Short Stories

This is a short story that I wrote decades ago. I haven’t dabbled much with short works recently, preferring the longer form.

Heart of Stone

The sun rose. The sun set. Clouds hurried by, sometimes through warm blue skies, sometimes dropping cold rain. Seasons came and went. Years passed. Through it all Cyrax of the Bright Blade was condemned to watch. He stood upon a concrete plinth, leaning forever on his long sword, looking at life as it passed beneath him. He had long since passed through despair, through madness, through hate. There was nothing left in him now but patience.

Some days it was as though time passed in a greyness, so that he could not remember it. Maybe it was hours that vanished, maybe it was days, even weeks. He could not tell. Time was all the same to Cyrax.

He had been a man. How many years ago he could not have said. He remembered trying to count the years at first, but it seemed to be pointless. He had been a proud man, a strong man with a sharp sword in a world where it paid to be cruel. But he had been too proud, too often; once too often.

Sometimes he could feel the birds perched on his shoulders or his head, their small claws making slight noises close to his ears. And sometimes children bounced balls against his legs or climbed him. It was all just passing time. The world had changed beyond his ability to follow it.

Except. Just recently things had changed. Some while ago, not long he thought, a child had come to the foot of his stone self and looked up at him as though she were looking up at a person. Her eyes had sought out his eyes, her hand had touched his tired stone hand as though it were warm and graspable.

“I’m Annabelle,” she had said. “We’re going to be friends. What’s your name?”

She had mimed listening to his mute astonishment. He had been surprised that he was capable of being surprised.

“Bobby,” she said. “That’s a nice name.”

It was a child’s game. For a moment he had imagined that she could see the dull life looking out from behind the stone eyes, but it was only a game. She was no more aware of his watching that he was of the scene that lay behind his head.

I am Cyrax of the Bright Blade, he had said. I can cut through two men with a single blow of my great sword. I am much to be feared. And he had laughed. All without making a sound.

She came to see him most days, and he listened to her talking about her family, her school, her small friends. She lived a few streets away in a house with three bedrooms. He father drove something called a truck, and was paid for this. She had a brother called Paul who was always doing things and blaming her for them, always lying to their parents. She seemed to care for him in spite of that.

Wendy was her best friend. She made a point of telling him that several times, but from what Annabelle said he judged her not to be so much of a best friend. Annabelle sought excuses for Wendy, and Cyrax suspected that he, poor stone relic that he was, gave her more than Wendy.

After a while she took to bringing a small brush with her, and she used it to clean away the lichen and the moss from those parts of him that she could reach. She talked to him as she worked, asking questions, assuming answers that were not always the one that he would have given. He found it an intrusion into the monotony of eternity, but he liked it in spite of that.

“Mummy says that I shouldn’t be allowed to come here and talk to you,” the child told him one day, “but Daddy says to leave me alone and that I’ll grow out of it in the end. Do you think I will?”

Probably, he thought. You have made me know this piece of time by the mark you have made upon it, and we can ony know the length of a thing by the marks upon it.

“No, I don’t think so either,? she said, smiling up at his stone face. “I think we’ll be friends for ever!”

It is too long, forever. I have seen a little piece of it, and believe me, it is far too long for anything; for friendship, for love, for hate. Nothing goes on for ever.

“Paul says I’m silly talking to an old piece of stone,” she said. “But he can’t hear you. He can’t understand.”

Neither can you. Sometimes I think that not even the wizard who did this to me understood. I saw him die. He kept me in a corner of his hall for seventy years, but I saw him die in the end. They came for him at night, cut out his tongue to prevent him speaking his words of power, and burned him to death in front of me. I saw his eyes turn to me as the flames took hold, and he knew that I was watching. Perhaps he understood then.

“Well, you’re always here when I want to talk to you, and you say such sensible things. That’s more than I can say for some people. I think they’re just jealous because you can do magic.”

Not magic. People used to say that I was the best man with a double handed sword that they had ever seen, and I suppose you might think that was a kind of magic, but I was too stupid for real magic. They used to say that you had to be really clever to do magic.

It went on like that for hours sometimes, and it was the first time that he had thought about anything for a very long time. Many things came back to him that he hadn’t remembered for what seemed like centuries; the wizard’s death, his own turning to stone, falling into a simple trap that any fool should have seen, and the things that the wizard used to say to taunt him. There was a way out.

On the night of a full moon he must be kissed by a child and, at the same moment, touched by gold.

They were easy things, if they were true, and if somebody other than he knew what they were. However, the secret had died with the wizard, whose name he could no longer recall.

It was not as if he wanted to be released. At first he had waited eagerly for each full moon. After the wizard was dead he had been moved into the gardens by the new residents of the house; a merchant with a weight problem and no scruples. There were children about. The merchant had several and the servants had many more. There was gold, too. The merchant and his wife were fond of flaunting their wealth, but neither the gold nor the children showed an inclination to be near him. He was still remembered as something from the wizard’s time.

Every full moon he was alert, waiting for the conjunction that must surely free him, but it never happened. He gave up waiting when the merchant’s grandson died without an heir. They left the house empty, and it burned down after a few years.

Now he did not seek release. This world was nothing to do with him. The people here were soft and dishonest, and he did not understand what they talked about, even when he bothered to listen. He was content to fade to grey, if he could, to become one with the slow flow of time, to allow his mind to erode with the stone features that were exposed to the wind and rain.

He resented Annabelle for arresting the process, but he was fond of her, too. He had wanted children some day, but never reached the right time.

It was a winter evening when she came to him after dark, and he could see the moon, fat and white, riding above the trees at the edge of the park. She sat for a while, talking to him, telling him about an eventful day at school.

He listened, but after a time he became aware of twp shadows moving from his right. They were men, and they were looking at her.

It is not safe, he said. Even with your coat and scarf it is dangerous here in the dark, and what can I do to watch over you?

She didn’t see the men. They moved close behind her, very quiet. He was watching them now, and he didn’t like the look of them. He guessed that they meant her harm, but he shrugged within the stone. Life and death were no longer his concern.

“Hello, darling,” one of the men said. It startled Annabelle. She hadn’t heard them moving up on her. She didn?t answer. “Talking to the big stone man, were you?” he asked. “Would you like to come for a ride with us?”

She shook her head. “No. I have to go home.”

“Oh, come on,” he pleaded. “Just a little ride. We’ll take you home afterwards. You’ll be safe with us.”

“I have to go home,” she repeated, and tried to edge around him. He pushed her, and she stumbled back into the other man’s arms. The silent man held her by the shoulders as she struggled.

“Put something over her mouth,” the first man said. “Get her to the car.”

The second man made the mistake of gagging her with his hand, and she bit his fingers at the same time she stamped on his foot. He yelled and let her go.

Annabelle looked around desperately. There was no way out towards the houses where she came from every day, and in the other direction there was only the darkened park, and open spaces. She flung herself at her imaginary friend, and to Cyrax’s astonishment, shouted.

“Bobby,” she shouted. “Help me! Help me!”

And she pressed her lips to his cold knee. The more talkative of the two men walked up behind her and reached out to seize her arm, which was wrapped tightly around the statue’s legs. As he seized her his ring, an expensive, gold ring, scraped across the stone thigh.

Cyrax watched all this with puzzled amazement. It was as though the thing had been choreographed. He saw the ring before it touched him, and he knew that it would. It was somehow so inevitable.

As the gold touched his skin he felt life come back into his body. The stone rigidity fell away, and he was suddenly a man again. After so many years it was just gone in a moment, and he fell off the plinth in surprise, his sword clanging loudly on the ground beside him.

He was dizzy. His muscles hurt like he’d been skinned alive, but he retrieved the sword, bright and sharp as they day he’d been caught, and used it to lever himself to his feet, facing the men.

The talker now held the child, and all three of them looked at him with open mouths. He gripped the sword and swung it through the air once so that it whistled.

“Release the child,” he said. He felt the power coming back into his body, the massive strength. He was nearly a foot taller that these men. He took one step.

“I thought it was a statue,” the quieter man said.

“It was,” the other man said. “Shoot it, for god’s sake.”

Cyrax did not understand. They did not have anything that he recognised that would serve the purpose of shooting him, but he felt that he should act, so he took two swift steps forwards and swung the flat of his blade to connect with the head of the man holding Annabelle. It connected with a soft ringing, and the man went down, releasing the girl.

The second man had moved a couple of steps away, and was pointing a small tube at him. The tube spat fire, and he felt a powerful impact on his chest. Pain. He was hurt.

It was enough. He rolled forwards in a dive, quick as he had always been, and came to his feet with the blade travelling fast. It was his favourite cut: hip to shoulder. Not many men could do that, but Cyrax was a master.

The sword cut the man in half.

Now he felt weak again. He examined his chest and saw there was a hole in his amour plate, just left of centre, just in the wrong place. He felt dizzy but noticed that the other man was stirring on the ground. He impaled him with a hard lunge and twisted the blade. No more trouble from him. He sat down on the plinth and looked at the blood flowing out of his chest.

“Are you alright?” Annabelle asked. She approached, but did not come too close. Not within reach.

“I fear I am not,” he said, smiling at her. He could taste blood in the back of his throat. It was a bad sign.

“You saved me,” she said. “They were going to hurt me and you saved me”.

“They won’t hurt you now,” he assured her. He felt weakness creeping up his legs, entering his hands.

It was so unfair. So many years of hope, despair, and indifference, all ended by a foreign weapon in the hands of a coward. He was dying. He had to admit that it was a good way to go. His enemies had not survived him, and he had dealt with them in style. He had done nothing here of which he could not be proud because it was a simple choice and he was good at simple, straightforward things.

Annabelle came to him and put her arms around his neck.

“Thank you, Bobby,” she said.

“You should know, Annabelle, that my secret name is Cyrax of the Bright Blade. I have watched over you, but can do so no more.”

He loved the child. All those days of listening to her had taken her into hid heart of stone. He didn’t want to leave her alone, to not know the rest of her story.

“Oh, Cyrax,” she said and she was crying. “Don’t die.”

“You can help me child,” he said, making the effort to stand against the tide of his death. “That man over there. Fetch his ring.”

“But he’s dead!”

“Please fetch the ring to help me, Annabelle.”

She released him and went to kneel at the corpse’s side, gingerly easing off the gold ring. Cyrax used his sword as a crutch and pulled himself back onto his plinth. It hurt so much.

“Now listen,” he said. “I have very little time. Once you have worked this magic I will be here always. You can come and talk to me and I will be able to hear you. Do you understand?”

She nodded, looking up at his swaying face.

“Promise me that you’ll come and talk to me,” he said. “Promise me that you will remember my name and come and talk to me.”

She nodded. “Cyrax of the Bright Blade,” she said.

“Good.” He felt a darkness behind his eyes. “Now, it works like this. You can release me again in the same way. It needs a full moon, the kiss of a child, and the touch of gold. Now press the ring against my leg and kiss my knee. Quickly, while I still have the strength to stand.”

He felt the cold metal, and a moment later the touch of her moist lips on his shaking knee.

All the pain went away. He looked down out of stone eyes at the mayhem he had left behind. A short visit to the country called life. Her eyes were looking into his, trying to see if there was anything behind the stone. In truth it was only a few seconds that he had left, stretched through magic to an eternity.

“Thank you, Cyrax,” she said. “I have to go and tell my parents now. They won’t believe what happened, but I have to anyway. I’ll come and see you as soon as I can.”

She walked away. Every few yards she paused and looked back through the night at his tired stone figure, and then she was gone into the darkness.

The years passed and she honoured her promise. Week after week she visited and told him about her life, and he enjoyed that. After some years she brought a daughter, and sat down in front of him with the chid and told her the story of Cyrax the Bright Blade. Later still there was a grand-daughter.

There came a time when Annabelle was old and frail, and she came to him for the last time, sitting on the plinth by his great stone feet.

“I don’t know what I remember,” she said. “Perhaps it was all a dream a thousand years ago. Sometimes I feel like a fool talking to a stone thing that never talks back, but then I think of what it must be like for you, trapped in there.”

She looked up into his young, tired eyes. He looked back. These days the greyness was taking his mind more and more. It was a quiet way to end life.

“Cyrax of the Bright Blade,” she said. “They tell me I’m going to die soon. I’ve told all my children about you, but they don’t believe. They think I’m a crazy old woman. I’m afraid you’ll be alone. Sorry about that.”

She stood and walked away for the last time. He knew it was the last time, and when she turned at the gate to the park he was sure he could see a brief, beautiful tear on her cheek.

It was enough.

Heart of Stone was published in Xenos Magazine in 1994.

Copyright © Tim Stead 1994