by EW Farnsworth
A great hubbub arose when a pair of amateur archaeologists discovered with their metal detector a hoard of tenth-century Viking treasure not five miles south of Picklock Lane. By right and tradition, the trove belonged to the Crown, but it would be presented to the people as a collection once it had been properly catalogued. That process might take twenty years, but the authorities promised partial publication of the find as soon as feasible.
Sheriff Fatty Millstone was an avid follower of accounts about historical discoveries in the nation. At his table in the back of the Cracked Pot pub, he could be heard holding forth on related matters to whomever happened to drop by. During one interval, he expounded on the substance of a learned journal reporting on ancient Roman missiles unearthed near Hadrian’s Wall. In another time, he became fascinated by an old stone sculpture of the mythical Cthulhu, the octopus-like figure whose worship apparently pre-dated the earliest historical records.
The octopus theme in the recently-discovered artifacts was visible in the obverse of a single silver coin and in runes inscribed on the prow of a burial ship, miraculously preserved by the peat bog in which it had been immured for over a thousand years. Mildred, the waitress, had gone to school with Wilfred and Edith, the two who had found the prize. She invited them to visit the Cracked Bell during one of their dig’s summer intervals. The sheriff looked forward to her friends’ visit so he could buy them each a pint and hear the latest news of the hoard.
The tabloid writers, naturally, heard about the possible visit, and they actively kept watch to be sure they did not miss the news. Crenshaw, particularly, wanted not to be scooped by his competitors. To keep his edge, he published even the most unlikely rumours to keep his readers at the pitch of their excitement. His cartoonist’s drawings caught his fantasies in a series of images of perfectly preserved red-haired mummies, exotic gold figurines and pirate pelf of all sorts. The main line press kept aloof from parroting the baseless accounts printed as gospel in the tabloids, but Millstone was becoming alarmed.
“Crenshaw, you are likely to be thoroughly embarrassed when your readers learn what the archaeologists have actually discovered. Why don’t you wait till the experts deliver their learned opinions before you speculate?”
“Sheriff, my readers hunger and thirst for what I give them. Copies of my tabloid fly off the stands, making my publisher happy. What if I exaggerate here and there? In an excavation, anything is possible.”
“Your piece about a thirty-foot sea serpent being the cause of the Viking ship’s sinking is pure bunkum. That burial ship was interred by humans. No evidence has been unearthed indicating a serpent of any size.”
Crenshaw nursed his pint and shook his head. Clearly, he and his cartoonist had invented a seamless story from whole cloth. No one could talk him down from his prevarications especially when the finders had not provided proofs to supplant his lies.
The sheriff had a late-afternoon chat with Mildred. He suggested it was high time Wilfred and Edith paid their visit. “There’s no telling how far the tabloid fictions will go. We have reached a point where the public will have a hard time separating out the truth. Responsible readers will be patient and rational, but most will become addicted to the rumours and innuendoes. Please see what you can do to entice your friends to come.”
Two days later, Mildred announced the archaeologists would visit the next Wednesday afternoon. The sheriff put the word around, and Crenshaw claimed one of the four news-hounds’ chairs at his table. Predictably, a huge crowd assembled in the pub early Wednesday morning. The publican revelled in the increase in his custom, and Mildred kept busy refilling glasses.
Wilfred and Edith appeared at noon. The throng parted to let them through but closed after them as they were welcomed by the publican and the sheriff. When they had been served their pints, Edith modestly told the story of how they found the treasure.
“We did not just take our gear out to a likely place where we got lucky. We had been scouring the countryside for almost two full years, finding nothing but nails and scrap metal. The cow pasture where we got our first indications seemed so unlikely, we almost passed it by without an effort. Wilfred insisted we should search the low area by the stream. He was wearing the earphones, but we could both hear the whine as he swung the coils over the place.”
“At first we thought we had hit another pile of junk metal, an old iron plough or suchlike. The more I swung the device, the more it showed the presence of metal in a five-foot corridor about a yard wide. We marked the spot and Edith stood by it while I went to fetch the farmer’s son and two shovels. We had promised to summon the boy if we found anything interesting.”
Edith nodded. “The boy stayed while Wilfred and I delved, first to remove the tufts of surface grass and thick, black earth. When we checked our detector, we knew we were extremely close, so we put down our shovels and removed a couple of inches of soil. And lo! We found corroded coins, a buckler and a sword.”
“At the time, we had no idea about the details, but we knew we had found old pieces of an extremely interesting puzzle. We sent the farmer’s boy to fetch his father and stakes and line so we could mark the area. The place was high enough to be above the creek but close enough so we could use the stream to wash what we found. The farmer brought a cloth to use as a collecting place, and he brought sandwiches and a thermos of tea. We staked the perimeter of the find and took pictures with our cellphones of the coins, the buckler and the sword.”
Edith said, “We did not immediately know about the ship. When we discovered it, we enlarged the boundaries of our staked area. The farmer went back to his house to bring us a small jar of coins he and his people had unearthed in the course of farming the land. They were coins from the era of the Great Viking Army of the nine hundreds AD.”
Wilfred nodded. “Both the farmer and his wife said they were descended from Viking stock. So, they both pitched in eagerly to help. They were the first to suggest the ship was a funeral vessel and the hoard a kind of death offering. The farmer could not understand why the sword had been included in the burial as in its state when buried was still useful.”
Crenshaw, who had been bursting to ask questions, asked, “So, did you find any gold?”
Edith shook her head. “We found no gold, but we did find silver coins, all black with oxidation. Also silver jewels. And copper things. The wood of the ship was full of worm holes. And we found bones and clothing—woven stuff and furs and leather. A great Viking lady, we presume.”
“We had found enough to call in the professionals. From the time of their arrival, we became spectators. We were photographed and received a lot of press coverage. We managed to be included in the dig staff. Consequently, we have witnessed the entire excavation.”
Crenshaw again, “Were there signs of monsters or sea serpents?”
Wilfred and Edith laughed heartily. Wilfred said, “You must have been reading the filth from the tabloids!”
The news man’s face reddened. “As a matter of fact, I wrote that so-called filth.”
Edith said, “Shame on you! I suspect you also wrote that bilge about the thirty-foot sea serpent?”
“Indeed, I did. Only today have I learned there was no such beast.” Crenshaw was clenching his teeth in defiance and trying to hold his ground while the throng surrounding him was catcalling and deriding him mercilessly.
Wilfred said, “You should know, however, that in the wood of the burial ship’s prow were inscribed runes the experts are trying to decipher. I will not speculate on the early translation of those runes.”
Crenshaw said, “I suppose the bones of the deceased will be reburied with some ceremony?”
The sheriff was pleased at this sensible question.
Edith said, “We are not sure what will happen with the human remains. DNA from the bones will be matched with that of the farmer and his wife. There has been speculation about reburial, but no decisions have been taken.”
Crenshaw had one more question. “Were there any signs of octopus figures anywhere among the artefacts?”
Wilfred said, “At the dig site, no. But among the coins said to have been taken from the surrounding farmland were two silver ones with the octopus on the obverse side. Those match specimens from similar discoveries, I am told.”
Sheriff Millstone stood and raised his glass to toast the two fledgling archaeologists and their historical discovery. Mildred attempted valiantly to fill everyone’s glasses as toast followed toast until closing time. Crenshaw and the other news men had bolted after the sheriff’s first toast as they had deadlines to meet—and corrections to make to their previous reports.
Edith said, “I do hope the tabloids will set the record straight this time.”
The sheriff replied, “We can always hope. But the tabloid reporters sometimes cannot help from stretching the truth to make things exciting.”
Wilfred raised his eyebrows and said, “We found it pretty exciting to find that burial ship. And every day our team is discovering something else new within it.”
Mildred winked. “Now that the news hounds have gone to do what they do; can you give us any hints—strictly off the record—about your latest artefacts?”
Wilfred and Edith looked at each other as if they were asking each other, “Should we tell?” But they shook their heads with knowing smiles. It was time for them to dine and retire. Tomorrow was another day at the dig, and they still felt the zest of unearthing history.
Fatty Millstone was finally alone at his table. The crowds had dispersed for dinnertime. Mildred dropped into the chair next to his, exhausted.
“Well, Sheriff, I hope my friends did not disappoint.”
“Not at all, Mildred. Nor did you. Thank you for importuning them.”
“They definitely wanted to stop the rumours. Anyhow, I needed to hear what they had to say. I may have never told you I have Viking ancestry. Who knows? The woman whose bones lie in that may be a many-times great grandmother to yours truly.”
The sheriff touched his glass to hers and raised it in a toast—to her. “The miracle of DNA matching may give you an answer.”
“I’ll have to be going now, Sheriff. My boyfriend is just finishing his series of paintings of the flowers in the Butterfly Paradise, and we are going out to dine at a fancy restaurant. Fortunately, the tips I got today will help defray the cost of our meal.”
Millstone spent another hour in the pub. Then he went on one of his nocturnal peregrinations. All was well at the park. Insects and frogs were earnestly sounding their mating calls. A dense fog was descending. When he strained, he could hear the baying of distant dogs and the lowing of cattle. He realized such sounds had surrounded the Viking burial site for a thousand years.
The next morning as the sun burned off the fog, the sheriff brushed dew off his trousers and stamped it off his soaked shoes. He stopped at his favourite news stand to pick up a couple of the tabloids. Crenshaw and his cohort had improved on their former fantasies. The cover of their tabloid featured a crowned, red-haired female skeleton in a richly embroidered gown with furs. She was standing in the prow of her burial ship wielding an enormous sword. A thirty-foot sea serpent rose from the sea, its mouth gaping with razor-sharp teeth.
To his credit, Millhouse thought, Crenshaw wrote a lucid account of what Wilfred and Edith had said yesterday afternoon. He made no apology for his myth-making but stated DNA analysis would doubtless determine whether the bones of the dead Viking lady showed any relation to the current farmer and his wife.
As the sheriff continued down Picklock Lane, Mildred fell in step with him.
“I hope you and your boyfriend had a sumptuous feast last night.”
“We did not, as it happens, dine as we had planned. He had another commission to deliver this morning, so we settled for roasted white potatoes with butter and assorted toppings. He finished his painting at dawn, so we went for coffee and scones. Now he is off to make delivery of his new work to Dame Hudibras, who promised instant payment and introductions to her friends who are art patrons. I see you are carrying the morning sludge under your arms.”
Millstone did a double take till he realized she was referring to the tabloids. “Yes. True to form, Crenshaw’s publisher and his cartoonist went to work on the cover, but inside the sheets, some of the truth appears. Do you think the public is ready for that kind of miracle?” He handed her the tabloid in question so she could read for herself.
By the time they arrived at the Cracked Bell pub, they were laughing heartily about the incorrigible tabloid press. The sheriff was no sooner seated at his usual table when Crenshaw appeared at his shoulder.
“I see you bought my paper this morning. Well, what do you think?”
“Your content inside the sheets is improving. I thank you for everyone who dares to read. As for your cover image, it leaves much to be desired. It deserves to be on the cover of a paranormal novel, not a newspaper.”
“Maybe I should have had the cartoonist omit the crown?”
“That would be a step in the right direction.”
Crenshaw smiled broadly. “Well, Sheriff, I would have you there! The burial ship Wilfred and Edith found must have been for a special woman, perhaps a warrior queen. And the sea monster might have been Grendel’s Dam, reputed to be thirty feet tall. As a matter of fact, I am supposed to be related to the red-haired giantess who mentored Cuchulainn the Irish hero.”
The sheriff knew better than to argue with a man about his heritage. “Crenshaw, I learn more about you every day. Sit down. I will have Mildred bring you a pint. If you have time, I would like to hear more from you about the red-haired giantess.”
Crenshaw spent the morning regaling the sheriff with tales of his Irish lineage. Impressed with the news man’s gift for gab, he opined Crenshaw should write novels.
“Sheriff, I tried that route before, but a man cannot write fiction and eat at the same time.”
“Unless he writes fiction for a tabloid like yours, perhaps?”
“Sheriff, now you’re making my point exactly.”