Authors: Andrew Symon
“Ye … es,” said Jack cautiously. “It … it’s weird, like you’re falling a long way very quickly. It still makes my guts feel funny.” He turned his face gratefully towards the cool breeze that came from the warren pipes in the rock wall.
Just then two girls ran out of one of the houses opposite, laughing and pulling at a short wire.
“Petros, Jack, come and see what we’ve found,” they said in unison.
“What is it?” asked Jack, intrigued by his young cousins’ enthusiasm.
“Dad says it’s a music box,” said Rana.
“Somebody left it near the chapel,” interrupted Lizzie.
“Oh, cool.” Petros reached over and took the box, which – as he and Jack had done a moment earlier – had shrunk on passing through the Shian gate.
The twins were a year younger than Jack. While Petros had inherited his father’s dark hair and looks, the twins (said everyone) resembled their mother, sharing as they did the same shock of strawberry blonde hair as her. Lizzie wore her hair long, but Rana, much to her mother’s dismay, had long insisted on a short cut. Both had a love of ‘finding’ objects left behind by forgetful humans.
“You put these things in your ears, and you hear music.” Lizzie tugged the small box away from her brother. “Look, I’ll show you.”
She took the two wires and put a small round white lump in each of Jack’s ears. Rana pressed a button on the small box, and a far away sound of strange music came to him.
“I’ve heard music like that before,” he said, after a few moments. “Back in Rangie. There were some human boys playing in the woods, and they had a music box. It was bigger than this, though, and the sound came out of the box, not wires like these.” The white lumps were uncomfortable in his ears, and he pulled them out.
“It’s not as good as a songstone,” said Jack. “They play every tune you know, clearer than that, too. I’m going to save up and get one.”
“We saw a flame spirit in the High Street,” Petros informed his sisters as he took the gadget from Jack. “He played this really neat trick on a street juggler. You should’ve seen the juggler’s face when the spirit burst into flames.”
“Is he going to be at the festival?” asked Lizzie, wide-eyed.
“Sure,” said Petros nonchalantly. “There’ll be Shian from all over the place. Phooka, elves – you name it. Hoodwinks, too.”
Their mother’s voice echoed across the square. “There you are! Come along.”
With a shrug, Petros led the others across the square.
“So, Jack dear, how did you find being up at the castle?” Aunt Katie ruffled Jack’s hair as he sat down in the kitchen.
“The buses and cars are really loud. The houses below the castle looked tiny, but I know they’re big really. I … I wanted …” Jack felt his heart racing.
“You’re wondering about the Stone, aren’t you?” She smiled at him. “Well, here’s Grandpa now, you can ask him yourself.”
“Jack wants to ask you about the Stone,” said Petros, as the imposing figure of Grandpa Sandy appeared in the doorway. “He wanted to go up and see it today, but I said he’d have to wait and ask you and Dad.”
“I … I wanted to see what it was like,” began Jack. “Uncle Doonya’s told me so many tales about it, I wanted to see it.”
“And you will, very soon, young Jack. Maybe tomorrow.”
It’s always ‘tomorrow’
, thought Jack.
“But we’re going to be busy. There’s lots to do to prepare for the festival.” A broad smile spread across his grandfather’s face.
Jack’s disappointment faded. The midsummer festival was the high point of the Shian year, and the Stone’s return had revived the ancient tradition of the Shian Seventh – a special countrywide celebration every seven years that brought Shian groups and families from all over for a huge carnival. And, best of all, in just two days it would be held on the Shian field below the great volcanic outcrop of Arthur’s Seat.
The next two days were frenetic. Grandpa and Uncle Doonya were constantly occupied with Shian Congress meetings, but Jack was kept so busy with household chores by Aunt Katie that he didn’t have much time to think about going to see the Stone. In truth, he was relieved when evening came and it was finally time to leave for the festival.
The walk through the Edinburgh streets had taken only twenty minutes, but the climb up the slopes of Arthur’s Seat was taking ages. Jack began to sweat. As they rounded a break in the rocks, a strange feeling of stillness came over him, and his stomach turned. Suddenly, he could hear the sound of a great crowd.
“We’re through the bell hex and back to normal size,” said Grandpa with a smile. “It’s a special hex that keeps humans out. For some reason, none of them will have the slightest inclination to climb up here tonight.” He winked at Jack.
“Did you see the flame spirits?” Lizzie’s eyes sparkled as she ran back to join the family. “I saw one do this amazing trick. She floated up and breathed on this barrel, and it melted and out came two goats.”
Uncle Doonya laughed. “Well, you know that a lot of Shian can change their shape when they want.”
A stooping figure walked up and faced Grandpa.
“It’s good to see you, Sandy,” he said calmly.
“Rowan! Everybody, this is Rowan, he’s been working for the Congress in the low countries since the last Seventh, and now he’s been asked to join the Congress. It’s good to see you again, my friend.”
Jack sensed real warmth in Grandpa’s voice as the two old men embraced.
“I’m so honoured to have been asked. It’s been a privilege to work for the Congress for so long, but to join the most important Shian group in the country …” Rowan wiped a tear away.
“Well, I’m delighted for you, my old friend.” Turning to the others Grandpa added, “Rowan was in the procession seven years ago.”
“You’ll be Phineas’s young boy,” said Rowan, turning to Jack, and smiling.
“That … that’s right.”
“Looking to get some of the Stone’s power, eh?” chuckled Rowan.
Jack looked up enquiringly at his grandfather.
“The Stone’s power is for all Shian,” smiled Grandpa. “Now, here comes the procession.”
Jack turned to watch as fourteen white horses appeared. Three pairs of men and women were followed by pairs of elves, dwarves, Darrigs and lastly two korrigans, who seemed miniscule even astride their tiny Shian ponies. The sound of distant trumpets soared on the still air, a high haunting sound.
The horses moved effortlessly, almost floating, and the huge crowd parted before them. Atholmor and his wife Samara led, quietly smiling and waving occasionally at a familiar face. As they approached the central stage, a high, constant trumpet note filled the air, louder and more insistent. The procession halted, and the trumpet stopped. Dismounting, Atholmor climbed up onto the wide stage.
“Friends,” he said in a steady and commanding voice, “welcome to the Shian Seventh. I thank you all for coming. After many years, the Stone is close by once again, and many are recovering their ancient gifts. Let us rejoice in the return of the Stone! Let us celebrate the great Shian!”
“Here,” said Petros as they wandered through the stalls. “We’ve a gold sovereign each. What d’you fancy?”
“Try these elven biscuits” said Rana. “They’ve got juniper jam in them.”
“The silverweed cakes are fabulous,” said Petros. Turning to Jack he added, “Silverweed only flowers every few years.”
Jack, his mouth already full of pie, didn’t reply.
“Dad, can I try some heather mead?” asked Petros.
“All right, a small cup, as it’s a special night. You too, Jack, if you want to try it.”
Soon after, they were watching three Icelandic elves reciting an epic, a long story that mixed the Destiny Stone in with an ancient chalice and a mystical globe. In turns they would act the part of various characters, their high croaky voices carrying a strange sense of mystery and urgency about the power of these three great treasures.
“They’re funny,” said Lizzie. “I’ve never met anyone from Iceland before. Are they all that small?”
“They come in all sizes,” replied her father. “They tell human stories as well as their own.”
“We read human stories, Dad,” pointed out Rana. “We’ve been learning for ages. Mum’s been teaching us.”
“There’s more of them up there too,” continued her father patiently. “They’re closer to the humans, they have more dealings with them.”
Jack turned to speak to Uncle Doonya, but his eye was caught by the bright Edinburgh skyline behind them. His uncle saw the quizzical look in his eyes and whispered, “Time stands still, Jack my boy. This is midsummer – our time.”
“You mean we can slow down time?”
“Only at certain times. Luckily for us, this is one of them,” replied Doonya with satisfaction. “Didn’t you feel something funny when you passed through the bell hex?”
Jack thought back to their ascent to Falabray field. He
felt something strange as they’d got close, but had put this down to shrinking back to Shian size again.
“Ah, here’s Grandpa; he’s good at explaining things.”
“Actually, I wanted to take the youngsters to see the Phooka.”
Grandpa led Jack and his cousins towards the sound of an Irish jig. Reaching the stage Jack saw that there were four strange creatures with the head and arms of an old man, but the body and rear of something like a horse or a goat. One held a harp and pulled gently at its strings, producing a delicate soothing harmony; a second played a fiddle, by turns gracefully leading the notes on their dance, and then running full tilt with discordant warlike screeches. The two other Phooka were performing a curious mixture of dances: initially courteous, a formal sequence of steps and bows, with elegant sweeps of the arm, then upright, fierce-eyed and haughty, stamping their hooves and daring the other to advance further.
Jack had never seen Phooka before, and their half-serious half-comic routine fascinated him. The routine rose to a climax, with the two Phooka advancing slowly on each other, their arms raised in defiance and threat.
One made as if to strike the other …
Startled out of his reverie, Jack could hear screaming from the north side of Falabray. The Hobshee had arrived.
The morning after the festival, Petros led the youngsters out to the High Street, and they spent a happy two or three hours trying to identify the languages and strange clothes of the various tourist groups.
“What about that lot?” said Petros. “German?”
“I’ve heard German before, and that isn’t it,” said Rana confidently. “They’re Swedish.”
“There were some trolls over from Sweden once,” announced Lizzie. “Dad told me. They were small and hairy, and they smelt terrible.”
“That wasn’t Sweden, that was Norway,” chimed in Rana.
“Close enough,” replied her sister crossly.
“Close enough for you, dimwit,” said Rana, and received a hard shove back.
“Hiya, Petros, Jack.”
The four youngsters turned to see who had spoken. Across the street were two Shian youths, sitting with their backs against a shop wall.
“It’s Kedge and Ploutter,” said Petros. “They must be up in town for a bit of fun. We’d better go and say hello.”
“I’ve never liked Kedge,” said Rana as they began to cross the road. “Not since he tried to hex me for borrowing his cards.”
“Yes, well, your version of borrowing is what others call stealing,” explained Petros patiently.
Kedge and Ploutter, raised on a Shian farm near Rangie, had not gone through a formal apprenticeship, instead learning farming from their large extended family. Strong, healthy lads, they had the appetite for merriment and high jinks of the nearly adult.
“D’ye fancy a bit o’ fun?” Kedge stood up.
“Too right,” said Petros. “What are we doing?”
“We should be getting home,” said Lizzie firmly. “We’ve people coming for lunch.”
“Ye’ve time for an echo hex, though, haven’t ye?” said Ploutter.
“What kind of hex?” asked Jack.
“Echo hex. Ye bounce it aff a wall,” replied Kedge. “Come on, we’ll go up the street a bittie. It works best the closer we are to the Stone.”
“Aye,” confirmed Kedge. “Even a couple of years ago this wouldn’t have worked well. But the Stone’s gettin’ stronger all the time.”
They all walked up the street to where it narrowed.
“This is a good spot,” said Kedge. “Plenty o’ gaps between the cars. What’ll we start with?”
“How about a spinner?” said Ploutter.
“A what?” asked Rana.
“Spinner. Look, we’ll show ye.”
The two lads stood with their backs to the wall on one side of the road and waited for a group of tourists to approach. As they did, Ploutter held up his right palm and fired a hex across the street. It hit the far wall at an angle, and bounced back across the street, encountering nothing in its path.
“Ya eejit.” Kedge shoved Ploutter aside, then raised his own right hand, palm facing across the road. The hex hit the far wall, careering into a group of four young tourists. Two of them appeared to slip, spinning round frantically before crashing down onto the pavement. Their friends looked on and started to laugh at this pratfall.
“See? Even the humans think it’s funny,” said Kedge. Jack began to laugh.
“I want to try my firestone now,” said Ploutter. “I bought it aff a flame spirit at the Seventh.”
Ploutter waited until three cars approached. Springing forward, he threw a small red stone in front of the first car, which was enveloped in a sheet of flame. Instinctively, the driver of the second car slammed his brakes on, and was rearended by the third car. As the front and rear lights of the two cars shattered, the flames on the first car disappeared. The driver of the third car got out and hammered on the window of the car in front, demanding an explanation. Ploutter and Kedge roared with laughter.
“That’s not funny!” shouted Lizzie. “They haven’t done
Jack watched as the second car driver huddled nervously in his car, and various onlookers gathered to offer their advice. He had to admit that the spinning hex had been much funnier.
“We’d better get out o’ here,” said Kedge. “See you guys later.”