Despite the fact that Laurelyn physically felt no desire to get up she was beginning to again feel the press of responsibilities and concerns. For nearly two days she and Thomis had had a nearly idyllic existence – their world revolving around Emlyn’s attic room – with occasional forays to the kitchen. But her mother had defended their privacy well and the only quiet disturbance had been when food was left at their door. One visitor only had Emlyn permitted to enter the cottage, the Hortus Keir, so that he could check on the baby rabbit, and deliver to Thomis and Laurelyn two rings that he had chosen for for them, silver circlets to show their bonding to each other.
Those two days had been spent in getting to know one another – in many ways – and when there had been talk it had ranged between the trivial, the humorous, and the deeply personal. But Laurelyn had stayed far away from the topic of The Star Dreamer until now. She murmured, “There’s no way around it …..not with sailing tomorrow night….” Reluctantly she sat up, revealing only a chemise, which was only partially covered by a cascade of wild auburn hair, and asked, “What did you think of Eric’s story?”
Thomis turned his head – he had been contemplating the late morning light crawling through the window – and looked at Laurelyn. Lovely … except for the chemise. She would have been lovelier still clad only in the fall of her hair. For a moment, the thought made him grin, until the seriousness of her question made his smile fade. “I would say he does not seem the sort to harm someone. But few murderers are so easily identified.” He and Laurelyn both knew darkness could lie behind a fair and friendly-seeming face. Mesani, for one, had survived that way, hiding a frightening ease in killing and lies behind pretty features and a dazzling smile. “Perhaps better to say he does not seem one to be shamed by whispers and gossip.”
Laurelyn shifted so she could better memorize how Thomis looked laying there – appreciating what the blanket wasn’t covering, and said, “He never was one to care much about that – but I didn’t know Brenna well – she could well have been bothered by it. Enris doubts it was murder, but he did wonder if Eric wasn’t covering up her taking her own life…”
The storyteller shook her head, and said, “I never thought I’d value a CRS’s officer’s paranoia – for lack of a better term – but it would take a lot for him to rule something out….” With a long sigh she slipped back beneath the covers and lay by her husband. “Gods! Can it get more convoluted?.... “
“Of course,” Thomis answered, with a glance in her direction that said the answer should have been obvious. “I find myself singularly untroubled with worries about Eric. If she died by her own hand, then he cannot be faulted for it. If not…” He shrugged, and considered a moment before continuing. “I do not see that it means he is a threat to us.”
“It would make little sense to try to murder us – we make no accusation against him, or even to go haring after The Star Dreamer, if he was her murderer. Far better just to go to someother town where none knows your name, or the suspicions.”
She lay silent, seemingly pre-occupied in tracing the outline of his shoulder muscles, as she sought the words she wanted. Words that would not insult the devotion he had shown – nearly with his life – as they had traveled on this quest, but would express her deepest worries. For another moment she studied his face and finally said, “Eric doesn’t worry me – but his story reminds me of what I could lose – you. I can’t ask for anything more in this life – and dreams, or geas, or whatever I would fight their pull just to ride away with you.”
“And where would you want to ride to?” Thomis asked, the thumb of his left hand rubbing the silver ring Keir had given him, match the one Laurelyn wore. Whatever choice she made, both of them knew he would follow her. Whatever thirst he had felt for adventure as a young man had been fulfilled years before, and this quest for The Star Dreamer was one he could abandon easily … if the decision were his to make. But it was not, and he could see by the way her eyes drifted from his, that Laurelyn found the deciding difficult.
After a moment more, he turned fully onto his side, slipping his arms around her waist again and placing his head close to hers on her pillow. “I have nowhere to take you, Hillrover. No home waits for my return.” Not even the estate in Jord. “If you want to turn away from this, we will do so.” Thomis pulled the hair back from her face, tangling his fingers in it as he did so. “There are things I could ask of the captain,” he said in a low voice, “but I have no wishes for myself. Except this. You.” He would stay with her in the highlands, with her clan, if she chose. Or even here, in Morrow’s Hold. “The geas is of your choosing.”
And he believed that, despite all he knew of the patterns’ weaving, and despite his respect for Paul Rustin, who believed personal peace was best served by moving with the loom rather than against it. And perhaps Paul was right, for those who fought it, such as Mesani and Kallin, had found little rest.
She snuggled close to her husband, and turned her thoughts to questioning her own motivations. It was hard to admit – but much as she cared for and respected their other companions she could leave them to the quest – if it meant protecting Thomis. They did not hold her to it. Nor had she ever called herself “noble.”
They could go east, towards the safety and peace of her old patrons. Warfare had not touched those lords’ lands in many a year, so they could enjoy their somewhat pastoral existence. And they would easily welcome Thomis. Yes, they could go there, she told herself, valiantly endeavoring to ignore the sense of doubt that prowled her thoughts. Why? she asked herself, Why can’t we just leave? The battle at the Dun had dulled her guilt about Chatterton, a guilt that had been borne of an inability to act. But at the Dun she had been able to make a difference for her kins’ sake.
As she pondered her motivations Ceart’s face came to mind – and his near rage at the mention of The Star Dreamer, and much as she disliked Leisrinn’s exposing her son’s vulnerability she suspected her Grandmam had aimed true and Ceart railed at a dream lost. And a sure knowledge welled in her as Laurelyn pictured a life back in the safety of her patrons’ lands – one that would always be tainted with task unfullfilled. A dream unrealized.
A taint that might one day eat its way between herself and Thomis, and it wouldn’t be because of anything he did or asked.
A anger of her own grew at The Star Dreamer. She hadn’t asked to seek that damned ship!! But she knew the answer to her own questions and sadly whispered to Thomis, “We go on. To turn back means to become like Ceart, always hurting because of some empty spot in his soul….” She traced his jawline and said, “I may be being stupid but I’m afraid that such a disease could hurt us as much as going after that thrice damned ship. Though I have nothing left to ask of the Captain – I too have all I could ever want in this life…..”
“Then we go. With babe and pup and jester.” The thought of their strange crew, with tall Ulric and short Keir, and everything in between, made him smile.
His choice of imagery made Laurelyn smile too, and she let her dark worries go. “I love you,” she said softly – hoping those simple words could carry the breadth and depth of her emotions, and carefully moved so she could kiss him.
As Laurelyn made her way down the path to the docks she considered the scene fit for any painter. The storms had blown over and in their wake was a crystalline evening, with the ocean painted by the reds and purples of a setting sun. And The Brenna Rose just a silhouette, touched by the flicker of lanterns, at the docks. A shiver ran down the storyteller’s spine – the shadowy boat reminded her of her dreams of The Star Dreamer, which always appeared as a black silhouette on the horizon.
She felt like she was about to take a long step into that dream – leaving behind all that was known, be it safe or not, for a voyage that could well last for all eternity. Laurelyn reached out and touched Thomis’s hand – wanting to remind herself that she wasn’t leaving behind the one who was most important in her life.
He stood on the deck, standing motionless like a part of the ship. He was watching for his cousin and her mismatched band of followers. Tonight would begin the hunt for The Star Dreamer. A fool’s quest that could very well end in their being lost at sea. But that dread ship held something they all sought. Some ghost or dream or regret that drove each of them. For Eric, The Star Dreamer was the key to his greatest love, his only love.
He had slept well and long, and now Ulric stared out at the horizon with a heady feeling of anticipation. The sea seemed more placid and welcoming the further out he looked – the sound of his companions beside and behind him almost cacophonous amidst the gentle whispering of the waves.
“Laurelyn…” he said quietly, “I must apologize for my… lack of energy recently. I hope I did not cause problems.”
He had slept, drunkenly for a very long time – he knew that much – and he could not remember why he had even reached that state… or perhaps that had been the reason. Either way, he was sorry.
The storyteller looked back to the warrior, and with a little smile said, “We all had to find our own way to rest – the innkeeper said that you allowed yourself to be tucked in very peacably.” There was no judgment in her tone – they all had more than enough reason to wish a few days oblivion.
Maeve stopped on the dock, gulping as she looked at the ship, and the water beneath it. At least Fionn, a couple of feet off to one side, did not offer a hand to steady her while she still stood on comparatively solid land. His first time at sea, too, she reminded herself, and the possibility that the highlander might find himself just a bit green in the face was something to look forward to. “I shude ‘ev stayed in the hills,” she muttered to herself, and drew her shawl more closely around her shoulders.
The Hortus hurried along the docks, having lingered too long at supper he found himself running late and the last minute visit to Laurelyn’s mom – or rather to the bunny that was now housed at her cottage, had placed him even farther behind. Grig had displayed an uneasy tolerance of the two furred strangers and every move had to be slow and calculated not to anger the watchful dog.
He sprinted past the hesitant Maeve and bounded down the docks, coming to a sharp halt near Laurelyn and Thomas. “G’day Mistress Parch, sorry to be so late.”
The storyteller smiled at the Hortus, and said, “I would say that you’re right on time – particularly since we haven’t reached the boat yet.”
He had enjoyed a little good fortune over the interim – and helping the hapless young girl had caused it. People knew he was a mage, and had come to him with requests. There was a demand in the village for small bits of magic…a candle that would light at a word and never burn down, for example, or a spell on a locket that caused a gentle melody to play when it was held. He hadn’t charged much..the villagers didn’t seem to have a lot of cash…but it had sufficed to pay for his room, drink, and meals. He had added to his meagre fortune of a silver piece, and now had five copper pennies besides!
As he strode toward the ship, he reflected on how much he missed Seldez, but how any place could become a home. With time, perhaps the villagers would have seen the need to bring Adelu’s teachings to this place. Sadly, he wasn’t strong enough to open their eyes.
He walked up the gangplank and smiled at Laurelyn as he commented “Good Evening! So, it looks as if we’re almost ready for our search!”
“We are just about ready to launch,” Laurelyn agreed, “Though I suspect The Star Dreamer will find us – as opposed to us finding it.”
He watched them board his ship. “That thrice-damned ghost ship will not escape us. I swear by the wind and seas, I’ll stand on The Star Dreamer’s deck before I set foot on solid land again.”
“So much for stops along the way for fresh fruit,” Thomis murmured to Laurelyn, Keir and Enris. A glance back told him Maeve would refuse any hand from Fionn that might steady her, and with a nod to Laurelyn he allowed his wife and the others to proceed onto the boat. “I will see her safely on board,” he reassured Fionn as the highlander passed with a glower on his face. Rue waved her fists in greeting, and burbled something unintelligible against her uncle’s chest. “If you would allow me?” he asked Maeve. Was the girl already looking a bit ill at the prospect of sea travel?
“Eh thenk eh’ll jest wait,” Maeve said hurriedly. Fionn had gone aboard calmly enough, but she couldn’t quiet her nervousness long enough to follow after him without hesitation. “Rudolpho es yet to coom,” she pointed out. “And Jacques.” Not that she felt any particular fondness towards the jester – with luck, he might find himself turning green, too – but he was a handy reason for her to keep her feet safely on the dock. And off the ship.
With an acknowledgement to Eric the storyteller went up the plank to The Brenna Rose, and easily stepped down onto the gently rocking boat. While she waited for the others to board she said a prayer to the gods and sea and stone that they all survive this quest – and see solid land again. And she hoped that Rudolpho and Jacques would be soon to make an appearance – before they lost the evening tide.
Jacques stomped down the dockway towards the boat where, doubtless, everybody else was waiting. Or maybe they weren’t still waiting – there was always that hope.
A yip from the pup trailing rapidly behind him made him sigh. Stupid animal was probably looking forward to the trip out on the sea. The waves. The rolling waves, moving back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth…
He stopped and shook his head, though it didn’t help much.
“I hate boats,” he muttered, and pulled his hat firmly down over his head. Then, with more force as he resumed walking, “I hate boats.” Fiend gave another excited yip, and bound ahead, racing towards the ship where he could see Laurelyn and the others.
“Stupid animal,” Jacques said. Gods alone knew why he hadn’t left the pup with the widow. Actually, gods alone knew why he hadn’t stayed with the widow instead of venturing out into the middle of nowhere on a fool’s errand.
Even if he acted a fool, it didn’t mean he had to be one.
Finally, he stomped his way up the plank, and looked about warily. There didn’t seem to be any leaks.
The Widow Crathurs hurried down the lane – hoping The Brenna Rose hadn’t yet set sail! After she had seen Mr. Jacques off, and Fiend too, she had hurried to the green grocer’s to finish up her surprise. For hanging from her arm was a basket laden with jars of perserved fruit (from her own stores), and fresh greens.
“Oh good!” Talia gasped when she saw that few had actually boarded. She was breathless, and with her free hand she gathered up her black, woolen, skirts for a last sprint. Her dark hair was in her eyes when she caught up with the jester, and said, “Mr Jacques, I’m glad I caught up with you!! For a long voyage – you always need greens and fruit!!”
Keir paced along the length of the dock, inspecting The Brenna Rose and was not overly impressed. Certainly the hawsers, nets and sails seemed in good repair, the paint – though not fresh, was at least of this season and the hull appeared free of barnacles, rot or sprung timbers but compared to the sleek tri-masted schooners of the Hortus this was little better than a barge. Even unladen with fish it sat heavy in the water and he hoped it wouldn’t wallow in storms for it obviously wasn’t capable of outrunning them. Suspecting Eric had loaded ballast, of what manner he knew not, to compensate for the lack of a catch raised his opinion of the captain if not his ship. One glance at Maeve was enough to tell him that more than a few of his companions would come to appreciate its stability in calm waters.
Gazing at the small cabin that protruded abovedecks fortokened another concern. Designed for a small crew there wouldn’t be accommodations for all, as Laurelyn had warned, and while he had no problem sleeping on deck, he had bought a hammock to sling in the rigging for just such a possibility, but that would not do in rough seas and the thought of being tossed about in a dark, smelly hold was not a pleasant vision – he thought he’d lash himself to the mast first.
As he prepared to board he passed by Maeve and slipped a small tablet into her hand. He had spent the better part of the night mixing select herbs and honey so he’d have a ready supply of the soft pills. “It’s for settling the stomach, take it now.” he ordered with a wink. Without waiting to see if she complied, but enjoying the stunned look she had given him, he bounded lightly up the gangplank.
Maeve gaped after the Hortus for a moment, then looked down at the pill in her hand doubtfully. Still, he had ably taken care of the pain she had experienced from her broken nose (the last of the bruises were fading now) ... And even still standing on the deck, she was willing to try anything to calm her already queasy stomach. With a shrug, she popped the pill into her mouth and swallowed hard.
Turning with surprise to the widow, Jacques took the basket mutely. He peered at the contents suspiciously, looking for lager. It was a forlorn hope, perhaps, but better than no hope at all.
Finding none, he shrugged setting the bells off faintly.
“Thank you,” he said, and grinned. “Maybe you could squeeze me into a jar too – god knows someone needs to preserve me from this madness.”
“Well what more do you expect – this is hardly the most conducive place to humour I’ve ever been in.”
Fiend sneezed and went off to explore the rest of the boat on his own. “Ungrateful little …” Jacques stopped, and turned back to the widow. “Thank you. I do appreciate it. Though I hope we will not be gone long enough to require much of it.”
“At least he’s learning some manners,” Maeve muttered. She had waited long enough – if Rudolpho was coming, she had no doubt he’d be bounding up the gangplank without hesitation. With a sigh, she adjusted her shawl one more time and stepped gingerly to follow after Keir.
Near the railing on the other side of the boat, Fionn quickly turned his head to look away from Maeve. “Looks like she’s coming after all,” he murmured to Rue, still nestled happily in the carrier against his chest. And to Tirlina, who was sure to be near the babe. He had half-wondered whether Maeve would balk in the end, choosing to stay in Morrow’s Hold.
“Hmf,” Tirlina muttered under her breath at Fionn’s comment, not bothering to work her way out from her hiding place under Rue’s blanket to see the babe’s reluctant mother board the ship. More than likely, Maeve would have been the wiser of all of them if she had chosen to stay behind, but there was no use arguing that point with the highlander. The sprite had tried for two days to rationalize Rue’s presence on this hazardous venture and had failed utterly, finally admitting that it could only be attributed to the lack of sense of the Big Folk in general, and Fionn in particular.
But where Rue went, Tirlina went, and if things got out of hand, the child just might find herself tucked in Tirlina’s pocket yet. To that end, and as a precaution, Tirlina had half-heartedly begun cleaning out her pocket the day before, to make room, and had been forced to leave behind some very pretty ribbon, a good bit of string, and some colorful baubles she’d taken one night from a traveling circus group’s costumes.
A waste of good pocket things, to say the least, but a necessary sacrifice. She left her feather collection in there, along with some wildflowers that were as pretty and fresh as the day they’d been picked. Rue would need something to amuse herself with, after all.
“Well I’m hoping ye have a safe trip and fair winds,” Talia said; as far as she was concerned few journeys were truly safe – whether sailing after a phantom ship, or bringing home a bit of smuggled brandy. “And I’ll be expecting ye to bring back a tale of the chase…..”
She stood on tiptoe, and quickly gave a kiss – which barely targeted the edge of his mustache. “For luck,” she said. Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper as she added, “And be looking close at the basket – there tis no lager to be found, but a drop of port was at hand.”
Talia stepped back, and smoothed her skirts – to some appearance of propriety.
Ulric boarded the ship, but stopped as soon as both feet were firmly on the deck. Ceremoniously, he reached into his pocket and withdrew from it a handful of pebbles which he had gathered with care from the beach before joining the others.
“Please,” he said aloud to everyone assembled, “take a stone and carry it with you on this travelling. My people believe that a stone from land will always return, and a sailor who takes one will return with it.” It was a belief that many of his people had forgotten, ashamed, perhaps of their own superstitiousness. He didn’t think of it that way – to him, it was a way of paying homage to the powers of nature… a sign of respect.
The captain stepped forward and took a stone from the large man. “It may take more than a simple stone to bring me back from this journey,” he said, “But then again, it certainly can’t hurt me.” Since his decision to finially go hunting for his lost bride, he had felt a strange sense of relief and calm. No matter how things turned out from here, his path was as sure as the stars that guided him through the night.
Jacques harrumphed lightly, and brushed his moustache with one hand. “You’re not the only one hoping for a safe trip,” he said, and winked. “Though if I’m to be taken on this rat infested scow, then I guess pickled,” his eyes dropped to the basket of preserves, “and stoned,” with a glance at Ulric, “will be the best way to do it.”
He reached into a pocket and fumbled about for a little while before producing a fine gold chain about eighteen inches long. “Here,” he handed it to the widow. “Maybe you could buy something useful with it.” He shrugged, and let the bells on his hat ring faintly. “Keep well.”
And with that he turned and headed for the far side of the boat, where the sea stretched away forever.
There was a bemused expression on Talia’s face – partially a mix of surprise and old sorrows – as she reached up to fasten the gold chain around her neck, and tuck the gift under her collar.
Laurelyn watched Jacques come aboard, and for a long moment she continued to watch the docks – waiting to see if Rudolpho would arrive, but she knew they needed to sail soon – she could feel it in her blood and in the air and in the shift of the tide. And they could not wait any longer. She half-hoped the boy had chosen to stay on dry land, maybe go back to where a young mountain girl awaited him, so that one more innocent did not travel to a possible doom. She was worried enough about Rue and even Fiend being aboard – innocents who had no say in their fates. Not that she would swear that anyone truly had a say in what the Fates had designed for them.
However, she suspected, glancing upwards to see a large winged form circling overhead, that Rudolpho probably had shapeshifted to follow them. Finally she turned back to the others and said to Eric, “I think it is time.”
Then she went to Ulric and picked a chip of granite from his hand. Softly she said, “The sea may be my blood, but the granite of the mountains forms my bones.”