The Star Shard

Part 2

by Frederic S. Durbin
illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh
Brigit and Rombol

Rombol blinked. As if waking from a daydream, he glanced at his fellow merchants. “Worth it? How?”

Brigit’s horse snorted, almost as if expressing scorn at Rombol’s ignorance. “They can see in the dark, for one thing,” Brigit said. “With these eyes on your prow, you’ll be able to run the Rake from Fencet to Ardle, straight through the Groag Swamp. A single night, open for business in the dawn. I believe you tried it once before and broke two wheels.”

One of her riders snickered, crooked teeth and a bearded chin in the shadows.

A gray-haired merchant spoke up—old Crenlaw, who seemed not to care if he offended the riders. “Do you take us for fools, Brigit? It’s impossible to keep one of the Elder folk as a prisoner for very long. The birds of the air are all spies for the Sidhe. This boy’s people will come to get him. Elfin enchanters are not to be trifled with.”

Brigit’s eyes shone in the torch fire like those of a fox. “Master Rombol’s not worried about that. He has paid handsomely for spells of protection laid upon this Rake by the Witches of Erebus. Your rolling city is safe from Fey enchanters.”

Rombol licked his lips. “ ‘For one thing,’ you said. What else can this boy do?”

Brigit nudged her horse forward. When she was looming above the Rake’s Master, she leaned closer with an elbow on her knee. “I think I need say no more except this: a thousand pieces of gold.”

Rombol’s lip curled. “Seven hundred. He looks sickly.”

“A Sidhe child is worth a thousand and a half. I’m being generous.”

“You’re never generous. Eight.”

The horse swished its tail. Brigit raised her eyebrows, using the power of her pale stare, her mounted height, and silence. Cymbril had never seen anyone bargain so impertinently with Rombol—not even dismounting to speak to him. She couldn’t help but admire this woman for whom the Rake had stopped in its tracks.

“I’ll wait for a lower price,” said Rombol. “Who else would you sell him to? Only the King himself could pay what you ask, and he prefers to keep peace with the Fey folk. He’d not be likely to buy one of their children.”

Brigit blinked languidly. “I could find other buyers. But you can afford nine hundred.”

Rombol looked around his group and then again at the gold-eyed boy, who stared back, his mouth getting even smaller.

“Eight-fifty, fair and done,” said Rombol. “But first, we see him walk and hear him talk.” He sent his vault keeper for the gold.

The man on the black horse lowered his light-haired charge to the deck. Cymbril thought the boy looked about her age—if the Sidhe aged like humans. He was slender, his dust-colored trousers torn and muddy, his long, rippling shirt bound at the waist with a silver rope. His boots seemed stitched of leaves and made no sound as he walked slowly toward Rombol. Shoulders square, he gazed up at the merchant. If the boy was afraid, he didn’t show it.

Brigit watched without expression, but Cymbril noticed one hand near her sword hilt.

“What are you called?” Rombol demanded.

“I am Loric, New Master.” The boy spoke with a lilting accent, as if the words of humans felt strange in his mouth.

“New Master?” Rombol gripped the boy’s shoulder and shook him jovially. “Well said, Loric. Remember that, and you’ll do splendidly here. Forget it, and you’ll be sorry.”

The money was brought and counted, piece by piece, from one bag to another. Loric stood silently, his eyes following the flash of each gold coin. When Rombol glared at him suspiciously, the boy returned his New Master’s gaze with rapt attention. “Do not stare,” growled Rombol. “Do not look me or anyone in the eye. And do not look at what is not yours.”

Loric closed his eyes tightly and stood still as a tree.

Rombol glowered. “What are you doing, boy?”

“Nothing around me is mine, New Master. I cannot look at anything.”

Rombol’s thick hand twitched, and Cymbril was sure he was about to strike Loric. But instead the Master leaned close to Loric’s face. “Don’t be a fool,” he rumbled quietly. “Open your eyes.”

Loric did so, looking confused, and bowed from the neck. “I will try to learn your ways quickly,” he said.

“H’m,” said Rombol, gnawing his lip as he straightened and watched the boy through squinted eyes.

“In another day,” said Brigit, wheeling her horse around, “you’ll wonder how you managed without him.” She lingered at the top of the ramp, surveying the group a final time. “Until we meet again.” She charged away, leading her party into the night. Loric raised a hand in farewell, but none of the riders looked at him.

Old Crenlaw watched from the ramp’s top. When the hoofbeats had faded, he made a show of coughing up phlegm and spitting it noisily after them.

A merchant turned Loric around. “Do you sleep, Fey boy?”

“Yes,” said Loric. “I’m very tired now.”

They ushered him away, fingering his hair and shirt, exclaiming how rare he was.

Cymbril sat for a long time on the wagon’s footboards, hugging her knees, restless. If only the red-scarved woman long ago had sold her to someone like Brigit instead of Rombol, she could be galloping away now with the riders, the night wind in her hair. In her mind she wove a dream in which Brigit was her cousin, teaching her to shoot arrows from the saddle.


HER SLEEPING DREAMS, during the scant hours she had to rest, were filled with tall, graceful people she could not clearly see, figures with pale hair streaming in the moonlight. They seemed to be searching for something—or someone—calling and calling a name she could not quite hear. There was far-off, haunting music, too. But when Cymbril tried to listen, she heard only the Rake’s pounding.

She jerked awake. The Rake had already stopped moving. Beyond the walls of her cramped bunk, the merchants were shouting, dragging parcels, and wheeling carts. It must be nearly sunrise! Snatching her hairbrush, she scrambled from beneath her frayed cover and tumbled barefoot into the hall, the floorboards cool with early summer. A few of the other maidservants were still at the kettles, where coals burned in an iron pit and steam rose through the ceiling hatch into a rosy sky.

Cymbril splashed warm water over her arms and face, scrubbed with the gritty gray soap, and pulled the brush through her hair. Then she dashed back to her chamber to wriggle into her blue dress. She hated its sleeves, puffy at the shoulders and so tight around the wrists that they were impossible to roll up. The sleeves also had brocaded points that came down the backs of her hands as if to show her where her fingers were. She straightened her hair again, dropped her treasures into her waist pocket, and hurried to line up in the ramp hold.

On the first balcony above, her hiding place of the previous night was crowded with horses, mules, and drivers. Chickens clucked, harnesses creaked, and merchants barked at slaves. Crafters, tailors, cooks, and peddlers waited to descend on Highcircle, where even fine lords and ladies attended the Rake’s market.

One of the seamstresses shoved a basket of pincushions into Cymbril’s arms, muttering, “Make yourself useful.” Clutching it, Cymbril stretched onto her toes, looking for Loric. In the typical morning bustle, she began to wonder if she’d only dreamed him.

But there he was, dressed in the same water-gray shirt and a new pair of trousers. A heavy iron collar encircled his neck, half hidden by his cascading hair. A chain dangled behind him, its end fastened to another manacle locked around Rombol’s belt. Loric turned this way and that, his attention captured by each new person or cartload he saw.

“Stand still,” grumbled Rombol.

Studying the chain and collar, Cymbril frowned. She’d heard blacksmiths on the Rake boast that all worked metal was poisonous to the Fey folk. Yet Loric seemed hardly to notice the shackling.

When the block wardens had counted all the servants and reported to Wiltwain the Overseer, Rombol marched to the ramp and lifted his arms. He wore a red velvet cape and a matching hat like a tea cozy and he carried a cane with a silver goose’s head. “A perfect day!” he bellowed. On the soaring balconies and the grand floor around him, his people cheered. Their shouts and applause startled birds from the rafters. Loric cringed and covered his ears. Then the gate crashed down, the carts’ wheels turned, and Loric was nearly yanked off his feet. The merchants trooped after the silver goose head as if following the King’s banner.

Highcircle’s crowds were already waiting. Children and dogs ran alongside the merchants’ wagons as they trundled from the meadow to the wide market ground. Women in white bonnets murmured and pointed. Servants in feathered caps came from the houses of the rich with long lists of supplies to buy. On the hilly road that led up to the castle, one of the Knights of the Fountains sat astride his charger and raised a gauntlet at Rombol’s flourish of a bow.

Tent stakes sank into the mud; blocks again wedged the carts’ wheels. Pavilions rose in the sun’s first rays. Carpets and flags unfurled. Cymbril wandered absently after Rombol and the Sidhe boy until the seamstress caught her and snatched back the basket of pincushions, and Wiltwain tapped her shoulder.

“There,” the Overseer said, pointing as he squinted through his greasy hair. “Stand on that wagon bed. Sing us ‘The Skylark’ and then ‘The Bells of Avernon.’”

Cymbril didn’t feel the least bit like singing. Taking care not to drag her hem, she skirted the worst of the mud and climbed into the now-empty wagon. Even before she opened her mouth, a crowd was gathering. Wiltwain was announcing her, and the folk of Highcircle remembered her. “The Thrush!” someone shouted. “The Thrush of the Thunder Rake!”

She filled her lungs with the fresh, field-scented breeze and sang. Her voice spread like the growing light, and even people at the ground’s far end stopped their bargaining and turned to listen. Her eyes strayed to Rombol and Loric, over near the bakers’ tents, where a woman and two girls were running their fingers through Loric’s hair. Twice, Cymbril sang the wrong words, and she saw Wiltwain give her a frown. Then she’d finished “The Skylark,” and the crowd was whistling and shouting requests. She shut her eyes, curled her hands into fists beneath the blue dress’s wretched sleeve-points, and sang.

When she was finally allowed to rest, the women swarmed around her, too, petting her hair, cupping her chin, and exclaiming over how pretty she was. Cymbril imagined herself spitting at them and scratching their warty cheeks.

Amid the babble and the blur of faces, the smudging of hands and the stink of breath, Cymbril shut her ears, retreating into the silence of her mind as if hiding in a well. But a high-pitched voice plinked in after her. A child’s voice crying, “Mama! She looks like the elf boy! Is she his sister?”

Cymbril focused her gaze.

“No, Haddie.” A woman clutched Cymbril’s hair and shoved her curly-headed child so close that Cymbril put up her arms to avoid a collision. “See? She’s a girl like your sister. See? Her skin isn’t as white as the elf’s, and her eyes don’t shine like his.”

Elf boy. Sister. Why would the child say that? She peered through the crowd toward Loric, who was standing patiently in a tangle of admirers. Cymbril’s heart leaped strangely when she saw that his brown eyes were fixed on her.

Not sure what to do, she smiled.

With a serious expression, he bowed from the neck. How polite he was. Couldn’t he tell Cymbril was a slave like himself? Because of her expensive dress, did he think she was a merchant’s daughter? The idea that he might think so bothered her. She would have to set him straight.

to be continued

Copyright 2008 by Frederic S. Durbin