The Star Shard
She lay in her bunk, the hairpin and the Star Shard, her two treasures, glowing beside her. Blinking in their magical half-light, she tried to rest. Mostly she stared at the ceiling, and the Rake rolled on. Several times she got up and checked her door. She was not locked in.
When she felt the Rake slow at last and begin a turn, she brushed her hair, left everything but the treasures, Loric’s wire, and the clothes she wore, and slipped out of her room.
The sky was still dark. Mosses and fern leaves were soaked with dew, but the moon had set. No one stirred in the quiet alleys and halls through which Cymbril glided, wrapped in her tattered rain cloak, to Rombol’s quarters.
Outside the Master’s ironbound door, the corridor’s ceiling was open tonight, folded back to let in the summer air. The opposite wall wore a prodigious curtain of vines, like a leafy cliff; hidden among the foliage a few paces away was an alcove with no floor, in which a ladder was fixed to the wall. Cymbril parted the leaves and stood on the ladder’s flat rungs. She turned to face the corridor. From here, she could peep out through the vines, but no one in the hallway would see her; she had only to listen so that no one would surprise her by coming up the ladder from the storage spaces below. She kept her breathing silent. Her pulse raced.
The Rake bumped to a stop. At the edge of her hearing, footsteps drummed on the bow. Rombol would be able to feel and hear these things, too. If he was anxious to start the day, he might already be up, splashing water on his face (did Rombol wash his face?) ... there would not be a moment to waste.
After what seemed ages, someone approached from the left—one set of footfalls and the clink of armor. Then a man-at-arms crossed in front of Cymbril, and she ducked backward.
He stopped at Rombol’s door and said nothing. Clothing rustled. Now Cymbril was watching again as the guard rose from his crouch, glanced right and left, and passed her hiding place with a yawn.
She could barely wait until he had shuffled away toward the barracks. When the hall was quiet, Cymbril looked around carefully and stepped onto the floor. Biting her lip, she hurried to Rombol’s door, knelt down, and drew the wire from her sleeve. A sound came from behind the door’s heavy timbers—the creak of mattress ropes? Cymbril tensed, ready to sprint away. There was a long silence, and then a muffled snoring. Good.
Lowering herself to her stomach, she felt as if her heart were thrashing at the back of her throat. The crack under the door was darker than the dim hall. She couldn’t see the key the guard had pushed through--but it must be there. Gently, she inserted the wire under the door’s right corner and slid it slowly, slowly, to the left. At about the middle, it tapped against something. The key!
Smiling, Cymbril pulled the wire out and bent the end into a large hook. Then she put it under the door again, pulling it from behind the key in a slow, scooping motion.
The key emerged. It was heavy and ornate, like the key to some lost chest of ancient jewels. She forced herself to keep her movements calm as she plucked it from the floor and rose to her knees.
Directly behind her, something growled.
Cymbril jerked, almost dropping the key and the wire.
Broad head level with hers, Bale bared his fangs and snarled.
“Good morning, Cymbril,” said a voice. A shadowy figure towered over the dog.
“I’ll take the key, thank you.” He stooped and snatched it. Above his sharp nose, his eyebrows furrowed. “A wire hook--very clever. You’re using burglar tools.”
Bale stopped growling and sat licking his jaws, his hot, foul breath puffing into Cymbril’s face. Even on her feet, she was not much taller than the hound.
She’d failed Loric. She was sure Wiltwain would pound on Rombol’s door, and her life as she knew it would be over. Instead, he slid the key back under the door, clamped a hand on the scruff of her neck, and marched her down the corridor. Bale padded beside them until his snuffling nose picked up an interesting scent in Barrel Corner, and he prowled away.
When Cymbril could breathe again, she saw that the Overseer was steering her back toward her own chamber.
“I suspected your recent calmness was the still before the cyclone.” He scowled down at her. “And I’ve heard the rumors about the woods here, how they lead to the Fey country.” He examined the wire, Cymbril’s burglar tool. For the briefest moment, he almost looked impressed. “We both know that if I brought this matter to Master Rombol, you would not see the light of the sun for a very long time. We can avoid that, if you’ll start using that sharp mind of yours for something other than mischief. I don’t know how you’re talking with Loric, but there will be no more of it. He has his work to do, and so do you. My task is to see that nothing interferes.” He stopped and gripped her shoulders. “If Loric turns up missing, I will know who is to blame. I’m giving you one more chance than Rombol would--but only one. Understood?”
Cymbril nodded, unable to believe she was not being locked away for a month.
“Good. Now go to your bunk. It’s not long till wake-up call.”
With a bow, she dashed off before Wiltwain could change his mind.
After the hallway’s first bend, she stopped. Leaning against the wall, she covered her face and breathed deeply until her hands quit shaking. Wiltwain understood her too well. He didn’t need to lock her up. The key was back in Rombol’s room, and she was out of time. But Loric was waiting; she would have to tell him what had happened. Listening for any noises, she changed directions.
She sidled around the last corner, halted outside Loric’s barred door, and put the Star Shard to her forehead, which burned with shame. “Loric! Loric, I’m sorry.”
What’s wrong, Cymbril?
“Wiltwain caught me. He took the key. Loric, I’m so sorry. ...”
Cymbril heard a flurrying thought that made her eyes widen. Then Loric said, Don’t worry. We’ll ... we’ll think of another way. Are you all right? Did he punish you?
“He let me go.” Cymbril looked around carefully, keeping her ears open. “But what was that first thing in your mind just now?”
Nothing. All that matters is that you’re safe. There will be other days. I’ll keep thinking.
“No.” She was more certain now of what she’d heard. “No, you were thinking. There is a way to get you loose without the key.”
For a long time, Loric’s thoughts were silent. Perhaps he had a way of keeping them to himself.
“Loric. Tell me.”
The cost is too great. Go back, please, before someone comes.
Cymbril strained to catch more, to hear the stir in his mind behind the words he formed. “Loric, it will get harder,” she persisted. “They know I’m trying to free you. Wiltwain says I’m not to speak to you again. They may start locking me in or keep me on a chain, too. Right now, the hatch is open.” She took the stone away from her brow and unbolted his door; she didn’t want the rest of her thought forming into words. The truth was, she didn’t trust herself. If they didn’t get off the Rake now, she couldn’t guarantee her resolve. Nor could she stand another night like the past two.
The door swung open. Kneeling beside Loric, she whispered aloud: “Tell me.”
In the faint light of the stone and the hall’s single night-lamp, his large eyes were clouded. Sadly, he shook his head.
She grabbed his arms. “Your home is just down the hill. Do you want to go there or not?”
He winced as if she’d slapped him. “I want to go there more than anything. With you.”
“Then tell me this other way you know. I don’t have the key. We’ll never have the key. Tell me.”
He blinked and took a long, slow breath. “This is a magic lock.” He fingered the silver padlock that held the collar shut. “A sorcerer must have made it for Rombol. It can’t be smashed with any hammer or cut with any pincers. It opens only for its one key, or ...”
“Or what?” Cymbril’s voice was a hiss. She didn’t like the heaviness in his gaze.
“Or we stick your magic hairpin into the keyhole and release the power it contains--the light that makes it glow. It will blow the lock apart like a thunderbolt in a daisy. But it will destroy the hairpin, too.”
Cymbril froze with her mouth open. It was as if she’d leaned against some great, soundless bell that had just rung. She felt its deep vibrations rolling through her bones. All she could hear was her own breath, whistling in and out.
“You see?” said Loric. “That’s unthinkable. It would be a mistake to part with that.” He pressed her hand. “Now, go out and close my door. Life will go on for us. There is always a way, if you’re patient.”
Cymbril stood up, her knees wobbly, and backed away. Reaching into her pocket, she grasped the pin--her mother’s gift, the hairpin that no one could take from her.
“Go,” said Loric, nodding.
She reached the threshold. There was no one in the hallway, no one coming, not a murmur in the still hour before dawn.
All that matters is that you’re safe. That had been Loric’s thought a moment ago. All that matters ...
With a suddenness that made Loric gasp, she flew to his side and thrust the pin into the lock. “Call the power,” she breathed, not daring a last look down at the perfect gem. Instead, she stared into Loric’s eyes. Cymbril had her mother’s voice, her mother’s hair and face, her mother’s blood in her veins. She could live without the pin. “Loric. Do it now.”
Eyes brimming, he uttered a swift phrase in the language of the Sidhe.
The hairpin’s stone blazed brighter than ever before. Its shank glowed red as if heated in a fire. Cymbril turned away from the glare. Then came a bang like the fireworks of Midsummer’s Eve.
When she opened her eyes, the padlock lay in red-hot chunks. The hairpin was gone. All that remained of its stone was a sprinkling of tiny grains, as of crushed crystal, their light fading to darkness. Heavy smoke filled the room, and Loric lay on his side. As Cymbril pulled open the iron collar, he sat up.
“Cymbril,” he whispered. Even with his resistance to iron, the collar had left brown-purple bruises around his neck.
“Quickly.” She drew him to his feet and led the way. The noise of the explosion would bring people running. To slow the pursuit for an extra moment, she closed the door and rebarred it. Then, with Loric at her heels, she pelted by the swiftest route to the lowest level.
With luck, the soldiers would expect her and Loric to go over the rail and down a rope. One level down, Cymbril heard shouts above. At the next corner, she slid ahead of Loric down a ladder’s rails. Somewhere, Bale began to bark. The fierce, deep sound rang in the wooden bulkheads, seeming to come from all sides at once.
They raced along a heavily raftered corridor cluttered with crates and barrels. At its end, they pushed through into the aft cargo hold.
The wide, lofty chamber was packed with spice bales, cloth bolts, grain sacks, and boxes stacked in pillars. Cymbril held up the Star Shard for light. She and Loric threaded forward, stepping over rope coils and spooled carpets. Somewhere in the shadows must be a hatch. Somewhere ... but the hold was so jammed with tools and merchandise ...
Loric closed his eyes and held up both palms. “There!” he said, pointing toward the far wall.
“Did you use magic?” asked Cymbril.
“No,” he said. “I feel a draft.”
They hurried around a wagon with no wheels, past a barrier of crates, and there it was in the wall: a hatch of timbers banded with iron, so large that Cymbril doubted even a strong man could open it alone. But Urrt had been here. It stood open, hooked in place, just as he had promised. Beside it lay a hefty coil of rope, one end tied to the mooring ring. Dear Urrt!
The night breeze wafted in, bringing the smell of wet grass and plowed earth. A slope fell away from the Rake’s side to a dense forest, the trees like black, billowing clouds in the darkness.
“The Greenmouth,” Loric whispered. His eyes were wide and round, gathering the faint light of the stars.
They sat on the threshold, feet dangling. Even from this lowest sub-level above the axles, it was five fathoms to the ground. “Be careful,” they both said at once, and smiled.
“You first,” said Loric, pitching the rope overboard. “I’m right behind.”
“Good-bye, Thunder Rake.” Cymbril held the rope in both hands, scissored it between her feet, and made the dizzying, skin-burning slide to the soft grass. She rolled aside as Loric touched down next to her. They were both drenched at once with dew.
No sooner had Cymbril picked herself up than men shouted overhead. Figures moved between the torches at the rail, pointing. She and Loric had been seen.
“Come on!” she said, grabbing Loric’s hand.
Now Loric led, racing down the long bank. Cymbril heard something heavy fall into the grass behind and glanced back. The men were dropping more coils of rope, the ends fixed to cleats on the lowest deck.
Underfoot, the weeds concealed holes and soft places. Stumbling at nearly every step, she and Loric pulled each other onward, downward, and slowly the line of trees drew nearer.
“Hurry!” Loric gasped. A thistle had lashed his face, leaving a streak of blood. Cockleburs clung to their damp clothes and tangled in their hair.
The hound’s deep baying rang through the dark. Bale was on the ground now, somewhere behind them to the left. The men yelled. Torchlight reflected on the old, twisted trunks ahead.
Beneath the first limbs, the grassy slope gave way to a floor of moss. Dodging over crisscrossed roots, Loric swerved into a thorny thicket. “Through here,” he said, holding a branch out of Cymbril’s way.
She heard soldiers trampling the brush but could not tell where they were with the sounds echoing all around them. The trees squatted thicker and thicker, lumpy as half-melted candles. Strange night birds called, probably birds of the Fey world, perched in the forest’s eaves. Bale had stopped barking, but the men were close. Their voices floated from all around. Firelight flickered on the forks and arches above. Creepers of moss stirred in the wood’s breath.
When Cymbril thought she could go no farther, Loric tugged her down a muddy bank to the edge of a stream. She gulped air, shivering in her soaked clothes. The steep-sided ravine was almost a tunnel, the trees curving over it, root knuckles clutching its banks.
Loric’s eyes gleamed. Even his hair seemed to shine brighter through the burs that tangled it.
There was nowhere to walk but straight up the streambed. Cymbril sloshed after Loric, the knee-deep water pouring toward them, the current strong and piercing cold.
They rounded a final bend, and before them loomed the gate of the Sidhe world. It could be nothing else: the forest ended in a wall of brier, thorns, and trees, all intertwined so tightly that Cymbril saw no gap for even a squirrel to scurry through. This hedge rose up into the canopy of limbs and leaves; it marched away into darkness on both sides. The stream rushed from an arched tunnel at the wall’s base, just large enough for Loric and Cymbril to enter side by side.
Splashing toward it, Cymbril wanted to cry out with relief. They’d made it! A wonderful aroma washed out from the tunnel—something like lilacs, like bread hot from the oven, like new-mown hay under a summer sun, yet not quite like any of them; and behind the brook’s murmur, she thought she heard chimes and the laughter of fair voices.
“Only those with Sidhe blood can go in,” Loric said, squeezing her arm. “Or those the gate watchers allow. Anyone else will not see the tunnel or even the hedge, but only the old forest trooping on and on.”
At the mouth of the tunnel, they exchanged a glance and giggled.
Suddenly Loric’s eyes widened in horror.
to be continued
copyright (c) 2009 by Frederic S. Durbin