A Short Story – The Stones Cry Out, Part 1

So I thought I’d do something different. Since this site is about fiction, here’s a bit of fiction. I’ll post the story over the next few days so there isn’t anything too long to read. Uh, as you might expect, this is fantasy.

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Kor’s mother, Lara noc-Jodan, a merchant with an upstanding reputation in the City of Stones, first reported her youngest son’s aptitude to the authorities four winters ago. Governor Hadan himself hurried to the family’s modest dugout, bringing with him the officer in charge of Cepae’s watchmen.

At the entrance to the simple home, the governor made his pronouncement. “We have need of a new watchman. Young Kor, present yourself for examination.”

Straight-backed, Kor climbed the narrow stairs to the rock garden. His parents eased through the trapdoor behind him.

“If your mother has lied, boy, Master Iba will know immediately.” The robust governor exchanged a smirk with the watchman instructor, then beckoned Kor toward the road. “The examination is simple enough. Listen to the stones and tell us what you hear.”

Kor peeked over his shoulder. His parents nodded, so he bent his wooly black head beside Master Iba’s bald one, his ear brushing the topmost stone in a mound of marble and rose quartz.

The governor turned his smirk on Kor.

Moments passed, but at last Kor straightened. “The stones announce the coming of a champion.”

“Well?” Governor Hadan’s gaze darted to his subordinate.

Master Iba rubbed the back of his neck. “As he said.”

“Ah, we’re to have a new festival champion during the harvest celebration.”

“They didn’t mention the festival,” Kor mumbled.

Without responding to the comment, Governor Hadan designated Kor for immediate training. Master Iba escorted him to the instruction center for his first lesson.

If the young man’s heart had not been one with the City of Stones, Kor might never have completed the requirements. Day upon day, before the companion star sank below the horizon, he scurried through the pre-dawn cold to meet Master Iba for lessons. Night upon night, he climbed and re-climbed the narrow scaffolding braced against the city’s outer wall—in order to strengthen his body, his instructor said.

Then when his muscles twitched with overuse and his eyes teared because of sleeplessness, Master Iba put him through the watchmen’s hammer and chisel. From out of the night shadows, a band of black-hooded strangers crept toward the city. Were they enemy invaders or wandering tradesmen at journey’s end? Should he signal for the governor to initiate defensive measures or for the gatekeeper to raise the portcullis? The responsibility was his. The safety of the city depended on him making the right choice.

As Kor’s training advanced, the tests came at all hours. In the glare of noonday light, he had to determine if he beheld a shimmering mirage or approaching horsemen. As the sun faded behind the Ykal Mountains, he needed to discern whether a band of advancing figures consisted of children returning home after a day of nutting or members of the dwarf army from Kalandu.

In these trials, Kor’s performance was as marred as chipped masonry.

Governor Hadan stormed into the training center after Kor’s third failure. “Examine him again. Anyone with the ability to hear the stones should not make so many mistakes.”

Master Iba parted his entwined hands and shrugged. “If you insist, Governor, but I’ve already tested him more than once.”

“Then explain to me his dismal performance.”

Tapping the tips of his fingers together, Master Iba shook his head. “I wish I could.”

Gradually Kor improved. Very gradually. One winter passed. Then two. Three. At long last, when the fourth winter melted away and the early cybl blooms pushed their white heads between the wall cracks, Master Iba declared Kor ready to take his position among the watchmen.

True to Cepaen custom, Kor’s father, Jodan noc-Lara, invited all their neighbors to a feast celebrating Kor’s placement. Lara, her two sisters, their daughters, and Jodan’s sister—seven in all—prepared food for three days. Jodan cleared away debris from the field beyond the rock garden, hung lighting, and replenished their cold room with barrels of the city’s finest ale. The merriment lasted another three days, and then it was time for Kor to go to work.

The young watchman was nervous that first night, feeling the burden of the city’s safety upon his shoulders. And rightly so. But as he became familiar with the routine, his tension evaporated.

At the completion of Kor’s third circuit, the last merchant locked his door and snuffed out his light. Quiet engulfed Cepae. Her trusting citizens now tucked scratchy homespun wool blankets around recently scrubbed sons and yeasty-smelling daughters, then retired, knowing their watchmen patrolled the ramparts.

With practiced ease, Kor scaled the scaffolding and walked his route, alone for the first time. Periodically he bent his head to the wall, listening to the stones, or rather to the silence of the stones. If all was as it should be, the legends said, music would pour from the rocks. The melodies of celebration to honor the Song himself. But those were ancient stories and no one believed them any more.

When it had come time for Master Iba to teach Kor the welcoming signal required to bring the Song into the city, he almost passed it over. “After all,” his instructor said, “it’s been so long since I taught this, the other watchmen most likely don’t remember the peculiar chiming sequence.”

Yearning to receive all that the others had received, Kor begged. In the end, Master Iba relented, but he had made it clear that Kor should not expect to use the signal. Instead, if all was as it should be, he would know by the silence of the stones.

And they were silent now. Cepae was at peace. Why shouldn’t it be? An enemy would be foolish to invade a fortified burg with trained watchmen, at one with the city they patrolled. A sense of invulnerability swirled through Kor. Intoxicating. As if the power of the city was his power. As if his mere presence atop the wall was enough to chase away legions of enemy soldiers.

The stones, after all, had chosen him. From dozens of other men, newly come of age, they chose him. How long had it been since a new watchman patrolled the ramparts? Five winters? Six? More perhaps. But when the council least expected it, the stones selected their man. The power, the privilege, the greatness that marked the watchmen now belonged to Kor.

Or so his thinking progressed, despite Master Iba’s cautions against self-importance. Later that night, when Kor passed Marshall Tong’s station, and the burly supervisor sat dozing with his polished boots propped on his signal bell, the newest watchman realized the others shared his sense of invincibility. As a result, he was only mildly surprised at the end of his shift when Watchman Pran, smelling more than a little pickled, weaved away from Madam Tru’s door toward his station.

Kor himself might have fallen into such lax behavior if many more uneventful nights had passed. But the First Approach came not more than a week into his service.

As the moon set, the youth completed his circuit and returned to his station to log his report. A muffled tramp filtered through the commonplace morning sounds—the premature gawk-a-gawk-a-doo of a rooster, the trickle of water filling the communal pond, Pran’s drunken shuffle as he made his way to his alcove.

Because of Master Iba’s persistent drilling, Kor left the shelter of his station and peered into the dark toward the unexpected tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp.

To be continued.

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm  Comments (2)  
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