"What," Jenny said, with the air of one repulsed, "is that?"
The team looked at each other and then looked at Becker, who, for once, felt perfectly in sympathy with their nonplussed expressions.
"Well, it's a sword, innit?" Danny said, prodding the object in question with one toe. It was grimy, covered in equal parts swamp mud and pondweed, obviously well-used and equally obviously not abandoned for centuries, but it was nonetheless clearly identifiable. Becker was forced to agree with Danny.
"Yes," Jenny said, with exaggerated patience. "But where did it come from? Why have we got it? And how are we going to get rid of it?"
Abby, Connor and Stephen looked at each other, plainly determined not to be the ones to break the bad news. There was a squawking noise, and a skein of dark birds hurling themselves out of the bushes, and as one, the three team members looked out over the misty, marshy land beside them. It was mostly marsh, Becker thought, with the imprecision of someone who had grown up in rolling Oxfordshire hills and whose interest in geography was confined to the cover it gave him and the pitfalls it might present. But there was a definite lake-ish bit of standing water in the middle.
In the dim, grey early-morning January light, it all looked very atmospheric.
Mythical, one might say.
"Well," Danny said, displaying either heroic self-sacrifice or a profound desire to annoy Jenny - Becker, who had little time for Danny's nonsense, suspected the latter - "it's sort of legendary, guv."
"I've told you to save that for Lester," Jenny said, frowning thunderously. Ryan caught Stephen's eye and rolled his own. "What do you mean?"
Danny shrugged and grinned, his craggy face creasing further into mischief. Jenny's eyes narrowed. "Sarah'll love it."
"Why?" Jenny demanded.
Danny looked at Becker, and Becker sighed, picked up the sword by its hilt, and showed Jenny the heavy pommel, which had an A inlaid in bronze over a stamped image of a boar.
Jenny glared at it as if it had personally offended her, which it was probably going to when she knew what the team thought of it. "So?"
Becker looked at Danny. Danny folded his arms and evinced a sadistic desire to watch Becker suffer at Jenny's hands. Connor disappeared into his laptop, balanced precariously on one arm. Abby discovered a suddenly loose bootlace. Stephen simply refused to catch Becker's eye. Ryan, who was fortunate in that he was standing directly behind Jenny, was smirking.
Becker sighed, and mentally cursed all of them, including his immediate superior, who had been breathing down his neck with cheerful menace since the anomaly detector alarm had gone off at midnight. It was giving Becker hives.
"If you remember the last anomaly incursion in this area," Becker said, "the one immediately before Christmas, there's a strong possibility that -"
"No," Jenny said, clearly outraged. "No. Absolutely bloody not! That is not bloody Excalibur!"
Danny began to laugh. Jenny rounded on him, but not before Stephen had accidentally-on-purpose trodden on his foot.
"It's not funny, Quinn!"
Abby looked up at the sky. Connor, wisely, hid his face. Under the circumstances, Becker decided to be grateful that Professor Cutter was currently stuck at home working on a grant application.
Jenny let out a noise of great frustration. "Are we sure?"
Becker preserved a prudent silence.
"It might be nothing," Jenny said, as if she were trying to convince herself. "It might not - do you see a lady in the lake around here, anyway? No. Just hoofprints and footprints. The anomaly is closed. There is absolutely no reason to believe -" She snapped her fingers. "What's her name, Becker, your friend with the archaeology degree?"
Becker's heart sank. "Morris. She's a PhD student."
"We'll get her to look at it and say it's a hoax," Jenny said, adjusting her heavy purple scarf around her neck. "It could be a hoax."
Becker opened his mouth.
"She's already signed the Official Secrets Act, hasn't she?"
"Yes, but -"
"How soon can you get her here?"
Becker checked his watch and carried out a couple of calculations based on his knowledge of Morris's schedule and her distance from the site. "Three hours, maybe, but -"
"Becker, there's no call to drag her out of bed!"
"She'll be awake," Becker said, painfully conscious that the timing of this request was not going to be the most awkward thing about it and determined to make one last valiant effort, "but-"
A tentative but persistent call from one of the park rangers recalled Jenny to a more immediate emergency. "Good. Call her, would you?"
Jenny marched off in a whirl of khaki trench coat and artful chestnut ponytail, and Becker closed his mouth again. He let out a small sigh, and reached for his phone. Half the team were grinning at him; at least Hart looked sympathetic as well as amused.
"Do you think she's likely to think it's a hoax?" Hart said.
Becker speed-dialled Morris, and spared a mordant glance for the sword on the floor. He glanced back up at Hart, and shook his head. He was no archaeologist, but years of exposure to Morris and her enthusiasm for mediaeval weaponry had given him a sufficiently keen grasp of the basics to convince him that Morris wouldn't write this off as a fake on first glance.
"She'll want to study and publish it," Hart predicted. Accurately, if Becker could claim to know his best friend.
Becker nodded grimly, holding the phone to his ear and waiting for Morris to pick up.
Three hours later, Becker spotted Morris bounding cheerfully through the national park towards them. The sun was now fully risen, and most of the mist had burned off; Morris, in her ancient Barbour, disreputable jeans and old green fleece, looked like part of the scenery, her dishwasher-blonde hair blowing back off her face as she strode towards them.
They were exactly the same age, but Becker - conscious of enormous bags under his eyes and a smear of ketchup across his chin from the bacon butties he'd sent Finn and Fizz off to get for the team's breakfast - felt very old in comparison.
"You always send me the most interesting things!" Morris called, once she was within striking distance.
Becker stuck his hands in his pockets and grunted.
Morris said hello to everyone she remembered - which was everyone she'd met - and acknowledged everyone else. Becker's dread of her reaction to the fact that she would never be allowed to publish was temporarily subsumed by pride as he watched the team blush or start or smile at being greeted by name. Then she turned to Becker with sparkling eyes, and Becker smiled reluctantly back at her.
"Come and have a look," he said.
As he feared, Morris was instantly convinced that the sword was real. Or - not real, but -
"Look," she said, digging a pair of gardening gloves out of her pockets and lifting the sword carefully. It wasn't light, and she plainly felt the weight of it, but she still handled it with skill; Ryan's eyebrows were flirting with his hairline.
Everyone else was standing well back. Becker, who had full confidence in Morris's ability to avoid damaging or frightening anyone, stifled a grin.
"This," Morris proclaimed, "is a classic pattern-welded spatha of the later Roman Empire, which has undergone significant modification, and which was probably an heirloom." She took a careful grip on the blade - Becker saw Blade open his mouth to protest, and shook his head slightly; Morris knew what she was doing when it came to swords - and showed everyone the hilt, and the heavy decoration on the pommel. "See? This is not original. The cavalryman who carried this initially would have been quite surprised to see it later, with these symbols, which appear to form a personal badge. Not very Roman. At least, not very legionary." She shifted her grasp on the sword again, and Becker saw several sets of shoulders lower slightly with relief. He suppressed a smile.
"This spatha in itself is actually quite surprising," Morris continued. "By the type and quality of the modifications I would say this was skilled late fourth century, potentially even early fifth century work. But this is plainly a cavalry spatha, note the rounded tip, and by the later Roman Empire the spatha was a weapon used by the heavy infantry...." She stared thoughtfully down at it. "Hmm. Well, I can tell you anyway that the hilt is not original, and has seen heavy use, as has the sword itself. The sword's been repaired by an expert. And whoever owned this was wealthy - not necessarily in a sense we'd recognise, if we looked at a list of possessions, but this is like - oh, I don't know. Owning a vintage sports car so well-tuned up it can still win Le Mans." Her arms were starting to tremble slightly from holding so heavy a sword extended; she changed her grip again.
"Don't skip arm day," Becker remarked, which earned him a flurry of nervous laughter and a filthy look from Morris as she flipped him an emphatic middle finger.
"This was expensive," she said. "Very expensive. And to its owner, who plainly used it in the recent past -" she indicated notching and staining on the blade not due to its recent dunking - "it would have meant more than that. Status. The capacity to draw a following and use them, if their personal qualities were sufficient. The ability to demand security in an insecure world, while they remained strong enough to use it."
Danny raised his eyebrows and shifted his weight.
Morris's head tilted up a little. "Questions?" she said. "Don't be shy. None of you are undergrads."
"You said 'they'," Danny said.
Morris raised her eyebrows in return. "I did," she said, honey-voice deadly sweet, and lifted the sword in a one-handed grip. "I could use this effectively, with more weight training. I could use it pretty effectively against a sufficiently vulnerable opponent right now." Her tone made it clear that 'sufficiently vulnerable opponent' was a class that included Danny; Becker didn't think she would necessarily have taken to Danny under better circumstances, but Danny's attitude to his brief relationship with Becker had killed any inclination Morris might conceivably have felt towards him. "A sword like this isn't for fencing with, Mr Quinn, it's an expensive bludgeon with a comparatively sharp edge. The idea is overwhelming force, not getting fancy."
She returned her other hand to the sword and smiled. Abby was grinning, and by the smirk on Jenny's face, Becker thought Morris had just made some clever friends. None of the soldiers would like her any the worse for making Quinn look silly, either.
"So. This is an expensive and heavily modified bit of kit, formerly Roman, probably used from horseback, but which could probably have been used on foot. It belonged to someone with a personal badge that included the letter A and a charging boar, and it was - where did you find it?"
"Hereish," Becker said unhelpfully, heart sinking again as he saw where this was going.
"It was on the edge of the lake," Connor volunteered thoughtlessly.
Morris's eyes widened behind her smudged glasses. "Right," she said, with hardly an excited wobble. "Well, there are plenty of British traditions of - uh, weapon sacrifice, I guess, weapons like swords thrown into water, often running water, but there is precedent for stuff being chucked into marshy areas like this if you think about the Fenlands. This is rather late for it, and I would expect to see the sword somehow disabled, which..." She turned it over in her hands. "...it is not. This is in use condition. But stories are powerful, especially in a time of significance for oral history; maybe..."
She was silent for a moment. Becker waited; so did everyone else. He had a bad feeling about that 'stories are powerful' remark.
"I think this was probably made overseas, and the modifications done locally," she pronounced eventually, "but that's little more than a guess. If I can take it back to the university, my new supervisor specialises in the later Roman period in Britain, she would definitely be interested - and there are all sorts of tests we can run which might be very enlightening -"
Becker closed his eyes briefly, and commended his soul to any deity that could find it.
Jenny blinked and shook herself, as if waking from a dream, and said: "Absolutely not. I'm sorry, that's quite impossible."
Morris's head jerked up the same way it had when Danny had challenged her, only with more emphasis. "Excuse me?"
Becker caught Ryan's eye. The older man looked almost sympathetic, which was not a good sign.
Two appalling hours later, by the end of which both Morris and Jenny were furious with Becker and tempers were running high, Morris dragged her hands through her floppy hair and grasped handfuls of it in a way that made it stand on end.
"You are making a joke of the scientific metho- Oh." She broke off mid-sentence, and her eyes went comically round.
"What?" Jenny snapped.
"You know," Morris said in a very different tone, releasing her hair and looking sideways at Jenny, "Current Archaeology is accepting submissions for April Fool's papers. And you've got to keep those rangers quiet about what they found somehow."
Jenny and Morris stared at each other. Becker held his breath.
"That," Jenny said slowly, "might just work."
The entirely straight-faced article, and WalesOnline print-out, took pride of place on the rec room wall (accompanied by pictures of various soldiers being shown the correct grip for a modified cavalryman's spatha). Morris gave a lecture in her department on what Arthur's sword might really have looked like that made only passing reference to the sword found by the anomaly team, and which was so popular her old, obnoxious, supervisor blew a blood vessel in his eye and the university invited her to repeat it at a public engagement event. It even made national news.
"I never thought I'd be pleased we're on Buzzfeed," Jenny sighed, skimming through Buzzfeed UK's listicle of the ten best April Fool's jokes. "What did we actually do with the sword, incidentally?"
"Put it in a box, put the box in some concrete," Becker said. The ARC's car park repairs would no doubt benefit from the regal presence.
"Was the box strictly necessary?"
"Morris insisted," Becker said, and decided not to mention the scrawl into the half-set concrete that read Whosoever pulleth this sword from this concrete shall become king of all Reading.
It had been done with a stick, but the handwriting bore a suspicious resemblance to Connor's.