Short Story – The Stones Cry Out, Part 3

Summary: Because of Kor’s ability to hear stones prophesy, the governor of Cepea appoints him to become a watchman. After years of training, Kor finally takes his place on the wall. That first night he learns the other watchmen are lax about their job, presumably because they feel no enemy would consider attacking a berg protected by watchmen at one with the stones.

A week later, however, Kor hears the sounds of a great force marching toward the city. He signals the alarm for defensive measures. When the governor questions him, he admits he saw nothing. The governor then brings in the other watchmen. He is in the process of questioning Pran, a watchman who returned to his station drunk.

And now the conclusion:

Straightening, Pran wiped a hand over his mouth. “I saw the captain astride a white charger.”

Kor spun toward Pran. What was the drunken watchman saying? Surely, if there had been a white charger, its hooves would have clanged on the stony road—a sound Kor couldn’t have missed, even if somehow he overlooked a white warhorse prancing toward the city!

The governor slid next to Pran and latched onto the wall with both hands. “A single horse, then?”

“At the head of a column. I could not see how far reaching it was.”

Governor Hadan motioned to his page. “To Commander Jart. Tell him to prepare level five defenses.”

The governor strutted to the ladder, but turned back to the three watchmen. “You’ve done well. Your city is in your debt. Especially to you, Watchman Pran.”

Rays of light brightened the sky, and soon after, the sun climbed above the edge of the world. Commander Jart sent his scouts out to ascertain the accuracy of the information the watchmen provided. Upon returning, each patrol reported they saw no evidence of an approaching army, no evidence of an entrenched force, and no evidence one had retreated. In fact, there was no evidence of an army of any kind.

Kor swallowed his shame. You’ve done well, the governor had said, but the words clanked in his mind like a cracked signal bell. Most likely Marshal Tong had been asleep and didn’t really hear the marching. Watchman Pran, certainly drunk at the time, imagined or invented his white charger, and undoubtedly heard nothing.

By midmorning, the rest of the city knew who rang the first warning bell and forgot who the governor had especially praised. The newest watchman panicked, the soldiers said. He thought he heard marching, but it was only the hammering of his fearful heart. The jeers, intermingling with surly scowls, continued for days, all aimed at Kor, as if he alone bore the responsibility for the false signal.

Except, the tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp had not been false.

On the night of the Second Approach, when the sound again reverberated through the darkness, Kor knew with certainty the marching was real.

As before, he had just finished his final pass along the city wall and settled in his chair to fill out the log. The distant tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp spurred him from his seat. His heart thudded against his rib cage in time with the quick-stepping march.

Again? But how could he strike the warning signal after his recent humiliation?

He sprang to the parapet and peered toward the River Road. Nothing. Yet the thud of boots on stone grew louder. And nearer. He strained to see even the faint outline of an enemy soldier, but darkness canvassed the road weaving down the gradual incline separating Cepae from the river.

Pressing his ear to the wall, Kor waited. The stones would tell him what to do. He just had to be patient. That was the problem last time. He acted in haste, maybe in fear.

But the stones remained silent. The cadenced tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp grew louder, accompanied now by a low-pitched hum.

Kor clambered up the ladder to the top of the battlement. More rhythmic stamping. From how many soldiers? A squad? A platoon? A division? If only he could see them. He squinted into the darkness. Nothing.

Were they invisible? Cepae’s enemies would seek any advantage, any means of conquering the city protected by her stones.

Kor leaped down the ladder and sprinted to his alcove. His hand shook as he clutched the bell cord and clanged out the warning signal.

At once the marching died away. Silence. Then the answering clatter from the other watchmen and from the gatekeepers. More slowly, the armed soldiers stumbled from the garrison and milled around the square.

No signal fire appeared in the citadel tower, and Master Iba instead of Governor Hadan climbed to the rampart.

“What did you see, Watchman?”

“I heard marching, Master. A large force.”

“Did Marshal Tong confirm this?”

“He only signaled a response.”

“So on this occasion, you alone heard this supposed enemy army.”

“I think I understand now, Master. The enemy has learned some manner of shrouding their presence, but they can’t hide the sound of their approach.”

“I don’t hear anything, Watchman.”

“It … it has stopped now, Master.”

“So, this invisible army that can’t cover the sound of its approach is silent in its retreat?”

“I know it doesn’t make sense, Master, but I heard the marching.”

“Though none of the others on the River Wall heard a thing?”

Kor swallowed his desire to tell his master how incompetent Marshal Tong was as a watchman, how drunk Pran was night after night. Such accusations would appear to be feeble efforts to justify his own ineptitude. He pushed aside a pebble with his foot and gave a half shrug.

“What did the stones tell you, Watchman?”

“They were silent.”

“Then why didn’t you listen?” Master Iba spun away from Kor and ordered Commander Jart to cancel the alert.

Kor sagged against the wall. Why hadn’t he listened to the stones? That, after all, was why he was a watchman. He’d bent to hear what the stones had to say but stopped listening so he could look for the unseen army when the wall remained silent. As it was now. As it always was when Cepae was safe.

Had he imagined the marching then? Or had he neglected to explore the last possibility for its cause?

The Third Approach came a week later. As before, Kor left his alcove and positioned himself on the battlement, but instead of staring down the road, he pressed his ear against the stones and waited. The tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp resounded against the wall. Louder and louder. He held his ear firmly in place.

And then he heard the low hum, a melodious counterpoint to the steady beat of the approaching force. The stones vibrated, tickling his lobe, and he drew back. No matter. The melody was clear now, without his head resting against the wall.

Answering music floated to him from the River Road. The tune pierced his heart. It was promise, and fulfillment; anticipation, and satisfaction; hope, and completion. He wanted to laugh and weep, together. The beauty of the song required celebration, yet he mourned its inevitable loss.

“Not loss.” The stone beneath Kor’s hand shouted the words. The watchman yanked his hand away. From out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Song crest the hill toward Cepae.

In actuality, he saw a man dressed in the simple garments of a traveling minstrel. But from the wall, the stones sang a welcome, an announcement, a celebration of the Song. In return, the minstrel sang in pleasure and oneness with the stones he ruled.

That’s when Kor knew for certain. The marching had never been from an invading army. He bounded down the ladder and raced to his alcove. Seizing the bell cord, he clanged the special welcoming signal. Loudly his bell clattered into the night, a lone percussion from within the city, the required answer to the Song.

Kor straightened. Where were the bells responding to his signal? The squads of soldiers to escort the champion into the citadel?

Master Iba poked his head into Kor’s alcove. “What is it this time, Watchman?”

“You were right, Master. All I needed to do was listen.”

“And what did you think you heard?”

“The Song, Master. I hear the Song.”

But as he spoke, the music of the stones died away. The tramping ceased. The melody from the minstrel lingered a moment, then it too faded into the fading night.

“He’s gone.”

“No one was ever there, Kor. And clearly we made a mistake putting you in this position. You’re a danger to the city. We can’t have you pretending to hear armies that aren’t there.”

“I was wrong about the armies.”

“And you’re wrong now. There is no music, no song.”

“It died away.”

“It didn’t exist.” Master Iba beckoned him toward the ladder. “Come with me.”

“I haven’t finished my report.”

“Only watchmen make reports, Kor, and you are no longer a watchman.”

Master Iba prodded Kor off the rampart and across the square toward the citadel. Soldiers poked their heads from the garrison, growling curses. As Master Iba shoved Kor through the entrance, Governor Hadan appeared holding a cudgel.

He thrust his face near Kor’s and jammed the stick against his neck. “What kind of a scheme are you up to?”

Master Iba slammed the door.

As he did, the stones cried out, in imitation of the welcoming signal, and once again the tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp reverberated against the walls.

– THE END –

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Published in: on June 12, 2009 at 10:51 am  Comments (12)  
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12 Comments

  1. Good story Becky. Poignant in how we need to stop and listen – something I’ve been dealing with this weekend.

    You would think on a fiction discussion blog there’d be more commenting – but there’s less controversy than say The Shack (still can’t finish it…ugh…)

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  2. Thanks, Jason. I appreciate the feedback. I don’t know—maybe the posts were too long and discouraged readers. Or maybe they just didn’t have anything to say about the story. Or maybe they didn’t like it and are afraid to hurt my feelings by saying so. Maybe I should put up a poll to find out! 😉

    Becky

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  3. Hi, Becky. I’ve been lurking for a few months now. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about the piece, but I don’t want to offend you.
    First of all, I have to say, I loved the beginning of the piece. The use of the family to frame the main character’s position in society and the description of the training/initiation drew me in. I’m just not sure where the end of this piece was pointing. (And I’ve never been accused of being obtuse by an English teacher/prof.) After reading it three times, the only conclusion I could draw was that the protagonist was hearing his own impending death (and resurrection?) in the sounds of the stones. I liked this character and was waiting for him to grow out of his immaturity and “change the world” where he lived. Please tell me I’m wrong!

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  4. I’m not offended, trust me. However, after reading a number of other short stories on another site, I sort of formulated a policy not to “explain” my writing. I think it takes something away from it.

    I’m really happy to know that the opening drew you in. To be honest, I thought that was the weak part of the story. LOL

    I actually did want the end to be open for some interpretation.

    Let me ask, are you familiar with the Scripture passage the title comes from? I’ll say, that was firmly in my mind when I wrote the story.

    Becky

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  5. Hm, let me very loosely paraphrase the Gospel passage:

    The authorities asked Jesus to quite the crowds (in Jerusalem as he entered the city.) He answered them, “I tell you, even if they were silenced, the very stones shall shout.”

    The fact that there exists a designated bell ring signal to welcome the “Song” threw me, I guess. To me, that indicated that the champion had to have been there previously, though long ago.

    The authorities silenced the stones? The authorities’ lack of positive response silenced the Song? Now I have more questions than answers.

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  6. Well, you’re asking good questions, and you understand Jesus’s words the same way I do. You understand my story the way I intended it, as near as I can tell.

    And the fact that you’re thinking about it is the greatest satisfaction I as an author can have. Thanks so much for reading, re-reading, and interacting with me about it.

    Becky

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  7. Becky, I tend to agree somewhat with PaperSmyth. I was a little confused by the end. I was with you right up ’till the door was closed. I think perhaps the boy, or his mentor should have heard the Song and stones even if no one else did.

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  8. Hey, Sis, thanks for reading the story. Well, I guess I’ve started writing stories of late that don’t always have the expected happy ending. Interesting to get the feedback and see what you all think about that.

    Becky

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  9. Becky:

    I just finished reading your story. Here’s my take.

    I had a tiny bit of trouble following the beginning, but after a few paragraphs and a re-read, I figured I had it pretty much figured out. From there, the story moved along nicely. I could feel the tension in the boy and could easily imagine his uncertainty. However, at the end, when Governor Hadan appeared with his cudgel, it set me back. His combative attitude seemed a little excessive and unexpected given what we knew about him. (If the Gov.’s reaction was an expected response, perhaps the potential threat could have been alluded to earlier?)

    Then the final sentence confused me a bit. I appreciate the open-ended style and how you have left it open for interpretation, but I’m not sure what my choices are. If I understand your intent, it seems to me that the welcoming signal has once again been suppressed and silenced by the tramp of evil. Is that right?

    Dona

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  10. After re-reading my comment above, I realized I forgot something. My brain must have been soggy at the time I wrote it.

    I wanted to make sure to say that I did enjoy your short story. I thought your descriptions were good and I could picture the scene easily. I also liked the way the tension worked in your main character. I think you did a good job with that. Keep up the good work! 🙂

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  11. Hi, Dona,

    I guess I dropped the ball in this discussion. 😮

    I do agree with you that I could have done a better job foreshadowing what would happen to a watchman that was perceived to fail. I think that would have made the story stronger.

    As to the last line, that’s the part I don’t feel comfortable explaining. Obviously I didn’t pull the end out as I’d hoped. While I was going for an ending that would leave some questions, I really wasn’t going for an end that created confusion. Thanks, too, for your kind comments.

    I appreciate feedback because it helps me learn, so thanks for taking the time to read the story and then the willingness to give your input.

    Becky

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