The Star Shard

Part 7

The Star Shard Part 7by Frederic S. Durbin
illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh

The guards tipped their spears aside as Cymbril flew toward them. She felt a tug at her neck and the ripping of cloth. Rombol caught and spun her, lessening the impact. Her face sank into his greasy, bristly beard.

Rombol dropped with her to the deck. The harpy soared so close above that tail feathers brushed their backs. Its claws had shredded Cymbril’s cloak down to the hem.

The beast made a lunge for Loric.

He cast himself flat.

The harpy pulled up to avoid the rail, and its grasp missed Loric. But one talon closed on the chain that held him, just where the manacle encircled the post. The rail shattered, and the post jerked free. Still clutching the chain, the harpy squealed in triumph and winged upward.
Loric had the presence of mind to grab the chain in both hands, taking the snap of force in his arms when the chain sprang taut. He was snatched off his feet, plucked from the deck, and swung through the air below the flapping creature.

Rombol roared.

The harpy, eyes forward again, saw a mighty tree looming just ahead and rolled wildly to the left. But the arcing chain looped across the bark, yanking the shackle from the monster’s grip. Loric passed the tree on the right.

He circled behind the trunk as the chain wrapped around it like a Maypole ribbon. Loric smacked against the tree and went limp.

Beyond, the harpy careened among shadowy limbs, circling back.

The deck tipped forward. Guards staggered.

No one had told the helmsman to turn; no one had told the Armfolk to stop rowing. The Rake nosed over the brink of a steep incline.

“Stop! Stop!” yelled several men. Wiltwain fumbled for his trumpet shell. The Rake’s arms clawed at empty air. Groaning, the craft rode its axle.

Cymbril tumbled to the rail and searched for Loric.

He hung against the tree, head lolling.

His chain loosened, unwinding, and he was sliding slowly down the bark. Too slowly—the Rake’s bow plunged, driven by the weight of the many decks and all their cargo. When it hit the tree, it would smash Loric into nothing.

Again, Cymbril had no time to think. She couldn’t see the ground or the harpy. All she saw was Loric, stunned, hanging from his iron collar.
Rombol bounded toward her, but he caught no more than a tatter of her cloak as she vaulted over the rail.

She hadn’t far to jump; the inclining bow had almost reached the tree. With Wiltwain’s horn blast ringing in her ears, Cymbril caught Loric, her knees scraping painfully against bark. Arms around him, she rolled on her left shoulder, following the chain.

Mercifully, the chain snagged on bark, holding them for a dangling, dizzy moment on the trunk’s far side. The Rake struck. Vibrations passed through the wood; every branch Cymbril could see separated for an instant into multiple ghost-images of itself, all wavering. A splintering crack traveled up from deep below, as if the earth itself had broken a bone. A bird squawked from a knothole. Chunks of moss pattered among hairy vines. The tree tilted.

Her back against the bole, Cymbril did not let herself consider how high above the ground they must be. She looked over Loric’s shoulder
—into the glowering face of the harpy.

The monster sped toward them out of darkness, its shriveled features a mask of hunger. Loric stirred, his hair drifting across Cymbril’s face. There was no escape this time. They swung outward as the tree leaned. The chain loosened again, slithering off the bark, and they slid with it. The harpy’s hag-lips pulled back in a wicked smile.

So intent was the creature on its prey that it didn’t see the rounded stump of a limb, its angle changing as the tree unbalanced. A stone-hard club, it met the harpy’s shoulder with the force of a knight’s lance. With a deafening scream, the monster crunched to a dead stop. Brown feathers swirled in all directions. The gray face contorted in agony, and the nightmarish form tumbled backward, wings flopping.

Cymbril and Loric were falling, too. The colossal tree toppled with them, crashing through other limbs. Her right arm around Loric, Cymbril gripped the chain in her left hand. The tree swung them forward, dank wind whistling in their ears, and the last metal links snaked free of the trunk.

Bushes on a steep slope hurtled up to meet them. Cymbril’s feet furrowed through their whipping branches. Suddenly she and Loric were tumbling heels over heads, lashed by shrubs, scratched by twigs—but cushioned by deep moss, as if they were falling down a staircase of pillows.

Snapping booms rolled above like thunder. The air rained dirt and dead leaves. Seeds and pebbles bounced over Cymbril’s head, and some vast, dark shape lowered like a ceiling. Slowly, the sounds faded; the ground trembled and lay still. Her face against moist, velvety moss, Cymbril let out a long sigh. The smell of earth and mold was overwhelming; she tasted grit.

Loric’s eyes, so close to hers she saw nothing else, blinked several times. His chain jingled, and he sat up, sliding from her arms. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Her lips moved before she could force her voice out from where it hid deep inside her. “I think so.”

She looked up. The tree lay beside them like a curved cliff, near enough to touch. Overhead, just visible in the dimness, the Rake’s prow loomed like a wooden sky; only the trunk had held it off her and Loric. Ferns and shrubs had been scooped, roots and all, from the soil and lay strewn in deep piles everywhere, as if she and Loric had landed in a gigantic salad. One of the Rake’s claws had embedded itself just at their feet. Loric leaned against it to struggle upright. Tree, prow, and claw—any of the three might easily have crushed them.

Shouts came from high above, men calling for Cymbril and Loric. Torchlight glimmered from the bow.

Loric smiled at her, pulling in the loose chain hand over hand, coiling it around his wrist. “I’ll thank you soon,” he said. “But first, we have to run.”

Cymbril drew a thrilled breath. They wouldn’t be needing the key after all; they were free. With Loric’s sight, they could easily elude the soldiers in the dark swamp.

“It’s a long way,” said Loric, “but we can reach Gorhyv Glyn. Are you ready?”

Cymbril patted her pocket. The stone and the hairpin were there. She was ready. Laughing, she took Loric’s hand.

But she couldn’t stand up. It was as if the ground wouldn’t let her go. Pulling up the hem of her skirt, she saw her left leg was caught beneath the Rake’s claw. She could wiggle her toes—the mud had saved her from injury, but the steel frame had pushed her foot deep into the mire. No matter how she pulled and twisted, it would not come free.

Loric dug with his fingers. Cymbril braced her other foot on the claw and strained until the frame gouged her ankle, but it was no use. Tears welled in her eyes. She pounded her hands against the claw.

“All right,” said Loric with a sigh, sitting down in the moss. “Don’t hurt yourself.”

Cymbril sagged back, gasping, and clenched her fists. “You have to go,” she said. Even now, Rombol’s men would be racing down ladders, pouring from the bottom hatches.

Loric smiled again and squeezed her wrist. “When we go,” he said, “we’ll go together.”

Now Cymbril couldn’t hold back the tears.

Loric stood, walked out into the brightening torchlight, and turned toward the sound of footsteps. “We’re safe,” he called. “But we need a shovel.”


Digging Cymbril free was the easy part. It took the rest of the night to get the Rake back on level ground. The vessel wasn’t built to crawl backward, so the claws were useless. Since the slope below was blocked by close-set, tremendous trees and then a bog, the Armfolk had to hoist the city wagon up to the ridge again. They wrapped chains around trees and carried boulders to brace the wheels. An hour slipped by as the Strongarms simply got into position. All the while Rombol fumed and gave orders, unable to blame anyone but himself. Before the Rake could resume its journey, the Urrmsh needed to splint a claw arm that had fractured.

The soldiers stood guard, waving firebrands at glowing eyes that drifted nearer, some disturbingly large and high above the ground, increasing in number on every side.

A hunting party of the bravest men ventured a few paces into the trees, but the harpy had vanished—which made Rombol all the angrier: he’d hoped to put the creature into a cage. The search for the winged hag ended abruptly when one of the men saw a huge, snarling shadow that frightened him so badly he could not describe it—nearly as anyone could guess, it had been a monstrous wolf.

Cymbril heard all this later from Urrt. She and Loric were sent inside the Rake, allowed to wash, and after a healer tended her, Cymbril was put to bed. Her only wounds were skinned patches on both knees and her left ankle, and a few scratches from thorns. She was thankful she still had both legs.

The baying of wolves reached Cymbril in her chamber, raising goose flesh on her arms and making her very glad she was not out in the swamp. No wolf would attack the Armfolk, though; she did not fear for them. Even with the howling, the swamp birds whistling, and the memory of the harpy burned into her mind, Cymbril felt safe in her warm bunk, the Urrmsh heaving and towing outside. She sank quickly into an exhausted sleep.


In daylight, the Rake rolled slowly to Windwall without Loric’s guidance. Cymbril helped straighten a larder and several storerooms where containers had spilled. There were no further mishaps under the bearded trees, but it was evening by the time Rombol’s juggernaut, plastered with mud, crawled like a defeated beast up the last slope beneath the high, meandering stone wall of the city. Rombol called a halt beside a stream, and his men did nothing more that night than wash the wheels, axles, arms, and underside of the Rake. They dumped bucket after bucket of muddy water back down the rocky gully.

Cymbril didn’t venture out of her room that night. She rested and tried to think of ways to get the key for Loric’s collar. The rescue, she supposed, would have to be done under cover of darkness ... but it would have to be a night on which Loric wasn’t guiding the Rake.
She wished it were easier to talk to Loric whenever she wanted. He would have better ideas about how to manage things. With a sigh, Cymbril took out her two treasures and tried again to envision her parents, her mother with shining hair, her father a taller version of Loric—lean and mysterious, with clothes that seemed cut from the sea and the night. If only she had even one clear memory ... At last she blew out her candle and slept.


All during the market day at Wind-wall, piles of gray clouds threatened rain, as if Rombol’s mood affected nature itself. He didn’t wear so much finery today; he’d left his goose-headed stick indoors, and his morning speech in the ramp chamber was only a glance around and a nod.

Windwall was a stone fortress-city on a stone ridge, altogether as gray as the sky. The Rake crouched against the crenellated wall like the siege engine of an invading army, the ramp leading straight down through an open side gate. There was no soil to warm and soften the footing, no greenery to sweeten the air. In this outpost of the King’s troops, even the women seemed to march as they moved through the market, towing their quiet children. Cymbril thought her own voice sounded pinched and feeble, half-drowned by the wind against the battlements. Still, people smiled and clapped as she finished each song; they made their requests and they pressed close to see her.

The Urrmsh had no forest here to retreat to, so they also spent the day in the garrison square. They were especially popular with the soldiers, who never seemed to tire of watching the Strongarms hurl boulders or tug teams of men across lines. In exchange for these displays, the men dropped bright coins into the sacks at the Strongarms’ feet.

Wiltwain came by on his rounds, looking tired. “Rest awhile,” he told Cymbril. Brushing his long hair back with his fingers, he braced a foot on the wagon and leaned on his raised knee. “Have you settled down a bit?” he asked, not quite smiling. “Or are you just worn out?”

Cymbril sat in the wagon bed and shrugged. “I almost died.”

“In at least four different ways—I’m glad you realize that. Cats have nine lives; little girls have one.” The Overseer stretched his back. “For now, your tablet is clean. You broke the curfew—I won’t bother asking how you got away from Mistress Ilda—but you also saved the elf boy’s life. That was brave. Brave, good-hearted, and very foolish.”

“Well,” said Cymbril, “that’s two good things out of three.”

Wiltwain eyed her darkly, squinted at the clouds, and strode off.

A few drops of rain fell. Cymbril put on her torn rain cloak but left the hood down. Although the sky rumbled, it wasn’t truly raining yet. She smiled across the cobbles at Urrt.


to be continued

copyright (c) 2009 by Frederic S. Durbin