Disclaimer: All characters and backstory from "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Silmarillion" have been used without the permission of the Tolkien Estate, Ltd. All characters and backstory from "Xena Warrior Princess" have been used without the permission of Universal/Renaissance Pictures/Studios USA. The author intends neither profit nor distribution in print, nor are any claims made of official connections to the original works or creators. Any privately created copies of this work, any Internet postings, and any further presentations of this work must carry this disclaimer. There is no intention on this author's part to debase, belittle, or trivialize the original works. This author holds all the original material in the highest regard for its creativity.
Note to Readers: In writing this story I have presumed that the readers have a familiarity with the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, for most of this story is set in his world. Where material is not derived from his works, "The Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings" I have made notes of attribution, (i.e. UT, "Unfinished Tales"), or for Elvish words and phrases, as to their composition. Please excuse any errors in the creation of such words and phrases, as I am not a linguist. Knowledge of the canon of Xena Warrior Princess is less necessary, save that Melinda Pappas and Janice Covington were WWII era descendants of Xena and her companion Gabrielle, presented in the episode, "The Xena Scrolls".
"In An Age Before", © 2004-2005 by Phantom Bard
Readers may contact or comment to the author at PhantomBard2@aol.com
The din of sudden battle echoed amidst hard walls of close-fitted stone. It rebounded back, harsh, from the mountain's sheer face behind. Barking of dogs, crashing of timbers. Clattering hooves chasing a panicked tide of fleeing feet. Cruel laughter, cries of fear. Crowds raced through the city's darkened streets. It was an hour when only watchmen and the drunks staggering from the first circle's bars should have been afoot. But from narrow alleys and broad avenues came the clash of arms, the yelling of battle orders, and the words shouted in a harsh foreign tongue. Screams shattered what had been a peaceful night. And as always in war there was fire. Snapping, crackling, the hungry flames leapt skyward and reddened the underside of a rising pall of smoke. Dark and acrid clouds swirled up from the burning lower precincts, choking the fair airs about a tall white tower.
In the King's City on the Eve of Midsummer, none had expected such an attack. It had been long since war had visited this country, and longer still since it had been fought on the avenues within the gates. Here an Age had begun and passed in peace. But on this night the old strength and nobility of that Age came crashing down.
Now at last the enemy was come in force, numerous as ants, reckless as dogs with the mouth-foaming madness, and filled with an ancient hatred. The great cavalry from the eastern steppes, a barbarian horde grown unstoppable as a floodtide sweeping o'er the bottomlands; they had finally breached the border defenses. Many of them had entered earlier under the fair guise of traders, opening the way for their army. It was a successful treachery, for none had imagined that they would strike on this night ere the Ré i Anaro.*
*(Ré i Anaro, Day of the Sun, = ré day(24 hours) + i (def. art. the) + anaro sun(gen. -o, of); the Summer Solstice, celebrated to commemorate among other things, the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen. Quenya)
Conquering the city alone would not satisfy these hereditary enemies; nothing less than the utter destruction of the realm would suffice. Their hatred had been passed down from father to son through all the long years of an Age. Only when all the white walls were broken and tumbled and the fair courts shot with fire, when all the people lay dead and the glory of this ancient kingdom was reduced to ash, then only would the dark enemy smile in the triumph of their malice. And then they would take trophies, skins and scalps and skullcaps, to adorn their saddles and the poles of the tent cities they called scythes.
It was an old and familiar story. Through the Ages of Arda many a kingdom had risen to glory only to fall into ruin. Endóre* was littered with crumbling stones and buried nations. None stood forever in this Middle Earth, for in mortal lands all things changed. The low rose, the high fell, glory was found, lost, restored, and faded again, and ever darkness and light contested for supremacy. The tale was long but not endless, and though events had been presaged in the First Song long before, ever were the details a revelation to those who watched. And to those who lived within the song, they were heartbreaking and eventually tiresome in their toll. *(Endóre, Middle Earth, Quenya).
Were I not now so faded, I would raise again my sword, she thought helplessly, yet my time is long done, my being become ghostly, and my hand as a vapor.
A longsword with a fell blade of black steel rested in a scabbard at her hip, a ring of gleaming mithril hung at her side, but like her they were phantasms only, here under the moon and the sun and the stars. Neither would bite on an enemy any longer. She was still clad in her mail and plate, peerless armor from a bygone Age, the work of a realm long ago fallen into dust. Yet all of it was useless now, for no weapon of this time could bite on her anymore. Her fea remained intact, but her hroa had been consumed in the passing of the years. The world had changed and she had overstayed her welcome in it.
As a specter she walked through the streets, bypassing the combat, the conquerors and the vanquished alike, moving unseen as the very air, less substantial than the smoke and steam. She climbed to the High Court in time to see the King fall before the doors of his Citadel, his black robed guards already lying slain about him. The first bloodthirsty foes trampled his body in their rush to plunder the Hall of Kings. And she came just ere his breath fled. For a moment they locked eyes, sea-grey and sapphire blue.
"Unto the King's line alone is sight of thee given, yet now all fails," he whispered before coughing up a bloody phlegm, "the West hast fallen at last and lesser men shalt rule the days to come. I am the last of my line."
She knelt beside him and took his hand in her own. He was the last one here that could see or speak to her, and the last that she could touch, for across countless years and many generations, they shared a link in blood. In a few heartbeats she would truly be alone.
"Go now wheresoever it be that the spirits of Men may go," she said softly. "An end must come of all things in Middle Earth. Go in peace. Thou hath been a good king."
For just a moment a smile curled his lips, but it did not last. With his dying breath he made a request.
"Take now this ring, for 'tis a thing of value for its ancientry alone, and I would not have it fall into any but the hands of my kin and those who love my house."*
*(Shamelessly based on the words of Arvedui, last King of Arnor, to the Lossoth of Forochel, T.A. 1975)
Upon the first finger of the hand that fell limp within her own was a circlet of gold, the band formed as of two entwined serpents with eyes of red gemstones. Quickly she drew it from his finger and it came away easily, for the time of its abiding with him had passed. Then clasping it tight in her fist she closed his eyes, and turning, left the Court of the Tree for the last time. So ended the Fourth Age of the Sun.
By dawn the sack was complete and the city lay in smoldering ruins, while on the field before its shattered walls, the conquering horde reveled in the spoils.
Yet time shalt wipe away thy civilization too, she thought as she watched them, and thy people shalt be forgotten in their turn, for all thy days shalt pass into memory, and finally be forgotten in the fleeting of the years.
Bright, blindingly bright. There was no better description for this day, though one could add scorching hot and not be counted wrong. The southern coast of postwar Macedonia lay three miles to the south, and what scant breeze that blew north up the Stryma Vale from the Aegean to Amphipolis was miserly. It was scarcely sufficient to ruffle the woman's pale hair, and it had picked up so much heat from the intervening land that it felt like the backwash from a furnace. She squinted out from the precious slip of shade cast by the brim of her worn fedora, scanning the painfully brilliant afternoon. Not a single cloud had survived the heat to float in the sky above. Mid-August?the meaning of 'Mediterranean climate zone dry season' came alive in her parching throat and the sweat trickling down her back. It was enough to make an olive secrete its oil without a press.
Though she bitched to herself about the intensity of summer, she never let a word of it escape her lips. It was the perfect weather for an excavation. The lack of rain was a blessing, for precipitation was the greatest enemy on an archeological dig. Rain turned bared earth into mud. It eroded carefully excavated trenches and damaged newly revealed ruins. It could wash centuries old colors from murals, or rot ancient wood. And it could undermine a freshly revealed foundation, causing the last standing evidence of a structure that had survived from antiquity to collapse.
The harsh sunlight made the slightest differences in texture leap out of the background. Such raking light threw even time-eroded reliefs into stark visibility. The heat kept workers focused on completing their day's labors in order to go home, leaving behind a happy foreman and the promise of the next day's wage. It removed the temptation to waste energy goofing off. And it made the workers resent a slacker among them more than their employers did. She chuckled at that. Sometimes the gods were kind to struggling archeologists with limited time and funding. She hoped that they felt generous today.
No, Dr. Janice Covington would never voice her displeasure with the conditions. As the project's leader, she felt the pressure to maintain a disciplined and authoritative bearing. It was expected of a scientist and required all the more because she was a woman. Somehow, no matter how many digs she directed, no matter what wonders she unearthed, and no matter how she was respected at home, here in the field there was always a subtle challenge. She was a woman who held a doctoral degree, a tenured professorship, and a departmental chair at a major university in the United States. She was a woman already famous and widely respected for her discoveries and the scholarly papers she'd authored. Yet still, she was a woman directing men, and that was a potential source of friction, as much here in the Old World as at home in the New. Like any general, she couldn't show weakness before her troops. Janice would never complain of her discomfort in public.
With a slow and careful sweep of her eyes she surveyed the site. Between the eastern bank of the modern Stryma River where she stood, and the emerging west wall of the city that lay a hundred yards uphill, a work crew was removing the overburden hiding the series of pilings that she and her graduate assistants had discerned. Dr, Covington and her partner believed that these had once been the footings for a bridge spanning the ancient riverbed. She noted that the crewmen were moving at a slow but steady pace, shoveling off a yard of coarse, gritty soil before the slower and more painstaking work with trowels and brushes began. They'd made good progress since lunch. Just a few more days and they'd reach the end, if her guess as to the riverbank's ancient location was correct. Her eyes moved on.
Further uphill, Democratis Pemos, a graduate student from Athens, was concentrating on a section of masonry. These blocks were part of the foundation of the city's western wall, long ago demolished and burned. Janice's team suspected that a twelve-foot gap in the course of stones signified one of the city's gates, for it lay in a direct line with the bridge pilings.
Dr. Covington was impressed with the careful approach Democratis took to his work. At his age, her own temperament had been rash and impulsive, but also tenacious and inspired. With the passing years, she had mellowed somewhat. It had allowed her to coexist without shooting anyone in the Dept. of Archeology at the University of South Carolina. Of course there had been arguments, personality conflicts, name calling, and politics. Those were the mainstays of academic infighting, expected and indulged in most cases, and entirely eclipsed by a professor's ability to publish findings, secure donations, and increase enrollment. Somehow Janice Covington excelled at all these.
Her eyes swept yet further uphill. At the crest of a bluff that demarcated the visible horizon, a group of tents clung to the rocky soil like barnacles on a lobster's carapace. The smaller ones housed the on-site staff. The larger ones held a kitchen and dining space, a storage space, and the study area. It was from this last tent that a tall figure emerged. As Janice watched, she stretched and shook out her long fall of black hair. It was a sight that never failed to stir Dr. Covington's heart. With a wave, she caught the brunette's attention, and across the distance they shared a smile.
Melinda Pappas, Columbia, South Carolina socialite and heiress; she held no academic position, yet had earned a doctorate in classical languages fifteen years before. She was the best living practical translator of ancient Greek and Latin dialects, from the Classical Period to the Hellenistic Era, and one of the few people who could speak those lost tongues like a native. Mel had spent many years learning not only the vocabulary and construction, but also the correct pronunciation. For that, she'd had help. Incredibly, on an expedition in 1941, her body had been briefly possessed by the spirit of an ancestor so ancient that her speech had revealed the language as it had once been spoken. While she'd traded barbs and battled a god in his tomb, Melinda had memorized every syllable, every cadence, and every vernacular expression.
Later she had correlated those spoken words with the texts they'd discovered, the legendary "Xena Scrolls". Her study had allowed her to speak the language, not just read the words. Her accomplishment had been applauded throughout the archeological and linguistic communities, but went unrecognized by the public. Melinda hadn't been concerned in the least. Since that time, she'd spoken with her ancestor on a handful of occasions, and with each opportunity she had refined her knowledge. Then too, there was a strange irony inherent in her profession and inherited from the past.
Melinda Pappas' interest in language mirrored that of her ancestor's beloved partner, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, who had authored the "Xena Scrolls". Gabrielle, bard, warrior, and Amazon Queen, was the ancestor of Melinda's partner in this life, Dr. Janice Covington. And in this modern life, Janice, adventurous, decisive, and as skilled in the classroom as in a gunfight, mirrored Melinda's ancestor, Xena, the Warrior Princess.
From the bottom of the gritty hill, Janice saw her partner gesture for her to come up to the study tent. The translator wouldn't have called for her presence without a reason, and the call excited Dr. Covington. Mel was more likely to minimize the impact of a discovery that to dramatize it. She tended toward reserved and analytical, her scholarly attitude supported by the gentility of her patrician Southern background.
Janice trudged up the workers' path, skirting Democratis, whom she acknowledged with a nod, and continued past the site of the ancient gate. In the afternoon heat it was a climb best taken slowly, at a measured pace that metered her sweat and the hot air sucked into her lungs. Surviving August in Amphipolis was mostly a matter of controlling how quickly to let the heat cook your body from both the inside and out. It was a slow fry if done correctly, with rejuvenating dips in the river and lounging time under the stars. Janice and Mel had become old hands at it, having collaborated on a half-dozen digs in what had once been ancient Thrace and Macedonia. Jan stepped uphill over golden-tan soil stippled with pebbles and scree; this potentially treacherous footing on a steep grade demanded maintaining attention on her balance.
The first leg of the path took her past the excavation of a well-to-do merchant's home. The masonry walls were covered with a temporary wooden roof that protected the site from wind and precipitation. The home's interior walls were covered with geometric designs in gold and red, painted in sections that subdivided the interior walls into a series of panels. The decorations were surprisingly well preserved on the parts of the walls that still stood, and though the original roof had long ago fallen in, the site provided an insight into the aesthetics of the people who had lived here 2,400 years before.
Janice turned the first switchback and started up the second transverse leg of the path. Now the increasing altitude gave her a better view of the bridge piling excavation. From the stubs of the exposed posts, she could almost visualize the actual construction. It revealed a span wide enough for a pair of wagons to pass abreast. In fact, the bridge appeared to have been of the same width as the gate. No bottlenecks in traffic here, she realized. No hampering of the movement of goods in this successful commercial outpost of Athens that had quickly declared its independence from its mother polis and thrived.
She checked the slip of her right boot on a handful of marble-sized stones and barely kept her balance while uttering a soft curse. Served her right for letting her mind wander, she chastised herself. She resumed her pace with wariness, casting a quick glance up towards the tents. Mel was watching her and shook a finger at her as if she'd actually heard the curse. She knows me too well, the archeologist thought, and I love knowing she does. Jan's shrug and apologetic look were answered with a smile.
The archeologist returned her attention to her footing before she ended up slipping again. She didn't speed up or slow down. Around another switchback and up another transverse she walked. In the heat she had ample reason to maintain a safe pace. The practice was sound, and as always, she eventually reached her destination. At the path's head, she pulled her fedora from her brow, wiped her face with a sleeve, and brushed a few stray strands of blonde hair from her eyes.
"So what's new?" She asked Mel as she reseated her hat.
"Jus' somethin' I thought ya might like to see, Jan," the translator replied, "a fragment of a carvin' from the IV Crypt pit. It was found amidst the backfill an' doesn't appear to be from the same period. I can make out a few symbols, but it's not a familiar script."
"Mel, if it's something you've never seen, then I won't know it from a doctor's scrawl," the blonde said, "you're the expert here. I just play in the dirt."
She gave her partner a grin to accompany her self-deprecating comment. Though she'd sometimes still had lapses of self-confidence, she'd grown more objective with the years of success. She seldom fell into the once frequent morose fits of drunkenness and depression that she'd indulged in when the two had first met.
The legacy of her childhood and the shadows of her father's reputation had conspired to make Janice Covington a hard nosed, hard drinking riot girl with a passionate mission that had seemed doomed to fail. She'd been obsessed with the dream of validating her father's belief in the existance of the legendary female warrior, Xena of Amphipolis.
All his life, "Grave Robber" Harry Covington had searched for the evidence that would prove his claim. He'd never found it. The archeological community had shunned him. His peers had looked down their noses at him, and no institution would fund his work. Still, the man had persevered, selling whatever he found to collectors to finance his next expedition, rather than presenting the artifacts to accredited museums for study. And through all those fruitless years, he'd dragged his daughter along with him after his wife had given up in disgust and left him. Janice had never really had a childhood. Her earliest recollections were of dig sites, living out of tents, eating camp food, and watching her father fight a losing battle with depression and alcohol. She'd picked up her best and worst traits from him; loving and hating him, and following in his footsteps because she didn't know how to do anything else.
Then in 1941 the break had finally come. A tablet had surfaced in fragments, and in a conflict with the Nazi backed treasure hunter, Edwyn Smyth, she'd finally succeeded where her father had failed. The events at the dig site had been more like the adventures in the scrolls they'd recovered, for along the way, she'd been a party to history in the making, not just the rediscovery of its records. On that fateful expedition, Janice Covington had first met Melinda Pappas, the daughter of one of her father's only friends, Prof. Melvin Pappas. Like their fathers, the two women had been about as different as was possible. Janice was a scrappy adventurer, independent and fearless in the field. Melinda had never been away from home, never been on a dig, and arrived dressed for a charity benefit or an afternoon social in her hometown of Columbia, SC. But she'd been indispensable as a translator, and more than that, she had been a living link to the legend that the Covingtons had chased for two generations.
Much to her initial mortification, Melinda Pappas had been revealed as the last living descendant of the Warrior Princess. In the tomb in which Janice's own ancestor's scrolls had been found, Melinda had briefly been "possessed" by the ancient warrior's spirit, and she had successfully foiled the ambitions of a god. Janice wouldn't have believed the story if she hadn't been there. She was realistic enough to know no one else would believe it either. On top of that, she was cynical enough to know that a single whisper of what had transpired at the site would leave them both ostracized in their professions. And so neither woman had breathed a word of it to anyone else. But Janice had dynamited the tomb to trap the God of War, explaining to the academic world that it had been structurally unsound and had collapsed?a tragic loss to archeology. Her claim that they had been lucky to survive had been absolutely true.
"Well, let's have a look," Janice offered, gesturing Mel towards the study tent.
Melinda turned and led her partner back into the shaded interior and over to a folding table. Both the table and the tent were Army surplus, sound and cheap. On the table lay a roughly triangular fragment of pale, fine-grained marble about a square foot in area and about two and a half inches thick. One corner of the small slab had been worked with great precision, the other edge was roughly fractured. It was apparently the corner of a facing stone that had overlain other materials in whatever construction it had originally come from. Janice appraised the workmanship visually. The corner was sharp and smooth, and probably an exact right angle. It was well formed, but excellent stonework was a hallmark of many ancient civilizations, back when labor was cheap, hours were long, and masons were skilled with their hands.
Drawing back a tent flap, Melinda uncovering a mesh filled window beside the table, and a square of sunlight illuminated the slab. Dr. Covington saw that it had been both engraved and carved in bas-relief, with raised traceries and some incised flowing script that was wholly unfamiliar. She leaned down closer and examined the design. For several minutes silence reigned, relieved only by the women's soft breathing.
"Never seen any script like it," Jan said with certainty, "and I haven't a clue about it. I can see that the cross-sections of the incised lines are absolutely square?the sides and bottom are smooth, flat, and of even depth regardless of how wide the line is. Whoever did the work was certainly a master of their craft."
She withdrew an eye loop from her breast pocket and flipped open a lens. Putting it to her eye, she leaned down even closer to the piece.
"Mel, look at this," she said, standing upright and passing the lens to the translator.
Melinda took the magnifier and sat down on a folding camp chair before leaning in for a closer inspection. She was too tall to favor being doubled over as she squinted through a lens at a mystery. It was distracting, and though she was Xena's descendant, she didn't think that she'd inherited her ancestor's iron spine.
"Where'm I s'posed to be lookin' here, Jan?" Mel asked in her characteristic drawl.
"At the swoop of the figure here," she pointed to the spot with the tip of a pencil, "right down in the corner of the channel."
Mel shifted her point of focus and then stopped.
"You see it now, Mel?"
"Yes, I believe I do," the southerner said, "why it looks to be a fragment of silver." She stared at it for a moment and then moved the lens a little further down the channel, "an' here's a'nother, Jan, at this intersection. Have a look." She handed the loop back.
"But silver would have tarnished and turned black long before now," Jan commented.
Over the next fifteen minutes, the pair discovered many small residual fragments of metal, and they finally deduced that at one time, the incised script had been leafed with precious metal. It was very unusual.
"So why'd someone bother to carve the design in marble if they were planning to layer it in silver?" Mel asked. "Marble's hard."
"I can't imagine," Jan answered. "We've both seen silver and gold inlaid or burnished onto wood?even layered onto sandstone a couple times, but never onto something as labor intensive to work with as marble. And the incising is so perfectly done?why bother when it was going to be covered? It would have been much easier to carve it rougher and smooth the lines in the metal instead. I've never heard of anyone being so perfectionist."
"So ya don't have any idea where it's from or who made it."
"I couldn't even begin to guess, Mel. I've never seen designs like these. I couldn't even guess at how old it is."
"Who brought it in?"
"Why one of the grad students found it. It was in the IV Crypt pit 'bout ten feet down."
"Ten feet?" Janice mused, "?pre-Attic?"
"Well, we've always thought that anythin' below eight feet was from prior to the colonization by Hagnon an' the Athenians?"
"And the IV Crypt pit is adjacent to Hill 133, right?"
"That's right, an' we know Hill 133 artifacts go back to the Neolithic," Melinda agreed, "but it coulda' been displaced into an early Attic era burial too?in the Bronze Age."
"I'm going to go have a look," Janice said, "I'd like to see exactly where this was found." She braced herself for the brightness and heat of the sun outside the tent and then looked back at the brunette who was examining the slab again. "You wanna come along, Mel?"
"Thought ya'd never ask," she said with a smile.
The IV Crypt was a burial site that the pair had tentatively dated to 435-405 BC, and it had been used during the first decades after Amphipolis had been founded. The period had encompassed the Athenian defeat by Spartan allies during the Peloponnesian War, and Amphipolis' independence. The times had been hectic and dangerous, and it had become apparent that more than one family had used the crypt. The site had been somewhat beyond the original city's walls and therefore less attractive than the burial sites closer in, but it had not wanted for tenants. The remains of sixteen bodies had already been recovered.
Janice and Melinda walked down the sloping ramp that led into the excavation site. It wasn't really a pit. Rather it took the form of a long trench some twelve feet wide, which reached a maximum depth of eight feet below the present surface. The actual crypt was a low structure made of limestone that had originally been partially underground. The surrounding strata showed that the natural incline had left the mouth of the crypt open on the surface, but had hidden the rest underground. The builders of the structure had simply tunneled into the side of a hill, lined the hole with limestone slabs, and added a portico with the door. For the next thirty years, they'd reopened it to add more bodies.
The current excavation had opened the interior, but had also freed the walls of their supporting overburden of earth. Now the crypt was freestanding, as it had never originally been, and as a result, the walls had been shored up on the outside with wooden beams. It had been during the digging of the postholes for the last few timbers that the fragment of slab had come to light. The two women made their way around the crypt to the hole from which their current mystery had appeared.
Janice, always direct in her investigations, lay down on the ground and lowered her head into the hole. It was narrow, barely eighteen inches wide, equally long, but almost four feet deep.
"There's a discontinuity here," she announced, her voice muffled by the dirt she was facing. She spat as some stray grains fell into her mouth. "About two feet down, I can see that the strata have been disturbed. Hand me a trowel please, Mel."
The tall brunette searched for a moment and then snatched the requested implement from a bucket of tools and handed it to her partner.
"Thanks. I'd just like to clear a little way back at the top of this lower layer and see where it goes."
A discontinuity is a place where the layer that had been on the surface sometime in the past had been eroded down before new sediment had been deposited on top. For the archeologist, it represented a gap in time. The eroded sediment that had gone missing could encompass decades, centuries, or even millennia. There was always uncertainty as to how much had eroded away and how long had passed before new material was deposited. Sometimes it remained impossible to tell, though sometimes the time frame could be inferred. The only thing for sure was that the sediment below the discontinuity was older than that above, and that there was a time gap between the present layers.
Melinda could see that Janice was digging into the side of the hole, removing the upper material and letting it drop into the bottom. Every so often, the archeologist would spit out more grains of dirt or shake it out of her hair. Still she continued digging. They both heard the trowel's blade ring as it scraped against something more solid.
"Mel," she called excitedly, "I think there's more of the slab down here?at least it's more marble." She was digging more franticly now. The sounds of metal on stone were more obvious. "Yes, definitely."
Suddenly she lurched back up into a sitting position. Her eyes were glowing with excitement.
"Tomorrow morning I'll get a crew up here to remove the overburden. The piece I see in there is too big to budge. I think it's a sizeable panel. Maybe we'll be able to learn something more definite about this when we get it free."
"I'll try 'n have Dr. Thalassiarchos come down from Serreai. He's an expert on the local strata. Maybe he can identify the ages of those layers."
"Good thinking, Mel. It might give us some more clues about what we've got here, 'cause personally, I'm still in the dark. All I know is that it's old?maybe real old."
Jan tossed the trowel back into the tool bucket and retrieved a roll of string and four wooden stakes. She quickly set up a square around the posthole, marking the corners with the stakes and encircling them with the string. It would give the diggers the location and extent of the area they were to excavate the next day.
That night Janice barely slept for her excitement. Somehow it was always the same. She'd never lost that impatience when there was an impending discovery waiting. Like a child on Christmas morning, Jan would never be able to unearth an artifact fast enough. Getting the object out of the ground, out of the past, and into the present where it could be studied, learned from, and appreciated drove her compulsively. It was an itch that had never diminished no matter how long she had worked at digs and no matter how many tidbits of the ancient world she had brought to light. She lay in the dark seeing the unearthed fragment in her mind's eye, and matching it up with the fragment still buried.
In the narrow cot next to her, Melinda lay on her side, breathing even and slow in the depths of sleep. The tall brunette had smiled at her partner's "obsession", remarking that whatever was down there had been waiting at least 2,500 years, before she'd rolled over and dozed off. Janice had always been amazed at Melinda's ability to quash her excitement and sleep.
It was during this time that she realized something else. The discontinuity was ten feet below the present surface. The surface in 435 BC had been almost the same as the modern surface, maybe slightly higher, though the crypt had still been buried when they'd found it. It had originally been a tunnel dug into a hillside. Whatever lay beneath the layer of the ancient tunnel's floor must be truly ancient. It had already been ancient in 435 BC. And yet, the workmanship was far too precise for the Neolithic. Hell, it would have been fine work if it had been done by the carvers who had once decorated the High Gothic cathedrals at Cologne, Paris, Amiens, or Reims. It would be admirable work even if done today. Janice Covington was still wondering when such a high level of stone carving had been attained in Thrace as the velvet wings of sleep enshrouded her.
Morning seemed to arrive between one heartbeat and the next. Janice Covington awoke as if her hours of sleep had passed in the blink of an eye, and after regaining her wits, she was as impatient as she had been when she'd fallen asleep the night before. She rushed out to the dig site still tucking in her shirt, begrudging the time spent tying her bootlaces.
Thank god for short-wave radio, Janice thought. She and Melinda had spoken briefly with Dr. Thalassiarchos as she'd slugged down a mug of coffee, and he had agreed to drive down from Serreai after lunch. Janice would be impatiently drumming her fingers all afternoon until he arrived.
By 8:00am the temperature was rising, but the crews had already been out and digging for an hour. The archeologist nodded in approval; the workmen were still energetic this morning, unfatigued by the day's growing heat. Overhead the sun was brightening as it continued to rise. Another summer's day in Macedonia, she groaned to herself.
By 10:00am, the posthole had been enlarged to five feet square and the diggers had cleared away the overburden until they'd encountered the top of the layer beneath the discontinuity. They'd called Dr. Covington to the pit. Janice had fought hard not to run.
"I'll be damned," she muttered to herself as she looked into the hole.
The diggers had uncovered the lower layer, but embedded in it she could clearly see the marble slab, still partially buried, and the corner where the fragment she'd examined yesterday had been broken off. It was at least four feet wide, but how long it was couldn't be seen yet. Even so, the buried section was much larger than she'd thought.
"Let's extend the trench by another two feet," she instructed.
A pair of diggers moved to begin shoveling off the dirt that still covered the slab. Janice sat in the shade of the crypt's doorway and sipped from a mug of coffee. She was on her third cup and welcomed the caffeine. After getting only four hours of sleep, she needed it. She checked her watch again, hoping that Dr. Thalassiarchos drove as fast as everyone else who'd tried to run her off the roads in rural Greece. She looked up and saw Melinda walking towards her.
"What've ya found?" Mel asked as soon as she was standing in front of Janice.
"Well, it's still bigger than the hole, and the piece you showed me is only a corner. I still can't tell how big the whole thing is. I'm having them dig back another couple feet."
Melinda walked over to the hole and watched as the overburden was removed shovel full by shovel full. She waved her partner over after a few more minutes.
"Looks like it's still bigger 'n the hole," the translator observed.
Janice hopped down into the hole and stood in front of the partially revealed slab. What she could see of it was already over four feet by six. She carefully felt for the edge of the newly excavated portion and determined that it continued.
"Looks like another two feet has to go," she told the diggers as she climbed back up.
Waiting had always been hard for Janice, but the larger the slab turned out to be, the better. The design would be more revealing. It might suggest affinities to known civilizations, or at least provide a greater vocabulary of design elements. Every added clue was valuable. It was like hearing a verse instead of only a line of a song, seeing a reel instead of only a scene from a movie, or reading a chapter rather than a paragraph of a book. The evidence would accumulate. They would learn more and have a better chance of unraveling the mystery of the slab's origin.
Finally the diggers motioned to Janice that they'd finished. The archeologist and her partner returned to the hole and Janice hopped in. She felt for the edges again, and this time discovered that the buried end was free of its overburden. With a trowel, she began carefully removing the last few inches. After that she used a stiff brush to swish away the loose dirt, before switching to a softer brush to clean the surface design. Even though she was too close to easily see the entire slab, she sensed that she was viewing it upside down. Melinda, standing above her at the edge of the hole, had come to the same conclusion. The brunette had paced around to face Janice and was staring down at the marble's surface.
"Oh my," she whispered. "Jan, c'mon up outta there an take a look at this. I've never seen anythin' like it, an'?an' it's beautiful."
The archeologist was already moving. She braced her hands on the side of the pit and levered herself out, then scrambled to her feet and joined her partner on the other side. Looking down into the morning's excavation, she was immediately struck by the same impression. The slab showed both positive and negative reliefs. The main design elements were edged by a graceful tracery of stylized leafy vines in bas-relief, forming an arched framework around a central image. Within the border of raised vines, that enigmatic script had been incised. On a flat field within that border, the emblem of a tree in flower stood from the surface in high relief. Engraved above its upraised limbs hung a canopy of seven stars, and unmistakable above all else was incised a high winged crown.
It took the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon to free the slab and move it into the study tent. By then the geologist, Dr. Thalassiarchos had arrived. He'd hopped down into the hole, pinched off some dirt from below the discontinuity, and rubbed it between his fingers to assess the grit. He'd tasted a sample and spat it back out. He'd gathered a large sample in a glass container to take back to his lab. Finally, he'd checked the other layers in the IV Crypt trench, nodded a few times and muttered to himself. Throughout it all, Janice had waited in silent, growing impatience, while Melinda had sat in the shade from the crypt with her eyes defocused, consumed in thought.
Finally, after about a half-hour, Dr. Thalassiarchos pronounced the layer below the discontinuity, "very old," to which Jan had groaned and Mel had displayed the hint of a grin. He informed them that he'd need to make a few tests in his lab, but was almost certain that the discontinuity accounted for lost years numbering in the thousands, rather than in the tens of thousands or millions. Then he'd looked speculatively towards Hill 133, shaken his head, and taken his leave. Janice and Melinda had gone back to the study tent to clean and contemplate their find.
"I'm certain the style isn't Attic Greek," Melinda commented speculatively, "nor Persian, nor like that of the native Thracians. It isn't like the Scythian forms either, an' I don't think it's like the Asian work imported down the Silk Road."
"It's not," Jan confirmed, "it's finer workmanship than any of them. The crown isn't like anything I've ever seen either?not Assyrian, Sumerian, or Babylonian. It's not Minoan Mycenaean, Arcadian, Aeolic, or Doric either. I can't think of a single contemporary affinity that's stylistically close. In fact, the closest aesthetic examples I can recall are Western European, maybe High Gothic or later. It doesn't make sense."
Somewhere long ago, lost in the vanished years, a king had ruled. Perhaps a whole line of kings had ruled in this place. But who they'd been, and what name or boundaries their realm had claimed were a mystery. Three things the archeologist could deduce from the slab. The first was that the rulers had enjoyed the benefits of a highly skilled craft tradition, and this bespoke stability and wealth. Second, by placing the crown above not only a tree that symbolized earthly nature, but also above the stars of the sky, this king had claimed a divine right to rule. The sovereign's mandate had come from above the material and the ethereal, bequeathed by the gods themselves.
Typical grandiose royalty, Janice Covington thought, and for all that, their dynasty ended and their kingdom fell. What can possibly stand against the endless turning of time? All that's certain is change.
There was one final thing that Janice Covington could deduce from the slab's decoration. The outer tracery and the tree had been rendered in bas-relief, raised above the surface of the background. This meant that they had been aspects of the slab's original design. But the stars, the script, and the crown were engraved below the surface, carved into the already existing flat marble field. Though there was probably no way that she would ever know for sure, Dr. Covington strongly suspected that these elements had been added later. It was the single aesthetic flaw in the piece. Had the complete design been known at the time of the slab's initial creation, then all the elements could have been rendered in relief, leading to a much more artistically cohesive product.
Perhaps the use of the slab had changed. Perhaps the secondary elements had signaled a change in the society's ruler. So why not place the design on a newly carved slab? Well, perhaps the existing slab had been of such value that it had been altered rather than replaced. Perhaps it had been permanently fixed in position. Then there were the earlier questions. What did the script say? Why hadn't the silver tarnished? How long after the slab was first carved had the lettering and metal been added? And why had the carving been done in such an obsessively perfectionist manner?
These were just the kinds of questions that the archeologist had been trained to ask. They were questions that she had trained herself to seek clues to answer, for with those answers she could draw real history from the artifacts and come to understand a time, a place, and the people lost long ago. And yet they were just the kinds of questions that she had all too often resigned herself to accept that she'd never be able to answer. The years jealously hid their truths behind the shadows and veils of time.
In the beginning, Ea, the world that is, was foreshadowed in the void as a dream of the first lords, the Ainur, who sang at the command of Eru, the One, who is called by his children, Iluvatar. By His Will, a vision of Ea was realized from their music, for the potency of the Imperishable Flame dwelt within them and lit their works in praise of His Name. Then of the Ainur, some clove to the vision of Ea until its ending, and committed themselves to creating it, and through their long labors Arda, the world, was realized amidst the Void.
Into the world the great spirits of the Ainur came, and these are the gods, for in them burned the Imperishable Flame of Iluvatar. They divided among them their powers in Arda, to govern each according to the composition of their music in the Song. Seven Valar, High Lords there were, and seven Valier, High Queens as well. The greatest of these were Manwe, Aule, and Ulmo, but the greatest of all was the first enemy, Melkor who is named not amongst them. Also into the world came many kinds of spirits, no less hallowed but of lesser power, and amongst these were the Maiar. Even before the first of days they contested for the mastery of Arda, and Melkor's defeat was incomplete so that his designs survived to take form again and again, and this too was in the Song. So Arda was conceived in conflict, and battle comes to the world from the powers above, for it was in the first making of Ea, before it was given form. And war shall follow in Arda down the halls of time, even unto the ending of days.
From the beginning of time in Arda, many ages of the world passed in battle with Melkor and his servants. The Valar built great lamps to light the world and Melkor threw them down. The Valar grew Laurelin and Telperion, great trees with radiant blossoms that lit the Blessed Realm of Aman, and Melkor destroyed them. The First Age of the Sun ended with The War of Wrath and the overthrow of Melkor, who had been named Morgoth. Yet the victory was incomplete, for Morgoth's lieutenant, Sauron had fled. The Second Age ended with the War of the Last Alliance, when Sauron was thrown down and his One Ring of Power was taken. But again the victory was incomplete, for neither the ring nor Sauron were destroyed. The Third Age culminated in the War of the Ring, when Ring of Power was destroyed and Sauron's evil dispersed, but it is held to have truly ended with the passing of the ringbearers from the shores of Middle Earth.
In the deeds of the Three Ages of the Sun one can discern the diminishing of nobility and spirit that the days have wrought upon the mortal world. From the majesty of the Ainur, whom men call the Valar, to the fading of the Eldar and the rise of Men, the thread of the Imperishable Flame has withered in the hearts of those who dwell in Arda. Once there lived immortals bright, Elves and Gods, wizards, Dwarves, monsters, and Maiar, spirits of great power. In these latter days it is only mortal men who walk the earth, and even these are diminished from the nobility of their ancestors through the mingling of their blood and the ceaseless, tiresome grinding of time.
Yet at the beginning of the Fourth Age there still walked among men, those strains that had come down from Valinor in the earliest days of the world, for among them lived the line of kings, scions of Númenórë. In them persisted the blood of the Eldar and of the Maiar, for the first king was Elros Tar-Minyatur, son of Earendil and Elwing. Earendil was the son of Tuor, a mortal warrior, descendant of the Houses of Beor and Hador, and Idril Celebrindal, a Princess of the Noldor and daughter of the elven king, Turgon of Gondolin. Elwing was the daughter of Dior, but the root of his lineage was founded in the love of Elwe Singollo, King Thingol of the Silvan Elves of Doriath, and Melian the Maia, a kinswoman to Yavanna, Goddess of the Earth, Bringer of Fruits, and Patron of Growing Things. Through Thingol and Melian's daughter, Luthien, and her beloved mortal warrior Beren, the lineages of both Eldar and Maiar passed into Elwing and thence to the race of kings.
And once long ago, as the Fourth Age opened in celebration of the defeat of the great enemy, Sauron, that strain of mythic blood had been reinforced one final time. The first queen had been Arwen, daughter of Elrond, who was himself a son of Earendil and Elwing, and the brother of the first Númenórean king, Elros Tar-Minyatur. The first king of the Fourth Age was Elessar, Aragorn, last heir of Númenórë in the Third Age, and a direct descendant through Earendil to the legacy of Tuor, Idril, Turgon, Beren, Luthien, Thingol, and Melian. In the union of Aragorn and Arwen, the lineages descending from the Maiar of Valinor, the High Elves, and the Edain, the Fathers of Men, were reunited and preserved into the diminished world of the Age of Men, the Fourth Age of the Sun.
In the days of their union came the restoration of the northern and southern kingdoms; Arnor and Gondor, the reunited realm of the Exiled Númenóreans. In the reign of King Elessar, much of the grandeur that had once flourished was reborn for a time. Minas Tirith, the steadfast Tower of Guard was rededicated, reclaiming its ancient name, Minas Anor, Tower of the Setting Sun. Osgiliath, the great city that sat astride the river Anduin was rebuilt in the south, while in the north, Annuminas, Fornost, and the tower of Amon Sul rose again from their ruins. Elostirion, the Tower of Emyn Beraid, the fortress of Orthanc, and the Havens of Mithlond were occupied again. And the Tower of Sorcery, Minas Morgul, once the fair Tower of the Rising Moon, was razed to the ground.
King Elessar was crowned on May the 1st of 3,019 of the Third Age, but the Fourth Age did not begin for almost another two and a half years. On Spetember 29th of 3,021 the ringbearers sailed to Aman in the West, and just ere the winter solstice, word of their passing reached the king's ears in Minas Anor. With the two Hobbits had gone Galadriel and Elrond and Mithrandir. They had borne away on the Straight Road across the waves, Nenya, the Ring of Water, wrought of mithril and set with a diamond, golden Vilya, the Ring of Air with its great blue sapphire, and Narya, the Ring of Fire that bore a flaming ruby. The end had come of the Elven Rings of Power, leaving mankind to order the ways of Middle Earth.
Then Aragorn, the King Elessar, had ordered carvers from the Lonely Mountain to alter the emblem on the wall behind his throne in the Hall of Kings. There above the White Tree of Gondor the stone-wrights of Erebor carved the Seven Stars and High Crown that had completed the livery of Elendil, first High King of the united realm of the Exiled Númenóreans in Middle Earth. Upon the traceries and Tengwar script, mithril* was overlain so that they flared in the least rays of the sun, and with the blazing gems set as flowers on the boughs of the White Tree, henceforth backed the king's throne with a radience of blessed light. With the passing of the Three Rings, Aragorn took up the symbols and the rule of the coming Age of Men. And for Elves, the fading quickened. *(Mithril, True Silver, or Moria Silver. Sindarin See LoTR; Book 2, Ch. 4, pgs. 309-10)
Of the War of the Ring and the great deeds done in that time, much has been written. Yet many stories saw not the attention of scribes, nor were remembered in the songs of bards. Many had fallen in the War and many had fought the Shadow. In many lands good and evil had contested, not only in Gondor, or in Rohan, or in the Black Land of Mordor. Battle flared across Wilderland; in Mirkwood, in the woodland realm of the Elven King Thranduil, in the dwarvish realm of King Dain, at Esgaroth and Dale, and in Eriador to the west of the Misty Mountains.
All these lands had their heroes, their enemies, their fallen, and their survivors. All had their stories to tell, adding their sorrow and their wisdom to that tapestry that life calls history. But history is a glass that stretches and misshapes the images it transmits. Memory fades, records are lost, and civilizations fall. Across the sea of years, the deeds of the present drift to the provinces of forgetfulness, or of legend, or of myth. And to those who would seek the truth of past ages, only the distant echoes of tales and the fragments of stone can speak with muffled and quavering voices. Their whispers tickle the ears, and the mind is led to dreams of what went before?perhaps the hopes, the fears, and the loves long lost.