Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2010: The Wishing Stone

The Wishing Stone

by Edward Greaves

 

Even before he nestled the lens among the wrinkles of his right eye, Master Arrod felt the diamond wouldn’t suit Lady Damaske’s purpose. Still, he brushed aside the clutter on his desk, dragged over the brass oil lamp, and stooped close to examine the stone. The lens showed, among lesser inclusions, a feathery line that wouldn’t hold under the strain of a wish. He sat back on his stool and let out the breath he’d been holding.

“Well?” Lady Damaske loomed over him, the cloying scent of anise on her breath.

His shoulders sagged as he set down the lens. “I cannot use this stone.”

“Again?”

“With these imperfections it would only be a matter of time before it fractured. Just setting it into the necklace could prove too much. This wish with such a stone…” He grunted his disapproval.

She yanked the diamond from his hand and held it up. The knuckle-sized gem twinkled in the hazy afternoon light that streamed through the small, dust-speckled window above the door. “It looks fine. Do you know how much it cost?”

“Do you want Lord Kantallis to fall out of love?” Yet he knew she’d eventually return and demand another wish on some other dashing, wealthy, young lord.

Her lips pursed and eyes narrowed. “This is the third gem you’ve rejected.”

“Perhaps you should take that up with whoever is providing them. I have a reputable source. Some coin and…”

“Aha!” She puffed up. “Refuse my stones, then make a tidy profit from your own, eh? I know your merchant’s tricks!”

Arrod held back a sigh. “It’s not–”

“Coin. And what do you do with it?” She strutted down the long narrow aisle, lined with ramshackle shelves whose contents all but spilled out to into the shop. “Look at this hovel. Just like you: old, alone, and a mess. It’s a wonder your love charms have any potency.”

“They’ve helped you in and out of enough beds, haven’t they?” He clapped his mouth shut and cringed.

She shrieked and hurled the gem at his head. He flinched. Too slow to dodge it, the gem skipped off his balding pate. She stalked towards him, shelves shaking in her wake. “Watch your tongue. You may be the best Cutter in this city, but that won’t protect you if I tell a certain Lord about the charm you made for his wife!”

Arrod rubbed the sore spot on his head. Somehow, Lady Damaske had found out about the counter-charm he’d crafted to deceive the fidelity charm on Lady Narella’s wedding ring. At the time, the money seemed too good to pass up, but he’d been paying for that folly ever since. Arrod wouldn’t gamble his life that Lady Damaske wasn’t as capricious as she appeared.

“My Lady,” he bent his head in measured deference. “Lord Kantallis is patron to one of my oldest competitors–a man with no small talent. I’ve managed to craft a wish or three around his work before, but it takes the best materials. Would you settle for less than silk in your gowns, or gold on your fingers?”

She snorted. “My Lord’s mourning is almost up. He’ll take off the black in four weeks. Then he’ll be mine. And you will help me.” She touched his chin, raising his gaze to meet hers, the caress practiced but effective nonetheless.

Arrod felt a tingle from his thumb ring–his personal countercharm alerting him something was amiss. How dare she use a charm against him in his own shop! “A good stone. Or bet that some other widow will have him.”

She scowled. “Fine, but no more delays. Fail me, and I shall enjoy watching you swing.” She stormed out of the workshop.

He watched her go. A precarious stack of books shuddered as the door slammed, and then slid off into a heap on the floor. He cursed through clenched teeth, then got off his stool to pick up the mess. Bending, he spotted a young woman peering from behind the long shelf. During the commotion, he hadn’t noticed her come in.

“What do you want?” he barked, his heart racing.

She started to speak, then closed her mouth. After a heartbeat, she fled the shop.

Arrod hesitated at the door. He lost the girl into the foot traffic of his street–mostly peddlers hawking their wares at the stream of farmers heading home from a day at the market. He wondered how much she’d overheard as he stared out at the passersby. A long moment passed, as he shuffled through the books in his hands, before feeling conspicuous, and went back into his shop.

 

#

Arrod paged through yet another thick tome, consumed with the possible formulae Raimer might use to protect Lord Kantallis. Raimer was no trifle. To outwit him was the only part of this wish Arrod could savor.

Feet scuffled on the floorboards behind him. Tearing his gaze from the book, he saw the young woman from the day before. He fought back the urge to swallow. Arrod sized her up, trying to discern how she’d use what she’d overheard. Younger looking than he recalled, she couldn’t have more than sixteen summers. She met his gaze with bright brown eyes, and mustered up the courage to speak.

“Master Arrod–” she began.

“Good Morning,” he blurted, trying to recall if he’d mentioned Lady Narella by name.

After a breath, she started again. “Master Arrod. I need a wish.”

The first of how many, he wondered. Arrod pressed his hands against the counter to keep them steady, and forced a shaky smile. “Here I was hoping you wanted to take me to next week’s fair.” She grinned in return, her gaze unsteady. “What kind of wish, Miss…”

“Wilhelmina. My brother, Harvald, can’t walk, and the Chirugeon says he’ll waste away. But I-we can’t let that happen. I’ve come to ask you to Cut a stone.”

“A tall order. Illness is hard to battle.” He paused. “I won’t lie, even with the best ingredients, there are no guarantees. He may not walk again.”

“I know.” She glanced away. “But what else can I do? The Chirugeon had no remedies, and we’ve tried potions from old Syele. When those failed, she sent me to you. She said you had the skill to wish miracles. So I’m here.” She fumbled with a small plain purse hanging from her belt. “I’ve even brought a stone.”

She pulled out a flat round stone, small enough to cup in the palm of her hand–an agate smooth as marble, with circling bands of red, yellow and orange. She offered it, eyes hopeful. He took it and measured the heft. A simple rock smoothed into a disc by years of endless winter’s runoff in some small stream. Rubbing it against his cheek, he felt a kind of perfection, something that spoke of good earthy strength.

“Interesting choice. We’ll see what I can devise.” His throat tightened in anticipation of her demands. “And payment?”

She looked down. “We don’t have much to offer. It’s all my father can do to keep the rents, and with my brother ill, there’s little to spare. I have a sack of grain and vegetables, and a few eggs…” She stopped.

His hand tightened around the stone. Hardly enough to cure a wart; now it would out. Another to hang his folly over his head to get what she wanted. “And?”

She kept her eyes on the floor. “And me.”

Stunned, Arrod could only swallow. No threat? He’d been certain she’d overheard something. He coughed. “You can tend house for me while I work on your stone. After that, we’ll see.”

“Yes Master Arrod.” She bowed her head and curtsied.

“Arrod. Just Arrod.”

She nodded. He led her through the door to his home behind the workshop. Quite spartan, yet somehow still in disarray. She looked it over in silence.

“Begin where you like. I must get back to work.”

He left her to it.

 

#

Arrod waved farewell to Lord Franklin’s young messenger, leaving with the completed ring. He envied the carefree spring in the lad’s step as he strode on toward the city center.

Returning to his workshop, he found Wilhelmina waiting with a short young man dressed in homespun coat and breeches. The lad held his felt hat tightly in his hands, and looked ready to hare off at a sudden movement. Arrod brushed past them, heading for his workbench.

“Master Arrod, could you spare a moment?” asked Wilhelmina.

“I have a love charm to finish, and a stone to repair for a fool about to get himself into a duel.” He waved over his shoulder as he settled at his bench. “Could you see to his payment?”

“He’s not a porter,” she said, “he’s a customer.”

Arrod wheeled, ready to tell her to send off the boy who clearly couldn’t afford his services. But one look at her kind yet determined expression, and he relented.

“What can I do for you?”

“Well sir,” the young man swallowed. At a nod of encouragement from Wilhelmina he continued. “Your lady, s-she said you could help. I been attacked by bandits. Three of my last four trips to the city. It’s all but beggared me.” The words tumbled out; he could hardly hold them back.

“A charm to make you tough in a fight, eh?” Arrod became doubtful. The lad had little to work with; difficult, if not impossible. Why had the girl raised his hopes?

“But–” the small man shook his head violently.

Arrod cut him off. “Mina, a word?”

“We’ll be just a moment Udo.” She touched the man’s arm, and he calmed. Arrod stepped to the back of the shop, Wilhelmina following.

“What’s this?” he whispered.

“I brought you a customer.”

“Customer? He wants a miracle. How can he afford it? I’ve got two difficult wishes now. You bring me a third?” Arrod stole a glance at the man, wringing his cap. “I don’t know what that witch, Syele, told you, but I can’t make a lion from a mouse.”

“He doesn’t need to be a lion. He doesn’t want a fight; he wants to avoid one.” Her hands balled into fists on her hips. “Couldn’t you make him more like a mouse, so that you hardly notice him?”

Arrod stood agape. She’d paid more attention as he’d prattled on about theory at dinner than he expected. Quick appraisal of the man showed her right. It’d be easy to make the little man innocuous.

“What stone? Any gem would defeat the purpose.” Arrod chewed his lower lip, as he hooked a stool, and sat down.

“He has a small piece of marble. It’s still rough, but as big as my stone,” she said.

“Marble?” He shook his head. “A common pebble would be better, bland and boring.” He sifted through his notes for a sheet to scrape clean. “Payment?”

“He only has a few casks of ale right now. He promises another payment on his next pass.”

Arrod frowned. Paltry payment, but simple work. “Tell him the next two passes. And it better be good ale. I’ll have something tomorrow.”

Wilhelmina smiled as she danced to the front of the store to tell Udo the news. Arrod watched the young man bow and smile his way out the door. He puzzled how the lad stood not one whit taller, yet somehow the careworn face looked brighter, freer as he went on his way. Arrod rubbed a hand over his balding head, then began sketching out his thoughts.

 

#

Arrod held his head in his hands. A shelf smashed at his feet left a mess of powders, essences, and oils amid the jagged remnants of their containers. The stink of burnt vellum wafted up from the smoldering pile of ash that had been his notes. His desk overturned, and his books strewn over the floor. The quiet, foreboding man had delivered the message clearly. The Lady was displeased. Somehow Damaske had learned about the recent string of customers–commoners Wilhelmina had brought in–and was furious. The messenger had been a reminder of the proper order of things.

Arrod had tried reason. He needed the new stone–how could he Cut what he didn’t have?

Get it done, was the reply.

Arrod did not regret helping the new customers. They were thankful. No threats. No attempts to cheat him. They left his shop with burdens eased. With each new customer Wilhelmina brought, Arrod watched their step lighten, and felt a mixture of pride and jealousy.

Now, he paid the price. He’d have to turn away work. He slammed a fist on his thigh. He had been working on it!

Arrod bent to right the shelf, careful that no more vials joined the mess on the floor. At the tinkling of the chimes he dropped the shelf, sending more of his precious supplies crashing down. Wilhelmina stepped in from the street, a loaf of bread under one arm and a cloth covered packet from the butcher they’d recently helped clutched in the other.

“What happened?” Her eyes so wide Arrod could see the whites from across the room.

“A message. One I can ill afford to ignore.”

Without further word, she set down her parcels and helped.

 

#

Slamming closed the thin volume, Arrod sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. The miniscule text made him want lenses. He’d been certain Madriga’s Etchings would give him some new glimmer. Returning the thin tome to his chest of prized books, he glanced through the other titles. He’d dismissed Castiago’s Charms and The Gaelbones. He doubted Aguillar was much use, so focused on warfare and prowess as he was. With no adequate formula as a base, he’d have to create one whole cloth, a risky proposition with a greater chance of failure. Arrod stared at the spines of his books, as if hoping one might leap out to enlighten him. A low cough got his attention.

Wilhelmina stood waiting, a wooden spoon tight in a fist against her left hip. Arrod shook the cobwebs from his mind, as he pondered the girl. He’d worked on her charm in the spaces between other work, but it was as elusive a charm as the other that consumed his days. He kept it in mind, as he pursued ideas for Lady Damaske, ever hovering just behind the task at hand.

“Time to eat already Mina?”

“Past time.” She turned and walked back through the door.

Arrod watched her go before closing the chest and following. As he stepped over the threshold, he caught the strong scent of lemon and mint. He glanced at the steaming pot, cooling on a hook away from the fire. Patting his hands dry, he chuckled as he realized that he’d paused to wash his hands without even thinking about it.

They sat down and ate. Arrod stared off between mouthfuls, his attention fixated on the wishes; one a vain charm to ensnare a man into a woman’s embrace, the other a charm to heal a dying boy.

He sipped Udo’s ale–rather good ale, he admitted–and recalled the various wishes he’d created over the years, hoping for inspiration. Wilhelmina rose, and humming to herself, set about cleaning. Arrod watched her, his thoughts drifting from charms, wishes, and stones to how joyful and spirited she looked. He realized with a start, how used to having her around he could get. How pleasant that would be. Uncomfortable with this new trail of thought, he jumped up, sending his chair back with a noisy stutter. He snatched a candle from the mantle, and lit it from the fire.

“I’ll be up late Mina,” he called over his shoulder on his way back to the shop. He avoided looking at her again as he closed the door.

 

#

“This stone could work miracles!” Arrod stared at the scintillating gem in his fingers.

“It better,” said Lady Damaske. “For the cost, I better not be disappointed.”

“Have I yet failed you?” he replied.

Her frowning eyes spoke doubt. He sighed, weary of her suspicious character. He’d long given up explaining the nature of wishes to her. Twice he’d woven wishes around other charms for her. Still she questioned his skill.

“Lady, this is the best stone I’ve ever held.” His gaze returned to the diamond. “If the wish I Cut doesn’t work, then Lord Kantallis must have an arsenal of stones of his own.”

“If this charm doesn’t work, our mutual friend will receive a letter detailing your previous handiwork.”

There it was again. He was tempted to find Lady Narella’s husband, and confess. It would save him the agony of dealing with her. Movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Wilhelmina swept behind the far shelves. He prayed she kept hidden. He’d hate for Lady Damaske’s wrath to fall on her.

“Lady, I assure you, this will be my best work.”

“It had better be.”

“I only hope,” he licked his lips, “this time you truly want no other. Even should I break the charm, this stone’s power will live for months, perhaps years after.”

She backhanded him. A stinging blow that knocked the jeweler’s lens out of his hand. It crashed to the floor sending tiny shards of glass dancing around his feet. His nose throbbed and went numb. Behind the shelves Wilhelmina stopped and glared at the noblewoman. Arrod pulled back, trying unsuccessfully to get out of range of further assault.

“Enough!” She wrenched his ear, and yanked him close so she could whisper through clenched teeth. “You speak to me like some harlot. Forget yourself again, and I’ll have you whipped in the street.”

Lady Damaske released him. “I want it evening after tomorrow. The Duke is holding a feast, and Lord Kantallis will be there.”

“B-but, I thought he was still in mourning. Two more weeks. There’s not enough time.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have wasted time with your peasants,” she sneered.

“Working day and night, it still–”

“No excuses Arrod. You have what you need. If it isn’t ready…” She flung a handful of coins on the floor near his feet, then swept out of the shop, skirts whirling after.

Blood dripped from his nose. Wilhelmina rushed to his side, pulling off her apron. She gently placed the tip of it against his nose, and pressed his forehead to lean it back.

“I’ll be all right,” he protested, but she ignored him.

“She’s horrible,” said Wilhelmina.

“Why do you think she uses charms? I doubt anyone would court her elsewise. That’s what makes her wishes difficult, obscuring that personality and temper from the eyes of him she’s after. For her, I stretch to the very limits of my ability.”

He plopped onto his stool, apron pressed to his nose. “Believe me, she’ll make good on her promise. I must get right to work. Can you get me something for the pain?”

“I think so.” She kissed his cheek, before scampering off.

Arrod sat befuddled. One woman wanted to end his life; the other seemed content to play at wife. He wasn’t sure which frightened him more. He’d grown fond of Wilhelmina. Whenever he turned around, she was there. Yet she was neither intrusive nor passive. He’d come to rely on her.

Wilhelmina returned with a steaming cup. He looked askance at it, took a sniff, and grimaced.

“Why do these concoctions always smell so foul?” He asked.

“To keep your mind off the pain,” she answered. “Drink up.”

By the stern motherish look in her eye, Arrod could tell she wasn’t moving until he finished the whole drink. He wondered how one so young could suddenly appear so authoritative. Downing the drink in one long guzzle, he had to clench his teeth to keep from spitting the bitter-sour brew back out. She took the cup and examined his nose.

“It’s stopped bleeding,” she said.

“Thank you Mina. Now, to work.”

She nodded and left him to it.

 

#

Arrod held up Lady Damaske’s gem. To his eyes, in every way perfect and it deserved a perfect Cut. He touched his nose, and a twinge of pain reminded him of the immediacy of the job at hand. He could no longer afford to take his time. Cutting would take hours.

He was tempted to wind in a charm that would keep Lady Damaske out of his hair for good, but that was dangerous. The repercussions if he were found out would be worse. He walked to his workbench, now kept clean and neat. He laid the gem on a small piece of blue felted wool. Reflections of the candles flickered in the facets of the diamond. Such perfection. She’d never do it justice and all his efforts would be thrown off a few months hence when some other lord took her fancy.

“Will you be up all night?” asked Wilhelmina.

Reverie broken, he turned around. His heart caught at the sight of her. She wore only a long white chemise that draped to a hand’s breadth above her ankle. When he’d first seen her, she’d looked young, almost a girlish pretty. The woman before him now was confident, simply beautiful. Far more so than the Ladies that came for charms and wishes. Arrod’s heart felt thick and heavy; his face warm. Every other night, she’d been asleep and under covers long before he dreamed of slumber, and in the mornings awake with breakfast ready before he rubbed the last bits of sleep from his eyes.

“Yes Mina.” His throat dry. “All night.”

“She doesn’t deserve the work you do for her.” She drifted forward as she spoke. “She’ll only throw it away when she’s done. Your work is precious–it shouldn’t be wasted on such whims.”

She touched his hand, and Arrod stumbled back, uneasy.

“I-I haven’t much time. If I don’t finish, you’ll be looking for another Cutter tomorrow evening.” He found it hard to speak.

“You’ll finish. I know you will. And she’ll never value it, not for a fraction of its worth. You deserve better, but you don’t believe it.” She reached up and cupped his face. His heart skipped.

“I…”

She kissed him. Tentative at first, then strong, her kiss sweeter than any taste he could remember. Arrod couldn’t recall when last he’d kissed a woman. He broke it off, backing away and knocking into his workbench. He yelped and grabbed his leg in pain, and she guided him to a stool.

Kneeling, she massaged his leg. He blushed at the feeling of her warm hands there. She gazed up at him. “It wouldn’t be a shame to be with you, Arrod. If it were something I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t still be here.”

“No!” It came out harsher than he’d intended. “You’re young, and beautiful. I can’t burden you with my troubles. With me.”

“It wouldn’t be a burden. But you don’t see that, do you?” She stood up and kissed his cheek. “Good night Arrod. I know you’ll do your best work tonight. A shame she’ll only waste it.”

She left. Arrod tried to swallow; his mouth gone dry. She was so sure of him. How could she possibly feel so?

His gaze drifted down until it lighted on the worktable. The diamond was gone! His heart skipped again, this time in panic. He searched the floor, getting down on hands and knees. A glint of light under a bench caught his eye. Ducking lower, he reached for the gem, then stopped. Two stones lay where he expected one. He picked them up.

Arrod scrutinized them as he settled onto his stool. As near in cut, color and size as a set of twins. Arrod couldn’t imagine how he’d come by the second stone. Then he remembered the gem Lady Damaske had thrown at him. It must have lain there forgotten. He studied them, trying to tell the two apart. He surely couldn’t, not without his lens. Not surprising as they were cut to complete the same necklace. He placed them on his worktable.

The two gems winked at him, reflecting candlelight. Only one good enough to bind a wish of great power. The other would hold for a short time before its flaws began to show. A third stone, just to the side, caught his attention–a smooth, red banded agate. He picked it up.

If only he could work always with stones such as this. Arrod rubbed the stone between the palms of his hands. How much happier would he be with simple stones, simple wishes–like those of recent weeks. No need for countermanding other’s work, or pandering to the whims of courtiers. He brought the stone to his lips, feeling its texture. It reminded him of Wilhelmina’s kiss. Simple and pure, like Wilhelmina herself. She gave what she could in the hope that he would save her brother’s life. She didn’t threaten; instead she’d willingly give herself to him, on the mere possibility he could perform a miracle. She deserved better.

A smile crept across his face as his mind settled upon the answer. In a flurry of motion, he readied his tools.

 

#

“I assure you Lady, this charm will work exactly as planned.” Arrod stood straight and met Lady Damaske eye to eye.

“It better…”

“Yes, yes. I’m quite certain. Just be sure to put it on right before the banquet.” He was tired, yet filled with renewed confidence.

“Here’s half.” She handed him a small purse. “I’ll return tomorrow with the rest…if it works. If not, it will be with guards.”

“Trust me, my Lady.”

She turned and left, her eyes only on her necklace. The door slammed shut behind her. He hefted the bag and sighed.

“Better half than none,” he said aloud.

“She’s a monster!” said Wilhelmina, leaning on a broom.

“Now, Mina…”

“Only half? You worked hard night and day Cutting that stone.”

“Well, not all night and day.” He smiled and walked over to his bench. He picked up a small paper package with a bow of string tied around it.

“The wish for your brother. Inspiration came last night, and I believe this will do the trick. At the least it will give him a chance.” He placed the package in her shaking hands.

“I-I thought it would take you months.”

“Sometimes it does. This time, not,” he said. “You can thank Lady Damaske for that. If I hadn’t been wracking my brain for her charm, I doubt I would have stumbled on the solution.”

She started to open the package, but he stayed her hand. “No, take it to your brother, and have him open it. The magic is pure; let it reach him that way. Promise?”

“Yes. But what about…?”

“Us? Mina, it’s too early in your life to settle for me. Go home. Live. Perhaps in a few years if you still feel for me, come and find me. I promise I won’t turn you away a second time. No man is that foolish.”

“But, surely a few weeks’ work isn’t enough.”

“You’ve given me more than you can possibly know. Now hurry up, gather your things, you’ll need to start out right away.”

“It’s almost evening. Why don’t you get a good night’s sleep, and I’ll make you one more breakfast,” she said.

“I can’t. I won’t be here in the morning.” He rocked on his heels, smug.

“What?”

“I’m leaving. I can’t bear to stay anymore. You made me realize that this life is devouring me. Petty baubles for the wealthy to cheat love and life. No more! Now hurry, I need to pack too.”

She kissed him once more, a real kiss that made him momentarily regret the decision he’d made. Then, with a quick tight hug, she bounded off to gather her things. He scratched his bald head and looked bemused, imagining how excited she’d be when they opened the package.

Arrod carefully laid a select few of his precious books into a small travel box. A shame to leave so many behind, but perhaps he could collect them a year or two down the road, if Lady Damaske didn’t burn his shop to the ground first. Some–Castiago, Aguillar, that ilk–he could leave behind and not regret it. He was through with charms for lust or war. From now on, only wishes to help people thrive.

His tools he wrapped in a piece of blue felt, tied it with a ribbon, and laid them on top of the books before closing the lid. Up it went under one arm while he slung a pack of clothes and food over the other. Standing at the door with her things was Wilhelmina. She held out a cup.

“Last of Udo’s ale for the road?”

He smiled. “Thank you Mina. For everything.”

He drained the cup and tossed it over his shoulder into the shop. They hugged once more and then she headed off, clutching the package tightly to her breast as if a newborn child. He waved when she reached the end of the street, then turned and locked the door. He tucked the key into his pouch, and looked one last time at his shop, his home. He took a deep breath, and headed the opposite way from Wilhelmina.

A few steps along the road he began to relax. He was certain that Lady Damaske would never find him. The gem he Cut held a few surprises. An aversion to thinking about him, as well as a compulsion to keep the stone always near. The master stroke: it allowed anyone that beheld her to see through to her true nature, no matter how well she tried to hide it. That he felt was justice enough, as long as it lasted.

He reached into his shirt and took out the stone hanging there on a plain cord. He placed it against his lips. It felt smooth, earthy, and pure. It reminded him, as he knew it always would, of the sweet kiss of a young woman he would never forget.

 

 


New Jersey born and raised, Edward A. Greaves spends his days working with technology, and his nights working with the fantastic. He still resides in New Jersey, with his wife–also a life-long New Jersey resident–their two young sons, and a mop with four legs named after Charlemagne’s father.


Story © 2010 Edward Greaves. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing. 





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