The Romans had won. Completely and totally.
Behind them the chariot lay shattered, the axle broken and one wheel split in half. The blades, which had been attached to the wheels, bent and twisted.
The tall woman with tawny hair looked down at the two bodies wrapped in shrouds, their faces covered and a few dark blood stains visible through the layers. She knelt down briefly in front of them and stroked the space over their face. They had been so small once, small enough to fit in her arms, but at least here they were at peace. Here, the Romans would never touch their bodies again.
Behind her, the captives they had taken knelt, huddled together on their knees, their togas and stolas muddied and torn. Without a glance she barked a command none of the captives understood and walked down into the dell, unmoved by the screaming.
The druids were waiting for them in the stone circle, the white stones all painted in blood with the symbol of a hare. The woman glared at the symbols briefly, unable to understand how the goddess, Andrasta, who had prophesied their victory, had betrayed them. They had been victorious; at Camulodunum, at Londinium and Verulamium, but not where it mattered.
Another captive was tossed screaming into the dark red bog in the middle of the circle. One by one the last captives were thrown in, their hands tied together and their leather sandals tied to heavy stones. She’d lost count of how many of the invaders had been thrown in over the past days, and still the bog swallowed them ravenously. Each time they thought it could no longer take another victim, the bodies would sink down further overnight, and in the morning the ritual would continue.
In the middle of the bog a stone platform had been constructed. It had taken many years for her forefathers to construct this temple, the stones taller than any others that had been built before in the isles. Several mounds of neatly piled stones were ready around the barrow to create a wall around them one day. The large upright stones, which towered above her, would one day have walls between them and a large domed roof above. It had taken many decades to build it so far, the work delayed by the arrival of the invaders, but after today, no Roman would ever enter it again. They might have lost the war, but here she was determined they would never step foot again.
Behind her, the last of the Iceni dragged the broken bust of Claudius to the the bog. She placed her bare heel against its proud face and pushed it firmly over the edge where it sunk under the water and pushed the body beneath it further down.
In the distance, a Roman horn sounded, and the rest of the spectators swayed nervously. The horn sounded again, much closer this time. The woman waved her hand at the spectators who left immediately, all of them cold, some with wounds which had turned their skin strange colours. Only the druids remained with her, all of them silent until the sun set. And as the light faded, the horns could be heard just beyond the ridge. The high priestess stepped forward towards the woman and raised a mask resembling a giant hare skull over her head, the willow lattice coated with a thin layer of chalk and clay to make it look like bone. The woman closed her eyes as it came down over them, the inside of the mask musty and wet. It will be over soon, she thought. Soon I will see my daughters again.
Behind her, the priestess pressed the golden sickle to her throat and dragged it back violently.
By the time the Romans reached the stones, the sun had set completely, and the cold had set in. With all their swords drawn they approached the stones eagerly. Under normal circumstances they would have avoided them, the eerie atmosphere around them unsettling. But now they were desperate. Their commander had deprived them of victory against the Iceni and already fallen onto his own sword from the shame. But for them, this was their only chance to regain their honour.
In the middle of the circle a fire had been lit, the bog around the plateau simmering from the hot stones that had been thrown into it. The combination of the hot fire, the wet fog from the bog and the cold air around the dell forced the air to pool around them like a dome.
Packed in a tight group, they marched down and entered the ring, the air noticeably different. The fire was hot, very hot, having clearly been laid with fresh wood recently, but the stones were abandoned. They turned angrily to the young druid girl who had followed them into the ring.
“Ubi est barbara regina, et filiae eius?”
The druid girl shrugged her shoulders and smiled. “Non hie ea.”
The fire extinguished with a hiss.
Startled, they stumbled into a circle formation. Three of them tripped and fell in the bog as they did, the moonlight not bright enough through the clouds for them to see well.
In the middle of the bog, a white creature stirred from the red-hot embers. Covered in red dried blood from the neck down it stared at them through the hollow hare skull. For a few moments nobody moved, even the soldiers that had fallen into the bog were still. The only sound was their breathing. Theirs alone. The creature was utterly silent.
It groaned and stood up, its head bowed and its long leporidae legs bent back, standing two heads taller than them. With a loud snort, a long plume of fog spread from its nostrils as it threw its head back and shrieked at the sky, the sound amplified by the large flat stones around them. Shocked into action the Romans ran from the stones, none of them waiting to help those trapped in the peat. The creature leapt across the peat circle and pulled the first ones to leave the stones back into the ring. Unable to outrun it, they attempted to form a circle of their own, standing back-to-back with their blades drawn.
The creature skidded to a halt and stared for a moment, before plunging into the ground beneath them and burrowing towards them, its speed so fast that the earth rose up in a mound as it approached. One by one, they were pulled down into the earth, its long fingers puncturing its way through the wet soil as it hooked its grip around the nearest limb and pulled down with a terrible crunch. One by one the Romans fell, more than one of them choosing to fall on their swords before the creature could get to them.
The last Roman alive swung his gladius wildly from side to side, his armour so heavy he could not climb out of the peat. He screamed and flailed, sure that at any moment the creature would snap its four long teeth around his neck. Instead, it skidded to a halt on the edge of the circle and stared at him. Once he realised that the creature had no intention of killing him, panic set in and the Roman attempted to push his blade into his own neck rather than wait for the bog to pull him down.
Before he could do so the creature kicked his hand and tore it out of his fingers, severing two of them as it did.
Once again it sat and waited.
The scream turned into gargle.
It had been fourteen years since Eva had last seen the group. They’d changed so much. Eva liked to think they’d aged badly, but Roland certainly hadn’t. He was still just as good looking, thick, glossy black hair, perfect teeth, and dark brown eyes that glinted in the slightest light. It had been so easy to fall in love with that face, not that he would ever have noticed her. Near the stone circle a large marquee had been erected with a heater inside. A few of the guests were already huddled around it, ready to dart outside, back to the stone circle the moment they saw the bride walk down the long path of red petals which led towards it.
In normal circumstances, so many flowers draped over the stones would have been blown away, but in the hollow, protected by the old, shrivelled trees and the raised earth around them, the wind blew over the dell, creating a low hum as it did.
Lowri was surprised to see Eva’s eyes quickly scan her up and down before she smiled back. She felt her face turn red, acutely aware of how tight her new dress was around her arms and stomach.
“Gosh, way to make me feel self-conscious,” Lowri joked.
“I didn’t think you’d come.” Eva smiled back, the expression not quite reaching her eyes.
“Well, I figured I’d rather suck it up than hear Mum whinging about it for the rest of my life.”
“She’s still around, is she?” It was Eva’s turn to joke this time. “Unfortunately, yes,” Lowri replied, seriously.
They both paused as the circle filled up. Lowri and Eva gradually found themselves pressed against one of the large cold stones, everyone so tightly packed together that all they could smell was an overwhelming blend of aftershave, perspiration and perfume.
“Gassed to death at a wedding,” Lowri said, one hand pressed tightly over her nose. “Pretty sure that’s a bad omen.” Eva’s mouth twitched with a smile as her eyes were fixed on the large floral arch leading to the stones. The pastor waited patiently behind it, Roland next to him, one hand on what was clearly a fake bible.
The music started and everyone turned to look at the bride as she approached down the petaled pathway. Maybe it was just the dress, or the makeup, or the way her thick black hair had been pulled up into tight ringlets that tumbled over her shoulder, but Samantha looked more beautiful than Eva had remembered her to be.
“She looks so beautiful!” Lowri whispered. “Bitch,” Eva snapped under her breath. Lowri stared at Eva, shocked and a little embarrassed that she might have been overheard.
“Why are you here if you don’t want to be happy for her?”
Eva took a sip of her champagne, pretending not to have heard.
Samantha smiled as she walked through the floral arch, into the circle and held her fiancé’s hand. Eva gulped her champagne down aggressively. Thankfully, the ceremony was short, and the rest of the guests more interested in what was going on in the centre of the stone circle than the palpable rage that came from Eva on the outskirts. The couple ex- changed rings, kisses, and every guest reached into the small bag they had been given earlier, and began littering the ground with the red and white petals they each contained. Lowri glanced over at Eva again, afraid for a moment that her bag might be full of stones. But instead, Eva turned it over and poured the red petals onto the ground.
“Seriously? You’re at a wedding,” Lowri hissed under her breath.
“She’s a bully. She doesn’t deserve to be happy.”
By now, most of the guests had moved over to the marquee with the bride and groom,
Lowri and Eva being the only ones left in the stone circle. Still, Lowri was careful not to raise her voice, worried that someone might hear them and ruin the mood.
“Eva apologised to me years ago. She said she’d apologised to you, too.”
“You really are desperate, aren’t you?” Eva snapped. “She bullied us relentlessly for three years and one quick message apologising is enough? Look, I get it, you’re the fat stay- at-home-mum who’s desperate for friends, but I’m not.”
Lowri stepped back, shocked and hurt. “I’m not a stay-at-home mum! And even if I was, so what?”
“You’re such a suck up.” Eva took a final drink from the flute and dropped it on the ground where it shattered, then she left. Lowri stood rooted to the spot for several minutes, her face bright red. Eventually, she made her way to the marquee where she asked one of the servers for several spare napkins. Seeing her leave with the napkins in her hand, Samantha followed her to the stones, her long, white, tulle skirt tied back into a puff behind her, so she could walk easily.
“What happened?” she asked as she crouched down to help pick up the broken shards. “Eva. She…she wasn’t happy.”
“Oh.” Samantha’s voice dropped. “Is she still angry with me?”
Lowri’s silence told her all she needed to know, and she stood up, one hand curled to hold the broken glass flute.
“She never really replied to my apology.” Samantha looked back at the marquee as the lights inside were turned on, the little dell illuminated by the yellow light. Eva was nowhere to be seen. “She helped me get this for the venue,” Samantha whispered. “I thought that meant she’d forgiven me. She never did actually say she had, though.”
“Maybe she’s just having a bad day?” Lowri suggested, completely unconvinced herself.
“Maybe.” Samantha frowned and walked back to the marquee.
Lowri stayed behind and looked at the stones, the tall white monoliths increasingly intimidating in the low light. When they had been younger, this had been the place that they would hide after school, the small village of Stoneburrow only just visible from the top of the dell. It had been a wonderful escape from the other school children. Samantha had been one of those children, but she was so different now, and so, apparently, was Eva.
Lowri walked back to the marquee and carefully dropped the rest of the broken glass into the bin behind the bar. Once she’d taken another flute and finished it, she looked around for Eva, but couldn’t find her anywhere near the stones. A thought occurred to her, and she trudged out of the dell towards the old schoolhouse less than a hundred yards away. It was the only place she could think that Eva would have gone. As soon as she stepped out and over the ridge, the wind cut through her like a knife, the rest of the moorland utterly bare except for low-grown shrubbery. Lowri shivered, her thin shawl quite useless as the sun had already dipped below the horizon. Still, she carried on.
She reached the entrance and pushed the heavy oak doors open.
Inside, the old schoolhouse was largely unchanged: The same musty smell, the thick walls that seemed to radiate cold no matter the season, and long, old, wooden floorboards that creaked. Eva looked up from the desk at the back of the room, her phone in her hand and angry tears on her face.
She wiped the tears away from her eyes, the makeup now smudged into a black circle.
“It’s not fair, Lowri,” she cried.
Lowri sat down next to her at the opposite desk, the very same desk she had sat at when they were younger. “What isn’t fair?”
“She shouldn’t get to have a happy ending. She’s a bully.”
“She changed,” Lowri replied softly.
“Oh, good for her! How nice. That doesn’t change anything,” Eva retorted.
“Eva, what’s wrong. Why are you so upset about Sam’s wedding?”
Eva glared at her. “Oh, it’s Sam,is it? When did you two become so friendly?”
“We’re not friendly,” Lowri began, “I just know her a bit better. She started talking to me a few years ago and apologised. Fine, she was a right cow when we were little, but she had some really horrible things going on at home.”
“So did I!” Eva snapped. “Where’s my cookie? Where’s my happy fucking ending?”
“Eva, did something happen?”
Eva stood up and kicked out at her desk, moving it slightly.
“You know how she got the stones for her wedding? Me! If it wasn’t for me, she would have had to use this shitty little hall, and now I don’t even have enough money to finish studying them!”
“But I read that story online about you and what you thought you could find here if you got the funding. Didn’t Sam help you get that interview?”
“Great. An interview. That’ll make up for it all! That stupid interview didn’t even list the funding page. The reporter couldn’t even get that right!”
Coming from outside, they heard the music start and Lowri stood up.
“Well, I’m going back out there. If you don’t want to forgive Samantha, that’s fine, but I’m going to go back and try to enjoy myself.”
By the time Lowri got back to the dell, the party was in full swing and the sun had fully set. She walked up to the bar and picked out a large glass of red wine from the selection of half-filled glasses.
“Did you find her?” Samantha rustled up to Lowri, one of her friends behind her trying to undo the long tulle train.
“Yea, she’s at the schoolhouse.”
“Is she still angry at me?”
“I think she’s angrier about something at work. She said she’s run out of funding for studying the stones.”
“Oh!” Samantha’s face broke into a smile. “She doesn’t have to worry about that. Dad’s funding it now; he’s managed to get the BBC interested in doing a documentary about it. Eva doesn’t know yet. I wanted to tell her after the wedding.”
A tall man walked up behind them, his freshly shaven face much paler than the rest which was clearly used to a lot of sunlight.
“Hey, Dad.” Samantha smiled and pecked a quick kiss on his cheek. The man smiled, his ears bright red and eyes shining.
“Hey, sweetie. Enjoying yourself?”
“Yes.” Samantha smiled back earnestly. “It’s been better than I could have imagined.” “Well, let me know when it’s time to dance. I’m going to knock back a few.”
It was only when he turned around and Lowri saw the distinctive white birthmark behind his ear that she recognised who he was. “That’s your dad?”
Samantha’s face turned red. “Yes. I know, he looks different now.”
“I didn’t recognise him at first. He looks happy.”
“He is. We both are now. Funny that. Soon as Gemma’s out the picture, life gets so much better.”
“Mum,” Samantha added quickly. “Sorry, I’d quite like not to talk about her right now. I don’t want her to have anything to do with today.” She smiled again and took a deep breath. “I’m going to go dance with my new husband.”
Lowri nodded and watched from the side of the temporary dance floor that had been laid down over most of the ground. A few of the guests asked her to dance sporadically, but she refused all of them with a grin.
“I don’t dance,” she assured them firmly.
In between each song she scanned the crowd for Eva but couldn’t see her anywhere. Eventually, she stopped looking, determined to enjoy herself.
“You’re Lowri, aren’t you? I’m Nick.” Samantha’s father approached her, taking a drink from a nearby waiter.
“Yes. Nice to meet you.” Lowri reached forward and shook his hand, surprised at how gentle he was for such a large, muscular man.
“I’m glad she was able to invite some of her old school friends; it’s important to have old friends at events like this.”
“Well, we weren’t really friends, then,” Lowri mumbled awkwardly.
“Oh, oh I forgot. Yes, Sam was…different then.”
“People change,” Lowri reassured him, careful to sound as sincere as she could. “Well, some do. I’m just glad I’ve got my little girl back.”
“Sam told me that you’re funding research into the stones.”
“Yes. I’m quite excited about it, really. Of course, I haven’t told my bosses what I think we’ll find here. It was hard enough for Eva to get this place for the reception as it was. But what they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
“What do you mean? What do you think you’ll find?” Lowri leaned in, keen to hear more. He seemed excited, and it was quite contagious.
“There’s a local legend that one of Boudica’s daughters was buried here after they were defeated in Shropshire.”
“I always thought that was just a legend.”
“I thought so, too,” he replied. “But Eva found some interesting things a few weeks ago.”
Nick reached into his jacket and pulled out a phone. He passed it to Lowri and instructed her to look through the photos. Lowri put her drink down and eagerly took the phone from him.
“I don’t understand, why is the image in black and white?”
“It’s a little like an ultrasound, I don’t know the exact word, I’m not an archaeologist. But they use this machine to tell what’s under the ground. Eva sent me the results but didn’t tell her boss. We’d never have gotten this place if they knew all this was under us.”
Even from her hazy memory of history classes, she recognised the Roman shields and helmets, its metal battered with multiple dents and cracks. The bones beneath the armour lay hunched inside, their bones so much smaller compared to the heavy metal around them, their hands gripped in a pained grasp at their necks, their lower jaws all missing.
“What happened?” Lowri asked.
“We’re not sure. Some kind of ritual, we think.”
“What makes you think it’s a ritual?”
“It’s organised. If it was just an attack or even a burial, they would have been heaped
onto each other. These were carefully buried around the dell. We think there might be some more around the base of the stones, and Eva thinks she’s found the entrance to a tomb nearby!”
“How many are there in total?”
“Bodies? So far, we’ve found over thirty-four. As first, it looked like they were just surrounding the dell, but then they appeared to be lined up and leading down to the stones.” Lowri continued to scroll until she reached the pictures where the bodies merged together into a line, some of them twisted into the roots of the old trees.
“How long ago was this? Can you tell?”
“That’s part of why I’m so excited. It’s about the right time to be when Boudica fought the Romans. That and this…” Nick took the phone from her and zoomed into the space beneath one of the scull’s upper jaws. “See that?”
Lowri took it from him and squinted, seeing a round silver coin wedged between the teeth.
“An Iceni coin,” Nick nodded. “There’s one on every single body.”
“Someone was pissed off.”
“I’m not surprised. The Romans stole the Iceni land and raped Boudica’s daughters.
I’d have done the same frankly, that’s if I’d even lived past childhood. Things were brutal then. Also, look…” He took the phone again, found the picture he wanted and passed it back to her. Before Nick could explain the relevance, Samantha walked over and took his arm.
“Dad, it’s our dance now.”
“Oh.” Nick put the phone away and turned his attention to his daughter. “Let’s hope I don’t trip then.”
Lowri was surprised at how happy she felt as she watched the two of them dance, both clearly immensely happy.
“Happy for you,” Lowri whispered to herself. She was surprised at how genuinely she felt the sentiment and how strange it would have seemed to her younger self that the girl who used to torment her as a child could have turned out to be such a different person.
Still, Eva was nowhere to be seen.
Nick stifled a tear and passed Samantha over to Roland. “Take care of my little girl,” he said, nodding and offering a firm hand-shake before he stepped back as the rest of the wedding guests crowded onto the floor to join them.
Lowri still remained by the side of the dance floor, and eventually walked into the dark air outside so that she wouldn’t be asked to dance yet again. Away from the fan heaters, the cold air brushed through her like a scratch, and she shivered and tightened her shawl. As much as she had loved to play by the stones during the day, she had always avoided them at night, and even now, with the large marquee beside her and the loud laugher and music inside, something about she stones made her skin prickle. She thought back to the pictures Nick had shown her and wondered how those people would have looked so long ago. But for some reason, the image that stuck with her the most had been the last one, the thousands of rabbit sculls laid out like a carpet, leading into the dell.
Behind her a twig snapped loudly and a guest inside the marquee screamed. They’d been fooling around of course, but the sound of the broken branch pulled her attention to the forest just past the stones. A white screen glowed through the trees.
The white glow moved and Lowri ran to follow it, sure for a moment that she’d heard a woman sobbing. “Eva?”
Without a light to see, Lowri’s dress caught and snagged on the undergrowth. She stopped several times to untangle herself, being less careful each time as she was desperate to reach the light, scared of the darkness around her.
“Eva?” she called out again.
The light stopped and turned, illuminating Eva’s face above it.
“What are you doing here?” she snapped.
“I was worried for you.” Lowri hurried up to her, several small brambles enmeshed into her hem. Eva stared at her for several seconds, a blank look to her eyes that almost made them look marbled in the light. She turned around silently and walked towards what Lowri remembered to be a large mossy mound of boulders. She’d always avoided it when they played there as children, the stones being so smooth that it was hard not to slip on them. Eva reached down and pushed one of them firmly with her heel. With a groan it slid to the side to expose a rectangular hole in the ground. She immediately jumped down into it and Lowri followed, her hands against the sides of the tunnel, scared that the floor would be as slippery as the stones outside.
To her surprise, the air inside was dry and the floor and walls were firm. The further they walked the faster the air changed from bitterly cold to a warm mustiness that quickly turned putrid.
“Ugh! Eva, what’s that smell?”
In front of them there was as click and the tunnel became illuminated by a row of lights laid along the ground.
“Look,” Eva whispered, running her hands over the wall. “This is what I found.”
Every inch of the stone walls, even the ceiling above them, had been carved with figures and curled symbols over everything, except for the floor. She could tell what some of them were: Horses, armoured figures on top of them with long spears, an eagle mounted on a pole, Romans. Then there were the hordes of men and women illustrated in long lines down the wall, their hair loose, torques around their necks and a woman leading them on a chariot, two smaller figures crouched beside her.
Eva walked further down the tunnel and Lowri followed.
The carvings continued. There had obviously been a battle, a great one, but the tall woman had lost.
“That’s Boudica. I found her!”
“This is incredible!” Lowri said in awe, her hands against the wall as she walked. “I never saw anything like this in history class!”
“It’s the Tutankhamun’s tomb of Britain!” Eva replied proudly. “And I haven’t even looked in the tomb yet.”
She reached for a heavy mallet that conveniently lay on the ground and threw all her weight into it as she swung down at the blocked hallway in front of her. The skulls that had been used as bricks shattered into powder. The putrid smell intensified, and Lowri gagged before throwing up at her feet.
“What is that smell?” she asked out loud.
Eva waited a few moments as the ancient air was sucked out in a rush, her hand over her nose before she pushed through the newly made gap into the circular room inside. She reached into her pocket for her phone with one hand and held her nose with the other. Whatever was inside was dead, and clearly had been for a very, very long time. Her phone lit up and she held it at eye level to look around her.
At first, all they could see was black, then a stone – it’s surface pure white – and another, followed by many more arranged in a circle. Lowri scrambled in after her and turned on her own phone, the light much more powerful.
“We’re under the stones, aren’t we?” she asked, sure that the proportions seemed familiar.
“I think we are,” Eva whispered.
They both tilted their phones up at the ceiling and saw the outline of hundreds of white stylised hares traced onto the red clay, their eyes the only part of the design that allowed the red beneath them to show through.
“Hares were sacred animals to the Iceni,” Eva explained. “They used them for divination. They thought they were going to win against the Romans because the hare predicted they would.”
“They certainly won here. I doubt those skulls were Iceni.” Lowri turned to point at the skull wall. “I thought you had to be careful with tombs. Won’t you get into trouble for smashing your way…”
“Bloody hell,” Eva interrupted, and shone her torch forward. Lowri did the same.
Barely two feet from where they stood was the edge of an enormous pit, the bottom of it shimmering and wet. Just beyond it, in the middle of the room, an enormous circular mound lay raised in the middle, it’s top completely flat and covered. Around the edges lay the bones of hundreds of small animals. Although too far to tell, Lowri thought they looked like hare skeletons with their heads all missing and their limbs laid out to look like they were running. Then there was the chariot. Two long figures laid out on either side of it and weapons leant against the edges, some Roman, some little more than sharpened sticks. It was broken and tilted on its side, but inside it sat a woman. Her clothes were so worn they looked like spiderwebs, her long, knee-length hair braided down to her waist and a thick torque of gold around her neck. Somehow, the skin over her body hadn’t rotted away. They could see where her throat had been cut, the white spine visible through the gap in her neck.
Eva smiled, a genuine smile, and laughed. “Shoot me dead and call me Carter. I found her!”
“What. The. Hell. Is. That?”
Hunched just a few steps away from the tall woman’s feet, the enormous white skull stared back at them, its long wicker ears twisted over from age and the human skeleton be- neath it curled up like a guard dog.
Behind them there was a rustle as Samantha stepped through the hole in the wall. “What are you doing?” Samantha gasped, her muddied skirts pulled into a bunch on either side of her. “What is this? When did you find it?”
“Get out!” Eva suddenly screamed at her. “This isn’t yours, it’s mine! I found it!” She pushed Samantha back through the gap and reached down to pick up one of the skulls, dropping her phone as she grappled with her.
“Stop it! Eva, stop it!” Lowri tried to pull them apart.
Her hands knotted into Samantha’s hair as Eva pulled her viciously back into the room and tried to drag her towards the pit. Unable to see, Samantha teetered on the edge, wobbled over and fell back. Lowri’s fingers still knotted in Samantha’s hair, Eva was pulled in after her. Then there was a crunch, followed by a horrible moan.
Lowri crawled over to the edge.
“Sam! Eva? Sam!”
The bottom of the pit shimmered and moved. Samantha’s dress was black and Eva was now faced down on the surface, her head at an odd angle. Next to her, Samantha floundered and tried to swim her way through the thick sludge, her wedding dress heavy with water. Sobbing, she tried to reach up, the edge just a little too high. Lowri leaned down over the edge and grabbed Samantha’s hand.
“Hold on I think I can pull you out.”
Samantha reached for her hand and then noticed Eva nearby, still faced down, bubbles around her legs where they had started to sink.
“Eva?” Samantha let go of Lowri’s hand and reached over to Eva to try and pull her up. But instead, they both sunk a little deeper.
Lowri looked up, the hair at the back of her neck on end and a squirm in the pit of her stomach. Directly in front of her the hare skull mask stared back. Somehow it seemed closer, and she noticed, for the first time, that it had a golden sickle gripped in one hand, its four fingers three times the length of her own digits, as it let out a long, slow exhale through its nostrils. Lowri’s heart froze. She was unable to move or think. The black eyeless sockets twitched and a pair of white beady eyes glared back at her.
“Sam! Grab my hand now!” Lowri screamed and reached forward a little further.
“I need to get Eva! Just let me get Eva,” Samantha shouted back, waist deep in the bog, the weight of her skirts pulling her down a little more each time she moved.
There was a loud shout behind them. Together, Roland and Nick threw themselves onto the edge of the pit and grabbed Sam’s arms forcefully then dragged her out just as the first stone from the domed roof fell and struck the water inches from her head.
“Get out now!”
Lowri tried one last time to reach for Eva, but she had sunk too far down, her hand the only thing that remained on the surface. The four of them ran from the chamber just as the first stone pillar crumbled. With a horrible groan, the rest of the stones followed suit, one by one, some appearing to explode from where they’d been lodged, until the entire ring collapsed inwards like dominos.
In the marquee above the guests felt the ground shudder before the enormous circle folded in on itself and crumbled into an emerging pit. The few guests who had been close to the ring ran as fast as their drunk legs would carry them, whilst the rest of the guests fled to the edge of the dell with them. In the pitch black, the dust from the caved ruin shimmered like shrapnel and swept towards them. And as they ran further into the woods, several of the guests swore that they heard something behind them, something large, a low growl, and a woman’s scream that made their hair stand on end.
Three months later, an article was published about the extraordinary discovery and tragedy at the Barrow Stones. With the shocking death of the lead excavator and a surge of public interest in the stones, funds were raised for Eva Lewis’s body to be recovered and her last work documented. Not that they would have needed the money, as once the three bodies were discovered and confirmed to be the bodies of Boudica and her daughters, the surge of public funding that became available to them was larger than anything anyone in the UK archaeological community had seen in over a decade. Despite the destruction, somehow, the centre part of the tomb dome had fallen over the bones perfectly and protected it from the earth above. Within a year a large museum had been built over the site and immediately, the strange effects from the ruins were felt again. At first, it was assumed that the sounds of the woman screaming and the enormous creature that would crawl out of the bog once their backs were turned, were just overactive imaginations. The masked druid woman who lay at the feet of the three women with a hare mask over her heads was enough to disturb even the most stoic of onlookers. Her hands had been mutilated to remove her middle finger at a long age and stretched to grow unnaturally long. A similar procedure had been done to her feet. Eventually, it was concluded that her body was so well preserved because, at the time of her death, her body had had barely any fat on it. The charcoal contents of her stomach had embalmed her from the inside after death. Some of the archaeologists suggested that much like the Sokushinbutsu monks of Japan, this had been an ancient burial rite of the Iceni. Of course, with no written language, it was impossible to verify.
Still, the strange reactions to the ruins continued, and were ignored, until the son of a local MP was rushed to A&E after he was found huddled in terror under the rampart that had been built around the circle. He was covered in scratches, had two broken ankles, and swore repeatedly that a creature had risen from the bog and chased him. After being examined, the scratches were determined to be self-inflicted. Following a thorough re-examination of the site, it was discovered that the bog released hallucinogenic fumes caused by a type of undiscovered algae on the surface of the water. Trapped in the small chamber they had taken seconds to have an effect, and now, with the large domed room built over it and very little air circulating, it once again terrorised anyone who stood for too long inside the circle. It was concluded that this must have been what happened to the first of the Roman bodies which were pulled from the peat. Their expressions had been preserved, curled up in a foetal positions with marks all over their faces and arms where they had torn at their own skin. Frozen in terror.
Still, Lowri and Roland never returned to the Barrow.