In the Lands Within, history does not rest. Each archaeological layer communicates with the living generation, choosing its friends and enemies—and its kings. But an alliance has been struck no one could have anticipated, and an ancient evil is soaking into the soil. History is being erased, purchased and re-written at a terrible price. And a kingdom that shouldn’t have been forgotten is fading from memory.
In the Lands Without, archaeologist Lori Brickland has found a pottery shard with a heartbeat. The pulse might be a trick of the mind, or it might be the first sign of life in a world of ruin. An exiled traveler will say she shouldn’t search for the truth, a calculating ruler will say she’s the one he’s looking for. And the kingdom? The kingdom will need her before the end. It’s time to accept what she’s always known…
This isn’t archaeology.
This is war.
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Archaeology is an optical illusion. Nothing comes out of the ground with a second chance at life. Lori wished she had surrendered to that truth long before she ended up on the coast of Turkey, staring down at a first-century skeleton, heart pounding as though it beat for both of them.
The skeleton lay at the bottom of a well — not by accident. Its fractured forearm and cracked skull told as much. The twenty-something male had struggled before his attackers shoved him into his final resting place in ancient Antiochia ad Cragum.
There the story suffocated.
That was the problem. The story always died before Lori could reach it.
And now what? Tests? Speculations? Fantastic. There's no better way to remember a life full of love, hate, and golden aspirations than to scan it for bad teeth and scoliosis. Lori shook her head, picturing his bones laid out in the glossy pages of a coffee table book. No one would ever know if he had been married or wanted to marry, if he could read or wanted to learn. Did he enjoy morning walks? Tell terrible jokes? No one would ever know because the soil had eaten away his personality. The name he answered to?
He would only ever be The Skeleton in the Well, right next to the British Museum's freeze-dried Lindow Man in his environmentally-controlled glass case.
Lori spun the drawing board around on her knees and repositioned her ruler to draw the skeleton's spine. Roger stood next to her, the grey-haired dig director prone to inspirational audio books and doling out his advice. He was about to ask the question, the one everyone wanted to ask. She gripped her pencil. Don't start this, Roger. Please.
"So, this is it, your last season?" The dig director stamped his boot as if to check for soil compaction. Lori ran her tongue along the inside of her lower lip, trying hard to give him some credit. After all, he had to ask in order to coordinate next year's dig. She brushed away eraser rubbings and leaned into her work. "Things aren't settled yet."
Roger let out a long breath. "Yes, they are."
"No, they really aren't." But yes, they really were. The one-way ticket to California waited in her wallet like a lifeline, ready to pull her away from this excavation — and every other ruin for that matter — for good. She had already taken a job with Inyo County's Water Department as a hydrologist. Yesterday she had used the dig house's Wi-Fi to put a deposit down on a one-bedroom apartment just off Parker Street, where the road ended and there was nothing but trees — old trees, and that was good.
A breeze blew dirt into her eyes. She blinked, rubbed them and continued. "You're casting a shadow."
Roger stepped back, and the skull brightened, the cracks darkened. He said, "You're scared of something."
The skeleton seemed to quiver, and Lori's stomach rolled. She pressed her lips and pretended to be merely annoyed with Roger's conclusion. And why shouldn't she be? People changed careers. All. The. Time. Plenty of people lived and died in their hometown. Was that so wrong? Did they need their blood analyzed for mutation? Didn't he know two hundred years ago it was normal to be born and die in the same house? She was nowhere near being that isolated. She was going to work with an entire team to re-water the dry river of the Owens Valley. That's plenty engaging. Why was everyone hurling clichés at her, saying she was giving up her dream, running away from her talents, or "Scared?" She glanced up with a cocked eyebrow, trying to make him feel idiotic. It didn't work.
"There's something ..." He rubbed his neck.
"What's there to be scared of at a dig site?"
"Good question," he said and stared off into the distance, as if he were actually trying to come up with an answer.
Lori moistened her throat with a swallow and cut into his thoughts. "I'm not scared, Roger. I'm just not the right person for the work." She looked back down and screwed up her face. It was a stupid reply. Everyone knew the history of her career, knew she had an ancestral line of archaeologists reaching farther back than the word archaeology. Then there were her finds. People joked that the list of her discoveries rivaled the length of the Isaiah Scroll.
Roger squatted, leaning his elbows on his knees and making Lori steel every obstinate cell in her body. She could feel him summoning up that low, leading voice — the one meant to ease your will off its hind legs.
"I'm not asking you to tell me why you're leaving," he said. "I'm only asking that, if there's any doubt in your head — any whatsoever — you give it some breathing room. That's all." He took off his floppy hat and wiped his forehead. "You're going to break his heart."
"It's either his heart or my sanity," she said darkly. Roger didn't ask her to explain. Smart of him, because he would only get a cold look in return. She knew he knew that. And he knew she knew he knew that. Eight digging seasons together made you get to know what you can and can't get out of a person.
He tried again. "Give it one more season. Accept the directorship in Recapolis. You know they could use you. Look," he replaced his hat, "I don't know how you track down find-spots as if they've got giant, neon signs over them, but you do. You're needed out here."
Lori dropped her pencil and pinched the bridge of her nose. Comments like that over and over. Blast it, why? Yes, she had a curious way of finding artifacts, and if all people wanted were contributions to archaeological journals, then fine, call her the best in the field. But the ground mocked her every effort to raise the broken and nameless. It couldn't go on. She wanted out. She wanted —
"What are you erasing?" Roger leaned his head over her drawing.
Lori realized she had started erasing nothing — and with enthusiasm. She slowed her hand, tapped the eraser on the board and looked at his dirt- crusted boots. "Please, Roger, I just need to finish this. Some space, okay?"
A moment, and she watched him walk away.
With Roger a good distance off, Lori flattened her hands on the drawing board as though to take a solemn oath. She drew in a long breath of coastal air and looked out over the ancient peristyle court. Volunteer diggers brushed away dirt from the broken mosaic floor that sagged in the middle where the topsoil had been heaviest. Loose pieces of mosaic were scattered all over like hundreds of lost teeth.
A bitter taste climbed up Lori's throat. She worked out her jaw and turned away from the ruin to focus on the scrubbed Taurus Mountains, then the cliffs that plummeted down to the whitecaps of the Mediterranean. Experience told her not to look down at the skeleton. She'd have to feign the flu again. People were at a loss to explain her sudden bouts of sickness, so they accepted whatever excuses she gave them. Still, they suspected something, and that gave her another reason to leave.
Lori pushed her fingers deep into her curls, allowing a cool breeze to weave its way through them. Tight, black ringlets were a curse when digging in the middle of summer. She steadied her breaths and tried to forget what was buried out there — everything lost, forgotten, all the Skeletons in all the Wells. She could sense them around her, stories shaking underground, trapped. Yet when she dug them up ... silence.
Enough. Opening her eyes, she angled her head toward the ground where the dark green leaves of a sea squill crawled over the cream dirt. The tips of her fingers tingled. Another one was close, very close. Not more than five feet down.
She rummaged in her workbox, found a little blue flag and stabbed it between the leaves. Think of this as a parting gift, Roger.
The next day, she received a text that her team had ripped up the sea squill and excavated another skeleton, but Lori didn't draw this lost soul. She was already on a plane bound for London. She had to go and tell him she was done with archaeology.
Within forty-eight hours, Lori stood backstage in the British Museum's Stevenson Lecture Theater. Applause erupted, three hundred strong. Journalists and benefactors nodded at each other. Cameras flickered. Lori's grandpa trundled onto the stage, his round chin resting just above his plaid bow tie. In the archaeological community, he was well loved for all his Mesopotamian finds, but especially for his discovery of the Tigris Foundation Figurine, which was a great story of wit and daring when he told it to you over a glass of port. But even the archaeological community didn't know the best thing about him. Really there was no way to know unless you spent loads of time with him in the sitting room of his townhouse in Bedford Square. Lori had spent loads of time there, so she knew.
"Curiosity!" he said, bouncing up on the balls of his feet. Lori's lips pressed into a smile as she watched him from offstage. "That's what we're here for, isn't it? When an archaeologist discovers an object, she immediately begins deducing what its uses were, what era it's from, and so on. And she uses all of her prior learning to make an informed guess. However," he raised a pudgy finger, "please believe me when I say there are moments in an archaeologist's life when an object will not give up its secrets. What then? Most of these objects hide away in museum basements. But for the next three months, it's their turn to challenge you — their turn to see what you make of them."
Grandpa gripped the edges of the podium and leaned in. "Ladies and gentlemen, seven generous museums from around the world have loaned their single most mysterious, most baffling, most wonderfully frustrating artifact to be included in the British Museum's latest exhibit: Curiosities from Around the World: Objects Without Origin. I invite you to guess for yourselves where you think these pieces came from, how they might have been used, and to whom they might have belonged. For your guess is as good as ours. To be perfectly honest," he scratched behind his ear, "it's part of why we'd like you to have a look at them, you know. Perhaps if we put our heads together ..." and the speech blurred in Lori's ears.
She had been ten years old the first time Grandpa took her to a dig. His team had uncovered an Anglo-Saxon church in Yorkshire. Its muddy walls were half-exposed and gulped the fresh air. After eleven hundred years they were raised. She pressed her ears to one of the crumbled walls to see if she could hear a heartbeat. She blew on it because maybe it needed to remember how to breathe. She had run her hands over its cracks, notches, seams, because maybe she could rub feeling back into the stones.
Stay focused. You have to tell him.
Grandpa's excitement grew. "Now, if you'll just look at the screen behind me ... yes, there we are ... here's a little slideshow." He introduced the pieces in the exhibit and the participating museums, then said, "Of course, these artifacts aren't all the intrigue we have in store for our visitors. Be assured we are only at the beginning of things." He glanced to Lori and winked.
What was that for?
At the end of the presentation, Grandpa thanked everyone for coming. Resounding applause reverberated through the room, followed by the commotion of people exiting the theater for the drinks reception. Lori waited for the theater to clear before emerging from backstage.
The museum had closed to the public for the evening, so she was nearly alone when she crossed the Great Court. Upon passing the circular Reading Room, she spied the two black banners that hung down on either side of its doors. They heralded the coming exhibit — Grandpa's exhibit — in stark white letters. She could feel their silent judgment, so she asked them, very politely, to please shut up.
The reception was being held in the Enlightenment Room, a long gallery lined with warm wooden curio cases that housed everything from old tomes to a stuffed platypus. A low, satisfying rumble of voices and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 floated on the air. Lori lifted a champagne glass from the glittering tray of a passing waiter.
Lori turned to see the speaker. He was wearing a brown suit.
Who wears a brown suit to a black-tie event?
He looked about her age, late twenties, but without much confidence — at least in this setting. His dark hair was ruffled above his left ear, like he had been nervously scratching his head.
Confirmed. He scratched his head even now while he waited for her reply.
"Please, call me Lori," she said.
He relaxed a bit. "Thomas Day." He reached out a hand. Lori hesitated — her hands were terribly calloused, and she'd always felt self- conscious of them. But as she followed through with the gesture, she was relieved to find his hands were just as rough.
"Glad to finally meet you," he said. "You're very much your grandfather's granddaughter."
Lori slipped her hand into the folds of her skirt. "Found out by a single handshake. I guess you can tell I'm always in the dirt."
"Oh — no, I didn't mean that. No, it's just he's told me a lot about you, your work. You both are ... well, you're both very good at ... Also, everyone that's in the business talks about you. How do you do it?"
"Find things. You know, just like that. Do you know something we don't?" He studied her for a reaction, but she had become adept at answering these types of questions with the nonchalance of an English butler.
"I follow the rules like anyone," she said.
"No secrets then? I was hoping for a secret."
"And never any mistakes either."
Lori smiled and redirected. "How do you know Grandpa?"
He rocked his head, and his eyes wandered to the case of eighteenth- century medals. "I'm a carpenter for the museum. I build a lot of the displays for the special exhibits, so, you know, we've gotten to be good friends. I heard you scared the crap out of some vandals in Turkey."
Lori double-blinked as the subject u-turned. Blast it, can Grandpa keep nothing confidential? "I was just protecting the integrity of the site."
"And then some." His lips widened into a smile.
She tried not to glare at him. "A dig site is a nonrenewable cultural resource. Once you disturb it, that's it. The original context is destroyed."
"So, you went after them with a shovel." He dipped his head playfully.
She squinted. "It was the middle of the night, and I was half asleep. When I figured out those idiots were damaging ..." Never mind. Dig sites were no longer hers to protect. She took a long sip of champagne. "It was the middle of the night."
"Of course." He seemed to realize the subject was hard on her, because he changed it. "So, where's your next dig?"
She swallowed, brushed her skirt. "Not sure, really. Still trying to decide."
"I suppose you're preoccupied with the exhibition."
"Yes — I mean no, I'm only here for the opening. I'm leaving for Oxford tomorrow to visit friends, then flying home."
His eyes grew troubled. "I'm surprised. I thought you'd want more time with the artifacts in the exhibit."
"Yes, well, I've already seen them. All seven are ..." silent, cold, dead, take your pick, "well-chosen. But none of them are in my area of interest."
He raised his eyebrows as if he had learned something encouraging and accepted a glass from a waiter. "And what did you think of the eighth artifact?"
Lori's glass stopped below her lips. "What eighth artifact?"
"The one your grandfather added to the exhibit yesterday. He was able to get it squared away pretty quickly and, um ... so, he didn't say anything about it to you?" He tapped his finger against his glass. "Strange."
She shook her head. "It isn't strange. This is an old game. Where is he?"
"Still with the press, I think." He smoothed the hair above his ear. "I'll let you go. Very good to meet you, Lori. Enjoy the rest of the evening." He gave her a nod and returned to roaming, a brown suit amongst a sea of black.
Three conversations later, Lori spotted Grandpa maneuvering his stout frame through the gallery. People tried to draw him into their conversations, but he only pushed his glasses back up his nose and excused himself politely. His smile widened as he shuffled toward her.
"Isn't it brilliant? Simply splendid?" he asked, his round fists in the air.
She kissed his cheek. "You only get away with this stuff because you've been here longer than that statue of Demeter."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kingdom Of Ruins"
Copyright © 2018 D. C. Marino.
Excerpted by permission of Celebrate Lit Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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