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The Story of Stone | N M Browne

The Story of Stone

The Story of Stone

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Nela’s father is a Findsman, seeking clues to unlock the mysteries of the past. He hears of an eerie place by the side of a lake which could hold the answers he is looking for. Taking Nela and a small group of men, they discover nothing but an unusual stone, but when Nela touches the stone a connection is forged which reveals glimpses of an incredible and disturbing story of a life many many years before. A story of jealousy, power and love, which Nela begins to realise is disturbingly linked to her own.

Contains spoilers if you haven’t read the book

I gave a talk about the writing of The Story of Stone recently and was struck by how difficult it was to describe the process of writing it in ways that didn’t sound pretentious. As you write various ideas occur to you and unless you are careful they can overwhelm what I see as the thick red thread that is the main plot line. I am happy to embroider round it or twist some other colours into it, but that thread mustn’t get totally obscured.
(I have a feeling this is a really odd image, but then I spent all my needle work lessons reading under the desk, so what can you expect.)

The story began, much like Basilisk, from several different ideas.

I wanted to write a fairy story as if it were history and I had in mind a story about the birth of the human race as descended from Giants and fairies. In the end I don’t think the action takes place on this earth at all because the Neolithic period I wrote about in The Story of Stone isn’t quite the way it worked here, but I was thrilled when homo floresiensis (the ‘Hobbit’ people of Indonesia) turned up none the less.

I wrote a short story about the Stone of Scone (the place where Scottish kings were crowned). It was a bizarre story which involved the transfer of memory from odd flying creatures with limited sentience to the stone which held a kind of race memory. I sent it off to a magazine and got a much deserved rejection. It was written in the first person by one of these flying creatures whose perceptions of what were going on didn’t much help the reader to know what was going on. Anyway the rejection letter praised the language (it was in English – just) but pointed out that it was incomprehensible.

I am an idea recycler though, so I adapted the idea of the stone and of my weird flying fairy creature and it became the first person narrative of my almost human, non-flying Stone.

The idea of the magic of the last resort seems to have come from nowhere. It is the heart of the story for me that someone honest and ‘good’ can do a bad thing for what he thinks are good reasons (but turn out not to be). I was also interested in a situation where everything an individual thinks he knows can turn out to be wrong. All the way through the story a good deal of what Jared believes turns out not to be true.

I was writing some of the story at the time of the Iraq war and, like everyone else, was exercised by the moral issue of whether the war was just or not. This novel is not about that war but certainly, as with all my books, real world experiences and speculations find their way, in disguised form, into the stories.

I am not quite sure how I ended up telling two parallel love stories, perhaps for no other reason than that I am a romantic at heart.

Read Chapter One

Chapter One

The Chief Findsman was angry. A pearl of sweat, stained blue with the dye of his hair, trickled down his forehead to mingle with the deeper blue of his plaited beard.

‘I don’t know what in the name of scholarship and the Spirit of Enquiry you are doing, but it isn’t enough.’

He glowered at his small, cowed audience of Findsman Millard, Findsman Flear and Nela, his apprentice and daughter. The two Findsmen toyed nervously with the braids of their scarlet beards and nodded their agreement: Nela’s father was fond of humiliating them. Nela wiped sweat from her face with dirty hands and slapped at one of the oversized stinging insects that droned near her ear. By all the scholars and trollops of Scraal, this was a blighted place. The pervasive smell of decay, sweet as a festival pudding and rank as the Scraal City midden, made her feel nauseous. It was hard to concentrate and she found herself idly watching the camp bondsman as he manoeuvred round their fire, his economical movements barely straining his ridiculous slave-tether as he prepared food for their meal. She did not know why her father had insisted on the tether, attached by an oiled ring to the oiled rope of the perimeter cordon at one end and to the bondsman’s belt at the other: no one used such things in the city any more and it hardly seemed necessary where there was nowhere to go but the wilderness, and nothing of any value to steal. Nela sensed her father’s icy gaze upon her and quickly averted her eyes from the bondsman. Even away from Scraal it was not seemly to acknowledge the existence of a servant.

Her father was still ranting. ‘We have to find some kind of proof soon or all our reputations will lie in tatters! We are running out of time, money and patience.’

He had a point. The Worshipful Company of Historical Archivists of Scraal had been reluctant to support this expedition, which was a pet project of her father’s. Their small team had been camped by the stagnant Mordant Lake for ten days already, seeking evidence for her father’s theory that this was the cradle of their people, in the stinking mud and sterile soil of the decaying forest, but they had unearthed nothing more than a few ancient shards of early dye-pots and a leather-wrapped black stone. The Chief Findsman held the stone in the palm of his hand now.

‘Nela!’

She tried to look intelligent and stood a little straighter, though she felt as if she were a child’s wax doll melting and slipping away from herself in the humid heat.

‘There is an ancient song, is there not, about a black stone?’

‘In the ancient song cycle of exile there is a fragment of a song called “Black Stone of the Unmaking”, Father,’ Nela said, and clearing her throat and she sang:

For hunt, for caves and evening song,
Weep if you will for the life that is gone
For the loss and lies and hope undone
She’s grieving still and it’s scarce begun
And the stain of their blood
Has seeped through her bone
Has defiled now dark lands
Unmade by Black Stone

She paused and Findsman Flear smiled at her. She had a sweet musical voice at odds with her appearance and it always surprised people the first time they heard it.

‘And…?’ said her father.

‘I doubt that stone has anything to do with the song.’

She spoke dismissively and wished she hadn’t the moment the words escaped her suddenly constricting throat. She should remember that she was not at home, that no one here cared for her opinion.

‘Ah, and I had forgotten that you were such an expert Findsman,’ her father said in his precise, barbed voice. ‘I should perhaps leave this Seeking to you! No, go on please, I must insist. We await your judgement. Take the stone and tell us your opinion – we are all waiting.’

The other men, Millard and Flear, smiled uncomfortably. Nela hoped that she had not blushed. She knew it was worry that made her father cruel. His reputation hung in the balance, but she could still have wished him kinder.

She was not as reluctant as she pretended to take the stone he offered her, nor was she sorry to hold it in her own hand. She could not see how an old song about a faerie woman called ‘Black Stone’ could have any connection with a real black stone: her father was clutching at straws. When she touched it, though, she understood. It was the size of her palm – smooth and black, shiny as though wet, polished by much handling. She had expected it to be cool, and its living warmth shocked her. She measured the weight of it gravely in her hand, as she had seen her father do. If his expression softened as he watched her, she did not know it. She was totally immersed in her investigation. She touched the stone delicately with the tip of her forefinger; it seemed to pulse under her finger like the fragile heartbeat of a small animal. She stroked it as one might a midget kitten and felt it vibrate like a blown bone-comb in paper. She heard a sound within her head, buzzing in the browbone of her skull. It was a long note, like the resounding echo of the prayer bell peeling high and clear. She blinked as her visions dimmed and thought she heard a sweet voice singing words she couldn’t quite hear. Then there were no words, only the overwhelming flood of impressions, filling her senses with the thoughts of someone else – somewhere else.

I am shaking. I know what he wants. I thought the old tales were forgotten at last, but I was wrong. For every story of the poverty and powerlessness of the Night Hunters there are ten tales of our power and evil magics. The greed was in his eyes; I saw it in his face when he caught me – greed and longing and a strange, unexpected beauty.

I know I should not have gone the way I chose. I should have trusted my own foreboding, but I was tempted by the berry-red of his cloak, and he his tracks well – not so stupid this giant Bear-man, not so greedy that he forgot his wits. He has watching eyes – eyes that notice almost as much as one of us.

He has at least out me in the cool blessed dark – in the dove cote and the carrier coop at the top of the Chief’s house. There are no birds here now, though they have left their smell behind and feathers enough to make a soft bed for one with the ease to sleep. He has sworn me to silence and I gave him my promise for the sake of those eyes, not for the greed but for the beauty and the longing and the noticing – almost like one of us. I gave him my promise, but I cannot stop the shaking and the fear that sours my empty stomach as the timber walls close in. Oh, Lady, Womanface-hidden-from-view! It is hard to be silent.

Beneath I can hear the movement of the wives and the youngest ones. I dare not cry out nor murmur in fear, for my captor is one thing, but the others might be worse. I dare not try to escape for fear of them. The smell of roast chicken is driving me mad and my stomach is hollow as an empty cooking pot. Hunger overrides even my fear. I have had only a small handful of the end of season breadberries all day – and the stale heel of wanderer’s loaf I had in my gather bag. I lost my gather bag, left it behind in my panicked flight, but it was empty anyway and, as one blessing among so many curses, my name stone, blessed by the gift of the Wandering Man, was in my waist band with my small knife that I have still.

I am a fool and a hungry fool and there is nothing for it but to wait until he comes and I suppose that will not be until tonight. I can smell the morning seeping through the holes in the thatch along with the first sharp shards of sunlight. I will have to sleep and if a natural sleep will not come (and it will not with my heard beating like a calling drum) I will wait until there is enough noise down below to mask the sleep-song-for-the-too-cold-night. I will be safer if I can sleep, still as a hibernating bear, and don’t fidget for the lack of space to stretch. I have heard it said that the Bear-men have poor hearing, but the one who caught me had sharp enough ears and more patience than he is supposed to have – so that story is the wild bear’s ordure I always suspected it was.

One of the babies wakes, below me. Windrocks! But it is making enough noise to mask a hunting chorus in full voice. I hear someone pad on heavy feet to lift it from its hammock. She murmurs softly – endearments I imagine – and the wailing stops. I think I have missed my chance, and then she sings a lullaby of her own. It is a simple tune, with no harmonics but it is not badly sung. The woman has a strong voice, low and breathy, which suits the melody – I do not hear the words, though there seem to be a great many. So those that say the Bear-men are song-deaf too are wrong. There is little art to the song, but still it unknots some of the tension in my neck and eases my fear just a little, so it is not without efficacy. I ready myself for my own lullaby. I will sleep until dusk and hope he feeds me then.

‘Nela! Nela!’

Cold water on her face and her father’s insistent voice drew her back from the darkness, and the sickening fear, from the cloying poultry stench of the coop, the smell of roasting chicken, the feel of feathers and the cool air, damp under the hatch.

‘Are you all right?’ The Chief Findsman’s bright eyes that were bluer than his beard, looked stricken. ‘Nel, what happened?’ He never used the affectionate diminutive of Nela’s name in front of outsiders: she must have frightened him a great deal.

He helped her to sit up and Findsman Flear offered her water to drink. She was quite wet with the water that had been thrown over her and she started to shiver.

‘Maybe she could use something stronger.’ Findsman Millard reached under his coat and produced a polished tortoiseshell hip flask, decorated with silver filigree, which he offered her. The dark wine it contained was strong and fine and Nela remembered that Millard was of good family and probably wealthier than her father. She smiled her thanks.

‘What language were you speaking?’ Flear asked, with a kind of awed reverence. He was trembling slightly, as though in shock, which was surely an overreaction. Nela’s father glared at him.

‘What did you experience when you touched the stone?’ the Chief Findsman demanded.

‘I don’t know … it was as if I were somewhere else, suddenly. It’s difficult to explain …’ Nela did not know how to begin.

‘What? Like a dream? ‘Her father’s voice was professional now, without sympathy, as if he never been afraid of her, as if she was just another subject for the Findsman’s seeking and systematic questioning. She tried to round up her thoughts.

‘No. It was real – like I was someone else.’

‘Who?’

‘I don’t know. A girl I think, young – maybe my age, maybe older. And she was frightened – she was hiding somewhere – at the top of some circular building.’

‘A Tier House? Like the ancients built?’

‘Maybe. I don’t know.’

Her father sketched a three-tiered circular building. Each tier had a steeply pitched thatched roof and each diminished in size so that the top floor was small – small enough and high enough to house carrier birds.

‘Nela, this was the traditional layout of the family Tier House of the Chief of Dependency in the earliest settlement times.’ He spoke as if he thought her ignorant and she felt herself flush with humiliation. She knew all about that! She was an apprentice Findsman – by the Lord of the Earth! But the Chief Findsman carried on his lecturing tone, oblivious to her discomfort, ‘Some Findsmen think that this top part was for the message birds of the Chief – could you have been here?’

‘Maybe – yes. Probably – it could well have been.’ She tried not to sound sullen and uncooperative – it would do her no good. Then her eye was caught by the notes above the sketch, written in her father’s neat notecode.

‘What’s this?’

‘This is a sound-by-sound representation of what you said.’ He spoke as if it were obvious and she were foolish not to recognise them. ‘I am surprised that you used the most ancient language traditionally associated with the nomadic hunter-gatherers, but I have long suspected that the settled people spoke the same tongue.’

‘You took notes?’

‘Of course. Have you no idea how significant it is to find evidence of ancient power so many scholars have dismissed as old stories? It is the strongest evidence we could find that this place really is the cradle of our most ancient civilisation. We must know what you said. It seems you spoke in some dialect of that old tongue – I recognised many of the words, though I’m not familiar with the precise idiom so we must set to work on our return to the city to unscramble the whole.’

‘The stone spoke to me,’ Nela said with emphasis, suddenly stubborn and cold. Her father took notes while she was in the grip of who knew what. He took notes!

‘Did I have a fit?’

Her father looked uncomfortable. ‘Yes.’ He looked slightly embarrassed. ‘But I was sure you were not in any danger. This stone and its ancient power to speak to us changes everything.’

Since her earliest childhood she had been prone to fits, periods of black unconsciousness and wild exhausting thrashing; it was why no aunts would take her after her mother’s death. It was why she was allowed to be a non-woman and shave her head as a sign that she was unavailable for courtship. It was why she was free. Even so, she could have wished that her father took her condition more seriously and put her health and welfare before his work. She shut her eyes to block out his face, his cold and searching eyes. He was Seeking her, searching her demeanour for clues as to the nature of her experience, trying to squeeze every last drop of information out of her, like every good Findsman did, and she hated it. She felt his smooth and heavy hand pat her gently on the exposed skin of her head, like a blessing for a child, like a request for understanding, but she did not lift her leaden lids. Her father had let her down again and she wasn’t even sure if he knew it. She was exhausted, and sleep came to her at once, like a heavy blanket burying her under its rough, enveloping weight.