The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge of Stone and Magic: Chapter 24

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Jean-Luc sat quietly, concentrating on the masonry block he was working on. In its entirety, the quarry was not a quiet place, with the thud of mallet against chisel competing with the rasp of the stonecutter's saws. Even so, he found that the noises tended to blur together after a while and that it was quite easy to sink into a state of virtuous contemplation even while his hands worked steadily on the block of stone in front of him.

"Good morning to you, Frenchman," a voice said, jolting Jean-Luc out of his reverie, almost making him drop his tools in surprise.

He swung around and looked up at another of the stonecutters who had apparently paused in his labours and chosen to stop nearby. The other man sat down on a cracked and misshapen block that had been abandoned, but was still too heavy to be easily moved to the spoil heaps, and carefully placed the heavy canvas bag that contained his tools on the ground by his feet.

"Good morning," Jean-Luc rejoined, nodding politely.

"You do good work," the man said, adding, "For a newcomer."

The old mason spoke in a precise, measured way suggesting that he intended every single word to be taken seriously. Jean-Luc knew the mason only as John, one of several experienced and taciturn stonecutters who worked steadily and kept themselves to themselves. He could not recall every having heard the older man ever speak more than a monosyllable in his hearing.

Jean-Luc was not quite sure how to react to the compliment, if that was what it was. He nodded politely, but said nothing.

"There's magic in these stones, old magic," the older man said, dropping his voice and forming his words even more carefully than before.

Jean-Luc, who's English was learned as an adult and found it to be occasionally limited or incorrect, wondered if he was somehow misunderstanding the man's words.

"How so, sir?" he asked respectfully, "I've never seen any magic in rocks - just lots of hard work."

The other man chuckled at Jean-Luc's attempt at a joke.

"It is true enough, boy," he replied, "But it was not always so. Once, there was enchantment in the very fabric of the virgin rock and even now I keep an eye out for magic hidden in the stones I cut."

"I would be very interested to see something like that," Jean-Luc replied cautiously, "But how would I know a magical stone if I saw one?"

Again, the older man chuckled.

"Oh, you would know, well enough," he replied, "And you have already seen the sprites, at least from afar."

Jean-Luc was confused.

"Where?" he demanded, "Where will I have seen this magic?"

"Why, in the bridge," John said, as if speaking to a child, "Have you not noticed them in the stones in the further arches?"

Jean-Luc had of course studied closely the entire structure of the bridge, at least as far as he could. He had not been able to get close to the further part of the structure, which would have required avoiding the watchful eyes of a group of men he had learned to called the Guardians and whose task, it seemed was to police those who were and were not allowed to cross from one shore to the other. Certainly, he did not want to risk his livelihood - and perhaps worse - by getting caught trying to sneak beyond the permitted areas.

Even so, he realised he knew what the old man was talking about. As with his part of the bridge, carefully-shaped masonry blocks were being laid over a wooden framework on the far side arches, fixed in place with mortar which seemed identical to the materials he was familiar with. The laying of the masonry blocks did seem to take longer than he might have expected, as if some extra care was being taken for reasons he did not understand. As each stone was lowered into place, some senior worker would stand over it, staring at it as if trying to see into the rock itself - at least this was the impression that Jean-Luc gleaned from distant observations. This man - or sometimes a woman, to Jean-Luc's surprise - would then wave his or her hands at the block. Always the same movement were used, as far as he could tell, and they gave the impression that they were instructing the stone itself to do something, but exactly what he could not guess.

In any case, over the course of the next few days as the mortar dried - or perhaps this was just a coincidence - strange and very faint ghostly illuminations would appear in the newly-laid stones. These specks of light were very hard to see and, strangely, did not seem to be any more visible at night, even when the moon was new.

He had asked about the illuminations on previous occasions. if he got an answer at all, he was told that it was just some reinforcing they add to the mortar, some extract of the tiny sea creatures that sometimes made the ocean surface glow on the darkest nights. Everybody seemed uncomfortable talking about it and he eventually stopped asking, although he did record his own questions and thoughts on the topic in his private journal.

"You mean the lights in the arches?" Jean-Luc asked the older man.

"Yes, that's the magic of the stones," old John confirmed, "Sprites, they're called. They say that, at one time, thousands of years ago, all rocks had this magic - or at least many of them did. Then the magic died - slowly faded away. Maybe it was worn out, all used up. So now they're having to put it back by hand, block by individual block, but only over there."

He gestured in the direction of the island.

"They say that that the magic does not exist, not any more, on this side of the water," he continued sadly, "But I do sometimes wonder whether that is really true."

Jean-Luc thought deeply about these remarks. It was, he would realise later, the first overt reference to the existence of something called "magic" that was, he was forced to presume, somehow depended upon in the construction of the bridge. He also supposed that, nowadays at least, the use of this "magic" was only possible on the far side of the straights.

The older man brightened visibly as he spoke again.

"I believe it is sometimes possible to find a piece of rock that still contains the old magic," he said ruminatively, "I look out for them, every day, and I watch carefully as I carve and cut the stones."

"Have you found one?" Jean-Luc asked, fascinated by this possibility.

"No, not a one, not yet, but I keep searching every day," the old man replied, "But I do know it is possible."

Jean-Luc must have looked puzzled, or perhaps disbelieving, as the other man went on to explain almost immediately.

"My grandfather found a stone," he said, "One that glowed from within, like those which now form part of the bridge our friends across the water are working on. A stone emitting a faint and ethereal glow, an orange light that seemed to move within the very rock itself."

Jean-Luc gasped, his mallet and chisel falling from his hands unregarded.

"The stone was old and moss-covered," the old man went on, "Long concealed in the undergrowth. It was obviously partially cut and dressed a long time ago, but then abandoned incomplete or cracked, broken beyond use or repair. My grandfather said his acquaintances amongst the masons said it was bad luck and would not touch it, but Granddad had different ideas. Ignoring the uttering of his colleagues, he carried the stone away and used it in the foundations of the fireplace, a key part of the house he was building and where it would carry much of the weight of the chimney."

"When the house was complete, the magic stone itself was almost completely hidden, with just a corner of it visible behind the old wooden settle that sat between chimney-breast and wall. I remember that, as a boy, a tiny child barely able to walk, I crawled under the seat and found the magic stone, its dim light attracting me irresistibly. I told my father who took me on one side and, in a very serious voice I can remember to this day, explained that this was a great secret and that I should never tell anyone. I promised to hold a secret, a promise I have kept to this very day."

"I am honoured," Jean-Luc said formally, "But why tell me, now?"

"Oh, I think you will understand," John the mason replied, "Listen well to the rest of my tale. Years later, when I was nearly full-grown and already apprenticed to my fathers and grandfather's trade, a great storm blew up, as they do from time to time hereabouts. Roofs were torn off houses for miles around, and my neighbour's chimney collapsed, barely missing his wife and children covering under the kitchen table. But my grandfather's house - it is now my house - was almost untouched - just a few missing slates and loose shutters. It was a miracle, they said, some luck in the placement of the building and the shelter of the trees, perhaps."

"But Granddad maintained it was not luck, that he, and he alone, witnessed the magic of the stone in action. Imagine an old man, part-crippled and sitting in the cold and darkened house while I and my father and others struggled against the elements, trying to secure beasts and barn against the wild wind and the driving rain. Granddad swore that the stone blazed with a blue fire as the worst of the storm raged overhead, filling the cold fireplace with its glow and lighting the entire room. He said that as the roof beams creaked and the very masonry of the chimney itself swayed, the blue light seemed to brace the structure, keeping it safe."

"Now, the house is mine, my Grandfather long since departed, God rest his soul, and my father too. The stone is still there, but it glows no longer. Perhaps its magic was exhausted during the great storm, perhaps it grows old like all things. I do not know. But I am sure there is still magic abroad, a magic I do not understand but am sure is as real that that chisel you just blunted."

Jean-Luc thanked the old man politely for his story, who nodded and grunted in return. He stood, stretching his back, then carefully picked up the stout bag which contained the tools of his trade. John the mason never spoke of this story again, as far as Jean-Luc knew, and the old man returned to his taciturn ways, barely acknowledging the Frenchman as they passed on the paths.

Jean-Luc wondered privately if the old man was mistaken, a speculation he dutifully recorded in his private journal later that evening. He conjectured that what the mason was referring to was an old stone, a stone which had once actually been used in a building in ages past, a stone which, even if his Grandfather had found it in a quarry, had been transported there rather than being recently hewn from the quarry face. It was possible, he mused, that the old stone was taken as a template, to make a replacement for a stone worn or broken, and then forgotten by the masons.

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