Erratic Whernside

The Stone (1KB)
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THE MINI HE CALLED HAZEL after a former lover was probably doing eighty through the winding Yorkshire countryside. Behind the wheel, Jordache was asking himself for the fifty-seventh time what on earth he thought he was doing. For the fifty-seventh time, he concluded he had no idea. Strictly speaking, that was not true. He'd have had a hard time, however, convincing anyone else of his reasoning. For a consultant psychiatrist, it was not the most settling of realisations.

Initially referred by his GP, Eric Stone had been Jordache's patient for the past nine months. Eric had presented with bizarre recurrent nightmares, which had increased in frequency until barely a night passed without Eric's sleep being severely disturbed. His physical and mental health had deteriorated in consequence, and by the time Jordache saw him he was suffering a moderate to severe depression.

Eric had consulted Jordache privately for a total of maybe seven months. Over this period he had responded well to a combination of medication and therapy. The frequency of the nightmares had subsided, and Eric's depression had eased considerably. Jordache had been about to recommend that Eric cease treatment altogether. Then the voices had started.

Unforgiven ...

Jordache slipped down a gear as the road began to climb steeply. He glanced down at the map open across the passenger seat. On this scale, the moors looked featureless: nothing but isolated peaks and streams. Through the window they appeared little different.

Eric's condition had worsened dramatically, until he had almost begged to be admitted into hospital. Reluctantly, Jordache had agreed. The voices now gave Eric almost no rest during the day, and the visions had returned. If anything, they were even more vivid and persistent than before. Night after night Eric woke gasping in a cold sweat. The only thing that brought him any relief was to write or draw out what he could see and hear inside his head.

Much of it was repetitive, and individual passages made little clear sense. Vague descriptions and sketches of landscape. Voices of loss and ageless despair. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, there was a definite sense of development, as if the 'messages' were coming through clearer.

Then one day, with Jordache's road atlas spread across the desk, Eric had drawn a small red felt-pen circle in one of the bleakest areas in Yorkshire.

"It's there, Doctor. Don't ask me how I know. There's a high, lonely place. I don't think I've ever been there. But there's something, calling me. I have to go there. Then everything will be alright."

Given his condition, such a trip had clearly been out of the question. Eric had been so calmly, almost pathetically insistent, however, that in the end Jordache had agreed to visit the site himself at the earliest opportunity.

"Promise, Doctor?"

"I promise."

Years un-numbered, cold as the outer skies or the bones of the world ...

Jordache stopped the car. This was as close as he could get by road. From here he would have to walk. He measured the distance with his thumb. About six miles. He shrugged mentally and got out of the car. At least the weather wasn't too bad, although things could change quickly out on the moors.

The Ordnance Survey map showed a footpath that would take him most of the way, although he would have to strike away from it for the last mile or so. Shouldering his small rucksack, Jordache set off. An hour and a half later, he was climbing seriously and short of breath. Even so, the wilderness of the dales was beginning to get to him.

Out of the western sky, I am as I was made. A line of kings walked faithful to the gods across the sea. But kings forgot the gods and the seas were changed. Those who fled held me a token of the world made round, and mapped their new lands upon me. Set me high in the hills. New kings laid hand upon me, vows of allegiance wrought in awe and in fear ...

Every twenty minutes, Jordache checked his progress against the map. As accurately as possible, he had transferred Eric's circle from the atlas, but the difference in scales meant that his 'target' was now a quarter of a mile across. The circle fell on the far shoulder of the next ridge, but aside from the escarpment itself the area within the circle was depressingly blank. His path continued to rise.

King of the mountain folk, doomed by an oath sworn in pride and doubt. Three thousand years of life-in-death won them their rest. But I am held yet. Lands changed again. Long ages I have lain here. Buried. Lost. Old before time, it does not forgive so soon.

Jordache crested the ridge. Before him stood a rough sphere of dark grey stone. Five, maybe six, feet in diameter. Slowly he walked up to the rock, then around it. It was deeply fissured as if by aeons of rain, wind and frost, crowned with grass and tiny flowers. This, then, was the object of Eric's obsession.

Called to uphold your vow. Found faithless, you are bound to me ...

He had journeyed all this way with no real hope of finding anything, motivated principally - he would have rationalised - by a professional desire to explore his patient's condition. Yet now he was here, the sight of the Stone affected him oddly. All at once exhausted with the unfamiliar exercise, Jordache sat down facing the Stone and pulled out his flask of coffee.

He looked around him. Beyond the distant line of hills, dull clouds were building. Shadows moved across the Stone's pitted surface. It was like a crude globe, its entire surface whorled into the seas and continents of some fantastic world. How long could it have stood here, he wondered. Something low down caught his attention. Jordache was forced to get down on his knees to investigate.

Time gnaws us both. In time I shall be dust and blown upon the wind ... Then, you may find release ...

Cut deep in the stone, almost hidden amongst the short turf, the clear imprint of a human hand.

Jordache had to lie on his back on the stony ground before he could place his own hand in the indentation. He was surprised to find the stone warm - and smooth, as if the feature had been burned in, rather than carved with tools.

After a few moments he found he could no longer feel the stone against his skin, and had the uneasy impression that his hand was actually sinking into the rock. He looked up, but the sight of the Stone towering over him made him giddy. Jordache closed his eyes.

A whirl of images assaulted him. A tall grey lord. A silver star and a winged crown. Another man, dark and proud before the Stone, his right arm outstretched. An oath of alliance made in mingled awe and fear ... Then smoke in the East. Grim faces around the Stone. A call that went unanswered. A doom spoken.

Never to rest ...

The tall lord returned from war. A king and his people cursed: forsaken in the mountains. A valley steeped in dread of the dead-that-live.

Three thousand years of life-in-death ...

A new lord tall as his father's line. Summoned to the Stone again. A sable standard breaking on the wind. Pale swords and terror brought to the sea.

An oath discharged at last.

Depart and be at rest!

The grey host dispersed like shades on the wind. Save one only. A king once dark and proud, now empty as the hills. Chained to a rock as old as time.

Clouds shifted overhead. Jordache felt the sun hot across his face. His eyes closed against the glare, through the mists in his head he saw the land shift and tilt. Millennia of frost and wind. The king now a wasted shade, held by the sign of his guilt. The imprint of a hand that would not erode until the Stone itself had worn to dust.

Then the mists parted, and Jordache saw Eric standing before him. In a moment of sudden revelation, Jordache realised that in some way Eric and the Stone were one. The nightmares and voices had brought him here. His attendance was necessary, but to whom and for what purpose, he did not understand. Unless ...

Promise, Doctor?

I promise.

Jordache found he could not move his arm. The dampness of the ground and cramp from the odd position in which he was lying. His hand buried now up to the wrist.