leg with an index finger. Jason decided it was up to him to break the impasse.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Doctor? I could put a kettle on the fire.”
“Oh, no, thank you. I was just thinking. You have some good experience, under your belt, as they say, but you have never been in charge of a dig of your own, have you?” As he spoke, he glanced up and Jason thought he caught a little crinkle around the old man’s eyes.
“No. I never have. Why?” He prompted.
“Well, we still have four days to dig, plus another two days to fill in the last of the trenches before our permit runs out, and I want some of the students to have a go at an old midden I’ve located. Would you like to lead the team?” This time he actually smiled, raised one eyebrow and leaned back in the chair, turning to look directly at Jason.
“Yes, sir, that would be great.”
“Good. Splendid. Be at my tent at eight o’clock in the morning. We’ll walk the sight and pick three other students to work with you. You’ll need a sketch artist and photographer, of course, but I don’t think more than three of you can squeeze into one little pit at a time, so a total of four should be quite enough, don’t you think?” It was obviously not a question, just a rhetorical politeness; four would certainly be sufficient.
“Yes, four would be fine. I’ll try not to disappoint you Doctor.”
“Splendid. Splendid.” Pressing his hands against his knees, Carver Daniels pushed himself out of the chair. “I shall see you in the morning, then.” Jason started to get up, but Daniels motioned him to stay where he was. “No need, no need.” He mumbled. “Good night, then.” And without another word, he strode into the gathering darkness toward the main cluster of tents.
Alone again, Jason leaned back in his chair thinking what a strange few minutes it had been. Excavating a medieval sewage pit – because that’s all a midden was – might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it was often where the best finds turned up. Amazing the things people have thrown into the shit pit over the centuries. Jason sat back in quiet amazement. His very own little dig, and a real plum at that.
* * *
The five of them stood staring down at a low hump in the ground abutting the ruined north wall of Tintagel. The rise was no more than five feet across and at its highest point rose less than a foot above the surrounding earth. Once upon a time there had been a toilet – known at the time as a garderobe - situated somewhere up there, along the outside wall of the castle. Everything that had ever gone into the privy had fallen down a stone chute and landed here, in the midden. Since the castle had been abandoned after being slighted – a polite word for blown up – during the Civil Wars of the 1640s, the newest items, the ones nearest the surface, would date from that time period and who knew what might be further down? The midden might have been cleaned out at some point; but then again, it might not have.
“I think you can safely assume that the top two-to-three feet will be nothing but soil and decomposed grasses which have accumulated over recent centuries. But beyond that point, begin to take it slow and use your best archaeological method. An inch at a time. With care, people, with care. Sift everything, you never know what’s in there and even the tiniest items may be of importance.” It was Carver Daniels’ standard speech. He gave it, in slightly varying forms to fit the occasion, every time a new trench was opened. All of his students knew proper archaeological method by now, and none of them would have dared deviate from it. “Miss McCullough, I trust you will record each new level in the stratigraphy as it comes to light. Photographs and sketches of each object the team uncovers in any given layer, and take care they are properly situated on the grid.”
Beverley McCullough blinked through a mass of kinky auburn hair that tumbled past her shoulders and nodded, the lenses of her glasses glinting in the morning sun. “Yes Doctor.” Even in her muddy field clothes Beverley was obviously an attractive young woman. As a departmental assistant working on her doctoral, she had been doing this for nearly four years and knew exactly what was expected of her. Beverley was also one of the best artists in the department and Jason was flattered to have her assigned to his team. Obviously, Daniels was giving him all the support he needed on his first dig.
Jason and his two field assistants, Tom Morley and Steve Stone, laid out the perimeter of the trench and carefully dug up the turf, laying it aside on a plastic sheet, so it could be replaced when the hole was refilled. When the team left, there would be no evidence to show the weeks spent digging one pit after another around one of the most valuable tourist attractions in the southwest corner of England.
By mid-morning the grass and topsoil had been piled on tarpaulins and the real work was about to start. Shovels were laid aside and replaced with tiny hand trowels and stiff bristled brushes. Each time a new object came to light the dirt was carefully scraped away from it and the object itself brushed clean. Only when it had been delicately freed from its surroundings was it gently placed in a plastic tray to be carried away to the big military tent that served as a field laboratory, where it would be cleaned and labeled. Before each object was removed from the pit, Beverley McCullough photographed it next to a ruler to indicate its size and sketched it on large-scale graph paper. Every ounce of soil removed from the pit was carefully sifted through a wire sieve fine enough to guarantee that even the smallest object would not be lost.
At the end of the first day Jason and the team had come up with more than a dozen objects of varying archaeological interest. Two Civil War musket balls and a brass button, probably from the coat of one of the castle’s Royalist defenders, had appeared near the top. Further down they found most of a sixteenth century spur that was heavily engraved and made of silver, indicating it had belonged to someone of importance. The first day’s work had taken the team through six separate, identifiable layers and more than six centuries of history. The last find of the day was a cluster of four small coins minted in the reign of Henry V, dating from shortly after 1400, probably around the time Henry was trouncing the French at Agincourt. It may not have been a spectacular day in the greater scope of archaeology but Jason was excited by every minute of it, particularly those occasions when Carver Daniels stopped by to see how they were getting on and spent a few minutes looking over their finds and making suggestions and comments on the progress. All in all, he seemed to have been as pleased with the dig as Jason and his team.
That evening after dinner, the team reassembled in the lab tent to talk about the finds and look at them under a magnifying glass. Everything would be given a detailed cleaning once they were back at the university, but even in their rough state they made a respectable collection.
The second and third days at the midden went pretty much like the first. Layer by layer, the centuries gave up their little treasures, some small, some tiny, like two minute glass beads dating from the early thirteenth century. The finds were separated not just by years and centuries, but also by rotting layers of human waste and the moss pads that had served Tintagel’s medieval inhabitants as toilet paper.
By the beginning of the fourth and final day the team had excavated far enough down that they were bringing up Anglo-Saxon objects: three broken bits of pottery and part of a comb carved from a deer’s antler. Tintagel itself was not that old, but it seemed that this specific place had been attracting people’s backsides far longer than the castle had existed. Carver Daniels, as surprised as his students that the midden seemed to pre-date the fortress wall against which it rested, commented that the spot where Tintagel stood was known to have served as a fortress site for untold centuries due to its prominent location on the Cornish coast. Possibly, he hypothesized; the present castle had superseded an earlier, wooden fortress, which once stood on the same site. Who knew how far back the history of this place went. There had been Roman finds in the area, although not at Tintagel itself. Whatever the reason, the objects kept coming out of the ground, each one a little older than the one before.
It was mid-afternoon on the last day when a glint of blue-green glass came peeking up through the dirt. The last of the Anglo-Saxon artifacts, dating from the eighth century, had been brought up and there seemed to be nothing earlier: no early Briton or Roman era finds. Jason’s two assistants were scraping out the bottom of the trench before shoveling the dirt back into the hole when Tom Morley’s trowel uncovered a tiny fleck of glass with a chinking sound. Laying aside the trowel and picking up a coarse-bristled brush, Tom slowly exposed more of the object. Looking up at Beverley McCullough, who was peering down over the edge of the trench eight feet above his head, Tom said; “Would you mind finding Jason for me? He needs to see this. I don’t know what the bloody hell it is or what to do with it.”
Scurrying across the well-tended lawns, Beverley found Jason chatting with Dr Daniels and a group of students who were working at another trench on the opposite side of the crumbling castle. “Excuse me, Dr Daniels,” she said, interrupting in her shy way, “Tom sent me to find Jason.” Turning to Jason, she continued, “Tom says he has something he thinks you ought to look at before we start refilling the trench.”
“Sure thing. Excuse me Dr Daniels, but it looks like I’m being paged.” Daniels nodded his assent and turned back to examine the contents of the trench at his feet.
Following Beverley back around the castle, Jason asked “So what is it?” His excited curiosity showing in his voice and the way he leaned forward as he walked.
“Tom doesn’t know what it is. Neither do I. That’s why I came for you. It looks like a little piece of glass, but neither of us is sure. I wonder if I should have asked Dr Daniels to come along?”
“Oh, no sense bothering him till we know if it’s something worth his time. He seems to have his hands full back at trench three.” By now, they were approaching the midden and could hear excited voices emanating from the hole in the ground. Peering over the edge, all Jason and Beverley could see were the backs of Tom Morley and Steve Stone. They were huddled, heads together, working furiously with brushes, throwing a fine spray of dirt to the sides like two cats scratching in a litter box.
When Jason called down “so what do you have there, guys?” both Steve and Tom craned their necks upward, their faces speckled with soil. Steve blinked away motes of dirt that had collected behind glasses so round and thick that he looked like a frog peering through two drinking glasses. “Man, I have no idea” said Tom, leaning back and motioning Steve to do the same so Jason would have a clear view into the pit. Kneeling down for a better view, Jason and Beverley gazed intently at the spot in front of their dirt-covered friends. Screwing up his long face, Jason stared blankly at the half uncovered object eight-and-a-half feet below. It was now obvious that the thing was a sphere, or at least part of a sphere, and it appeared to be made of glass; scratched, scared and covered with muck after centuries in the earth, but glass, nonetheless.
“What the hell is that?” Jason asked, more to himself than anyone.
“We have no idea” answered Steve. “Come down and take a look for yourself. Here, I’ll come up so you can have some room. Tom found the thing, so he can show it to you.” With that, Steve heaved his bulk out of the muddy ground and climbed the ladder. Turning to Jason, he mumbled “Really strange shit, man”, and stepped aside so Jason could climb down.
On the floor of the pit, Jason knelt beside Tom Morley. “What do you have here, Tom?” He asked.
Scratching his short beard with grubby fingers, Tom could only say “Beats me, you have the master’s degree. What do you think?”
As Tom pulled back, Jason leaned forward and poked at the half buried blue-green object. Picking up one of the brushes, he continued the work Tom and Steve had started. At its largest point, the sphere was just over five inches in diameter, about the size of a grapefruit, and despite the filth and scratches on its surface, it appeared to be unbroken. That fact alone made it something special. Within half an hour, the glass ball had been uncovered, placed in a plastic bag and carried to the surface where Jason, Tom, Steve and Beverley all stared at it in silence. Jason opened the bag, removed the sphere and rolled it around in his hand, gently gauging its weight. “This thing’s hollow. Tom,” he said, looking up from the strange treasure, “I think you better go find Dr Daniels, we really need to have him check this out.” When Tom returned with Carver Daniels ten minutes later, the other three were still peering reverently at the small blue-green globe.
“Well Mr. Carpenter,” Daniels announced his presence. “I hear we have a bit of a mystery on our hands. Let’s have a look, shall we?”
Jason, Beverley and Steve looked up from the orb and stared blankly at the old man. Without saying a word, Jason held out his hand, presenting the strange object. Carefully taking charge of the sphere, Daniels studied it for several minutes, rolling it around in his hands, peering at it through his glasses, and then over top of them, before uttering a sound.
“Well. Well, well.” He said, repeating himself, obviously as puzzled as his students. “How far down did you say this was in the stratigraphy, Mr. Morley?”
“It was about three or four inches below the last of the Anglo-Saxon finds and seemed to be in completely undisturbed ground. I’m sure we were below the bottom of the midden, so I can’t figure out how it got down there.” Tom did his best to explain away the apparently unexplainable.
“You are certain it was in undisturbed earth?”
“Doctor, I’m positive. But, then, I’m only a second year student. I’ll take you down if you want to have a look for yourself.”
“Yes,” Daniels mused, nodding his head. “I was just about to suggest that.” Then, turning to Jason, he continued. “Mr. Carpenter, this is your dig, would you mind coming down with me?”
“I’d love to. Shall I lead or follow?”
“You go first, I’ll follow, and Mr. Morley, would you be so kind as to steady the top of the ladder for me? Mr. Carpenter, you can steady it from the bottom. I’m afraid I’m not as nimble as I once was.”
Once in the trench, Jason helped Daniels kneel down to examine the hole from which the sphere had been taken. Picking up one of the trowels still laying in the dirt, the old archaeologist scraped at the bottom few inches of the walls and then picked at the floor, exposing another three or four inches of soil. “Most extraordinary,” he said, looking at Jason who had been studying his every move. Then, craning his head upward, he called out “Quite right, Mr. Morley, quite right. This ground has apparently never been tampered with.” Then turning back to Jason, he continued, “What do we make of that, Mr. Carpenter? A man-made object in undisturbed soil.” Jason could only shake his head.
As he stepped off of the ladder and onto the grass surrounding the trench, Carver Daniels immediately turned his attention to Beverley. “Miss McCullough, did you record this find thoroughly?”
Blinking her large brown eyes behind her glasses and nodding faintly, she replied, “Oh, yes, Doctor, I have photos and sketches of it at three separate stages of excavation. It was so odd, I thought it might warrant a little more detailed record keeping than usual.”
“Very wise,” he responded with a friendly nod of agreement. “Very professional of you. Well now, shall we take this little curiosity back to the lab and get a better look at it?” With Daniels in the lead, the entire group walked toward the big military tent, carrying the sphere before them like it was some holy relic being carried to its sacred tabernacle. Once there, Daniels took charge of the proceedings, carefully flushing the glass sphere with clear water, and drying it with a soft cloth so as not to add any new scratches to its scarred surface.
By the time it was laid on a bed of clean towels and carefully placed in a plastic tray, most of the other students had heard about the strange object. Since it was nearing the final day of the dig, and most of them were in the process of finishing up their work, there was a general consensus that what was needed was a gathering in the big tent. By six p.m. more than two-thirds of the twenty students on the dig were huddled around the table with Carver Daniels, where the strange object was the focus of their rapt attention. They were respectfully quiet in their curiosity, but obviously, the professor was expected to offer some pronouncement on the mysterious sphere.
“Well” Daniels began, looking up and running a hand over the top of his shiny pate as though in search of his long lost hair. “I have seen any number of small glass spheres from the Anglo-Saxon period, but none of them have been as much as two inches in diameter. Far smaller than this item. They have also been universally solid,” he muttered, almost to himself while weighing the object in his hand, “which this, quite obviously, is not. It is hollow. For many years we had no idea what those small spheres were, but now the best guess is that they were used as fire starters – the sunlight being refracted and concentrated through them and directed onto a bit of tinder. We still don’t know where they came from, or who made them. The secret of making glass was supposedly lost to the British Isles after the Romans left around 350 AD and not rediscovered here for many centuries.” He gently moved the object beneath a high-intensity light ring surrounding a magnifying glass. To get the best possible focus on its details, he fumbled through his pockets for a more appropriate pair of glasses. Finally content, he continued. “But that is obviously not what we have here. Hollow glass will neither refract, nor concentrate sunlight, so we can conclude it is not a fire starter. You know,” he said, looking at the anxious faces surrounding the table, “it has almost become a joke in the archaeological world, that any object we can’t identify is referred to as being ceremonial, which generally means we have no idea what it was used for. So I am forced to conclude that this was a ceremonial object...” He paused in his speech for the expected round of gentle snickers and coughs from his audience and was not disappointed. The only comment came from Steve Stone who noted that the ball’s surface looked swirled, like a skim of oil floating on water. The observation was met with general nods and the professor commented that the effect was probably due to impurities in the glass.
When silence returned, Daniels continued his lecture. “Although the soil in which it was buried was several inches below the last of the Anglo-Saxon finds, we have no evidence of earlier use of the midden, either by Romanized Britons or the Romans themselves. Therefore I must conclude that this dates from after the arrival and settlement of the Anglo-Saxons in Cornwall. That would make it sometime after 700 AD.”
No one said anything, but Dr Daniels’ leap of faith in dating an object which he admitted had been excavated from virgin soil made more than a few of the students, including Jason and all three members of his team, exchange uneasy glances. Taking no apparent note of the dissent among his audience, Daniels continued, “That is, of course, only my studied opinion at this point in time and it is still very early days yet. A much more in-depth investigation of the object will be needed before any definite conclusions are reached. Undoubtedly, the department will call in experts on Roman glass and Anglo-Saxon finds and someone from one of the museums where the Anglo-Saxon fire starters are held. Now, would any of you care to venture a guess as to what our strange little friend here might have been used for?”
Beverley McCullough, as the most senior member of the team, was the first to venture a guess. “Doctor, I have been thinking about it, and it seems to me that this ball, or globe, or whatever it is, looks an awfully lot like those so-called witches’ balls that were around in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Could there be any connection here?” Most of the students looked blank at this reference to witches’ balls, but a few of them, along with Carver Daniels, obviously knew what she was referring to.
“A very interesting thought Miss McCullough, but the concept of warding off witches does not date back earlier than the eighteenth century.” More to himself than to those around him, he continued. “Of course, we still have the problem as to where the Anglo-Saxons would have gotten a hollow glass ball. It had to have been blown to be hollow, and the skill of blowing glass disappeared with the Romans.” Rolling the ball around in his hands, Daniels suddenly looked up. “I have just realized something truly amazing. This ball doesn’t have a teat or pontil mark. Even today, when glass is hand blown, it has to be removed from the blow-tube either by breaking it off, leaving a rough spot known as a pontil mark, or twisting it off while the glass is still malleable leaving a little point on the end like you find on the bottom of an antique Christmas tree ornament. This has neither. How on earth did they manage that?”
Every eye in the tent was riveted on the glass ball as Daniels continued to roll it slowly from one hand to the other. The surface was slightly wavy and scarred from untold centuries in the earth, but nowhere on its surface was there the slightest indication of the point where it had been removed from a glass blower’s tube. Eventually someone spoke, and once the silence was broken, they all talked at once. Questions, comments and suggestions from students and professor alike flowed back and forth for hours. Dinner was forgotten and by the time they began drifting off to their sleeping bags, it was well after two in the morning. In the end, only Jason Carpenter and Carver Daniels were left.
Daniels looked up from the sphere, which had been placed back on its bed of towels, and smiling a lop-sided little smile, said, “Well, my boy, it seems like your first dig has created quite a stir. Who knows, if we can’t identify this thing properly, both of our names may make it into the history books as having discovered something truly unique. But before that happens, we should both get some sleep. There are a half-dozen trenches to be filled-in over the next two days and I need you to be well rested.”
When Daniels left the tent, Jason remained behind to turn out the lights and shut down the generator. Taking one last look at the blue object lying on the white towels he muttered, “What in the hell are you?” and left the tent.