The Horn

THE MANX HERALD

VIKING HORN FOUND IN RECENT EXCAVATION

The Manx Archaeological Trust have just announced a “potentially major discovery” at the latest excavation currently underway at Barradoole, site of the famous Viking ‘ship burial’. Dr Mark Webster, director of the dig, said: ‘One of my student volunteers called me over on the last day, saying “Hey Mark, I think I’ve found something…” She certainly had – with great care I took over. After lots of painstaking effort, a magnificent decorated horn was revealed. We’re currently cleaning it, but it looks at least 10th Century and is remarkably intact. We’re very excited about this, but don’t want to make any grand claims until further analysis has been undertaken.’  Experts from The British Museum are due to be joining the team shortly, their arrival delayed by the cancelled flights and extremely busy ferries. If the horn proves to be genuine, it could be a real boost for the island. The Governor’s Office emphasised that any such finds remain the property of the Manx government and must remain upon the island. Staff at the museums in Douglas and Peel are obviously keen to see the discovery and to help with conservation. General public are advised to stay away from the excavation. A temporary exhibition will be opened once the dig is complete and the area declared safe.

Chapter 10: The Horn

Life in the camp continued as usual for the next couple of days – the endless boozing, macho games and male-bonding, punch-ups and punishments, street wheelies and beach donuts, the tinkering and polishing of bikes – albeit with a rota to keep watch for the inevitable ‘pay back’, courtesy of the Devil’s Hogs.

At the daily ‘Camp Thing’ – a rowdy club meeting meant to attend to the business of the day – it was argued vehemently by Tear and his followers that ‘attack was the best form of defence’.

‘Strike down the bastards while they’re sleeping off the grog!’ he growled, smashing his fist down and sending flagons flying. ‘A pre-dawn raid. Go in, guns blazing. Take out the high command. Cut off the fat fucking hog’s head!’

Fists banged on the tables.

‘Maybe we shouldn’t be so rash, ‘scuse the pun!’ beamed Balder, leaping up onto a bench.

The mood was surly, but everyone loved Balder, so it seemed to Eddy. He was the golden one, always adding a positive comment, a joke, a kind gesture. He was like a ray of light in a cave.

‘If we slaughter the Hogs, then what message does that send to the other gangs? To their allies? Before we know it, we’d be fighting off enemies on all fronts. It’ll be total war.’

There were grunts of approval at this.

Tear stood up again, bristling. ‘Maybe we need a good war, to purge the weak from the world!’

Some roared in agreement.

‘You can fight all you like, I prefer a cold beer and a hot woman in my arms!’ smiled Balder, and the tension eased with the laughter.

The Hammer suddenly stood unsteadily to her feet – ‘Me too!’ She hiccupped and collapsed back on the bench. The tent exploded in merriment.

Tear and Balder eyed each other uneasily, but both sat back down.

Then Rig got up to say his piece. ‘Whether we attack or not, that’s up to the president, but I agree with Sarge that we do need to be ready. We badly need some discipline around here. We don’t want the Hogs to catch us with our pants down.’ Crude laughter and heckles from the floor, but Rig let it subside. ‘Make sure your bike is road-fit, and make sure you are too. I suggest no more partying until we’ve dealt with this threat. I know, I know. It pains me too! I like a beer as much as the next man, and I could drink half of you under the table—’ He was interrupted by friendly jeers from the floor. ‘But, come on guys. Let’s get real here for a moment. The Hogs could come round that corner at any minute, guns blazing. So let’s make sure we give them the welcome they deserve. Bikes tuned. Weapons loaded. And heads clear.’

Fists pounded the tables at this, then turned to One Eye, who had sat silently, watching it all, with a slightly amused expression on his face. He got up, stretching his back with a groan. ‘Heed your road captain, you miscreants. Rig once again talks sense. No more partying until this fight is done. Get your shit together. Inspection at noon. Meeting over. Now, where’s that coffee?’ The president looked bleary-eyed this morning, rubbing his grizzled face. He caught Eddy’s gaze momentarily but it was hard to read his expression.

He walked from the tent with relief into the fresh air. Were these really the old gods of the Norse? It was hard not to see them for just a bunch of ageing bikers who had turned a midlife crisis into a lifestyle, sadly clinging onto former glories and all that ‘born to be wild’ bullshit? Didn’t they notice, it wasn’t the Sixties anymore, nor the Seventies or Eighties for that matter. It was a new century, one that already was soaked in blood. The only myths and legends anymore were to be found on social media, where gods were raised and destroyed every day. 

Eddy wandered to the groyne at the far end of the beach, away from the worst of the noise. The tide had turned and the sea was lively this morning. A restless energy was in the air. He sat down and pulled out his cell. He hadn’t checked his messages since he’d got to Man.

‘Fuck!’

There were about twenty from his sister.

He groaned, and scanned through them: concern quickly turning into vexation, then anger, rage, and fury. By the end it was a full on hurricane of spleen. Eddy held it at arm’s length, wincing as he read them.

Time to face the music! He pressed speed-dial and waited for his sis to pick up.

Finally, the call was answered. Eddy realised with a pang of guilt that it was very early over there.

‘Big sis! How’s it going?’

The line was crackly at first – a blizzard of white noise breaking up the voice on the other end.  ‘Eddy? Eddy, is that you? You muvvafukka—’

‘Good Morning to you, beloved sister! Nice to hear your dulcet tones! Sorry for waking you!’

‘Shut up, scumbag, before I throw this cell across the room! Where the Hell have you been? What happened to that flight? We waited at the fucking airport! For three fucking hours!’

‘Ah, I’m sorry about that. Really am. I decided to go to the Isle of Man.’

‘The Isle of Man? Is that code for a biker bar somewhere? You sound like you’ve been on a bender for days.’

‘Well…’ He realised he had. You need to sober up, Eddy! ‘You see, I met this girl…’

‘Met a girl? You was with a girl! On holiday together! Remember! She’s back home now and wondering what happened to you? She was seriously pissed with you, but even she was starting to worry. Mom and Dad have been beside themselves. I’ve tried to reassure them that Eddy, y’know, he’s just on one of his “vision quests”, the usual shit. Never again!’

‘I’m so sorry, sis, I really am. But she’s really special, this one. I’ve found … the one!’

‘I don’t care if you’ve found Poca-fucking-hontas. What you’ve done is inexcusable. All it would’ve taken was a message or two – just to let us know you hadn’t been killed by a falling plane or something!’

Eddy laughed. ‘A falling plane. That’s a new one. Who do you think I am, Donnie Darko?’

‘You jerk! Haven’t you been watching the news?’

‘Err, no. Been a little bit pre-occupied.’

‘The volcanic eruption threw up so much material into the jet-stream it closed…’

‘I know, sis, that’s why I had to ride across fucking EuroDisney…’

‘But a Russian jumbo ignored the warnings, and its engines got clogged up. It crashed, losing all of its passengers and crews. Hundreds. All over the news…’

‘Jeez!’

‘And now there have been reports of earthquakes along the mid-Atlantic ridge and warnings of tsunamis all along the Atlantic seaboard, and you’re on a fucking island! Nothing to worry about, Eddy! Sure! Why not top up your tan? Hang out on the beach all day.’

Eddy looked about him at the camp. ‘Ummm. Thanks for the heads-up sis, I’ll … head for high ground. Listen, I’ve got to go. But it’s been good talking. I miss your well-intentioned nagging. And you’re cooking. Say love to Mom, Pops and Gramps for me. Love to you, big sis! Bye!’

He ended the call, and looked nervously out at the water – restless with white caps this morning. Perhaps he should tell the others? Surely, there would be a local warning, if anything like that was on the horizon? He vowed to check the local news and weather.

First, another cup of joe.

Over a steaming mug, Eddy flicked through the Manx news website, eyes glazing over at the dreary items about traffic regulations, changes in bylaws, planning applications, and closures of public services. There was a mildly interesting debate on its forum about the hordes of bikers currently on the island: ‘The Gathering: gain or pain?’ Some argued that it was an important boost to the tourist economy, which had slumped in recent years due to the foul weather and cheap flights to the Med; others, that it drove tourists away, and the policing and clear-up costs cancelled out any benefits. Eddy was all too familiar with being labelled a ‘menace to society’. Sure, some bikers at the extreme end of the spectrum – the nutters with a death wish, the neo-Nazi biker gangs and crime syndicates – were; but the majority were, well, middle-aged wannabe rebels. North of forty Sunday anarchists. The ninety-nine percenters. Eddy realised, with a wry smile, that he was now officially one of the one-percenters, being a patched-up member of an outlaw bike club. He didn’t feel any different inside. There were some things he wouldn’t do – knowingly kill a man, for instance; but some laws were just for the sheep to follow. Crowd control for the supine populace. He was, by nature, a wolf.

He couldn’t see anything ‘tsunami warnings’ – just increasingly foul weather on the way – and he was about to browse another site, something more exciting, when a minor news item caught his eye: ‘Viking horn found in recent excavation’. He tapped on it, and read the article with increasing interest.

Eddy’s heart beat like an overwound drummer monkey. Maybe it was just too much caffeine, but he felt strangely excited by this. He had to tell the committee! He got up and walked over to the main marquee. Despite the semblance of activity in the camp, as the rank and file made ready for the midday inspection, most of the ‘old gods’ were dozing, still sleeping off last night’s binge. The pervading smell was one of hops, body odour and farts. Behold, the Aesir! Eddy smiled. So much for being battle-ready…

As he went to enter, the massive slab of Honer appeared from the wings and placed a firm hand on his chest. ‘Do not disturb, wetpatch.’

‘I’ve got some news I think they’ll like to hear.’

The tailgunner gave him a sceptical look from beneath his furious eyebrows. ‘Tell me, I’ll decide.’

Eddy took a step back. ‘I’ll … wait.’

‘Let him in.’

It was Fenja, emerging from the back of the tent. She wore a t-shirt and jeans as though they had been painted on her.

‘It’d better be good.’ Honer breathed, letting him pass.

Eddy stepped into the marquee. Catching Fenja’s warm gaze, like a steaming geyser by a glacier, he nodded thanks.

‘What is it?’ she asked, softly.

‘There’s been a discovery that I think this lot would like to know about…’ He showed her the article and her aurora borealis eyes widened in the gloom of the tent.

‘Hey, ass-ears, wake up!’

Groans, slight stirrings, further snoring.

‘I said WAKE UP!’ Fenja bellowed with a voice that could wake the dead. An icy cloud blasted from her mouth, shocking the groggy sleepers out of their post-session slumber.

Eddy stepped back, freaked out as much by Fenja as the imminent wrath of the committee.

‘Nidhug’s knackers, woman! Can’t a fellow catch forty winks around here!’ groaned One Eye.

‘There is something important that you really need to see…’

Fenja chucked him the phone, which Tear snatched out of the air with lightning reflexes.

‘Hey, that’s my phone, by the way!’ Eddy grumbled, but they all ignored him.

The sergeant-at-arms checked out the site with his cold, dark eyes, nodding. ‘She’s right.’

Eddy rode near the front of the column of bikes as they roared south to Barradoole. As the ‘discoverer’ he was afforded a certain status within the pack, although as Tear was keen to point out that it was only ‘temporary’. The majority of the club had been ordered to stay behind, to guard the camp, with Frey in charge, backed up by The Hammer. The rest of the committee were with One Eye, as he led them towards the site.

The sky was dark – it was always dark these days since the eruption – and it was distinctly chilly, certainly feeling less like early July and more like early autumn. No doubt One Eye would think it was to do with Jormungandr shedding its scaly skin or some such, smiled Eddy.

It felt good to be moving, to be doing something, instead of just drinking beer or sharpening knives. And all the target practice was making his ears ring. Too many guns are unhealthy for a man’s constitution. What kind of club had he got himself involved with? Grand theft auto, homicide, possession of illegal weapons, and dizzying delusions of grandeur too boot! The really wrong crowd, his sis would say.

They passed the sign for Barradoole, and turned onto a narrow country lane which finally came to a terminus in a slightly wider gravelled area that no doubt normally served as an adequate car-park for the odd visitor, but today, already over-run with a couple of landrovers, a minibus and a van, couldn’t cope with the influx of fifty bikers. For a while it was chaos, as the bikers parked wherever they could, gridlocking the lane. The road captain ensured the Elders had a clear passage, and bellowed at the tailgunner down the line: ‘Guard the exit; keep it clear!’

 To increasing profanity as leather-clad bikers (none of them on the slim or agile side, Fenja and Eddy being the exception) squeezed through a kissing gate, they followed the brown heritage sign bearing the legend ‘Burial Site’. Eddy had read about the remarkable Viking ship burial and couldn’t believe he was actually visiting it. Like many, he initially thought a whole longship had been buried there, in the small village on the south of the island, but eventually realised it was a symbolic ship, demarcated by stones, in which the burials had taken place. 

Silence descended amongst the ranks after a snarl from Rig, as they made along the footpath winding its way over the hillside.

‘An Iron Age hillfort,’ observed Niggard, the club treasurer who also was a bit of a prehistory anorak, as it turned out. ‘The Viking burial is on top of a Christian site and nearby Anglo-Saxons cysts. It is possibly a deliberate repurposing of the site, and yet the earlier graves weren’t destroyed. Were they hedging their bets, or just wanted to use the dramatic location?’

As the view towards the sea in the southwest appeared over the brow of the hill, Eddy had to agree with that – it was a dramatic backdrop, looking towards the setting sun, or, in this case, a vast sky of dark cloud, like anvils ready to fall. Up ahead they say a marquee, a couple of gazebos with tables, and a portaloo. Behind a taped off area, a group of scruffy students went about the dig, sporting hi-viz tabards over their fleeces and hoodies, supervised by a man in a Barbour with an Indiana Jones hat, a thick beard and glasses, holding a mug while scrutinising a tablet. When he saw the approaching bikers, he dropped his mug, drenching his leg in tea. ‘Ouch! Fuck it!’ He unsuccessfully tried to sponge it dry with a couple of paper towels and gave up. Taking a deep breath, he came towards them, waving his hands. ‘Sorry! No public! We’re not allowing visitors yet. Come back in a couple of days.’

One Eye gave him a broad smile. ‘No problem then. We’re not the public!’ He nodded to his warriors, who broke through the tape and circle the pit.

‘Hey, you can’t do that!’ spluttered the man, identified by his badge as Mark Webster, Manx Archaeological Trust, by his site ID. ‘Maggie, call the police!’

Tear placed a mailed hand upon his shoulder. ‘I wouldn’t do that, if you know what is good for you and your students.’

‘We just want a look, that’s all. You could say we’re enthusiasts,’ beamed One Eye.

Webster went pale, and licked his suddenly very dry lips. ‘Maybe hang on two ticks, Mags.’

The young assistant frowned, thumb hovering over the mobile phone.

‘That’s the spirit!’ grinned One-Eye, showing his fearsome dental work. ‘Now, talk us through it!’ He placed a hand like a baseball mitt on Webster shoulder.

‘Umm, well.’ The archaeologist took his glasses off, which had become steamed up, and gave them an ineffectual polish, hands shaking. ‘Let’s see. We dug a test trench…’

‘Just cut to the chase,’ One Eye winked.

‘This is quite unusual… Mm. We discovered the artefact two days ago … Knew it was a mistake, sending that press release. The site in and around the ship grave has been thoroughly excavated, but I won a grant to do a geophys of the whole hillfort. I wasn’t expecting to find anything earth-shattering, but you live in hope.’

His students watched on, nervously. Some were clearly uncomfortable at the lascivious gazes of the bikers.

‘Well, as luck would have it… The nearby quarry – that gopping eyesore over there…’ He pointed to the massive ‘bite’ taken out of the hillside. ‘Destabilised the edge of the fort. After recent heavy rains there was a landslip and a new burial was unearthed – an older burial beneath the current one, predating the Viking, Christian, and Saxon. Even the hill fort itself!’

Webster walked One Eye and his party to the marquee. Eddy tagged along and was apparently tolerated, although Tear gave him a look like he was something he’d picked up on his Grinders.

‘And that’s when we found this…’ Webster eyes gleamed as he showed them the finds table. ‘Well, technically, Zoe over there found it.’

A speccy, gangly girl gave a shy wave.

‘Though I was the one who excavated it, so joint credit. She’ll certainly be a co-author … or one of the authors … in the article for Archaeology Today…’

Tear bared his studded teeth and hissed.

Webster coughed, and, shaking, pulled back the plastic cover from the polystyrene holding case.

One-Eye’s one good eye widened, and Eddy strained to have a look as the club-members crowded in.

‘It has been precisely dated yet. The stratigraphy is somewhat scrambled from the landslip. The dates it suggests are … crazy. Palaeolithic…’ Webster could see their eyes coveting the jewel-encrusted metalwork. ‘Yet the style suggests late Viking, ninth or tenth century.’ He scratched his head. ‘It just doesn’t make sense.’

‘May I…’ One Eye went to reach for it.

‘Hold your nelly, it can’t be…’ A dozen knives were at Webster’s throat. He tried to gulp.

‘Don’t worry, I’m wearing gloves.’ One Eye picked it up, as the students gasped. He turned it gently over in his leathered hands, gazing at it in fascination with his one good eye. ‘Strange. It … stirs something in me. A dream I once had; a life I once knew…’

The onlookers were all mesmerised by the intricate pattern of the horn, the size of an auroch’s – though One Eye handled it like it was as light as balsa wood.

Lost in his own thoughts, the president wandered to the doorway. ‘Memories … waking up inside me, like a volcano…’ He held up the horn to the dark rumbling sky. ‘Am I a man who dreams he is a god, or a god who dreams he is a man…?’ One Eye he brooded. ‘Road Captain…’

‘Chief!’

‘Didn’t you used to play an instrument … a saxophone or something?’

Rig’s eyes flared. ‘Yes, I did.’

‘Then give us a tune!’ One Eye tossed the horn, to the gasps and cries of the archaeologists. Rig caught it elegantly. ‘I may need some air for this.’ He walked outside with it, and everyone followed.

‘No, no, no!’ cried Webster.

Tear placed a spiked hand on the archaeologist’s chest.

With his back to the group, framed by the dark sky and the iron seas to the west, Rig put the mighty horn to his lips and blew.

***

Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

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