The Holden Stone

Reflections of a Fantasy Writer

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Home Win a Story! The Cassandra Stone Chapter 1 & 2 Cassandra Stone

Chapter 1 & 2 Cassandra Stone

The Cassandra Stone: First Two Chapters

work in progress by Susan Shell Winston 

Chapter One

Cobalt Eyes

 

"The dolman went a-wandering..." Kirtoff sang softly as he drew a card. "Throughout the hills and back."

Jade knew the song, or one like it. Her mother used to sing it. It hadn’t been about a dolman though. And her mother had been dead for the last nine years. 

"He’d pipe, he’d sing till the hills’d all ring, And my lady’s hart he trapped."

It was a catchy tune, and she began to hum along with him under her breath, remembering. It made it hard to see her own cards instead of her mother’s face.

"Quit yer moanin’, stranger, and play the hand," said the old miner Derlin.

"Al deer dee, al deer die," Kirtoff sang the chorus between his teeth as he set down the four of harps. He seemed a mild mannered trader with his balding head, thick spectacles, and a golden sundial chain that looped down from the side pocket of his quilted merchant’s vest. His loden jacket, hung up on one of the antler hooks over by the hotel desk, looked as old fashioned and as well worn as the one her father wore. Perhaps it was just his singing voice then--and his refusal to stop singing--that made him seem younger than her father. "And my lady’s hart he trapped."

"Didn’t you hear a word I said, stranger? No one round here wants to hear ‘bout no damn dolman. It’s bad enough havin’ to sit in the same room with one." Derlin slapped a jack onto the table, then shoved a five-talent piece into the pot. "Doozers."

Beside Derlin sat Miln, the dolman that Kirtoff had invited to their table to play cards with them as they waited for the coach to leave. With a thin line of sarcasm tightening his lips, Miln laid down two jacks and cancelled Derlin’s bet. "Cross jacks."

Still humming under her breath, Jade drew a card. Then, she stopped humming, and counted the three jacks in her hand and the three that had just been played. There were only eight jacks in a cross jack deck. Al deer dee al deer die indeed! No one could beat her now. On her last day as the local gem-cutter’s daughter, Luck had shone its lost stars upon her. She kept quiet and played a queen instead.

"If a dolman greets a lady, coming through the rye..." Kirtoff switched songs when his turn came round again. It was the seventh song he had mangled in the last hour of their game, substituting a dolman lover into each old rhyme. Dolmen never allowed anyone to laugh at them, or so Jade had always heard. But this morning, the only one in the lobby taking exception to the stranger’s singing was the old miner. The dolman hadn’t commented at all about the singing.

But then...be sure of nothing when a dolman’s around, her father had always said. Studying Miln again, she wasn’t sure what to think of him. She had never met a dolman before, at least as far as she knew. Young, blond, with the kind of looks that could make the milliner’s five daughters fake a swoon, she wouldn’t have recognized that he was a dolman if Kirtoff hadn’t called him one.

"And if that dolman kiss that lady–" Kirtoff drew a card.

Behind Miln, the door swung open and wintry air swept into the lobby of Kairugon Cross’s Post Hotel. It was spring by the calendar, but a cold spring. The pass above to Durinbyrne had just opened up last week, and the Dominion’s overland coach had made its first run through yesterday. Wrapped in a bear fur coat left open to reveal long blunderbuss pistols strapped to each side and carrying her coachman’s whip, Mur Shambrel held the door as the keeper and his boy carted out the final crate. "Finish yer game, folks," the mur said. "If you want to be comin’ today, we leave at bell toll. Soon as the keeper loads up the last of this week’s shipment." She followed the crate out to the coach.

The door slammed shut, and then nothing but the click, clack of the pendulum. It took Jade a breath or two before she realized why the room sounded so quiet. Kirtoff had stopped singing.

He sat rolling a coin around his knuckles, chewing on his lower lip, and eyeing his cards.

He wiggled a jittery finger at his stack of coins recounting them. Then he looked up over his spectacles at the pot. The bet was already as high as what he had left in his stacks. He spread open his cards, repositioned two of them. He wouldn’t last long in any miner camp, that was sure. Not the way he broadcast what a hand he must think he had. But then, with her hand, Jade didn’t mind him donating all he had to the pot.

"Make yer bet, stranger." Old Derlin was watching him too. He took a quick gulp of beer, leaving froth on his ragged grey mustache, but he never once took his eyes off Kirtoff, like a sunhawk circling its kill. He tapped the table with the middle finger of his right hand where he wore a large amethyst ring. She recognized the ring, it was a stone her father had once cut, but she didn’t remember having met Derlin before. He had come in on the coach yesterday to buy supplies, he’d said, and he was on his way back up the hill today.

Kirtoff finished counting his coins. He looked around the table at everyone watching him, then settled on the dolman and finished his song. "And if that dolman kiss that lady, need that lady cry?"

Kirtoff reached inside his vest and took out a leather pouch. He untied it slowly and pulled out a wad of rawhide.

"What I have here is worth double what’s on the table. Three, four times as much. Maybe more." He unfolded it and laid it down flat. Then before anyone could get a good look at it, he turned it over. "A map, gentlemen, my lady. A map to a silver mine. And in my pocket the deed to the mine. An old prospector came into my assay office. He carried the richest ore I’ve ever seen. Told me to keep his papers safe, he was being followed. Well he up and died that afternoon. A knife stuck in his back. What say you, double the bet?"

"Let me see that." Derlin reached for the map, but Kirtoff laid his knife on top of it. "Call my bet, you can see it."

They did, and Jade’s heart sang der dee al die choruses in exaltation. She could afford now to go to school and still save her father’s shop.

Kirtoff chuckled. Then, like a maniac, he bobbed his balding head and chuckled louder.

"I win! I win!" His chestnut brown cheeks flushed two shades darker. He laid down his cards for all to see, and started pulling in the pot of coins with one hand, and stuffing his map back into his pouch with the other.

Jade stared at his cards on the table. Three jacks to complete his straight. With one jack too many.

She rose, laid down her three jacks. "Someone’s cheating. It isn’t me."

Kirtoff’s hand froze. The clock cuckooed, and the millworkers carved on its base started their mechanical pounding, pounding. The stone face above the mantel bore witness, its cobalt eyes by oil lamp light glinted a savage green blue.

Kirtoff’s brow dripped sweat. "Not me. I swear it." He implored the others around the table. "I swear it!"

It could have been one of the others. Kirtoff was addled, not a card shark, just an assayman, how could he have done it? The old miner had played a wild jack and had guzzled mug after mug of beer over the last hour. Only one jack more than possible had been played. It could be Derlin’s...

Or the dolman’s. Cool, placid, unreadable, Miln sat across from Kirtoff. No one could trust what you believe you see when a dolman’s around. He had played two jacks.

The clock stopped chiming. In its silence, Kirtoff’s breath rattled.

Miln stretched back in his chair and stared at the whimpering fool. "You. I’ve had enough of you, all morning long. First your singing. If you can call it that. Now your cheating."

A flash of silver streaked across the table.

Kirtoff gasped, then he was grabbing at a knife stuck in his chest. Blood welled out through his dark knuckles. He stared down at the knife, astonished; then he fell over. His chair clattered to floor behind him.

"What have you--?" Jade started to yell. The words caught in her throat.

Derlin rushed to the dying man, held up his head. Beside Jade, Miln grabbed his stack of coins and disappeared.

Kirtoff gasped for breath. He went silent a moment; then his chest jerked up into one loud halted breath and he collapsed.

"He’s dead," Derlin said.

The door swung open. Mur Shambrel and the innkeeper came in.

"Murder!..." the innkeeper said as soon as he saw the fallen man. "Murder! Murder!" He ran back out the door shouting for help.

Mur Shambrel grabbed Jade by the shoulders, began pulling her away. "We have to go. That keeper will get the sheriff, and you can’t be here when he comes! Your father paid me to keep you safe."

Derlin ripped open Kirtoff’s vest, grabbed the pouch with the map inside it, started pocketing his coins. Jade saw her winnings on the table and reached for them.

"No!" The mur yanked her hands away. "No time for that! Either one of you. If you stay, you’ll both be hung."

"We didn’t do it. The dolman threw the knife–" She slipped her hands away from the mur’s and raked in another quick pile of coins.

Shambrel gestured around the lobby. "Do you see that dolman now? He’s gone for good! The only ones the guardsmen will find in here will be the two of you. Come, the coach is leaving. Now."

As Jade was pushed out through the door, she clutched what few coins she had gathered to her chest. She had at least more money now than she had when she had sat down to play, but far less than half the winnings she should have had. No longer enough to both go to school and save her father’s shop.

* * *

Left alone inside the lobby, the dolman dropped his illusion and reappeared. He poured himself more wine, took a sip, then refilled Kirtoff’s mug. He spilled a few drops onto his friend’s face and kicked him awake. There was no blood, no knife anywhere.

Kirtoff sat up, removed the skin cap that had made his head look bald and folded away the spectacles he used only for disguises. Then he took the offered drink. "Did it work?"

Miln laughed, and gave him a nod. "The miner has the map."

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Blue Agate

 

A spasm shot through Everet’s arm and crooked forward his index finger. His hand froze in that position, too painful to move. He set aside the pocket lens with his other hand and waited for the moment to pass. He could not risk cutting on the emerald now.

Slowly he could straighten the finger again, then move his hand. Rheumatism didn’t plague his knuckles like it did his knees on snowy nights. But these spasms were crippling enough.

The village clock tolled two bells. The coach should be leaving now. He could finally relax. Jade would be safe out of town when the taxman came.

Everet swiped his brow with a towel and picked up the lens. If he could finish this one last stone before the taxman came, maybe he would have enough to pay him off.

The stone was a beauty. Over 400 carats, the largest near perfect emerald he’d ever seen.  Its crystal was transparent except for the one inclusion near the center--he could make use of that-- and its color was a deep verdant green. It’d be a gemstone of a lifetime, a stone of the finest water and brightest fire. The three elements in one that would give it life. The stranger was paying him a fortune to cut it. How much more would it be worth if he could sell it?

A curiosity, only. A far more precious stone lay on a velvet pouch on his desk. It had fallen out of the pouch when he took out the emerald. To all other eyes roundabout, it would be a simple blue agate. But Everet had learned gem cutting in Durinbyrne. He knew what that stone was.

Nervous when he found it, not believing it, he had inspected it closely. It was indeed the same blue agate he’d discovered among the scrap stones at the bottom of a miner’s bag three months ago. He’d check which mine the bag had come from, and then sent word of the mine’s location with the stone out on the next coach to Durinbyrne to report it to the Dominion. And then, he’d forgotten all about the stone.

Everet’s hand trembled at the wonder of how the agate had returned to him. And...why?

But he slowed his breath and shook away the disturbing question. He swiped his brow again, wiped off his hands. He could not risk any unsteadiness now. Not any stray thought. This emerald was too important. It could mean not only his freedom, but Jade’s tuition for the next three years as well. He refocused the lens on the gemstone and began to cut.

Five bells chimed as Everet finished polishing the emerald. With lambskin gloves, he held it up to the lantern and inspected it through the lens. The star in the center sparked sixpointed fire. If it was the last stone he’d ever cut, his life was complete.

The sheep bell tied to the door jamb rattled, and the shop door shoved open. Everet set the stone down, took off his gloves and cap. He prayed it was the stranger come to pay him for the emerald.

It wasn’t. The taxman had come early. And had brought with him the sheriff holding a warrant. Everet slipped the emerald away into a drawer under his worktable.

Then he went forward and held out his hands. "Gentlemen, come in! I have good news."

"You have our money?"

"I will, I will. I’m waiting to be paid any minute now. I have a pot of sor beans brewing in the back. Pull up a chair, I’ll pour you a cup. Or no, you’re busy men, I know that, no need to wait with me. You’re welcome to come back in an hour."

"The baron has waited long enough. You owe him twenty talent ten. You promised last month you’d pay twenty-five if he extended to today. Do you have it or not?"

"Please, understand. I’m expecting it any—"

"Sheriff."

The sheriff handed Everet a copy of the warrant.

Holding his breath, Everet took the warrant over to the lantern on his worktable and put on his spectacles.  His hand shook a little; he had trouble reading it. His license was revoked. His shop and all its contents were property now of the baron. And his future–indentured servitude or debtor’s prison–depended on how much of the tax he could pay.

The sheep bell rattled. Guardsmen swarmed in, began bagging up his jewels and ledgers and tools all around him.

"Wait! Please wait!" Desperate, Everet tried to offer the jewels in his cases as payment. He didn’t have many of them, but maybe enough.

The taxman scoffed. "The baron already owns them all now. Everything in the store."

The warrant had said so, but it stunned Everet to hear it repeated aloud. To see the dismantling of his store, of his whole life around him. He stood helpless a moment, watching, and in his numbness, gave the guardsmen the combination to his safe when they demanded it.

They began counting out the money on the counter in front of him. He could have told them that total too if they’d asked for it. Two silver talents, that was all they’d find. Another five had gone to the coach driver to take Jade to Durinbyrne, and fifteen talent to Jade for tuition and living expenses for the first two years of her gem-cutter’s training. Leaving two talents---

Everet bit his lip; then he finished reading the numbers on the warrant. Two talents and a few coppers. It would be prison for him. He hadn’t expected that. He was glad Jade had gotten away this morning.

One of the guardsmen was returning to his worktable which had already been cleared of tools, lenses and most other valuables. Everet tried to look like he wasn’t watching him. Instead he begged again for more patience. "You have to understand!" he told the taxman. "The mines around here are playing out. Tell the baron I said so. I’ve had too little to work on this last year. But today, any minute now, I will have enough— No! No!"

He hurried over to his worktable. The guardsman had found the drawer and the emerald inside it. "Don’t take that one, it’s not mine. It belongs—"

"To the baron now. Everything does." The sheriff nodded to his guardsman to take the emerald.

Everet tried to grab it back. "This one belongs to a customer. He’s the one I’m waiting for!"

"Give it here." The taxman took the stone from the guardsman. "Pretty." The taxman’s lips curled. "I’m sure the baron will keep it safe for him." He handed it back to the guardsman. "If this ‘customer’ has issue with it being gone, he can discuss with the baron which one of them owns it now." The stranger would have no hope of seeing his stone again.

Perhaps there might be a way to leave the stranger a clue where the emerald was. It would be the most he could do for him now. "Then please, here. That emerald needs wrapping. It needs special protection. The baron won’t want it chipped by your rough handling." Everet set the warrant down on the desk and grabbed the velvet pouch. The worthless-looking agate on top of the pouch, the one stone in the store left untouched, rolled carelessly off onto the warrant. With a stray finger, Everet repositioned the agate slightly until it rested square upon the baron’s name.

Then he opened the pouch for the emerald. When the guardsman dropped the emerald in, Everet tied the pouch and handed it to the taxman. "This emerald," he said," is worth far more than any tax I have ever in my lifetime owed. You can tell the baron I said so."

* * *

A pair of whitbirds dove at a swallow’s nest under the bridge that led to the guilders’ sector of Kairugon Cross. Miln clutched the stone wall of the bridge and looked down to see what would happen. Of all creation, birds, animals, fish, stone, there were two things that never should have been born. The scraggly, raucous, eggstealing whitbirds, and the just as greedy and raucous crowd of men. Or rather, that is, most men. Kirtoff was one of the few exceptions. His friend’s fine sense of humor and lust for adventure made him seem more like a dolman than a human.

"You never have liked those birds, have you?" said Kirtoff beside him.

Miln gestured down at the nests under the bridge. "Watch."

A swallow screeched and darted out at the invaders. The whitbirds scolded back and escaped her, then wheeled around in the air and dove back at her nest.

An army of swallows flew out to meet them. No use. Talons extended, the whitbirds bit and clawed their way through, and stole her eggs.

They landed on the bridge less than ten paces from Miln and Kirtoff, and cracked open the eggs. Miln stomped towards them. The whitbirds ignored him until they’d eaten their fill, then flew up at the last minute, scolding him. Miln had no doubt they’d dive at him too, if he’d gotten to them before they’d finish the eggs.

Kirtoff laughed at him. "Life eats life. You know that."

Miln scowled back. "Like men, whitbirds take more than they need. And just as noisily as they are as greedy and ugly."

Kirtoff chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. "Come, the gem-cutter’s shop is the first one beyond the mill." The wind rustled the short curls of his hair as he walked on ahead. The skin cap disguise that had given him a balding head at the card game this morning had made him look much older than he was. Even so, humans did age quickly. Kirtoff would too. It was said the grief at their loss when a human would die so young was rarely worth the depths of a dolman’s friendship. But despite all his elders’ warnings, after their last two years of hunting together, Kirtoff had become like a brother to him.

Miln hurried to catch up. Then quicker to respond than his human friend, and, as usual, first to protect them both, he pulled Kirtoff back under the shadows of the waterwheel before they passed the mill. There were guardsmen coming in and out of the gem-cutter’s shop next door, carting up boxes and bags.

As Miln and Kirtoff hid in the shadows to watch, the sheriff of Kairugon Cross led the old gem-cutter out in chains and thrust him into the back of an iron-clad wagon. They would have to wait and return to the shop tonight to collect Kirtoff’s emerald and the sending stone.

If the stones are still there, Kirtoff thought back at him. He hadn’t kept frustration from passing with his thought. Lack of control of a sending was unusual for Kirtoff. Damn, he added, as they watched the wagon pull away. That old man didn’t deserve this.