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The Symbol Stone

by  Anglisutuel

Posted: Monday, July 4, 2005
Word Count: 2596
Summary: The book is a fantasy/adventure for 10-12 y.o. readers. It's the first volume of a trilogy called The Pictish Chronicle. This is the opening chapter.

The Symbol Stone
© Adrian Weston, 2005

Seven sons of Cruithne then
Into seven divided Alban.
Cait, Ce, Cirig, a warlike clan,
Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Fortrenn.
Of them Fidach was the woodland man

It began hundreds of miles to the south, days before, where chalk cliffs loomed above the shingle foreshore in the pale morning light. A fine mist made the vast bulk of land fluid and changeable. Sea birds rising became ghostly and vanished from sight within a few short flaps of the wing. Even though the large town where Cal slept safe in his bed lay near by, the grey mist wiped out its presence. Any early walker beneath the cliffs would have seen and heard the same sights and sounds of any time in human history. But walkers at this early hour were few and far between.

On that daybreak, the tide was low and the sea still. There was one walker combing the jetsam of the high-tide line. Moving slowly, he kept his head down, pausing from time to time. He was old. Long white hair obscured his face from view. Perhaps he was hoping to find something of value cast carelessly from the sea, or maybe he merely sought the coast’s own casual treasures: a piece of wood worn smooth, a pretty shell or an interesting stone.

Once more he stooped. Crouching, and then squatting as easily as a child, he felt in his shoulder bag. Instead of stowing away a find, he pulled something out. What it was a passer-by would have no chance of seeing. A small item, easily palmed, he placed it slowly, deliberately into the shingle of the beach as if planting it. As he pushed his hand down he murmured beneath his breath and the mist thickened around him. Two other figures formed out of the air and for a moment gained substance. An old woman and a young man stood beside him watching all he did. And then, they were gone. Weak sunlight crept over the horizon, and the focus of the morning sharpened.

The old man known to some as the Woodman stood and walked away up the beach. His feet crunched lightly on the pebbles. Events were in motion. Faintly the sound of traffic filtered down from the coast road as he went back towards the modern town. He passed a pensioner with her terrier and they exchanged a polite ‘good morning’. The elderly woman started at his eyes, deep and steady. There was a look in them she would find hard to forget. After a few paces she glanced back, but she was alone on the long, unbroken path between the cliffs and the sea.

First came the finding, and then came the journey.

Cal lived on his own with his mother Mairi in a basement flat in a square of tall white houses as sheer as the chalk cliffs that rose from that end of town. From there Cal roamed along the shore to hunt for treasure, out on his bike, bombing along the chalky path past the Marina. When the tide was out he aimed for the rock pools at the lowest watermark, where he had made some of his best finds.

He was a solitary child, not difficult or disliked, just separate. There were friends at school, but he kept apart, as if he knew there was something different about himself. Perhaps it was having no father: loads of other kids lived with just their mum or just their dad, but they knew who their other parent was, where they were, and saw them at least sometimes. That wasn’t so in Cal’s house. His father was an unspoken absence – a man who had simply never existed. Or so it seemed.

- - -
The day of the finding was still and clear, the sky an innocent blue. The sea sucked itself out to the lowest of low tides and held there, waiting. Cal made for his favourite beach, where the steps down from the path were tucked away and hidden, where the rock pools were deep and cratered. In some seasons all the seaweed died back and the pools lay like bleached bones. As the spring advanced the weed grew and turned them into sinister jungles of bladderwrack squirming and popping beneath his feet.

He shouldered his bike down the steps, dumped it onto the shingle and set out to comb the high tide mark on the beach first, looking for jewel-like fragments of seaglass worn smooth by the tide’s action. Mairi, his mum, liked these pretty fragments and filled tall jars with them about the flat.

He wasn’t sure why he picked up that stone – you don’t necessarily know it when you find a thing of power. It didn’t look very different from the rest of the shingle, but still it drew his eye. It was almost flat and perfectly round, a disk nearly as big as his palm and smooth, smooth grey. As he looked at it, reaching his hand slowly out to select it from the pile of ordinary stones, it seemed as though a pattern of circles and shapes in a darker charcoal grey moved across it. But they dissolved as he reached out so that he was unsure of what he had seen. Quickly the moment of finding passed and the Symbol Stone came to him.

Shadowy forms move around him unseen. Power from afar moves as the Patternmaker watches him. The boy is unaware.

Cal closed his fist and, at that very moment of contact, his hand holding the strangely warm rock, he sensed someone nearby. He heard the growl of a hostile dog, at the edge of its territory and looked up fearfully – strange dogs scared him. This one was black, not big or of any particular breed, teeth bared. Sharp white teeth. Wide white eyes. Two or three feet away stood a man. Cal saw that he wore scuffed black boots and dark trousers. He was tall, silver-haired, but Cal did not look too closely at him, as he was so transfixed by the dog straining towards him as though restrained by a leash. But the man was not holding the dog back in any way that could be seen. Cal straightened up slipping the smooth stone into his pocket, his eyes not moving from the dog’s, willing it to back down. Don’t let it smell my fear, he thought.

Coiling across space the warning is flung out. The old man and the old woman summon their powers again.

“Found anything interesting then?” the man asked him in an innocuous voice, he smiled too, but his eyes were flat and unblinking. Cal looked hard at his placid face and he felt a will being imposed on him, holding him to the spot on the beach much like the dog that wanted to attack but could not.

“What have you been looking for today?” such an innocent question, unthreatening except for the instinct shouting “don’t answer! Don’t answer!” Without understanding, the idea that the stranger wanted his stone grew and equally clearly he knew it was important that he should not have it.

“Glass. Bits of sea glass,” he said as casually as the question deserved, “and sometimes driftwood.” Cal even attempted a tentative smile, to try and look like the sort of boy who had been taught not to be rude. It came out well, belying his racing pulse, but still the man took a step forward, bringing him level with his dog, which now let out a louder growl.

“And have you found anything . . .” he paused as if searching for the right words, “else today?” Insinuating, treacly, “anything interesting like . . .” again he paused, “a stone perhaps?” The voice was that of an adult bribing a kid with sweets or a long-promised treat – come on, be good for me, the voice said.

Still, Cal resisted.

The old woman hisses with satisfaction. “Fidach, he is his mother’s child and his father’s son. He does well.”
“Aye Patternmaker, he does,” the Woodman replies, “but he must come now.”
“We need him,” she echoes.

“Nnno, I don’t think so,” well meaning, but a bit dense. That’s how he wanted to sound. It was his usual defence – if he could just see some chance of making a dash for it to get away from the creepy stranger. An eerie feeling seeped through him: cold fingers creeping over his flesh. The light was changing, losing its clarity, mist forming over the sea. It took the edge of brightness off the sunlight and cooled the air. And then it happened. Out of nothingness a group of figures grew, crowding in on the man and the dog, pulling him back. A gaunt woman with long hair hiding her bony face was clearer than the rest. Cal stared, his heart leaping with shock, but not exactly afraid for it was his attacker they were rounding on, pulling away.

“No you may not, it is not in the rules,” the Patternmaker speaks in her granite voice, “the boy is not yours, be gone, go back to your realm.”

And there he stood, sweating and shivering at once, on the empty beach, with a warm stone in his pocket and the sound of the sea in his ears. Cal shook. He didn’t linger and he stumbled away over the shingle back to his bike. To the East the high cliffs dominated the view. Cycling away from Brighton, sandwiched between the sea and the chalk, it was possible to imagine yourself remote from the rest of the world. Returning to town you couldn’t avoid the great arc of the Marina curving into the waves or the road-bridge spanning the track and beyond that the reassuring modern world.

Cal strained with the urge for speed, wanting to shake off the sense of something strange having occurred. Something impossible. Getting closer to town, he calmed down a bit. But passing the Marina’s peaceful boats, a tremendous flurry of barking assailed him and that compact black dog hurtled down the cycle track. It was homing in on Cal and he veered so abruptly that he nearly came off his bike. It was the same dog, it had to be, but the man was nowhere to be seen. The beast easily kept pace, the frenzied barking never pausing. As they plunged into the dark of the underpass, Cal’s fear grew, the noise of the dog echoing back on itself until it sounded as though he was pursued by a whole pack of animals. It only took a moment to go through, but that moment was eternal. And then, emerging into the bright light at the other side the barking ceased like a flicked switch. The dog was gone.

“Mad dog,” Cal thought grappling with the events of the past half-hour, the warm stone in his pocket growing heavier.

Cal made his way back to the square more cautiously, his heart racing. Tourists got on and off the little Victorian electric train that rattled down past the more populous beaches to the Palace Pier on its rusty rails. Nothing else happened, though he kept expecting it to, jumping at every shadow until he reached home. The stone throbbed and burned, alive in his pocket.

He paused at the door. Mairi, his Mum, would be inside working on her writing, her head buried in academic books about ancient history. Part of him wanted to rush in and tell her what happened, but another part wanted to slip past unseen to take refuge in his room. It was mad what had happened, so mad that it couldn’t have been. He decided on the second entrance, testing the door and aiming to get by quietly, possibly unseen. If Mairi was working she wouldn’t even glance up, as he passed the kitchen where she wrote at the table.

He slipped in avoided the creaky hall floorboard, “Not so fast, Callum” his mother called out. He turned back to find that she wasn’t working, but busy, packing, sorting and stacking. Her business-like briefcase was already filled with papers on the table and a scruffier backpack that looked like it was packed with clothes leaning against the wall. “I’m sorry Cal, something important has come up,” she smiled, and with newly heightened senses he could tell that some balance in their lives had changed. Nothing was the same anymore.

Most of us will never experience a moment like this, when the rules have been shaken up. Cal could feel it in the air around them and he could feel it in the stone. At that time he came to understand that the stone was a living thing, even though he did not yet know anything about it. With every sense jostling for his attention he could hear his mother’s words, he could understand the meaning but they were at once muffled and booming. More clearly he could see the expression layered on her face. On the surface he saw excitement and anticipation but somewhere beneath them lay doubt and fear.

“We’re going up to Cantray tomorrow, darling, to stay with Granny and Granda. The department’s finally come up with some funding for me to go to that conference in America and I’ve got to go and check some details at the site and in the museum’s collection in Inverness. It’s really tight timing, but it’ll take me about a week to get everything I need and rework my paper. Then you can stay on at Cantray while I go to Washington,” she was saying.

Cal stood in the kitchen listening to her words and hearing the terrible rushing sound of wind tearing round the room, tugging at the walls, pulling him away.

“Cal,” his mother said more loudly, “are you all right?”

And with her question the wind fled, sucking out of the room and away from him.

“What? Oh yeah, sorry Mum you were saying about going up to Cantray or something.”

“That’s right,” and she went on about the arrangements, but she looked at him in an odd way. Or maybe he looked differently at her? He couldn’t tell, but he was very tired.

The Woodman and the Patternmaker stand in the clearing, facing each other, arms outreached, finger-tips touching.
“Cailliach,” he says.
“Bodach,” she replies.
“Pattern maker.”
“That I am”, she speaks in turn. “Have you called them?” she asks.
“I have, and my call has been heard.”
“But you are troubled?”
“Indeed,” he answers, “I am troubled.”
“There are tremors in the pattern that I had not anticipated. The Fell are watching. They wait. They will move again soon.”

That night sleep was hard to come by. He’d turned the stone over in his hands endlessly puzzling over its warmth and the lines that sometimes grew on its surface and sometimes hid. Now the stone lay beneath his pillow, an uncomfortable lump, but he could not let it any further from him. As he lay there, he heard his mother talking on the phone about train times and the weather and then that call ended. After a while she picked up the phone again and this time her words were faint and distant, but her tone was anxious. No matter how hard he strained he could not hear anything more than the sound of worry.

And then his eyes began to close, his mind slowing despite everything. But when he slept great dark dogs ran through the night.