Steadfast

by Tom Howard

A young boy stumbled into a strange black boulder in the darkness, his breath coming in painful gasps and his tears undistinguishable from the rain falling on him from the passing storm. Lost, pursued and scared, he crouched beneath the large stone, using it for what little protection it had from the elements and the monsters chasing him.

Miserable and wet, he huddled in the darkness not knowing what to do. “Help me,” he begged in a small voice, knowing no one would hear him except the monsters that had killed his father.

The large chunk of rock on the side of a mountain was jet black and smoothed by centuries of wind and rain to a velvety texture, although he barely noticed it as he hunkered in its shadow. Down the slope was the edge of the forest and the road he and his father had taken many times in their one-horse cart.

An occasional lightning flash gave the boy an unwanted glimpse of the odd standing stones surrounding his sanctuary. The black stone pulsed beside him, still warm from the day’s sunshine.

What is wrong? someone asked.

The boy’s hand – pressing against the rock as he huddled to escape the wind and rain – tingled, and he pulled it away.

He looked around fearfully. He returned his palm to the warm surface to steady himself as he stood. The dark clouds overhead made visibility difficult for him, and he saw no one as he peered into the sheets of rain.

Hello, Friend, someone said, and the boy jumped again.

“Who are you?” he asked.

I am a rock.

His eyes grew wide with wonder. He knew sticks turned into snakes and dragons supposedly lurked over the next hill, but a talking rock was a new – but not impossible – event in his world. “You can speak?” he asked uncertainly.

I can, the rock told him. I pull language and words from your mind to speak to you. Why are you upset?

The boy pointed into the woods. “Robbers,” he said.

From your mind, I can see snarling creatures chasing you through the woods. Did they hurt you?

“No,” he said, again leaning against the talking rock. “They killed my father! He told me to run and I saw, I saw…” His sobs prevented him from finishing the sentence, but he recalled his father fighting a band of faceless robbers. A lightning bolt had revealed an upraised sword covered with his father’s blood.

Be calm, child, said the stone. You aren’t alone now. Tell me how you arrived here.

Looking around to see if someone was playing a trick on him, he sat back down in the shelter of the rock overhang and wrapped his skinny arms around his knees. The storm had weakened, but he was still cold and hungry. And alone.

Maybe he was dreaming. Maybe he was dead. “My mother and her family make beeswax candles and my father takes them to market. Sometimes he takes me out of the workroom to help with our old mare.” He was grateful for the experience – preferring the open sky to the smoky rooms where the family rolled gummy wax around dirty linen wicks and his mother complained of his father’s drinking.

I can see the valley below. Animals huddle in burrows to escape the downpour and plants drink greedily. I do not sense any humans except for you and a faint but similar echo in the nearby forest. Your father lives. He’s hurt and must not lie out in the storm. The robbers have gone.

“What can I do?” asked the boy, strangely at peace seeking advice from a rock.

Bring him to me. Use the horse sheltering beneath some pines at the edge of the woods.

“Sarah?” the boy asked in surprise. “She’s our old mare. She ran off with our wagon when they tried to take her. She can pull Father up the hill!”

You must hurry. He grows weaker as we speak.

The boy left with growing hope. Perhaps the talking rock was a fairy or some other magical creature. His grandmother told cautionary tales about encounters with those kinds of beings, and the boy vowed to make no contracts with the strange stone in exchange for helping his father.

Looking back at it in the darkness, the stone seemed to shine in the distant lightning flashes. It was unlike anything the boy had seen before. The storm was slowly beating itself out against the mountains, but a light rain had settled in for the night.

Sarah complained as the boy unhooked the broken wagon and secured her traces to his father, still alive but sorely wounded. Carefully he tied the leather reins around his father’s chest and wiped away the blood and rainwater from his father’s face. Sarah, spooked by the storm but obedient to the boy’s commands, pulled his father’s limp form over the rain-softened ground. As the last rumblings of thunder faded, the boy returned to the ring of stones surrounding the black boulder.

Put his hand on me, instructed the stone. The closer he is, the clearer I could see what has happened to him and repair the damage.

The boy placed his father’s arm against the stone, then began leaning pine branches he’d gathered over his father to form a lean-to shelter. He removed the harness from the tired horse and sent her down into the forest out of the rain. He stood silently, unsure of what to do next.

I have established a link with your father and repaired what I could as you approached. Like all things, including myself, he is made up of particles that interact with all other particles. I have examined you to determine how things within the injured man’s body are supposed to be connected.

The boy didn’t understand what the stone was telling him, but he felt the stone was trying to help him and his father. Whatever creature lived inside the rock seemed to be friendly. Perhaps it was as lonely as the boy.

The rock continued, The major injury is above the man’s left ear. A wide cut has exposed the bone and cracked the skull beneath but has not damaged brain tissue.

“Should I go for help?” the boy asked as he knelt beside his father’s limp body. Already the blood had stopped flowing from his father’s head wound, and both the boy’s clothing and his father steamed as the rock somehow warmed them.

Not yet. Place your hands on each side of his wound and push the skin together.

The boy did as instructed and gasped as his father’s flesh knitted together before his eyes. He kept his hands firmly in place. His father’s shallow breathing deepened and became more regular.

You can let go now. If he survives until morning, you can take Sarah and go for help. He should not be moved yet.

The boy plopped down on the ground and leaned against the rock. “I’m dreaming,” he said. “I can’t be hearing you. You don’t even have a mouth.”

In his mind, the stone chuckled. As you can see by your father’s improvement, I can control particles. It’s a simple matter to connect to your brain and place these words there.

The boy shook his head. “Since it’s my dream, I shall call you Rock.”

And I shall call you Friend.

An unfamiliar pain went through the boy. He’d never had a friend. He suspected Rock felt the same. “I have a name but everyone just calls me Boy. I like Friend better.”

Drying beside his slumbering father, he told the stone of his extended family, his seemingly unending chores, and his little bed in the loft.

At one point, he looked around at how clearly he could see his surroundings, even in the dark. “What is happening to me? Is this part of the dream?”

The stone chuckled again. No. I have increased the particle transfer between us. I’ve never experienced such a strong bond before. I find your bright pattern of organic existence interesting. I’ve corrected the few smudges your pattern contains.

“Rock, I don’t understand what you’re saying, but is that why I’m seeing better?”

Yes. And thinking and feeling better.

“You’ve talked with other people before?”

Yes. Long ago. Your ancestors dragged me here when they saw me fall from the sky. They made sacrifices on me and carved runes into my surface.

The boy frowned. “Do you want me to do that?”

No. That was what they demanded, not me. I am pleased to encounter someone to speak with again. I am lonely.

“I’d be lonely too if I was stuck here,” admitted the boy. “What is a party cull?”

A particle? Imagine the smallest thing you’ve ever seen.

“My baby cousin?”

No, something smaller. Imagine a tiny piece of dust floating in the air, lit by the sun coming through the slats in the barn. I can see such an image in your mind.

“I see it,” said the boy, closing his eyes. “Is that a particle?”

Not yet. Now imagine the sharpest knife you know. Slice that piece of dust in half. Then, slice that piece of dust in half. Can you see how small it’s become?

“Yes. It’s very tiny.”

Exactly. Now do it again and again until your sword is too dull to cut any more.

“It would be too small to see!”

Yes. Everything around us is made up of those tiny pieces that are too small to see. The air, water, your father, me, you. They’re all made of different pieces. Some are metal, some are mineral, some are smoke. All are connected.

Not believing the stone entirely – how could things be made up of other things too small to see – the boy continued discussing his own life.

“I don’t want to be a candle maker when I grow up,” he said with conviction, staring down at fingers stained yellow by bee pollen from the beeswax. “I want to become a knight. Not a purse knight, but a real one!”

What is a purse knight? The stone asked. I have not yet encountered that name in your memories.

“A knight who can be bought. The robbers on the forest road stopped us and wanted our money, but all we had was a wagonload of candles because we hadn’t been to market yet. A knight rode by, but before he would fight the thieves, he demanded that my father pay him. When he couldn’t, the purse knight left the robbers to kill my father and take our wagon.”

Are there a lot of purse knights?

“Too many,” the boy admitted, angered by their existence. He stared into the darkness and said, “I’m going to be a real knight, one who helps everybody, rich or poor.”

Very good. Very noble.

The boy’s eyes opened wide. “Are you a magic rock?”

No. Not the way you think of magic. Why?

“I hate magic,” he said bitterly. “My father buys charms from every market we visit to protect our wares and improve our lives, but look where charms got us.” He kicked at a defenseless clump of soggy grass and sent it flying.

Rock did not answer, and the boy curled into a ball near his father, reaching out to touch his stone benefactor. “Good night, Rock.”

Good night, Friend.

#

The morning was bright and warm, and the boy woke when his father moaned and asked for a drink. He raced to a swollen stream in the valley and filled a water skin he’d recovered from the wagon. He returned quickly, glad to see his father sitting up against the stone.

“What happened?” his father asked, looking around in disbelief.

“The stone fixed you,” said the boy. “He can control particles.”

The man rubbed his forehead and gave the boy a puzzled look. “I thought I was a dead man, but I must not have been as hurt as I thought. Where’s Sarah?”

The boy pointed to the edge of the clearing below where Sarah had discovered a patch of sweet grass. He helped his father to his feet. “Can you ride?” the boy asked.

“If you help me up and lead the old nag,” his father replied, holding his aching head. “Slowly.”

The boy looked around at the pastoral scene – so different from the night before – and patted the large black stone fondly. “I’ll see you again, Rock. Thank you.”

#

He did see Rock again and many times afterward. Whenever he and his father passed by with Sarah and her new wagon, he made his father stop. Leaning against his only friend, he told Rock about current events in the kingdom. He recounted to the sentient stone how the king was encountering bloody resistance from the local chieftains, how the boy’s oldest sister’s boy was almost of an age to take over the candle deliveries, and how his father had quietly stopped buying magic charms and started carrying a long knife. Seemingly overnight, the boy grew from a scrawny urchin to a tall, healthy young man.

In exchange for tales of his life, Rock told him that his sun was actually a star, the boy’s world was round, and everything – including both of them – was composed of minuscule particles of matter that interacted with each other. Magic, Rock assured him, was simply something called science, and much of what the boy had been told about the mysteries of life was untrue. With each passing year, he found his inquiring mind wanted to know more: how fire worked, what caused ice to form, if metals were alive. Rock answered each question with increasingly complicated explanations. The boy’s agile mind grasped concepts faster and faster as he grew older. He realized that – compared to Rock – his life was a brief flicker of a candle flame. The young man felt sad that his friend would one day be alone again.

He visited more frequently as his family’s candles improved. His mind bubbled over with concept after concept on ways to better produce candles, care for the bees more efficiently, and irrigate the fields. More people purchased the new candles, and his family prospered from the ideas he knew Rock had somehow made possible inside his head.

#

Late one fall, he came with heavy heart alone to say farewell for a while. His father had gotten chilled after passing out beneath the stars and never left his bed again, drinking and coughing until the end. Friend was leaving the family candle business, apprenticing himself to an alchemist some distance away in a lake village.

You will do well, Rock said, and you’ve always wanted to get away from the candle-making.

Friend sat in his usual position, leaning against a sun-warmed part of Rock. He could tell Rock was sad. “It won’t be forever. I’ll come back someday.”

Tell me about the village on the lake.

“It’s called Clearwater,” Friend said, letting his usual enthusiasm bubble to the surface. He could feel Rock’s unspoken loneliness lift in response. “It has a big market, a healer, and even a blacksmith.”

And the alchemist is a good one? Our connection hints you found something else about Clearwater attractive.

“Oh, yes,” said Friend, nodding and forgetting – as he frequently did – that Rock was an inanimate object. “He’s very good. Some folks even say that he’s magic. I won’t hold it against him.” He laughed at his own joke.

Does he have family? Someone your age perhaps?

“No,” he said sheepishly, “but the blacksmith’s daughter is a beauty.”

Progeny is important. A black pebble rolled down the big boulder and dropped at Friend’s feet.

“What’s this?” he asked, picking up the small stone.

Take one of your laces and place it around your neck. It will remind you of me when you are far away.

“Will it talk like you do?” Friend asked, pulling a lacing from his jerkin.

No, but it will help you see true. Remember, we are all connected: air, water, people, stones. This may help you see those connections.

“Thank you,” said Friend. He rose after placing the pebble around his neck through a hole that Rock had thoughtfully provided and rested both hands on top of the boulder, a location he couldn’t even reach when they’d first met. “I will see you soon, Rock.”

Yes. Beware of those purse knights and blacksmiths overly protective of their daughters.

Friend smiled, painfully aware of Rock’s disappointment at his leaving. Somehow he knew Rock would slow and finally slumber until he returned. He patted his solitary friend and headed for the forest road.

#

Years later, Friend stood with a group of burly men with ropes and poles around the large, black stone. The morning sun shone down on them as they discussed the best way to move the ancient rock from its bed.

“Don’t worry, Rock,” Friend said, placing his hand against the cool surface. “We’re going to take a trip.” Slowly he felt the stone’s particles accelerate until Rock achieved consciousness.

Friend! Rock exclaimed. What happens? How long have you been gone?

Friend laughed. He was clean, bearded, and dressed in simple but well made clothing, a far cry from the scrawny little urchin he’d been when he first met Rock. Time had filled out his face and body, but he was as agile and sure-footed as ever. He helped the men lift Rock from his earthen cradle with ropes and pulleys while they moved a wagon beneath the stone and lowered him onto a bed of straw.

“Say good-bye to the country, Rock,” he said, and one of the young men turned and gave him a puzzled look. Friend ignored him. “I’ve finished my apprenticeship and bought an alchemist shop in the Lancaster town square. I’ve also told the local mayor that a natural monument for the square would be accompanying me.”

Friend introduced Rock to his nephews and second-cousins, and they looked at him as if he were mad for conversing with a stone. But they treated Friend as a successful, if eccentric, member of the family who paid well for their services. He hopped onto the laden wagon after Rock was secured and rode with him to the village of Lancaster, away from the mountain Rock had inhabited for eons.

Congratulations, Rock said as they travelled. Your own shop! And your own custom, I predict. Good with compounds, I imagine. Any progeny?

The driver glanced over his shoulder at Friend as he laughed loudly. “Not that I know of, old Rock. I finished my apprenticeship in goodly time. Actually, I don’t think the old man had much more to teach me. He discovered early that I questioned ‘magic,’ and I worked long and hard to find reasons why some things worked and some didn’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if he learned as much from me as I learned from him. I questioned everything around me.”

Now you open your own shop and practice what you’ve learned. I am most proud of you, Friend.

“Thank you, Sir Stone,” he said, feeling pleased with himself and his accomplishments. “I won’t be grinding powders to cure bunions every day. The king has asked me to assist his magicians occasionally.”

The king? Are you the royal alchemist now?

He laughed again. “No. Since alchemists are said to dabble in the mysteries, the king asked some of us to travel to Galwyn recently to determine what magic made his tower disappear each night.”

A disappearing tower. That is mysterious. What was it? Dragons? Vengeful demons? How did you get rid of them?

“The king was having a huge stone tower built in Galwyn commons, and each day great stones are stacked to form a foundation for the tower. The very next morning, the stones were gone. None of his magicians were able to discover what sorcery caused the disappearance.”

Intriguing. What did you find?

“They had forgotten one thing you had taught me long ago, old friend – gravity. The Galwyn commons sit on a bog. Each night the heavy stones simply sank into the earth.”

How did you prove it?

I had the engineer draw an hour line on a foundation stone similar to the clock candles I invented. Then, each hour after sunset, he examined the stone as it slowly sank into the ground.”

“However, I did tell him that sleeping dragons lived under the commons and didn’t want a tower over their heads,” he said with a devilish smile. “There was a reward.”

But I thought you didn’t believe in magic.

“True, Sir Stone,” he said, “but I’m still alchemist enough to use its name in vain when I need to.”

Friend opened his alchemist shop and did well. Each evening when he was in Lancaster, winter and summer, he’d sit on a bench in the village square and tell Rock of his day. Rock told the young alchemist of eclipses, magnetic fields, and other wonders of the universe.

As time went on, however, Friend found himself spending less and less time in Lancaster. The king called on him more often and for longer periods of time. Rock sat beneath ancient maples and watched the village grow into a town. He told Friend that he could hear people as they paused in the shade and discussed Mistress Bonnie’s latest grandbaby or the death of Widow Brown’s favorite cow. As children scampered over him, he found they could hear him if he spoke to them, but Friend warned him not to engage the children in conversation. People who heard voices were frequently burned at the stake. Friend had been young enough to communicate with Rock but had wisely not mentioned their conversations to anyone.

#

One moonlit night after a long and exhausting trek, Friend collapsed wearily against Rock. He’d been walking for days, and it took a few moments to connect with Rock.

What has happened to you, Friend? I am repairing the severe blisters on your feet. I can do nothing about the fact you’ve not eaten in far too long.

Friend, in spite of his weariness, chuckled. “Can you reverse the amount of silver in my beard and the wrinkles around my eyes?” He was dressed in dirty robes and had an old sword belted to his hip. His heart was heavy, a weariness of his soul that he knew Rock could detect.

What has happened? Rock asked him. You’re carrying a sword. Have you become a knight?

He smiled but his heart wasn’t in it. “Of a sort, Sir Stone, of a sort. Over the years, I’ve insisted the king do more to help the people.”

Your village has prospered. They mention the countryside is safer.

“Ah, but it’s not enough,” said Friend with a weary sigh. “The king is a mortal man whose flesh is weak. This old rusty sword I was given to protect me from highwaymen has more valor than our king.”

He still has no heir?

“No, and now he wishes to marry someone younger and already married. The church and the nobles refuse to allow it, but they weaken. Each day the strong decide what is just, and each day we slip further into darkness. I could take no more of the madness and left the royal court.”

Unfortunate. An heir would be someone for the country to rally around. Especially if he was an honorable man.

“He would be a symbol of a new age,” Friend said, his voice growing stronger. “If only we could pick a suitable heir for him.” He felt his passion for justice arise in him, just like old times, and wondered if Rock was reminding him somehow through their bond.

A symbol, Rock repeated. Someone of great, unquestionable valor required to perform a kingly task.

Friend rose to his feet, suddenly invigorated. “I could find such a scion,” he said, “but how would we convince the court, the church, and my countrymen to accept him?”

Perhaps a bit of science disguised as magic. Where did you get that old sword? I can see it is very well made if a little battered.

“It was one of the old blacksmith’s,” he explained, looking at it fondly. “His daughter still lives at the lake and made me take it when I…passed by.”

Ah, the lady of the lake. Good to see you are still friends. Now press the sword tip into me.

Confused, Friend did as he was told.

Just as I had separated some of my molecules to create Friend’s necklace, I can absorb this rough steel into my crystalline matrix, distributing the particles throughout myself.

The man stood open mouthed as the metal shaft slid smoothly into the black stone.

Please stand back. Absorbing the sword is fairly easy – creating a powerful royal symbol was going to be a little more difficult. First, I’ll remove all the impurities from the steel blade and its crude handle. Then, I’ll compress the exterior surface to make it hard and bright. For the final touch, I’ll fed my own molecules into the handle and create a large ruby gemstone.

“By the stars and moons!” exclaimed Friend. “It shines like new – better than new!” He peered closer at the faintly glowing sword to read the writing Rock had etched on the exposed blade. “Whoever removes this sword is the rightful king of England.”

Too much? Rock asked. I’m not readily familiar with king-making symbols.

“It’s perfect!” said Friend with admiration. “I shall quest for a young hero and send him to you.”

Give him your pebble, so I will know you sent him.

Friend looked around at the quiet village, his face almost as radiant in the moonlight as the sword. “Will this work? Are we mad?”

Yes, and probably. Now be off and spread the tale of the magic sword in the stone to everyone. Our plan depends on it.

He took a deep breath and smiled. “Suddenly, I feel ten years younger, Rock.” He departed quickly but happily, leaving behind the sword in a stone.

#

Time passed quickly in the years that followed. Brave and stalwart men of every shape, size, and pedigree attempted to pull the sword. Reinforced as it was, the sword had no chance of being pulled out or broken off by red-faced farmers and privileged lordlings who refused to give up.

Late one day, a boy barely old enough for chin stubble waited patiently for the daily crowd to disperse – to the boxing pit or to the tavern wenches – before approaching the large black rock.

“You, boy!” someone yelled as the lad jumped on the boulder and tugged at the sword. “What do you do there?” It was the recently hired constable with several late arrivals who hurried over to make the boy climb down. But he and Rock were fast, and the setting sun soon reflected off the fully extracted blade, freezing the men in their tracks.

“Is this a trick?” asked the constable with a nervous look around. “Who put you up to this, boy?”

The lad looked down at them with a dignity beyond his years, the beautiful sword shining in his outstretched hand. “I am Arthur, King of England!”

Several men chuckled and reached to pull the boy off, but they shouted in surprise and pain when they touched the silver sword.

“The sword has spoken,” said a familiar voice from the growing crowd. “The old king lies dying. Arthur is the rightful king of England.”

“Who deems?” asked the uncertain constable.

“I am Merlin,” said Friend. “The king’s wizard.” He bowed deeply to the youth as the crowd, having heard tales of the mysterious sorcerer and his wondrous quest, grew silent. Arthur jumped down, standing as tall as his height allowed, and raised the sword.

The crowd paused for a few moments, and then one villager after another bowed or curtsied to the boy king. Suddenly, a great cheer went up, and Arthur smiled. Tables were brought out onto the square, great barrels of beer were rolled from the tavern, and villagers ran to spread the news that the new king had been found.

Merlin stood watching the growing festivities, one hand resting on the boy’s shoulder and the other on Rock. “We did it,” he said, “a new beginning.” The boy thought he was talking to him, but Friend was addressing Rock.

#

The kingdom prospered for a time, but like all kings who strive to reach too far, Arthur made compromises. Merlin, aged and stooped, tried to find a way to return Camelot to its bright beginnings, but he was one voice and the king would not listen. When Merlin returned to Rock, he was an old man who knew he had not much time left.

“I have failed, Sir Stone,” said Friend. Sorrow and disappointment gripped him. “King Arthur falls. His own son takes up arms against him, and the fair city burns.”

Merlin felt the connection between them sparkle with life and purpose. He sat on a nearby bench, his gnarled hand resting gently on the black stone. “Soon they will come for me.”

Do not despair, Friend Merlin. Once there was darkness here and you brought light. Even if the darkness returns, people have experienced the light and will not forget. No matter how hard the court and the chieftains try to stifle them, stories will be told of the glory known as Camelot, and people will continue to strive for greatness.

More than Merlin’s heart was broken. He could feel his life slipping away. “You are a true friend, Sir Stone.” He coughed and his hand came away bloody. “Thank you for everything. I’m sorry to leave you alone.”

He heard shouting in the distance and knew the king’s enemies had tracked him down.

Your life doesn’t have to end, Merlin. As I took your sword into me, I can take you. Come with me.

“What are you doing?” Merlin asked, more inquisitive than afraid. He removed his hand from the stone and watched it slowly become transparent.

There is a lot of space between the particles within me, Rock explained. I will put you there and someday, when the sun rises on your golden world, you can return.

He patted Rock with a ghostly hand. “So an old friend from millions of years in the past invites me to accompany him into the future. How can I refuse?” As he faded into Rock, he could feel them both sink deep into the ground.

Come along, Friend, Rock said. Neither of us will be alone now.

The End