County Galway, Ireland
Lifting her head, Moira lowered the long lids of her eyes, brown lashes shielding them from the brilliant reflection of the sun. The oddly lunar landscape of Connemara was gilded by the radiance of late afternoon, every naked crag, every tumbled rock, limned in gold. The low-lying scrub, which varied in shades of green from sage to emerald, appeared painted by it in highlighting strokes. Even the small herd of wild, long-legged, sure-footed ponies that had ventured nearer as the day progressed looked as though their hides were coated in honey. Yet she knew that behind her head, if she would turn to look toward the coast, the sky was nearly the color of fading ink as storm clouds rolled toward land on the Atlantic winds. Like a distant drumming of her own blood beat, she felt the vibration of far-off thunder.
Breathing in, then out, then in again, she smelled the damp, loamy soil, the cool air, the warmth of the sun trapped in the fabric of her tee shirt, the scent of well-earned sweat, not only her own, but that of her nearest neighbor, a man about her age, perhaps thirty-four or so, and also from the States who was crouched over the turned earth beside her feet. She listened to the whispering noise of his trowel moving carefully through the dirt, followed by the quieter sound of a soft-bristled brush, whisking aside the loosened soil to reveal what lay beneath.
Despite the approaching storm, she felt relaxed, releasing all tension from her muscles as the breeze tossed her golden-blonde hair forward across her eyes. It had been a good day, a very good day. To her right, toward the east, she heard the noise of the tent flaps whipping in the rising wind, the guide lines singing in counterpoint to the strains of a bit of classical music coming from the CD player. Someone had changed the disk, she realized with a smile. A few minutes ago they had all been listening to the rather raucous sounds of heavy metal. The former had been the choice of one of the younger members of the group, to be sure. They were a varied fellowship, brought together by a common goal to unearth the past.
Beneath the tent's stretch of canvas countless artifacts had been arrayed to be identified, photographed, sorted, catalogued, packed in gauze in sturdy boxes for the trip to the Kildare Street lab in Dublin. So many times a site yielded little, sometimes nothing, in terms of relics of the past. Oh yes, it had been a very good day.
Planting her hands in the small of her back, fingertips meeting, Moira arched her spine backwards against the pressure of her fingers, easing a knot of tender tissue. She could feel it just below the surface of her flesh, a result of being hunched over her bent knees for hours on end, and she dug one knuckle directly into the muscle, feeling a satisfying pop as the blood released. A sigh of pleasure, of relief, moved low in her throat.
Cracking one lid, she glanced sidelong in the direction from which the voice had come. Her companion for the afternoon had risen and was dusting dirt from his knees. His tee shirt was faded with age and abuse, but she could still make out the brittle depiction of the New York City skyline and the single word title of the popular television sitcom about six friends. Steve, she thought the fellow's name was. Since moving into the place vacated by her former partner, his conversation had been minimal. The only reason she knew he also had come to Ireland from the United States was his obvious and almost stereotypical New York accent and the fact that he had actually told her as much, when he mentioned his name.
"I do," she told him. "One tends to get stiff, hunched over like that. How's your back?"
"Fine," he said. "Took some ibuprofen. Storm's moving in. Maybe the damp doesn't help, huh?"
Her other eye opened as she studied him critically. "Possibly not," she agreed.
"Water?" he asked, turning to expectorate the dust he'd been breathing in. He jerked his chin in the direction of the cooler containing bottles of Avian.
She nodded her thanks, pushing wind-whipped hair from her eyes. By the very nature of its location, the operation was plagued by daily rainfall, usually followed by a spectacular rainbow. When this storm got closer, the team would scurry to place everything under cover, wait for the rain to pass, and then set about business as usual. Knowing she still had time, Moira dropped to her knees to take up where she'd left off before standing, warming once more to the work at hand. Her trowel immediately struck something hard, gleaned more by the feel of the blade rather than any sound of contact. The wind whistled through the vale. Glancing up, Moira noted that preparations were calmly under way to move the packaged items to a waiting vehicle for later transport. She returned her attention to the earth beneath her hands, digging with the tip of her finger before applying the brush.
Despite the sun warm on Moira's back and in her hair, and glinting off the object barely unearthed, the sporadic wind matched the chill that coursed her spine. The voice of the approaching storm growled, vibrating the earth beneath her knees. Willing herself to remain calm, Moira utilized the brush to delicately clear away the clinging debris that time had wrought. As she worked with painstaking care she had to remind herself to breathe. Her heart pounded in her breast, a forceful rhythm of suppressed excitement echoed by another roll of thunder. Grain by grain, she cleared the dirt away, wriggling the pointed end of the brush handle underneath the object when she felt certain she could pry it loose without damage. With the unknown object balanced in the loosened cradle of earth, Moira slipped her left hand into a latex glove hanging out of her pocket, pulling it on with her right and the additional aid of her teeth, and then she popped the item out of the soil and into her palm.
"Oh," she said again, a bare expulsion of air.
About the length of her hand, the object was clearly gold, as the elements and time could do nothing to tarnish the beauty of that particular metal. Shaped like a curved sickle, the object was scribed with images of a language that predated most of the other artifacts pulled from the site. Thus far, the relics identified seemed to date roughly to an eighth century Christian settlement. This, if her initial supposition proved correct, was a Druidic relic. A crescent, or cead-rai-re, meant to denote the first quarter in the lunar cycle or, more specifically, the sixth day of the moon.
Awed, Moira wiped the pointer finger of her right hand on the fabric of her pants, to remove as much of the natural oils as possible, then touched the edge of the relic. Finely wrought, it was not much thicker than the cover on a paperback book, but still solid and unbent. The chance shifting of the earth that had brought it to the surface had, amazingly, left it unharmed, as had all the hundreds of years between its casting and use and its finding its way into her hand.
Lowering her lids, she tried to imagine the passage of time, the myriad lives, the moments of epochal and mundane occurrence, the changes wrought, the static element of being. In her mind's eye she saw the countless days, or her concept of those days, arrayed in lightning speed, back and back and back, to a hand, lean and calloused and strong, burying the cead-rai-re in the soil, for remembrance....
Sucking in a gasping breath, Moira's eyes flew wide. She blinked as a darkness passed over her, blocking the sun's warmth. Driven by the fierce coastal winds the storm had arrived, blue-black clouds roiling, the shadow of their arrival flying before them across the craggy landscape. A fork of lightning lit the bruised horizon as she turned her head.
"Oh, hell," she whispered and struggled to her feet against the buffeting wind. Looking all around, she found everyone in a flurry of activity, clearing the site, covering the exposed dig. No one was near her, nor had alerted her to the sudden, emergency status. How long had she been sitting there lost in contemplation of the relic still grasped in her hand?
She bent to gather her tools, first pushing the dirt she had just removed back into the ground, in the hope that it would provide some protection from the threatened onslaught to whatever else lay hidden. There was no plywood nearby, no tarp. As she straightened again, her respiration caught in her lungs. Every hair on her arms and on her head seemed to lift at the same instant as if charged, waving madly, and not from the wind. With a small cry she realized what was about to happen and leaped to roll for cover, eyes closing instinctively against a star-bright flash that never came.