Fiction Excerpt: “Whispers from the Stone”
By Howard Andrew Jones
Illustrated by Storn Cook
from Black Gate 12, copyright © 2008 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
On the third day of the expedition I stopped during my patrol rounds to admire a fresco of a bearded archer in a chariot hunting lions. On the whole the people of Ashur had wrought their art with skill; mounts were carved in mid-gallop with lifelike detail, the armed hosts along the walls with startling ferocity. It was pleasing to contemplate such finely fashioned martial scenes.
I heard the sound of feet swishing through grass blades and turned to find a scholar of Jafar’s household standing behind me. He was studying the stone. I recognized him, but did not know him. I was captain of Jafar’s guard — who was I to care about the names or duties of the countless hakims, scholars, and courtiers who frequented his palace?
The scholar did not look so different from any others, although he was better groomed. His spade beard and mustache were well trimmed. His eyes held that intensity of purpose of bookish men and were rendered striking by their uncommon color, a bright blue. A sword hung on his left and his stance suggested he could use it.
“Look at the artist’s trick,” the scholar said, a smile flicking over his lips. “A thousand years ago he fashioned this piece.”
I saw no trick, and looked back and forth between him and the art, wondering.
“Now his work pleases us,” the scholar continued, “two men he never met. Perhaps it will delight other unknown men in a thousand more, when we two are as forgotten as he.”
It was a strange thought to have, but it struck me as a proper one, there amongst the battered remains of the ancient city, and I found myself nodding and studying the stone in more detail. The morning sun warmed our backs from its perch high in the cerulean sky.
Another set of feet whispered through the wild grass. I turned.
This time it was my nephew Mahmoud, also a guard of the vizier’s son. He bowed his head to me, yet addressed the scholar.
“Your pardon,” Mahmoud said. “You asked to be informed if another goat disappeared. One has been found.”
“What do you mean?” The scholar asked.
Why, I wondered, should a scholar concern himself with missing goats?
“One of the men found the goat,” Mahmoud said. “And it isÃ¢â‚¬Â¦strange.”
“How, strange?” The scholar asked.
“Its head is separate from its body, and it is buried. I do not think it the work of lions.”
“Show it to me.”
“As you wish.” Mahmoud turned his broad back. The scholar followed him. While I did not care a whit for missing goats — which must surely have wandered off to be prey for wild dogs or lions — the whole of the matter puzzled me, particularly the scholar’s involvement.
I had earlier set Mahmoud to deal with the goat matter. Clearly some from our expedition were supplementing their meal before the beasts were scheduled for slaughter, or the herdsman wasn’t keeping a close enough watch on his charges and the goats had simply wandered away. Solving the problem did not require the involvement of a book reader.
We wound our way behind Mahmoud through the heaped mounds of masonry and the remnants of long, high walls with their crumbling towers.
What remained of Ashur stretched for many acres.
The Greek who’d led us here said that it had lain thus for more than a thousand years.
Eventually my nephew stopped before a shattered waist-high wall and pointed over it to a rectangular pit. Aside from a set of crumbling stairs, the pit — some ten spear lengths deep and three wide — was completely bordered by stone. A pile of blackened earth and ashes rested in its center. To one side the horns of a goat protruded from a mound of loose dirt. A lone hoof poked out of more tightly packed earth nearby.
“Is this as you found it?” The scholar asked.
“Has anyone descended to investigate?”
“My man went down for a closer look,” Mahmoud answered.
The scholar sounded displeased. “It is to be expected, I suppose. Go seek a shovel and return.”
Mahmoud bowed his head and left. The scholar, meanwhile, bent to examine the ground at the height of the stairs, then peered down their length. More than half the steps were concealed by dirt and grass gone to seed.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Why do you order my men?”
“I,” he said without looking up, “am Dabir ibn Khalil. I thought you knew me, Captain Asim.”
I grunted. “Are you an expert on goats?”
“No. But I am curious. Your nephew’s tale aroused my interest.”
Dabir started slowly down the stairs, staring at the clinging soil. “A lion, or dog, would merely have eaten one or two goats there in the pen.
They would not carry it away and bury it. And three goats in three nights is a very hungry, daring man.”
By the time Mahmoud returned, Dabir had reached the pit below and walked several times about the ground, inspecting it with eye and fingertip. He directed Mahmoud to walk carefully down the stairs, showed him where to step, then ordered him to exhume the goat.
I watched from the bottom stair.
I had smelled worse from the battlefields, so once Mahmoud uncovered the body the goat’s stench did not conquer me. It was not yet as powerful as I knew it would become. The goat was intact except for its stomach, where little worms writhed in a large slash.
Dabir examined both the stiff brown body and the staring head, with its empty sockets, even moving the white worms aside with the shovel’s blade. Mahmoud turned pale at this.
Several times Mahmoud opened his mouth to speak — each time Dabir held up a hand and my nephew was silent. I was a little startled over the respect he showed this man.
“You may bury the body,” Dabir said at last.
“What did you learn?” Mahmoud asked.
“I believe there was only a small group that killed the goat – three or four total.”
“The Greeks,” Mahmoud said.
“Do not rush to judgement,” Dabir cautioned. “We lack information.”
“Filthy Greeks,” Mahmoud said. “So they killed the goat and ate only their favorite parts?”
“Nay.” Dabir shook his head. “Whoever did this worked magic.”