Summer has come to Sauterelle Lake, a vacation community in the Oregon Cascades, and seventeen-year-old Nick Verrou would rather roam the woods than work in his father’s general store. His curiosity and connection with nature have him dodging his job at every opportunity.
When he meets mysterious vacationer Willow and her family—and their unnerving pet wolf—Nick discovers that others share the powers he has tried to suppress. But Nick soon learns that nature’s magic can be more dangerous than he ever imagined. Now the real trick will be surviving until autumn . . .
The Silent Strength of Stones is the second novel by the author of A Red Heart of Memories and other acclaimed works. “A startling new voice in contemporary fantasy” (Locus), Nina Kiriki Hoffman “writes about magic creatively and with great feeling” (Kirkus Reviews).
The Silent Strength of Stones is the 2nd book in the Chapel Hollow Novels, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order. This ebook includes the bonus story “Words of Farewell.”
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The Silent Strength of Stones
A Chapel Hollow Novel
By Nina Kiriki Hoffman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Nina Kiriki Hoffman
All rights reserved.
The first time I saw Willow disappear was a couple of days after I met her, and she didn't know I was watching her — not unless she was a lot more devious than I thought she was, and as a master of deviousness, I was pretty sure I would know.
It was almost by chance I saw her disappear — but not quite. I was watching her on purpose. Willow's family had rented one of the Lacey cabins partway around the mountain lake from my father's dream come true, his crystal clear ice/piping hot coffee/firewood/nightcrawlers/ fishing gear/all-round-general-store-and-six-room-motel-out-back, the Venture Inn. I'd spent half my life on Sauterelle Lake, doing chores around the business, or ducking work to spy on visitors. I usually knew where to find people to watch.
The community was mighty thin of interest in the winters, when most of the lowlanders went back to their valley towns, and I had to take an hour-and-fifteen-minute bus ride just to get to school, except when we were snowed in and I didn't go to school at all. But right now it was late spring, prime viewing time, with summer people moving in. I liked to check the long-termers out early on, get a feel for their habits and figure out which people I would spend the most time studying. There were lots of overnighters and two-weekers, too, so there were always new people to examine.
The Lacey cabins had the most interesting people in them. They were upscale fancy; the grounds held tennis courts, a four-star restaurant, a lounge, a swimming pool for those who couldn't stand lake slime, and a community room where people could gather for barbecues or videos. People with money used the Lacey's as a hideout, some of them people whose pictures I had seen in magazines. If they had a reason for hiding out, I figured I had a reason to be interested in them, even though I never told anybody any of the things I discovered.
Some of the more rundown lodgings around Sauterelle Lake were popular with people who thought they wanted to make love out in nature or under the moon or by a crackling fire, not figuring on bugs, poison oak, jumpy sparks or splintery floors. I had watched enough of those people already, and usually just checked to make sure they were that sort of people before dropping them from my spy route.
I met Willow at the store, same way I met most people. That was why I liked cash register duty. A grin and a "Hi, my name is Nick Verrou. Y'all enjoying our lake?" would usually get them talking.
Willow was a small dark person, probably about my age, seventeen, where you're not allowed to call them a girl anymore, but she didn't strike me as a woman yet. There was something soft about her face, like she didn't have any idea how pretty she was, with those amber eyes and that soft short black hair and not a touch of makeup.
"I'm Willow. The lake is wonderful," she said. Her voice was deeper than I had expected it would be, with an edge of honey in it. "The skilliau are so strong here."
Before I could say, "Huh?" she smiled, put out her hand for change from the bill she'd given me for a Mars Bar, accepted the money, and left.
I went to the window and peeked past all the taped-up notices of community affairs, decals about soft drinks, and neon about beer. She was climbing into the back of an old black Ford truck, late thirties vintage, where two dark-haired teenage boys and a thin red-haired preteen girl already sat, all of them in sloganless white T-shirts and blue jeans. The girl had her arm around a very furry white dog, or maybe it was a wolf. None of the others reached out to help Willow in, though she ended up sitting awfully close — kissing close — to the older of the two boys.
A thin-faced man in the passenger seat up front leaned out the window and looked back, then said something to the driver. The dusty truck started up. It rattled away down the road past Mabel's Backwoods Cafe, taking the left turn toward the Lacey cabins and the Hidaway Motel. The driver was a heavier man, with shoulder-length hair. I thought for sure they were Hidaway types. The truck didn't say anything like enough money for Lacey's.
But the next morning before opening time and after my first sets with the barbells, when I had dipped my fingers in the lake in my morning greeting and walked part of my regular spy route, I saw the old black truck parked in front of the most remote Lacey cabin, the one closest to my secret forest path from the store, and farthest from the road.
Had to go sit on Father Boulder to think about that.
I had never told Pop or Granddad or anybody about Father Boulder, not even Mom when she was still living with us, though she had known more about me than anybody else. I tried not to make a track to the boulder, because I didn't want anybody else finding him. He was in a little clearing up among the Doug-firs and mountain hemlocks and ponderosa pines, the sword ferns and bracken, away from all roads. He huddled among a bunch of smaller rocks, but stood taller than all of them, with faint gray-green starbursts of lichen scattered over his pale speckled gray sunside. I could climb up on top easily by stepping on the scatter of smaller stones around him, and I went there when I really needed quiet.
All you could hear from there was the ocean noise of wind in the treetops, and waterfalls of bird notes and warbles. All you could smell was the spice of pine resin and the sand of stone, and damp mossy earth. Most of the day, sun touched the top of Father Boulder, if there was any sun at all.
It wasn't like I thought Father Boulder talked to me, or anything. It was just sometimes I lay on top and felt ... naw, that's too stupid to say. I felt a way I never felt at home. When I fell asleep on Father Boulder I had weird dreams, too, not like any of my other ones (which were weird enough, in their way).
After I saw the deadbeat Ford parked in front of a Lacey cabin, I sneaked up the hill to Father Boulder and lay down. The stone was cold from the night; sun was still low enough so the trees shielded the clearing, but I was warm from hiking uphill.
Four kids, two grown-ups, one wolf-dog, all living in Lacey Number Five, which had one master bedroom and two small singles. Crowded for six people and a dog. Big living room, though, with couches that could double as beds (I'd helped the Laceys with end-of-season cabin cleaning every year, and I knew all the layouts). What were these people doing in that cabin? What was skilia, or whatever Willow had said?
I didn't want to think about that particular question, or the way my fingers had tingled after I touched her hand, dropping change in her palm. Stupid. Should be thinking about Kristen, the blonde in Lacey Number Eight; she'd been coming up here three summers now, and she had flirted with me when she stopped in at the store, but she had ignored me majorly at the Friday night dances in Parsley's Hall. This winter I had been working out with weights, and had some upper body development to show for it. I had only seen Kristen once so far this spring, but I thought maybe this year she'd take a second look at me. I was sure taking as many looks as I could at her, because her shape had improved over the winter, too, in front, and her hair was long and heavy and almost moon-pale. I wanted to touch it and go on from there.
I lay on my stomach on Father Boulder, coolness soaking into me, and wondered if Paul and Jeremy were coming to the lake this summer. I had always had a hard time making friends, especially with guys, but by the end of last summer they invited me to join them at the basketball hoop back of Parsley's Hall, at least — didn't need much conversation for that. I had even gone to the pool at Lacey's with them once or twice.
My watch alarm peeped at me. It sounded dumb, this little techno noise in the middle of nature, so I turned it off right away, then crept back down to the forest floor, slapping Father Boulder once to say thank you. I would have to skip the rest of the route and get right back to the store.
As I slipped past Lacey Number Five, I glanced between screening trees and saw something strange: Willow and the red-haired girl were standing between the cabin and the lake, their arms stretched to the sky. They were chanting something, their voices thin, blending perfectly. I stood and listened for a little while. They were singing to my lake, after all. My mother had taught me to touch water at sunrise, letting the lake taste me while I felt its touch, and there was something about these girls singing that reminded me of that; but I couldn't catch the words, and the whole thing was making my back twitch.
At the store I spent at least half an hour arguing with some one-day visitors, yuppies who were upset because we didn't carry their favorite brand of sunscreen. I thought Pop should expand on sunscreen — people would spend almost ten dollars on a tube if it was the kind they wanted; I read up on it in GQ. But Pop never listened to advice from me.
For the longest time I couldn't convince these people we didn't have a magic carpet that would fly down to the Valley and pick up whatever they happened to want.
I finally talked them into buying the brand we carried by pitching it harder than it deserved. When at last they headed out, I breathed out a whew and turned to find Willow watching me.
"What?" I said, annoyed. I hated discovering people were watching me without my knowing it. Go figure.
"You have a way with words," she said.
"Thanks. I think."
"They turn slippery when you use them," she said, "and they taste like fresh bread."
This was definitely the weirdest thing anybody had ever said to me directly. I raised my eyebrows at her, not knowing how to answer.
"Say something to me," she said, and there was a nudge in her voice stronger than the ones I used to get from my mom when she still lived with us.
"Uh — would you come to the dance Friday with me?"
Willow cocked her head and frowned. She ran her index finger over her lips. She shook her head.
"You don't dance?" I asked.
"You're not doing it," she said.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
She came and leaned her elbows on the counter, propping her chin in her hands, her dark yellow eyes staring into mine. "Nick," she said, her voice deep and velvety, "will you come to the dance with me on Friday?" Promises lay in her voice like baited fish hooks on a line.
I said yes before I even thought.
She grinned, dimples dancing in both cheeks. "See?" she said. "You could do that."
I locked the register and went out to straighten the magazines, not looking at Willow. Something about what had just happened made a hot lump lodge in my throat. I knew that when I really pushed, I was a hell of a salesman. A kind of energy filled me, a heat that brightened my brain until words slid from my mouth, smooth and elegant, convincing people of things they didn't want to believe. When I first figured it out I had a great time selling people things they didn't want. The problem with that was they came back later, upset, or they didn't come back at all because they didn't want me to do it again. Besides, it made me feel hollow and echoey and a little sick inside. So now I reserved the extra push for special occasions; but I didn't want anybody else to know about it.
"When should I pick you up?" Willow said from behind me. Her voice sounded subdued.
"Seven-thirty," I said. When I turned around, she was gone.
Mariah, a wild-haired forty-eight-year-old artist who spent the winters painting pictures and the summers selling them, came by at noon to spell me on the register, as she did every day. I went back past the storeroom to Pop's and Granddad's and my living room/dining room/kitchen, and built myself a sandwich. A few minutes later Mariah ducked in to hand me the mail. There was another letter from Mom. I folded it in half and stuck it in my back pocket. When I finished eating and washing up I put the other mail where Pop would find it when he got back from his thrift-store raiding trip to town.
With half an hour of lunchbreak left, I went upstairs to my bedroom. It was narrow, just wide enough for a bed, a dresser, and a small carpeted space where my barbells sat. I used to have pictures of wild animals all over the walls, ones Mom had bought for me or taken out of nature magazines and helped me pin up. When she left I took them all down and lived with blank white walls pricked with tack holes.
I opened the bottom drawer of the dresser, got out the stack of letters Mom had sent me, and stuck the current one under the rubber band. When I held the first one in my hand, I could scarcely breathe, I was so angry. I had had to put it down before I could get any breath. It had reminded me of the panic attack I'd had the day she left. Spooked, I burned that one, and for a while I burned them every month as soon as they arrived, but they kept coming, and eventually I started saving them. I hadn't read any of them. Didn't know if I ever would. Each time one came, though, about once a month, I felt faintly reassured. At least she was still alive somewhere. I didn't any longer wish she were dead.
I picked up the third volume in the Lord Calardane series and read for a little while. My watch beeped just when he discovered a nest of monsters in the sewers and realized they were actually nice and might help him get the all-curing elixir from the Castle of Infinite Illusion. I always liked that about Calardane, that he didn't slice anybody's head off with his sword until he was sure they were mean.
Mariah took off as soon as I got back. Something was missing from the things hanging on the back wall behind the register where Pop had mounted antique fishing equipment. I had to study a bit until I figured out it was the wicker creel Granddad used ages ago until he couldn't mend the leather strap any longer.
No wonder Mariah had run off. She knew she wasn't supposed to sell that stuff, but she couldn't say no to some people, especially light-haired men with sun crinkles next to their blue eyes and wide smiles full of teeth. She had been in love with somebody like that once, I figured, and she kept hoping he would come back. Or maybe she thought if she gave one of these guys what he really wanted she would get a reward.
I leaned against the counter for a while with my eyes closed. I could try to rearrange everything so there was no broad blank spot. Maybe Pop wouldn't notice the creel was gone. I had managed to fool him when Mariah sold the bamboo rod, but that hadn't been anywhere near as important as the creel.
I sighed and ran out a register tape to see if she'd actually entered the sale. The first time I caught her at this, she had showed me that at least she hadn't kept the money. This time there was a sale labeled "misc" for twelve dollars, and I knew we didn't have anything in the store that cost twelve dollars. Everything cost something ninety-five, as if that fools anybody into thinking it costs a whole dollar less.
For a minute there I really wanted to hit Mariah. Twelve dollars couldn't buy a replacement for family history. It was a stupid amount. She'd sold me out to Pop for twelve dollars. I wanted to hit her, and kill the guy who had talked her into selling it. Instead I just finished my shift and closed up the store at five, like always, leaving the big blank spot on the wall behind me, where Pop would see it right away. I ran out the end-of-day register tape and put it with the account book and sales graph paper on Pop's desk in the living room/dining room/kitchen in back, straightened stuff, restocked whatever I could from the storeroom, and then headed out for my evening prowl.
This time I decided to go the opposite direction. I checked out the tumbledown cabins on Old Man Fortrey's property (nobody home), took a look at the lawyer's weekender up the ridge (nobody home), and cruised past some other places. Smelled steaks cooking over an outdoor grill at Benningtons' and wished I was invited. But I never had been.
There were a few other places up at the end of the road, but I was too curious about Willow and her family to finish out my route. None of the usual suspects who took those cabins had been by the store yet, anyway. Maybe Memorial Day weekend. The school teachers would be loose just after that, and the big families with school-age kids.
Excerpted from The Silent Strength of Stones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Copyright © 1995 Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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