Laurelyn was more than happy to come from below decks and breathe the crisp, salty breeze that played with her auburn hair – the aroma of fish in the hold was almost more than she could handle. But there was little for it, since she had decided that Maeve and Rue would be better off in the small cabin – and she told herself she would get used to the smell. “If the weather holds,” she said to Thomis, “We could sleep on deck if you wanted to – we at least have those hammocks Ceart gave us. Or even our bedrolls.”
While the others continued to settle in she went to look at the last vestiges of a setting sun, whose light was washing the sea in weakening streaks of fiery blood. The storyteller decided against commenting on the ominous scenery, but instead said, with a rueful smile, “I have no doubts that by the time we get back Beast will have gone half-wild and will probably try to take my hand off. Just because I had the audacity to leave her – not because she didn’t have the best of care.”
And there would be no doubts that the horses would have the best of care – Emlyn and Ceart would see to that. Even if it meant traveling out of Morrow’s Hold – up to one of the few farms in the area that had spare pasture.
“She does know how to hold a grudge,” Thomis conceded, as he slipped one arm around Laurelyn’s waist to pull her against his side. His brown eyes glanced over the deck, automatically taking account of where everyone was located. Ulric seemed the most at ease of all of them, except perhaps for Eric himself; the tall foreigner’s face seemed healthier now that he was on the sea again than it ever had before. On the other hand, Master Keir seemed to have taken to the rolling of the boat easily enough.
Not so Fionn; the highlander, sitting on the deck with his back pressed against the railing, had more than a slight twinge of green about his face. Thomis himself still felt just a bit unsteady – it had been quite a while since he had been at sea – but his mild, and fading, discomfort, was nothing compared to the almost certain intense nausea the Fhaolain eemed to be experiencing. Even Rue, in her basket between his feet, seemed to be quite startled at the odd colors crossing her uncle’s face.
The healer fingered the stone he’d accepted from Ulric as he made his walking tour of the deck. He didn’t really believe in rabbit-slayer’s contention that the rocks held any special magic, ::Superstitious claptrap if you ask me:: he thought; but he well knew the power of faith.
Stopping by Fionn, to check on Rue, he was hard pressed not to grin at his obvious discomfort. Placing the stone in one of his numerous inner vest pockets he withdrew the pouch of herbal pills. “She looks okay but if she should start spitting up, or worse, give her this,” he stated in his most officious tone. “Here, take two – just in case.” As he spun round to continue his inspection of The Brenna Rose the grin broke out and he winked at Thomis and Laurelyn as he passed by them. It was time to go aloft and check the rigging.
The highlander just nodded, his misery apparent on his face. Rue, obviously, was completely unperturbed by the way the deck moved under her basket, and Fionn was well aware that the Hortus had seen the babe’s cheerfulness. As well as her uncle’s discomfort. He tossed the pills to the back of his throat and swallowed – and hoped he could keep them down.
Laurelyn winked back at the Hortus, said in a whisper to Thomis, “It looks like Master Keir is settling in quite nicely.”
She rested her head against her husband’s shoulder and added, “I have to admit – that the feel of the sea winds and the pull of the Lady Moon’s tides has stirred my blood to wakening again…It has been a long, long time since I’ve been at sea.”
The movement of the boat was not easy to adjust to; keeping balance was difficult, and the movement of the sea seemed unpredictable at best. How he longed for the stability of his homeland! But if this was a part of the price he had to pay to get there, he would do so.
The first problem was to avoid slipping and making himself look ridiculous. Not that his own pride mattered much anymore – but he had to uphold the honor of the CRS! He cast a spell which gave him sure footing, and helped his feet find ready purchase with each step. The second problem was internal; being unused to the sea, he felt ill. But he ecalled that many young mages felt ill when they first tryed flying – and there was a spell to deal with that problem.
Shortly, he walked over to Laurelyn and Thomis and commented “I know so little of The Star Dreamer – do you suppose we will see it soon?”
The storyteller shifted around enough to look at Enris, and said, “From every tale or whisper I have ever heard they all seem to agree that she comes in her own time and her own way. And all I know of her are the dreams I’ve had of a black-hulled ship with sails as full and as black as Ravens’ wings – and how soundlessly she splits the waves with her prow…...”
And as Laurelyn spoke she felt like she had entered a waking dream – for filling her vision was The Star Dreamer, and somewhere far away her own voice was describing what she saw… But even now, as they traveled the waves, she could not guess at how near or far the doomed ship was. All she knew was that she felt far from the safety of Thomis’ arms, and her friends, and she struggled to follow the sound of her own voice back to waking.
With a shudder she became aware of the warmth of her husband’s arm around her, and the CRS mage standing near. She tightened her own hold on Thomis.
The Oath-bound pulled her closer, having heard in her voice how the vision had swept over her again. ”Too early in the evening, I think,” he said to Enris with a rueful smile, “to expect her to appear on the horizon. These things happen either in the darkness of night, a heavy storm, or dense fog.”
Few mariners could have asked for a more cooperative wind, and a night’s sky that was a goddess’s black velvet gown, awash with a million polished jewels. Laurelyn couldn’t think of a better vision to sleep beneath, though she knew well how quickly the weather could change. So along with bedding she also brought out a tarp to cover both herself and Thomis.
As she found a secure place to settle for the night she looked out at the glistening sea, staring at the horizon, and wondering how near The Star Dreamer actually was? Or did the damned ship mean to tease at her sanity with hints of waking dreams?
He had found a convenient sack, filled with something not too objectionable and looked up at the stars. He commented to no one in particular “I know the wish that sends me on this voyage – but I wonder what the others seek?”
Inside, he lamented his own weakness. What he should wish for was Adelu’s ever greater success and unending victory. Selfless devotion to the state was a bedrock principle of Seldez, after all. But in his selfishness, he could think of nothing but rejoining the CRS…
Sitting with his back to the mast Jacques was counting stars, and trying to follow constellations that he hadn’t paid any attention to in years. Decades even. He hesitated at calling it centuries – despite how old he felt that night he couldn’t claim to be that ancient. Though his bones tried to deny that in the damp.
Fiend lay quietly, for once, between his feet and slept without so much as a twitch. The jester envied the animal the lack of conscience, or imagination, or whatever it was that let the pup sleep that easily. That innocently. He couldn’t sleep himself, though he refused to consider why.
Instead he picked out the constellation of the Lager Mug as his father had pointed out all those years ago. And followed that across to the Joker’s Smile that his mother had insisted looked more like a Serpent’s Tail. But then that was the advantage of stars – they could be anything, and everything, where a man could only be a man.
The storyteller stood from where she had finished laying down the bedding, and considered Enris’s question…...and the fact that for the first time the little band truly had time to talk amongst themselves. Before they had either been exhausted by battle or travel.
She opened her mouth to speak, but the words caught themselves in her throat. What could she really say that she desired? Up until she had arrived in Chatterton she had been content with her situation in life. And now she was Thomis’s wife – she could ask for no gift greater. She thought back over the soul-searching she had done a day earlier, and her reasons for continuing.
At last Laurelyn said, sounding as if she was beginning a story, “Once upon a time sorrow for a dying town – whose people I couldn’t help becausethe flood of blood was washing everything away – lay my heart open, and into my dreams The Star Dreamer sailed. And for a while I thought that some boon from the Captain could help make right that I didn’t do more.”
She shook her head, and looked up at the vast gown of stars above them, and continued, “But that was guilt. I think they call it ‘survivors’ guilt’ and once recognized it has less of a hold on me. The guilt, that is, but not The Star Dreamer, for she has not left my dreams. And while I could walk away from her, even thought about it, I want to know why she haunts me. It’s either learn the truth now, or have the ghost of that question follow me around for the rest of my days.”
“Ye have tae meuch fey in ye,” Fionn remarked softly, allowing his highland accent to lay heavily in his words. ”Tae meuch o’ the sea.” No hint of disapproval in his voice, from one thick with Luatha’s touch. ne hand reached out to touch Rue’s face, stopping as her chubby infant’s hand flailed in response to grasp one finger. “A renaming I would have for her,” he added, without explanation. Laurelyn would know his meaning, and Tirlina. As would Maeve, if she were not sleeping inside. The babe’s name marked her for sorrow, and both father and mother had refused to give her a better-omened one. Niall’s refusal did not surprise him, for his half-brother always had been indifferent to the cares of others. But Maeve – it was as if the girl thought she could repay the shame on her family by cursing the child she had borne.
Laurelyn nodded in response to both Fionn’s explanation of her fate, and of his reasoning. “The sea is my blood, and the mountains my bones,” she murmured as she watched Keir climbing up into the rigging in order to continue his inspection. “And what of you, Ulric?” she asked the silent traveler.
The sound of his name awoke Ulric from his thoughts, but his gaze did not stray from the pitching expanse of water that surrounded them.
“I have a home to return to,” he said quietly, thinking of his beloved Alvende, “and a world of hatred to leave behind.”
He paused for a moment, just long enough for the boat to pitch gently from one side to the other.
“Nothing else really matters… not now.”
“And in the end,” the storyteller murmured, “We return to our essence.” A line from a poem or song that had once had had so little import to her that she had let it fade – much like she had let her own heritage fade to a comfortable distance, where she did not have to deal with the pain and bloodshed of her kin. Until this journey.
She looked over to where Jacques sat, with Fiend sleeping at his feet, but did not ask the jester his reasons. For all the aid he had given on this quest the least she could do is leave him with the silence and not ask him what ghosts drove him. For she suspected they were many.
Laurelyn moved over to Thomis and once more anchored herself to this reality by taking his calloused hand in her’s. She gave him a quiet smile.
Then she turned slightly Enris and said, “You have now heard why most of travel in search of oblivion’s own ship.”
Even high in the rigging Keir could make out the conversations below and it added to his feelings of loneliness. Through their quest and the travails along the road they had become comrades, some more than others, yet ever since boarding the Rose the yearning to find his people had overwhelmed him – to the point of being unsociable. To see, hear and touch another Hortus again, that was the boon he sought, the longing that made him ache – especially after seeing Laurelyn amongst her kin. The irony of returning to the island villages after a long self-imposed hermitage and finding them deserted was not lost on him. It was the hopelessness of his search that made him so readily willing to try such a seemingly remote chance but now, with the salt air in his nostrils, he knew that if they were indeed in this world they would be connected to the sea – perhaps this sea. He thought about rejoining the others below. “Not yet fool, not yet,” he muttered to himself and gazed out to the far horizon.
Thomis pulled Laurelyn – his wife – into the circle of one arm, settling her weight against one hip. His eyes followed hers towards Enris, but the mage remained silent … perhaps weighing what his heart’s wish could be. If it could be anything other than what had been shaped for him by others.
And from there, his gaze travelled upwards, to the small figure of Keir, smaller still in the reaches of the rigging. And even higher, and further out, the dark shape of Rudolpho’s wings, wheeling ‘round in circle after circle. What boon would the boy ask, orphaned as he was?
He listened to the others, and smiled slightly. In a way, they all sought the same thing. Not fame, or wealth, or power. None of the things that people said they wanted and spent a lifetime wishing and striving for. What each seemed to want more than anything else was to rejoin those they cared about.
He looked over at Laurelyn, and her husband Thomis, and said “During my youth, I desired many things. What child doesn’t? I wanted the wonderful things that money would buy. Nice clothing, horses and carriages, the envying looks of others. Not that my family was poor; they were ordinary farmers, living sensible, middle class lives, and saving their coppers for a rainy day. And I dreamed of power. The kind of power that the titled people had – where a knight could stroll into town, and every head would bow. So, I undertook the study of magic; it seemed the only avenue I would be able to pursue. But even though I had some successes, and some accomplishments, even though I started to get some of the money and power I thought I wanted so badly, it left me unsatisfied. The more I had, the unhappier I was.”
Enris paused. He was telling much of his past. But it was unlikely that they could use it against him. “And then, I learned of Seldez. When I first met the CRS, I thought I would use them, make money from them – and if they failed, simply find some other wealthy employer. But as I got to know them, for the first time in my life, I was part of something bigger – and much, much better – than myself. I had something worth dying for. More importantly, I had something worth living for. And the CRS – we call ourselves brothers in arms, and we truly are.”
“My dream is to return to Seldez. To be worthy to be a part of it. To rejoin my brothers and sisters of the CRS in service of Vactor Adelu.” Enris sighed. ”I know that you, Laurelyn, don’t see Seldez as I do. But you feel strong bonds to your blood kin – I never knew that feeling, except with the CRS. They’re family to me…”
“And I have no rights to make any judgments,” Laurelyn softly said, “You have met my kin – no innocent folk they, but I love them and would see them live. And while its true I don’t hold to the Seldez’s beliefs I have met its folk.” A gentle smile touched her lips as she looked over at the mage and she said, “And they too have their share of music and of blood, and of laughter and of sorrow.”
The captain came up out of the small cabin and glanced over at those assembled. ”You know why I’m here,” he said quietly to indicate that he had heard their conversation while he was below. Then he raised the slightly battered metal pot he was carrying. Steam rose from it into the chilled night air. ”Coffee?” he asked as he lifted a collection of equally battered metal cups in his other hand.
Jacques looked up from his reclined position at the mast, and considered the option of coffee for a while. It would, he considered, be rather more palatable with a significant portion of the Widow’s port.
He’d caught snatches of the conversations though he hadn’t been eavesdropping. Simply following the stars, and trying to read omens in them like the old man had taught him. Regardless, he wasn’t about to intrude on things other people considered personal. And he wasn’t about to share his own reasons for seeking the cursed ship.
If they found it then the others would learn soon enough. And if the ship proved as untracable as a tiny portion of him hoped, then it wouldn’t matter anyway.
He pulled the bottle of port from a pocker where he’d stowed it and stood carefully to avoid waking Fiend. The pup gave a muffled muttering and then sighed and returned to whatever dreams he was engaged in. Jacques wished him well.
“Got some of that coffee for an old man’s tired bones?”
“A cup would indeed be welcome,” the storyteller said.
The smell of something bitter caught the wind and stirred Ulric from silent reverie.
“Ugh…” he gasped, looking out to sea, “I think we’re sailing past a roasted whale.” Then he realized that the smell came from the pot that Eric carried, and the darkness did well to hide his embarassment.
”... or so a great poet once said”, he added, in a lame attempt to cover his original statement.
“Roasted whale,” he repeated. ”That’s one way to describe it.” The fisher grinned slightly.
“Hey, I’m supposed to be the fool on this ship. Though it is indeed a ship of fools. Each trying to achieve something that they see as important, but each as irrelevant as the rest in truth.”
He opened the port bottle and took a dented and slightly twisted cup from Eric. Over by the mast, Fiend opened his eyes and gave an enormous yawn before rising to stretch his legs and shake himself to wakefulness.
“And what’s your boon to be asked, boy?” asked the Jester as the pup came trotting over to his feet.
Fiend looked up with huge brown eyes and merely cocked his head to one side.
“Come on, everybody else has fessed up. What do you want from this fool’s errand?”
The pup snorted and turned to go snuffling off along the deck, looking for anything that smelled interesting.
“Most sensible thing the animal’s done in the entire trip,” Jacques muttered to no one in particular, “is keep his damn fool mouth shut.” He slopped a hefty measure of port into the cup and held it out for Eric’s coffee. Roasted whale or not, the lack of lager left him little choice.
Fiend, nose down, followed a long trail of something around the mast twice, across to the starboard side of the ship, along the railing to the bow, and then back around and down to the cabin entrance where the others were. At that point the trail apparently vanished, or was perhaps overwhelmed by the scent of the coffee, for Fiend gave a disappointed whine and sniffled about despondently.
Then, with a yip, he lifted his head and bounded a few paces towards Fionn and baby Rue’s basket. He was still some feet away when he stopped and gazed at the basket.
The baby yawned, widely, dark eyes turning first towards her ncle, whose own gaze followed the winged form of Rudolpho wheeling above. Then her eyes drifted back towards Fiend, and one chubby hand dropped over the edge of the basket, fingers spreading wide as she tried to grasp ears that were still too far away to touch.
“Tbthphth!” was her first comment, perhaps an expression of mild frustration at finding the pup well beyond reach. ”Aiee!” and with a high-pitched babbling, both legs and arms started waving wildly, kicking loosely tucked blankets aside with her effort to learn how to sit up, crawl out of the basket, and perhaps walk over to Fiend and scratch his ears.
Maybe it was the sudden movement, or the unexpected fit of giggles that convulsed small Rue from the top of her dark head to the tips of her curling toes. Or maybe it was the pup’s intent stare … Either way, with one wild kick, a bright sparkle of light was thrown free of the covers and sent skidding, briefly, across the deck towards Fiend.
He looked up from where he was pouring coffee. ”What’s that?” he asked pointing with his free hand at the bright object that had been dislodged from Rue’s basket.
The sprite had been tossed out onto her tiny rump, and stunned for moment, trying to clear the haze of sleep and understand what was happening. A whuffled half-growl, half-whine above her made her look up suddenly, to find Fiend’s enormous face peering down at her. With a startled gasp, Tirlina launched herself from the deck, straight up over the dog’s head, to a safe height beyond the reach of his best jump.
As her sudden shock faded, she realized belatedly that there were Big Folk around the deck, and in the darkness, and the whir of her wings made her shine like silver moonlight. Seeing at least one pair of strange eyes staring up at her, Tirlina flitted to the mast and settled high on the rim of the crow’s nest, her light dimming as her wings fell still. Hopefully they would lose sight of her dim form against the stars and perhaps think that she had flown off.
She didn’t notice the silent Hortus behind her.
“What….by the Sea and Stone…?” Laurelyn said, peering up at the rigging.
That flicker of light – it looked like the same sprite he had seen in town during the disturbance in the bar. Then, the sprite had been with the baby; and since Rue had been none of his concern he had said nothing. Especially since he didn’t want to mention his own involvement in that particular operation.
He commented to Laurelyn “It would seem we have a small stowaway – a sprite by the look of it.” No point bringing up the past. One advantage of being a mage was that one could know about things without being quizzed about how one knew.
“What?” the highlander asked, his attention drawn from the patterns Rudolpho traced against the stars. Fionn’s dark eyes dropped to the disarray Rue had so happily made of her blankets, then lifted again to follow Laurelyn’s stare into the rigging. “Sweet Eisei,” he breathed. “De ye believe in guardian angels, Hillrover?” he asked simply. ”That is Rue’s.”
“We could use a few more about,” Laurelyn said with a soft laugh. For a moment she squinted, trying to catch a glimpse of the light amongst the rigging, though now all seemed dark. Finally she looked back at Fionn and said, “If you can, please tell our friendly sprite that we mean it no ill-will.”
Tirlina crouched on the wooden ledge that ringed the crow’s nest and watched the Big Folk on the deck below warily. They seemed to know she was still there somewhere, but couldn’t quite see her clearly in the darkness, against the stars. Well, she could remain up there until they slept, and then quietly return to Rue’s basket.
A rustling sound behind her made her spin around, and she saw the shadowy outline of another of the Big Folk. She was so startled, she didn’t wait long enough to recognize Keir as the owner of the bunny, and instead leapt from the crow’s nest to hover high over the boat, her tiny heart pounding as she surveyed the scene and tried to decide what to do now. In flight, they could all see her again, and there was no way to sneak back down to Rue, but there was also nowhere else to go.
Why couldn’t Luatha have picked someone more at ease with humans for this, Tirlina thought angrily. A brownie, perhaps, who would have guarded Rue faithfully and not been afraid of the Big Folk. Of course, the brownies couldn’t fly, or change size, and didn’t have quite the magical talent she did. But they were quick thinkers, and good at improvising, and they were more accustomed to humans - - some of them even liked living among humans. They could have sufficed. The leader woman – Laurelyn, they called her – had said they meant her no harm, but humans could not be trusted. Tirlina did not feel threatened by Fionn because he and she both had a common interest in Rue’s well-being, but the others were another matter.
He watched the tiny flicker of light. ”A sprite, eh?” he said as he took another sip of his coffee. ”Guess we might as well have one of the fey along… we are hunting for a ghost ship.” He looked over at Laurelyn. “You do seem to have a talent for attracting odd companions, cousin.”
The storyteller turned her attention from the rigging and looked over at her cousin. Gentle laughter was in her voice, as was respect, when she said, “Perhaps true, but none could ask for better companions.”
She moved only enough to sip her coffee, but not enough to leave the shelter of Thomis’s arm.
Considering her limited options, and her inescapable duty to Rue, Tirlina saw no solution but to accept the Big Folk’s awareness of her, and simply maintain a wary vigilance. If one of them tried to catch her, she would show them the mistake of their notion in full measure.
Having so convinced herself, she dropped hesitantly lower, then swooped to the side and came to rest on the deck railing, near to Fionn and Rue, but still well out of reach of everyone, including the puppy. She wanted to return to the concealment of the basket, but with the pup still avidly interested, it was best to take things cautiously. Adult animals were easy to reason with, but the young had minds of their own, filled with innocent and driving curiosity. Standing on the railing, her wings glittering in the starlight, she gave Fiend an intent stare, and whispered something unintelligible to human ears, urging him to satisfy his curiosity without the use of teeth or tongue. Then she flitted to the edge of the basket and perched on the end near Rue’s feet, equally wary of the curiosity of human young, and Rue’s grasping, reaching little fingers.
The pup watched his erstwhile play companion flitter down and back to Rue’s basket, and stared intently at both baby and sprite for a while.
Finally, as if bored with the prospect of a sprite, and finding little of interest in a baby, Fiend gave an enormous yawn and turned to trot off back to the mast. Before he left, he glanced once at Jacques and gave a slight warning growl of his own.
Jacques slipped the knife he’d been holding back into a pocket.
“Hell,” he offered. “It wasn’t like I was going to pin the creature to the mast by it’s wings or anything.” Though is expression belied his words. He took a long pull from the port bottle and watched the pup wander back to sit at the base of the mast. Fiend kept his eyes on the basket and lay down, head on forepaws, his face blank.
Laurelyn looked towards the stardust flicker on the edge of Rue’s basket, and gently asked, “Good Lady, may I ask what name you wish to be called by?”
She knew that the Fair folk rarely wanted to use their true names, but it would be nice to call the fey something other than simply “sprite.”
The sprite was watching Jacques warily, not appreciating his humor, if he had in fact been joking. He would be one to watch carefully, and she would be sure to keep her distance. But Laurelyn’s query drew Tirlina’s attention away from the jester, and she relaxed slightly, immediately liking the woman’s manner and respect.
Tilting her head and remaining quietly thoughtful for a moment, Tirlina let her wings fall flat to her back and relaxed a bit from her defensive stance. Finally she sat down on the wicker rim, and smiled at Laurelyn. ”You may call me Aliea,” she answered in her tiny, singsong voice.
In the basket, Rue kicked one more time, before settling in to focus in trying to jam her entire right fist into her mouth. Maybe she simply wanted to prevent herself from sputtering in reaction to the sprite’s fib. Or maybe she was simply teething.
Either way, Fionn made sure to stay silent, knowing the power of naming among the fey … for it was exactly that which brought him and Rue and Maeve upon this voyage in the first place.
Aliea’s musical voice carried high and soft though Laurelyn could only assume that the sprite had remained near Rue’s basket – since now the faery light had dimmed. “Then welcome, Aliea,” the storyteller said, “It’s good to know that Rue is faery blessed, since our travels have oft been precarious.”
The one thing Laurelyn knew not to say was, “Thank you.” For the Fair Ones always seemed to have a dislike of that term, and were usually inclined to leave when they heard it.
“Mmblethph,” Rue said around her slippery fingers, pausing briefly to thoroughly gum her fingertips.
The captain shrugged almost dismissivly. ”Welcome aboard then,” he said. Then he resumed drinking his coffee.
Satisfied for the moment, at least, that the Big Folk posed no threat, Tirlina drew her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her knees, and remained perched on the edge of the basket. She turned to watch Rue watching the world above her, and occasionally flicked her wings to give off a glint of light to entertain the child.
The sprite knew this was the calm before the storm, literally, and that all too soon Rue would be placed in peril again.
Jacques glared at the sprite suspiciously for a moment, and then shrugged. For some reason he suddenly felt very thirsty, and took another pull from the cup of port masquerading as coffee.
It was, he thought with a glance at the baby, going to be a long trip. And he wondered if he would be able to keep from vomiting heartily over the side.
Still, considered the jester, having spent enough time on boats at least he wasn’t going to get sea-sick…
The sprite’s intial appearance had startled him for he first took her to be… but then he hadn’t called upon them yet. It was apparent that she hadn’t noticed him and he considered clearing his throat to alert her when she spied him and darted off. He slowly descended from his high perch, accepting a small mug of coffee at the bottom, while wondering if the “witchy woman” was amongst their company as well.