Dawn, by the Light of a Barrow Fire

Note: Not suitable for younger children.

Dawn, by the Light of a Barrow Fire – Excerpt

I knew something was up as soon as I saw Frank trudge out of Bennett’s trailer. Twenty years of working in mud and dust and dirt beside him meant I could read him the way he could read a pile of ancient bones. Anyway, something was always up when Bennett asked to see one of us.

This last year, since David died, had been hell, and working under Bennett had only made it worse. If the university department hadn’t been so short of cash, we would have quit in a week. Instead, we had gritted our teeth, bowed our heads, and tried not to scream, praying for the next funding round.

Marcy straightened beside me, and brushed her hair back with a muddy hand.

“I’ll bet you a tenner at three-to-one Bennett’s decided he wants a long barrow instead,” she whispered.

“Do you think he knows what a long barrow is?”

Marcy, Frank, and I were the consultant archaeologists on this project, although Bennett did far more instructing than consulting. We were reconstructing a Neolithic settlement and round barrow for an English Heritage project–one of those projects where you’re supposed to work using the same techniques that were used for the originals. In other words, it was pretty much guesswork from start to finish. We were the second team to work on this; Bennett had fired the previous team when they had refused to comply with one of his more ridiculous whims. We had avoided that fate so far, if only because we couldn’t afford to lose the project.

The whole project was supposed to be for Ancient History Year. Only Ancient History Year was ancient history four months ago, and we still couldn’t agree a design for the huts. Frank and I were for the standard rectangular, thatched design, wooden posts at the corners, and stone walls, a single room centred around a hearth pit. Marcy was holding out for circular with a partitioned interior. We were all trying hard not to let Bennett have a say. He would probably want a two-up, two-down with a conservatory on the back.

Frank reached the top of the hill, and collapsed into the bracken.

“Well?” Marcy said.

“He wants a trench.”

I looked across the hillside, past the half-finished earth mound of the barrow, to the open moor of bracken and brambles. A hawk hovered in the blue air. There was nothing out there for miles. “Where? It’s solid rock up here.”

“He doesn’t care,” Frank said, wearily. “There’s a TV crew coming. Apparently ‘everyone knows archaeologists dig ditches’, so he wants one.”

I groaned.

#

It rained most of the next day, a cold spring rain that threatened to turn to sleet several times. The water poured in rivers down the hillside, submerging the proto-trench we had started to dig in the valley where the ground was softer, and threatening to wash Bennett’s trailer away. But no such luck.

By three o’clock, the rain had eased and Bennett sent us back to work, armed with a rusting pump. In minutes we were soaked and frozen. Thank God for students. We sent two of them into the deepest part of the trench to flail away with mattocks and shovels, while me and Marcy hunched over damp cigarettes. Frank was assiduously, and pointlessly, examining a pile of stones some distance from anything wet. Two minutes in the trench had been more than enough for him. No wonder. The whole thing was a façade. We had no reason to believe there had ever been a settlement in the valley. After all, who would want to live in a quagmire? And even if there had been, what did it have to do with building the barrow?

“Hey, look at this,” one of the students shouted. He was crouched up to his waist in the brown water of the trench. I pushed myself up. Mud squelched beneath me. No doubt some innocent flint was being mistaken for an axe-head again.

“He’s found an ancient plastic cup,” Marcy whispered, and I covered a grin.

He hadn’t.

He’d found a bone.

Continue reading this story in Bone Roads: Nine Stories of Magic and Wonder.

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