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Two Little Stones

Fri May 15, 2020 4:32 am

You pronounce it like I've said it. Yes, that's it. It's simple, and what's most important is that you are loud about it. You should be heard, and only when your throat is raw or broken should you stop.

It was midday when Corm MicKinnon left the Inquisitory, left Gloria Wynsee to do as she desired with her captive. He had his instructions, and would perform them to the letter. He and a gaggle of volunteers — some Junior Inquisitors, all fresh-cheeked and eager to oblige a task that did not involve ink-fingers or parchment-cuts — strode toward the woodline beyond the Broken Dagger. He'd given them all their commands. These ones, the ones dispatched to other edges of the forests, were told them exactly what he needed...

Here, you hold them just like this. Between the thumb and middle finger. Like so. Then you simply scrape, and — look, look!

But not all of them were members of the Inquisitory. Some were commoners drudged up from the Low Streets, their mouths dry for a bit of whiskey or their hands shaking for the poppy-milk. Wynsee hadn't asked for them, but no matter. He made executive decisions. Elsewhere, there were two members of the Myrken Wood Guard — you owe me this, remember — and Julius de Lanz, who had a birth-stain on his cheek. And Andra Goldsmouth, a refugee from the Derry crisis, who dipped candles the way her father did. And Kelmin Avafor and Lady Stockton Crowley and her cuckold's two teenaged sons and girls from the Bazaar and young men who bored of chopping wood and had a vendetta against it, as if shouting this name might be appropriate revenge...

At four hours past Sunpeak, they started shouting the name into the woods, and some of them even strode boldly within.

"Fionn," they said, almost a chant. "Fionn, Fionn!"

A group — Corm McKinnon's group — yelled it just on the outskirts of the forest near the Broken Dagger.

"Fionn!"

South along the woodline, closer toward Aithne, another group chanted it, spewed the name like bile.

"Fionn!"

From the east, between the lip of the lake and at the foothills of the forested mounts, another group striding inward, saying that name, saying it, saying it. Some didn't know why, and some knew exactly why; some cared immensely, and others didn't care at all, it was just something to do, some budding possibility of adventure, or danger, or something else.

They could be heard almost into Myrkentown proper.

Fionn, Fionn, Fionn...

Re: Two Little Stones

Fri May 15, 2020 7:55 am

Three things happened at once, though one would be hard-pressed to be the right position to see all of them.

The first:



A black bird, big as a hawk, took off across Silver Lake toward the wharf.


The second:


At the point of the lake a little southward of the Dagger, a grey-haired, leather-skinned volunteer clicked his stones in monotonous rhyme and in a gravely voice droned Fionn, Fionn, Fionn with all the passion of a weary farmer calling home a balky cow. A trickle of sweat ran into his eyebrow. He paused to remove his felt hat and run a sleeve down his face. The wineskin at his hip contained nothing more potent than switchel, better than water on a warm afternoon. He took a swig, then politely offered it to his neighbor.

As far as anyone could tell, he'd been there the whole time.


The third:


Though the sun was high enough to guarantee a few more hours of daylight, the shadow of the Woods' border began to lengthen, leaning townward. It would not take very long at all to notice that the shadows leaned entirely the wrong way entirely the wrong way for this or any other hour. They leaned against the sun.

Those who still remained outside of the Woods might find themselves a little nearer than perhaps they meant to be.

From the Dagger's worn front porch, the trees seemed taller, blocking out the line of blue sky above them.

It would not take long to realize that the trees were no taller.

The Woods were coming nearer.

Re: Two Little Stones

Mon May 18, 2020 2:28 am

They chanted her name. And perhaps it possessed no power, functioned as no cantrip or spell that could break a life across the hard border that separated worlds, but still they barked it, cried it, mumbled it, some misguided and some inspired. Their feet crunched across the hard, winter-burnt grass and tread upon the leaves of seasons gone.

Some of them just held fast to their stones. Others clicked them, snapped them against one another, tap-tap-tap, like prayer beads in a temple.

Beside the man with the wineskin, a slim woman with an overbite and a straight back considered the wineskin, and then took it and swigged. Hers was just a splash to slake her thirst. The bitterness struck her tongue unkindly. "Obliged," she said, and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. Just then, the two little rocks squeezed in her fist began to tremble, and what issued from them was a rough, scraping sound. A voice. A voice comprised of those tiny stones' whole history: their formation in bubbling magma, at the hearts of old mountains; their years and years of sunshine and rain, all whistling out of their tiny pores like last gasps...

"—inwards, go inwards, and keep calling the name, be sure—"

* * * *

"—she can hear you," Corm McKinnon said into the rocks in his fist as he began to break embark into his adventure into the woods. His boots crushed the thorns and briars, and his lanky frame cut its way like a blade through the brush. "If she is fae, then we encroach upon what she believes is her territory. Be mindful of trickery. Her lot puts it to good work."

Just then, a man as tall as unthreshed wheat — somewhere behind Corm, not far, ten or twenty paces at most — felt weak in the knees as the woods themselves seemed to begin leaning over him, pressing in on him, consuming him. He gave out a thoughtless gasp, swiped uselessly at the air, then began to scramble back, back, toward the safety of grass and beer. Corm McKinnon, whose sweat was an old soldier's, tightened his shoulders and continued inward.

"We sniff her out, one way or another," he said.

Others, hesitating in their steps, or wondering how tall these Woods could become, might not have had the same thought.

Re: Two Little Stones

Mon May 18, 2020 7:33 am

On the southward point of the lake, the treetops rustled. The narrow strip of grass and sand between forest's edge and lakeshore shrank. Not by much. But enough to be noticed. For every step the humans pushed in, the trees pushed back.

Now the Dagger's lawn dwindled as the Woods rose like a river at flood, creeping up the slight mount on which the tavern and its outbuildings gathered. A mass of roots swelled like a rising sea-serpent, the grassroots above ripping, black spring earth crumbling away before it submerged and stretched outward--the only visible sign. The rest of the march was slow, almost subconscious. Look away quickly, then look back: something had moved, only you couldn't lay a finger on what it was. Only that it was nearer.

Now further down, the wide margin to either side of the main road became perceptibly narrower as the trees hung their shadow over the pale gravel and dust.

Now the clearing surrounding the great estate of Aithne became a tightening noose. The greater trees reclaimed the first-flowering tame walnuts in the outlying orchard, welcoming them into their embrace like long-lost cousins.

And now the old man hesitated, voice faltering to a halt. Now the sweat he rubbed from his brow was pure nerves, and the hands that settled his hat more firmly on his brow were trembling. Not a lot. Enough that he fumbled with the stones as he tried to find his pattern once more.

"You seeing that too?" he said, in a rough, uneasy whisper--as if the Woods might overhear him--to the woman a few steps away. "Maybe we might ought to tell somebody?"

Somebody had the rasp of accusation. Somebody was Corm McKinnon, who'd gotten them all in this to begin with, or else it was one of them Inquistory folks, who knew what the hell they were looking for, or at least they sure acted like they did. They'd better know what all this was. They better know how to stop it, too.

But for those who pressed onward, the forward movement of the trees took place behind them. Within, the trees seemed still and solid. No birds. No clatter of young squirrels in the branches. No tracks. The mat of last autumn's leaves absorbed all other sound, so that every shuffling footstep became crisp, distinct, and total. Every huff of breath. Every muttered instruction passed between two volunteers. The clack of stones felt like a hard snap between the back molars.

All alone. In the Woods.

And darker every step you took.

Re: Two Little Stones

Mon May 25, 2020 10:49 am

Maybe we might ought to tell somebody?

The woman's eyes seemed wide enough, hungry enough, to swallow the shadows of the shifting, changing woods around her. She turned, swiped her hands in a wild scrawl above her head, slashing at encroaching branches, slicing at phantoms. She would have responded, but instead all she managed were a few labored gasps, and she spun as if threatened by some creature that just permanently resided beyond the periphery of her sight...

In all the other parties, some reacted riotously: one fled on stumbling feet — a young man whose mind was not suited for it all — while others flinched, blinked, tried to minimize themselves into nooks and crannies of trees and bushes that allowed for the most breath, the most safety. And some of them — like Corm — knew this, expected this, awaited this: they tightened their fists until their knuckles nearly burst from beneath their flesh, or the voices native to the backs of their minds told them to run, run, and they denied them.

One man fell nearly back into Corm McKinnon, whose spindly body barely flinched against the intrusion. Instead, his free hand shot out, cuffed the man across the inner cup of the shoulder, and turned him that they could face each other. "You turn away and leave the rest of these men and women to manage the danger, that is a coward's move. Damn yourself a coward on someone else's watch, but not mine."

The side of Corm's temple began to pulse, pulse, and he found himself surrounded by an iron-maiden thicket, slithering at his legs, crawling up his sides, lapping at his ribs. He clenched his fists around the two tiny stones, then spoke into the crease between his thumb and forefinger, as if blowing his voice into the wind..

Each pair of stones spoke out to the world, from Aithne to just beyond Myrken Wood:

"Heinous things can be done with names, Fionn. How much longer until we know every letter of it? Show yourself, woman: I give you my promise that no harm comes to you, should you choose to smother this trickery and come to call."

Re: Two Little Stones

Tue May 26, 2020 2:56 pm

The grey-haired man in the hat did not chuckle when his companion turned and fled. Normally he might have. They were frightened of the Woods, as they should be, and he meant them to be well and truly frightened now. Let them remember why they feared it. Let this be their new nightmare: that the Woods might walk, that the thing they thought penned up by its own borders could escape and tear down all that was straight strong walls and square streets. Crawling in his gut was the grim satisfaction of order restored. No pleasure in that.

His stones were not among those that spoke. They were two black-crusted lumps filched from the campfire once he’d spied what everyone else was doing. His recently departed neighbor, however, had helpfully dropped hers before she sped off. Now they buzzed and chattered like a tin cicada in the crisp yellow lake grass. He strolled over and grunted as he scooped them up, turning them over in his big, rough hand.

How clever. How very clever. And how useful. He wondered where they’d come by them, or how they'd crafted such a thing. He might have kept them were they not so damned incriminating just now.

He squeezed the stones in his hand until they cracked together and was so surprised at their responding buzz that a jolt went clean up his backbone as if he’d bitten down on a tin coin, his whole arm going stiff and cold.

Heinous things can be done with names, Fionn. How much longer until we know every letter of it?

Show yourself, woman. No harm will come to you.

The corner of the man’s iron-grey moustache twitched. Probably the fellow was speaking the truth, as much as he knew. Probably the harm would come later. But he wondered how well that promise could be kept once a gaggle of panicked Myrkeners got a look at the monster in their midst. He could be a magnificent monster, should it come to that.

Silently he started deeper into the Woods, further from camp. The trail here was a good one, an old one, though not one of his. Once it might have been a deer-follow, from the days when the city was small and the deer would risk drinking from this side of the lake. He was not trying to hide himself, but he did remind himself to move slowly, hunch his shoulders, remember to hobble on his shorter leg, and to call out his own name whenever he paused to work his way through an obstacle.

He didn’t much care what they did with the name just now. He was more concerned with what they’d done to get it. Two people on this side of the water knew that name. Catch wouldn’t have told even if they’d thought to ask him—and as he was now, he wouldn’t give it up solely for being asked and they would not dare force it from him. Glenn wouldn’t either. If not out of loyalty, he’d hold out from of sheer stubbornness, to spite them for the almighty indignity of being inconvenienced. Unless they made him, and damn Benedict for ever introducing that notion into his head.

Benedict would wait until moonrise. Moonrise was plenty of time. They wouldn't want to be in the Woods after dark. Benedict would wait.

Unless they knew about the raven, too.

Biting the inside of his cheek, he pushed his way through a tangle of white-foamed elder bushes.

If Gloria would put a blameless man to torture solely to find me, she’s more petty than I gave her credit for. And if the whole rusting Inquistory went along with it, they’re naught but a pack of hounds, too—all that proud prattle about protecting Myrken and none of it worth the breath to speak of it. Unless...unless...

He ducked under a storm-broken branch, one hand on his hat.

There were too many unlesses.

On the edge of hearing, on every side, came the thin echo of his own good name—Fionn Fionn Fionn—some asking it like an awkward introduction, some growling it in anticipation, some soft and fearing they would be answered. A dozen unfamiliar scraping voices, like coins jingling in a cashbox. He wondered idly if they were being paid, and how much. How would the fine upright Myrkentown Inquistory like it, if he turned up to claim his shilling at the end of the day along with everyone else, and then shuffled right past them? If he could pull such as that off, he’d send the coin to Gloria, tell her to buy something pretty. Some front teeth, mayhap.

A cautious look to see where the nearest one was before he raised the stones to his mouth as if to muffle a cough. From his lips issued a frail, shaky woman’s whisper: “Hallo? Hallo? Can you hear me?

His breath hitched in a half-stifled sob, and the words spilled out so fast that they stumbled over one another. “Please, is someone there? Where are you? I don’t know what I’m meant to do. Where do you want me to go?

Re: Two Little Stones

Sat May 30, 2020 12:36 pm

Such strange stones.

The wonders water and wind could do. The wonders of years, of pressure and heat and time, of the patience inherent in stone and earth. Trees, stones, even the tiniest ribbons of grass, they all held such power. But these — in the man's hands, they seemed simultaneously electric and void; they hummed, but not with the countless aeons compressed into the usual pebble. Here, the porous, white stones might as well have been foreign artifacts, or unique coins smuggled from some uncharted shore. They always seemed to roll close, close, closer still to one another. Should one be at the left side of his hand and the other at the right, they'd roll toward one another, clack and clatter, like magnet-rock mined deep from within the earth.

As Fionn, Fionn continued to echo through the Wood, the man might find himself unattended. There was so much Wood, to be separate from others was hardly a challenge: some continued to stride within, while others occasionally stopped, glanced left and right for the source of some ominous noise, and either promised themselves bravery to continue. Or they turned, and began to crunch their way back out, some with a quickness.

There was no one near enough to hear the cough let alone the frightened whisper filtered back through the rocks.

Some moments passed between its transmission and the eventual response: Corm's voice, falling softly, if impatiently. "If you've lost yourself, woman, then take a moment to get your bearings. And if you must make your way back out, put the sun to your right shoulder, keep walking, and the South Road shouldn't be far beyond. Do you remember where we said to convene?

"The rest of you: use violence only if absolutely necessary. Do not flee these Woods. Tricks that trigger your fear will rarely do anything to hurt the mind. She is here, and we will root her out. This simply means we are drawing near..."


To some, it certainly seemed as if sunlight had begun to fade. The afternoon shadows stretched, long and exhausted. Birds purred their last calls of the day. Two hours, perhaps three, separated day from night.
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