This is the twentieth in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. You can listen here to hear Emma reading it, and you can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here. Do head over to Split Worlds to sign up for each instalment as it arrives and find out how to host an episode.
A Rare Find
As soon as Alfred saw the man, he knew he’d opened the box. He was sweating enough to be running a fever, crouched next to the trench now covered with a makeshift marquee tent. It protected the dig from the elements and from long-range lenses. The site was as secure as possible, but with something this sensitive, it was impossible to be too cautious.
“Dr Fielding,” he said, making the archaeologist wobble and land on his backside. “I came as soon as I could.”
“This is bigger than Sutton Hoo,” Fielding said, struggling to his feet. He looked exhausted. “Come and look.” He pointed out a ring-mail tunic, a gold brooch, silver bowls decorated with a stylised beast and a partially excavated iron axe. The metal shone out from the mud under the bright floodlights. “I’ve found a helmet too,” he jerked a finger over at one of the nearby tables. “It’s in better condition than Hoo and more ornate than the Pioneer helm, iron base, embellished brass with a high copper content, just like the Coppergate helmet.”
“Have you notified anyone else?”
“No, just as you asked, I called you first. But you know we have to declare this to the authorities, it would be classed as treasure trove, although there might be a-”
Alfred held up his hand. “I know all about that, and don’t worry, there’s only one item I need, and all the rest will end up in museums or perhaps even your university.”
Dr Fielding ran a hand through his hair, it was so greasy the movement left grooves. The man stank, he’d been living like an animal. There were tins of half eaten food around a mattress, notebooks scattered as if a little tornado had been through the tent. “This dig is going to begin years of research, years!” His hands were shaking as he wiped sweat from his upper lip, even though the tent was cold.
Alfred tightened the scarf around his neck, he’d forgotten what it was like to stand in a draft. He could smell the fumes from the power generator outside, mixing with the stench of the man’s sweat. “I don’t have a great deal of time Dr Fielding. I take it you retrieved the item I described to you?”
The archaeologist chewed on a dirty thumbnail, making Alfred feel unwell. “The box, yes, it was there, as you predicted. To the left of the skeleton, made of iron, banded with copper, a most unusual design. I haven’t seen anything like it, yet you knew it would be here.”
“Yes,” Alfred gave a thin smile, refusing to be drawn. An academic desperate to impress his peers might well have taken the opportunity to gush about their exclusive insight, but he wasn’t interested. “Where is it?”
He was led to the far side of the tent, past tables of neatly labelled chunks of earthenware, coins and silver spoons. The box was sitting on a table all of its own, the iron black, the copper only slightly tarnished. He felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. This was going to earn him a lot of respect in the family.
“You opened it.”
“I… I’m a scientist. I had to document what came out of the dig, though of course, I haven’t entered it into the official-”
“I told you explicitly not to open the box.”
Fielding batted away a moth that dive-bombed him on the way back to a floodlight. “I swear I won’t tell anyone – I can’t, they’d think I was mad, saying that I found a… a..” His voice faltered.
“What did you find Dr Fielding?”
An awful high-pitched giggle escaped the man’s throat. “It looks like a faerie. But of course, it can’t be!”
“Of course it can’t,” Alfred replied as Fielding tittered.
“The thing is,” Fielding stopped laughing. “All the evidence suggests it was part of the original burial. There were items above and below the box that are consistent with the surroundings, I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining why that’s so important, but it is, and there was no sign of disturbance since the burial. I’m the only person on the dig, the site is patrolled, as you know, there’s no way a prankster could have got in. But that leads me to only one conclusion.”
“That it’s real. It’s supernaturally preserved, I didn’t touch it, but its skin seems intact, in fact, it simply looks asleep. It’s pinned with copper bands riveted to the base of the box, would you like to see?”
“You wouldn’t?” Fielding frowned at him. “You’re not surprised in the least.”
“No. There’s another conclusion that can be reached; you’ve been working too hard.”
“I’m not mad, nor an attention-seeker! I’m highly respected in my field, I wouldn’t say something so outlandish for no reason!”
Alfred sighed. It was the third time he’d had to do this, and each time Fielding seemed more unstable. He approached him slowly, rested a hand on his shoulder like a concerned brother. “Dr Toby Fielding,” he said slowly, activating the Charm he’d already prepared. “The box was empty. You dreamt it contained a faerie, you woke to find a moth on your cheek. That’s what it was all along. It’s been a long dig.”
He felt the man’s shoulder relax under his hand. “I think I need a holiday after this.”
“Indeed,” Alfred smiled. “Now go and rest, the site is protected, it will all still be here tomorrow.”
Alfred watched the man stumble to the mattress and collapse into a deep sleep. The first time he’d used him, he’d almost killed him for looking in the box, but he was so glad he hadn’t. Talented, unattached and suggestible pet archaeologists were surprisingly hard to come by.