The Stones of Eternity

by

Andrew Prentis

February 1990

"But my Lord, I cannot perform miracles."Androgle complained, wringing his pudgy hands in agitation. Before him stood the tall, white haired figure of Varthan, High Mage of the Black Rose, Master of the Mages College in Zethus. The High Mage regarded the cringing Master Stonemason with an expression of ill-concealed contempt plain on his autocratic features. His piercing dark eyes gazed down his long tapering nose at Androgle, a good eighteen inches below them.

They were standing in the midst of what appeared to be the scene of a major disaster. Blocks of stone lay scattered about the work site as though a giant had carelessly tossed then about at random. Many were cracked and broken. Several of these were now being salvaged to provide smaller pieces for the more decorative parts of the work. Broken ladders and scaffolds were heaped in a mangled heap in one corner, whilst men were rushing around with wooden braces and beams, trying to shore up a dangerously sagging wall. Further along, a half-built arch had already given up and collapsed, trapping two workmen under the rubble.

"It is these accursed storms - we were not prepared for them. They are early this year, and what with the supply problems from the quarry..."

"You had fallen weeks behind schedule before the storms. The quarries were capable of supplying stone before now without problems. Why is there one now?"

"It is the quality my Lord."Androgle picked up a hammer and struck the edge of a nearby block. The head of the hammer flew off the handle and narrowly missed a workman on the far side of the stone. Androgle dropped the headless shaft quickly. "The stone they supply is not up to the exacting standards you demanded. Why look at the faulting in that block!"he pointed to a discarded, crumbling block covered in lichen.

Varthan scowled. "Is it not the case, Master Stonemason, that the reason the stone is such poor quality is that it is the cheapest you, can find, thus allowing you to increase your profit margins at the expense of quality?"

"My Lord!"Androgle stepped back in feigned horror. "Who could consider such a thing?"

"You, Master Stonemason, and all those like you."Varthan thrust a long bony finger out at the smaller man, a gesture reminiscent of a most fearsome spell. Androgle nearly toppled backwards in his haste to avoid the imagined fireball or poisoned dart. "I have heard many things about you, not many of which were complimentary. You are known as a notorious spendthrift and have a reputation of shoddy workmanship. It it had been up to me alone, you would never have received the contract for building the new annex to the library, but we have rules in the college that we must vary the people we use to do our work for us in order to give the impression of impartiality.

"I took it upon myself today to come here to see the sorry state of affairs with my own eyes. I normally have better things to do than oversee such things, but for you I'll make a special effort.

"From now on, I want a daily report FROM YOU YOURSELF on the progress, and I want to view your accounts every week at a time of my choosing and without notice. If I find any irregularity in the accounts or the rate of progress does not increase, then you'll find yourself off this job and I'll make sure the Guild of Masons throws you out, Father-in-las or no. You'll never work in Zethus again.

"I don't trust you Androgle, and I'm not worried about you knowing it. Just remember, I can ruin you with a few well chosen words. Is that understood?"the mage's white eyebrows bunched together above his nose in a fierce scowl.

"Y-yes My Lord."Androgle gulped, sweat glistening on the wide expanse of his forehead. Varthan sneered and turned suddenly, his dark blue cloak billowing around his sparse frame. As he retreated, Androgle made a warding sign and dabbed at the perspiration on his face and neck with a cloth. He sighed and turned to the nearby workman. "Who left that unsafe hammer there? I'll have his guts for this!"The workman shrugged and continued chipping away at the stone, his shoulders slumped, his blows imprecise, not particularly caring about the work he was doing.

Androgle wrung his hands yet again and chewed his lower lip. He had never wanted to be a mason, but his father, a legendary master with a hammer and chisel had given the young Androgle little choice in the matter. As his father's only son, Androgle was forced into picking up the family business when he died.

Ever since he had taken over, though, the workmen had grown lazier and more careless. He could never keep good men and he was always left with the dregs. The quarrymen knew him too, hence why he always ended up with the poorer quality stone, the sort the others had turned away. The price was cheaper than the better stone, but not that much - the quarrymen would never let him get a bargain, but it was the only way he could make enough money to keep going. Varthan's theory was not wholly accurate - it was not Androgle greed which made his team the worst in Zethus, but his incompetence.

His dream was not the building of great edifices of stone, but to grow grapes on a hillside south of Zethus, on the far side of the River Urs, where the sun would shine and the grapes would ripen under his careful eye. Ever since his childhood visits to a friend of the family in the vineyards, he had nurtured the idea of one day growing his own grapes, and creating his own wine. It was a dream that he was determined to make real and was slowly saving his money. It would only take a few more years for it to come true.

His daydreams were interrupted by the tortured screech of breaking timbers as the sagging wall bowed outwards, smashing the supporting joists and slowly tumbled to earth with a deafening roar and crash. The ground trembled and a thick cloud of dust filled the air.

"Is everyone alright?"he called out, squinting against the dust.

"Yeah, everyone got away from it this time."said an unshaven workman, stepping over a bag of tools. His face was covered in dirt, but he walked with his hands in the pockets of his baggy, patched and tattered trousers.

"Well thank goodness for that."Androgle sighed. He already had two widows to look after.

"Androgle?"a voice called out from the dust. A bald man appeared out of the murk, his clothes covered in the clinging dust. "And', bad news I'm afraid - the quarry won't send any more stone until the account has been paid."It was Sims, his chief mason.

"That is all I need."Androgle wrung his hands again. "Where on earth am I going to get enough stone to complete this job - and what about the marble for the floors?"

"And you let him speak to you, like that?"Shula, Androgle's generously proportioned wife screeched at him. He had returned to his run-down office in the heart of the less salubrious business district of suburban Zethus. Shula was a woman who like the better things in life. Unfortunately for Androgle, they tended to be expensive and, to Androgle shallow and wasteful. Her father was the head of the Stonemason's Guild, and she never let Androgle forget that she had lowered herself to marry him. In truth, nobody would have put up with her continual nagging and extravagance.

"One does not argue with the High Mage my poppet - he could quite easily turn one into a toad!"

"One would barely notice the difference the way you crawl to these people."she mimicked him harshly. Androgle winced and glanced back at the accounts he had been working on when shue had descended upon the office.

"I don't suppose you could speak to your father for me? I need to guarantee a good supply of marble of I'll loose the job - and you know how much that would cost us."he shifted the subject. She narrowed her eyes at him. She never liked it when he talked that way about money.

"I really don't know why I married you. I keep having to run to Father to help you out. If you need marble, why not go up to Xanthus - there's plenty there, just waiting to be picked up."

"Don't you think I haven't considered it?"he sighed. Xanthus was a semi-derelict palace of mammoth proportions which stood at the head of the valley in which most of Zethus was situated. It was only a few miles away, but generally shunned, since it was a relic of a past age in Mardona, a legendary age where the whole continent had been united by the Lord Mages, backed by the Griffins. The Lord Mages' power had fallen, though nobody knew why, and the Griffins had died out. Xanthus was the foundation stone on which their power and influence had been built. When their power failed, the palace was left to crumble.

The Order of the Black Rose eventually re-united the south of Mardona, turned to the village of Ze-Xanthus which had existed through the centuries to service the Palace. There, they started the Mages' College, the Warrior School and the Knight's Citadel and the village became known as Zethus. Now it was a mighty, sprawling city.

"We have always been under an edict to leave Xanthus alone. There has never been any attempt at salvaging the stone in Xanthus."As he spoke, Androgle's eyes took on a far off look. he chewed his lower lip thoughtfully.

"Well, if you won't help yourself, I suppose I'll have to dig you out of this mess again."Shula gave a theatrical sigh and left the office. Androgle barely noticed, his mind prowling around Xanthus' decaying marvels.

The wagon creaked as the team of four horses pulled it up the slope of the road which led out of the city and along the side of the valley. Androgle sat in the driving seat, enveloped in a dark cloak to conceal his identity. Sitting beside him, chewing vacantly on a sugar cane stalk sat a giant of a man. Turm was one of Androgle's longest serving employees. His strength was phenomenal, but he was mute as well as simple. He loved Androgle in the manner of a dog and his master and was just a loyal. Thus he was ideal in every respect for the coming task.

The road took them up the side of the wide valley along which the River Urs made its languid way towards Urswell, and took them into the forest which shrouded the upper end of the valley. Apart from the seldom used road they followed, the only tracks in this region were those of the woodcutters who supplied Zethus with much of its raw material.

Androgle continually scanned the surroundings. He was fearful of detection as it was still a few hours before sunset. He had planned to return to the city under cover of darkness, but wanted to be able to view Xanthus in daylight so he could assess what was worth trying to salvage.

The sky was studded with ominous banks of dark cloud, a sure sign of more storms on the way. The wagon rounded a curve of the hillside and suddenly before them, rising majestically above the treetops was the mighty Palace of Xanthus. Or rather the shabby, overgrown, weed infested ruin of the Palace. As they neared it, the sorry state of the place became more and more apparent. Vines had managed to grasp a root-hold and hung from the once elegant buttresses. Weeds now sprouted between the once even paving stones of the courtyard surrounding the Palace. Birds nested in the alcoves where once stood fine statues - the mounds of rubble beneath them in the courtyard testament to their fate. Arched windows, once filled with a riotous assemblage of stained glass, now gaped like empty eyesockets.

Several trees had managed to sprout, forcing the stones in the courtyard up and aside, buckled by the gradual yet relentless force of the roots. The place had been neglected for so long that some of the trees were mature oaks and in front of the entrance, one had died and been toppled some time before, uprooting a vast crater, in which now grew a jungle of saplings and weeds. Even still, there was an air of magnificence which still clung to the Palace, and echo of its former glory resonating down the years.

Androgle halted the wagon at the foot of the steps leading to the main entrance. Again, he looked around anxiously to make sure nobody was watching him. Tying the reins to the seat, he patted Turm's arm.

"Stay here until I come back to fetch you, understand?"he spoke slowly to the simple man. Turm nodded vigorously, matted strands of his unkempt hair falling into his face. "Good Boy."Androgle climbed down from the wagon while Turm went back to chewing the sugar cane.

The steps were uneven, the ground beneath having subsided, so Androgle had to watch his footing as he made his way up to the entrance. Two massive oaken doors stood ajar, leaning precariously back against pillars which seemed to have been positioned specifically to support the split and sagging doors. Through the doors, he could see the main hall of the palace. It had been built in the same style as the cathedrals in Zethus, with one large nave, augmented by several transepts and arched aisles. An inspired guess made him realise the this was the original and the Zethus cathedrals were mere copies.

The floor was marble, but the years had not been kind to it. There was a thick layer of dirt and bird droppings which crunched under his feet, and where parts of the stonework had fallen, the marble around the debris was shattered and split. It was virtually impossible to see the pattern on the flooring, but from the small patches still visible, it was obvious that it was an elaborate design, seeming to use the naturally occurring patterns in the marble, blending together to create the overall image.

The evening light angled through the empty windows at the far end of the hall. There was something strange about the way one's eyes were led towards the far end. It was only when he had gone some way into the nave that he realised the subtle optical illusion built into the hall. The pillars along the sides of the hall grew marginally narrower and shorter the closer one came to the far end, making the nave seem longer than it really was and consequently, anyone at the far end larger in comparison.

Under the gaping windows lay piles of shattered coloured glass, some still held in the leading which once supported the stained-glass windows. Walking through the covered aisle on one side of the nave, Androgle came to an arch and a half open door. He peered round the solid but immovable door and gasped in amazement at what he saw.

Here was another hall, not as large as the first, but it was in much better condition. The windows had fallen in, but the birds had not invaded. The floor was dusty but otherwise undamaged. The marble in this floor had been stained to produce swirling blue and aquamarine shapes which seemed to dance across the floor like waves on a beach. It was perfect for his needs!

Along each side of the hall were intricately carved statues of men, women and various animals, and at the far end stood a tall statue of a griffin standing on a plinth carved to represent the top of a mountain peak. Its wings were spread, each feather carved with delicate precision. Its eagle head stared nobly down on the hall, the featureless eyes watching over everything. The lion hindquarter legs were braced apart, the muscles visibly tensed as if it were preparing to leap into the sky.

The light in the room was fading, so Androgle did not have much more time to waste. From under his cloak he produced a crowbar and hammer. He dusted around one edge of a joint in the marble and peered at it closely. Satisfied, he slipped the tip of the crowbar into the indent and hit it a couple of times with the hammer, driving it into the gap. He then lowered his weight onto it. There was a few seconds of resistance, but by wriggling the crowbar a little and trying again, Androgle was rewarded by a creaking groan as the large marble slab lifted one edge.

Breathing heavily, Androgle wedged the slab with the crowbar and turned to get Turm, his strength would be needed for this. They would also have to bring the wagon closer if they were going to get some of the marble away tonight.

"Halt!"A deep booming voice stopped Androgle in his tracks. He went pale and span round. There was nobody there.

"H-hello?"he gulped, his mouth suddenly parched.

"What are you doing here?"the voice came again. For some reason, it made Androgle think of dungeons and prisons.

"Erm - I'm sorry, I did not know anyone lived here."he laughed nervously, wringing his hands. There was a pause. Androgle looked around, but there was no sign of life. The light was getting dim, though, and the shadows around the statues seemed to deepen.

"You are trying to rob my Palace."The voice carried no emotion in it. It seemed to come from all around him, not from one particular place.

"Ah no, you misunderstand,"Androgle stuttered, his mind stumbling around to come up with a plausible excuse. "I was so fascinated with the way the tiles are put together that I just couldn't resist seeing how they were laid."he winced at the lameness of his explanation.

"You are a thief - a vandal."the voice replied, the judgement cold and unmoving.

"No!"Androgle replied, "I am not, I am a Master Stonemason, I am not a vandal!"his voice rose angrily at this insult.

"A Mason? A stoneworker? Then you, come to rob my Palace of its stonework."

"Your Palace? Your Palace? This place has been deserted for centuries whoa re you?"Androgle's anger made him bold.

"Observe."the voice said, its tone less harsh. Suddenly, the room was filled with a golden glow and with a gasp Androgle realised it emanated from the statue at the far end - the griffin! To his amazement, the cold white stone of the statue seemed to shimmer and there, in is place stood a griffin, clad in feathers of spun gold, its hindquarters covered in a shimmering coat of deep golden coloured fur. The claws on its eagle forelegs were black and glinted menacingly, the wickedly pointed beak was a deep orange and its eyes were a dark, midnight blue. The head turned to regard him.

"I am Xanthus, the spirit guardian of the Palace. I was set here by my forbears to keep the Palace secure from the likes of you who would come to defile its sacred ground."

Androgle realised the voice was in his head, not around him as he first thought. The Griffin watched him, its alien face unreadable. The mighty wings folded back, tucking under the huge shoulders of the creature. The leonine tail flicked from side to side, like a cat's when angered. One eagle's foot flexed, the dark talons glittering menacingly.

"B - but griffin's don't exist!"Androgle protested, his mind wrestling with his conflicting fear and puzzlement.

"Who can be certain of such a thing?"Xanthus the Griffin mocked him - at least it seemed to be mocking him. "The Griffin's existed once in many places, but now only Aslarn survives. There will come a time..."Xanthus tossed its head to settle the feathers into place.

Androgle started to edge backward. The Griffin's sharp eyes latched onto him and held him in its steely glaze. "But not just yet."it added. "You must be punished. There is only one fate for such as you - see:"with a flick of a wing, Xanthus indicated the finely 'carved' statues lining the hall. "Previous trespassers."

"No!"Androgle gasped in horror. Suddenly his feet were frozen to the spot.

"Join me thief, in eternal vigilance over the once great hall of the Lord Mages."Xanthus almost seemed to smile, that is if it was possible for a rigid beak to smile. Androgle glanced down at this body, eyes wild in terror as he watched his legs harden into solid immovable marble. His body was paralysed now as the metamorphosis crept up his thighs, the only sensation a cold wave advancing up his body. It reached his chest and his breathing ceased. He became aware how quite it was without his heart beating in his chest. The cold reached his mouth an he could taste nothing but a lingering flinty flavour which soon faded. It reached his nose and he could smell no more. His eyes sought the Griffin in mute pleading, but Xanthus too was returning to stone. With a crunch, the crowbar vanished, letting the marble slab slip back into place.

The cold reached his eyes and all became misty. His final sensation was a cold, passionless voice coming out of the greyness: "Welcome, friend..."


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