Part of the Travellers’ Tale series, included in Travellers’ Tales: collected short stories
A curse is a difficult thing to lift. When Zach’s two brothers fall foul of an old woman with hidden powers, he must set out to save them…not knowing he will uncover far more than he imagined.
Alone in the world—and in their isolated woodland camp—Zach, Cain, and Joseph should know better than to offend old hags who come calling. Under threat of a terrible spell, Zach must travel to free his brothers with nothing but his bravery, and his dreams. Yet what he finds at the strange cottage upon the hill surpasses anything he could have expected.
© M. King 2009
Zach pushed the middle door open and went inside. He found himself in a small bedroom, musty with the passage of stale years and sickly-sweet with the scent of decay. Faded wallpaper, stained and peeling, clung to damp plaster, and rotten fabric upholstered a threadbare loveseat adjacent to a large, dusty bed. Over by the narrow window, facing out down the hill to the path and road along which Zach had recently travelled, stood what he took to be a statue. It was large—life-sized, in fact—and cleverly cast in what looked to be gold and bronze. As he drew closer to the strange object, Zach saw it was a man. Naked, the way Grecian athletes used to be, his body a beautiful harmony of planes, angles and curves, all long, straight lines broken into each other and tamed by the swells of muscles.
The workmanship was exquisite. The hair had been moulded with such attention to detail it looked as if it should move, and the face seemed just like that of a real man. Zach stood for a long while, watching it in rapt fascination. Eyes, lashes, lips and nostrils, all perfectly carved, or however this wonder had been formed. It was superb—and such a subject! Zach supposed the sculptor must have drawn on divine inspiration, for no mortal man could be so well-favoured. The word ‘handsome’ didn’t do it justice. Even in inanimate form, the sculpture touched Zach with a deep sense of its beauty.
He reached out, hypnotised, and trailed his fingers down the swell of its chest. Cold, smooth stone. Impassive. Unfeeling and unseeing. That thought both inflamed and enraged Zach: that something so perfect should be so idealized, so far from the truth… so far from what he could have! Whoever made this thing had gone as far as to chisel the tiny, twin points of nipples on that broad chest, and Zach appalled himself by touching them, wishing they were real—imagining that they hardened for him.
He brought his other hand to the statue’s body, pressing his palm to the cold, solid bulk, pretending for just a moment that it was flesh, warm and firm beneath his touch. A man’s body, filled with life, breath, and desire. His fingers skated lower and brushed against a ridiculously realistic phallus. It lay at the base of a beautiful curve of belly, the texture of hair perfectly realized in stone, and every detail was intact. Ashamed of himself for doing so, Zach touch it gently, willing it to come to life in his grasp, to feel the beat of a pulse that so nearly seemed to be there. He caught his breath, feeling suddenly very silly. He was supposed to be searching out his brothers, not getting beside himself over an old stone lawn ornament shut away in a disused bedroom.
It was the air in here. That’s what it was. The whole place… just too dusty, stuffy and foul-smelling for any man to think straight. A poisoned atmosphere that mildewed the brain. Zach made to turn away, but he could have sworn that he heard someone whisper in his ear. Just one word:
He frowned. The old woman’s words began to make sense to him now. She bound people indeed, with her tricks. Heads, eyes, and bodies…all bound in the trances she cast upon them. But he wouldn’t fall for it. He would leave this room, leave this house, find his brothers and flee home. He wasn’t that easily fooled!
Split the stone.
Zach frowned again. He felt dizzy and full up with fluff, as if he’d been drinking. There was something he had to do, he was sure, though he couldn’t remember what. He squinted at the uncanny statue before him, and wondered how the sculptor had achieved such a fine effect on the face. It almost had the look of real skin about it. A long, straight nose, the tip slightly tilted upward, soft lines around the mouth, a broad, firm jaw…this must surely be a face that had once smiled, laughed, even cried. Zach found himself staring at the lips, almost level with his own. They formed a nearly perfect Cupid’s bow, the mouth drawn perpetually into a curve of uncertainty, as if this stone prince was about to speak.
Without really thinking about it, Zach craned forward, pressing a kiss to the cold, immobile stone. A loud crack sounded and, before he could identify its source, an impossible warmth leached through the statue. Zach opened his eyes, too surprised to move. Golden light suffused his vision, spilling from a fissure that ran the length of stone torso. The arms, legs, and face began to craze, the heat that spread through the statue, growing until the cracks met, fragments of stone pinging and shattering away like a pot breaking in the kiln.
Zach cried out, shards of stone flying past his face. He closed his eyes, flung his hands up to protect himself, the roar of the stone prince’s transformation filling his ears. At last, there was quiet, the room silent but for the ragged sound of his own breathing. He didn’t dare open his eyes.
Strong, warm, live arms folded around him, and a very real body pressed against his. Breathing hard, Zach felt the breath of another graze his face, his own desperate gulps of air slowly calming to a saner rhythm. The shapes of hands smoothed his back, comforting and soothing, and a man’s smell—a dark, slightly stale, earthy musk—teased his nose. He leaned his forehead against the solid plane of a shoulder, and it seemed natural, even easy.
His hands explored the body so close to him, his eyes still shut against all the impossibility, the fear of it not being real, and it felt good. Skin, and the weight of blood and muscle beneath it. A heart that beat in steady, regular time.
White Stones is inspired by a version of the traditional Welsh story ‘Small White Stones’, also sometimes known as ‘The Three Sisters’, collected by John Sampson. Um…yes, and a little bit by Pygmalion.