Long after the coffee had been finished and all had settled for the night a restless wind began to play around the ship – tugging at the riggings, prowling through around those sleeping on the deck, and sneaking beneath the cabin door.
Then, as suddenly as the wind had risen, it fell – leaving the ocean as still and dark as a wizard’s mirror of divination; overhead the stars glittered like jewels, and the twin moons spilled their milky light over the water. Until – a black ship appeared, covering the moonlight with inky shadows.
From the safety of Thomis’s arms Laurelyn jerked upright – a strangled scream coming from her throat. In her dreams she had seen The Star Dreamer approaching – and now dream merged with reality.
Before she was even upright, Thomis had half-stood, hand automatically moving to his short-sword. And Rudolpho was even faster, the boy half-skittering across the deck, dark eyes wide and one arm lifted to point over the deck railing. Thomis’ own eyes followed the line of the boy’s arm. And for a moment, he didn’t see it, until the wind turned, and the sails turned with it, to catch the light of the moon overhead.
And he knew that, if he could hear them and were able to listen, the threads had fallen silent. This was a mystery beyond their unknotting, this dark ship.
“She wants us sooner than we thought,” Laurelyn murmured, fighting the tug-of-war between dream and reality. When she felt she could stand she got to her feet and moved to stand at the rail, staring at the ghost vessel. “I never had an idea what ‘destiny’ looks like,” she said, “But ‘relentless and frightening’ describes both that ship and the unfolding of fate.”
For several long moments she studied the graceful shadow lines of the black ship as she approached The Brenna Rose.
At last Laurelyn leaned over to kiss Thomis. Her eyes were sad as she drank in the sight of her new husband. Then she touched his face and went to awaken the others.
The captain emerged wild-eyed from his cabin. Leaping up onto the railing and grasping a line from the rigging he stood staring at the black ship. “Tis the same cursed vision that took my Brenna,” he whispered under his breath.
From his hammock slung high in the rigging the Hortus took his first look at the approaching ship. Even to his keen eyes details were hard to discern as it seemed to swallow the moonlight. He could feel the hackles along his neck rise as it neared.
How odd, these people. They had set their collective wills to the achievement of a goal, and working together had begun to achieve it. Yet, they seemed dismayed at the incipient fulfillment of their goals! Apparently, The Star Dreamer was soon to make contact – at which point they could each pursue their various dreams. They might fail to achieve those dreams and suffer penalties, but they had known that to begin with.
He contented himself with waiting calmly.
Fiend turned from the side of the boat where he’d been staring for the last hour and a half at the point from where The Star Dreamer had emerged from the night. He made no sound, but looked over for a second at where Jacques was standing and then turned back to the coming ship.
Muttering under his breath, Jacques glared at the pup and then at the ship. And then back at Fiend. The animal was beginning to get him mightily suspicious. It just wasn’t natural for the pup to do something like that. He shivered.
Either that or he was simply going crazy in his old age.
“Well,” he said after a while. ” This is it. May as well see if this damn hokus pokus is going to work worth a damn.” And then he jumped, surprised he’d spoken aloud.
As the last of the moonlight was devoured by The Star Dreamer the great ship came to stop, and there was a glint of metal on her side as the great, black anchor began to lower towards the water. An operation that normally was attended by great clanking of chains, the groan of the winch, and the splash of water, but now was heralded only by silence.
Laurelyn tried to discern any detail of the darkling shapes that walked the decks, but it was as if both light and vision were swallowed up by the cursed vessel. “She wants us to come to her,” the storyteller said quietly, “We won’t even be hailed – our own free will must govern all our actions in this.”
Though she would argue whether her own free will governed her – not when she had been hounded by dreams of the vessel, and seemed to hear a whispering of what the ship desired. She shook her head, knowing that if she had truly wanted to she could have fled, that one day the visions would have ceased, leaving her with a hollowness like Ceart’s; like some bit of heart had been cut out.
She said to Eric, “We better lower the seaboat, and decide who will be the first group to row over.”
Laurelyn turned her back on The Star Dreamer and said to her companions, “We’ll have to take two trips to get everyone across.” She looked at each of her friends and added, “This is the last chance to choose.”
Jacques looked at Laurelyn blankly for a moment, and then at Fiend who seemed to be in no hurry to go anywhere. Himself, the jester was content to wait for the second expedition – it would at least give him that much more time to sort through his thoughts and concerns.
He drew a plain wooden pipe froma pocket, and began to methodically fill it, all the while keeping his eyes from the ship. It gave him a headache whenever he looked at it, and he wasn’t sure that was in his best interests in any event.
“I’ll wait,” he offered. “Give me a chance to settle my nerves.”
He lit the pipe, and turned to Fiend before taking a long draw.
“You don’t want to go first do you boy?”
Fiend just looked at him silently, big brown eyes expressionless in the dark. “Thought not.” Jacques sighed, and puffed a tortured smoke ring into the night air. “Thought not.”
The captain busied himself with preparing the seaboat, and waiting to see which of them would go with him in the first trip. ”I’m ready,” he said quietly, “And so is the boat. Let’s get this business underway.”
“I’ll go,” the girl said, her voice barely audible. She stood at the railing, shawl wrapped tightly about her, and red hair a mad tangle about her thin face. Keir’s tablets had calmed her stomach, but not her heart.
“Me too, then,” Rudolpho chimed in after a moment of looking from the dark ship to Maeve. ”No reason for you to go over by yourself, Maeve.” When one of her hands crept from her shawl to seek his, the boy took it quickly, and gave it a hard squeeze of reassurance.
The storyteller nodded, and said, “There is one other decision to make: One of us has to act as ferryman for the second group. Since I have my doubts that any who board The Star Dreamer will be allowed back off until the Captain makes his decision. I’m willing, unless another truly desires the job.”
The irony was not lost on Laurelyn. There were legends of other ferrymen who took passengers only one direction, and that was into the shadows of myth.”
Tirlina watched the ship in silence, still perched on the rim of Rue’s basket with her arms wrapped around her knees. She was probably the only one of the group whose expression was entirely neutral since its arrival – with the possible exception of Fiend. The sprite glanced at the pup, and then to Fionn, wondering how anxious the highlander really was now that he faced his wish.
“You go with the first group,” Thomis said to Laurelyn. He stood behind her, hands resting on her shoulders, and bent to speak quietly into her ear. ”You should be first aboard. And I will bring the boat back for the others.” The thought of leaving her to that black ship, while he returned to fetch back the rest, made his heart skip. But this was right, he did not need the threads to tell him that much. And Rudolpho would be with her, with Laurelyn and Maeve both, and the boy was far from the least of their crew.
Laurelyn reached up and rested her hand over Thomis’s. She nodded and said, “There is no other way.” The fact that Thomis would not be at her side during those first moments made her feel very alone, but then she realized that was how it would be for each of them, even while amongst their companions.
From the look on Fionn’s face, Thomis had no doubt the highlander felt just as divided. He had not spoken with Maeve, had not offered to accompany her. She had not seemed surprised, and perhaps Thomis should not have been, either. For Fionn, this quest was made for Rue, not for her mother.
“No new name for her in the highlands,” Fionn murmured, looking down at the babe, whose eyes drifted across the night sky as if tracking something the rest of them could not see. ”Only sorrow.” When he spoke again, it was to Tirlina only, and of the others only Laurelyn could understand his words. ”She did not forbid.” And with that, he acknowledged for the first time that if Luatha had spoken nay, he would not have carried Rue down from the mountains. But she had not … and with that silence, Luatha had indicated that what she saw in the child’s name was a life of grief.
The storyteller heard Fionn’s words and hoped that some mercy remained in the ancient Captain’s heart, that he would at least lift one curse for one who had done nothing but be born.
She squeezed her husband’s hand one last time, then went over to where the rope ladder waited.
The Star Dreamer’s black hull loomed large, but still no light nor detail shown. Laurelyn turned her back on her fate long enough to climb down the ladder, and step carefully into the dark seaboat. Beneath her feet she felt the boat rock and she eased herself into a seat, waiting for the others to join her.
He retrieved a small black case from the cabin and took one last look at the others on deck. Then he climbed down into the boat and looked over at Laurelyn. ”Good Luck cousin,” he said.
“Thank you, Eric,” she said, “Though I’m not sure how much luck will play into this…”
She eyed the bag and almost commented that it did not bode well he was bringing baggage for a stay, but she refrained. With The Star Dreamer looming behind them she didn’t feel right making such a dark quip.
Enris stood, and agreed with Laurelyn “You are correct. Will, combined with work, must surely overcome any obstacle.”
Truth be told, he was eager for the trip, to end the uncertainty. Of course, failure was possible, even to a dedicated loyalist such as himself – but with an eternity of time, he had no doubt that he would succeed in showing this better way to the Captain and crew of The Star Dreamer.
He stepped forward, ready to take his place in the first group.
Thomis waved Enris towards the rope ladder, murmuring at the same time that the mage might want to wait at the bottom to help Maeve. Once Enris was down, the girl moved forward quickly enough, and carefully stepped down into the seaboat with a nod of thanks to Enris for catching her elbow and guiding her to a safe spot.
“Me next, then,” Rudolpho said almost cheerily, before the Evandin could say anything. Thomis was unsure how much of the boy’s upbeat tone was meant to reassure Maeve, and how much was facade to cover his own uncertainty. But in seconds, Rudolpho had scrambled down the rope ladder to take a spot next to the girl, and to take her hand again in his own.
“I will be back for you,” Thomis said to Fionn, as he took his own first step down the rope. “If you still want to go then.” He glanced over at Jacques. ”Or not.” A nod to Ulric and Keir, and another to Tirlina, and he descended to the boat, to take the oars and guide it away from Brenna’s Rose and towards the dark and silent ship that awaited them.
Once the first group was aboard Laurelyn helped row the seaboat, her gaze filling with the blackness of The Star Dreamer, and she felt again as if she was in a dream. Continually moving forward but never quite reaching her destination.
But this time, the end of the journey came too abruptly, and they were by the side of the dark hull, looking up at a rope ladder. Had the ladder been there before?Laurelyn didn’t remember seeing it, nor had she heard any sound of it being lowered. She peered up, but saw no crew working.
Laurelyn looked back at Thomis. There was no way to reach over to touch him. To kiss him. She waited till the seaboat was steadied, then stood and grabbed hold of the rope ladder in both hands.
The rope felt rough and real beneath her hands, and her heart beat quick time as she climbed.
Still no sound heralded her arrival as she stepped aboard the deck of The Star Dreamer. But she shivered, for the temperature had dropped down to freezing. Nor could she make out any details of the shadowed deck.
Before moving forward, to delay exploration for a moment, Laurelyn leaned against the rail. “Thomis,” she called, “Tell Fionn to wrap Rue up – it’s….”
Her words stuck in her throat when she heard her voice reverberate back to her. She no longer could see nor hear the seaboat. Around the ship was a dense black fog that she hadn’t noticed while climbing aboard.
The captain lifted his instrument bag to his shoulder and took hold of the ladder. He climbed it slowly and carefully. Reaching the top, he pulled himself over the rail and looked to Laurelyn. ”Well,” he said, “We’re here.”
The storyteller nearly jumped at the sound of Eric’s voice and his appearance from the black fog. “Aye,” she said, “And cut off from the known world. We’ll wait to explore once the rest are aboard.”
“That’s a sound idea,” he said looking around the deck. A part of him was eager to see his love again, but at the same time a fear gripped him. He knew nothing about what her stay had done to her. She might have forgotten him, or grown to hate him for not stopping her. Or she might simply not be any more real than the rest of this cursed ship’s phantasms now. He forced a calm expression onto his face and waited.
The cold of the ship seemed determined to sink into her bones and Laurelyn wrapped her cloak tightly about her. She knew that before too long the cold and the steel-grey fog that hide most of the ship would soon turn each second into a chilled hell. Though she had been planning on saving the simple tune Morrighu had taught her for later Laurelyn pulled out her tin whistle, and began to play.
The notes rose high, sweet, and real in the darkness.
A darkness that began to break into individual shadows.
He had been clambering onto the ship when he heard the sounds. There was something about them that appealed to courage, that spoke of battles fought for the right and the just. He smiled, for clearly this was exactly what the CRS stood for!
Once on deck, he strode over to Laurelyn. The dark fog that surrounded the ship and excluded the outside world was vaguely forboding, and hinted at the sort of existence that one might have if trapped aboard the ship. Enris commented “Do you suppose our host will appear when all have arrived? What do the legends say?” Of course, it was quite possible that Laurelyn didn’t know, but talking was one way to deal with stress.
Laurelyn slowly lowered the tin whistle and said, “Beyond the tales of seeing her and what the legends say of the boon there is little else.” She gestured with the whistle and quietly said, “But I don’t think we’re entirely alone anymore.”
The shadows had vague human shapes, but though they had some form they were still hazy and did not approach anymore closely.
“At least they don’t seem too threatening,” Rudolpho said as he scrambled over the edge of the deck after Maeve. He made sure to keep a cheerful note in his voice, and took Maeve’s hand right away once he was on the deck beside her. From the look on her face, he suspected she needed the reassurance, and if asked he might have admitted that he didn’t mind it either.
The Oath-bound had held the boat steady while Rudolpho took to the ladder, but he had not looked up into the dark fog where Laurelyn had disappeared. After the boy had gone, he settled back into the seaboat and lifted the oars, to steer himself back to Brenna’s Rose. Angling close to Eric Dunn’s boat, he lashed it firm for boarding by the others. ”If you would come,” he spoke softly upwards to Fionn. After a moment more, and a barely audible murmur in the Highland tongue – Thomis thought it might have been a prayer, the other man stooped over to lower the basket to Thomis, and then followed downwards to place it safely at the bottom of the boat.
That left only Keir, Ulric, and Jacques. Though the need to rejoin Laurelyn was strong, he waited without speaking for the other three to make their choice and to descend to the boat.
Jacques glared at the boat for a few seconds and then at the Dreamer in the shadows. It was, obviously, time. Time to decide one way or another. Time to find out if the “boon” that was potentially an offer that was even adequate to the task he intended asking of it.
After all, in all the traveling time from that day by the river where the stupid pup had woken him, through to the present, he’d never actually asked Laurelyn what the limits were. What the possibilities were.
He’d just pushed hope and even the chance of hope aside, as he’d always done. From the start. It hadn’t seemed relevant, or even likely.
Fiend gave a little noise somewhere between a bark and a whimper, and trotted over to jump into the boat with Thomis and Fionn.
“Alright, boy. I’m comin’.” He clenched the pipe firmly between his teeth and settled into the boat himself. “Gods help me, I’m coming.”
Maybe, just maybe, this would actually work. Certainly he had nothing else to lose.
Tirlina had remained in the basket as Fionn lowered it to Thomis, and waited there while Ulric and Keir climbed into the seaboat, but as the oars cut into the dark water and the small boat glided once more for its looming destination, she took flight, hovering above the small vessel as it approached the dark ship awaiting it.
Tirlina did not fear the ghost ship, for its magic had no hold on her, but she could sense the grim trepidation of the humans, and she sympathized. The silvery light of her wings did not brighten the shadowy veil surrounding the ghostly vessel, but she thought it might give the Big Folk, and especially Fionn, a bit of cheerful glow in an otherwise chill and ominous quest. And it would remind Fionn that Rue was here under Luatha’s protection.
The little sprite danced ahead of them in the damp gloom, and flitted up the side of the ship to hover at the top of the ladder, waiting for them.
Out of the corner of her eye Laurelyn watched the shadow figures milling, blending, through the fog, but shortly a welcome sound caught her attention, and she turned to see the rest of her friends begin to climb aboard. And though she knew that Thomis would soon be aboard she caught herself holding her breath as she awaited sight of him.
“Two boat loads….,” a husky voice said, seeming to be echoing from a long tunnel. Laurelyn pivoted on her heel, forcing herself not to draw her sword; she was terrified at what specter she was about to confront, but schooled her expression as she faced the direction the voice was coming from.
“I’m going to have to arrange for more seating,” the voice continued, coming closer through the fog, until a blond-haired man stepped forward.
He was pale, but in spite of a craggy face he appeared youngish in appearance. His blond hair was short, and even in the dark his blue eyes seemed to twinkle with grim humor; his clothing marked him as a merchant seaman, but his captain’s insignia was for a country that had been dust for longer than even legends remembered.