Yesterday I had a post about first chapters. At the end I said I would put up the first chapter of the first book I wrote, The Fireborn. Read it and let me know if you didn’t like/wouldn’t read the book even at gunpoint/think it’s terrible, or, hopefully, that you liked it and want more! Warning – this is very long. Remember, it’s the first chapter of a book, not a short story (Oh, and I left in the section header):
Then the Irish kindled a fire under the cauldron of renovation, and they cast the dead bodies into the cauldron until it was full, and the next day they came forth fighting-men as good as before, except that they were not able to speak. – Anonymous Medieval Welsh, Branwen the daughter of Llyr, Second of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (The Mabinogion)
Elliot Everett-Jones stepped out of his ancient Jaguar and headed towards the cluster of tents across the makeshift car park. He was thinking that they were more temporary structures than tents per se, when the door of the largest one opened and a man walked out. Elliot stopped in his tracks and let out an involuntary little gasp. For half of a second he almost believed his father had come back to life, but then recognized his brother, William. It surprised Elliot that he had never noticed how much William had become the spitting image of the late Dr. Everett-Jones, though he had to admit that William had changed in the year since he had last seen him. Elliot waited, letting his brother come to him. As he watched, Elliot realized that William had also inherited their father’s mannerisms and walked with the same steady stride.
William gave a short “Hullo” as he reached his younger brother. Taking Elliot’s outstretched hand and slapping his shoulder, William smiled broadly and said, “Great to see you, Elliot! Glad you can still drive on the proper side of the road after all of those years in America. You made good time. Did your rusty old Jag even touch the ground? Everything coming towards you have a bit of a blue tint and everything behind shifted to the red, huh?”
Elliot returned his brother’s large grin and held his hand in both of his own. “If I’d known what a nasty, barren plain you were dragging me to, I wouldn’t have hurried. What a desolate hole you have here!”
“Hmm, by your lack of accurate perception I can see why you chose a career in writing instead of the sciences,” answered William. “And with your, how should I say it, colorful language, I can understand why some consider you a second rate author at that. Not me, of course… Let’s walk over here for a moment before we go in and I’ll point out some of the more salient features of my ‘barren plain’. No really, I have a reason for making you familiar with the local terrain and the fresh air should do you good. I believe you haven’t left London since you’ve been back. You haven’t been out here to visit your brother at the very least. And before that, well, New York is even worse.”
“Fresh air indeed,” Elliot said as they started to walk out into the field, “if it were any damper or colder I’d get pneumonia on the spot. Since when does the season for field work extend to late November?”
“You’re right on that one, at least,” William answered. “I’ve never had as much go wrong on a dig as on this one. It’s just been awful. We should’ve finished up by the beginning of September and here we are at, what do your Yank friends call it? Oh yes, Thanksgiving. We’re about finished and should be able to button it up by the first of December. There’s a few loose ends that need to be tied up, and we have quite a few artifacts to ship out. It’ll be waiting for us back at the lab where the real work will begin…
“Well, here we are then. As Father used to say, to be a good archeologist you always have to be astutely aware of your surroundings. Do you recognize the place?”
The gentle farm land and fields were pretty, or would have been in a different season, but Elliot couldn’t make out any give-away features. He strained a little harder, the rumble of the distant motorway seeming to grow louder. He really didn’t see anything extraordinary and his first impression of it being almost perfectly flat didn’t go away. Maybe there was some high ground off in one direction and there were hedges and rows of trees which, Elliot was sure, would make the area look like a patchwork quilt from the air. Other than that, he didn’t see anything special and it surely didn’t stick out as a place he’d been before, at least any more than other similar places in Somerset Levels that he’d seen a thousand times before.
William, standing just behind him and using his right arm over Elliot’s shoulder to point out features, began to speak, “If you notice, we’re on a local high point in the middle of a bowl that’s maybe three kilometers across, perhaps closer to four. Over there, in the northwest, are some low hills. Those few row of trees off to the southeast mark the cuts made to drain this area, for you see, back two thousand years ago, this was mostly swamp land with a few areas of open water.” William stepped back and Elliot turned to face him. “Like a lot of the Levels, the Romans started draining it, a job the Normans finished almost a thousand years later. This local high ground where we are standing would have been an island back then. The whole area had a dark reputation, the locals calling it the Swamp of the Twilight, or Tywill Gors. By your reaction I see you’ve heard that name before. I always thought ‘Tywill Gors’ had quite the poetic ring to it. And since you know Tywill Gors you must surely know that the island was called…”
“Goll Hunllef, the Isle of Nightmares,” Elliot interrupted. “Not quite as poetic of a name, but there is still a certain chilling sound when you say it correctly: Goll Hunllef. I can cite a dozen references to this place but I never knew exactly where, umm, or even if, hmmm…”
“You should have asked me,” William cut in in with a half laugh, “instead of relying on those madmen you call sources. An undistinguished sixteenth century text referring to a lost twelfth century manuscript which quotes an unknown tenth century author who cites an equally unknown seventh century poet indeed, did you ever think of asking the locals? They know the old names and the old tales.
“As I said,” continued William, “the area had a very dark reputation. Since nobody in their right mind would tromp through the sinister swamp to the evil island, people who weren’t in their right minds did. The place attracted outlaws and the dispossessed. They even built a tower on the island, though it disappeared long ago. The plows often dig up some lost bowl or other small artifact. Even with the years of plowing and the leveling off of the hill, we can still make out several structures, though mostly through the shadows they left that can only be seen from an airplane.”
Elliot scanned the area. Now that he knew where he was, he tried to place the name with the stories. Often he only half believed the names he read were actually tied to a place, particularly the fairytale type places or those with an evil reputation. There were few places with a name as dark as Tywill Gors or Goll Hunllef.
“Besides the tower,” William continued as they started to walk back towards the field camp, “the most striking feature was a very deep, wide well. Such a huge well seemed out of place on an island, and a small island at that. Maybe they needed large amounts of fresh water instead of what the swamp gave them, which could be slightly brackish at times, or maybe it had a religious purpose. We’ve known about it for a long time and we have always known that there is something very large and metal at the bottom. Well, I should clarify that, ‘always’ means since we used a magnetometer and RADAR to scan the area. It was reasonable to believe that it was just a huge collection of votive offerings. We never had a reason to look until now. We figured we’d return sometime in the future when the more interesting sites had yielded their secrets.
“Wait.” William stopped his narrative as Elliot reached for the door of the large tent. “You need to hear more before you see what we’ve found. Believe me, you won’t be interested in history lectures after entering….”
Elliot stepped back and regarded his brother for a minute. William was tall and thin, almost gaunt, the picture of gentleman archeologist who had been at field for much too long. Elliot decided it was more this weariness than actual age that had caught him off guard before. Despite the aura of tiredness William was a very youthful 57 and Elliot’s senior by just under four years. He had a self-satisfied look of one who is finally comfortable in his own skin, which made Elliot happy since William had spent almost his entire life in his father’s enormous shadow. Elliot nodded for him to continue.
“You see,” William said, “this year the farmer’s plow dug up something a little more interesting. Bones. Human bones. We started excavating within a week. There were two skeletons that would have originally been buried slightly over a meter down into the well. Of course the top meter has been plowed off over the ages as the old island slowly melds into the previous swamp. The bodies were Celtic warriors from the first century of the Common Era. They were most likely nobles, for they were totally kitted up with chain armor, helmets, shields, long swords and such. Not that much was left of these artifacts, but from the little we saw, we could tell they were rich indeed. No normal warriors, these…
“As we dug,” continued William, “we did some dating and realized that the well was filled in at the time of the burials. We finally had our reason to discover what was at the bottom of the well and decided to keep going. After about two meters of debris we were rewarded with three more bodies that were kitted up pretty much the same as the two near the surface. A big difference was condition – cloth, leather and even soft tissue on the bodies were very well preserved. Another difference was that the armor was even richer, showing the importance and history of the men. These bodies were carrying heirloom artifacts from previous centuries mixed in with the first century artifacts. Some of the pieces stylistically dated all of the way back to the fifth century BCE and appeared to be continental in origin. It’s as if they had a connection with the very earliest people we can call Celtic. Directly below these three bodies were two skeletons. There was no material and no soft tissue. The bones had many scars as if the people had been chopped up into many small pieces but then healed again. They were in very poor shape and started to crumble as we removed them. Very odd, particularly given how well preserved the others were. There was no armor associated with these two, but each carried a sword still gripped in the skeletal hands and wore a bronze torque. The swords are very crude. Although any sword was a status item back then, I’d call them ‘cheap knock offs’. Stylistically they resembled weapons of the fourth century BCE even though the material around them tested to the first century of the Common Era. Perhaps a reburial”
“Interesting,” Elliot said, though he was getting chilled and impatient to enter the tent.
“Directly below these two we found another skeleton. All of the material was perfectly preserved but there was no soft tissue, almost as if they had buried a fully garbed skeleton. I have never seen anything like this, the goods buried with this body were just amazing, almost like a mini Celtic version of Sutton Hoo. The interred was robed in fine oriental silk, and was covered in a very fine mail with a gem encrusted gold and silver breast plate and an oversized gold crown. There was a very intricate helmet and shield by his side. And like the three bodies above, there were many heirloom pieces. A first century sword yet a fifth century BCE ceremonial dagger. Most of the artifacts were older and continental in origin while some of the important pieces are newer and British in origin. Truly exotic.”
Elliot had rarely seen his brother so animated. The discovery must have really been special. “So,” he said, “You think that all of the gold and jewels would bewitch me into not listening to your story, huh?” Elliot, turned and walked into the tent.
“No, it was what we found next,” William said quietly.
Elliot froze, wide eyed.
His senses were overwhelmed by an enormous black cauldron that appeared to stretch past the physical boundaries of the tent. Actually the tent was quite large and the cauldron filled less than a fifth of it, yet its presence was so commanding that nothing else was visible. It was several minutes before Elliot was aware of the three other people in the tent who were pretending to study artifacts while actually watching the cauldron.
The cauldron. Nothing had ever invaded his whole being in quite the same way, crowding out every other thought. At first it was like looking into a deep hole that sucked all light, warmth and life from the room. A moment later its surface appeared to be alive with crawling spirals and designs. And then it would shift again and seemed like any fire blackened old pot, just on a larger scale. When his mind finally accepted it as any old cauldron, it turned back into the black hole and sucked him in.
After what seemed like hours Elliot heard William speaking, at first as if from a great distance in time and space but slowly growing closer and more in the present. “I understand completely,” William was saying. “It affected me that way at first. OK, I won’t lie: it still does. It sometimes seems to have taken over my mind completely. I’ve dreamed about it every night since we dug it up late last week. We all have, the whole team. We’ve decided to limit everyone’s time in this tent and have moved all of the other artifacts into another. The bodies are being kept in a walk in fridge in that trailer out back. They’ll be shipped out tomorrow or the next day. Some of the grad students and researchers are supposed to be back there working but I often catch them in here. It’s like a magnet that draws people in…. It’s drawn me in. I’ve had dreams that the ancient king was speaking to me…”
Elliot turned and looked once again at William. He looked even more gaunt as he stared at the cauldron, almost possessed, and yet he had the wonder of a child on his face. William turned, noticed Elliot’s scrutiny and laughed. “I know what you’re thinking, that your boring older brother is becoming a romantic in his old age. Well, who says I haven’t always been one? You have to be a romantic to create whole civilizations from a few shards of broken pottery, a bit of rusty metal and some old bones! Of course, to do any civilization justice and recreate it to the best of my ability also means I have to use that scientific exactness that you always tease me about. But knowing your interests I thought I had to show you this. Wonderful, isn’t it?”
“I’m dumbfounded,” Elliot answered. He stepped back so he could see the whole cauldron. “This is just so amazing! Why the thing must be over five feet tall and almost seven wide!”
“Actually, it’s 1.73 meters tall and the opening is 2.07 meters in diameter,” William answered with a smile. “To be precise. Well, as exact as we’ll get since it isn’t perfectly round, although you’d be astounded at how close they got to a perfect circle. The millennia underground hasn’t untrued it, nor did the flames it was originally subjected to. It has withstood a great heat so we think it was used to cremate the dead.”
Elliot grew excited and said, “Cremation nothing, this was used to bring dead warriors back to life! Just about every Celtic legend talks about such a cauldron. And remember the famous Gundestrup Cauldron? The image of the army of the undead created by the antlered god dipping dead warriors into the cauldron is one that always sticks in my mind.”
“Slow down a little,” said William. “I doubt if many scholars would back up that interpretation of that scene from the Gundestrup Cauldron. A funeral? Maybe. Perhaps a sacrifice or the brutal possibility of boiling a prisoner alive. It is most likely a scene from a myth or legend but the creation of a zombie army? No. And even if it was, it was representing myth while with this we’re talking about a real cauldron in the real world. Touch it! It’s real, not a myth, not a fantasy. Real people used it. I can understand being excited by it and jumping to conclusions. It does have that effect on people. But we have to be realistic here. This is archeology, not your alternative history”
Elliot walked back to the large black object and ran his hand lightly across the cold, hard surface. The surface at first was perfectly smooth, almost like glass. As his hand continued to brush against it he noticed that there was a texture. He began to make out faint lines and braids, spirals and geometric patterns. The gravity of the cauldron pulled Elliot in closer and he placed both hands on it. He pressed harder, as if he were about to try to roll it over. The surface started to heat up, first becoming warm, then hot and finally he could feel his skin peel and start to burn away. He tried removing his hands, but they wouldn’t pull free. He was trapped. He started to panic, feeling his flesh burning under the searing heat. The pain was growing in intensity, traveling up his arms. The blood in his entire body began to boil. Just as he thought he couldn’t stand it for another second, that he must go mad, the cauldron let go. Elliot pulled his hands away with a yelp of pain. He looked down at his palms. They were fine and actually felt cool to the touch when he placed one against his face. He touched the cauldron again. It was stone cold.
William put his hand on Elliot’s shoulder and said, “Don’t even try. I know. It seems to play games with your mind. It’s all in our head, the fairy tales taking over. Let’s go someplace else to talk about it where we can stay on topic without distraction. There’s a nice pub about five kilometers out that’s not too far off the track to get you back to the motorway. Let’s pop in and have a bite and maybe a…”
Elliot interrupted, “If you say ‘a half liter’ I’ll never talk to you again! I may have been in America off and on for the last decade but I’m still British enough to call a pint a pint! But yes, I do need a nice pint after this. Perhaps two.” He took another long look at the cauldron and muttered under his breath, “Or three… or four…”
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So, what did you think? Let me know!