The Crystal Skull

By Manda Scott

Bantam Press

Copyright © 2009 Manda Scott
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780553817669


Our destiny exercises its influence over us even when, as yet, we have not learned its nature: it is our future that lays down the law of our today.
—Friedrich Nietzsche


BECAUSE IT WAS HER wedding gift, Stella came out of the tunnel first. Filthy, wet and shivering hot-cold from the effort of the last fifty-metre uphill haul, she crawled on her belly, pulling herself facedown into the empty blackness beyond.

She moved slowly, keeping taut the umbilical line that linked her to Kit, feeling with her hands for the quality of the footing, then shuffling forward no farther than the spilled light from her head-torch.

Like the tunnel, the cave was of chalk. Her gloved hands pressed on stone washed smooth by century upon patient century of water. Her torch revealed bright trickles of damp everywhere, washing over flat, undulating limestone. Beyond the splash of yellow light was unknown territory, unmapped, unexplored, as likely to be a ledge and a bottomless fall as a flat cave floor.

With cold-stiff fingers, she established safety, set a bolt into the wall by the mouth of the tunnel, clipped into it and tugged the rope to let Kit know that she had stopped and not to pay out more rope. By the light of her head-lamp, she checked her compass and her watch, then marked the incline and her estimate of its length and direction with wax pencil on the chart she kept in her chest pocket, where it would not snag on tunnel walls.

Only after she had done all these things did she turn and look up and round, and send the thread of her torch into the vast, cathedral space Kit had found for her.

"My God . . . Kit, come and look."

She spoke to herself; he was too far back to hear. She tugged twice on the rope, saying the same thing, and felt the single answering twitch and then sudden slack as he began to move towards her.

Her hands coiled rope as a habit, without any conscious thought. Switching off her head-lamp, Stella stood in the roaring silence and let Kit's gift stand still in all its vast, black perfection around her, so that she could remember it for the rest of her life.

Marriage is fine for the rest of the world, but I want to find you a present that will last us forever, Stell, something to remember when the magic of now has grown to quiet domesticity. What is it in the world that you want most, dearest, that will let you love me for eternity?

He had said it in Cambridge, in his River Room, high above the Cam, with the river running glassy green below, on the morning before they had gone to the registrar with their two witnesses and made themselves legal in the eyes of the world.

She had known him little more than a year; he the Bede's scholar to the depths of his bones, she the Yorkshire lass with a degree from a metropolitan university who knew nothing of the ivory towers. Between these two poles, they had somehow found a meeting of minds. That had carried them, in fourteen dizzying months, from discussions on string theory to marriage.

Then, at peace with herself and the world, there was nothing she wanted from Kit that he had not given, but it was a beautiful day and she was thinking of rock and how little of it there was in the flat fenlands of Cambridge.

"Find me a cave," she had answered him, without thinking particularly, "a cave no-one else has ever seen. For that, I will love you for ever."

He had come to kneel by the bed, to a place where his complex green-brown eyes could see and be seen. His eyes were quiet then, more hazel than emerald, with hints of leafiness and summer. He had kissed her and smiled his driest, most knowing smile, and said, "What if I were to find you a cave with buried treasure that no-one has entered for four hundred and nineteen years? Would that be almost as good?"

"Four hundred and nineteen . . . ?" She had sat up, fast, too fast for the heat of the day.

Always, he surprised her; it was why she was going to marry him. "You've found Cedric Owen's cave? The cathedral of the earth? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I wanted to be sure, Stella."

"And are you now?"

"As sure as I can be without going there to look. It's all in the cipher in the ledgers: the hanging thorns, the curve of the bow, the falling river. It had to be somewhere Owen knew like the back of his hand and the only place is Ingleborough Hill up in Yorkshire. He was born on the side of it. The thorns are gone by now but I found references to them in an old diary and there's a river that falls into Gaping Ghyll."

"Gaping Ghyll? Kit, that's the deepest pothole in England. The cave system running out from it goes for miles."

"It does indeed. And there are bits of it that haven't been explored yet, possibly a cathedral of the earth that no-one has been in since Cedric Owen wrote his poem four centuries ago.

"Would you like to go, as our present to each other? To find the cave and search out the white water and dive for the hidden pearl entombed therein?"

Stella had known instantly that the gift was for him as much as for her. Cedric Owen's blue heart-stone was Kit's life's love, his project, his grail forever quested for as long as she had known him; the great treasure of his college that had been sought by the high and mighty down the ages but never found.

They had not known where to look, the great and the good. They had not read between the lines for the hidden words and phrases as Kit had. It was his greatest accomplishment, and his greatest secret; by marrying him, she became a part of it.

Even so . . . she wrinkled her brow and looked out of the window at the sandstone library and great lawned courts of Bede's College, with their five hundred years of tending and all the legends that went with them. She had learned those, too. "I thought the skull killed all those who ever held it?"

Kit had laughed and slid his part-dressed body over the top of hers and said, "Only if they fell into the sins of lust and avarice. We won't do that."

They were close then, eye to eye, nose to nose, heartbeat to heartbeat, sharing each breath. She had held the weight of him balanced on the palms of her hands and looked up into the measure of his face and, quite truthfully, said, "I could fall into lust for the first descent of an undiscovered cave. You can't begin to imagine what kind of a gift that would be."

"But I can. You're a caver; it means to you what finding Owen's heart-stone would mean to me. It's why we can do it, you and me, bravely and together. Then we can tell the world what we have found."

She was the caver; hers the responsibility to bring the dream to reality. Which was why she had persisted after she found the rockfall that blocked their route, and why, when she had discovered an opening that might lead to where they wanted to go, she had been the one to go first along the long, claustrophobic tunnel, where she had to become a snake, and then an eel, and then a worm in order to bend round the corners and slide under the overhangs and creep, inch by pulling inch, up fifty metres of a one-in-ten incline that brought her at last to the exit and the cavern beyond.

The rope went tight in her hands and then slack again as Kit rounded the final bend. She switched on her head-torch, to give him something to aim for.

Like a flickering film, her beam picked out random lengths of stalactites and stalagmites, closing like sharks' teeth from floor to roof and back again. She eased the camera from the lid of her pack. Then, turning a full half-circle, she took serial shots from floor to roof and roof to floor.

The camera's flash reached out and splashed colour across the rising, falling calcite, drew rainbows from the constant sheen of water, sprinkled brilliant, living diamonds across the roof at each crack and angle of the rock.

She took pictures for the sheer joy of it, revelling in the beauty. Only as Kit was easing out of the tunnel to stand beside her did she follow at last the thunderous noise and turn west, to shed light on the cascading torrent of the waterfall.

"My God . . ."

"The cathedral of the earth. You clever, clever girl. I thought that rockfall had finished us."

She was no longer alone. Kit's voice warmed her ear. Kit's arm wrapped her waist, immersing her in bittersweet joy; it was always hard to relinquish the purity of solitude, and yet, out of all the world, this one man understood her need for black aloneness and did not fear it.

She leaned in to him, dry-suit to dry-suit, and turned her light up to his face. Encircled by black neoprene, he was both filthy and euphoric; a man on the brink of a promise.

She said, "I don't think Cedric Owen knew about this route; you'd never get a Tudor physician in doublet and tights along that tunnel."

"Nor any sane man, without his ladylove to guide him." Kit twirled a knightly bow and blew her a kiss. "Mrs. O'Connor, I adore you and everything there is of you, but I can't kiss you with a head-torch on."

Laughing, she snatched the flying blessing from the air. "That's Dr. Cody, until it becomes Professor Cody, and don't you ever forget it." They had been wed for little over forty-eight hours. Already the argument was old and private between them; in public there was never a chance he would steal her name.

She said, "Have you a flare? It'd be good to see it all properly."

"I have." He was already rummaging in his pack. "And then we have to find out where Owen came in when he walked the easy route. I'm rather hoping there's an obvious way out. I really don't want to have to do that second hairpin in reverse. Going down and then up and trying to turn at the same time wouldn't be any fun at all."

"But not impossible. Just remember that." Once, she had been caught in a cave where the way in was not a possible way out. She dreamed of it still, on the bad nights, when life pressed too close. "Light the flare. Let's see all that we haven't seen yet."

"Ask and it shall be given." Kit locked the flare in a cleft high up where he could reach and she could not; six inches' extra height was good for some things and bad for others. "Stand back."

He lit the flare with his hand covering his face, as she had taught him, and stepped back before the magnesium fully lit.


Blistering incandescence spilled from the cavern wall. Under its light, the stalagmites were virgin snow, the waterfall was a cascade of living ice. Beyond all the jagged sharks' teeth, the cave's roof was finally visible, a greying white limestone arch halfway to the heavens.

"How high is it, do you think?" Kit asked. His question was almost lost in the rush and thunder of the waterfall.

"A hundred metres? Maybe a bit more. We could climb one of the walls and find out, if you're feeling keen."

"Am I ever keen to lift my feet off the ground if I don't have to?" He grinned weakly. "I'd rather find the skull."

He leaned back on the wall, bit his glove off one hand, delved into the hidden pockets of his backpack, and came out with the precious folded paper, the print of Cedric Owen's cipher, the pinnacle of three years' work.

" 'That which you seek lies hidden in white water.' The waterfall is white."

"And the water is full of lime scale, which is another form of white. Read me again the bit that comes after having the courage to go forward?"

He was a poet at heart, for all that he buried his brain in hexadecimal code and computer languages. He turned so that the flare cast his shadow behind him and read aloud:

"Enter with courage. Go forward as far as the
dark allows. Step through night's arch and
come at last to the cathedral of the earth. Face
the rising of the sun, and its setting, pierce the
curtain to the well of living water and discover
at last the pearl there entombed."

He lowered the paper. Softly, he said, "Stella, we have come at last to the cathedral of the earth."

"We have. So next we have to face the rising and setting sun. But we didn't step through night's arch to get here—we crawled through a tunnel that wasn't there before half a ton of rock fell into the route Cedric Owen took. We need to find out where he came in before we can work out where he went next."

Stella stood at the margins of the magnesium white and turned in a slow circle. Her head-lamp cut a horizontal line along the wall, cutting through stalactites, snagging on outcrops, falling into a tall slice of darkness.


She ran to it, soft-footed on wet rock. The arch was more of a cleft, jaggedly asymmetric, higher than her upstretched hands, broader than her arm-span. She followed the dark space cautiously, rounding a bend, moving into a narrower passageway.

"Stell?" Kit was at the entrance, peering in.

She shouted back to him, cupping her hands against the echo. "This is it. The rockfall's up ahead. It must be at least twenty metres thick, Kit. Our crawl-tunnel looped out and round to come out farther along the cavern's wall." She reversed back towards him, playing her torch over the passage walls. Here and there were smudges of colour that barely held her torchlight.

"I think there are cave paintings on the wall." She could hear the awe in her own voice. "We're going to have to tell people about this."

She backed out, into the cavern, to the place where there was light enough to see, to look around, to search the high walls for other signs of ancient life.

"God, Kit . . . I take it all back. There are better things than finding a cave no-one has ever been in." She grinned at him, stupidly, her blood fizzing in her veins.


From the Hardcover edition.


Excerpted from The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott Copyright © 2009 by Manda Scott. Excerpted by permission.
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