By Evan Davies
When my brother and I finally left behind us the Woods of the Crescent Moon and looked out over the ancient quarry, I was reminded of hell.
A rolling wasteland sprawled out below us, cruel and grey in the sun’s light, while the acrid stench of brimstone found my nose. There was no life here amongst the boulders, yawning cave mouths and rocks that peppered the landscape, only emptiness. And us.
“Move,” my brother, Alberon, ordered, pushing hard against my heavy pack. He’d gathered firewood, and held in one arm several thick, spidery branches.
“I want to set up a camp before dusk,” he said. “I am hungry.”
On our path through the dark Woods, we picked berries, stole eggs from low-hanging nests and caught rabbits. Alberon would break their necks and skin them.
I was glad to be free of the Woods.
Our descent from the top was treacherous and slow-going. Our feet loosed many stones as we went, and they fell down into the tomb-like silence. I stumbled several times over the hill’s jagged side, and my legs were bruised and bloodied. I could have fallen to my death, I knew, and gripped what I could with white knuckles.
Alberon suddenly stopped and reached into his bag. He took out the black stone, the fire stone, and held it.
“Still cold,” he murmured to himself, and spat near my feet.
I turned from him and found a small clearing to rest. My shoulders burned from the weight of my pack and its hard leather straps. I remembered the soft unevenness of my old bed, then thought no more about it.
“We still have far to go,” said Alberon. “Let fall your load once we’ve reached the foot of this great hill.”
My strength had deserted me, and I could have slept there with the darkness gathering in the East. Slowly I followed him.
The morning our father had died, I saw a raven sitting on the roof of our cottage. It was a sign of things to come, I knew. I searched the sky for one now, as I neared the bottom, and saw nothing.
As my eyes looked towards the lonely heavens, I heard Alberon scream. He had completed his descent, and was waving about the black stone.
“It’s warm,” he yelled. “I can feel it now, just barely, but I can feel it!”
His wild black hair clung to his damp, tanned face.
By the time I reached him at the hill’s foot, Alberon had begun to set up his shelter. He had prepared the fire and his flint lay beside it. Soon we would eat, I hoped.
I dropped my pack nearby and began erecting my own camp.
“Are there snakes here, brother, as in the Woods” I asked, searching the rocky floor around us.
“Do not be a fool,” he replied. “There are no snakes. There is only us,” he paused, staring at me. “And the stones.”
As night fell, my brother lit the fire and I made tea from Mugwort and Rosemary. He sat at his shelter’s entrance, and his face frightened me in the glow of flame.
“We will not have much tonight,” he said quietly, tossing stale bread at me.
I dipped the crusts in my tea and said nothing.
He took the stone out of his pack again. He held it for a moment and looked troubled.
As I slept that night, I dreamt that every rock in the quarry was a snake’s egg. The moon beckoned them awake, and they began to hatch. All around our tents they writhed, and I felt them glide over me as I hid myself in blankets. A million forked tongues flicked the air, and their hissing filled the night like an ocean of sound.
When I awoke in the morning, I hid behind a nearby rock to pee.
Alberon had risen before me, and was not in his tent. As I cleaned myself, he came upon me, holding the black stone.
“It’s warm again,” he said, watching my hands.
“You said it was warm last night,” I replied, turning away and pulling up my clothing.
He furrowed his brow and looked past me.
“It was when we first arrived. At night, it was not,” he said.
We had more bread, and I saw Alberon eat a piece of cheese when he thought I was looking away.
I should not have known about the stones. I was not meant to hear about their power, or how one stone can find the other. Those were the secrets I overheard the day our father died.
He was a wicked man. He stole and he drank. He beat our mother, slowly breaking her over the years. One winter’s evening as she slept, he woke her and dragged her to the river. We did not see her again.
Alberon, he treated fairly, but I was a blight on our father and he paid me attention only when he desired to.
He had cheated a man whom he’d met at a tavern. That much I understood when our father was carried home, a dagger in his belly. The men who had brought him sent me away to boil water and find clean bandages, though we had none.
When the men left, I crept back inside and heard our father’s voice. I went to his door and saw Alberon standing over him. Our father’s clothing and sheets were stained red from blood. His face was white.
Weakly, our father reached under his pillow. He pulled out the black stone.
“I am dying,” he said, handing it to Alberon. “Take this. It is a fire stone that I took from the man who stabbed me.”
Alberon nodded, saying nothing.
“There is a map,” our father continued. “It is hidden under the hearth. It will lead you to where its twin is, though the other stone is a brilliant shade of white.”
Our father labored to breathe. Death called for him, but he went on.
“When they are close by, your stone will grow warm. When brought together, the owner of these two fire stones shall wield a terrible power. Flames of destruction. Made by the devil himself.”
“But how do you know this to be true,” interrupted Alberon.
“You are a fool not to believe in legends of old” our father hissed. He coughed up spittle and blood on his sheets. “With these stones, kings will tremble before you. Women will offer themselves to you. You enemies will burn by your hand.”
I stared at the stone as Alberon held it. It looked blacker than the deepest pit, darker than the longest night.
“Set out right away,” our father said, his words beginning to fail. “Others will be coming to reclaim what I have stolen. They will kill you and take Kaya for their pleasure.”
His hand moved down to his belly. His moan was pitiful.
“Your sister is worthless but you will need help. She will follow you, for she is weak-minded like her mother. When you have the other stone, be gone with her and become a god.”
Our father sunk back into his bed, his breathing shallow and quick. Alberon turned and I fled silently back outside. I waited a moment. When I reentered, our father was dead and my brother was lifting up the hearth stones one by one, tossing them aside. The fifth one he overturned revealed the map.
“Pack what you may,” he said to me. “We are leaving.”
I was not sad for our father. I said nothing, and did not resist my brother’s demands. I was scared.
Moments later, I followed my brother on our journey into the wilderness in search of the other stone.
He must have truly thought me a fool, for not once did I ask where we were going, or why. Only on our first day in the ancient quarry did he explain the magic of the stones to me.
And so we began our search. It could be anywhere, Alberon told me, so leave no stone unturned. Staring out at a sea of broken granite, I could not help but laugh silently at this.
For many days we looked. Alberon would let the black stone lead him, feeling its heat increase slightly when he went in one direction, feeling it decrease when he went in another. At night it would always go cold, wherever Alberon stood, and he would grow angry.
I scoured the ground slowly. First in one area, then another. Some days I wandered far, others I lingered close to our camp. I stayed away from the caves and large cracks in the ground.
When we ran low on food and firewood, Alberon would send me up the hill to gather what I could. I was too frightened to go back into the Woods, so I scavenged at its borders.
If I returned with too little, Alberon would curse me.
Frustrated with his poor luck, one day my brother ventured farther than he had yet gone. I was left alone.
In silence, I explored. I saw the sun hanging directly above me as I came upon a cliff’s edge. I went to it and saw below a second small clearing. Below that, a great fall.
The way was dangerous, but I climbed down. In front of me stood a large crack, shaded from the sun by the overhang above it. Beyond that, darkness.
I looked in and saw nothing. I thought of leaving then, but a flash of light beckoned me in.
I was frightened, but I squeezed in through the crack and felt my way along the cool rocks. I could feel damp, and thought I heard the sound of dripping water.
I called out to the darkness. The sound of my voice echoed and quickly faded.
In front of me a light flashed. Then again.
The light grew into a small fire. Behind it stood a large bird with eyes of gold.
“Will you kill me,” I asked, frozen in fear.
“I will not kill you,” it responded. “Come closer to the flame and speak with me,” it said, “for I am lonely.”
“Please,” it continued. “Do not be afraid of me, for I know what you seek.”
It placed a talon into the flame and brought out the white fire stone. It was as bright as the sun, and I beheld it with wonder.
I sat near the bird, and it told me its name was Filstan.
“I have seen you and your brother searching for the stone,” it said.
“Yes,” I replied. “My brother desires to have them both.”
It asked why that was so.
“To wield a great power,” I answered. “To destroy and to rule.”
Filstan leaned in closer. His black beak shone in the flame. There were many small scratches on it.
“And you,” he asked. “Do you desire both the stones?”
I shook my head slowly and silently cursed my brother, for I knew then that I hated him.
Filstan placed the stone back into the flame.
“I am the keeper of the white stone,” he said. “It is my curse, and every day at dawn I must bring it to this cave. When the sun sets I take it away with me. This, I must do until the black stone is offered to me freely. Only then will I be free.”
The flames felt warm and comforting on my skin. I remembered sitting by the fire with my mother.
“If you brought me the black stone,” the great bird continued, “you will have a choice: you may keep them both, and do with them what you will, or you may place your trust in me and trade them for another secret.”
I said goodbye and left Filstan. Upon returning to the daylight, I looked down at the small ledge. It was cracked and fragile, and by my feet lay three black stones. They looked almost as the one my brother kept. I collected them, and climbed back to safety.
When Alberon returned that night to our camp he was bitterly angry.
“I have looked for many days,” he lamented, “and still nothing.”
He kicked at the fire I had built.
“You are more worthless than father had told me,” he spat. “You spend your days walking around in circles like a fool. You would die if it weren’t for me.”
He stared longingly at my bosom.
“Rest, brother,” I said earnestly. “Let me make you some tea, for your day has been long.”
Alberon sat in front of the fire and threw small rocks into it.
“Tonight, I will lay in your tent,” he said.
I made my brother a tea using valerian, lavender and other herbs that dull the senses and lulls one into a deep slumber.
Once he drank it, his eyes grew heavy and his words slow.
“You must lay down, brother,” I said soothingly, “and let go your burdens.”
I led him to my tent. His hands reached for my breast, but the tea was too strong and he could not stand.
As he slept, I took the black stone from his pocket. I placed the three other stones I’d found in the fire and waited.
As the moon began its arc across the sky, I removed the first stone from the flames. Sometime later, the second, which I placed in a small bag. I stood up and walked about in the moonlight, for everything glowed like pearls this evening. Upon returning, I removed the third stone and placed it in the bag as well.
“Brother,” I said, shaking Alberon awake. “The stone! Feel the stone!”
Alberon slowly rose, rubbing his eyes. The tea had made him drunk.
He took the first stone and held it. His eyes widened and he struggled to his feet.
“How is this,” he asked.
“I was walking with it,” I replied, pointing in the direction of Filstan’s cave. “It began to grow warm.”
“Then lead me,” he demanded, pushing me onwards.
Still half-witless from the tea, I led Alberon towards the cave. He rushed, though he staggered like a drunk. I struggled to keep up.
Soon, he turned to me.
“It grows cold again,” he said, scowling.
“Let me see the stone,” I replied.
He handed it to me, and without him seeing, I replaced it with the second stone from my bag.
“Its warmth returns!” I said, handing him the second stone. “Surely we are moving in the right direction.”
He felt the rock’s heat and bade me to hurry.
The moon continued its journey across the night sky, and in the east I saw the faintest glow of light.
After a time, my brother slowed again.
“The stone,” he said. “It has grown cold once more.”
Tired and confused, he hung his head. His dark hair obscured his face.
“Let me see it,” I said quietly.
I took it, and when he was not looking, I replaced it with the third stone.
“Feel it now, brother,” I exclaimed, smiling. “It is warmer even than before.”
He felt the stone and his eyes grew wide.
“We must hurry!” he growled, pushing me on once more.
I led him. We neared the rock’s edge, and Filstan’s cave, as dawn broke through the sky.
Alberon ran and stopped at the edge. He looked around him in the dim, first light of morning.
“There is nothing here,” he said, breathlessly.
I stood there with him a moment.
“Wait,” I said, touching his arm. “Down there.”
I pointed over the edge to where the small landing stood.
“It must be in the cave there,” I stated.
Tired though he was, my brother nodded in agreement. He put the third stone in his pocket and began the treacherous climb down.
Finally he reached the ledge and dropped down on its old, cracked surface. It would not hold two at once.
I looked towards the sky. In the distance I saw a single bird.
“Come join me, Kaya,” my brother yelled up. “It is too dark to see inside. I need you to lead the way.”
If he found the other fire stone, I knew he would leave me there.
Near the edge, several large rocks lay in a cluster.
I rolled the first one towards the edge, calculating its fall. I pushed it over and heard the sound of its impact.
“You fool,” screamed my brother. “Be more careful, or the ledge will break off!”
I moved a second, larger rock to the edge. It was heavy, and I had to use all of my strength. My arms ached and my legs burned. I pushed.
After the stone hit the ledge, I peered over. Alberon’s head was poking out of the cave. He stared wildly at me.
“I will kill you,” he screamed.
The last rock had broken away a part of the ledge. Barely enough for a foothold remained.
On the horizon, Filstan approached.
I went for a third rock, this one even larger than the last.
I dug in my feet, and pushed with every last bit of strength. I could not move it. It would not roll.
I turned, and put my back to the rock, pushing with the legs. I wailed from the pain, but did not relent as its sharp angles pierced my skin. It was almost unbearable, but after a time, it began to give way. I pushed harder still, and my body trembled. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I sobbed. Still, I did not relent.
At the cliff’s edge, I looked down. Alberon was attempting to climb back up. He could not get a grip on the rock face.
He looked up again and saw me. Grunting, I pushed it over. He had just enough time to move back into the cave’s mouth as the third rock shattered what remained of the ledge. He was trapped.
Listening to his screaming, his threats and his pleading, I reached into my pocket and drew out the true fire stone. Its heat was great and I had to wrap it in cloth, else it would have burned my hands.
I held it above me as Filstan swooped down, his huge wings beating against the ground to slow its landing.
“You have the black stone,” he said.
“By right, you have earned the white stone if you wish,” said the great bird.
“I do not want either of these stones,” I replied. “I wish to trade you.”
Filstan peered at me with his golden eyes. Alberon was still screaming.
“Your brother is trapped,” he said. “Do you not wish to save him?”
I walked to to edge once more.
“He cannot be saved,” I replied.
On sharp talons, Filstan joined me.
“Do you wish for your brother to carry the burden of these stones now?” he asked.
I turned to face my new friend and answered.
Filstan took the black stone from me, and launched himself from the edge. He glided and turned a full circle in the air, finally finding the cave’s mouth.
I did not hear what was said between them, but Alberon was no longer yelling.
A moment later, Filstan reappeared.
“Your brother will never leave the cave,” he said solemnly. “He has gotten what he desired most in the fire stones, but he will never be able to harm anyone with them. You gave the stone to me freely, and so I have been able to pass the curse onto to him.”
I sat down.
Together, we stared out at the vast wasteland. I thought about Alberon’s map, and how I would use it to navigate through the woods once more.
At length, Filstan spoke again.
“There are places in this world that you have never heard of, never dreamed of,” he began. “I have been there, and I can take you. That is my secret, for you have earned the journey I offer.”
I pondered this.
“Tell me,” I said.
“Deep in the woods, far, far beyond your path, you will find great adventure,” my winged companion explained as he turned towards the steep hill my brother and I had descended so many days ago. “Wonderful treasure awaits those brave enough.”
Filstan then turned towards the wasteland in front of us.
“And beyond this sombre land, many thousands of leagues, there is a great port. The ships there will give you passage to distant shores, all you need is to ask.”
I thought of Alberon below us for a moment, alone in that cave with only his fire stones. I felt a great urge to be far away from there, for it was a cursed land and Alberon was its captive.
I made my decision, mounted my guide, and we left behind us the legend of the two stones.
I pray the rocky desolation swallows their memory.
- - -
Labels: Evan Davies