The fog seemed illuminated around him – allowing each of the new arrivals to note how he scrutinized them, and keeping hidden the crew of the ship. “Welcome to my ship, The Star Dreamer,” the Captain said with cold pride, “And I Captain Venlesser.”
“And I am Laurelyn Parch, daughter of the Chief of the Hillrover clan,” Laurelyn answered, meeting his chill gaze.
“One who has been seeking me,” the Captain said, “As are the rest of you.”
Though he had been loath to leave the Brenna Rose, more to guard against it being abandoned at anchor should the Dark Ship choose to set sail, thus ensuring their spending an eternity, or at least their allotted span of life, aboard the cursed vessel, he scaled the rope ladder, leapt the gunwale and sprinted to the Mistress’s side in the blink of an eye.
“Mighty full of himself.” Keir muttered to Laurelyn, taking an instant dislike to the one who, supposedly, controlled their fate from this moment forward.
“This is Master Keir,” Laurelyn said, gesturing to the Hortus, and as always grateful for the healer’s pragmatic attitude.
“A pleasure,” Captain Venlesser said, “It has been a few centuries since a Hortus has stepped upon my ship, and it was a welcome diversion to have such a worthy seaman come aboard.”
Jacques lowered Fiend lightly onto the deck of the ship, and looked about him casually. Though the gleaming knife in his free hand belied his apparent lack of concern.
“You know,” he offered after looking critically around. “I was kind of hoping for something a little more…” he shrugged, setting the bells ringing mournfully in the mist. “A little more impressive than this.”
Fiend made a grumbling, laughing sound.
It was laughing, Jacques thought to himself. Either that or the pup was driving him madder than King Theodore who’d married the donkey.
He spun the knife lightly in his hand. Even in the darkness and the fog the blade seemed to have a pale, almost translucent look, and the handle was none of the bright colours usually associated with the jester.
Indeed, it was black as death.
From the way Maeve’s hand was holding on to his own, and from the whiteness of her face, Rudolpho figured she probably found the place impressive enough. ”Doesn’t seem quite as impressive as the Dun,” Rudolpho answered no one in particular.”
The Captain turned his gaze towards Jacques and Rudolpho, and said, “She serves her purpose.” And though Laurelyn wouldn’t have sworn to her perception she thought she saw the tiniest quirk of the Captain’s lips.
“You know,” said Jacques between puffs on a newly refilled pipe. “If she serves, then mine’ll be a lager. Barmaid? Where’s the barmaid?”
Fiend looked at him blankly.
“What do you want, High Drama? I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere, on an oversized rowing boat, in the middle of a gad-damn fog boy. How do you expect High Drama!?” Fiend yawned, and trotted over to Rue and Tirlina. Maybe the sprite would be more playful this time…
Taken aback by the captain’s claim of having had Horti on board before, Keir held his tongue, the initial surge of hope tempered by the belief that no Horti had ever been to these lands until quite recently. But then time was an odd thing, could it be that his people had ended up in the past even though he had left Loria no more than two months behind them?
Centuries the captain had said, if true then his quest was in vain for if they had survived and thrived here surely someone would’ve had knowledge of them besides this – this apparition? “Captain, did this Hortus seaman have a name?”
The highlander paused at the top of the ladder, looking at the others before swinging Rue’s basket over the railing with one hand. But the sparkle of light that was Tirlina reassured him, and he followed after the basket. And behind him came Thomis, who steadied the younger man before crossing to Laurelyn’s side.
Laurelyn reached over to touch Thomis’s hand, to find a hint of warmth in this cold fog. She even managed to give her husband a tiny smile, though she knew it fooled neither of them.
And she watched in wonder as Captain Venlesser stopped in mid-answer to Keir, the Captain’s attention locking on Rue’s small basket, and the smaller light that flickered on its brim. Soundlessly Venlesser walked over, and hunkered down near the basket, but he made no move to touch Rue.
“Welcome Good Lady,” he said to Tirlina, and there was wonder in his voice. And wonder in his cold blue eyes as he looked at the sprite and her babe. His voice was as quiet as the wind as he said, “None so young or so innocent have ever sought a boon here, and none of the Good Folk have ever been seen in our chill night…..”
Tirlina stood straight and fearless on the edge of the basket, and gave the Captain a gracious nod of respect. ”Indeed, sir,” she replied, her voice clear and tinkling of bells even in the muffling effect of the dark mist. ”But it is not I that seeks a boon for this child. However, she is favored, and I am here to see that this voyage does not add to the curse she already bears.” Tirlina flicked her iridescent wings in a gesture of firm resolve, and the moonglow around her brightened momentarily with the movement.
The Captain tilted his head in acknowledgement, but made no response in regards to Rue’s fate.
Instead he stood, again looking at each of the new arrivals, then gestured towards the thick fog, and the even-thicker shadows that milled about, and said, “Before we settle to business – let me show you around my vessel….”
In the direction that the Captain’s hand point the fog lessened, forming a billowy tunnel towards a grey wooden hatch.
Rudolpho took a quick glance at Maeve’s face, but she looked even paler – if that was possible – and seemed determined to stand there, just chewing on her bottom lip. He couldn’t tell whether she had even heard Tirlina. Did it bother her at all that she had been the one to curse her own babe with that name? Fionn had least hadn’t volunteered that information, nor had the sprite seen fit to mention it … After a moment more, Rudolpho just shrugged, and smiled when Thomis looked over in question. He couldn’t figure out what Thomis was thinking either, standing there next to Laurelyn as if nothing – not even sea demons – would be able to drive him from her side. ”Um …” he started, with a clearing of his throat. ”A tour?” He considered suggesting that maybe it would be better if they just got down to the business that had brought them to the Star Dreamer, but a quick, almost painful squeeze by Maeve on his fingers stopped him. ”Uh, sure, that’d be nice.”
The Captain’s stride was silent. Indeed, silence blanketed the ship just as the fog did.
Laurelyn tried to make out some detail of the shadowy forms that were on either side of them, wrapped in that eternal fog, and while she could only get a hint of a feature she could discern some of their actions. What few she could make out seemed involved in the tasks of manning a ship. Arms reached up to tie off a line. A darker grey mop moved in and out of the fog.
Venlesser opened the door and gestured them down, down into a thick darkness. What the storyteller found interesting was how their surroundings become faintly visible as they descended the wooden steps. At first she thought her eyes were adjusting to the dark, but then she decided that the area had lightened enough for them to see.
Everything was grey. The air was chill and moist. And when Laurelyn touched the wall she found the wood damp to the touch. All the doors were open, allowing them to look in and see the crews’ cabins; each of the cabins were pin neat, grey, and with the air of never being used. The sameness of the quarters drew the storyteller in – which raised no protest – and she went into see if there was some indication of habitation. Personal items. An unmade corner of a cot.
But what she found was perfect neatness, and worse yet, the bedding and the furniture were chill and damp to the touch. As if the fog that blanketed the ship had seeped into the very essence of the wood and the weave. She hastily returned to Thomis, and the warmth of his touch.
“There is never any time to sleep here, and no need,” Venlesser said, his voice echoed down the hall, coming from the rear of the group.
Eric had been silent since Venlesser’s appearance. He had been searching through the fog-shrouded apparitions in hopes of seeing the one that had brought him here. But he had had no luck, they were faint vague images that dissappeared before he could get a close look at any of them. He followed the others toward their final destination.
Fiend, having realised Tirlina wasn’t interested in playing, had turned and strolled off into the fog, nose snuffling eagerly at all manner of strange and wonderful things only he could smell.
Jacques watched him, and then turned to follow the others with a shrug.
“This place gives me the creeps,” he muttered around his pipe to no-one in particular as he considered what the captain had said. He stuffed one hand into a pocket and withdrew a small stack of tired and lifeless, thin pancakes.
“I said creeps, not crepes, damnit.” He stuffed the pancakes back into the pocket. “Not only am I getting’ rid of that irritating mutt, but I’m gettin’ rid of this damn ignorant motley too!”
Slipping his hand and knife back into a pocket, he withdrew just the glowing sphere of light. It seemed to have little or no impact on the fog that he could see. Certainly it didn’t really make him feel any better.
The jester puffed on his pipe for solace and glared.
The tour of The Star Dreamer led them on past the officer’s quarters, and what had to be the Captain’s chambers, all showing the same neat disuse, and clammy greyness. At the end of the hall was another door, and Laurelyn came to a stop, unsure whether or not to proceed.
“Open the door,” Venlesser said.
The brass handle was icy against her skin as the storyteller grasped the metal and swung the door open. More darkness lay ahead, but she stepped carefully forward, finding more stairs that led down; as before the area became illuminated enough that the group could see where they were going, which appeared to be another short hall, but the doors on either side of them were all tightly shut. “I’ve never seen a ship laid out like this,” Laurelyn murmured to Thomis as they proceeded down the hall.
As before the hall ended in a door, but this time Laurelyn didn’t hesitate. She swung the door open. And stood blinking.
Compared to the rest of the ship this room positively blazed with light, and the storyteller had to let her eyes adjust.
Before them was a banquet hall, with a great table in its center, and a high-backed chair at the far end; on the table sat huge candlebras whose candle flames danced, blown by an unfelt wind. But despite the candles – on the tables and in the wall sconces – the room still had the feel of grey; the flames were not warm yellow but chill white, and even the rich wood of the furniture seemed lifeless and muted. Laurelyn slowly stepped into the room – but she stopped by the table, and in a tone of disbelief said, “There is a place for each of us.”
“I did mention that I was going to have to add a chair or two,” Captain Venlesser said, with a tone of chill amusement, as he walked around the group and made his way to the head of the table. “Please be seated,” he said, “We just as well dine while we’re being entertained.”
As Laurelyn began to pull out the nearest chair Venlesser said, “No. You and your husband will join me at the head of the table. After all you are leaders of these seekers.”
He gestured that Laurelyn was to take the chair to his right, and Thomis to take the chair to his left.
Leader? Thomis wondered, the question echoed in the look he gave Laurelyn. It was her quest that had drawn them all together … but the thought of anyone claiming the right to “lead” the others in the party – headstrong to the last – sounded odd to his ears. He would have chosen, if choice had been given, the seat by Laurelyn herself. But he allowed himself only to pull her chair back so she could sit. And to rest his hands briefly atop her shoulders.
Laurelyn reached up and for a heartbeat lay her hand over her husband’s, and wondered what game Venlesser played.
On the other side of the table, further down, Rudolpho had quickly moved to act as gallant for the pale and silent Maeve. With a quick flick of his wrists, the boy laid a linen napkin across her lap as if he served a lady at a noble’s feast. And then he took his own seat, his feet dangling above the floor, waiting expectantly.
After a moment more, Fionn – awkward in his huntsman’s garb and far from the highlands – jerked two more chairs back from the table, setting Rue’s (and Tirlina’s) basket in one before taking the other.
The storyteller looked over at where the Captain stood by his highbacked chair, and said, “Captain, I do not lead anyone, except myself. Each of my friends chose to come when they heard the tale of you and your ship.”
The greyish light cast strange, silver shadows over Venlesser’s features – turning his blue eyes to liquid metal and his blond hair to white. He studied Laurelyn for a long moment, and asked, “So, balladeer, do you think you did them any favors in spinning them out my tale? You knew well the power it can cast on one’s soul – why trap others with my story?”
A bit of truth, as sharp as shrapnel, pierced her conscience – there were patches of fertile soil within her thoughts – particularly where her thoughts touched on Thomis, who had come because of her, but she steeled herself against flinching. After pondering the question, looking at the thin wound of guilt, she said, “A story only finds an open doorway if the heart is ready to hear it. I was asked what road I walked – and I answered, and while all of us have risked much on each other’s behalf and would do so willingly again – each of my companions came to this moment of their own accord. Their hearts lead them – just as mine does.”
“Does it?” Venlesser softly asked as he sat down, “And are you truly willing to risk everything to follow the path it travels?”
“I wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case,” Laurelyn answered with restrained pride, sensing that he tried to goad her.
The Captain’s liquid silver eyes held a challenge as he looked at the others, and asked, “Does the balladeer speak truly? Or does she hide from the truth and responsibility – do each of you actually come of your own accord? Or did she catch you up in my story, with its tawdry bits of impossible hope so she wouldn’t be traveling alone?”
Venlesser looked over at Thomis and said, “Maybe that is a question that should be particularly asked of you, Mr. Parch.”
A game, Thomis thought to himself, the captain’s first efforts to make them question Laurelyn, and themselves. ”I choose my own way, Captain Venlesser,” the Oathbound said evenly. ”I do not simply allow myself to be blindly led. The promises I make are my own.” Against the skin of his neck burned the silver chain that Mesani I’Se had placed there. And on his hand, the ring that Keir had given him, to match the one Laurelyn herself wore, glittered in the pale candlelight.
From his seat, the fisherman looked up at the captain. ”I did not learn of this cursed ship from my cousin. And none directed my course here save myself. I am here of my own accord.”
“True,” the Captain said, “Your ship has been near before…..”
From another door – one that hadn’t been apparent before – came a troupe of servers; all cast with silver-grey like their Captain, and each carrying huge platters. And though steam rose from the food there was no aroma and no warmth.
Venlesser’s expression did not change as he signaled for the servers to ladle out the food.
Eyeing the food suspiciously, not least because of the distinct lack of lager, Jacques wondered where Fiend was. Maybe he could slip the pup some of this without anyone noticing.
“Impossible hope?” he said in reply to the phantom captain’s question. “Is there any other kind? Certainly I am here because of an impossible hope, Captain, but it is none of Mrs Parch’s doing. ‘Tis mine, and mine alone.”
He lifted a piece of cutlery and made it roll lightly between his fingers. It felt … odd, somehow, though he couldn’t say why.
“As for the power over one’s soul, Captain, you’ll just have to get in line.” Jacques chuckled humourlessly into his moustache and waggled a finger admonishingly. “No queue jumping allowed for this one.”
He took a long draw from his pipe, and watched the others before starting on the “food”.
And where in the hell was that pup?
“So speak some of our adults,” the Captain said, turning his chill eyes towards Maeve, Fionn, and Rudolpho, “And what about the children – and those who bring them?”
Maybe it was a trick of candlelight but Venlesser’s eyes showed a hint of blue as he looked where Rue’s basket sat, and he said, “What do innocents need to risk their souls for?”
The Hortus snorted in disgust, as much at the Captain’s tone as at the tasteless, empty food. He had been loath to descend below decks but relented as the whole group followed their host without a word of doubt expressed, at least openly, and the mere thought of existing throughout eternity with fare that failed to quiet his hunger, regardless of its bulk, chilled him. He swallowed the last mouthful in grave disappointment and hardly looked up as one of the servers, a smallish girl with fair hair and hollow eyes, stepped forward to refill his plate.
He gulped quietly as he caught sight of a leather vest she wore, so like his own that there could be little doubt of its origin. He fought back the urge to grab her hand and demand to know how she came to be thus clad, restrained only by the dull sheen of her lifeless eyes. Glaring instead at the Captain he inwardly vowed to make him answer the many questions that screamed in his mind – once this farce of a dinner was ended. He would answer or he himself would spend eternity being badgered for such was the resolve of Horti stubborness. Pushing the useless meal aside he focused his energies on preparing his “entertainment”.
Up on deck, Fiend was prowling around in the fog listlessly. He couldn’t track the scent of the party, and had missed their departure – the grey fog had obscured everything and left him alone and cold.
The pup shivered, and looked around with large frightened eyes before giving a long, mournful howl. That too, though somehow befitting the ship and its crew, was lost in the fog.
Tirlina sat on one of the wall sconces, watching the scene unfold with the detached interest of one who was not affected by the ultimate outcome. The dull white flame of the candle beside her was a pale reflection of the sparkling moonglow she herself emanated, and it flickered palely against the grey surroundings, giving off no heat or color, and dampening her mood. The sprite found this whole place to be depressingly lifeless and cheerless, but there was no leaving until the Big Folk had what they came for, or met their fates here.
Finally irritated by the lifeless little flame, Tirlina turned and blew on it, and suddenly it danced, infused with color—red, orange, brilliant yellow – and it seemed to jump for joy of the brief life it had been given. Still, it faded rapidly, and returned to its pale, flat white, the dance quickly gone. But Tirlina’s small smile remained.
And then that, too, faded suddenly as she perked up to hear something that the others could not. A glance in the direction of the table confirmed that they had not heard, and she turned and looked toward the door again. Rue was safe for the moment, and nestled snugly in her basket next to Fionn. Tirlina was needed elsewhere.
The tiny sprite stood and launched herself from the sconce, darting for the door, and humming a quiet fairy tune to herself as she retraced their path back up to the main deck, where a lost pup sat howling mournfully into the deadened night.
The Captain glanced up as the determined sprite went to seek the pup, and murmured, “She seeks to hold back the grey with such a tiny flame….”
Then his attention – his chill silver gaze – was back on his dinner “guests,” and he sat silently while the servers made the round of the table. Each server ladled out a different delicacy, but the food seemed to be more form than substance – offering no aromas, no color, and no filling taste. Once the food was served most of the servants left, but four attendants took up posts in the four corners of the room.
After a sip of colorless wine Venlesser said, “It seems, balladeer, that your companions claim their own responsibility for being here. And since that is the case…...” Captain Venlesser leaned back in his chair and looked around the table with a bored gaze, and asked, “Who here will begin tonight’s entertainment? Who here wishes to be first to risk damnation?”