The Stone Keeper – Chapter One
He couldn’t decide which was louder – the sound of his heart pounding in his chest or the snorting of the nearing wild boar. How quickly his life had changed. Just this morning, he and his family sat at the breakfast table enjoying the start to a good day, good food and good conversation – and now tonight, he was hiding in the scrub in the forest, fleeing for his life. How strange life can be.The wild pig seemed to have become distracted by something and was rooting around in the dirt. While Steinar wasn’t eager to meet up with the wild boar, he was even less eager to meet up with anything or anyone who might be wanting to eat the boar.
While the Stone People never ate wild boar, the Forest Folk did. All his life, Steinar had heard of the strange and evil practices of the Forest Folk and since he wasn’t under the protection of the Community right now, but rather hiding in the territory of the Forest Folk, he didn’t want to add “meeting up with Forest Folk, while out in the woods alone” to his list of notable events for this day.
Just thinking of the Forest Folk made Steinar shiver. They were such crude and vile people. All his life he had been told how depraved they were and how wicked their lifestyle was. The mere fact that they would eat the wild boar was proof enough for Steinar. His people would never even consider eating such a filthy animal – what animals the Forest Folk must be themselves, that they would do such a thing.
The fact that they were behind the attack on the Community was obvious. Everything about the people who stormed it bespoke of the filthy people that dwelt amongst the trees in the woods – the very woods that he was hiding in right now.
Trying to still the pounding of his heart, he pressed in deeper into the brush that was concealing him, hoping that the scenes of the day that kept repeating themselves in his head would slow down enough that he might sleep – even just a bit. His body was exhausted. There were parts of him that felt that they would never move again – and he wasn’t certain he wouldn’t let them have their way.
Closing his eyes, his head began to spin. Like the “moving” pictures his brother drew for his sisters when they were little, images of today and the past drew themselves against the backdrop of his weary and tired mind. The bizarre pair seeming to hold hands and sashay with one another, creating an odd dance of sweetness and horror.
The first picture that made its way across the screen of his mind was the light of the candle in the hand of his mother, as she woke him that morning. She looked normal. There was nothing in the routine of this day that would have hinted at the terror that the rest of the day would bring.
After a breakfast of chatter from his sisters and hot porridge with his family, he headed out to tend to the herb garden that belonged to his family. He remembered grabbing a loaf of bread, breaking off a piece and shoving half of it in his mouth, and the rest into his satchel, as he walked out the door .
His father, Berne, was the local spicer….well that’s what everyone but Aldous called him. Aldous had been the Stone Keeper for their Community. Because of that, he would go into the Port City annually on his pilgrimage. It was there that he determined to call Steinar’s father by another name.
Port City was not only the religious center of their world, but the commercial and cultural center as well. While Aldous had been there he had met other spicers (he had even brought back some lovely new herbs from the Turks for his father to work with), but he called them – and hence his father – an “apothecary”. Steinar preferred the old word – spicer. It seemed to clarify for his younger sisters what their father did – worked with herbs and spices. (Which invariably meant they were asking fewer questions, which Steinar always considered to be a good thing.)
Steinar had lived his whole life in the Community. The people there had seen him at his best…and his worst. As a young child, he was a scoundrel. OH MY what trouble he got into. He remembered clearly the day that he purposefully mixed nettles in the place of fennel in a tincture that his father was hired to prepare.
Master Chandler was traveling some distance to meet with other members of his guild. He was eager to participate but rather concerned, because he had an issue with digestive by-products..er, uh….wind. Berne had designed a special tincture of fennel to help with this problem, so that he needn’t be embarrassed, but Steinar switched the fennel tincture with one of nettles. (The tinctures both had sufficient mint in them to help hide the difference of taste.)
Master Chandler wasn’t too happy when he returned home to tell Berne the tincture hadn’t worked properly – and not only did it not help his…problem, it had, instead, meant he was making constant trips to release water. (Despite the whipping Steinar got, he still told his brothers that next time he would add some capsicum into his tincture so that, Master Chandler could play the part of The Elements – wind, water, earth and fire – in the village’s next pageant! They laughed until they all were crying and not just Steinar.)
Thinking of Master Chandler made Steinar think of his only daughter, Branwen. She was the fairest girl Steinar had ever known. Her hair was so blond, it almost looked white. She was best friends with his sister Katarin. They made a strange looking pair. They were just about as opposite as two girls could be.
Katarin with her dark, straight braided hair, tall and thin, often wearing a bright red dress and stark white apron and Branwen with her headful of blond ringlet curls (impossible to keep in braids), chubby cheeks and round little self, dressed in pale pink dresses with matching aprons. Steinar remembered thinking if her disheveled hair didn’t reveal her lack of mother, her apron would. No mother alive would ever let her daughter have an apron of any fabric that couldn’t be whitened by the fullers…well, at least his wouldn’t.
Steinar wondered what Branwen’s apron and blond curls looked like tonight, after having been drug from her father’s home. Branwen had been busy making quince jam when the attack occurred. Her quince jam was well known. People would ask friends and family who were passing through their Community to buy some from her. Fans of the jam were equally divided as to whether or not it was better on meat or the puffy stuff she called “bread.”
Branwen insisted on making some strange mixture that she called bread. It was puffy, unlike every one else’s bread. Branwen added what she called “ferment” to make it rise like that. At Steinar’s house, bread was flat and often used as the dish that they ate on before being consumed itself. He wished he had some of his mother’s bread this very moment….
His mother….he could smell her, despite the stench of burning wood and animals that clung to him. She smelled of the special mixture of roses, lavender and lemon balm that her father made especially for her. He never allowed anyone else to mix it up for her. He had made the first batch of it for their nuptials and he said he would keep doing it until the day he died. A few years ago, he started making it into an infusion that she could add to her bath. Being mother, she took that and made soap with it. There was no one who smelled like her. (Despite all three of the girls pestering all the time to allow them to wear it. To pacify them, Father promised to make them their own blend the night before their own nuptials. They were only partially pacified, since that was several years off.)
Those girls. Three magpies! They never stopped talking. How could girls find so many words inside them to blather on about? Maybe all girls weren’t like his sisters, but so far, all of them that he had met were. Talk, talk, talk….they could talk all day about anything…or nothing.
Just this morning, at breakfast, they were talking about fabric. They talked about the color, the feel, the weight (whatever that meant) and the weave. They talked about what it would go with and what they could remake from their old things. He and his brothers kept making faces over their kaffe. Couldn’t they wait until the boys left before talking them into a stupor with their silliness?
Rudely barging their way in, scenes of fire and battle, of weeping women, and children with arms outstretched to reach their fathers and older brothers replaced those of the breakfast table this morning, piercing Steinar’s eyes and his heart. Where were his mother and sisters, he wondered? Were his father and brothers killed or were they too taken into captivity?
The thought of seeing his people in wagons with bars on the sides, made him think of the Community animal field on the north side of town. That is where his friends should have been. They should have all been about their normal daily work. When the tocsin began clanging repeatedly shortly after lunch, they all knew something was wrong. Along with his family and neighbors, he raced into the square to see what would cause such alarm, had the animals broken free from the field and been crushing the marketplace again?
He should have found the town square filled with people setting up for market. The local farmers brought the fruit of their labors in to share with the Community. The people eagerly bought the produce and meat that the farmers so carefully cultivated. Right now, the harvest was especially prolific, as it was the beginning of the autumn season. Everywhere he looked there were mounds of cabbage, grapes, quince, turnips and apples. He LOVED harvest season. Soon, they would have more than just produce, they would have the sheaths of wheat that they could buy and store for the winter to make their bread from.
There, standing at the top of the campanile, the watchman was pointing to the north edge of town, where flames were devouring the wheat crop that was soon to be harvested. No locusts had ever destroyed so much in such an efficient manner. Behind the flames, over the walls, just at the edge of the forest, Steinar saw them – the Forest Folk. They were coming from the woods. In all his life, this had never happened before. They must be coming after The Stone.
Tales about the Forest Folk stretched as far back into Steinar’s memory as he could recall. He had been told that his people were Stone Keepers; they were better than the Forest Folk. The Forest Folk lived a backwards life. They didn’t live in towns, they were said to live in the trees, just like animals. They were filthy and diseased and they carried The Virus. And they wanted what the Stone People had.
They wanted the quaint charm of their village homes, they wanted the joy of the theater that the Stone People participated in. They wanted the lights that lit up the streets of the Community. They wanted the kinship that the Stone People shared. While the Stone People broke bread together, it was said that the Forest Folk did nothing but break one another’s bones!
It was no surprise to Steinar that they would want their Stone, what surprised him was that they would appear in their village, burning and destroying to get it. They usually waited for the Stone Keeper’s annual pilgrimage to Templom and set upon him, while he was with only a few men for protection. They had never before attacked the Stone People in their homes. Why were they at their doorstep?
Steinar had even heard several Forest Men in the confusion shouting to each other, “Find the Stone!” It was almost as if they were possessed. It was a level of determination he had not seen in the Forest Folk before. Their tactics, while cruel, were usually not so single-focused. Even more unusual, the attack was multi-faceted, even employing the Stone People’s own herds against them.
The Forest Folk chopped a small hole in the boundary wall to infiltrate the city’s defenses, dressed in cow hides for camouflage. Once in the pastures they moved slowly but surely toward the gate (watching their step of course!) Once in range they produced wrist slings and (with careful accuracy) hit the watch tower guards in the head. With the guards not looking, the Forest Folk then lit a Pinon pine, which produces a lot of smoke when consumed by flame.
The fire started behind the northeast field. This caused all the animals in the central field to panic. They began crashing into the light wooden fence that the men had built to keep the animals contained. In their fear, they broke through and began running wild through the streets. This simply added to the confusion and the fear. Children cried in fear.
Once under cover of this smoke screen, the marauders then scaled the inner wall and ended up inside the town itself. Carrying the torches that the town guards had, they then proceeded to light houses on fire. Steinar could still hear the screams of the people, ringing in his ears.
Some people were killed as they emerged from their burning homes, most of the others were herded to the center of the town like cattle. Some men tried to fight, but pitchforks aren’t much use in a fight when you only have time for one thrust before your adversary is upon you.
As the fighting escalated, he somehow found himself in the bell tower with Aldous, the current Stone Keeper. From where they were seated on the floor of the lower tower, they could see the Forest Folk gathering the people and putting them in the wagons. They were advancing on them, weapons brandished. They knew that they soon would be among the many who were taken – they knew that they would soon be captives.
Aldous looked long and hard at Steinar, “I’ve known for some time now, my son, that you would be the next Stone Keeper. I have seen it in my night visions. I just didn’t see it like this.”
Aldous reached into the depths of his flowing cloak and took out The Stone. He placed it in Steinar’s hand. “Take this and hide. Do you remember when you were a boy and you would wedge yourself in the highest bell, to frighten the toller to pieces? Do it again now, Steinar. Do it quickly and do not look back at any of us. Do not come down until our enemies have left. You must do this for The Stone. Do not let The Stone fall into the hands of the Forest Folk. They will pervert and destroy The Stone. They must NEVER get our Stone.”
Looking into Aldous’ eyes, Steinar saw that he was resigned to dying. The only thing that was of any concern to him now was the protection and care of The Stone. They must do all that they could to safeguard it. “But Aldous, come with me! We can both escape – and then we can gather others from the nearest Community and they can help us set our people free.”
Aldous reached over and touched Steinar’s wind chapped face, “Steinar, they know someone is in here. They will be here any moment. Please….I am the Stone Keeper. I know of what I speak. You must hide yourself in the bell, where they cannot see you. With boldness, I will present myself and distract them from you. Now, RUN!”
Steinar quickly climbed the many stairs to the very top of the tower. Out of breath, crawling on hands and knees he slid along the wooden floor, staying low so that he would not be seen. Just as he was preparing to slip into the bell, as he had as a child, he could hear the Forest Folk breaking down the door many feet below. He was rooted to his spot. The need for him to be furtive was now even more necessary.
Below him Steinar could hear Aldous weeping, “I’ve lost it! I’ve lost it! The Stone, it fell from my hands as I was fleeing the fire in the marketplace. I’ve lost it!” The Forest Folk were beside themselves. All of this for nothing?! They began shouting and cursing the old man for his stupidity. Steinar realized, that in the noise of their anger, he could position himself so that no one would be able to see him tucked inside the bell.
Until their pent up fear-fostered anger was spent, the Forest Folk continued to scream obscenities at Steinar’s beloved Stone Keeper…he paused as the thought went through his head – he was now the Stone Keeper.
His mind, weary of reviewing the emotional and physical horrors of the day simply began to slip into a light sleep. One that would allow him to hear impending danger, but also rest a bit. His weariness was almost so great, he could not bear it. Slowly his eyes closed and his head rolled forward and rested on his chest.
He slept. And in his sleep, he dreamt. He dreamt of a man – a man as old and yet, curiously, younger than Aldous who stood next to a Stone. He knew it was like the Stone that he carried, but it was larger – larger than any Stone Steinar had ever seen or heard of. The man touched the Stone, as though it was very precious to him. He rubbed it as though the mere stroking of it gave him strength and encouragement. And in the last moment, he looked right at Steinar…he looked deeply at him and he smiled. A gentle, healing, welcoming smile. Steinar didn’t feel quite as alone as he had before. He fell asleep and a slight smile played about his sleeping face.