This story is by Elizabeth Cooper and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Professor Alexander James Michael MacManus put his hand on his back, bent
over, and grunted, exposing an ample part of his backside to me. I turned my head and
pretended to examine the pottery shard in my hand. “Heh heh, Alissa, lassie!” “Yet
another bone. Perhaps a chicken this time. We are standing over a treasure trove!” He
chuckled again, deposited the bone in the work belt around his waist, and shuffled off
I sighed. Treasure trove, my ass. We were spending what passed for summer in
Scotland on an ancient Viking dump. It’s true that ancient garbage can reveal many
things about a civilization-what people ate, what utensils they used, etc.,etc. But the
very nature of a refuse mound is that it reveals what the group of people no longer
wants or needs. Yes, it confirmed that Vikings had lived here for some time in the ninth
century and had discarded all kinds of broken tools and smashed plates. But why could
we not move on?
I was here on a scholarship program through Yale to get some direction for my
Phd thesis. “On loan from the States,” Dr. MacManus liked to say. I was leaning towards
studying why groups of Vikings lived in places outside of Scandinavia. A lot of research
had already been done on Viking travels and warmongering. But some sets of Vikings
were apparently sent out to establish beach heads in far flung lands. The agricultural
resources in Scandinavia were limited by their far northern sites. It was too cold to have
anything but a very short growing season. So some of the feared longboats were sent
out with men, women, and children as well as chickens as evidenced by the bones
in our dump. In essence, the Vikings were attempting to establish colonies in more
The bell rang for our end of the day wrap up and everyone moved towards the
tent. I was friendly with the two other women, and a Scot named Angus. I added my
pottery shards to the table. Yet again we had piles of various animal bones, broken
pottery, pieces of tools, and a few bright beads. Too bright for Dr. MacManus. “Don’t
polish ‘em up, I’ve told you time and time again! We need to analyze the soil they are
“Quite a good haul, Professor,” Angus commented. “But I was wondering if we
might expand beyond the refuse area anytime soon?” We all glanced at one another
hopefully. “Nay, nay!” Dr. MacManus sputtered. “ There is still much to be discovered
here!” He coughed into his handkerchief. “Please be here promptly tomorrow morning.
We will have some new quadrants to lay out.”
I headed toward my small rental car, longing for a bath. I was caked with sticky
clay mud, and cold to boot. I felt discouraged, too, and thought a walk near the cliffs
might lift my spirits, warm up, and give me some much needed exercise. I remembered
a track I had passed before, and began to look for it. I turned off and drove towards the
bluffs, passing the ruins of a house and several tumble down sheds.
I parked near some large boulders, then headed towards the path on top of the
bluffs. I put on my wool hat and gloves and set out. Soon I began to cheer up. The view
was spectacular-endless water dotted by rocky lumps of sea stacks. What would it
have been like to see a fleet of Viking ships coming over the horizon? If anyone lived
here at that time, it surely would have made their blood turn cold. The humble fishermen
who occupied the coasts lived in dread of seeing those sails. I sighed. Studying the
Vikings was truly a double edged sword. “Why do you want to study such violent
people?” my mother always asked. I never knew what to answer. They were violent,
yes, but also brave and bold. In an era where most people never ventured beyond their
tiny villages, the Vikings built fine ships which carried them all over the world. Perhaps it
was wrong, but I truly admired their audacity.
I came back from my walk refreshed but hungry. I got an energy bar out of the
car and sat on a rock nibbling. The wind snatched the wrapper away, and it snagged on
a thistle branch. I climbed over the rock to reach it, but missed my footing and fell
heavily. Now my foot was jammed in between some rocks.
I took a deep breath. Suddenly some of the stones started to slide down away
from my foot. The rocks gave way under me, and I dropped down into a hole, with more
rocks raining down on me. I landed hard on my butt, and covered my head with my
hands. Good thing I’d put on my hat and gloves I thought dazedly.
I coughed. Dust filled the air. A little light filtered down. I began to check myself.
My behind would be bruised. I moved my foot. It hurt a little, but it seemed to be
working. I blinked and looked around. I was about five feet below the ground.
Something caught my eye-a faint impression of color. I slid cautiously sideways and
reached over to the spot of color and picked it up. It was an ancient blue bead.
I caught my breath. An ancient bead not far from our refuse heap. Perhaps this
was where the Vikings had lived? IOne bead. That’s it-don’t get excited, I thought. I
looked around, but it was really too dark to see. I would have to come back. I carefully
made my way back to the opening. Luckily there were some protruding rocks I could
climb. A few rocks skittered down and made a faint echo. Hmm. Might be a large
space. When I climbed out, I looked back. The hole was only apparent if you were close
to it. I thought I should keep the cave a secret, at least until I knew what it contained. I
pulled up some thistle bushes and covered the hole. Then I headed for the hardware
I mentally ticked off tools I might need. Too bad I couldn’t just borrow a few from
the refuse site. I stopped my train of thought. Why was I thinking about keeping this a
secret? If this was a real Viking site, this could be very important to my career. Why was
Dr. MacManus. I didn’t like him. It went beyond that. I didn’t trust him. My gut told
me that he was hiding something. It also told me to guard my secret until I could figure
out what he was up to.
The hardware store owner was delighted to outfit me. “Archaeologist, eh? Shall I
put them in your boot for you, then?” I paused in confusion, both for the warmth of his
smile in his ginger beard and the time it took me to remember that “boot” was the trunk
of my car. “Oh, of course. Thank you,” I said. “Good luck,” he smiled,.
I was anxious to return to my find, and thankful that the summer nights in
Scotland meant that I still had some daylight remaining. I returned to the track that led to
the bluff and parked the car behind some trees. I put the tools and the small
flashlight in my battered backpack and carried the large flashlight. The hardware store
man, David, had reminded me to buy batteries, and then put them in the “torches”.
I walked to the opening in the rocks and gingerly removed the thistles. I began to
move a few stones to enlarge the opening. Then I heard footsteps behind me. Someone
cleared their throat. “Why, Alissa, how amazing to find you here, lassie,” Alexander
McManus snorted.” I was told you were clever, but I never guessed that you would
scout out this Viking site.” His eyes narrowed as he saw my flashlight and backpack.
Doing a bit of research all on your own, are you?” “Er, I was only going to check…” I
stopped when I saw the fury on his face.
“You young hot shots always want the credit for yourselves!” He leaned toward
me, face red with fury. I stepped back instinctively, and fell backwards into the cave.
When I awoke my head was throbbing, and there was no light at all. I looked up,
confused. Was it night already? I felt around for the flashlight, then remembered I had
another one in the backpack. When I pointed it up, I realized that the hole had been
covered up by a thick piece of plywood. I scrabbled up the footholds with difficulty and
was finally able to reach the wood. I pushed at it over and over. It wouldn’t budge.
I moved away from the rubble strewn area to a smooth floor. Soon I was able to
stand up and move forward. The walls had some strange lines marked on them-runes-
the ancient Norse alphabet. Could some of the Viking tribes have been cave
dwellers?. If this was true, it could be revolutionary information.
Ahead of me I saw what looked like a portal carved in the stone. I stepped
through it and gasped. This was no home-it was a burial chamber. More runes marked
the walls. Magnificent swords, some in disarray, leaned against the walls. In the center
of the chamber was a miniature Viking longboat. I walked up to it and shone the
flashlight inside. It had two skeletons side by side, each holding a sword. The bones
were mostly in place, and dessicated threads covered them thinly. Pendants and beads
lay on their neck bones, and their skulls were covered with the masks of warriors.
“Ah,” a familiar voice harrumped, “You are still with us. Most inconvenient.” Dr.
MacManus was casually leaning on a sword. He examined the hilt. “Lovely, isn’t it? Too
bad I have to sell it on the black market. Handy for research funding, though, and
personal necessities, of course.” He chuckled. “ I’ve known about this site for years.
There’s another exit. Let me show you.” I shrank back, my flashlight shaking the light
on the walls. “Or I could just seal you in.” I shook my head. He gestured with the
sword, and I moved ahead. “There-to the left.” He pushed me between two boulders
andI was outside. It was dusk now, and we were close to the edge of the bluff. He
seized my arm, held the sword sideways under my chin, and began to push me towards
the cliff. “No way to trust you young stars,” he grunted. I dropped the torch and grabbed
the sword and pushed back. The double edges were still sharp enough to cut my hands.
Suddenly, the hilt snapped off in Dr. MacManus‘ hands. He staggered sideways, then
stepped back to regain his balance. The edge of the cliff crumbled beneath him without
a sound. I peered over but saw nothing.
I was so tired. I began to trudge to the car, holding my bleeding hands,
when headlights blinded me. “Alissa, are you all right?” It was David. “My aunt called
and said you never came home, so I came to look for you.” “Aunt?” was all I could say.
“Yes, your landlady. We’re all related around here.” He saw my hands. He put his arm
around my shoulders. “Let’s get you out of here. Just tell me. Were you in the tomb?” I
opened my mouth but nothing came out. “We’ve all seen it at least once. We just keep it
quiet. Don’t want anyone poking around-no disrespect to you. We feel like they belong
to us, you know. So we respect the dead. After all, they are our ancestors.”