Keeper of the Black Stones (3 page)

The Earl and Trigva followed the soldier, Par, through the stone archway that led from the courtyard into the church. They made their way past several wooden benches, which were currently operating as makeshift gurneys to support the dead and dying. Two silver cups and a small golden crown still lay on the cloth-covered altar at the far end of the church; the Earl was right in assuming, then, that Dresden's men had been here for something other than riches. His gut clenched in fear. Had they found it or destroyed it already? Stolen it? Was he too late? Had this entire journey been in vain?

Before him, Par parted the heavy red curtain behind the church's altar, and pointed through the exposed opening. “There, my Lord!” He stepped aside to reveal a set of stone stairs descending steeply downwards.

“Are we in time? Is it safe?” the Earl gasped. He brushed past Par and ran down the steps to enter a small, dank cellar, exhaling sharply in relief at what he saw. A large, polished stone lay in the center of the small room, absorbing the light of the six torches on the walls. The stone was wide and long enough to accommodate a man twice his size; smaller than some of the stones he'd seen, but large enough for his need. Symbols ran along the borders of the stone, their grooves harboring what was left of the torchlight. As the Earl watched, the shadows of the symbols rose off the rock, dancing and twining together in a reflection of both shadow and light. Calling the Earl, beckoning him forward. Calling him home.

He stood for a moment and smiled in profound relief, then made his way slowly toward the stone tablet, staring down at it with both affection and reverence. The stone began to glow softly in response, putting off its own form of light and power as the symbols around it intensified. A soft hum filled the air, accompanied by the vibration of the impending jump. These changes meant that the Earl had only a few moments before it was time to depart. He was just in time, then; if he had missed this opportunity, it would have been weeks before he'd had another. But he had made it. And it was time to go home.

“Richard's soldiers did not take it despite our presence? Why, my Lord?” Trigva asked, startling the Earl out of his thoughts. The soldier referred to Dresden's puzzling habit of collecting the stone's brothers as he found them. In doing so, he restricted the Earl's movements, and his ability to return.

“The village priest must have refused to tell them where it was. We may have come upon the town before the soldiers could find it, or before they could tear the confession out of him.” The Earl paused for a moment, and looked back over his shoulder. “Perhaps Lord Dresden wished to keep it for himself, and we arrived before he had time to move it.”

“I see. Is there anything else my Lord?” Trigva asked.

The Earl smiled. Trigva did not understand the stones or their meaning, but he had seen them before. He knew that the Earl needed time alone with the stones, and did not accept questions or arguments on that point. To his credit, Trigva had questioned the Earl only once, and maintained a stoic silence afterward.

“No,” the Earl replied, shaking his head. He knelt down and began to sweep the accumulated dust and dirt off the perimeter of the stone. “Give the men my thanks and let them drink, but not too much. Be prepared to leave at any time.”

“What of King Henry, my Lord?”

“He'll make camp where he is if he knows what's good for him, and wait for my arrival,” the Earl answered. He traced the symbols on the stone's face, and felt the power begin to flow through his own blood and bones.

“Of course, my Lord,” Trigva said. He bowed his head once again, then strode out of the room, closing the door softly behind him.

The Earl of Oxford waited for a moment to ensure that he was truly alone before standing and removing his belt and scabbard. He smiled as he laid them gently aside; he would not need these where he was going. He rolled his right shirtsleeve to the elbow to expose his forearm and the pocket-sized portable computer strapped to it, then pressed the red power button on the bottom of the device. The LCD screen jumped to bright, electric life, and lit up the room. The Earl used the small keyboard to quickly record the location
of the stone as best he could, typing in a description of the terrain and rough position of the village. He would need to locate this stone again, if it survived, and this was his best and only method for doing so.

The Earl finished typing, turned off the computer, and took a deep breath. The stone was glowing brightly now, and it was time to jump. He dropped to his knees on the stone and brushed away the remaining dust and debris. His cloak dropped to the floor near his sword, followed closely by his boots and chest plate. Finally the Earl reached for his leather bag, kept under his surcoat, and lay down with it, stretching his tall frame atop the black stone, and making sure that both his feet and head lay within the perimeter of the stone. He'd never broken the boundaries of the stone before, and he wasn't going to start now. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths; simple exercises that he'd learned over time to assist both body and mind during the transition. He waited only a moment before the familiar feeling of vertigo, combined with an anxious adrenaline rush, filled his chest and stomach. The world swayed violently and went dark, and he jumped.

When the world stilled again, he took a deep breath and counted slowly to one hundred before reopening his eyes. He lay motionless for several seconds, willing himself to breathe normally and reconnect with his physical body. The air here was different–thicker, and more difficult to take in. But it was familiar.

The Earl of Oxford was back home. Here, though, he was not known as John de Vere, Earl of Oxford and eldest warrior of the Lancaster blood-line. Here, he was Dr. Richard Evans, recent widower to Patricia Evans, and grandfather to Jason Evans, denizen of twenty-first-century New Hampshire. Here, he was simply a retired physics professor, virtually invisible to the world at large, with nothing more to think about than paying the mortgage and making it to the market once a week. He rose quickly from the stone and climbed the ladder standing next to it, on his way into the modern world.

P
ART
I
1
L
EBANON
, N
EW
H
AMPSHIRE
P
RESENT
D
AY

“J
ay …. Jason, are you listening to me?” Paul asked abruptly.

“Yeah, I heard you,” I lied. Of course I hadn't
really
been listening. If I listened to everything Paul said, I'm pretty sure I'd have gone insane by now. Don't get me wrong, he's my best friend and all, but everyone has a breaking point.

“If you stack your rotation with right-handers and no lefties, you're screwed, right? How come I'm the only one who can see that?” Paul asked impatiently. By his tone of voice, I thought, this must be the second or third time he'd asked.

I cringed. This was Paul's newest obsession: second-guessing the decisions of the Red Sox coaching staff. Personally I couldn't be bothered, and I didn't know why
he
bothered, but I played along with his disgust. “I don't know, Paul.”

The truth was that I hadn't been paying attention. Not even remotely, if I was being honest. Which I usually was. I loved Paul like a brother, and I'd usually go along with his crazy self-important fantasies, but my grandfather had just returned from yet another out-of-town conference, this time in Ithaca, New York, and I was busy trying to figure out where he'd actually
gone. He was doing that a lot lately–disappearing for days on end, to a place that didn't get cell phone coverage. Or mail, evidently, since he never left hotel information, or a forwarding address. How could the city of Ithaca not have cell phone coverage? It was a university town, for God's sake, and yet I hadn't been able to reach him for three full days. It wasn't like I needed to know where he was at all times, I argued against myself, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me. And asking Mrs. Grey, our neighbor, to check in on me several times a day–as he was wont to do–didn't make it any better. She was nice and all, but her never ending need to know
everything
about where I was or what I did was getting annoying.

Suddenly I realized that Paul was talking to me again. I gave myself a mental slap and turned back to the real world. I could worry about my grandfather later. Right now I had some real life to handle; namely, getting to school on time. I looked around, trying to remember where we were, and paused at the scenery. It was late October in New Hampshire, which meant that the leaf-peeking tourists were long gone. The leaves on the trees had all but disappeared as well, giving the dark gray mountains that surrounded our little town of Lebanon free range over the landscape. The sky was low and gray, and the air already felt cold and wet. It was actually a little sinister, I thought. The smell of burning wood filled the air, announcing the approach of winter as much as the remains of the brightly colored foliage. Everyone in New England said they loved the fall, but what they really meant was that they loved the two weeks of bright autumn foliage. After that, it was downright depressing.

“I'm cold … it's colder out than usual, don't you think?” Paul asked. He tucked his hands deeper into his jacket pockets and glanced at me. Not that it would have mattered what I thought. I caught a smile at the corner of my mouth and stifled it. Paul's questions were never actually questions. He was used to me agreeing with him about pretty much everything, and even when I didn't agree with him, and said so, he chose to hear what he wanted to hear.

Still, he had a point. It was only October, but it wouldn't be long before the town was buried in snow and practically hibernating. From then on it would be short days, early nights, and mornings so cold that you couldn't feel your feet when you got out of bed. With my luck, we wouldn't get a
thaw until May. I'd spent my entire life in this town, and I still wasn't used to the cold. I definitely didn't like it. Snow was okay until Christmas. That was about it.

That was my life, though. Boring. Pointless. Cold. Like any other kid, I had dreams of doing something more. Going somewhere. Meeting someone. Having an adventure. Having anything at all, for that matter. Not that it would happen. I'd probably be stuck here forever. I bit my lip, pulled my jacket tighter around me, and trudged forward. It was 7:30AM on a Friday, and my job right now was to get to school. Just like every other day of the year.

“What do you have planned for your birthday?” Paul asked abruptly. This was another of Paul's trademark moves: changing topics abruptly, taking everyone else by surprise.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I'm pretty open.” No doubt Paul already had something in mind.

“How about bowling?” Paul casually bent down, picked up a rock, and tossed it across the street into the woods, as though nothing mattered. Which was what made me suspicious. That and the fact that we never went bowling.

“Bowling?” I asked, matching his casual tone. “Since when do you like bowling?”

“I don't know, I was just thinking it was something you'd like to do, that's all.”

I started to laugh. “Yeah, sure. Tell you what, how about we hire a clown as well?”

Paul's face drew down into a frown. “Hey, I was just asking,” he snapped. “I didn't know you were going to over react about it.” He turned away abruptly.

I sighed. Despite his outgoing demeanor, Paul was actually pretty sensitive. And extremely insecure. If you disagreed with him, he took it personally. Which was why I generally tried to play nice. Fighting with Paul was
… unpleasant, at best.

“I didn't say I hated bowling,” I said, trying to make it up. I wasn't in the mood to fight this morning. “I just think you have to be under ten to have a birthday party at a bowling alley, that's all. I mean, I think it's a rule or something.” I was trying to stop laughing, really. Granted, I wasn't succeeding.

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