Happy Tuesday! Enjoy this thrilling excerpt from D.L. McDermott’s COLD IRON. And don’t forget to check out the book trailer below!
“If this is a tomb, then where’s the body?”
Beth swept her flashlight over the empty bier against the wall. The couch was big, bronze, and impossibly well preserved. The Celt buried here must have been at least six foot. She could imagine his strong limbs and broad shoulders resting atop the soft furs. She stifled an impulse to stroke the downy pelts. Everything inside the mound was too fresh, too pristine, too perfect, from the spirals and whorls carved on the passage walls to the brightly woven tapestries decorating the central chamber, which should have crumbled to dust at the first whispered breath of outside air.
“Grave robbers,” Frank said with a dismissive shrug. It was an economical gesture, the slightest twitch of shoulders neither broad nor muscular. Funny how she hadn’t minded his narrow shoulders—or his narrow mind—when they were married. All she had seen was his boyish charm and dark good looks.
Frank had no imagination. But when Beth stepped inside an ancient tomb, she could close her eyes and see the past, conjure whole lives out of shards of pottery and heaps of ash. The first time it had happened, she’d been seven years old, playing in her mother’s jewelry box. The iron brooch had drawn her like a magnet. It was surprisingly delicate for such heavy material, a circle of black metal chased with swirling knots, fastened with a pin through the center. In the past her mother had warned her not to touch it, but this time her mother wasn’t there and Beth couldn’t resist.
When her fingers closed around the cold metal, a shock traveled up her arm and visions filled her head: a woman, a stone circle, the forest floor. The images rushed past her, and it was only later, after years of work, that she learned to control them, to search them like the pages in a book, to speed them up and slow them down like a film.
Not that she had to work hard at the moment. This find was unprecedented. More lavish than any Celtic burial she’d ever seen—if it really was a burial.
The grave goods were all here: the bier and the wagon, the drinking horn and cauldrons. They were standing beneath a symmetrical, man-made hill, sixty meters across, inside a vaulted chamber eleven meters square. It all fit with what they knew of thousands of years of Celtic burial practices. It even smelled right. Like green grass above and new-tilled earth below. But it felt wrong.
She strobed the burial wagon with her flashlight. Gold. Lots of it. Bright yellow, high karat. A pair of daggers, several torcs, a set of shoe ornaments, and a two-handed sword with a hilt of hammered gold. Symbols of a potent, vibrant masculinity, extinguished two millennia ago. The weapons of a chieftain or a warrior king. They were dazzling, but they shouldn’t be here, not neatly laid out in the bed of the burial wagon, not if the tomb had been raided before. It didn’t add up. “Grave robbers don’t steal bodies and leave gold behind.”
“Then the body was eaten by scavengers. Wolves, maybe,” Frank offered. He fingered one of the glimmering neck rings lying on the wagon.
Nothing destroyed artifacts faster than handling. The first rule for touching ancient objects was don’t. Frank knew that, but Frank thought rules were for other people. When she’d been a young and impressionable graduate student, she’d thought that was cool. Part of Frank’s sophisticated appeal. She knew better now.
“Wait,” she said. “Use my gloves.” She tucked her flashlight under her arm and dug into her jacket pocket. No gloves. She shifted, tried her pants pocket, and dropped her flashlight.
It hit the floor and went out.
The darkness was absolute. Beth felt the massive weight of the hill above them, the deep
chill of the stone walls. She’d never been skittish underground before, but she was unsettled now. She needed the flashlight. It couldn’t have rolled far, but the darkness scrambled her bearings. She reached for the wall—and brushed Frank’s groin instead.
She jumped back, but he grabbed her wrist and tugged her hand over his crotch. “I should have remembered. Burial chambers make you hot. The bier looked sturdy enough if you feel like a trip down memory lane.”
That was a street she’d rather not revisit. She had worked too hard to learn to resist Frank’s allure. “No thanks.” She yanked her wrist back. “This is all wrong. It’s a Stone Age monument filled with Bronze Age treasure, as though this tomb remained in use for thousands of years. And no one is buried here. This place was sealed tight as a drum. It hasn’t been robbed or scavenged, but it’s got everything a burial needs, except a body. Doesn’t that bother you?”
She could hear him moving about the chamber. “Nope. Collectors don’t buy mummies, Beth. They buy objets d’art. Corpses don’t fund university chairs, and they don’t underwrite expeditions. They don’t get you invited to lunch with the minister of culture. Gold does.”
She couldn’t see him, but he must have moved closer again, because she felt a breath tickle her neck. It was disturbingly arousing, which was bizarre, because while she’d always felt attracted to Frank, drawn by his almost hypnotizing charm, she’d never found Frank’s attentions arousing. She only understood that in hindsight, of course. What she had felt, during their courtship, was flattered. She’d basked in the attention of her idol and thought she was special.
A hand ghosted over her breast and her nipple hardened. She bit back a moan. “Stop that.”
The hand was gone.
Click. Light bloomed in the darkness. Frank had the flashlight. On the other side of the tomb.
The hair on the back of her neck rose. “I need to go outside.”
Frank looked at her, puzzled. “What’s with you?”
“Nothing. I just need air.” She tried to get herself under control. There was nothing to fear underground. She’d climbed down into a dozen burial mounds in her career. Archaeology wasn’t for the easily spooked, or the claustrophobic. She tried to tell herself that the breath on her neck, the hand at her breast, had been air currents. Or Frank messing with her. But the air in the room was completely still, and she’d never seen Frank move that fast for anything.
Frank smirked. “The locals have you rattled, don’t they? With all that talk about fairy mounds and the bowls of milk and honey they leave outside their doors. You spend so much time writing down their superstitions, you’ve started to believe them.”
“Their folk ways,” she said, finding comfort in the familiar, arguing with Frank, “are what helped me identify this tomb.”
“Satellite photography identified this tomb,” he replied. “And all the others we’ve found.”
But they both knew that wasn’t true. Beth didn’t need aerial photographs to find Celtic sites. Maps would do, even crudely drawn ones. All she needed was an idea where to look. Folklore always pointed the way. When a village said the nearby hill was a fairy mound or the clearing in the woods was a Druid circle, Beth could touch the spot on the map and know. A shudder would pass through her and something low in her belly would clench.
It was why Frank—handsome, sought-after Frank—had courted and married her.
“None of this gold,” she said, putting the past from her mind, “will end up on the antiquities market, or in the university museum. We signed strict agreements with the Irish government before we started digging.”
Frank shrugged once again. She didn’t like that shrug. He was caught last year in Mexico City trying to board a plane with his pockets stuffed full of Mayan seals. Naturally the university had pulled strings to smooth the whole thing over. They couldn’t have their golden boy spending the night in a Mexican jail.
She would have to watch him. Catalog the mound as quickly and thoroughly as possible
before anything went missing. She had a feeling that if they took anything that didn’t belong to
them from this tomb, they’d face someone—or something—much more dangerous than the police.
The digging woke him. He sent his mind out through the roots and the soil, to the west slope of the hill, where sometimes a sheep wandered and a shepherd followed, though not for many years now.
The locals knew better than to disturb his sleep. They preferred the Good Neighbors quiet beneath their hills. The Fair Folk, the Beautiful People, the Lords and Ladies; the Irish had many names for his kind because they were afraid to call the Aes Sídhe what they were: bored, cruel, wicked, and soulless. Conn knew he was all three, his humanity worn away long ago, because immortality bred contempt for life. But he judged he’d slept long enough to rekindle his appetites, to dull some of the viciousness—the fatal flaw of the undying—he’d sensed in himself when he’d last walked inthe world.
He knew it when he felt the girl.
She wasn’t a child of the local earth. He could sense that. But she had the old blood, dancing hot
beneath moon-pale skin. His cock stirred. Appetite. Desire. He would have her. The villagers would offer her up with the milk and the honey, glad he wasn’t asking for one of their own. They had to. There was no one to gainsay him. Their new priests had no power over the earth or the trees, no power over the Fae.
He liked her hair. Chestnut. Her curves, soft like the hills. And her eyes, bright, brown, cow-like. He had not encountered a woman so appealing to him in decades. Her beauty was not the passing flower of youth, but the enduring elegance of classical proportions. Full breasts, a defined waist, and lush hips. She climbed the hill with a hunter’s stealthy, athletic grace, and he imagined how sinuously she would move beneath him in his bed.
She had a man with her, another foreigner—slender, almost pretty, but not of the blood, and weak. Brother, father, husband, he couldn’t tell. The man’s aura was clouded like bog water. Unlikely to fight for her, but easy to kill if he did. The sort who failed to defend his woman’s honor, then asked for compensation when she was ravished.
He smiled at the thought. Firm, warm, living flesh beneath him, engulfing him. Digging through the sweet green grass to reach him. Her eagerness was touchingly human. He would enjoy spreading her, drinking in her pleasure and her release. If she pleased him as much as he hoped, he would keep her for a time. And then he would leave her, unable to taste mortal food or enjoy a mortal man’s bed, because he could not change his nature. Ancient, cold, tethered to the world only through the vicarious pleasure and pain—the one had no savor without the other—of humans.
Yes, he would have her, but he must satisfy more basic appetites first. He took his spear and his knife and passed through the hill—earth, wood, water, grass—changing from one thing to another, channeling his essence through each living particle, because all living things were one with his kind, to emerge in the wood at the other side of the village, and hunt.