Excerpt: 'Labyrinth'

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Rona Brinlee of The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Fla., recommends Labyrinth by Kate Mosse in her conversation about summer reading with Susan Stamberg on Morning Edition. It's "a quiet, intriguing read until the last 200 pages, when it all comes together at a gallop."

Prologue

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Pic de Soularac

Sabarthès Mountains

Southwest France

MONDAY, 4 JULY 2005

A single line of blood trickles down the pale underside of her arm, a red seam on a white sleeve.

At first, Alice thinks it’s just a fly and takes no notice. Insects are an occupational hazard at a dig, and for some reason there are more flies higher up the mountain where she is working than at the main excavation site lower down. Then a drop of blood splashes onto her bare leg, exploding like a firework in the sky on Guy Fawkes night.

This time she does look and sees that the cut on the inside of her elbow has opened again. It’s a deep wound, which doesn’t want to heal. She sighs and pushes the plaster and lint dressing tighter against her skin. Then, since there’s no one around to see, she licks the red smear from her wrist.

Strands of hair, the color of soft brown sugar, have come loose from under her cap. She tucks them behind her ears and wipes her forehead with her handkerchief, before twisting her ponytail back into a tight knot at the nape of her neck.

Her concentration broken, Alice stands up and stretches her slim legs, lightly tanned by the sun. Dressed in cutoff denim shorts, a tight white sleeveless T-shirt and cap, she looks little more than a teenager. She used to mind. Now, as she gets older, she sees the advantage of looking younger than her years. The only touches of glamour are her delicate silver earrings, in the shape of stars, which glint like sequins.

Alice unscrews the top of her water bottle. It’s warm, but she’s too thirsty to care and drinks it down in great gulps. Below, the heat haze shimmers above the dented tarmac of the road. Above her, the sky is an endless blue. The cicadas keep up their unrelenting chorus, hidden in the shade of the dry grass.

It’s her first time in the Pyrenees, although she feels very much at home. She’s been told that in the winter the jagged peaks of the Sabarthès Mountains are covered in snow. In the spring, delicate flowers of pink and mauve and white peep out from their hiding places in the great expanses of rock. In early summer, the pastures are green and speckled with yellow buttercups. But now, the sun has flattened the land into submission, turning the greens to brown. It is a beautiful place, she thinks, yet somehow an inhospitable one. It’s a place of secrets, one that has seen too much and concealed too much to be at peace with itself.

In the main camp on the lower slopes, Alice can see her colleagues standing under the big canvas awning. She can just pick out Shelagh in her trademark black outfit. She’s surprised they’ve stopped already. It’s early in the day to be taking a break, but then the whole team is a bit demoralized.

It’s painstaking and monotonous work for the most part, the digging and scraping, the cataloguing and recording, and so far they’ve turned up little of significance to justify their efforts. They’ve come across a few fragments of early medieval pots and bowls, and a couple of late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century arrowheads, but certainly no evidence of the Paleolithic settlement which is the focus of the excavation.

Alice is tempted to go down and join her friends and colleagues and get her dressing sorted out. The cut smarts and her calves are already aching from squatting. The muscles in her shoulders are tense. But she knows that if she stops now, she’ll lose her momentum.

Hopefully, her luck’s about to change. Earlier, she’d noticed something glinting beneath a large boulder, propped against the side of the mountain, neat and tidy, almost as if it had been placed there by a giant hand. Although she can’t make out what the object is, even how big it is, she’s been digging all morning and she doesn’t think it will be much longer before she can reach it.

She knows she should fetch someone. Or at least tell Shelagh, her best friend, who is the deputy on the dig. Alice is not a trained archeologist, just a volunteer spending some of her summer holiday doing something worthwhile. But it’s her last full day on site and she wants to prove herself. If she goes back down to the main camp now and admits she’s on to something, everybody will want to be involved, and it will no longer be her discovery.

In the days and weeks to come, Alice will look back to this moment. She will remember the quality of the light, the metallic taste of blood and dust in her mouth, and wonder at how different things might have been had she made the choice to go and not to stay. If she had played by the rules.

She drains the last drop of water from the bottle and tosses it into her rucksack. For the next hour or so, as the sun climbs higher in the sky and the temperature rises, Alice carries on working. The only sounds are the scrape of metal on rock, the whine of insects and the occasional buzz of a light aircraft in the distance. She can feel beads of sweat on her upper lip and between her breasts, but she keeps going until, finally, the gap underneath the boulder is big enough for her to slide in her hand.

Alice kneels down on the ground and leans her cheek and shoulder against the rock for support. Then, with a flutter of excitement, she pushes her fingers deep into the dark, blind earth. Straight away, she knows her instincts are right and that she’s got something worth finding. It is smooth and slimy to the touch, metal not stone. Grasping it firmly and telling herself not to expect too much, slowly, slowly she eases the object out into the light. The earth seems to shudder, reluctant to give up its treasure.

The rich, cloying smell of wet soil fills her nose and throat, although she barely notices. She is already lost in the past, captivated by the piece of history she cradles in the palms of her hands. It is a heavy round buckle, speckled black and green with age and from its long burial. Alice rubs at it with her fingers and smiles as the silver and copper detail starts to reveal itself underneath the dirt. At first glance, it looks to be medieval too, the sort of buckle used to fasten a cloak or robe. She’s seen something like it before.

She knows the danger of jumping to conclusions or of being seduced by first impressions, yet she can’t resist imagining its owner, long dead now, who might have walked these paths. A stranger whose story she has yet to learn.

Excerpted from Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Copyright © 2005, Kate Mosse. Reprinted by permission of Putnam, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. All rights reserved.

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