He scratched and scraped in the dark. It was hot in the small hole and already his breathing was becoming laboured. The only light came from a dim lamp precariously lodged on a ledge just above his head. It lit the ground beneath his hands so he could see its contours and colours, but it made little else in the man-made cave visible.
He was so close, though, he knew. He couldn’t stop now. Scrape, scrape, scrape, went his trowel as he gently pulled away another layer of ancient dirt. He just needed one piece, one small insignificant bit of detritus and then he would know. He would be able to prove that he had found it. His name would forever go down in history as the discoverer of the ‘Reaper’s Tomb’.
Outside, the sun had long since said goodbye to the Isle of White. The little patch of the Medina river about a mile south of the estuary was now silent in its blanket of black. Not even the moon had wished to rise that evening and, save for the faint and distant twinkle of the civilised world, nothing moved The scratchings and scrapings from inside the hollow mound could not find their way out of the tiny round hole that Dr Philips had made and so all outside was tranquil in its emptiness.
At the edge of the newly dug entrance was a circular rock. Its edges bore the marks of careful craftsmanship, gentle kisses from an ancient chisel that had morphed it into an unnatural disk shape.
When Dr Phillips had chanced upon the mound and its discrete entrance, and pure chance it had been, the rock had easily rolled from the tunnel it covered, despite the crusts of moss and weeds it had acquired. However, while luck had brought him to this spot, it was no accident that he immediately knew what he had discovered. He had been searching for the pre-historic “Reaper’s” tomb for over half of his life. He had lost his wife, his job and his reputation over his insistence that the mythical tomb was somewhere to be found.
There were only three known passages in history which mentioned the tomb, and all of those were speculation on hearsay rather than eyewitness accounts. The first was in the journal of Julius Caesar, on his second invasion of Britain. The Roman was describing some of the unusual practices of the druid people and in one short passage he said:
“Not only are they intent on the barbaric ritual sacrifice at times of festival, they also sacrifice their young men to a spirit they call ‘the robe of death’. Every boy who wishes to join their ungodly group is forced inside a small burial tomb and captive their for the whole night. During that time it is said the boy is visited by a figure dressed in the robes of the druids and holding one of their sickles. A test is then administered to the young man and those who fail are never seen again.”
The next mention of anything resembling such a practice came from the Roman Suetonius when describing Vespasian’s conquest of the Isle of White. All he mentioned on the matter was “the island of Vectis, where the practice of feeding young men into death’s tomb still persists, was a worthy prize for Vespasian’s efforts.”
The third and final mention in History was from the Venerable Bede. His account mimics the first two very closely and there is little doubt that he was calling upon these two sources for his information. He actually included more detail around the practice but whether this was from a third now lost source or from his own imagination it is impossible to tell.
“Those boys who wished to become druids themselves were thrust into an open burial mound known as ‘the robed man’s tomb’ on a moonless night and sealed inside. It is said that at the hour of midnight the young man was visited by death himself and would only survive until morning if he could prove himself pure of heart.”
In the dark a small thumbnail sized piece of dirt came away under the caress of Dr Philips’ trowel. He poked at it cautiously and the soil crumbled into a pile of dust. There were still no finds, nothing. Even if this wasn’t the right tomb, a man made hovel like this should have something inside it. The lamp light flickered and he gave it a light tap, as much to quiet his aggravation as the lamps fluttering.
A cold breeze was starting to press itself in through the entrance and Dr Philips let out a slight shiver as he huddled on the floor. The room inside was around the size of a two man tent and had the same dome like roof the modern variety favour. Despite the small space, the light still didn’t illuminate the back wall.
Dr Phillips pulled himself up onto his elbow and, sliding one foot underneath himself, he sat back, cross-legged. Looking around, his eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom on the outskirts of the lamp’s immediate area. As he surveyed the circular chamber ghostly shadows faded in and out of focus as his eyes tried to latch onto a hard edge.
As he was staring at the far wall, a shape started to materialise out of the blackness. At first it was just a small line but then it started to grow, as if it were coming closer. With every beat of his quickening heart a black silhouette approached him. Within moments it was looming over Dr Philips, on the very edge of the lamps influence. There were still no features on the beast, just the outline of a figure.
In a sudden burst of panic Dr Philips grabbed at the lamp and thrust it out in front of him like a wizard proffering the end of a staff toward an evil doer. In a flash the back of the circular room was lit in a dim gold light, while behind him, the walls and entrance dripped into darkness. There was nothing there. No figure, no beast.
Dr Philips started to laugh. Now that he could see properly with the light of the lamp he realised that the silhouette of the figure was actually just the edge of a protruding rock. It was a large slab of local stone and appeared to stand about a foot in front of the back wall. It reached up to the roof of the small space, but no longer loomed now it was washed with light.
He shuffled along on hands and knees to investigate. The slab was indeed about a foot in front of the back wall, creating a little cavity behind. Stuffed into the tight space, with apparently no ceremony or respect, was a huddled skeleton of a young boy. It looked like he had been curled in the foetal position, but it was hard to tell now his flesh had crumbled away and his pale bones and fallen from each other.
Dr Philips normally would have smiled at this point, this was the find he had been looking for. How fitting too to find a skeleton in such a place. He made a quick and expert examination of the bones and found a cut on the skull that was most likely the cause of death. Something like a sword or axe he guessed.
Outside there was the sound of a rock sliding over its companions, the noise dulled by the wadding of earth around the chamber. The lamp in his hand flickered again, the flash of darkness lasting longer this time, and the cold breeze was back, sending another shiver down Dr Philip’s spine. Out of the fissures in his brain crawled the old saying ‘someone just walked over my grave’ and he gave another involuntary shiver. He suddenly had a compulsion to leave. He had his find now, he could sleep easy and return tomorrow to excavate the place properly.
The wind ran its fingers through his hair, like a spider making a nest, and that tightened his resolve. Still crawling on hands and knees, with the lamp in one curled hand, he started toward the dark round hole of the entrance. In an instant the tomb was pitch black. He paused and gave the lamp a shake, but it didn’t even splutter in reply. Dr Philips was suddenly aware of just how cold the temperature had dropped and his mouth started to chatter sightly.
He crawled in the darkness. The cold earth beneath him was numbing and felt distant from his fingers. Every breath that he exhaled left a brief glimmer of warm damp air lingering at his cheeks. At the wall near the entrance he started to stroke his hands over the stone, looking for the small hole he had crawled through. But, all his hands could find was the craggy stone of the chamber. He started to panic, throwing his hands all over the stone wall in front of him, pawing at it like a starving cat. He followed the wall round, his hands constantly searching for the gap, searching for the hole. Then, finally, he found it.
The sense of relief that coursed through his veins did something to warm up his aching limbs. He curled his hands around the edges of the two stones either side of the entrance and then, reassured, he went to crawl out into the open air. His hands felt something odd beneath them. Something long like a stick or a bone. A bone. The idea formed in his mind like a winter’s worth of ice. It wasn’t the entrance he’d found. In his haste he had crawled around the circular wall and was back at the skeleton.
In the anger of blind fear his hands latched onto the skull of the young boy and, with his fingers nestling in the thin mortal wound, threw it across the chamber. The sound of cracking bone reverberated around the tomb. It coursed along the two walls as well as across the centre, coming at him from three sides. Crunching, cracking bones were all around him. The find which had been so precious only a moment ago, pressed down on him and suffocated what was left of his nerves.
Scrabbling back across the floor he started banging on the wall. Hammering it with his fists, ignoring the pain and feeling of seeping blood from his hands. From somewhere, either outside or another ungodly place, came the rush of wind, the breath of an unknown terror, and a rumble of distant thunder. Turning, Dr Philips could see a light in the centre of the room.
It wasn’t a normal light though. It was a black light. While it was still completely dark, it stood out against the blackness of the chamber. It glowed and cast its influence on the world around itself, but it didn’t illuminate, rather it lit things in a sticky slime like texture. He pressed his back against the wall and stared as, out of the orb of black light came a silhouette. There was no doubt this time, it was a silhouette of a figure.
Dr Philip’s edged around the chamber wall, closing his eyes and muttering something to himself. It was possibly the Lord’s Prayer or a nursery rhyme, in his state his mind couldn’t tell the difference. It was just words, words that should hold comfort, like a tomb should hold a grave.
As he edged, his shoulder hit a stone. He was, for a third time, back at the cavity of the back wall. In the centre of the chamber the figure was almost man sized now. Standing as if there was no ceiling in the tomb, standing tall with something curved and glinting in his hand. Dr Philips, curled his shoulders in and pushed his back into the small crevice, falling down onto the headless skeleton. He slammed his eyes shut and, tucking his legs into his torso and his hands over his ears, he tried to forget the world. He tried to forget the rocks and the wind. He tried to forget the earth and the cold. He tried to forget history and, in an instant as slender as a knife edge, he lost his future.