The Star Shard

Part 10

Cricket Magazine - The Star Shard - Part 10by Frederic S. Durbin
illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh

Something heavy hit Cymbril from behind, knocking her facedown into the icy water. The stream penetrated her clothing all at once. Her shriek came out in bubbles; water flooded into her nose and mouth, bringing the sensation of liquid fire. She groped for handholds in sand and slime as the current pushed her backward. At last her feet bumped against solid rock, and she struggled upright, coughing out water. Flinging soaked hair from her face, she searched for Loric--and froze in dismay.

Bale had found them. The hound stood astride Loric, pinning him in the stream. Bale’s jaws gripped Loric’s neck, but he did not bite down. Snarling a low threat, he held the Sidhe’s head out of the water, keeping him a prisoner until Master Rombol arrived. Ears flat, the dog turned one amber eye toward Cymbril, warning her not to move.

She sagged to her knees, hugging herself. She felt as if the water’s ice had frozen her heart. They had been so close--but Rombol had won.

“Cymbril,” Loric said quietly. The brook made his hair billow and swirl like the plants beneath the sea at Roadsend. “This hound isn’t going to hurt me. You can make it into Gorhyv Glyn. My parents will take care of you. Someday soon I’ll join you there.”

Cymbril shook her head. “When we go, we’ll go together.”

He started to argue, but torches flared through the leaves. The brush thrashed, and soldiers appeared at the top of the bank. The first men hollered to others, reporting that Cymbril and Loric were found.

Wiltwain crashed from the bushes, followed by Rombol himself. Where the roots made a crude staircase, they led their party into the ravine. The men-at-arms were muddy, soaked, and covered with scratches. Forming a ring around each of the two, the soldiers pointed spears at them and appeared none too happy to be standing in cold water before sunrise.

Wiltwain glared at Cymbril, hands on his belt, but left words to the Master of the Rake. There was a sense of distance in the Overseer’s gaze, something more complex than anger; Cymbril supposed he felt she had betrayed him by throwing away his mercy. He kept shaking his head, too, as if he couldn’t believe her stupidity.

Rombol splashed first to the group surrounding Loric. “Bale!” he said. “Stand down. Good lad.”

Bale released Loric and backed two steps away, his muzzle wrinkled in warning.

For an endless moment the Master silently glowered, and it was worse than his worst bellowing. In the ravine’s chill, his breath emerged as white puffs. He signaled for Cymbril to be brought closer; in her fall, she’d been washed fifteen or twenty paces downstream. The guards seized her elbows and dragged her forward with no gentleness, leaving her shivering beside Loric.

Rombol stared into the tree limbs, perhaps to control his rage. Then he looked down at the two and spoke in a dangerous, quiet tone. “You disappoint me. You, Loric, with your ‘Yes, Master. No, Master.’ And you, Cymbril--the Rake has been your home. This is how you thank me.”

Cymbril refused to cower. She stayed crouching in the stream but raised her chin and stared back.

“There will be changes now,” Rombol said. “And if they are not to your liking, remember who is to blame.” He nodded to the guards, who grabbed Loric and Cymbril. Rombol turned away.

“Wait!” said Cymbril in the firmest voice she could manage.

Rombol stood still. Wiltwain gave Cymbril a scathing glance and shook his head. Don’t speak, his expression said.

The Rake’s Master slowly faced Cymbril. “You have something to say?”

Cymbril felt her jaw trembling and willed it to stop. Water from her doused hair trickled into her eyes. “I have a deal to offer you.”

Rombol took a slogging step closer. “What?” He wasn’t asking what the deal was. It sounded more as if he couldn’t believe what she’d just said.

“A deal,” she repeated, trying hard to look and sound like the trader Brigit. “You’ve said it yourself. All the world is a market. Everything has a price.”

Rombol crossed his massive arms, apparently not flattered to be quoted under these circumstances. He said nothing, but towered above her like a seething storm cloud.

Cymbril didn’t dare to let herself think what she was doing. Pulling her arm free of the guard’s grip, she reached into her pocket.

“Cymbril,” said Loric, “no!”

The Star Shard blazed in her hand, its blue-green light dancing on a thousand ripples in the stream.

Most of the guards had never seen the stone before. They gaped or squinted, and one gave a low whistle. Bale growled at it, hackles raised. It lit up the glade as if a star really had fallen to Earth.

“Our freedom,” Cymbril said, “for this stone.”

“More deception,” Rombol said. “I know the elf stone will not leave you. It always comes back to the hand of its little mistress.”

“It will remain yours if I give it to you.” She extended it toward him. “You can satisfy yourself of the truth before we go.”

The Star Shard illuminated tears on Loric’s cheeks.

“It is a great treasure of my father’s people,” Cymbril said. “Well worth two slaves who will never serve you happily.”

Wiltwain’s eyes narrowed as he looked keenly from her to Rombol.

The Master snatched the stone from her. Cymbril gasped as it went. She curled her fingers on emptiness. She would never hold it again, never half glimpse her parents’ faces behind its glow.


Rombol rubbed it on his shirt, held it up toward one of the torches, and studied it with one eye shut, then the other. “Well,” he said at last, shrugging, “it is a pretty rock, obviously Sidhe, clearly magical. But not of perfect shape, and not all that rare.” He looked down sideways at her. “This stone will buy freedom for one of you. Do you have any other deals to make?”

He was thinking of the hairpin, trying to get it as well. “I have nothing else,” Cymbril said numbly, still flexing her hand. “I had to give up my hairpin to open Loric’s iron collar. It’s gone.”

“So is the lock,” said Rombol. “And believe me, it did not come cheap. That’s destruction of my property.”

Anger rose within Cymbril. “That one stone is worth much more than you paid for both of us. You know that! If you want it, you must let us go!”

“Must?” Rombol’s lip curled, an expression matching Bale’s. He looked at the guards, and a few snickered obediently. “You’ve made your offer,” said Rombol. “You’ve heard mine. Do we have a deal or not? Does one of you leave the Rake, or do you both come back and learn to be content?”

Cymbril pressed her lips together. The breeze knifed through her wet clothes. She would have to buy Loric’s escape. Then she would go back to the Rake, back to punishment--probably chains. And she would no longer have the treasures to comfort her.

“Quickly, girl,” said Rombol, “before we all catch our deaths of cold. What will it be?”

She tossed her bedraggled hair. “It will be Loric. Let him go.”

“No,” said Loric. “I won’t go.”

Rombol nodded, raising his brows. “Fair and done. Go home, Fey boy. The Rake will manage without you. Swamp travel was not one of my better ideas.”

A few guards smiled. None laughed.

Loric started to protest again, but at that moment a night bird swooped over his head, twittering. With a curious light in his eye, he fell silent.

“On your guard!” said Wiltwain. “He’s up to something.”

The soldiers snapped to postures of defense, scanning the woods. Bale sniffed the air.

Cymbril hardly cared what was happening. She’d lost her dearest possessions, and the days ahead seemed as dark as if the sun would never rise. Like a sleepwalker, she got to her feet. Would sunlight feel warm on her face? Would she ever again have the heart to sing?

“There!” Wiltwain pointed to the top of the bank. “Something’s coming.”

Rombol drew a short sword. The Star Shard’s light leaked out through the fingers of his other fist.

The bushes divided. Into the firelight plodded Urrt. Cymbril’s heart leaped. She’d never been so happy to see him.

“You are all still here,” Urrt said, waddling to the ravine’s edge. “Very good, very good.”

The bird sang again from a high limb. Cymbril watched Loric’s face. Clearly, he understood what the bird was saying. Of course! The witches’ spells of confusion had no power this far from the Rake.

Behind Urrt, another of the Rake’s Urrmsh trundled out of the forest—and another behind that one.

“What is your business here?” demanded Rombol.

“The kindly bird tells me,” said Urrt, as more of the Strongarms appeared, dozens of them, lining the top of the bank, “that our Cymbril has just made a purchase from you, Rake Master. Her precious family treasure for the freedom of this Sidhe lad.”

“Yes,” said Rombol. “And what is that to you, Master Strongarm?”

There were now more than a hundred Urrmsh on the ravine’s edge. Cymbril had never seen them move so quickly.

Urrt scratched his warty jaw. “It seems today’s marketing has begun early. We are here to do some buying of our own.”

At the line’s far end, a Strongarm held up a large, empty leather sack. From his belt purse, he took a handful of coins—which, when measured by an Urrmsh hand, was a mound of copper and silver. The Strongarm dropped it into the sack and passed it to the next Urrmsh. That one also tossed in money, earned from wages, from feats of strength in the markets—and handed the sack along.

“Nothing is forgotten in the songs of the Urrmsh,” said Urrt. “We remember exactly how much you paid for little Cymbril: that was one hundred pieces of gold. A stiff price to offer a starving old woman who would have taken less, but you always strive for fairness, Master Rombol. You knew, considering Cymbril’s parentage, that she would grow into someone extraordinary. And so she has.” He smiled his uneven smile, and the sack came along the line, getting heavier.

An aching lump rose in Cymbril’s throat.

“For Cymbril’s freedom,” Urrt said, “we offer you the equivalent of one thousand gold pieces—in small denominations, such as we have. Ten times what you paid, for she’s developed many qualities since then. It’s not nearly as much as she’s worth, because our bag isn’t big enough. Nor is your vault.”

Wiltwain grinned until Rombol looked his way.

“I wasn’t really thinking of selling her,” the Master grumbled.

“Were you not?” asked Urrt, turning his round eyes meaningfully upon the Star Shard.

Rombol might have haggled under the sun in an open market square. But coinage equaling a thousand gold pieces was a dazzling sum, and it occurred to Cymbril that Rombol wouldn’t want to offend the Armfolk—even he couldn’t afford enough horses to pull the Rake. “Fair and done,” the Master said.

When Urrt had added his coins, the huge sack bulged, swinging in his grasp. None of Rombol’s men would be able to lift it. “I’ll carry this for you,” said Urrt. “And as a token of your goodwill for the morning’s good business, perhaps you might send for Loric’s clothes. And Cymbril’s wardrobe, too; she can wear her dresses to remember us by.”

With her face, Cymbril tried to show her thankfulness. Even if she lived to be older than Mistress Ilda, she’d never be able to repay the Urrmsh.

“All agreed,” said Rombol, sighing impatiently. “Now, I’ve had quite enough of this streambed. We have a market to open.” He turned to Cymbril. The anger was gone from his face. It was not yet daylight, and he’d already made two profitable deals. “I’ll have your clothes delivered right there, to that flat boulder on the slope.” He looked around into the leafy, gurgling shadows. “So the stories are true. The door to the elf country is in this wood. I suppose you know your way from here?”

“Yes, Former Master,” said Loric.

“Well, then,” said Rombol. “Good-bye.”

Cymbril offered her hand. He grasped it briskly, then strode away, Bale at his heels.

Wiltwain crouched on one knee, right in the current, and gripped Cymbril’s shoulders. “Well bargained.”

“Like Brigit?” asked Cymbril hopefully.

“Well ... yes,” he said. “But don’t strive to be like her. You’re much better off as Cymbril.” His eyes twinkled behind the greasy locks of his hair. “I think we’ll meet again, Thrush of the Rake. And I’m certain I’ll hear of you.”

“I’ll come to the markets now and then,” she said.

Wiltwain laughed softly and nodded. “Find those minstrel friends of yours and come sing for us. You name your wage.”

A lightness tickled her insides. She could do that; she was free now to do anything ... to go anywhere her feet would carry her, to stay wherever the stars or the breezes seemed kind.

The guards followed the Master and the Overseer up the steep bank. One by one,

the Urrmsh vanished into the forest. With the bag of coins straining over his shoulder, Urrt waved a giant hand.

At last Cymbril and Loric were alone, except for the bird, who seemed overflowing with things to say.

Loric took Cymbril’s hands and fell to his knees. Diamonds of water shimmered in his brambly hair. “I haven’t thanked you for saving me in the swamp. Now I’ll never catch up.”

She pulled him to his feet and glanced toward the dark archway into Gorhyv Glyn. “Oh yes, you will.”

They hurried forward. The dim tunnel, scented with sweet, wild growing things, led toward a distant grove of floating mist. Though still piercing, the water no longer made Cymbril shiver.

“I’ll find you another Star Shard,” said Loric, wading beside her. “I’ll never stop looking until I’ve found just the one.”

“Let’s look for it together,” she said. There were many things she wanted to look for, both in the Fey realm and in the world of humankind. She was born of both; that was another treasure from her parents, one that truly could not be taken or given away.

The tunnel opened into a forest—the trees familiar, yet looking ancient and deep of root, leaves rustling as they awoke from undisturbed tree-dreams. Among the roots spread a carpet of green-gold flowers for as far as Cymbril could see; they shone with their own light, as if the mossy ground were a mirror of the night sky.

The sky! The stars were growing pale, winking out, but she saw more of them than she would have thought possible. No wonder their shards fell to Earth--the heavens hardly had room for so many.

Away beyond the trunks, golden lamplight flickered. Enchanting music drifted there--haunting strains that Cymbril sometimes heard in dreams. The aroma was stronger.

“A picnic,” said Loric, breathing deeply.

Branches swayed. A man and a woman came along a path, his shirt and her gown rippling like the stream’s sparkles. Their long hair was the color of the moon, and the woman’s was twined with luminous blossoms. Birds were leading them, chirping and darting ahead as the pair followed in wondering excitement.

“My parents!” cried Loric, catching Cymbril’s hand and running toward them. The two tall Sidhe had beautiful faces, but most of all, Cymbril took note of the kindness and love in their eyes.

Rose-colored light grew in the east. The bird had followed Cymbril and Loric through the tunnel, and though its song had not changed, she suddenly began to catch words in it--yes, words!

Never fear, never fear!

Laughing, Loric’s parents swept him into their arms, and without even knowing who she was--or maybe they did know--they pulled Cymbril in, too.

The bird settled on a new theme: The sun is coming up! The sun is coming up!

Cymbril felt the warm light on her face.

So it was.



copyright (c) 2009 by Frederic S. Durbin