Small Finds Nos.034-082
A series of small metal coins, heavily worn through apparent use. Each coin is stamped on the reverse and obverse. Larger than standard coinage and heavier, with a golden appearance. During the preparation to remove the finds from site, the material was identified as: leaves (variously sycamore, elm, and ash), sheep’s wool, and bone dust.
-Extract from Small Find Report Excavations in the Lower Kingdom of the Seven Silken Ghosts
I pour the hot fat into the concentric circles and watch it settle against the stone. The winds across the moor are fresh, cooling the fat white and opaque. In the central hammerstone-chipped cup I pour the whiskey, the alcohol staying golden. For years we did not know what the cup and ring stones were used for until we found the Calkerdale Stone in a peat bog, offerings preserved by the lack of air and death.
The irony of using prehistory as a gateway to study prehistory does not escape me. I place my hand against the rock, feeling the grain shift beneath my touch. The surface softens and flexes against my weight and then I’m reaching through for another place.
For a few moments after I arrive my skin is grey and glittered with feldspar, then fades back to normal flesh. In this place I feel myself ageing as everything around me does not. I can feel myself rotting with life.
Ignoring the sensation of decay I close my eyes and open them again to take in my surroundings. Above me the sun is always setting but never set. I breathe in the air of Faery and wonder if I will make it out this time or if something else will look out through my eyes. My hand goes to the hawthorn and linen thread hanging around my neck and I shudder despite myself.
The place where I’ve arrived is deserted. The agreement between the Choked Monarchs and our company does not allow me to approach the Royal Cities. Instead I am required to travel directly to the excavation site.
I look back toward the stone that stands behind me, but it has dissolved like sugar in rain, leaving bones in the grass hollow. I wipe a smear of grease from my hands. My fingers smell of peat, though whether from the single malt or the bog where I travelled from I do not know.
We all have our ways of dealing with the journey into the Deathless Kingdom. I open my hipflask and take a sip as my way of coping.
I set up the tent, canvas soaked in oils for protection. As I unpack the flysheets and poles the area fills with the scent of cat urine and mould-spotted bread. Not for the first time I wish that some of the ancient folk stories were not true.
All my equipment is old. Plane tables and alidades. Vintage transit levels encased in sturdy varnished timber boxes. Wood and brass. No iron or electrics. That lesson was learnt by the first archaeologists who made the journey across, their bones welded to their surveying devices by Faery’s allergy to iron.
After my shelter is ready, my next job is to mark out the trench for excavation. I don’t have many hours until my presence is noted, either by the stench of my mortality on the wind or the gossip of the Faery Court. I want to be set up before a delegation arrives so that I will not be distracted when forced to indulge in the tedious riddles that seem necessary for every interaction with the inhabitants of this twisted land.
Using wooden stakes I mark out a trench twenty metres long and two metres wide. Only once during the setting out do the ropes transform into adders. I look around for the source but cannot see any puckas or redcaps lurking at the treeline. Reminding myself the serpents are just a glamour I drive blackthorns into the snakes’ tails, watching the ropes shrug off their deceit. I continue with the measurements to make sure that the trench is straight.
The Thing of Blemished Claws is the first to visit the excavation, face decorated in tendons from a recent meal. I am still organising the paperwork and I pay no attention to its approach. In the distance I hear other inhabitants, their steps only audible because they make that choice. I do not see them and focus on finishing my preparations.
In Faery, the Land is the Monarch and the Monarch is the Land. In Faery, there is no metaphor. Any division between the two is a delusion. When excavating in any of the kingdoms, as much care should be taken as if you were performing surgery. Appropriate offerings should be placed around the edge of the trench to anaesthetise the ground. Each spade cut is a scalpel blade going into the Monarch’s flesh. Each bucketful of soil carried away is a scar left on the Regal Torso. You will attract attention. You will be tested. You will have to account for yourself.
-Dr Gwen Sedbusk, Guidelines for Archaeological Excavations in Otherworld Locations
The pyres of valerian and willow bark send up smoke plumes that hang in the air. There is no breeze to disperse them and they accumulate around me as I begin to strip back the turf, laying the grass-heavy tiles to one side. Beyond the fumes The Burning Children eat a picnic of toasted fear and boiled sorrow. They only observe me and do not attempt to interfere.
Directly below the root mat the subsoil is butterfly wings, fluttering as the overburden is lifted. I plan the layers, then shovel them away to get to the focus of my work, trying to ignore the spoilheap’s attempts to take flight. The graves are clear in the natural, not that anything in this place is natural.
There is no history in Faery. Not really. History would imply some kind of written record. The Faery Court can barely agree on what colour the sky is, never mind reach a consensus on the past. For our records we class the prehistory of Faery as anything before Robert Kirk wrote his treatise on the place. It makes no difference. Time is fickle here. Everything is eternal and fleeting.
I begin to plan the features. Cutting across the site is a single ditch, backfilled with precious stones. Opals, rubies and sapphires glitter in the ground, worthless in their abundance. I shovel them out of the way, drawing the plan and section, taking a sample of the fill, knowing it, in time, will turn to seeds or dust.
The ditch cuts three of the graves but several darken the bottom of the trench without any later disturbance. As I walk around the trench I avoid stepping on the grave fills. In the soil the shadows of those interred twitch and convulse. If I concentrate I can hear their voices turned hoarse by the dirt.
I decide to leave them in the ground one more day.
I do not sleep, the sound of the Faery Rade processing around the excavation disturbing my rest. I do not bother to look out. No one will be there. In the morning my tent is stitched up with nettle thread. It takes me several hours to cut my way out. Every time I sever the cord it whips back together.
Once I have countered the prank I sit outside and eat my breakfast. The Herald approaches as I finish, its still-living pennant stretched by roughly pierced brass eyelets, its screams and sobbing too loud in the silent landscape.
“I bring greetings from the Choked Monarchs of the Coruscate Palace, the Three Siblings of the Honeysuckle Matricide, the Victors of the Festering Wood. They compliment you on your scent and wish you moderate success in your pointless endeavours.”
I take a breath and put my cup to one side. “Please send my greetings in return, and my thanks for allowing us to undertake this important work to help foster better links between our two worlds.”
The Herald laughs and the pennant squeals in agony.
“They have no interest in any diplomacy between our worlds. They are only interested in the mild diversion of your presence. With luck you might become mortally wounded during your work so that they can suspend you at the moment of death and enjoy your perishment.”
“Will you thank their Majesties for their consideration? Of course, if I feel myself on the verge of expiring, I will call on the servants of the Court to preserve the moment in perpetuity for the delight of the occupants of the Charred Thrones.”
“Our skin-flayers and embalmers are at your disposal.”
With a deep bow the herald strides back across the meadow, kicking divots through the air with its pierced feet.
Once I am sure the Herald has left the area I remove all the food it has concealed in my supplies, watching it turn to spores as I throw it to the dirt.
The second article of the Ercildoun Accord between the Nation States of the Waking World and the Choked Monarchs of the Lesser Tenebrous Court allows one (1) representative of Multi-vallate Archaeology to enter the profane territories and carry out targeted excavation in the Fields of the Tarnished Orchestra. The aim of the excavation is to allow for the recovery of remains lost in the territories of the Court during the recognised Prehistoric Period of that land (∞-present), for the purpose of recovering human remains (number unspecified). The archaeologist may only excavate human remains predating first official recognised contact between the Waking World and the Perpetual Realms. Any deviation will be seen as a disparagement of the diplomatic relations between our worlds and treated accordingly.
-Article 2, Ercildoun Accord
The first grave is child-sized and I begin to chase the edge, scraping the fill back from the natural until the cut is clear and precise. From below the soil voices continue to taunt me. I consider plugging my ears against the tricks, but in this place I need all my senses, as fragile as they are.
Before I break for food I reveal the first bones. They are narrow and corroded and for a moment I picture the chains of ancestry that led to the birth of this one person. I see their parents catching each other’s gaze across a bar, or passing a word in the noise of a nightclub. I picture the scuffed bedclothes and the crib, and I feel the loss and grief like a cloud of ash.
Taking a break, I walk through the meadow to clear my head. The vegetable lambs mew as I brush against them, snapping at my clothes in their disturbance.
When I return to the trench the loose has been returned to the grave and I spend the next hour returning to my first point of progress.
The bones are the colour of peat water, stained and accreted by time, but still recognisable in the stillness of death. With care I lift the soil from the skeleton, the bones fused where they should not be and articulated where no joint should occur. Yet despite the appearance, the glamour imposed on the remains, I know this person came from the same place as me. Would have walked the same streets, if they had not been cradle-snatched. If they had not been prised from their nursery. From their parents. I wonder if there is a body in a grave somewhere back in the waking world where the bones are returned to sticks as the glamour erodes. In the ground the remains whimper as if they have not been told they are dead. They smell of wet cardboard and sour cream. I clean the ribs off best I can and prepare to lift them.
In their plastic bags the bones look slight and diminished. What they represent, the humanity and the loss, is lessened by the process of my profession, but in this place, where the world changes on a whim, my procedures anchor me.
I sense the scrutiny of the Faery Court as I continue recording, labelling and bagging the remains. Beside the body I find several artefacts: a baby’s rattle, a single golden coin, the remains of a soil-stained blanket. Until I return I have no way of knowing if they are genuine or legerdemain. I treat them as authentic and record them.
The Travelling Court arrives as I start work on the second burial. I only sense their presence by the scent of saltwater on the air and a shimmer of verdigris in the corner of my eye. After two hours they reveal themselves.
Two hundred and twenty-two creatures crowd the trench edge, all trying to observe the uncovering of the burial. I ignore them. Not interacting is the best way to not transgress and transgression is sport to the Choked Monarchs. When they communicate it is through the pucka, a creature of spit and branches that drives a flint knife into its mouth before speaking.
“How go your endeavours? The siblings are incredibly interested in your progress.” Moths tip from between its lips and it pulls them apart one by one.
“Slow and considered,” I say and continue with the excavation.
“And will you be remaining long?”
“As long as it takes to excavate all the remains and prepare them for travel.”
The burial I am currently uncovering is also accompanied by grave-goods. I find two bronze knives, a small bracelet of gold and three glass beads. The pucka reaches down to grab one of the blades and I move it beyond reach. A grin splits the bark of its face wider, but the eldest of the Royal Siblings reaches out and digs razor nails into its scalp.
“We are not to interfere. We are not to disrupt your work. We do not agree with this situation. We have no choice. If we had, our conditions would have been far more punitive.”
The sibling pauses.
“Maybe we would have insisted on your intestines being on the outside of your torso, or your lungs filled with poppy seeds. Your tasks are boring and we have no interest.”
The residents of Faery place no value on artefacts, beyond their novelty. This means that the diligent researcher can build up a complex picture of the intrigues and interests of the rival factions through the archaeological record. By treading a fine line of etiquette and determination, there are many opportunities to build up a detailed picture of these complex societies.
-Dr Gwen Sedbusk, Guidelines for Archaeological Excavations in Otherworld Locations
They leave and when they have gone I take a moment to catch my breath. In the trench the remains climb out of the grave, disarticulate themselves, and I watch the separated arms crawl across the soil into the finds bags.
Tipping the bag out I wait until the pucka has reassembled itself before grabbing it by the scruff of the neck. It tries to struggle free from my grip. Emptying my pocket I take out the silver coin soaked in vinegar and press it into the creature’s mouth. While I still hold tight, it folds in upon itself and scrawls scars on the air as it is returned to the Royal Court.
Once the trickster has left, the remains are still in the grave. Now I am alone I can see the bones have been shattered and gilded. There is no way of knowing if the gilding is real, but I treat it as such. First I plan the grave, drawing each splinter of bone in its place, before gently prising it away from the dirt.
This body is silent, yet in its own way it still speaks to me. I hear the first time it awoke in the Hall of Salted Faces and saw the Court stare down at it like the curiosity they considered it to be. I saw the person they were, providing amusement for the Courtiers, until this land of artifice could no longer sustain them and they perished, the flesh stripped from their bones as a delicacy, their bones covered in rare metal as a novelty.
The invite arrives a few moments before my transportation. And I am caught in a Cornelian dilemma. Refuse and I offend the Monarchs. Accept and I break the conditions of the agreement for my presence in Faery. I read the notice again. It is written on the inside of a desiccated crow and it is hard to concentrate as the bird recites bad poetry. The carriage is decorated in spirals of lichen, marsh gas burning in place of any driver. There are no horses or oxen. The harness is snagged with grass and the pulped remains of still-bleating vegetable lambs. While I delay I prise several free. They show no gratitude and bite my fingers raw.
I know I cannot obstruct much longer so I place the bird back in the carriage and bow to the driver.
“Please thank their honours for their consideration. As they may be aware, I am unable to approach the Royal Court due to the conditions of the agreement between their House and my organisation. If they would like to inform me of another suitable location, I would be more than happy to attend on their whim.”
I struggle to make out any expression but the features are hard to see through the flames. He leaves, driving the horseless carriage through the long grass and I return to my work.
The Court arrives during the night, erupting from the soil fully formed, stretching through the birth caul of the land. I am in the middle of the Throne Room, my trench below the tiled floor. Courtiers dance around me, their gowns covered in carvings and pressed gold sheets. The walls of the hall are hidden behind cuckoo spit and wilting flowers. Several skin bags hang from hooks, their contents squirming in their containment. I do not look too closely.
The youngest sibling dismounts the dais, their vast hands obscured by clouds.
“You appear to be in the Throne Room, contrary to the agreement between your company and our Court. This tastes like…” They pause as slaked lime tumbles out of their mouth to scorch the Courtiers that surround them. They giggle in their agonies. “Yes, this tastes like transgression. A breaking of contract. You humans do like to transgress.”
I look around me. I am surrounded by the Amaranthine Guard. Their weapons are held aloft, the chipped stone blades naked. I stand and stretch out my hands.
“If your Lordships wanted to trick me into breaking our compact, surely there are less extravagant ways to humiliate someone as insignificant to you as I.”
The laughter sounds like thorns against skin.
“Of course we do not manifest our desires this way, because of your value. We do it for our entertainment.”
Their hands grab me and they pin me to the ground. I can see all the human remains. All the catalogues abandoned. Forgotten. I wonder if others will come to find me.
First they strip me and tie a band of fox fur around my arm. They paint my skin with copper until I glisten in the lights of the Court. As the Guards prepare me the Courtiers crowd around like I am a new skit or ballad.
They feed me burnt bread stuffed with mistletoe. When I try to refuse, knowing the meal will anchor me to this land of lies, the pucka forces apart my jaw, then stitches my lips shut with embroidery thread. Then they kill me. First they walk across me, hoofs and talons breaking my ribs. They want me to sing. Want me to be their brazen bull, my agony exhaled for them. I refuse and stay silent. With my face to the ground, they loop sinew around my neck and tighten until I have no voice anymore, and then they shatter my skull, scooping out portions of what’s within to share amongst the most honoured of the Court.
They leave me for three days and nights in the middle of the Throne Room as they indulge in their masquerades and intrigues. On the fourth day they strap me to a stretcher and drag me through the fields to the peat bog.
Between the reeds and sphagnum moss they drop me into the water and leave me for the land to preserve. For my bones to soften to paste and my skin to harden to leather. I do not know if they will return or even if they will remember I am in the water, never rotting, never dying. In their trap I have become archaeology. Lying below the surface of peat, waiting for time and dirt to compress me to soil.
Story copyright © 2022 by Steve Toase
Artwork copyright © 2022 by Carrion House
Steve Toase is an archaeologist with a particular interest in prehistoric landscapes. His fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shadows & Tall Trees 8, Analog, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Shimmer, among others. Three of his stories have been reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. His debut short story collection, To Drown in Dark Water, is available from Undertow Publications. He also likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.