Prologue: The White Hill
Sunset, 2nd July 2012
Conall Astor was breaking the law. He wasn’t quite sure what would happen if he was caught, but with every car that passed he found himself crouched in the waist-high grass and thorny scrub until the rumble of engines faded – just in case. To an outsider his actions would more probably be considered odd than illegal: How many of the drivers passing that spot who might happen to look over to the curiously shaped hill on the north side of the road, now silhouetted black against the sunset, would think to stop and enquire why a man of 39 years of age was scaling its steep sides at this hour? But it wasn’t so much the possibility of being caught trespassing that bothered Conall but how he would explain what it was he was carrying bundled up in his crumpled jacket…
The hill towered above him him, blocking out half the twilit sky. It’s just a hill, he told himself, but this was no ordinary hill. It seemed insurmountable for a start – the steep sides of the huge pudding bowl shaped mound presented a natural defence against climbing, and that was after one had ignored the ‘Strictly No Admittance’ signs, clambered over the barbed wire fence and navigated the open, thorn filled hollow, in which the 40m high mound sat and which this evening, as was frequently the case, was waterlogged from the recent rains.
What’s more, the hill exuded what Conall could only describe as presence; the last time he had felt like this was looking up at the Great Pyramid of Giza many years before – and like the pyramids, which had been built at the same time as it, this hill was man-made. The many thousands of tonnes of chalk that made up the dome had been laboriously scooped up from the surrounding ditch over four and a half thousand years earlier by Stone Age farmers, and fashioned into a great conical mound for reasons known only to them and, until now, long forgotten. Once it had stood out a stark white against the surrounding green, but the green had encroached upon the white hill over the intervening centuries so that its shape alone seemed to betray its artificial origins.
Many had argued that this feature, Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, now sitting vast and mute beside the Marlborough to Bath road, had been built to be seen from one or several of the various vistas afforded by the surrounding landscape. Conall, however, thought different. Why build a hill when all around one was surrounded by hills? Archaeologists investigating the mound had discovered traces of a spiral pathway to its summit and so it seemed logical that it was meant to be climbed. The threat of damage posed by thousands of tourists re-enacting this feat meant that it had been off limits to the public for some 40 years, but tonight for reasons he would have found hard to explain to any apprehending police officer, Conall Astor had chosen to ignore this prohibition.
He had already nearly fallen twice, slipping in the sodden moat, before he had got anywhere near the hill. He was taking a route straight up the north-east side, avoiding an older well-worn winding path to the south-west that was in direct view of the traffic on the road. With his jacket with its burden in one hand he began his ascent, using tufts of long coarse grass to pull himself up with his free hand, stopping only to flatten himself to the hill when the headlights of approaching traffic from over Overton hill to the east scoured the hillside.
After a few minutes he reached the flattened summit, dizzy and breathless, nearly falling backwards down the steep slope when one of the dark shapes he had taken as bushes rose up and fled, bleating. He didn’t know who was more shocked, the sheep or him.
The top of the hill was wide and covered in undergrowth, save for a central circular scar where in 2001 the land had fallen away to reveal a deep shaft of an earlier excavation. For hundreds of years men had dug into this mysterious hill in search of treasure – local legend had it that the hill contained the body of a King clad in golden armour, buried seated upon his horse; but now thoroughly internally dissected and scanned, and its cavernous holes filled, Silbury had been proven to be empty. Whatever it was it was not a tomb, nor a treasure chest; no Stone Age Pharaoh lay here in state.
For four and a half thousand years the hill had been waiting: not for something to be found within but for something to be returned; and its wait was finally over.
Conall sat himself just back from the southernmost lip of the summit, so as to be invisible from the road, and waited until his breathing had calmed; he was thirsty, nauseous and more tired than he ever remembered being; every muscle seemed to ache; he had run most of the way here – but had he been followed? He didn’t know. He would soon find out.
From out of the confines of his jacket he took the object he’d so carefully carried up the hill: it was an ancient skull, fragile and polished with age. Cautiously, respectfully, he turned it in his hands then held it up before him. In the last rays of the dying sun it glowed with a warm blush, eerily echoing both in shape and hue the newly risen moon above the hillside opposite.
‘It’s taken you lifetimes to get here, old man, enchanter.’ Conall said. ‘Now what am I to do with you?’
For a moment there was no sound save the last hum of a car engine disappearing out of earshot in the direction of Beckhampton and the chink chink chink of blackbirds in the bushes at the foot of the hill.
And then the skull began to speak.