Far Shores and Ancient Graves





“Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Grace smiled, hoping the stuffy looking British archaeologist had a sense of humor.


He appeared tired, fuzzy around the edges, and his face was pale and drawn. Still, he returned the smile. “This may surprise you, but I’ve heard that one before.” He stepped away from a collection of skeletal remains on an examination table and stuck out his hand. She shook it.


“My apologies.” Grace laughed. “Now, tell me, why request a forensic anthropologist from the other side of the pond without telling her exactly why?”


“I’m sorry about that, but we have a, well, sensitive situation, and I thought your work in Salem might lend you special insight.”


The secrecy around this whole thing began to make sense. “The witch trial graves. You know my theories there aren’t exactly conventional.”


“Neither are these remains.”


#


Halfthor stood near Draken’s bow and pointed his sword at the shore. “Look brother; they come to greet us.”


Aksel grinned and adjusted the mail shirt on his shoulders. Behind him his small crew made final adjustments to armor and weapons. “Like those fools last week who thought we wanted to trade.”


“They have no weapons.” Einar scratched his graying beard and frowned. “And so many of them. Look at the way they mill about.”


It wasn’t uncommon for groups of men to meet Aksel’s crew on the shore, unaware of the danger, but still with weapons to hand. This was far more than they’d ever seen, and there were women and children among them.


Aksel shrugged. “Just a mob of unarmed fools. So we chase them a bit.”


#


“Where are these from?” Grace bent over the remains. Four bodies, three adults and one child.


“An island in the Channel called Portland,” Dr. Livingstone replied. “We’ve uncovered evidence of Viking raids there before. This one dates to the early 8th century.”


“Well, these wounds are consistent with weapon trauma from that period.” Grace paused. “But there’s so much of it.”


“That confused me as well. I’m used to seeing fractures like this.” Dr. Livingstone pointed to the skull of an adult female nearly bisected by a heavy bladed weapon. “But all these other wounds. To the limbs, to the ribs—I don’t know what to make of them.”


#


They were surrounded. Cornered. The people—though Aksel had stopped thinking of them as such—crowded in, hands reaching, slack mouths emitting an unearthly chorus of hungry moans. He drove his sword into the belly of a young woman, but she did not slow, and clawed at his shield with terrible strength. He let go of the sword, pulled the axe from his belt, and chopped at her shoulders and neck. There was no spray of blood, no pained cries, just his blade biting into inert flesh.


Halfthor screamed somewhere behind him, long and terrible. The scream of man enduring terror and agony unlike any he’d encountered in this world or would in the next.


Aksel backpedaled, trying to shove the woman away with his shield. His feet tangled beneath him, and he went down on his back. Einar suddenly loomed behind Aksel’s attacker, and his two-handed axe came down like a silver meteor. The huge blade split the woman’s skull and she fell away.


The old warrior’s face was grim as he pulled Aksel to his feet. “Hit them in the head.”


#


“These aren’t defensive wounds.” Grace examined a humerus with three deep gashes. “They look post mortem.”


“I agree, but why? Dr. Linvingstone said. “Viking raiders killed, yes, but they were after gold and slaves. Savaging the bodies after death makes no sense.”


Grace set the humerus back on the table. “Okay, these are the victims. Any chance you recovered remains from their attackers?”


A strange look passed over Dr. Livingstone’s face. “This way.”


#


Aksel was alone. His men were crimson stains on the beach. The townsfolk pressed in, mouths agape, clawing and biting. He swung his axe at the head of his nearest attacker. The blade bit into the skull and stuck there. The man fell backward, ripping the weapon from Aksel’s hand.


He’d lost his shield, his sword, and now his axe. Aksel drew his knife and thought about slitting his own throat. They didn’t give him the chance. The wall of bodies closed in, and he went down stabbing and screaming.


#


“Was the body in this state when you found it?” Grace asked. The headless skeleton of a large man had been reassembled on another table. An ancient chainmail shirt in surprisingly good condition lay next to it.


“You mean the disarticulation?” Dr. Livingstone said. “Yes. As you know, it’s not uncommon for bodies to come apart in the ground, but this man was …”


“Ripped to pieces,” she finished. “Are these … teeth marks?” She ran a hand along a tibia pocked with small gouges.


“They are, and they match two of the victim’s skulls.”


“Wait? You’re saying these peasants killed this Viking and then ate him?” She no longer thought of the savaged remains on the other table as victims.


“I … don’t know,” Dr. Livingstone said. “But I have one more thing to show you.”


He went to another table on which sat a metal box secured with a padlock. He removed the lock and raised the lid. Inside was a single human skull with a thin layer of mummified flesh. It bore no visible wounds and its mouth gaped open, wide.


“Watch.” Dr. Livingstone took a pencil from his shirt pocket, and pushed it toward the skull. Its jaws snapped down, cracking the pencil in half, and continued to move up and down. It was chewing.


“What in the hell?” Grace took a step forward, terrified but still eager for a closer look.


“Don’t get too close.” Dr. Livingstone held up a hand, and his sleeve rode down, revealing a bloody bandage around his wrist. “It bites.”







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