The Star Shard

Part 4

by Frederic S. Durbin
illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh

For most of the way Cymbril followed the edge of the second-highest deck. She preferred to be in the fresh air, and the profusion of apple and pear trees growing in the deck’s deep soil beds draped masking branches above her.

It was a clear night under a waning crescent moon, the stars brilliant and the air warm, scented of mud and the mustiness of the swamp. The Rake’s claws, slicing into the marshes, made softer noises than usual. Water gurgled around the wheels. Away beyond the rail, Cymbril glimpsed the clumped heads of trees brushing the lower decks. The rolling plain of moon-washed leaves stretched around the giant vessel for as far as she could see, parting before the bow, whispering along the sides. With its wheels and claws hidden among the trunks below, the Rake seemed a real ship plowing the waves of a silvery sea. Crickets sang in the Rake’s groves, while tens of thousands shrilled back from the forest outside.

Cymbril padded up the forward stairway, avoiding the steps that squeaked. The bow was darker than usual, for which she was grateful. Sidling between the vine-covered wall of a grape arbor and the winery, she spied a row of barrels and crouched behind them. Raising her head, she saw a single lantern flickering on a pole and four cloaked figures at the very front of the foredeck.

One was unmistakably Rombol, thick and hulking. Wan light glinted on the armor and helmets of two men-at-arms. Beyond them, on the triangular pulpit sticking out from the prow, glimmered a small shape that could only be Loric. His pale hand rested on the rail, and the chain around his neck jingled as he took a few steps to the right. The row of torches stood unlit in their brackets along the front rail.

The land falls away there,” said Loric, pointing. “We should steer to the left.”

Rombol turned, and Cymbril hunched lower. But the Master was looking above her, toward the wheelhouse. “A little to the left,” he called to the pilot. The Rake began a creaking turn.

Rombol set his huge hands on Loric’s shoulders. “That’s it, boy! Carry on just like this until you see the guard towers of Banburnish. We should arrive before sunup. Get us there safely, and you’ll have fresh blueberries and the whole day to sleep.”

“I understand the task, Master,” Loric said pleasantly.

Rombol chuckled, patted the Sidhe’s head, and gazed sternly at the two guards. He unhooked a large key from the ring at his belt. Cymbril held her breath. Rombol handed it to one of the men. “If there’s any trouble, don’t think: wake me.”

With a final glance out over the dark landscape, he strode in Cymbril’s direction.

Ducking, she scooted back farther into the narrow space at the building’s corner. Suddenly, her foot scratched in a carpet of dry, crinkly grape leaves.

She froze in place. Ten paces away, on the other side of the barrels, Rombol stopped walking. She could hear his cloak rustle as he turned, hunting for what had made the sound. His breath hissed in and out through his red nose, and Cymbril wondered if he could hear her pounding heart.

Something scrabbled in the leaves to her left. From the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of movement.

Miwa, the silver-gray cat, darted from the gloom, hopping stiff legged. She bristled her tail, arched her back, and batted the air as if playing with an invisible mouse. Having bounded to the top of a windlass post, she sat licking a paw and turned indifferent eyes on Rombol.

The Rake’s Master hissed at the cat and stumped away to his quarters. Speaking quietly, the guards settled onto a bench a dozen paces behind Loric. Miwa groomed herself, glanced once toward Cymbril with what looked like a smile, and began an agile stroll along the rail.

Cymbril let out her breath and waited for her heart to slow down. Then she edged forward again, being very careful where she placed her hands, knees, and feet. So the key stayed with whoever was guarding Loric. The elf boy’s chain looped to the railing beside him where the second manacle was fastened around a sturdy upright post.

“I see low hills and a river channel to the left,” Loric reported to the guards. “The trees are scattered now. Once we pass this thicket, we should swing right.”

A guard relayed the information to the wheelhouse.

Cymbril sat back, listening to the chop of the claws, watching the scrub trees march toward the bow to be flattened. Often the Rake followed paths it had gouged on previous trips, ugly swaths through the wilderness. But Rombol was always trying new shortcuts, striving to make better time.

Studying the pulpit and the guards, Cymbril had an idea. Even in mud, the Rake’s arms made considerable noise, as did the crunching trees and shrubs. Tongue between her teeth, she took one more look around and slipped back the way she’d come.

The first stairway took her down beside a tower filled with wheat to a half-level beneath the top deck, a hive of low-ceilinged hallways and bins for storing tools and grain. No light filtered from beneath the counting master’s door; slinking past it, Cymbril heard faint snores from within.
“Moowwrrr,” said a voice behind her—the suspicious challenge of a cat, loud in the cramped space. But when Cymbril rubbed her fingers together, the large yellow tom nuzzled her and purred. It padded along with her as she tiptoed up a flight of three steps into a small chamber. Here she searched for the passage she wanted. There—a short, narrow hallway just her height leading straight to the prow. The far end was closed with a hatch, hinged at the top. Through a glass pane, Cymbril looked out at the dim marshland sliding toward her: stunted trees, dark rafts of bush and hedge, and faint moonlight glittering on pools, on ribbons of stream.

Two deadbolts fastened the hatch at its bottom edge. Working by feel, she pushed the shanks back through their tracks. Carefully, she found the cold handle and pulled the hatch toward her. A rusted hook on the panel’s frame slipped into a ring on the ceiling. The tomcat regarded Cymbril doubtfully as she crawled out onto a tiny, square platform with no rails—a shelf on the clifflike prow of the Rake, nearly five stories above the ground—six, counting the empty space beneath the wagon city’s axles. To left and right, the enormous claws careened on their tree-trunk arms, first one, then the other, slamming into the turf. Straight above Cymbril, but well beyond her reach, was the underside of the pulpit on which Loric stood.

A heavy iron pulley hung there; Cymbril had watched the Rake’s merchants hoist flour sacks up from the ground, pulling the ropes hand over hand. She had never wanted to be the man who crouched on this platform with a long-handled hook, snagging the sacks and hauling them aboard.

But here she was, and the platform was much, much higher than it looked from below. She clutched her garments at her throat and held on to the hatch frame. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea.

From a safe distance, the cat’s eyes advised her to come in. The moon was lowering toward the west. A moisture-laden breeze riffled the treetops, fluttering Cymbril’s hood. As the Rake lurched through a rut, she almost shrieked.

Don’t look down, she told herself. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and concentrated on finding just the right volume for her voice.


She counted slowly to five, holding her breath. Then she tried again, a fraction louder. “Loric? Can you hear me?”

The cat glanced over his shoulder into the dark hallway and tilted his ears: forward, then back, then one forward and one back.

“Cymbril ... ”

Had it been Loric’s voice, or the breeze? She rose to her knees, straining to hear. The wheels splashed into shallow water, throwing up gouts of mud against the underboards, whump, whump, whump.

“Stone. Stoo-oone.”

Yes! It was Loric’s voice, very soft. It was trickier for him to speak, Cymbril knew, with nothing but air between him and the guards. But what was he saying? Stone?

“Fooore . . . heeaad . . .”

Stone? Forehead? Cymbril wanted to hear words—but these seemed random, nonsensical. Was she only imagining them?

“A little to the left!” said Loric, much more loudly. Then he whispered again, “Forehead.”

She nearly forgot to hang on as the bow yawed to the left. Pursing her lips, she blinked up at the pulpit’s underside, then looked around herself. There were trees, more empty air than she cared for, and down in the dark, a great deal of mud. But “stone” was the one material she couldn’t see anywhere.

Cymbril drew a breath, and her hand darted to her pocket. “Stone” could only mean one thing. Clutching her father’s magic stone tightly, she gazed into its depths, which glimmered a deep aquamarine, brighter than she’d ever seen it. Forehead. Without thinking, she raised the stone to her brow.

It was smooth on her skin, warm from her pocket, and hard—exactly as it felt in her hand. But in a heartbeat, it was as if a door had swung open in her mind—as if she were at one end of a tunnel that twisted like an invisible whirlpool in the air.


Loric’s voice: not through her ears, but inside her head, as clear as if he were beside her.

Now you can hear me, and I can hear y—

Startled, Cymbril pulled the stone away. Silence. When she pushed the stone back to her brow again, Loric’s voice returned.

Are you there? Don’t speak aloud.

“Yes,” she answered, pressing her lips together, careful not to use her voice. She only thought the words. “Yes, I can hear you. Is this Sidhe magic?”

It is. We can speak with our thoughts through this stone you carry, if we are close together.

Cymbril wanted to laugh with delight. “And no one else can hear us?”

No one. Aloud, Loric told the guards the Rake should veer left again to avoid what might be quicksand.

Cymbril grinned at the cat, who had curled into a circle, eyes nearly closed, paws warming his nose.

“What is this stone?” Cymbril asked in her mind. “Where could my father have gotten it?”

Did your father give it to you?

“He left it for me. My parents died when I was a baby.”

And I suppose no one has ever been able to take it away from you, though several have tried.

Cymbril nodded, still smiling with joy at this freedom to speak at will with someone who understood the need for freedom—and under the guards’ very noses. Then, remembering Loric couldn’t see her nod, she thought, “That’s right.”

It was true. Once a boy, one of the kitchen slaves, had tripped her with a broomstick, grabbed the stone from her hand, and dashed away to hide. She had run screaming to Master Rombol, who’d told her grumpily to go to her bunk, that it would be all right. Weeping all the way back, Cymbril had been sure the stone was gone forever—but when she’d opened her door, it was waiting for her, glowing on the middle of her bed. Another time, a dour old seamstress had snatched her hairpin and said it was too valuable for a little girl to wear around, that she would “keep it safe” for Cymbril. Again Cymbril had howled—but even before she reached her bunk, she’d found the pin back in her hair. That’s when she realized the treas-ures were more magical than she’d guessed, for they could not be stolen. Rombol, she was sure, had tried to take them away first of all—and probably so had the woman with the red scarf and hairy chin.

Cymbril could, however, put the treasures somewhere and walk away, and they would not come back to her. She’d cautiously tried that with both. As to whether she could accidentally lose them, she had no way of knowing.

The stone, Loric said, is a Star Shard, a rare substance that falls from the sky. It’s full of starlight. I suspect your father found it. The hairpin was made with Fey magic.

Loric could “see” the hairpin, too. He knew the two objects were directly below his feet. “But,” Cymbril began, “how could my parents—?”

Cymbril, only a Sidhe can find a Star Shard.

She thought about that. Surely her father couldn’t have bought a treasure so precious—who would ever sell it?

And “Cymbril” is a Sidhe name.

Cymbril felt a tingling thrill, as if a soundless chord of music had passed through her. Mouth and nose to the wind, she inhaled the earthy scents. Now she knew why she felt at times so different from the other slaves on the Rake. She knew why she had trouble understanding the deepest hearts of even the humans she liked.

You have many human qualities, too, Loric said. Your mother must have been human. But your father was one of my people. That makes you a Halcyon Fey, with the blood of both.

The half-hidden waters glittered. Everything in the dark land looked different—the air smelled different, felt different on her skin—and everything called to her. Suddenly, the enormous Rake was not nearly big enough to contain her. “Tell me that it’s really true,” she said through the stone.

Look into a mirror, Loric said. You have blue eyes. If in one of them you see a streak of brownish gold, that’s a sure sign of a Halcyon.

If she’d been on a safer perch, Cymbril would have danced. She knew she had such a streak. Her parents’ faces became a little clearer in her mind. With this new revelation came the certainty—though she could not explain it—that she would not spend her life on the Rake. It was as if discovering more about her past assured her that she would have a future.

The cat raised his head, and the tip of his tail twitched.

“Loric, I want to see your home. I want to see Gorhyv Glyn! One way or another, I’ll get the key—”

Cymbril! Loric’s urgent thought interrupted. Get out of there quickly! Master Rombol’s hound is coming!

to be continued

Copyright 2008 by Frederic S. Durbin