After hiking up Knocknarea with a stone in my pocket every day for the past twenty-seven months, today I got a lift in the VIP helicopter, along with the Chinese ambassador and a bovine-faced English duchess. I tried not to retch as the pilot circled the rock cairn that commanded the windswept mesa overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. According to Irish mythology, Méabh - often anglicized as Maeve by those too lazy to learn Gaelic - the faerie queen of the Connacht, was buried here, in a tomb that until this day had remained unexcavated.
Until precisely this day.
The television crews, the politicians, the foreign dignitaries, all were here to witness the opening of Meascán Méabha, Méabh's Tomb. Deep inside the fifty-five meter diameter cairn, down a winding passage that we had been excavating with penknives and toothbrushes, we would today be removing the stone slab that covered the entryway to the central chamber. I remembered the old myths well from my da's knee, but I had reread them last night anyway. The faeries were always wicked and cunning, their queen, Méabh, the most ruthless of all.
"Oh Annie," Patricia Flannery called out. Her weekly news magazine was the top-rated show in Ireland, due in equal parts to sensationalist reporting, millions of followers on social media and a couple of well-placed kilograms of silicone.
I took a deep breath, put my shoulders back to accentuate what little cleavage I had, and reached out to shake her hand. "Greetings, Miss Flannery," I said in Gaelic. I had been raised in the Gaeltacht, and today was a fine day to be Irish.
"Hi," she said, in English. The lights from a dozen cameras brightening a gray October morning. "Excited?"
"Uh, s-sure." Great. My first global newscast and I'd developed a stutter. "We've been looking forward to this day."
"Have you met our Prime Minister?"
Cormac Jones was the youngest-ever prime minister of Ireland, and also the country's most eligible bachelor. A former midfielder, he was lean and taut, with a mane of auburn hair, worn long and wild, that made half of Ireland's female population giddy and the other half jealous. Or so the tabloids would have us think. His hazel eyes seemed too narrow-set to me, and his nose a bit wide. "Pleased to meet you, sir."
"It is a great pleasure to meet you,Áine O'Donovan," he said, in Gaelic so smooth I could smell ox and bog. "You have brought renown to Éire. Today we will inaugurate a new epoch of Irish history." Ok, his smile was nice. "I would be honored if you would call me Cormac."
Then he translated for Patricia, the cameras and the world. I stood beside him, trying to keep a huge grin off my face but glad I had treated myself to a touch of henna that morning. Red hair went well with green eyes in Ireland.
"You and your team," said Patricia, her words directed at me but her eyes on Cormac, "have been having a go at this for years now, all at the taxpayers' expense." I wanted to interject that we had grants from numerous private foundations and the UN, but she already veered down a different lane. "Here in County Sligo, legend has it anyone who takes even a single stone from Queen Maeve's cairn will have bad luck. You've taken out a lot of stones." Her cameraman panned the enormous mound near the entrance. "Are you worried?"
This was a legend that my da had drilled into me, may he rest in peace. "I brought a stone up here every day. Hopefully that evens the balance with Queen Méabh."
Except today, I realized. My red dress matched my hair, but it had no pockets. I briefly considered how to finagle another helicopter ride - legend also had Méabh as vengeful bitch - but taxpayers' expense was still ringing in my ears.
"I said, are you sure you've found the queen's burial chamber?" Patricia was saying, bringing me back to the mesa top.
Stifling a snort, I refocused on the camera and said, "There is no such thing as sure in archeology. We know we've found a large chamber located in the center of the cairn. We know, according to those same legends, Queen Méabh is entombed in such a chamber, in a standing position, wearing armor, facing her enemies."
A broad grin from the Prime Minister, an outspoken advocate of Irish unification despite his excessively English surname.
"You haven't peeked?" Patricia asked in a boudoir voice.
"All we have are low- resolution ultrasonic images of the chamber," I lied. I had peeked last week, using a fiber optic camera. The image had been grainy and I had snaked it back out seconds after I had spotted a marble obelisk. The next morning I lugged a satchel full of stones up Knocknarea, just in case.
"Doesn't exhuming thousand-year-old graves keep you up at night?" She was speaking quickly now, her questions fuel for her social media bonfire, not intended to be answered. "If Queen Maeve is indeed buried here, how are you any better than a grave robber?"
"Archeologists are professionals. We adhere to a strict code of-"
A dismissive wave, the microphone now centimeters from my face. "Could her tomb be cursed, like King Tut's? What will you do if you meet her ghost down there in the murk, Annie?"
"She'll send for a wee pot of tea and some nice biscuits," Cormac said, flashing his campaign smile and draping an arm casually over my shoulder like I was a mate on the football pitch. "Or perhaps she'll find a dram of well-aged whisky down there to share with the queen."
Stuck somewhere between ghost and mate, I finally remembered to breathe. Da's old tales always ended badly. Irish fathers never pulled their punches. But just then, I was more concerned with whether Cormac was actually flirting with me or only using me as a campaign prop for the upcoming election.
"How will you get inside the tomb?" Patricia asked, again for her viewers.
She knew bloody well what was going to happen; we had provided the media with our step-by-step plan a fortnight ago. But at least we were back to archeology.
"We've been planning our ingress for months. The stone slab over the portal should slide free. Once we remove it, I'll crawl through a half-meter high opening wearing a helmet camera. I'll be using a respirator, as the air may be quite stale or even toxic. You'll see everything I see."
"Are ye ready to make Ireland proud,Áine?" In English, but with a brogue.
"Yes, Mr. Prime Minister."
"It's Cormac, remember." He grasped my right hand, his skin soft on my calluses. "And I love your hair."
As Swooning 101 had not been on the doctorial curriculum, I responded, "Thank you, Cormac."
When I withdrew my hand, I realized he had secreted an object in my palm. A plastic compass, yellowed with age. "A pint says the bloody queen is facing Ulster," he whispered.
"I'd love to have a pint with you," I said before my brain could catch up with my mouth. The henna must have leached into my hypothalamus. Thankfully the camera had been panning Knocknarea, but I still earned a fell glare from Patricia.
Then the camera was back on Cormac. "If ye do find Queen Méabh's spirit, send her my way. And tell her to be bringing her war axe."
Great, if the Troubles started up again, it would be my fault.
Ten minutes later, I was dressed in an unflattering set of orange overalls with my red hair stuffed under a helmet. I was breathing through a respirator, looking more like an astronaut than an archeologist. If Queen Méabh was indeed lurking below, she'd be in for a shock.
"Remember to talk us through what you are seeing. The world is listening," Patricia said in my earpiece. Meaning in English.
I wheezed "of course" through the respirator, then remembered to turn on the suit mic and the helmet minicam. With what I hoped was a jaunty wave, I headed down the passageway. After five meters I was on hands and knees, using the light from the camera as a headlamp. The small LCD monitor positioned just above my left eye was useful to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling. It also allowed me to periodically stop and show the global audience - my global audience - assorted carvings along the passage.
"We have carbon - dated these runes," I said into the mic. "The cairn predates Newgrange by centuries, and the Great Pyramid by a millennium."
Two burly technicians were already positioned at the stone slab, along with an elaborate hoist mechanism that we had painstakingly rigged over the past month.
"Ready?" I asked.
"The whole world is ready, Annie O'Donovan," Patricia said in my ear, melodrama oozing from her words.
I ignored her and looked at my techs. Two thumbs up. "We'll be sliding the slab now." I crouched so as to aim the minicam through what would soon be the opening.
The slab slid ten centimeters to the right and then jammed with a loud crunch. "Shite. Er, sorry." I resisted the urge to peer through the dark opening, instead adding the light of my minicam to the series of pulleys.
Another thumbs up. The slab moved, stopped, then moved again, chattering loudly. As the opening reached twenty-five centimeters, I ducked lower to peer inside.
The slab shattered like a windscreen in a hailstorm. Not so much exploding as disintegrating into a million pieces. I plastered myself to the ground, hyperventilating, eyes squeezed shut.
"Are you okay?" asked Patricia, probably wondering whether I'd ruined her telecast or if there was lots of blood to boost ratings.
Followed by a deeper, "Everything all right,Áine?" Cormac apparently had a mic too.
I opened my eyes and wiped a layer of grit off my facemask with a glove. The stone floor was now a sea of gravel and tiny rock shards. The index finger on my right hand felt like it had been broken, and I plucked a longer shard from my left thigh. I checked to make sure my techs were okay, then said, "Yes, we're fine. I'm headed in."
Slithering on my belly over the stone fragments, many sharp enough to bite through my overalls, I entered the ancient chamber. As I stood up, I scanned slowly from left to right. It was bigger than I had visualized, ten meters in diameter and almost as tall. The ceiling was vaulted, the stone eerily white.
In the center stood a three-meter tall obelisk with a female warrior in armor carved on one facing. "Is it a vertical sarcophagus?" Patricia asked in my ear. Guess she had done some background research after all, in between manicures.
"Yes," I said, but I was focused on the effigy. The woman had elfin features, her hair still vaguely red despite the millennia. Emeralds had been set in the white stone for her eyes, and the blade of the axe was as black as obsidian. But it was her smile I was drawn to, wicked and cunning. Just like Da's stories. I fought off an urge to run back down Knocknarea to fetch that stone. Archeologists didn't believe in cursed tombs.
I circled the marble obelisk, the headlamp flickering intermittently, a casualty of the slab. The carved face did indeed look like it was a separate piece. Holding my breath, I used the minicam to zoom in on the parting line. Definitely separate.
With a weak attempt at dramatic flair, I pulled Cormac's old compass from my pocket and laid it on the rock floor in front of the carved likeness. The needle wobbled for a long moment before settling. The dead queen was indeed facing due north, toward her ancient enemies.
"Queen Méabh's tomb," I said.
I could hear Patricia through my headset explaining all this, reading the script we had prepared for her. Exactly as planned.
It would be weeks while my team documented every pebble in the chamber, before we would, very carefully, attempt to open the sarcophagus. To see if it was in fact a tomb, if Queen Méabh was indeed buried here, or if all that remained of her was the carving. The babble in my headset faded and it was just me and a fifty-five-hundred-year-old tomb.
After peeling off my glove with my teeth, I reached out gingerly and touched the obelisk. I ran my broken finger down the groove at the parting line. Are you in there, Méabh?
The carved front slab of the sarcophagus swung open soundlessly. A ghostly battlemaiden, in white armor and wielding an enormous black axe, stepped out. Translucent and pale, save for a thick shock of red hair, her empty eye sockets stared at me.
Not as planned.
I let loose a bilingual stream of curses that would undoubtedly ruin my brief celebrity career. My right knee snapped audibly as I twisted backwards and fell. The headlamp flickered, went out, came back on. The apparition was still there, staring down at me, her smile wicked, cunning and bloodcurdling.
"What's wrong?" Patricia asked, her voice more irritation than terror.
"Feckin' that," I yelled, pointing at the ghost as she advanced toward me, the great-axe held one-handed now, the curved blade hovering above me, the other skeletal hand reaching out.
"What the bloody 'ell are ye pointing at?" Cormac.
"Calm down and show me what you've got." Patricia, smelling a ratings bonanza no doubt.
I checked the LCD monitor as I struggled to my feet, my knee protesting. The minicam showed only the empty crypt, a pile of dust and my quivering forefinger. Yet the specter was right before me. My eyes flitted from blank LCD screen to apparition and back. Another scream, primal and full of fear.
Then it - she - spoke, her voice a snarl, her words incomprehensible.
"I don't understand," I said in the voice of a terrified five year old. Except this wasn't one of Da's fables.
"Calm down, please." Patricia, louder now.
Not talking to you, bitch, I thought, just chatting up an undead faerie queen who is holding a really big fecking axe.
Her ethereal nose almost touched mine, her hand stroked my hair. I yanked my utility knife from my belt but fumbled it. "I have been waiting for you," she said, her Gaelic so arcane it took me a few seconds to parse it out.
I lunged for the knife. My left knee buckled in pain. I still managed to stab upward, expecting the knife to pass through her ghostly form, but it was all I had. Instead, the knife clanged uselessly off the plate armor. "Fecking 'ell!"
The red - haired ghost raised her great - axe high above her head. My wrist still reverberating from the armored rebuff, disbelief was out of the question. The axe swooshed down at me. I screamed one last time and dived for the portal.
My world shifted violently, like stepping into a tilt-o-whirl at full spin. The pain disappeared as did everything else, replaced by massive disorientation, my mind spinning. Another jolting shift and I was standing again on solid ground, knee fine but with a whole-body ache like I had been used as a speed bag for a few centuries. The axe sprang from my grip as it hit the stone floor, clattering across the chamber. I took a step after it but tripped over a prostate body. A woman in orange overalls and a cracked helmet lay before me. I attempted clumsily to stand, but the weight of my armor was oppressive.
My chest was covered in white plate mail, as translucent as a gossamer curtain. A silent scream as I slid back down to the ground, my armored spine rasping against the side of the obelisk. The woman pulled off the broken helmet, revealing green eyes and blood-mottled red hair.
My helmet. My eyes. My henna-dyed hair.
I looked down again, seeing gnarled hands and boney legs, disconcertingly translucent. My head spun again, this time from trying to wrap my mind about how I could be sitting on the ground wearing plate mail in an undead body looking at my detached self.
Then a blinding light entered the chamber, and I heard Cormac's voice. "Áine? What the 'ell happened? Áine?"
She attacked me, I tried to say, but no words came out. Da, help!
"I stumbled," a familiar voice said, from a distance. My voice. "Hit my head."
"What did you find in the sarcophagus?" Patricia must be in the room too, but I was still blinded.
"Just this beautiful axe," said that voice again, too saccharine, too flirtatious to be mine, "a gift for you, my king, and for Éire."
"I am no king," Cormac said, too quickly, as he hefted the priceless artifact like a polo player with a new mallet.
"Yet." A giggle, alien, somehow calming because it was not mine - I hadn't giggled since puberty.
He laughed, deep and hearty. His eyes roamed about the cavern for a moment, passing through me as if I wasn't there. With two quick steps he was kneeling at my side. His hand reached toward me, passing through my thigh to snag the yellowed compass. Rising, he spun slowly, then pointed. "North. Tis a fine war axe, aye."
The lights turned away. Cormac carried both the axe and Queen Méabh - in my body - back through the portal. Her head - my head - snuggled against his shoulder, green eyes casting an insidious glare at where I sat. Stuck in Queen Méabh's spectral body, leaning against the sarcophagus, wishing I still had that fecking axe.
The burial chamber opened up to tourists three months ago. Every day I hear them jabber excitedly in Gaelic and English, Japanese and Arabic. They see only an empty sarcophagus, not a red-haired specter in pale armor. I can walk, sit, even stand on my head, but I cannot leave. Nor speak, except to her.
She is here today, with Cormac and his generals. Her red hair - my hair - looks great and she must have visited Patricia's plastic surgeon as the cleavage showing beneath her slinky black dress is not at all familiar.
"Why?" I ask.
"I waited five thousand years to reclaim my rightful place on the throne of Éire. Cormac and I are to be married - he names me his little queen." A smile that is not mine, dark and evil. "He has promised me Ulster as a wedding present."
"And what am I to do?"
"Wait." She hands me a stone and departs with a sashay I've never mastered.
No one hears my scream.