The Star Shard

Part 3

by Frederic S. Durbin
illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh

Cymbril had forgotten just how endless market days felt. Back on the Thunder Rake at last, she was given time to take a full bath, and the laundresses whisked away the pale blue dress.

Profits had exceeded Rombol’s expectations, and it was decided that the Rake would stay another day in Highcircle. That meant the Armfolk had a night and a full day off, and they all made a slow trek into the forests to splash in the streams, doze on the moss, and learn new parts for their songs, and that meant Cymbril couldn’t talk to Urrt, for she was never permitted off the Rake alone.

She slept the sleep of exhaustion, and another grueling day followed, during which she again sang herself hoarse. The crowds never seemed to tire of “The Mountain Brook” with its endless, dizzying tra-la-la-la-las. At noon, Rombol took Loric indoors and reappeared without him—resting the Sidhe, Cymbril guessed, for the night road to Banburnish Crossing. Curiosity about Loric was stirring her thoughts like the distant music in her dreams. Where had he come from? How had Brigit captured him? Somehow Cymbril had to find a way to talk with him.

In the late afternoon, the Strongarms filed back from the woods, moving half as slowly as the sun. Urrt sat on a boulder and listened to Cymbril’s last few songs. Before he lumbered up the ramp, he obliged the crowd, earning a pocketful of coins by lifting a hay wagon over his head. He crawled beneath it, and when he slowly stood, raising his arms, the wagon seemed at first to be floating upward by itself. For another fee, he repeated the performance—this time with the wagon full of bulky farmers. Cymbril envied the Armfolk. They were strong and wise; Master Rombol and the crowds respected them and paid them for their work. When some chose to leave the Rake, they went. They were not slaves.

Many people in the world are not slaves, Cymbril thought. Why am I one? Why had the plague killed her parents? Why did she live in an enormous, rolling cage?

As the sun sank among fiery clouds, Rombol swaggered away to a feast with the fur-capped lords of Highcircle. This was Cymbril’s chance. She dodged through the jumble of collapsing tents and half-loaded wagons, sprinted up the ramp, and made sure they counted her at the Rake’s entrance. Then she hurried to the kitchens and sought out Aubra, a cook who sometimes smiled sadly at her.

“Please, Mistress,” Cymbril said breathlessly, “does the Sidhe boy come here for supper?”

“’Deed, no,” said Aubra, sifting a handful of spice into a bubbling pot. “The little ’un eats biscuits and a bowl o’ cream and touches no meat. Runa takes it to ’im.”

“Please, Mistress, may I take it to him tonight?”

Aubra smiled, showing dimples, and half lowered her heavy eyelids at Cymbril. “Want a close look at ’im, do you, dear? Well enough—fetch that big tray.”

Loric’s quarters were a tiny, windowless storage space with an ironbound door barred on the outside. Rombol used the room to confine the occasional thief who crept aboard the Rake and was caught, either by the men-at-arms or by Bale. The hound was much less gentle than the guards—Rombol boasted that the dog’s favorite treat was thieves’ fingers. Cymbril set the tray on the floor and slid the timber beam out of its brackets. The other slaves weren’t barred in their rooms. There was no need for it; the wilderness was not kind to travelers on foot, and Rombol had friends in every town.

Nor did the other slaves wear heavy iron collars around their necks, with a chain locked to a ring bolted into the wall. Loric had a clean bedroll, but nothing more.

When Cymbril pulled opened the door, he was sitting on the covers, his knees bent, ankles crossed. His own clothes must be away in the laundry, because he was dressed now in the patched tunic and trousers of the other slaves. The ragged clothes made him shimmer all the more, especially his hair and eyes, like the moon gleaming behind shreds of cloud. Cymbril’s own shadow half blocked her view of him. The only light came from a lantern on the corridor wall.

“They haven’t given you a lamp,” Cymbril mumbled, half to herself.

“I don’t need one,” said Loric.

Oh yes. He could see in the dark.

“Cymbril,” he said slowly, as if it meant more than her name. “You sing beautifully.”

Her forearms tingled strangely. He must have heard her name in the market.

Smiling, he held out his hands for the tray and bowed deeply to her as he accepted it. “You already know my name. You heard it when the Master bought me.”

Cymbril felt her eyes widen. “How did you know I was there?”

“I saw you in the wagon.”

“I was hooded.”

“You think a hood hides you? Here?” He gave a laugh like the trill of a reed pipe; the warmth in his gaze convinced Cymbril he was not laughing at her, but at the very idea.

She watched him uncover the dishes, the tray laid across his lap. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, you don’t belong here, do you? Any more than I do.”

He knew, then, that Cymbril wasn’t the child of a merchant, like the brats who slapped and kicked and ordered around slaves twice their ages.

Before he ate, Loric crossed his wrists, hands flat against his chest, and murmured something in his own language—a prayer. Then he bit one of the biscuits and studied Cymbril as he chewed. “Would you like some?”

“No, thank you.” She knelt in the open doorway. The hall was empty now, but anyone might wander past. There wasn’t much time. “Don’t the chains of iron burn you?” Cymbril crept closer. The iron had not blackened the elf boy’s neck, as legends said it was supposed to. And he was neither screaming nor writhing from the worked metal considered so poisonous to the Sidhe.

A mischievous twinkle came to his eyes. “There are ways of overcoming iron,” he said. “Try to guess the secret for yourself.”

Cymbril blinked, not sure what to make of his answer. Perhaps she’d have better luck with a different question. “How did Brigit catch you?”

“I climbed out through the wall of our world into this one, to see if the stars looked or sounded any different here. I was listening to the stars instead of the forest around me. Quite careless.”

Stars—with sounds? “Are the stars different?”

“Not the ones you can see from here,” he said, picking up the bowl of cream. “But we can see a lot more from Gorhyv Glyn.”

Cymbril tipped her head to the side. Gorhyv Glyn ... why did the name sound so familiar? “Is that the Sidhe world?” she asked.

“Not all of it,” said Loric. “Just the part I’m from.” He drank the cream so carefully, it didn’t even whiten his upper lip.

“You want to go back,” Cymbril said, to be sure. She’d learned to take nothing for granted.

“Of course I do.”

“Is your family looking for you?”

“It’s likely the birds have told them where I am. But what Brigit said was true. This Thunder Rake is guarded by powerful magic. The enchanters of my people don’t understand the spells of human witches.”

Cymbril thought carefully, tapping a fingertip on her chin. “Might they try to buy you back from Rombol?”

A strange light came into Loric’s eyes. “Buy ... I ... I’ve never thought of that.”

“You do have money in the Fey country?”

“Yes, but it’s not like the money of the human world. Nor are our treasures like Rombol’s. Buying and selling people is an idea of human folk. I wonder if it will occur to anyone in my home fandring.”

Cymbril marveled at how such an obvious solution could be overlooked. “Can you send them a message through the birds?”

He shook his head. “The spells laid on the Rake garble whatever I try to say to birds—even outdoors, if the Rake is anywhere near. I can’t understand the birds’ speech, either, and they look at me as if I’m mad. The Erebus witches are very thorough. No ... I don’t think I can count on any help. It’s so strange, isn’t it? My people are the First folk, ancient and wise. But we’re often at a loss in dealing with humans—we’re powerless.”

Cymbril took a deep breath, checking the hallway. “Then you need a human on your side. Promise I can come with you, and I’ll help you get out of here.”

His large eyes peered at her over the bowl’s rim, the lamplight making gold sparks dance in their depths. For a long time, he said nothing.

What was he thinking? Was he laughing—or about to refuse? Cymbril bit her lip. “Can’t I come? Is it such a hard thing to promise?”

“Oh, you can come. It’s just that you make it sound like ... a ‘deal,’ like something Master Rombol would say. ‘If you’ll promise, then I’ll help you.’ I think you’ve been here too long.”

Cymbril shrugged. It seemed nothing to waste words over when there was so little time. She examined the chain.

“We’ll need the key,” said Loric. A padlock held the collar closed around his neck. “In the daytime, Master Rombol’s keys are fastened to his belt. At night, they hang on a hook beside his bed.”

She narrowed her eyes. “How do you know that?”

“If we Sidhe empty our minds, we can see pictures there—objects that are nearby. It’s why we so rarely lose things.” He lowered his voice further and smiled again, impishly. “It’s also how I know what you’ve got in your pocket.”

Cymbril’s mouth dropped open, and she put a hand to her pocket, where her parents’ treasures were a reassuring weight.

Just then, boots clunked along the corridor.

“Don’t go after the key yet,” Loric whispered. “Think of how. I’ll tell you when.”

Wiltwain the Overseer tramped into view. He didn’t like it when he saw Cymbril kneeling in Loric’s doorway. “The cooks can bring him his supper,” he said. “Go back to your bunk, Cymbril. If you don’t have enough chores, we’ll find you more.”

Loric returned the tray and thanked Cymbril. He’d eaten everything. “Master Wiltwain,” he called, “will you take me to the relief closet?”

Wiltwain fingered the jangling keys at his own belt and frowned. Cymbril ducked out of his way as he leaned against the doorframe. “Can’t take you anywhere,” he said, “until Master Rombol gets back with the key.”

“This cannot wait,” Loric said.

Wiltwain scratched his ear. “Cymbril, have the cooks bring us a bucket at once. Tell them what it’s for.”

Cymbril bowed and hurried away with the tray. So Loric was right about the key—if Wiltwain himself didn’t have a spare, there was only one that could open the lock.


She almost missed getting supper herself. They were starting to reload the cart that had brought cabbage soup and mutton to the maidservants’ gallery. Chewing the stringy meat, Cymbril wished she’d accepted the biscuit Loric had offered.

She had mended the sleeve on one of her everyday dresses and was holding the jeweled hairpin and stone again, peering into their cold fires and trying to imagine her parents, when the Rake lurched and started to roll. Rombol’s party must have returned from dining with the lords of Highcircle. Tonight was the journey to Banburnish Crossing.

Still wearing her singing dress—fine green velvet brocaded in gold—she sat on her bunk with feet tucked beneath her. The Rake’s arms squealed and boomed, squealed and boomed, pulling the city wagon into darkness. The decks tilted, and Cymbril guessed the wheelman had turned from the road’s verge, setting a course over soft, uneven ground.

It made sense that Rombol would pay eight hundred and fifty gold pieces for a Sidhe who could see in the dark. The Rake could not travel on the roads. Its steel claws would demolish any pavement they crossed, churning up cobbles like the soil of a plowed field. Nor could Rombol cut across farms or mow down the King’s forests. The Rake must follow the wildest country where no one built or planted, where bogs and chasms threatened even the Rake’s giant wheels. Torches on the bow did not drive back much of the night. Rombol groused bitterly on moonless evenings when travel became impossible, costing the merchants good business days.

Cymbril gazed deep into the glowing stone from her father. Sometimes she pretended it was a window through time and space, that somewhere on the other side of its green fire, her father was also holding it, looking deep inside it just as she was. She would turn the stone and stare harder, hoping for a glimpse of his face.

As one of the Fey folk, Loric must understand magic. Quite likely he could tell her more about these treasures her parents had left her.

He would be on the Rake’s bow tonight, searching the blackness ahead and warning the helmsman of obstacles. If Cymbril was to free Loric, the first step would be to learn how he was guarded when he worked.

Strictly speaking, prowling about the Rake at night was forbidden, and it was prevented mostly by exhaustion; after a busy day in the market towns, every scant hour of sleep was precious. Rombol’s hound made night wandering dangerous, too. Bale’s barks and growls could nearly stop one’s heart, but he hadn’t eaten Cymbril’s fingers yet. Her curiosity often drew her into the quiet corridors, and she’d been caught more times than she could count. As long as she wasn’t poking into salable goods, there was usually no punishment beyond gruff orders to get back to bed. Her purpose tonight was certainly worth the risk.

She rummaged in her trunk for the long, hooded cloak she wore when it rained; its dark gray color would help her blend into the shadows. With the hood pulled low over her face, she closed her door softly and glided through the least-traveled alleys of the Rake, heading for the prow.

to be continued

(Copyright 2008 by Frederic S. Durbin)