The Star Shard

Part 5

by Frederic S. Durbin
illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh

Needles of cold prickled her scalp. The cat was on his feet now, facing the black interior and making a low, unhappy sound. Cymbril scrambled in through the hatch, shoved the stone into her pocket, and unhooked the door. It thumped shut. She clawed the bolts into place. The cat preceded her up the passage, ears flat, body low.

Where the hall led into the chamber 
of the three steps, the cat charged forward. At the last instant, Cymbril hung back, still hidden behind the corner.

A terrible barking shuddered the walls. Toenails clacked on planks, and something heavy crashed and rolled across the floor.

The cat and the hound whirled around the chamber. Cabinet doors rattled. Barrels tipped. Cymbril peeked past the corner just in time to see a spitting, baying blur shoot away toward the counting master’s door in the haze of a ruptured flour sack.

Gathering her cloak around her, Cymbril melted into the shadows and sprinted along the quietest lanes. By the time lanterns and running feet converged on the half-level beneath the bow, she was back in her room. For the second time, one of the cats had saved her.

In the Star Shard’s glow, she checked her slippers. There was no trace of flour; she hadn’t tracked any in. She changed quickly into her nightclothes, stowed what she’d been wearing in her trunk, and had just dived under the covers when footsteps approached her door.

Someone opened it without knocking. Firelight shone on the walls. Cymbril 
wondered if she should pretend to be asleep. No—she was a light sleeper. She raised her head and blinked groggily into the light. It was Rombol.

“You’re here,” he said gruffly, glancing around the small chamber.

“Yes,” she said with an air of confusion.

“And you know nothing of this hurly-burly?”

She rubbed an eye. “What hurly-burly?”

Rombol touched the candlestick on her bedside stand. The wick, of course, was cold. “Never mind,” he said. “Sleep. Banburnish Crossing at dawn. Your red dress.” Shooting a last, dubious look at her, he went out and closed the door.

Cymbril sank back into the bedding. They always assume I’m behind everything, she thought; then she smiled into the dark. She could hardly blame them.

In Banburnish Crossing, Loric wasn’t paraded out for the crowds to admire but was allowed to sleep in the Rake as Rombol had promised. Here, Cymbril didn’t need to stand in a wagon bed to sing. Banburnish had a platform stage at one end of the marketplace outside the town gate. Cymbril also had more chances to rest than usual, since a troupe of jugglers and acrobats shared the stage with her. Rombol was glad of their presence—they helped to swell the throngs of townsfolk and farmers. Cymbril watched the performers in their parti-colored costumes; they tumbled, flipped each other in aerial somersaults, and rode on each other’s shoulders in imitation of jousting knights.

The laughing, pointing, clapping crowds seemed somehow less repugnant to Cymbril now, even when they were gawking and fingering her golden hair. She had begun to understand how Loric could smile despite their rudeness. He knew exactly who he was; he belonged to a world that was waiting for him to come back to it. Cymbril, too, was determined to see her father’s people, a folk who picked up fallen pieces of stars.

It wasn’t simply learning that her father was Fey that changed everything. His origin was no 
more or less important than her mother’s. But the discovery cast new light on both her parents. 
The marriage must have been difficult in some ways. Their love must have been powerful indeed. Cymbril felt proud of them and closer to them than ever.

Her eyelids were drooping in happy drowsiness when a shadow blocked the sun. In the middle of a yawn, Cymbril looked up into the face of Master Rombol.

“You look tired today,” he said, eyeing her from beneath the brim of his plush, tasseled hat.

“Didn’t you sleep well last night?”

“Well enough, Master.” She tried to sound as bright and cheerful as Loric always did. “This sunshine makes me sleepy.”

He seemed about to say more, but a fine lady called to him from across the greensward, and he waved and strode in that direction, suddenly congenial.

Banburnish was another two-day market, and the Armfolk trudged to the river ravine for the night. On the way, Urrt sat and listened 
to a few of Cymbril’s songs. “You haven’t come to the Pushpull Chamber lately, little thrush,” he said, when the press of villagers had left her and were applauding a fire juggler.

Cymbril locked her hands around his wrist and dangled as he lifted her high above the ground. “I know and I’ve missed you all.” She lowered her voice. “But I’m going to help the Fey boy escape. Urrt, I’ve found out something. My father was a Sidhe.”

“That he was,” said Urrt, his wide brow wrinkling. “I thought you knew that, nightingale. Ah, I always forget that you do not understand our songs. But escape—that’s a dangerous thing to do. Master Rombol has dogs and soldiers.” He crooked his elbow, and Cymbril sat in the bend, her feet swinging.

“It’s not safe,” she agreed. “But we have to try. Loric doesn’t belong here, any more than I do.”
Urrt gazed across the crowded market, his huge eyes slowly blinking. “That’s true,” he rumbled at last. “Very true. So you mean to go with him. Yes, that’s as it should be.”

“You’re not sad, are you?”

He seemed to ponder the question. “No, not when I think of you among Loric’s people. We Urrmsh sing our songs, and we push and pull, all together. You belong with your own flock, little bird.” He lowered her to the ground and bent close. “On the night when we’re nearest the Fey country, if you get him loose from that chain, flee down to the aft hold. A hatch there will be open.”

Cymbril smiled and hugged his broad hand.


AT THE LONG day’s end, Cymbril hurried to Loric’s room on her way to her own, counting on the hubbub of everyone’s return to give her a few moments. No one was in 
the hallway outside his bolted door. To use the Star Shard, Loric had said, she and he must be near each other. Pressing it to her forehead, she silently called, “Loric, are you there?”

I’m here. His mind-voice sounded sleepy.

Quickly, Cymbril told him of the hatch Urrt would open.

That’s good, he said, but getting the key won’t be easy. I’m working on a plan. Gorhyv Glyn is still several days away. You’d better not come to the bow tomorrow night. They’ll be watching for you.

Cymbril knew he was right, but she felt a pang of disappointment. Part of her mind had already been working on a way she might sneak there again. Embarrassed at how lonely her thoughts must feel, she hurried to her next question: “I haven’t been able to guess. How did you overcome the touch of iron?”

With patience, he said, in the same way a tiny stream digs a deep chasm. When my parents told me we could never touch shaped metals without pain, I wondered if it necessarily must be so. I decided to test what might be done. In our land, there is a marshy meadow where few paths lead; it was the place of a great battle long ago, when the doors of the Fey world were open to humankind—and others. All sorts of old mysterious treasures 
lie half buried there, tangled in the grasses’ roots: broken swords, shields, horses’ shoes, 
and wagon wheels.

I found some iron nails there, put one in my pocket, and carried it for one cycle of the moon, then added another. I brought my hand closer and closer to an old, rusting helmet until I could touch it. Then I touched it for longer and longer each day until there was no more pain. I would feel better without this collar on, but I can endure it.


THE SECOND DAY in Banburnish Crossing crept by. In the afternoon, Master Rombol brought Loric out again. As the people petted him, Loric’s smile began looking a little strained. Patience has limits, Cymbril told herself. Collars have to come off.

Next came the town of Fencet, a short half-night’s journey away over mostly level meadows. The Rake’s market there was poorly attended, and the merchants didn’t bother unloading their finer wares. Fencet’s people had little money to spend. They struggled to scratch out meager crops from fields that clung to hillsides above the gloomy Groag Swamp. Cymbril was happier to sing for these plain folk, for the songs seemed to encourage them.

Near the day’s end, an old man hobbled toward her on a crutch. He’d sat under a tree all afternoon, listening to her sing as he worked on something in the grass. Now Cymbril saw it was a long necklace woven of swamp flowers, pale purple and glistening white in the dusk. With a toothless grin, the man draped the garland around her neck and tottered away. Cymbril’s throat felt tight as she called her thanks. In all the markets, in village or city, no one had ever given her 
a present.

It was hard to make herself stay in bed that night as weird swamp birds cawed, as the Rake forged across sandbanks and mires. She longed to prowl the decks for a peek. Of course it was best to get a good night’s sleep for a change, but she was wide awake.

Counting things could make a person drowsy, so after a few hundred griffins, she thought of the names of all the Armfolk she knew, then the names of all the cats. Lulled by the scent of the flower necklace above her bed, she was just listing the cats on the Rake’s second level, front half, when she drifted off to sleep.


ROMBOL FAIRLY BOUNCED with satisfaction the next day in Ardle, a hamlet 
the Rake normally didn’t reach until its returning loop after many days farther east.

Cymbril stretched, rising onto her toes in a wagon bed, letting the early breeze tickle her face. Ardle stood on a ridge, where the country dropped away on all sides. To the south lay the higher trough of the Groag Swamp, through which the Rake had come; to the east, the ridge slanted away to other villages under a haze of morning mist. But on the north and west, the slopes sagged into a gray tangle of knotted trees and sluggish waterways, shadowy even in the morning: a brooding lowland swamp that stretched like the ugliest of carpets for three leagues and more before the ground rose again into cleaner hills.

This was the Lower Groag—“Weep-wallow,” they called it in the surrounding towns. Only a few roads led through its more passable regions, and Cymbril had often heard Rombol complain about the detours it imposed. The old cooks and servers said deep in the swamp lived robber kings who dwelt in stone castles grander than that of the King himself. And there were beasts that made bears seem as puny 
as the Rake’s cats.

Cymbril had sprinkled her flower necklace with water, and it was still fresh—a perfect match for the lavender dress she wore today. The blossoms wreathed her in a cloud of fragrance.

The men of Ardle were occupied in building a wooden lookout tower, so the market-goers were not as plentiful as the merchants had hoped. It gave Cymbril a chance to crawl behind a wagon and eat the rolls, plums, and meat pie she’d been given for lunch. She was sipping the crock of cool milk and thinking she’d ask for biscuits and cream tomorrow when she heard voices on the other side of the wagon.

Master Rombol and Wiltwain were discussing business. Cymbril drew up her knees and listened.

Seeing isn’t the problem,” Wiltwain said. The wagon lurched as he propped a foot on it. “We could plow through Weepwallow by daylight without the elf boy, and it would still be a deathtrap.”
“There are ways,” said Rombol. Paper crinkled. “Drier ways, marked on the map. See? I have the safe paths traced in red ink. The Groag is a shortcut to everywhere!”

“Of course it is. That’s why every cutthroat who eludes the Knights hides down there, with the snakes and water rats.”

“We’ve nothing to fear from thieves,” said Rombol, undaunted. “If we learn to use the swamps, we cut weeks off our circuit
—including all the stretches when we do nothing but travel.”
“I rather like those,” said Wiltwain.

“Now that we have Loric,” said Rombol, “we can deal with the risks. Think of it, Master Overseer: we’ll make enough to 
retire ten years before we’d planned.”

Wiltwain had no answer for that but made an appreciative sound.

“So tonight, we head straight across for Windwall ... where they replace their lost teeth with gold ones.”

The Overseer sighed. “The Armfolk won’t like it. They say—”

“The Armfolk aren’t known for ingenuity or ambition. That’s why they row all night, and we sleep in soft beds and count our coins.” A smile crept into Rombol’s voice. “Have I been wrong before?”

“No, Master and friend—that you 
have not.”

“Nor am I wrong about Weepwallow. See to the preparations.”

Cymbril heard them thump each other’s shoulders, and the wagon jerked again. Wilt-wain’s quick tread hurried away, followed a moment later by Rombol’s ponderous swagger.

Weepwallow. Urrt and the other Strong-arms always fell oddly silent at the mention of its name. Cymbril felt a prickle of dread, but also a thrill of excitement. A part of 
her was eager to know what flitted among those shadowy trees. With the Urrmsh 
rowing and Loric on the bow, Cymbril didn’t see how the Thunder Rake could come to harm.

She also knew she wasn’t going to stay put in her bunk tonight.

to be continued

Copyright 2008 by Frederic S. Durbin