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None of us could finish it if we were in
the room on our own. This is proper
We began to excavate there almost exactly two years ago. Today, I am the only one
left. At first, nothing about the dig seemed unusual. We were a small team largely
augmented by students from the university. Only Ash, Nat and I had any real
archaeological experience of major sites, and none of us could possibly have predicted
what we would find.
It started as a simple exercise; in an area already known to have rich deposits of Celtic
and Iron Age artefacts, our task was to scour the thick, fractured mud and swell the ranks
of existing samples. Our bosses expected mainly small items—the kind of thing ancient
people might have tossed into sacred pools or brooks, the gateways between worlds, in
the hope of benediction, salvation or intercession. I can still see Ash, at the time writing a
paper on the role of sacrifice in Celtic religious practice, crouching in the dirt with the
breeze tousling his dark brown hair. The sun had brought out the freckles on his nose
and he had discarded his shirt, bare-chested and khaki-kneed as he sifted through one
particular patch of darkened earth at the end of the trench.
“Hey,” he said, “this is interesting. Looks like pollen.”
We all gathered around, agreed that yes, it did, and wasn’t it strange to see a deposit like
that there? We dug further. Nat—her henna-orange hair piled up on top of her head and
bound with a tie-dyed bandana—suggested maybe we could be looking at bunches of
flowers, or garlands of offering. The three of us discussed it, an earnest and protracted
huddle in the silt-rich sunshine. A smell of old woodland and the dankness of recently
turned earth threaded through the air. Then one of the students cried out, a shriek of glee.
It was a finger.
Old, worn almost past recognition—more like a chicken bone wrapped in leather than any
fleshy human digit—but it was there. We spent ages debating what to do, how to proceed.
Urgent phone calls streaked to and from department heads and private mentors. Old
friends and colleagues were dragged from their desks to give advice. It took hours to plan
every move. Late into the night we worked, painstakingly slicing away at the earth,
marking out the area to be dug, preparing the ground to yield its secrets.
He came to us slowly over the following days. Inch by inch, suggestions and hints, though
nothing prepared us for the moment we were actually able to look into his face, a bridge
of years across forgotten times. Millennia had passed since light last touched him, but now
here he was, revealed in the eerie glow of our halogen lanterns. We hardly dared breathe.
The thick clay had preserved him beautifully—a miracle when so much of this area had
been broken under bulldozer or plough. A major A road ran not half a mile from the field,
heavy with traffic and the assaults of modern life. He seemed to stare out at us from his
earthen tomb, though his eyes stayed firmly shut, his face crumpled into a perpetual
sleep, mouth a tautened death grin and knotted rags of hair clinging to his head. His skin,
tanned to the consistency of goat hide and stretched tight over his bones, still bore the
tattoos, the marks and etching that had covered him in life, the majority of his body
burnished to a deep, warm ochre colour with some kind of powdery pigment. From that,
we drew his name.
When we took him out of the ground, it was an occasion clogged with onlookers,
journalists, academics, and general gawpers. Someone’s wagging tongue brought them
running, though I’m still not sure who leaked the information. I suspected Ash. It all fitted
so well with his paper, and he took such easy delight in talking to everyone, mentioning
his theories and his work.
We watched the Red Man being carefully laid into his new coffin—a hermetically sealed,
thermostatically controlled box which would see him safely transported back to the
university for further study, and the observant among us should have realised the date. It
was the first of August: among the Celts, the feast of Lughnasadh. Fire marked it, for those
ancient believers. Bonfires—bone fires—for the bright one, the reflex of divinity they
found in the sun; a blazing, startling God of many gifts, both giver of life and bringer of
death. Different mythologies have put different names to it, and to him, over time. Even
then, varying religions squabbled between themselves, usurping and changing each other’
s pantheons. The Irish Celts, the Romano-British incomers…the Druids.
That night, breathless with thoughts of what our discovery might be able to reveal, we
toasted the departure of the Red Man. We sat close to the trenches, bathed in the light of
a blazing white moon, full and round as an old sixpence, and drank bottles of warm, flat
“You do realise,” Ash, said “that we’ll never live this one down? Any of us. Thirty years on,
he’ll still be defining all our careers. We’ll never get away from it.”
We laughed. Sure, we all agreed, Ash probably had a point. But who could begrudge
giving their whole career, their whole life, over to something as momentous as this? The
Red Man—possibly the most complete, most unique burial of his period ever discovered—
would keep us all in employment for the foreseeable future. All he asked in return was
our undying devotion, dedication, and…well, what more than that?
Of course, plenty remained on the dig site to require our attention, so despite the
lingering excitement and impatience among the team, we needed to finish what we’d
started. Days passed, full of nothing but shards of pottery, the occasional part of a brooch
or perhaps something that might once have been a figurine. In any other circumstances,
these discoveries would have excited us beyond measure; tiny glimpses into a past we
couldn’t hope to recapture. Yet, with him so many miles away, lonely in some pristine
laboratory with scientists and historians rubbing their hands in a rapture of indecision
over how they should begin to analyse him, I found it hard to think of anything else.
Study of something so magnificent takes years, naturally. Decades. Just look at the Rosetta
Stone, or the Darwinius Masillae. Yet the hunger we felt was immediate. Even then we
spoke about him incessantly, wondered who or what he’d been. A warrior, a shaman, a
willing sacrifice? A criminal, a priest, or a king? How had he lived, and what sights had he
seen? We tried to conjure his landscape, his world, around us, weaving possibilities from
hope and conjecture. Nat was the first to confess something odd.
There was a huge team barbecue on the green opposite the village pub, the night before
we all left. We’d become quite the local celebrities in our time there. She spoke to me then.
“Weirdest thing,” she said, looking at me with pale, drawn eyes. “Last night, I had this
dream. There was— I don’t know. Drumming. Flames. I was running through this
woodland, but I kept falling, and I felt like I was being watched. There was... something, in
the trees. It was horrible. I woke up, couldn’t go back to sleep afterwards.”
I told her she needed time off, that the madness of these past weeks was enough to send
anyone’s imagination spiralling out of control, and she should take a few days completely
out of the loop. She gave me a slightly peculiar look, but nodded and promised she’d do
so. Her fiancé had a boat they used to spend time on; I got the impression that was what
she planned to do.
So, the chapter closed. I had supposed we would all see each other soon enough, now the
heavy lifting and bonekicking was done, and the real work had to begin. It’s never the
physical completing of a puzzle that marks its end, after all, but rather the deciphering of
how it came to be made.
However, my assumption—that we would remain a team, however loosely joined in our
study—proved flimsy and false. Months passed. I heard only infrequently from Ash, who
had taken a leave of absence from the university and claimed to be busy writing. Nat was
apparently still off onboard the boat somewhere, or so her supervisor at the museum
said. I had yet to see The Red Man again; there was a considerable degree of complexity
to the political alliances and embargoes of the facilities holding and studying him. It would
have been easier to arrange a poker game with the Queen.
Ash was the one to call me.
Nat’s body had been found washed up on a beach in Scotland. The fiancé and the boat
were both missing. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he would later re-emerge in
Panama, claiming amnesia and some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, and saying
nothing about the accident except that he couldn’t save her. It was devastating news.
Someone so young, so bright, so talented, and so full of life.....all the usual, inadequate
tributes swept in. I made my speeches to the press when they called me. Nat, being female
and pretty, had been so much the face of The Red Man’s discovery. A few of the tabloids,
making that connection, muttered darkly at hints of a curse, but all that was quashed and
considered very poor taste. Besides, the absent fiancé and the suggestion of murder sold
just as many papers.
Speaking of which, Ash brought out his paper, almost a year to the day since we had
exhumed the Red Man. Or, I should say, he brought out his book. It had grown vastly in
size and complexity, no longer destined for an academic journal, but rather the shelves of
every local store, chemist, grocery and train station newsagent, it now boasted a
fashionable publisher, a ‘ground-breaking’ theory and a new title:
The Red Man
The embossed gold print on the cover, the ghost-writer’s standard of prose, and the
copious photos of the dig site used out of context to promote his ridiculous hypothesis all
shocked me, but not as much as the fact that—judging by the information he provided—
Ash had been allowed recent access to the Red Man. When I questioned him, he didn’t lie.
Yes, he admitted. He had leaned on an old professor of his, twisted a few arms and struck
a few deals. He didn’t see why I should be so concerned. All was fair in love, war and
archaeology, wasn’t it?
He said it with a glassy, greasy smile on his face and he tossed me a shallow laugh. I didn’t
buy any of it, but I was too damn furious to argue. I walked out without a word and—less
than nine weeks later—Ash was dead.
There remains a great deal of mystery over how it happened, even now. They say, that
great and nebulous ‘they’, that questions will be answered at the inquest, but what those
questions actually are, no one seems keen to state.
The police only spoke to me out of politeness, I think. I hadn’t seen him since we argued
and—had I planned to poison him out of spite—I would surely have done it with rather
more alacrity. I didn’t say as much to them, of course. They tend to disapprove of
comments like that. It was drugs, though. An overdose of sleeping pills washed down with
single malt. Odd, I thought, because Ash had never been a spirit drinker. Neither had he
ever had trouble sleeping. I wondered what would cause such a sudden change and—I
can’t deny it—did perhaps uncharitably ascribe it to guilt over that awful book he’d
cobbled together and thrown out so fast.
I have never read such a loosely collated pack of assumptions, idiocies and outright lies.
We had no evidence to suggest that the Red Man had been a direct religious
sacrifice…though initial examinations of the body showed he had been stabbed, strangled
and possibly drugged with a draught of something not unlike mistletoe, we had no way of
knowing this wasn’t a judicial execution, or a completely secular murder.
Yet, Ash had determined and boldly claimed that the Red Man had been killed by druids,
part of a chain of human sacrifices that littered that order’s dying days in Romano-British
history. He wove tales of ritual cannibalism, fountaining blood and sacred flesh that—in
my opinion—owed more to Hammer Horror than any scientific fact, but he shot straight
to the top of the bestseller lists. The book made people who’d never nursed an interest in
the past think about it in new ways, and stoked up interest in the case that generated
more documentaries and column inches than I would have thought possible. His own
death caused an equal sensation, and people began to chatter widely of the Red Man’s
Nonetheless, a lingering unease clung to me, and it wasn’t quelled when I learned Ash had
bequeathed me his notes and photographs. I went to his lawyer’s office to pick them up,
pacing through the grimy London streets. The pale façades of Portland stone, rising up on
each side of St. James Street and riven through with the tiny traces of fossils, the death
masks of ammonites and trilobites set into the very bricks of these grand buildings,
reminded me that the past never dies. It is always around us.
The Ancient Greeks believed that. They thought that, rather than standing on a narrow
line of time, facing bravely forwards as the future hurtles towards us, we are in fact facing
the other way and looking into the past. It made sense, to their logic. The past, until it
recedes to the vanishing point on the horizon, we can see, while the future—to which we
are blind—comes at us from behind, slipping stealthily over our shoulders and
enveloping us before we have a chance to run. And, all the while, we stand there and gaze
back at the past, even as it changes before our eyes, a constantly flowing ribbon ebbing
away from our grasp.
It seemed so very odd to see his face again. Odd, too, to see the face of friends so recently
lost—Ash and Nat, grinning in the trench photos, with all the glee and joy of a new
discovery—but strangest of all to once again confront the Red Man. In black and white
and in colour, he captivated me from the still frames. His stretched, hardened skin, his
arms outflung yet his body curled like a foetus, protecting itself…or perhaps protected?
Had he been carefully laid out, as Ash’s book suggested, by killers for whom his death was
sacred? Had his last visions been of a world pushed to the brink of collapse, a taboo ritual
enacted in a desperate attempt to save the only order his people had ever known? By the
time I was allowed my own audience with the Red Man, my curiosity was at fever pitch.
He looked weirdly peaceful, resting on the stark white of his examination bed. The climate
was strictly controlled, my hands encased in double layers of gloves, lest the acid or
moisture of my skin should damage him. The university, the museum and the institute—
that holy triad behind the funding of our excavation—were all fighting over the best way
to preserve him for posterity and future study. They seemed to be coming down on the
side of freeze-drying, blasting him like supermarket coffee or mixed herbs in a foil packet.
I tried not to think of it, tried to focus on what I was here to see. Years of my work on Iron
Age communities, how they lived and how they died, could be validated or exploded by
what he had to tell me. My fingers traced the outline of his broken, wounded body. He had
suffered horribly before he died, struck in several places by something blunt—a club,
perhaps a fist—and pierced by blades to his chest, arms and thighs. His neck had been
tied tight with a cord of deerskin, still embedded in the mummified flesh all these
Presumably at some opportune point—at some climactic part of the ceremony, if Ash’s so-
called theories were to be believed—his throat was slashed, and maybe that had finally
Yet the clothes he wore, the fine cloth preserved in dribs and drabs, stained and frayed
almost beyond recognition, did not seem to have been sullied by the blood of his death.
Had his killers redressed him after the act? Or was it simply that we modern onlookers
had so little left to go on, our understanding so patchy, that we were missing something
obvious? The frustration of having this tangible monolith of ancient culture right before
me, yet his secrets remaining so hard to unravel, threatened to overwhelm my sanity.
At least, when I heard the whispers, I blamed it on that.
Day after day, The Red Man taunted me with his silence. Every study, every test, every
isotopic analysis revealed ambiguous or mixed results. Yet when I went home, shut my
door behind me and let the world drown itself out, an ancient tongue seemed to whisper
my name. The dreams came soon after. I remembered what Nat had said that evening on
the village green: flames, running, and unseen eyes among the trees. The knotted boughs
of a primordial wildwood snatched at me, heather whipping my bare legs as I ran. Drums
beat ceaselessly somewhere, howls of a faceless agony against the sky. I knew I dreamed,
yet I could not wake. And all the while a voice whispered to me in a language I didn’t
My nights became a battleground, my mornings a trial to be endured. Work—supposedly
teaching undergraduate classes four days a week at the university, as I usually did
between bouts of fieldwork—quickly became pointless, and my department head called
me into her office to find out what had gone wrong. Pleading illness was easy enough as I
already looked half-dead, and she sent me home on the spot, demanding I see a
consultant or find some way of staving off imminent collapse. My commitments for the
rest of the semester removed, I found myself remanded to the prison of my home, with
nothing to occupy me but my books…and my dreams.
It’s been this way for weeks now, and I can see no way out. Anyone in whom I could
confide would just think me mad—perhaps not without cause—and I can’t stop thinking
of Nat, and of Ash. We disturbed something that day, I’m sure of it. The Red Man had
rested at peace in that sacred ground, among the relics of ancient belief and forgotten
myths. Had we left him there, perhaps my friends would still be alive.
He came again last night. He touches my dreams, and in them he lives. He speaks my
name, and with it he owns me.
I think I am beginning to understand…if not fully, then at least in part. What we unearthed
should have been left buried. The days are at their longest now, just past the mouth of the
equinox, with Lughnasadh fast approaching. There will be bonfires again. There are still
believers, though their ways are not the old ways. They echo what has gone before, yet
they do not truly capture it, because the past is an ever-flowing ribbon. No bridge may
ever be stood upon twice, and the Red Man brings to me a bridge of years that he tells me
I must cross.
He crawls to the side of my bed in the night, his chicken-bone hands and legs oddly bent
and attenuated, like a spider half-crushed or a twig blown in the breeze and—for a
strange, ethereal moment—given life. His ochre skin glows deepest red, his dead lips part
around a mouth of cavernous, repellent horror, and his eyelids graunch open to reveal
rotted, empty sockets of blackened, worm-eaten decay. His smell is heavy with death, with
the soot of the bonfires and the sweetness of the earth, and he tells me that they could
not kill him. Every wound they inflicted—those who sought to guard their people from
the evil he had done—is healing. Every part of him they bound, that he should bring harm
no more in this world or the next, he is unbinding. He has awoken, and I know that by the
time the blazing white moon rises once more into a sky filled with flames, my blood will
bathe it as surely as the firelight does.
The Red Man has awoken, and he walks among us.
© M. King
All Rights Reserved www.millionstories.net
consideration of the nature of time, the critique of modern public 'culture' and the
highlighting of the notoriously gelded lethargy of some of the institutionalised academia
on this planet.
Mark Wrote: Proper spooky storytelling indeed. A real joy to read from a writer clearly
steeped in the lore. Someone who knows their horror and their history. I'll look for M King's
name on the shelves next to it's more famous namesake I'm sure.
Gail Carriger Wrote:
My dear Mr. Million,
A shocking tail of misapplied scientific examination, to be sure. It is a terrible thing when
one's archaeological colleagues prove unreliable in both their excavation techniques and
later, their minds. Sadly, I am aware of all too many who have become equally "lost in their
work" shall we say.
Still a sad business. Very sad indeed.
One hopes the poor man in question make a speedy recovery. Doubtful, from the looks of
things, but there is always hope. One would not wish to institutionalize a fellow archaeologist,
but alas, sometimes that is the only solution. On the other hand, I am under the impression
the local vampires might be able to see to his comparative safety, for a small fee, of course.
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