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theBlackman
3rd Aug 2002, 07:31
OK. Here is the whole thing. Just use Save as TEXT, or right click and SELECT ALL COPY then print, and you can DL the thing for reading at liesure.



Only a Stone

Prologue
The sun shone brightly over a mild summer breeze while the waves played with the seawrack and sand with a soft burbling chuckle. One of its playthings was a small stone, crystal clear and shaped like a teardrop. It glistened in the sunlight with a sparkling white fire as the gentle surf rolled it back and forth in the sand…


It was in an age of giants, ancient and long forgotten; a time when the Elder Gods hindered as well as helped thier created playthings called man. Wizards and Warlocks warred with demons and witches, and each other, and what a man was strong enough to take and hold was his…

He was clothed in a vest of battered mail, unadorned save for the emblem of a lion’s paw, claws dripping blood, on the left breast. Scars and scorings of many battles were evident on its ringed surface. At his left, on the ground, rested a well-worn leathern helm. Across his thighs a sword, broken about two hand spans from the guard. In the fading light, his right side was black from the blood that drained slowly to pool on the ground beneath him.

He sat at the top of a cliff facing a dying sun that he did not see, as it painted his silver beard and hair with red gold. His eyes closed, he leaned back against the rock and looked into his mind.

ONE

Reared rough and savage in the slums of a poor, unimportant city in the north, bastard son of a drunken whore, beaten and abused, he learned at an early age to lie, cheat or kill without mercy or emotion. As he grew older he learned the use of weapons and the Art of War. He learned well, and connived and wrought well, moving up in the Mercenary ranks, selling his services with no thought of loyalty; except to himself.

Through it all (even though he had betrayed many a comrade and employer) he had been so skillful in his deceits that he had never been found out. He’d laughed silently to himself whenever he overheard people praising his services and loyalties.

Over the years he covered the length and breadth of the world; sometimes alone, sometimes at the head of an army or band of reivers. He grew rich and gathered power to himself, until finally, he overthrew a minor monarch and usurped the rule of a kingdom on the borders of the Empire.

He’d reached his goal. Neither gold nor power, had been the prime motives in his life. But his childhood had taught him that these were necessary. If you had them not, those who did, by power or wealth or both; your parents, the slavemaster, the merchant, the thief, the prince, the Emperor –no matter—directly or indirectly, defined your life.

This he knew. He knew also courage, strength of will, hate and fear, he could recognize these in others. He had never felt fear and had long since given up hate. Pity, compassion, mercy he had of course, heard of but he possessed these no more than did the forces of nature, and love had never impinged upon his psyche, or for that matter, his life.

Neither human nor animal, nor any other object in his world, manmade or natural, had elicited the slightest hint of love or affection from him. If his hounds did their job, good! If his horse or his men served well, good! If not they were discarded –or died. He kept by him nothing that did not serve. Except in those public areas of his manse, where they might be required by politics or convention for visitors, his quarters contained nothing of beauty. No art or luxury. No flowers, no books, except those on war and weapons.

He ate. He slept. He warred as necessary, rode and trained at arms to maintain his skills, and his image in the eyes of his people. As time passed his soul shriveled in his breast and for all his power and wealth, his days contained less and less.


His only love or joy, if so it could be called, came from hunting wolves and bear in the forests of his demense. This he did alone, and on foot. His weapon of choice for this a short spear with a twelve inch needle of razor-edged steel at its tip. He stalked his quarry with all the skill of a marauding leopard, his leaping attacks as swift and deadly; the smooth ash shaft of the spear a living extension of his hand; the needle thin blade a lengthened fingernail that tore with deadly accuracy into the heart of his prey. No boar-guard crossed the shaft to prevent the animal from riding up it to the end. This he forbore in deference to his view of justice. His quarry’s claw and fang against his metal with only his skill and wit his possible advantage.

The pleasure he found in this pursuit in no wise resembled the passions of a painter or craftsman. He had no love for the hunt itself, or for the kill. He only knew a satisfaction in the meeting, and conquering his quarry on nearly equal terms. He kept no trophy, sought no praise. The hide went to the workshops. The meat to the kitchens. The story to himself.

One day he had come upon a clearing in the wood. A small, neat garden fronted a stone-walled, thatch roofed cottage at the side of which was a well. He hailed the house, his voice ringing through the mid-day silence of the forest. There seemed to be no-one about. He heard no aswering hail or query, no sound of activity in the cottage nor from the surrounding wood.

He hailed again. Requesting permission to drink from the well. This act of courtesy was in keeping with his general demeanor to the peoples of his household and estates. For all that he considered them vassals, and his wishes commands, he knew that loyalty from followers demanded an image of courtesy, even if they suspected otherwise.

This was not hypocrisy on his part, for service wellgiven, and well performed he did respect, and was as quick to reward and praise as he was wont to censure and punish, or kill, if justified.

He came out of the shadow of the trees and walked to the well. The cottage and garden were well maintained. Everything that met his eye displayed the hand of industry and care; no tools scattered about, no debris or weeds cluttered the area. The garden was enclosed by a neat rail fence and beds of flowers bordered both garden and cottage.

He called once more. Again no response. He drew the bucket from the well, rinsed the dust of his travels from his face and drank deeply of the cool, sweet water. With care he placed the bucket on the wellcurb and dried his hands, running them through his hair, revelling in the feeling of the cool water in his hair. He looked about the clearing once more, then continued on his way through the wood.

TWO

He found himself returning to pass the cottage again, at different times of the day, on his hunts. The first few times he had found the clearing deserted as on his first visit. Then, after he had used the well one day, he saw the child sitting on the stone that formed the door-stoop. With no sense of fear in her eyes, dabbling her feet in the dust, watching him as he crossed the clearing into the wood. Neither of them spoke. He nodded to her in way of thanks and continued into the darkness of the forest.

As his visits continued, he would often find the child sitting on the stoop as he passed and she soon began to smile as he approached. He had tried to entice her to talk by asking her name and about her parents. But, although she smiled and soon followed at his heels as he used the well, she never spoke. He fell into the habit of talking to her as if talking to himself. He spoke of the wood, his travels and the battles he had fought. He spoke of the animals he hunted and their courage and ferocity.

She would tilt her head to one side and listen. Her eyes, which were large and black, never leaving his face as he spoke. And all the time her smile beamed at him. He found himself spending more time in the clearing and hunting less and less on his excursions.

Then, one day, as he had taken his fill at the well and was preparing to depart, he felt a tug at his shirt. He turned and found the child smiling up at him, holding out a flower. What it was he didn’t know. It was a series of bright blue, bell-shaped blooms on a stalk. His first reaction was to dismiss the gift. He had no love for flowers. They gave him no real pleasure, although he appreciated the scents of woodland and meadow. The beauty and pleasure most people found in flowers was alien to him.

But he took the blossoms and nodded in thanks. As soon as he was in the wood, beyond her sight, he threw them away. He began to bring small gifts to the child on his visits; candies, small trinkets, one time a carved leather belt he had had made for her. She continued to present him with a stalk of the bells and soon he began to tuck the sprigs into the band of his helm. He began to feel a strange sense of loss on those days when he passed and she was not there to greet him. What this longing was he did not know. But it was very real. Such days seemed longer and more drear.

On this day he had been hunting a different part of the wood and had been unsuccessful. He had not planned to pass the cottage as it was some distance out of his way, but some urge drew him toward it. Nearing the clearing he caught a whiff of woodsmoke on the breeze. He had never noticed smoke from the chimney of the cottage before, and thought perhaps this time he would see the parents of the child.As he drew nearer, the odor grew stronger and was tinged with a scent he knew well. He began to jog down the trail. The keepers of the clearing would not be so careless as to burn meat.

Well he knew the odor of war, pillage and death. He broke out of the wood into the clearing. The cottage lay a heap of smoking rubble, the fence broken and the once neat garden trampled and shredded by the hooves of horses. From the ruin came the odor of burnt flesh. The body of a man lay, half across the threshold, in a pool of blood. The clothing was that of a peasant. A woodcutter or some other such laborer who lived simply, from the fruit of the forest and his labor.

“This must be the father,” he thought.

He looked past the body into the smouldering ashes of the cottage. He saw a huddled figure, heat-seared beyond recognition, lying in front of the fireplace at the base of the chimney.

With a feeling of relief, he saw that the body was too large to be that of the child. The cottage had been one large room with two smaller rooms at the rear. He went round outside --the fire was still too hot to permit entry to the ruin—and looked into the two rooms from the back. No sign of the child.

Like a hound casting for a scent, he coursed the clearing in widening circles from the cottage, searching for sign of the child. He found her lying, face down, at the start of the trail at the northern edge of the clearing. The flat of a sword had smashed the back of her head and thrown her broken body into the bushes at the side of the trail.

He felt himself go cold as ice and the grasp of a diamond hard fist closing on his heart. A chill, dreadful rage took root in his mind as he lifted her body in his arms. He carried the body back to the ruins of the cottage and placed it gently in the dust before the garden. The body in the house was not retrievable so he let it lie in the ash it would become. The body of the man he carried to where the child lay and drew water from the well.

With a care and gentleness, he had not in his life, tendered even to his own body, he washed the blood from her face. He cleaned her hair and ran his coarse fingers through the tangles to groom it as best he could. When he finished, he went to the rear of the cottage to get a shovel he had noticed standing in a plot that was being dug.

The clump of flowers, from which she had picked her first offering to him, was untrampled. At the base of the flowers, he dug a grave and lined it with his hunting cloak, laid the body gently on the cloak and crossed her arms on her breast. Although the blooms were fading and going to seed, he cut one, still flowering, stalk of the blue bells and placed it in her hands. Then, wrapped the cloak about the body and filled the grave.

The body of the man went into a hole at her side but without the care he had given the girl. Over both, he built a cairn of rock from the ruins of the cottage.

Finished, he began to study the tracks about the yard. There had been four, maybe five, horses. He found the tracks of three different men in the dust. One set belonged to the body he had just buried. He could see where these had come out of the woods to the south of the clearing. The other two had dismounted from horses. One of these men wore a boot with a diagonal scar across the left sole. This he would recognize when next he saw it. The other was of no use. Of the horse tracks, two might be useful. One animal was shod with a bar on the offside forefoot to correct a problem with its footing. The other had shoes so old and thin the animal appeared unshod.

He checked his weapons, and lashed his scabbard securely across his back. A light sip of water from the well; a last look at the clearing; and he began to run north with the easy swinging stride of a ranger, eyes coursing the trail for signs of the passage of the raiders.

They would die. He was about three hours behind them but he could keep this pace for hours, even days, and had, in the past, run many a horseman or stag to ground. They would die! They would know why they died. Not for being robbers or raiders; for unless caught in their thievery, nearly all men were robbers. Not for the death of the man and woman at the clearing; for death comes to all, if not at the hand of another man then at the whim of the Gods. No. They had stolen from him. What they had stolen he could not name, but he could feel its absence. It had gone with the child. They would die for the loss of a flower that would never again be placed in the hand of Death, by the smudged hand of a child.

He ran through the dimming light, nostrils flared wide with anger, teeth bared in a feral smile, with eyes from which Death searched for its prey, the cold emptiness in his breast a searing icey fire, like the breath of Fimbral Winter.

In all his days he had never killed for vengance, for vengance gave no reward and cured no ill. The victory it gave was hollow and served no purpose. He knew this. But knowing, for once, was not enough. The only thing that could quench the cold fire within him was the hot, smoking blood of these men. They. Would. Die!

Three
As he ran, he would slow his pace or pause now and then at forks in the trail, until certain he had found the hoofprints that matched the images burned into his brain. Then resume his tireless pursuit. The riders were not fleeing. The pattern of the tracks was that of liesurely travel.

Just before dusk he came upon some droppings left by the horses. The dung was only one or two hours old. He was gaining on them. He kept his pace for another hour then slowed to a walk. The light was getting poor and he feared losing the trail. Finally he stopped and rolled in a drift of leaves to sleep. His years of warfare had given him the knack of wakening at any interval he chose, be it hours or minutes. He slept.

He woke, as he had chosen to do, two hours later. A weak moonlight was breaking through the thick canopy of Oak and and Maple. A pause for a few mouthfuls of dried meat and nuts, washed down with gulps of water, and he was on the move again, more slowly this time so as not to lose the trail. He hoped to catch them camped for the night. The moon, now a bright silver pearl in the cloudless sky, cast its light on the trail. The openings in the forest umbrella causing pools of silver to spot the trail like a string of pearls on a black velvet thread.

The angle of the light highlighted the sculptured hoofprints in bas-relief. The soft ground holding the prints well. Like sooty fingerprints on bleached vellum. He could not lose the trail unless he got careless. He was not a careless man.

It was always possible that they might have kept moving after sunset, but that was unlikely. They apparently had no fear of pursuit or efforts would have been made to conceal their trail. None had.

None of the tricks used to confound a pursuer had been used. The tracks he followed were clear and easily read by even a poorly trained tracker. No, they were almost arrogant in their disregard of possible retribution.

To be sure, their arrogance was not truly misplaced. In the outer marches and border kingdoms of the Empire, banditry was a way of life. Usually overlooked unless the bandits interfered too actively with the flow of goods into the coffers and warehouses of the lord of the march or the monarch of the kingdom. The towns were protected, but the outlying districts poorly so, except for the property of minor dignitaries. His own lands were a lonely exception in this regard. He ruled justly, if firmly, and his borders and peoples were protected by patrols both well equipped and well trained.

He continued into the night. He had long since left his own lands, the cottage had been only a few miles from the border. As the moonlight began to fade, the night wind began to bring the scent of salt to his nostrils mixed with the trace of smoke from a dying fire. He slowed his pace even more and concentrated on the smoke. The trees caused the breeze to eddy, and the odor would come and go, but was becoming stronger as he continued north.

The forest was beginning to thin, and a glimpse of the starry sky, and fading moon silhouetted the trees at the edge of the wood. The smell of the salt air grew stronger, as the fitful breeze coming off the sea grew stronger. He had been this way a time or two in the early days of his rule. A recconaisance of the borders of his lands and the adjoining country having been a prudent undertaking in those days when his hold was weak. Who claimed what, and where a threat might come from was knowledge he needed.

The forest stopped at the edge of hills sloping to the seacliffs in this part of the Empire. The swales and hillocks providing sheltered pockets ideal for camping. Not far from firewood, open enough to offer little shelter to ambushers or nightstalkers, but protected from the wind.

As he came out onto the saltgrass the cliffedge formed a broken shadow against the lightening sky. In the mornglaum, the hollows between the hillocks were dark inky pockets. He had lost the hoofprints as he came out of the forest. The trail was clear and unmarked. His questing fingers discovered no irregularity in the windswept surface. With his nose to the ground he could see the trail surface dimly in the soft light.

He turned and strode toward the highest hillock in the vicinity. Shading his eyes with his hand he slowly scanned the pockets of darkness he could see from his vantage point. Starting near, he let his eyes slide over the landscape. He had learned as a warrior that the eye sees things at night from the side of the eye, not the center. Why that was he didn’t know. But experience in many night attacks had proven that looking directly at an object was not as effective as looking to one side of what you wanted to see.

Scanning the area in every widening circles he caught a glimpse of red-orange. He looked away from where it seemed to be then brought his eyes slowly back. “Yes.” There was the glow of embers from a fire reflecting on the leaves of some bushes in a hollow to his left, just short of the forest. He noted the direction of the glow and started across the grassy hillocks toward it.

The wind was at his back, so he turned to his right and paralleled the cliffs for some distance then turned toward the forest. After a time he turned right again. Now the wind was in his face. The smell from the fire was coming to him. And his body odor, sweat and leather, did not drift into the hollow he was stalking.

He worked his way cautiously up to the lip of the hollow. Using a small bush to break his silhouette, he eased up until he could see the bottom of the grassy bowl. To his left he could make out the forms of horses, and the weak glow of the nearly dead fire in the center, revealed four shapes scattered around the firepit.

To make sure he had the right group, although he had little doubt, he slid back and made his way silently toward the tethered horses. When the horses were between him and the sleeping bodies he stood. To creep up on the horses crouched or from dead ahead would spook them. Standing a few yards from them he waited. When he noticed a couple of then turn and look in his direction, he walked casually down, making soft soothing sounds, that carried only to their ears. “Good boy. That’s it. Easy now.” His years of experience with horses, and the economy of movement allowed him to approach and lay his hand on the neck of one of the beasts. “Shhh,” he whispered as he ran his hand down to lift the offside forefoot. “No. Not this one.” He moved to the next. Again, not the shoe he was looking for. The third horse had a barred shoe on the offside forehoof. Satisfied, he moved away from the horses back to the lip of the swale.

The sky was lightening rapidly now. He loosed his sword from his back, and eased it from the scabbard, muffling the sound with his shirt. He lay the scabbard on the ground and with the sword in his right hand, spear in his left he stood and walked down into the campsite. Placing himself within easy reach of three of the shadowed forms, he stood patiently just inside sword length of the bodies on the ground. And waited.

The grey morning slowly brightened as the sun rose behind him, the first pale rays dispelling the shadows in the hollow and striking one of the sleepers in the eyes, with a mumble the man rolled away to put his back to the light.

A step back with his right foot was the only movement he made when the sleeper moved. When the man did not awaken he relaxed once more. And waited.

The first full ray of the sun stole over the lip of the hollow, striking strongly into the camp. The man on the far side of the campfire cursed under his breath and sat up groggily, to look around the site. “Huh?” he wheezed, “Is that you Wright?” receiving no answer he squinted at the dark shape standing over his companions. In the glare of the rising sun all he saw was a dark manshaped pillar casting a lengthening shadow across the bowl of the hollow.

Fully awake, he saw three sleepers still rolled in cloaks and saddlepads, and a fourth standing, black and stark like the shadow of death above them. Scrabbling frantically for a weapon, he gave an intelligable yell, and tried to kick off his coverings.

The scream, woke the other three. As they roused themselves in startled panic, the sword whistled through the air. A head fell to the ground, while the body it once owned flopped like a slaughtered chicken.

“No defenseless child, or unarmed peasant now, boys. Come kiss my blade and feed the waiting crows.” The voice was calm and cold, with an edge like tempered steel. The sword reached for another, shearing the cloak but not reaching flesh. By now the remaining men were scrabbling away from the dark deathbringer standing in their midst.

With an axe in his hand the first man sprang across the fire swinging wildly. The sword parried the blow, and an icey chuckle greeted his efforts. “Not so easy when your prey fights back. Why kill the girl and her parents? You could easily have taken all they had with no trouble. Are you ready to meet your God, if you have one? Mine is the God of War, and he is thirsty for blood today.” The steady calm of the voice more terrifying than the bloody sword in his hand.

The needle pointed spear reached behind him and found a target as he ducked a blow from his flank and wheeled to face his opponents. Twisting the spear as it withdrew, he watched the thief fall, the blood from shredded lungs dribbling a foamy red from his mouth. He watched as the man fell to drown in his own blood.

The other two quickly seperated to try to get him between them. He circled slowly to the right forcing them together. As he moved to attack, his foot slipped on a stone hidden in the grass, and he felt a sharp bite in his side, where a wild swing from the axe slipped under his vest. A backhand blow with the sword, took the arm holding the axe, and laid it on the ground. A return cut and thrust pierced the breast of the axeman. He died.

The remaining brigand, turned and ran. Up out of the hollow, shrieking his fear to the unheeding sea and sky. He followed slowly, the pain in his side causing him to gasp with effort, but fading to a dull ache as he followed the bandit toward the cliffs.

At the edge of the cliffs, the fleeing man looked back. His pursuer was walking ominously toward him. In the full light of day, he saw a well built man wearing a mailvest emblazoned with the paw of a lion, claws dripping blood. The head was crowned by a leathern helm from under which greying hair spilled carelessly to brush his shoulders. The full lips smiled through a trimmed grey beard, and the eyes drilled through him with an icey finality. Swinging loosely from the right hand of the figure, the sword had runnels of red flowing to the tip and dripping to the ground.

He turned away. A glance showed him that there was no escape this way. He ran raggedly to his right along the edge. Searching for a way down to the shore below. His follower, coming at an angle gained slowly on him. Coming to an outcrop of rocks, he could run no further. He turned to see his way blocked by the seacliff, and a few paces away, death that had sprung as if from the very ground of the campsite.

“Why are you after me? I don’t know you,” he croaked, gasping for breath. “Don’t kill me.” He said, pressing back against the rock as if to melt into it. “Don’t kill me,” he screamed!

The approaching figure said nothing. The bandit, fell sobbing to his knees.

He heard a soft voice saying. “You should not have killed the girl.” The sword split his skull and shattered against the rock from the strength of the blow… He died.

A flick of the wrist whipped the blood from the broken blade. He leaned wearily against his spear, and hobbled to the edge of the cliff. In a pocket of the upthrust of rock he found a niche. He sat down and leaned wearily against the boulder to look out over the sea.

He sat there feeling the blood soaking through his clothing. He probed the wound with his fingers and realized that bandaging would be of little purpose. The wound was deep and, although a major blood vessel had not been damaged, he would bleed to death, unless someone found him. Here and now that would not happen.

“Well, I’m in no hurry, Death. We have been friends a long time and I knew you would come one day. Forgive me if I just sit here and wait for your arrival.” His wry laugh becoming a cough as a twinge of pain wrenched him. He fell silent listening to the shush of the waves against the sandy beach below.

He thought of his life and what he had wrought, and what he had not. Good or bad, it had been not dull, at least until the last year or so. “Being ruler instead of ruled, is a little better, but just as much work,” he thought. He thought of his battles, his hunts, his enemies. He thought of the little girl and wondered at the strange feelings she had engendered in him. He drifted off to sleep, awakening now and then with a jerk then drifting off again. As the light began to fade, he found himself unable to move. The slow seepage of blood had weakened him. He began to feel chilled, even in the heat of the late afternoon sun.

He thought again of the child. A pang of feeling, strange to him, ran through him. In the corner of his eye a tear began to form. The first and only tear of his life. It trickled slowly down his cheek when it had grown enough to spill from his eye. Glistening in the fading sunlight, it caught the eye of one of the minor Gods.

Curious, the God gathered time to itself -for Gods can do this- and read the past; minute by minute, day by day, and saw the cold empty striving; the treachery and deceit, the joyless, loveless life that had gone before. Until the child. Saw the love of a child reach this man with the stony heart, and with the gift of love, presented as a flower; saw this loveless, unloving man give to the child his only true possession, his heart. Saw the man bewildered by a pain he could not understand, caused by an emotion he understood less. Saw the tear.

With the tip of his finger the God caught the tear. Examined it closely. In its clear, pure depth the God could read the pain and emptiness; the aching loss of love – for Gods can do these things. The God looked again at the crystal drop on his fingertip. The one –the only- the first and last truly selfless offering in the life of the dying man.

The God flicked it from its finger, and on a whim, brushed it with a fingertip as it fell. The bright diamond crystal dropped into the lap of the dying man, bounced once and slid down his leg to settle in the blood pooling at his side.

His body and bones mouldered away. The iron of his weapons rusted to red flakes, then dust, then nothing. Only the rocks and the crystal tear remained.

The tireless wind and waves ate relentlessly at the stone, and the cliff wall retreated a little more each year, until at last, the stones fell into the sea. And with them fell the tear. The sea ground them finer and finer; sifting the grains, finally to throw them back at the land to form a silvery frosting at the base of the cliffs.


Epilogue

On a day, long after his name, and even his kingdom had been forgotten, another child played in the sand. Gleefully digging and pawing through the seawrack for shells and other treasure, and playing tag with the waves. The contents of her bucket of loot changing constantly as one prize was discarded in favor of another of more immediate interest.

She went to squat in the shallow, lapping waves to wash the sand from her accumulation of shells and twisted bits of root and wood. The waves curled gently around her ankles and teased her tugging at her bucket, as if to steal it away. She scolded them harshly, and took her treasures to safety beyond the tidemark and reach of the thieving water. She turned to taunt the sea, daring the waves to come now and steal her bucket. The placid water gurgled soothingly as the waves made playful runs toward her, only to fall back leaving the marks of their passage etched in the wet sand. The slope was too steep for them to climb and, today, the sea too lazy to reach for the base of the cliffs behind her –although both the sea and the child knew it could. The sand rolled in the wash of the retreating waves. It sparkled in the afternoon sun, throwing silver glints into the child’s eyes. “Like fireflies,” she thought, “but white instead of blue-green.”

A strong flash was repeated over and over as the waves ran up and down the shore, drawing her eyes again and again. When it had attracted her attention for what seemed the hundredth time, she went over to see why this sand sparkled more than the rest. From a little water-filled dimple in the sand, a small teardrop shaped crystal shone up at her through the water. “How pretty,” she thought, and took it up to add to her collection of treasures.

As the day wore on, the contents of the bucket changed over and over. But the stone remained. Never exchanged. Never discarded, nestling securely in the crease where the bottom met the sides. Then she heard her mother calling. With a little moue of annoyance, she gathered her belongings and slowly walked along the water’s edge with that strange dancing stride all children use on a beach. Placing one foot, twisting it right to left, then taking a step with the other and repeating the twist, step after step after step until she reached her mother.

Kneeling at the edge of the blanket she spread her collection out in neat rows on the blanket for her mother’s inspection, displaying individual pieces with pride. Her mother smiled and tousled her hair, exclaiming appreciatively at appropriate intervals.

They sat together in the sun, and finished the last of the sandwiches, just as the onshore breeze began to cool the beach. “Time to go”, her mother said, “It’s getting cold and late. Pick up your things, darling.”

She helped her mother pack the lunch things away and returned to her treasures. She picked up the stone and rolled it back and forth across the palm of her hand causing it to gleam and sparkle in the sunlight. As she turned to show it to her mother once more, it slipped from her hand to bury itself in the sand. With frantic fingers she scrabbled desperately in the sand searching for the stone, making small cries of distress. Hearing her cries, her mother came to help search for the small perfect tear.

After some fruitless effort by them both, the mother stood, brushed the sand from her knees and hands. “I’m sorry dear, we can’t find it. By now we probably buried it for good. Now don’t cry. It’s time to go, and after all, it’s only a stone.”

Far away in time, an ancient God smiled….

END