Set In Stone
by Michael Balletti
Michael Balletti lives in New Jersey. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Thirteen Podcast, Sci-Fi Lampoon Magazine, Novel Noctule, Lovecraftiana, The Weird and Whatnot, Theme of Absence and 200 CCs, among others.
The giant stone gargoyle sat motionless at the top of the castle, gazing solemnly at the first rays of the sun. For many an age he and his brothers had guarded the leaders that ruled within, protecting them from enemies inside and beyond the vast kingdom.
He had protected kings who reigned with kindness and generosity and those that governed with cruelty and greed, through extended intervals of peace and prosperity and through ages of war and famine. He never judged. His duty was to protect and serve the monarch.
An early spring day was unfolding across the sky. Melinda will awaken soon, he thought. She loved the spring—the rebirth of nature and the dawn of new beginnings. Sometimes she would visit him in the early morning, with a teddy bear in hand, lean against his massive frame and speak about the day that was about to unfold or of days that had passed.
“Your thoughts dwell too long on the king’s daughter,” a voice whispered in his head. To the right, a stone brother sat frozen on the ledge, staring silently toward the horizon, marble veins bulging within his straining neck. The gargoyles had no names but could communicate their thoughts to one another.
“What else is left to dwell upon?”
There was no reply.
The gargoyles had been fashioned during the golden age of magic, when wizards and witches could wield as much power as entire armies. During the first Great War, the wizard Malto created 12 gargoyles from a single block of virgin white marble and presented them to King Rem. The offering proved vital in securing victory, but the king grew distrustful of the wizard’s powers and executed him—with the sorcerer’s very own creation.
But the years that followed were unkind to King Rem. Although the gargoyles were beholden to the king’s will—and he was not bashful to use them to get his way—his suspicions of the graying guardians grew. An angry and vengeful Malto haunted the king’s dreams, twisting his mind into believing that the creatures would exact their creator’s revenge.
The king’s remaining days were spent locked away in his private chambers as fear and despair diseased his mind and body. One early winter morning, a servant discovered King Rem in the castle’s oratory. The king’s emaciated frame was huddled in the corner, his hair shriveled into spidery silver strands, his eyes and ears gouged with iron spikes.
Melinda was on the rooftop behind him. He knew she was there even though he could not turn his head. She walked toward his post upon the ledge, spread her arms across his broad back and rested her head between his shoulders.
The sun was growing over the horizon. A soft wind blew Melinda’s chestnut brown hair about her face. If only he could freeze this moment, somehow alter the flow of nature and stop the changes. There were always changes. He existed through all of them, but this one was different.
“I’m going to miss you,” she whispered. Her voice was like sweet poison to his ears. Many minutes passed. He wished for more.
Subsequent kings had used their marble protectors to preserve or expand their empire, but each succeeding year brought further misgivings. As time passed, stories of Malto’s revenge turned into legend, leaving each king more apprehensive and anxious. Finally, King Crawn ordered a lesser wizard to cast a spell that rooted the creatures to the castle as a warning to potential enemies, but they were never again permitted to leave their stony perch. The wizard complied. He was then destroyed.
King Crawn’s paranoia grew until every practitioner of magic was erased from existence.
The golden age of magic died.
Visitors had come in the past. Some of the servants had made their way to the top of the castle throughout the centuries. A few had made mindless chatter with the silent sentinels, but most viewed them as grotesque monsters from a dark age.
Melinda was different. He knew it the first time he saw her as a child. She was barely four years old when her father, King Romus, brought her to gaze upon their empire. The gargoyle had long ago learned to read human eyes, and he recognized in the little girl a warmth and understanding well beyond her years.
Melinda’s unchaperoned visits began in her seventh year. At first, she said nothing. She would stroll upon the vast rooftop and soak in her surroundings. Then one day, as she circled the roof, Melinda stopped and placed her tiny hand upon the gargoyle’s shoulder, bent forward and looked into the creature’s left eye. She watched for a moment, searching for something in the stone—a stone that long ago had turned from white to gray to greenish-gray. Then Melinda smiled, seemingly satisfied with whatever it was she was looking for, and spoke of the night that lay ahead. She told him that special people were arriving for dinner and that she was to be on her best behavior.
A friendship was born.
Darkness settled upon the land. The silver moon hung indifferently in the night sky as the kingdom slept. Melinda was resting in her room. He could feel the rhythm of her breathing. He could envision the teddy bear she should have long outgrown held against her chest.
“This is something we have seen again and again,” a voice said to him. It was his brother sitting to the right. He could feel the other gargoyles agreeing silently.
“This is different,” he said.
“She speaks to me.”
“She speaks to herself.”
The words brought a hot fire to the gargoyle’s icy torso.
“You do not understand,” he replied.
There was a sigh.
“It does not matter,” the voice said. “Tomorrow, she will be taken to the land across the sea and be married. The visits will cease, and she will belong to someone else.”
There was no reply.
Thick gray clouds obscured the morning sun, but the dawn arrived nevertheless. The pageantry was already blossoming below. Men and women dressed in their finest garments came bearing gifts and wishes of luck and prosperity.
He wondered if Melinda would come to say goodbye. He hoped she would but would understand if she did not. He could see her departure from above, and perhaps that would be best. A quick, imperceptible glance up at him would be enough. Maybe goodbyes are better left unsaid.
Like an apparition, Melinda appeared. She was still wearing her nightdress, the toy bear dangling perilously in her right hand. Even in the morning gloom, she seemed to radiate the sun. She walked up behind him and rested her head against his shoulder, her fingers tracing the rough edges in the stone.
“All these people are here to see me,” she said.
His chest grew tight. These were the first of the last words he would hear her speak.
“They can wait, though. I have to spend my last morning here with my friend.”
His frame trembled. He was unsure if she had felt it.
Melinda dropped her toy and pulled out a tiny bottle. He remembered the bottle. He had not seen it since Melinda was a child. She would blow soapy bubbles for hours then. He wished she could do it forever now.
A faint smile flickered across Melinda’s lips as she blew the first bubble. A smile that reminded him of the child she had been and revealed the young woman she had become. Sleek fingers held the wand delicately, giving life to bubble after bubble, every move a mark of grace. The sun pierced through the dreary veil of clouds, apparently at her command.
“When I was a little girl, I used to pretend this wand was special,” she said. “The king’s library is vast, and I spent a lot of my childhood reading.”
The gargoyle watched as the bubbles floated past. They were growing in shape and size. A few popped on his shoulders and back, leaving behind a strange residue.
“Even the tomes that were said to be wicked.”
At first, the gargoyle thought the magnitude of the moment was getting the better of him. But then he could no longer ignore the warm energy that was forming in his midsection. Perhaps this is what dying feels like, he thought absently. Somehow that comforted him, but he soon realized that the shadow of death would never fall on him. That final curtain fell only on the living.
“The magic that holds you here is strong, but not that strong,” Melinda said. “It took a while to figure out the proper measurements, the proper ingredients, but I finally unlocked the secret.”
The gargoyle’s belly was smoldering, melting away the cold void that had been growing there since his sentence on the ledge. Finally, rays of light blazed in separate directions, delivering current to his body, bringing life to his torso and legs. His neck and spine loosened, became malleable, allowing the gargoyle to rotate his head for the first time in ages. Small pieces of marble broke free and then tumbled as the gargoyle wiggled one gnarled toe and then another from his fixed slab.
Melinda continued her game. Her face was almost lost amid the shiny silver bubbles floating in the air, but the creature could feel that Melinda’s smile had widened.
The gargoyle flexed his back and raised his head toward the heavens, unleashing a mighty roar that caused the well-wishers below to pause and tilt their heads toward the rooftop. It had been so long since he had heard his own voice.
The morning sun was glowing like a brilliant gold medallion, warming the gargoyle’s now glistening frame. He turned and looked at Melinda. Her nightdress danced in the sunlight, giving her an ethereal quality, as her small feminine frame shook with happiness. Tears welled in her eyes.
The gargoyle tried as best he could to return the smile. Now he understood. Melinda was giving him a gift, a gift that he could not share with his brothers. It was his alone.
Finally, the gargoyle pushed with his massive thighs, separating himself from the ledge with a powerful crack, and reached out toward Melinda’s soapy spheres. He noticed his brother, who had been a fixture on his right for so many centuries, gaze at him in fear and disbelief. A silent scream distorted his features.
The air was like ice as the gargoyle inhaled and burned like fire as it exited. It did not matter. He showed Melinda that he was listening and that he cared.
As he soared toward the horizon, he realized she had known.