by Bobby Oldsmock (aka Molly Hatchet aka Mike Lowndes, with apologies to Rob Holdstock)

02:Feb:1998

NOTE TO READER: This sketch first appeared on the fan fiction section of the original Time Team Forums on Channel 4. These were unceremoniously switched off at some point in the last umpteen years but through the diligence of the community, this was saved from electronic extinction.

Belatedly dedicated to the memory of Rob. How our heroes are taken before their time.


Prologue:

A local farmer first brought Loxley Wood to the attention of Time Team. This place had been ignored by archaeologists due to its being on private estate land for so long. Little was known about the wood apart from a few rumours of the disappearance, many years ago, of some local eccentrics.

The farmer had been coppicing on the edge of the wood when he had stumbled upon the mostly buried remains of a stone circle with, unusually, a center ‘alter stone’. He had been impressed, as although he’d lived nearby for many years he’d not seen anything like this before. However, it was by then late and since it was getting dark he had returned home. The next day and for several days thereafter he tried but was unable to find the clearing again. Something didn’t quite make sense but he had remained convinced that the circle was unrecorded. Although he was keen for the team to investigate, he was very reluctant to join them and instead provided an old Ordnance Survey map with the approximate position of the site marked on it.

* * * *

Because of the lack of a previous record, The Team decided to do an initial survey without Tony or the film crew. So it was that Mick, Phil, and Carenza set out on a misty March morning following a path which according to the Ordnance Survey map, skirted the wood.

They entered the wood via an old gateway. There had been a path or road here at one time but it had now disappeared under young trees and brambles. The way became difficult but Phil was useful with a machete. After some time they came across an old red-brick house, almost destroyed by the forest. This appeared on their map to be outside the borders of the wood, but it seemed that the circle was marked nearby. A small animal path headed off into the wood, down a small but sharp valley.

The farmer had told them that the stone circle was only a few hundred yards down this path, but an hour later they were still walking. It was Mick who first heard the sound of crying in the distance. After a while the others could hear it too. It sounded like the keening of mourners. As they continued into the wood the sound faded. Mick was unnerved by this but kept on. The landscape became steeper. They plodded on, the trail around them becoming less well defined. The Team were somewhat worried by now: the farmer had assured them that the site was no more than a few minutes walk into the wood, but they seemed to have been walking for hours. All of them began to be bothered by feelings of being watched, or that small creatures flitted around them, just out of sight.

Finally they emerged into a clearing. Granite cliffs loomed ahead of them and huge oaks surrounded their entrance. If anything could be a Sacred Grove thought Carenza, this is it. In the centre of the clearing was the target of their journey; a large stone circle. However, the stones appeared deeply buried in the ground, as if the forest was trying to hide them from view.

The Team decided to split- Phil would start a test-trench including the Northern-most stone while Carenza began one around the alter stone.

Although it was late morning, the clearing was quite dark and the sky cloudy. Phil dug around the inner face of the megalith and began to reveal a large carving on its surface. He rapidly dug down and realised that it was a face or mask on the stone. As Phil cleared the soil from the details of the mask he started – had the face moved? In the grey light, strange half-glimpsed images floated in the periphery of his vision. He shivered. “Goddamn it ” he breathed – something about this place was getting to him. He stopped for a moment. That was it! No birdsong.

The mask was clear now – a grotesque face carved into the rock, lips apart with jutting teeth, like slabs. Below the face was a carved sigil, a whorl with a beak-like carving to its right. Scraping away the soil at the base of the stone, Phil’s trowel scraped along a smooth brown object. Phil instantly recognised bone. This was the top of a skull. His anxiety left him in this excitement and he cleared the soil around it. As he exposed the skull, he noticed that the teeth were large and pronounced, not dissimilar to those on the carving. Could this have been a high priest?

* * * * *

A strange smell wafted over the clearing. Something burning. The team stopped work as one. They could hear the crackling of fire close by. The forest darkened as clouds blotted out the sun. Suddenly nervous, they left their trenches and huddled together at the edge of the clearing, tasks forgotten. A cry came from the far side of the circle, like a bird, but then again human. Figures emerged from the mist at the edge of the clearing. Half naked men with spears and small shields entered the clearing and positioned themselves between the stones of the circle. The Team could see a fire, fluttering in and out of the trees. Finally it emerged. A pyre was lit on a long platform carried by two men like a stretcher. The pyre was a human body.

A tall man emerged into the centre of the clearing. He wore a kilt of rough cloth and a helmet which included the skull of a boar worked into its design. He threw a white substance onto the altar stone and traced a circle in the soil around it with his spear.

The ring of men began a low ululating cry as the body was brought into the centre of the circle and laid down on the altar stone. The warlock stepped forward, the feathers and stones of his necklace shining in the fire. He reached into a pouch and brought out two small long haired pelts. Carenza’s stomach began to rise as she recognised the scalps for what they were.

The warlock threw the grisly trophies on to the pyre. A wail went up from the surrounding warriors. Spears drummed the earth. The warlock drew out a long knife of bone and cut himself across the chest with a cry of anger and pain. The warriors responded as one with a great shout.

The Team could feel the earth vibrating beneath their feet as the ceremony progressed but now it changed to a different rhythm – that of a galloping beast. The warriors stopped dead in their tracks. A great crashing could be heard in the woodland to the north and the vibration grew louder. With a great roar, small trees to the north of the clearing were rent aside as a huge figure emerged. This figure had the torso of a man but, it seemed, the head of a huge prehistoric stag with massive, many pronged antlers.

The huge stag reared and the team could see that it had the four legs of a deer, and yet also arms which carried a great sling of leather. The man/stag bellowed at the warlock who screamed and fell to the ground. The pyre blew up in a fireball which lit the faces of the warriors, frozen with horror. As the Team watched, the beast came up to the altar stone and gored the warlock as he lay. With its antlers now drenched in the blood and flesh of the warlock the great beast turned and galloped out of the clearing. Great panic ensued as the warriors grabbed the body of their magician and flung him into the pit dug by Phil. The warriors did not cover the body, but ran into the woods surrounding the site.

One warrior, a large man with red hair and the pelt of a bear worn as a cloak, was not so panic-stricken. He took weapons and spears that his kin had dropped and moved north, following the trail of the beast. Phil, caught up with the terror of the warriors and a sudden all-possessing hatred of the beast, followed him north into the woodland, gripping his machete tightly. As he stalked the warrior ahead of him, the flickerings in his periphery grew stronger and he began to see his comrades in the chase. Here would lie the answers to his unasked questions and he was sure, the mystery of the carved stone.

The body on the altar stone had been consumed and the ash was driven from the surface by a sudden howling wind. Even from the edge of the clearing Mick and Carenza could see that a huge crack had appeared in the stone, splitting it in two. Staring wordlessly at each other and in a sudden unnatural silence, they became aware that Phil was missing. A frantic but silent search ensued, being too afraid to raise their voices. But the thorny undergrowth around the clearing was too dense, and the only way out seemed now to be the way they had come. With an increasing sense of wrongness around them, the duo tracked back to the old ruin, each step outward seeming lighter than that before.

In the clearing, nothing moved for a long time.

* * * * *

If you’ve read the above and been baffled more than anything else then you need to read the  Mythago Wood cycle by Robert Holdstock .

If you enjoyed this, now read With Spangly Knobs On.