Fiction: The Memory Stones

This isn’t really a story, just a sketch I wrote a few years ago. I always planned to come back and flesh it out, but that hasn’t happened yet. Rather than let it rot on my hard drive, I’m letting it out into the world. – MJW

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Three Memory Stones stood in the sarsen ring, bent and humped as crones, timeworn as Oracle Hill itself. No one knew where they had come from or how old they were. The Stones had seen entire civilizations rise and set like suns. Or so said the technomancers, but their petty sorceries had not endeared them to the inhabitants of that land and they were little believed. For most folk the Stones were a miracle as subtle and everlasting as air.

The Memory Stones would answer most questions put to them, but only for a price—and it was a price the Stones themselves determined. Once you had stepped inside the sarsen circle and asked a question aloud, the Stones would accept your gift, or else extract what they felt was suitable recompense. Ael remembered a burgher from the Last City, so quiveringly obese that two footmen had been required to fetch him down from the saddle of his ‘sarchus, who had asked—no, demanded, booming—how he should invest his fortune for maximum benefit. Ael, crouching in the bushes outside the sarsen ring, had been too far away to hear the Stones’ reply, but she had stifled a laugh when the burgher’s extensive array of necklaces, bracelets, rings, belts, purses, and pouches had been gently but swiftly pulled away from his person and onto the surface of the nearest stone. So laden had he been that the sudden departure of the wealth arrayed about his body had fairly shredded his elaborate silks, leaving him as nearly naked as he was temporarily destitute. The other pilgrims had been unable to contain their mirth, and the burgher had flushed bright pink all over his extensively exposed skin before he managed, with the help of his grunting but carefully blank-faced footmen, to remount his ‘sarchus. Among the possessions lost to him were his spurs, and Ael’s last sight of him was of soft round heels, still reddened by anger, embarrassment, and exertion, digging into the ribs of the ‘sarchus. Despite the burgher’s imprecations and the flabby blows of his feet and fists, said beast lumbered off at a markedly relaxed pace, finally freed from the prick of the elaborate numetal spurs that were already blending into the surface of the nearest Stone.

Some thought to outwit the Stones by stepping into the sarsen circle empty-handed. These usually received only silence, although some had their clothing taken from them, and left the shrine even more thoroughly naked than the burgher. Stories abounded of small valuables vanishing from the halls and manors of such would-be cheats, no matter how many leagues separated them from Oracle Hill. Ael deliberately withheld judgment on the accuracy of such reports; she found them individually unlikely but cumulatively suggestive. Rumors of the Stones relieving other failed tricksters of digits or limbs, sheared through as bloodlessly as a diced carrot, she discounted entirely. The Stones accepted organic offerings on occasion, from the waybread of poorer pilgrims to the silks, wools, and furs of merchants, burghers, and lairds, but Ael had never seen any evidence of the Stones taking a living sacrifice, nor had she seen any body parts in the fascinating jetsam slowly being absorbed into their pitted surfaces. Tales accreted around the Memory Stones even more thickly than offerings, and it seemed to Ael that the truth of those stories varied as wildly as the value of the gifts.

Because of such stories, many people would not dare to question the Stones, lest the cost of their questions prove too dear. As Ael had almost no possessions beyond her shift, sling, and staff, she remained uninfected by that self-consuming strain of greed. Instead she watched, and thought, and made her plans accordingly. Based on offerings accepted, the Stones preferred wood to bread, rock to wood, and metal above all. Shrapnel from the distant Godfall could still be found in certain fields and glades, and Ael let her path take her to such places more frequently than chance or the promise of game might dictate. If she was patient, and the cold light of the sun fell just so, she could fill the pocket of her shift with shards of numetal, still as sharp-edged and oily smooth as they had been on the day that Heaven had fallen. On such days the dim spark of the setting sun would find her on Oracle Hill, sitting in the sarsen ring with fingers interlaced over knees and chin set on fingers, offering one shiny bit after another to the Stones and listening in return to stories of long ago. The accounts given by the Stones were strange and hardly to be credited. They claimed that the seas of the moon were red from rust, not blood, that the Godfall had been conceived by her distant ancestors as a sort of moving palace in the sky, and that in such fortresses ordinary people like her had crossed the terrible distances from other suns. In time Ael curled asleep on the grass, back to the thin breeze that breathed through the sarsen ring. Overhead the sky purpled to black and the ancient stars rekindled, red and gold as ten thousand campfires.

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