Muddle-headed Kay (mhw) wrote,
Muddle-headed Kay

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A bit of a story.

mommybird must take the credit. "You can make your own Shiny," she said, and so I have. I'm not NaNoWriMoing this year, because otherwise I'd never get anything else done, and I'm more than aware that my writing responsibilities have been sorely scanted of late. Still, if I can tap out 5000 words or so every few nights, I may have something of a reasonable length in not too long a time. No, I haven't started at the very beginning, even though that's a very good place to start, mostly because I'm more interested in the characters than in the setting right now, and the first few chapters would have too much of that for what I want to be doing now. Yes, there's one glaring and deliberate anachronism, but that's only to amuse people who know Pope's writing or Haendel's music, so there. I'm also aware that something that's claimed not to exist does exist, but at the time that this takes place it wasn't known of. Anyway, it may turn out to be even more unusual than that...

Take a look if you like, and I would really VERY much like feedback: what you think of the characters, what you guess may be going on and where, whether you'd like to read more or whether it's better consigned to the junkpile - in fact anything that this piece makes you think.

Even now, Ranulf wasn't used to wearing the long novice's robe, and several times he nearly stumbled as he and the others hurried along the uneven corridor. Though the dimly-lit passage had started out wide enough for them to walk two or three abreast, it had rapidly narrowed as it descended until they were forced to go in single file. Thomas had declared that he should lead the way, and nobody cared to dispute the matter with him. He had been followed by William and Henry; Adam had elected to go next, which left Giles and Ranulf to decide who should be the last.

"Are you sure that we're going the right way?" Giles' voice came despondently from the dimness behind him. Ranulf honestly wasn't sure, but Thomas had sounded confident enough each time he'd passed down instructions along the line: take the left turn, five steps down ahead, watch out for the hole in the floor, avoid the water running down the left-hand wall and the slimy patch beneath it.

"I don't know," he murmured over his shoulder, hoping that he wouldn't crash into the wall as he spoke. "Cheer up, Giles. It can't be so much further. Master Lyon said that he expected to see us there shortly, after all."

Giles' face grew troubled. "Shortly? I've been counting my pulse, Ran, and I'd swear we've been walking for the best part of half an hour."

"What of it?" Ranulf shrugged. "Even you can't be winded by a half-hour's gentle walk, surely?"

"It's not that," Giles replied stoutly. "But at the rate that we're descending, we should be well below ground by now, even if we'd started at the top of one of the towers, and we didn't."

Ranulf chuckled and reached back to pat Giles' shoulder. "This is supposed to be the Trial of Earth, remember? where better for it than underground?"

He would have said more, but Adam's voice sounded from below them. "Come on, you two laggards!" he shouted. "Tom has found the chamber, and Master Lyon grows impatient!"

"See?" Ranulf smiled. "You worry over nothing, Giles."

Giles looked at him, his dark eyes still troubled. "Tell me that when it's over, Ran. Not before."

The smallish chamber into which the passage eventually opened was lit by wax candles held in sconces, flickering but bright enough that Ranulf, his eyes grown used to the dimness of the passage, had to blink several times before his eyes stopped watering. The floor was of beaten earth, yet the walls and vaulted ceiling were made of brownish stone blocks. A niche had been cut into each wall, and in each niche a blackened metal censer sent a thin trickle of a bitter-smelling smoke into the air. He hurried through the doorway and stood aside so that Giles could get past him, and then noticed that Master Lyon was watching him and Giles through narrowed eyes.

"You boys are somewhat late," Lyon remarked sharply, and Thomas chuckled. Ranulf started to find words with which to frame an apology, but Lyon's eyes snapped quickly to Thomas, whose chuckle died in his throat.

"You are all late," Lyon continued, "and Thomas, it was you who led the way here, was it not?"

Thomas looked outraged at the implication. "Master, they dawdled and dallied! had they kept up with me..."

Lyon cut off his protestations with a dismissive wave. "Then perhaps next time they will have a leader who is less concerned with demonstrating his own superiority. But no matter. Ranulf and Giles, all of you, be seated." He gestured around the room. "This, my boys, is the Chamber - or, more correctly, one of the Chambers - of Earth. You will return here from time to time as your studies progress, so start to become familiar with it and its properties. What do your senses tell you of it?"

Ranulf cast his eyes around the room. Nothing about it seemed particularly extraordinary. It had four walls, but then so did most rooms. He'd grown up with earthen floors. His mother's house - his foster-mother's house, he corrected himself with a surge of anger as his heart suddenly ached with a longing for home - had been lit, when it was lit at all, with oil lamps, but he knew candles and incense from church services, so again the room was at most unfamiliar, with nothing that seemed to call for particular comment. He sighed quietly to himself as he saw William's hand go up. Whatever it was that made this chamber special, it had apparently not eluded Will's sharp eyes.

William smiled as Lyon nodded in his direction. "Master Lyon, my senses tell me that the number of this room is four." At Lyon's approving nod, he continued: "There are four walls, built of square blocks, and all the walls are equal in extent, making this room a cube. Each wall has one niche, also with four sides. There are four censers, each of which is, like the room itself, a cube. And I believe - " he squinted at the wall in front of him - "that the candles are four-sided."

"Good, good," Lyon inclined his head approvingly. "But surely the number of a cube is not four, but six, in that it has six faces?"

Looking somewhat crestfallen, William lowered his hand, only for Henry to raise his. "I concede that, Master," he said cheerfully, "but I would say that this room has but four walls, because the floor and the ceiling are not walls. And the censers similarly, in that the top of the censer holds the incense and the base holds the coals, so that four sides are left. Cubical they may be, but their number is four, as my brother said." William shot him a grateful glance and whispered something, but Henry only shook his head with a smile and listened as Lyon repeated the points that he and his brother had made.

Adam was the next to raise his hand. "I conjecture, Master, that the colours of this room are brown, black and green, and that therefore they must be the colours of Earth, as are shown to us in the walls and floor, the metal of the candle-holders and the censers, and the candles." Ranulf looked more closely at the candles. He couldn't believe that he'd not bothered to notice either their unusual shape or colour. Candles, in his experience, were tapered and creamy, not square and green, so why had the obvious difference escaped him? Perhaps the earliness of the hour and the bitter-smoked incense were making him inattentive.

The lesson continued, with each of the boys except Ranulf managing to contribute something to the discussion. Not all the points that they raised were accepted as valid by Master Lyon, but even when he had to correct them he remained thoughtful and considerate. Increasingly, though, something was nagging inside Ranulf's mind, causing him to sit with growing discomfort on the floor as the discussion progressed, and then at last to wriggle in real distress.

Lyon held up a hand to interrupt a brief argument that had flared up between Thomas and Adam, and looked with concern at Ranulf. "Are you ill? he asked. "Or do you wish for leave to visit the necessarium?"

"I'm well enough, Master, thank you, but..." Despite himself, Ranulf couldn't help shuddering. "There's something wrong with the way... with the shape - no, " he corrected himself, "with the direction of the room. It points the wrong way somehow." He pointed in turn to the walls as Giles had named them. "Giles says that this wall is North, that East, the one behind me South, and that West is over there. But..."

Lyon cocked his head to one side. "And did you notice this wrongness before Giles told us which wall is which?"

Ranulf shook his head. "No, Master, I did not. But as soon as he said it, I knew that it couldn't be so."

"You might have spoken up," Lyon said mildly. "You've hardly intruded on the conversation so far. Giles, please justify your assertion about the alignment of the walls for us."

Giles seemed to shrink into the floor. "It was only a guess," he whispered. "It seemed reasonable to think that four walls... four directions of the compass..."

"Speak up boldly," Lyon broke in. "Small as the room is, I greatly doubt that Thomas can hear you over the conversation he is attempting to hold with William."

"I said," Giles repeated more loudly as Thomas flashed a furious glance at Lyon, "that it seemed reasonable that the four walls would correspond to the four cardinal points of the compass. Or... or perhaps the niches. Or the candles..." His voice trailed off and his cheeks flushed.

"Reasonable indeed," Lyon smiled, "but, as many reasonable conjectures are, quite incorrect, I'm afraid. However," he chuckled as Giles' face fell, "there is a kernel of truth in what you said, as I believe Ranulf may be able to show us. Ranulf, would you be so good as to find the directions for us?"

Ranulf stood and closed his eyes, ignoring the room and feeling for the slight pull that had increasingly disquieted him. His left arm rose slowly and he walked cautiously across the room, barely conscious of his classmates moving out of his way, until his fingertips brushed the coldness of stone. He opened his eyes and turned to face them. "Here lies North," he said firmly, then frowned in puzzlement as he realised that he was standing in front of a patch of wall quite undistinguished by niche, brazier or candle or any other mark. He looked slowly around the room. "The door, then, must lie in the East," he murmured, "but it is somewhat in the wrong place..." He spread his left thumb and index finger apart a little as he pointed at the door. "By this much. Master, the room is out of true, but why?"

Lyon laughed. "Truly it lies, that it lies out of true. You have a useful gift, Ranulf; even should you not succeed in your studies here, why, you would be of great service to a sea captain or a church architect. The room is indeed oriented North, East, South and West, but by the doors, not by anything else."

Thomas' hand shot up. "Master, there is but one door, as can plainly be seen. And Ranulf has said that the door lies not truly East, but somewhat apart from that, so he must be in error."

"You are over eager, Thomas," Lyon observed. "You may profit by showing a little less haste to make judgement. Ranulf is correct: the door by which you entered lies in the East as it is shown on a map; Ranulf's East is that of the lodestone, and they are not the same. They differ by a little, which may be neglected on a short journey, but which difference must be taken into account when travelling greater distances, as mariners do. As to there being but one door, again, you are quick to judge, and that leads you again to error. There are four; indeed, Ranulf stands almost directly in front of the North door as I speak."

Ranulf turned and stared hard at the wall. Try as he might, there was no evidence of any door that he could discern, even when he took into account the difference between map direction and compass direction. He reached out to push at the stones, but Lyon's amused laughter made him turn again, red-faced.

"Those other doors are not yet for you, Ranulf, nor yet for any of you. You must simply trust me that they are there for now, but you will find one of them soon enough, when you have learned all that is needful here. Take your seat again, and well done."

Ranulf did as he was bid, relieved that for once he'd done something right. Giles nudged him as he sat down.

"Well done indeed," he whispered. "Thomas may be a little less cocky now." Ranulf wasn't so sure.

Adam raised his hand cautiously. "Perhaps, Master, our door lies in the East because the East is the direction of beginnings, as the point where the Sun starts its daily journey, as we are beginning our journey?"

"Indeed that is so," Lyon agreed. "Orient comes from the Latin verb 'orior', to arise or to come forth from, as you should well know by now. And, I suppose, now that we have fairly begun to familiarise ourselves with the Chamber of Earth, it is time that we should proceed with the major purpose of our being here today: the Trial of Earth."

A wave of uneasiness passed over the boys at the idea of a trial, and Lyon smiled. "You should not fear trial, my little ones. You will be judged indeed, but not harshly, only according to your nature, and there will be no punishment or reward, only justice." He reached into his scrip and brought out a black cloth pouch, which he shook softly so that which lay inside it made a soft clattering sound.

"Stones, rocks, gems - they are the thoughts of Earth, and each of them indicates, according to its nature and properties, an affinity for one or another aspect of relationship to Earth. Some of you," he chuckled, "particularly those of you with fond mothers or godparents, or those whose families are familiar with the trades of stone: the lapidary, the jeweler, the sculptor, and so on, may know your birthstone, which is no more than the gem, precious or semiprecious, that vulgar astrology associates with the sign of your birth. Today, though," - he rattled the pouch once again - "you are to discover the stone of your Earthly nature, that aspect of you which is best suited to the workings of Earth. The Trial of Earth is simply this: to reach into this pouch and to draw out the stone which by touch seems best to you, and then to replace it in the pouch."

Henry looked puzzled at this, and raised his hand. "Master, when you say 'best', how do you mean?"

"I cannot explain it better than this," Lyon answered, "than that this pouch, and these stones, are so enchanted that you would be unable to draw out - no, more that you could not bear to draw out - a stone other than the one which will call to your fingers. Trust me, Henry; when you undergo the Trial for yourself, you will understand what I have said. So, who shall go first?"

Thomas, predictably enough, was the first to volunteer, standing and striding confidently over to Lyon, his hand already eager to dip into the pouch. He seemed hardly to hesitate as Lyon held the pouch open for him, his hand plunging in like a heron striking for a fish and pulling out a blood-red disc.

"What's that?" he exclaimed as he examined the stone that lay in the palm of his hand. "It certainly doesn't look very interesting!"

Lyon smiled. "That's carnelian. It's good for restoring balance and improving the quality of judgement, Thomas, and you could certainly do with gaining a little more Earthy stability, if you don't mind my saying so. A very good and appropriate choice for you. Well done."

Thomas' face grew dark as he looked scornfully at the stone. "Perhaps, if you say so; but I think I must have chosen over-hastily, and" - his eyes slid sideways to Lyon's face - "Master, you said only a few minutes ago that I come too hastily to judgement. I should choose again, surely, and this time with more thought."

"As you will, Thomas, as you will," Lyon said agreeably. "Return the stone and make your choice again."

Thomas did so, and three times, with mounting frustration, he drew out the same carnelian disc and returned it to the pouch. "I swear," he shouted, "that bag contains nothing but these wretched carnelians!"

"Return to your seat, Thomas," Lyon snapped. "Let another come forth, and perhaps their choice will change your mind about what lies within. Who is ready to choose now?"

"I am ready," Henry responded, and stood, stretching his lanky frame so that the joints popped. He looked down and smiled affectionately at his brother. "Unless you would prefer to go first, Will?"

William shook his head with an answering smile. "You first, Hal. I can't wait to see what you'll find."

Henry settled his hand into the pouch with as much ease as if he were taking his brother's hand. "They all feel very good to me, Master," he said after running the stones through his fingers for a few moments, "but there's no particular one that - oh!" A sudden grin broke across his face. "I spoke too soon. This one's for me!" He drew out a deep yellow disc that sparkled in the flickering flames of the candles, and then he smiled in Thomas' direction. "I fear I've found the disproof of your conjecture, friend Tom, for this is no carnelian, though I can't tell what it may be."

"That is topaz," Lyon said with a quiet chuckle as Thomas scowled at Henry. "It brings warmth and light, and with them courage against the dark. The strength and bravery of Earth. Most suitable, I should say, for your temperament - but are you content with your choice?"

"More than content, Master," Henry responded. "I thank you." He returned the disc almost reluctantly to the pouch and went to seat himself again by his brother, who squeezed his arm and smiled, then looked over at Lyon.

"May I take my turn next, Master?" A nod brought William to his feet and he walked forward, looking thoughtfully at the pouch. "Here I go," he said quietly, then slipped his hand inside. He trickled the stones through his fingers for a few moments, then withdrew his hand, clenched tight into a fist. His handsome face set into a grim mask from which the colour drained second by second. "I didn't want this," he whispered, "but it wouldn't let me choose any other." A tear started to shine in the corner of his eye and he looked at his hand as though it contained a venomous beast.

Lyon shook his head reassuringly. "Some stones make heavy burdens, lad, but there are none in there that can't be borne - and with your brother's stone alongside it, you may find it a fit companion, if it's what I think it is. Open your hand, and let me see."

A glittering black disc lay in William's palm as his fingers unwillingly opened. He could hardly bear the cold sad ache that had crept from the stone into his bones, even in the bare minute that it had been in his hand. "What is it that pains me so, Master?" he whispered.

"Tourmaline," Lyon murmured. "Black tourmaline; as I said, not an easy stone, but either you're peculiarly sensitive, which is possible but unlikely in a sunny lad like you, or someone..." His face shadowed. "Would you mind if I take it from you for a moment?" He plucked the stone from William's hand with pincer-like fingers, and grimaced in distaste. "Oh. Oh, that is unfortunate. Someone has been most careless. I do apologise."

He turned and addressed the class. "Tourmaline, in its black form, which is the stone that William has chosen" - he held it up so they could all see it glittering malevolently in the candlelight - "is a stone of cleansing and purification. Like the Earth in which our bodies shall one day be laid, it takes to itself what is impure and corrupt, and neutralises it: a most valuable property indeed. Coupled with the bravery and warmth of his brother's topaz, many a demon would be hard pressed to prevail against it. However..." He flicked the disc into the air and caught it. "However, after use it must itself be purified, cleansed of the darkness it has taken within, or else it remains soiled and can harm anyone who is susceptible to the dark and comes too close to it. Some foolish person, I cannot tell who; or, rather I cannot yet tell, has, negligently or otherwise, used this stone and replaced it without cleansing it." He slid the stone into his scrip. "I am not best pleased, and it shall not be returned to the pouch for this trial. William, my young friend, are you well?"

William nodded, colour having started to come back into his face the moment that Lyon had removed the stone from his hand. "Well enough, Master," he said, though his voice shook, "but I should like to sit down now if I may?"

"Indeed, indeed," Lyon said. "And if you are not quite back to yourself by the time that the lesson finishes, I may be able to help you a little more. So, who shall choose next?"

Nobody seemed to be in any hurry to come forward after what had happened to William, but eventually Adam stood, eyeing the pouch somewhat apprehensively. Lyon gave him a grateful smile and beckoned him forward. Ranulf took a deep breath as Adam reached his hand toward the pouch, then relaxed as Adam drew forth a milky disc that shimmered, even from the distance at which he sat, with glorious colours.

"Opal." Lyon beamed and Adam's face broke into a relieved grin. He slid the stone around his hand, delighted by the fiery play of oranges, greens and blues that seemed to flicker just below the surface of the disc, then held it up so that all his classmates could see it. Only Thomas appeared to be less than delighted at the beauty that Adam had pulled forth.

"What's it good for, Master?" Adam asked, unable to keep the eagerness from his voice.

"Opal calls the spirits," Lyon said approvingly. "They find it as attractive as we do, perhaps even more so. It is the bright fire of the Earth. Wear it, and you will shine out like a beacon to them; call with it, and they will come to you like moths to a candle. Only remember this," he added in a graver tone, "that not all spirits are good. We have just seen what one unhappy spirit within a stone did to our friend William. Some call the opal cursed, and say that it brings ill-luck, but I dispute that. Rather, I would say, it brings luck of all kinds, good and ill, and people are disposed to notice the ill more than the good, which is a defect in humanity rather than in the stone. It is also somewhat fragile in nature; it must be handled with care, for the greater the beauty of the opal, the less its strength. Those who share their nature with the opal must have those about them who will guard them carefully as they work, lest they shatter."

"Rather a mixed blessing, then," Giles murmured to Ranulf as Adam resumed his place. "Shall I go next, or you?"

"You next," Ranulf whispered. "You come last too often. Step up, and be bold."

Giles nodded soberly and stood. He had almost reached Lyon when Thomas yawned loudly - and affectedly, Ranulf thought as he clenched his fist. It was hard enough for Giles to stand before the class without an unthinking fool like Tom making it all the harder for him. He didn't know what stone Giles would draw, but he hoped that it would help him to stand up for himself better. Giles either didn't hear the yawn, or affected not to, for he paid Thomas no attention as he reached, his face a mask of sober concentration, into the pouch, nor did his expression change as he withdrew his hand.

"Open up, Giles," Lyon said softly. "I think a treasure lies therein."

At that, Thomas guffawed and whispered something to William, who turned and shook his head sadly, then averted his gaze with distaste from Thomas. Giles flinched and tried to pull his head down into his shoulders, but Lyon took his hand. "We'll hear what young Thomas has for wisdom, Giles, and then I think you can show him his error. Speak up, Thomas; the class would hear you."

Thomas flushed and tried to shrug it off, but Lyon was insistent. "Speak, Thomas, or I shall make you speak, and you won't like that one bit."

"I said," Thomas drawled, "that like the farmer he is, and after whom he takes his name, that Giles should no doubt find a clod within his hand, and that would be most suitable to his nature."

Lyon shook his head with regret. "Without the clod, and without those who labour with it to bring forth increase, our lives should be sad indeed, Thomas. Think on that the next time you hunger, or when you shiver for want of good clothing or firewood, or lack a horse to ride. Doesn't the name of our great good saint, George himself, mean 'earth worker' in Greek? But I think our Giles has more to his nature than that, noble enough though that would be, and now I bid you be silent so that we may see what he has chosen."

Giles opened his hand apprehensively, and then a smile lit up his face, a smile that Ranulf had never seen there before, pure and joyous. My God, he thought in shocked awe, he's beautiful. He looks like a little nut-brown angel. What can he have found in that bag of stones? Reaching forth a tentative fingertip, Giles stroked the stone that lay in his hand as though it were the most precious, the most wonderful thing he could imagine.

"I don't deserve this," he whispered. "Not this."

Lyon smiled. "Enough, Giles," he said. "It was meant for you, and you for it. We've all seen what's happened to you, but now perhaps you'd be kind enough to show us what has wrought such a change?"

Giles held the stone up reverently, like a priest adoring the Host. A disc like the others, but of swirled translucent milky greens, soft and glowing. All the stones had been beautiful in their way, even the carnelian that Thomas had repeatedly rejected, but this was truly lovely.

"Jade," Lyon said with awe in his voice. "The beauty of the Earth in all its growing glory. Prosperity, harmony and fruition. Wherever you walk, the flowers shall rise and all things flourish."

Giles looked unaccountably sad at that. "So Tom is right, after all, and I'm to be nothing but a farmer."

Lyon shook his head. "I spoke in metaphor, young Giles. True enough, should you wish it you would make a great grower of things, but your skills are more than that. Your connection with the things of Earth is to bring them to their potential, to flower in glory - and we are all creatures of Earth, remember, including poor proud Thomas who affects to despise the Mother who bore him. With a little work, perhaps, you might bring even him to beauty - and it might be a better harvest than any of us might now believe possible." He held the pouch open and Giles returned the cool green stone to its companions.

Ranulf almost wished now that he had chosen before Giles so that he might stay and celebrate with his friend, but now all eyes were on him as he stood and walked forward. He tried not to meet anyone's gaze as he put his hand into the soft cloth of the pouch, but to concentrate on which stone it should be that would suit him best. He wasn't sure how many stones there were in the bag; sometimes it seemed that there were no more than a dozen, sometimes it felt as though there were hundreds, but none felt any different from any of the others. They were all flat, smooth, cool, indifferent, none coming forward, none escaping his touch. He frowned, closed his eyes, and thrust his hand deeper into the pouch, thinking that perhaps the one he sought was trapped in a corner and thus so far unreached by him. But where was the corner? it had corners, he well knew; it was a doubled square of cloth sewn at the edges, no broader or longer at most than a good handspan, and yet the further he reached, the less able he was to locate not only the corners but even the edges of the pouch. It was as though the pouch itself had disappeared, and his hand could find only identical discs of stone. Something in the air of the room caused him to pause in his searching, and he opened his eyes to see Master Lyon watching him with an expression of puzzled concern.

"Master?" he said in wonder. "The stone I seek escapes me yet." Then he looked down at the pouch and recoiled. His arm was now within the pouch fully to the elbow, and yet there should barely have been room in there for him to spread his fingers. Where was his hand? He flexed it, and where he could feel his hand sliding among stones, he could see nothing but the empty air a full foot below the bottom of the pouch. Small noises of consternation and wonder escaped his classmates as he sank his arm another couple of inches deeper.

"If I were you, Ranulf," Lyon remarked calmly, "I should simply select one stone and withdraw my hand now. Any stone will do. Some boundaries should not be transgressed for too long, and I wonder how much longer that poor pouch can contain so many stones within it, never mind a great long arm like yours."

Very well, Ranulf thought. Any stone will do. One slid between his fingers and he grasped it, slowly pulling his arm from the pouch. It seemed much harder to get his hand out than it had been to put it in, and he wondered nervously, as his hand broke the surface of the stones a finger at a time, whether if he had reached any further the stones might not have released him at all. His hand escaped the pouch, and he smiled with relief. One stone and one stone alone lay in his grip, and he had completed the Trial of Earth.

Lyon chuckled. "Let us all devoutly hope that such great labour has brought forth something interesting. Ranulf, what is it that you have in your hand?"

Ranulf's hand opened, and he stared in puzzlement at the stone disc in his palm. It was as black as night, yet it was shot through with brilliant reds and burning golds. If anything, it most resembled Adam's opal in the way that the colours within slid through it as he moved his hand, but it was so dark! "What is it, Master?" he whispered, and he felt Lyon's fingers brush his palm as the stone was whisked away.

It seemed to take forever for Lyon to inspect the stone, and then when he spoke his voice was troubled. "I give you my word, Ranulf, I don't know. I thought I had seen every stone this bag could bring forth, both common and rare, but this is utterly unknown to me. Lapidillus incognitus, little unknown stone, if you must have a name for it, but that tells us nothing." He held it up for the rest of them to see. "Have any of you seen its like?"

They stood and crowded round, all marvelling at the stone, but none of them could put any name to it. Eventually Adam spoke up. "The best that I can say, Master, is that it's not completely unlike my opal, and yet it's black." His face broke into a grin. "Which is perhaps proper, since I am dark of complexion and chose a white opal, and Ranulf is fair and now he has a black opal to match mine!"

The boys seemed to find that an adequately satisfactory explanation and had begun to relax, when Lyon spoke. "An elegant solution, Adam, and one with which I would be more than happy to agree, but for one inconvenient fact: to the best of my knowledge, which in modesty I must say is extensive, there are no black opals. All of them are white or whitish, to a greater or lesser extent translucent, and with differing colours within: some showing more reds, some more greens and blues, and some with very little play of colour at all. But not black. A black opal is, so far as I know, unheard of. If Ranulf's stone is a black opal, I cannot begin to conjecture what its arcane properties might be; it might have the same power of attracting spirits, or it might not. Whatever the thing is - and it is lovely, I admit - I cannot say whether it is benevolent or injurious, and therefore" - he slid the disc warily into a pocket - "you are dismissed so that I can investigate Ranulf's lapidillus further. Return to your hall, and I shall speak with you later."

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