“This is the fire,” the Evandin whispered, feeling it still enveloping him, but unable to direct it. Sword drawn and wary, he stooped to wrap one arm about her upper chest and pull her back, away from edge where yet more tentacles lifted and wavered, as if smelling her blood.
This is the breath and the life, these are the patterns we make for ourselves. Half-slipping in the gore, he continued to move despite the flames that moved through his blood and seared the breath in his lungs, burning with anger and grief and desperation.
A toothed tentacle skittered across Jacques’ motley, trailing behind it a screaming sound as of glass against steel.
He grunted and cursed and cut and hacked and swiped with a pair of knives – one long, red handled knife in one hand, and one long, yellow handled knife in the other. The tentacles parted and split where the red handled knife scored. And fell away and twitched where the yellow handled knife scored.
But there were too damn many of them.
Another skittered across his motley, and he cursed loudly and roundly. He’d sold his soul for this damn costume, and while it had seemed worth the price at the time even it’s mystical properties now could not persuade him it still was.
The tentacle slipped, and then twisted, and then grabbed, the teeth bending and shattering against the seeming cloth, but the grip holding and tightening nonetheless for that.
Jacques reached for his hat, but another tentacle seized his arm, the teeth splintering on a red and green patchwork, and he was pulled up and free of the deck, still cursing, bells ringing hollowly in the roar. Hiding in the lee side of the mast, Fiend let out a long howl of despair and fear that pierced through the noise like the blade of one of the jester’s knives.
It all happened so fast, there was barely time to react, but even as the Big Folk were attacked, Tirlina darted toward Fiend, transforming as she flew, and grabbed the whining pup where he cowered. Lifting him into her arms and whispering a quick reassurance, she shoved the puppy, who yapped in protest, into the seemingly endless fold of her pocket.
Turning, she saw a tentacle looming toward Fionn, and called a warning, but her focus was on the basket near his feet. Rue’s waving fists were just visible above the rim, and Tirlina lunged for the baby as another tentacle snaked across the deck. She lifted the Rue from the basket just as the tentacle wrapped around it and crushed it, then yanked it away. Cradling Rue against her chest protectively, a glittering shimmer of moonlight surrounding sprite and child and warding off the danger, Tirlina watched in horror as the nightmare that erupted around them began claiming more of the Big Folk who’d volunteered to come and face this without knowing what it was to which they had committed themselves…
As the tentacle had arched over the railing, the highlander’s thought had been only for Rue, and for Maeve. The lurching of the ship had sent the basket sliding beyond his reach, but as he lunged for it the bright sparkle of Tirlina dashed forward. The babe snatched up and cradled against the sprite (safe, he thought, she is safe), he scrambled desperately on hands and knees to reach Maeve and Rudolpho.
Maeve herself, knocked to the deck, froze in place, eyes wide as one of the tentacles lifted in the air above her, seeking. She did not see the wings stretching out behind her as Rudolpho shifted, and her cry of surprise as the talons caught her none too gently on the upper arms was lost in the screaming of the winds. The roc’s wings strained against the buffeting air, pulling her first to her feet, and then free of the deck, lifting higher -
Fionn held his breath, stopped in place. And one sinewy arm wrapped about his feet, pulling him closer to the edge of the deck, unstayed by his fingers clawing at the deck. He tangled one arm about a rope snapped loose at one end from the sails, and grasped for the long huntsman’s knife at his waist, to slash, again and again, covering himself in ichor.
And above them, before the roc could clear the Star Dreamer, one, two, three tentacles hurled themselves upward to slap it from the sky, sending Maeve white-faced and screaming into the waters. Fionn thought he might have heard the bones in the roc’s wings snap … or maybe it was the mast, or his own heart as the beast, turning back to boy, tumbled into the sea.
Finally pulling himself free, knife still clutched in one hand, Fionn pushed himself to his knees. “Make a song for her,” he nearly growled at Tirlina. “For all of us.” And with one leap, he was over the edge and in the water, swimming desperately for Maeve and Rudolpho.
Even with the violent pitching of the deck Keir managed to dodge the first grasping tendril whipping towards him and parry the next with his shaft. A high-pitched keen grew in his mind, causing a pain so sharp his eyes snapped shut despite his will and allowing a third tentacle to loop over and behind him. Razor sharp hooks sunk into his skull and he screamed. The tentacle lifted him off his feet and flung his suddenly limp body forward into the whirlpool, tearing off an ear in the process.
A fanged limb tore away part of the Captain’s shoulder and he bit down so hard on his tongue – to keep from screaming – that blood ran from his mouth. Ahead, he could see three of the Cauldron’s tentacles lifting young Eric Dunn high into the air, though each swaying limb held a different part of the man and were determined to go different directions. “Enough!!” Venlesser hissed through the taste of salted copper.
His arms and shoulders burned with agony from more than wounds,from fighting the will of the Dias’ Cauldron. Tears mingled with his blood. Not again, he would not see these people sacrificed to his fears!!! He would prove that even the damned had faith!!
He tore his hands that felt welded to the ebone wheel free and lifted his arms high.
“I cast our fates into your Mercy!!!!!” he screamed out; the word “Mercy” seeming to ride the roaring winds and surround the torn ship. There was silence. And in that silence rode a whole ship – sailing through a silvered tunnel.
There were no longer any fanged tentacles. No bloody limbs. No death. Each of the small band stood whole and safe.
And the tears on Captain Venlesser’s cheeks were untainted with blood.
Jacques blinked, and looked around, somewhat surprised he still had eyes that could. His hands unconsciously ran over his motley, checking for holes, and one came to rest in a pocket.
“Damn,” he whispered to no-one in particular. And then, louder, “Captain, who in the hell are you insured with? I really need to meet your broker. Last time I damaged the donkey cart they bickered and bitched for months before giving me so much as a groat. And you …” The jester shrugged helplessly and gestured around The Star Dreamer wordlessly. Then he fished his pipe out of a pocket and lit it with a steady hand, though his pale face belied both the comment and the movement.
“Wha-?” The girl ran her hands over the front of her dress, finding it dry and untouched. Next to her, Rudolpho crouched as if half-expecting the wings to spring from his back again. And most startling of all, Fionn, whom she had last seen nearly swept away by the waves, standing next to them both, hands upraised. “I am fine,” she said emphatically, pushing his hands away and smoothing her hair. Only then did the jester’s words register, and she had to choke down a sudden, hysterical laugh.
The sprite glanced quickly around, startled at the swift change and the return of the lost, and cradled Rue closer, still wary. But when it became clear that the horror had ended, she relaxed slightly. Fionn was focused on Maeve for the moment, and the baby was still hers. She scanned the deck for the basket that had been lost to the crush of a tentacle, wondering if it had miraculously reappeared as well.
An image of a viciously clawed tentacle going for his face made him shudder, setting the bells ringing faintly. Now that had been the fourth most painful thing he’d ever experienced, and he was extremely glad that not only had it been short, but apparently had been wiped clean.
Somehow he felt like a part of his life had been surgically removed, with the attending ends simply spliced together over the gap. It was not a pleasant feeling in the least.
The moment it stopped, the sound of the threads and the feel of the fire had subsided, to just a low hum in the back of his head. Thomis turned Laurelyn towards him forcefully, pressing her face between both hands. No words, he could not find them. Jacques at least had done that for them.
He was amazed. When they had begun the battle with the monster, whatever it was, he had fully expected to die. It was his duty to the CRS to fight, no matter what the odds – to retreat or show weakness in front of the rest would be a very serious crime – but surviving the encounter had come as a distinct surprise. More confusing was the methodology – he had never heard of a plea for mercy having any positive effect. Generally, it meant that a prisoner would soon break.
He smiled slightly. Of course…the leader of the group had broken, and now they would face some sort of demand. It was a standard tactic in the CRS interrogation centers. And if they refused, they would face the same threat, or a worse one. It was, of course, pointless to mention this. If they survived this, that set of fanged tentacles wouldn’t make a bad addition to the illusions used on certain prisoners…
The warmth of Thomis’s hands on her face made Laurelyn either want to shout with the joy of living, or cry with relief. She was shaking, from shock she suspected; shock at feeling Thomis’s touch again, at feeling the race of blood through her veins.
She had died; she knew that and could remember easily the strike of pain, then the nearness of her ancestors, particularly those who recently died at the Dun. Particularly the Piper whose soul they had freed. They had waited with her in that moment of eternity. Waiting to see the fate of her soul.
When she had control of her breath she gently took Thomis’s hands in her own and kissed each palm. Then she turned to look at the Captain. “Dias’ Cauldron does really mean ‘Gods’ Cauldron,’” she stated.
Venlesser moved from the ship’s wheel and nodded. “It is indeed their cauldron, where all is possible,” he said. He looked pale and his once strong voice shook as he said, “Once they gave me the gift of the winds and in my arrogance I called it my own power, and they have waited for the day I would give them their due. On the day I stopped fighting their Will was the day I would have my freedom.”
He took a shuddering breath and looked surprised, as if he had not truly breathed in centuries. “I denied the Gods their due for far too long. Not out of pride but terror – I faced this once before and failed to trust. And my arrogance and fear cost too great a price.” He looked at each of them and said, “For your sacrifice I thank you. Though such sounds inadequate for the gift you gave me.”
The tunnel began to lighten and soon an opening could be seen ahead, bringing with it the smell of the ocean and the glorious blue of the sky. The Star Dreamer leapt out of the silvered tunnel and soon was riding gently lapping waves. And the ship … No longer was she cloaked in thick fog but looked like she had when she first launched; wood gleaming, fittings perfect, and sails billowing high.
Venlesser looked around and said, “The price has been high, indeed.” He pointed to his crew and his expression was sad; for they had been trapped in the spirit world for too long and were still nothing but wraiths, but now they each had their own distinct outline and their visages were peaceful. The Captain stepped amongst them and said, “There is one, though, who will be returning to the world of the living.”
He drew forth Brenna, whose color returned with each step she took towards her beloved, Eric. Until her eyes were bright and her laughter rung, and she was in her beloved’s arms again. For a long time the Captain studied the pair.
Then he left them to their privacy and said to the others, “Now is the time of well-deserved boons. But I have a favor to ask…?” His blue eyes were now living blue eyes, with no eldritch glow, and his gaze was beseeching.
“What is that?” Laurelyn asked, feeling a little nervous and puzzled. What more would be required of them?
Venlesser laughed and said, “Nothing dire, Balladeer. I only ask that I have the honor of witnessing the babe’s naming and your wedding, while we sail beneath the gaze of the Gods.”
The storyteller laughed shakily and looked at her husband, and asked, “Thomis, do you think we can survive another wedding? This is either number three or four, I’ve lost track.”
“This will be three, I think. And I doubt the last,” Thomis answered. He lifted Laurelyn’s left hand with his own, so that the two rings Keir had given them could be seen. “Lucky I do not plan to be rid of you any time soon.”
“And I think I’ll keep you,” Laurelyn retorted with a chuckle.
The sprite spotted the basket, still sitting, she assumed, where it had been on the deck when it was destroyed. She went to retrieve it, and settled Rue into her blankets, glancing over her shoulder to see if Fionn was still occupied with Maeve. Then she carefully reached into her pocket and dragged out Fiend, who promptly began yapping at her as she held him up, nose to nose with her childlike face. His fur was a bit mussed, dusted with feathers and something that glittered like stardust. The sprite smiled and quickly kissed Fiend’s nose, then abruptly put him down on the deck at her feet, her wings twitching slightly in silent laughter.
The sound of the pup’s yap was enough to break the highlander’s eyes from Maeve. With a shrug, he turned away, leaving her to assure herself that she was whole, and stepped over to assure himself of Rue. Not that he had doubted Tirlina would keep her safe, but it was good to stoop and find the infant blinking at him as if astounded to find the blue sky above them. One chubby hand reached over the edge of the basket as Fiend scampered by, groping for the tip of his tail, and came up empty. “We can name her here,” Fionn finally answered, sliding his hands under head and rump to support the babe as he rose.
And there he stopped, uncertain how to proceed. The Naming was to be done among kin, but the only kin there did not want her. Even now, Maeve’s firm gaze, as she stayed back to one side, spoke of her unwillingness to claim the child. With no where else to begin, he turned to Tirlina, with her gossamer wings and childlike face, and courage as endlessly deep as her pockets. “I bring to you Nora Davynn, beloved daughter,” he said carefully, first in highland and then in common, so that all could understand. “Honor to her and honor to us.” And he held the yawning baby down, so Tirlina could give her own blessing, fey to part-fey.
When Fionn brought Nora over Laurelyn smiled down at the babe, and said, “And may she also be known as friend of the Hillrovers, with the right to sit in our halls. Both she, and her uncle, Fionn, and her mother, Maeve.”
Venlesser came to stand besides them and looked down at the babe, with her little fists waving above the blankets. He gently reached out a finger and lightly lay it on Nora’s smooth brow. “May your days be blest with both the Light and the Love that your new name brings,” he whispered. Then the Captain stepped back and gestured for Thomis and Laurelyn to come with him.
And for the first time Laurelyn realized that Captain Venlesser’s uniform looked as new and as fresh as the ship did, and that his blond hair fairly glowed gold in the sunlight. Which was quite a change from the silvered coloring that had dominated the dinner. He reached out and took first her hand, the one with the ring upon it, and then Thomis’s, which bore the mate, and put their hands together. Then he lay his atop. “May the Gods bless your union,” he intoned, his full voice having regained its strength, “And under their watchful gaze I ask two gifts for ye.”
At Laurelyn’s surprised look he smiled and said, “Both you and Thomis asked for boons for the greater good of others, and since you have ‘technically’ received what you desired I wish to bestow two wedding gifts that are fitting.”
Venlesser met Thomis’s eyes and said, “That you have found your heart’s desire is obvious, and that you would risk all for her is clearer still. So for your sake, so you shall not see her age and die while you are still in your prime, I bestow upon her an age span to match yours. And health to attend both of you.”
He turned to Laurelyn and said, “Balladeer, Laurelyn Hillrover, I bestow to you a gift that true artists desire. May your tales and music always be an open channel to carry Truth where she is needed and to touch the depths of your listeners’ hearts.”
The glittering unshed tears in her eyes told the Captain that he had indeed touched upon an unspoken wound and he added, “I only finish what was begun when you started on this journey. It is not the great powers nor the grand strategies that change destinies but the subtle touch of Truth at the right time, which is what all of you have proved, and for your courage – All of your courage – you have looked behind the Veil and not only have entered the heart of a Legend but now stand at its finale.” The Captain smiled, a true smile untainted by bitterness, and said, “Few tellers of tales can say that, can they, Balladeer?”
“No..,” Laurelyn replied, still feeling stunned by the swiftness and enormity of events. “And thank you.” Venlesser’s fingers tightened against the couple’s hands before the Captain stepped back, and said, “My debt to all of you is great, for not only my freedom and the freedom of those souls trapped with me, but for allowing us to witness these bright moments. But now has come the time for me to fulfill the last boons and now is the time of good-byes for several of you.”
Somehow, when he wasn’t looking, his hand had crept up again to take Maeve’s. Rudolpho had snuck a few quick peeks at the taller girl’s face while Fionn had carried Rue – no, Nora – around for her blessing, but she had seemed completely unconcerned at having her baby claimed by another. And while the Captain had married, or remarried, Thomis and Laurelyn, she had only smiled, clearly untroubled by thoughts of her own wrecked betrothal.
But when the Captain spoke of the ending – how had it come so soon? – Maeve looked down at him with a sudden darkening of her gaze and a tightening of the grip on his hand. Rudolpho swallowed, hard, and hoped furiously that someone else would step forward first. He wasn’t ready yet to say whatever farewells had to come.
He had to admit, he would miss them. Particularly Laurelyn and Thomis, but even the Jester had his good points. And he had always been fascinated with the Fey; it was a shame that he had not gotten to know Tirlina. Yes, he would indeed miss all of them. The pup too.
Enris looked at the Captain and said “Captain Venlesser, we have fought a battle together – so, for a time at least, we were comrades in arms. Before that, when I named my boon, I fought another battle with myself. To suppress my own all too human emotions and desires for the greater good of Seldez. And in the end, I had victory. I sense that you, like me, have overcome the most difficult enemy, the one that resides within the heart.”
“A very true statement, Enris,” the Captain said, studying the mage for a long moment.
After a momentary pause, he added to all “I will miss you. We have fought well together, and we have won. Should our paths cross again – whether in Seldez or elsewhere, I will hope to meet as friends, and that you will do me the honor of accepting a drink… or several.”
“That fates have played stranger games,” Laurelyn said, “So, perhaps it could happen.” She smiled and hoped that if they ever did meet the CRS mage again, that would be simply as friends. “Safe winds to you,” she added, and meant it – for she knew that more often than not loyalty to Seldez was paid for in blood.
“Captain, if you ever come to Seldez, I will promise you a visit that you will not forget.”
Venlesser’s smile was peaceful, but tinged with sadness, and he said, “Thank you, Enris, but should we ever meet again it will be in another life and another time. For now my long journey has ended. Though I travel home with my last memories being the brightest.”
“If I may, I would take my leave and do what will best serve my leader.” Enris stood, not quite at attention. These southern lands were a beautiful place, and he wondered if he would see it again. But his duty summoned him, and his destiny, for now, was Seldez.
At Venlesser’s near-silent command the silvered disk appeared, and began stretching into a long tunnel. “There is your path home.” As it had with Ulric’s passage the tunnel revealed a hint of the destination, though in this case all that could be seen was a sliver of blue sky. The tunnel held as Enris made his way down, becoming a smaller and smaller figure as the distance stretched, until he was gone and the tunnel closed in upon itself.
“Who shall make the journey next?” Venlesser asked solemnly.
Jacques looked down at Fiend who lay quietly enough at his feet while he smoked. Then he puffed a long cloud of smoke, and turned to Venlesser. “You asked me to consider my boon, Captain. Before all …. ” he shrugged. “Before.”
The pipe turned in his hand, rolling lightly over his fingers. “I’ve considered. I’ve considered a great many things.”
Choice, he thought. It all comes down to choice. Anne-Marie had had no choice when she had died. Andreas had had no choice. Stephan certainly had no choice when the werewolf had ripped his face off. And he himself had been given no choice but to do what he had. To sell his soul, to wander the world in a hopeless attempt to right wrongs that were irreversible. He was driven, and he had no choice in that – only what option the booze gave him, and it was never for long enough, and always came with far too high a price.
Jacques sighed, and Fiend looked up at him with huge, sad, brown eyes. “I want my Anne-Marie back. I want my son back too.” He looked down at Fiend. “But what I_ want isn’t relevant any more. My soul is no longer my own, but I will not take the control of another’s soul from them.” He tapped out the pipe on the deck, and slipped it into a pocket where it vanished into the _space that seemed to be in there. Jacques didn’t know where things went when he pocketed them, or where they came from when he took them out.
He didn’t want to know.
“It must be their choice, Captain. Let me talk to them.” To all of them?Madness. “Let me talk to all of them, all the ones I … failed. If it is their choice to return, then you will grant that as my boon. If they choose not to …” The bells rang as he shrugged. There was no question in the “will”. It was a statement of fact, not something that allowed for variation.
With a sweep of his hand the silver tunnel reopened, though nothing could be seen at its end except mist. “Go then,” Venlesser said quietly, “But know that only those whose souls haven’t found a new home will be there. Those whose time for rebirth hasn’t yet come. Or who seek respite between their hours on this clay. Or those who still cling tightly to their past lives – I won’t even summon them for you – for it will be at their choice that they even come to speak to you.”
The Captain met Jacques’ eyes and said, “Yes, I could have pulled them all back and made them live, but such is not without its consequences – for you and for them. But since you speak of choice – let the choice fully be theirs.”
Rudolpho slowly let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding, and then just as slowly breathed in again to hold another. Maybe without realizing it … or maybe he did … the Captain had given the boy the first reassurance that he had not chosen wrongly. It wasn’t just as easy as asking, and then just finding them next to you again. They were gone, and maybe it was best that they stayed that way.
Scowling in a manner now habitual, Jacques harrumped and made his way into the tunnel and into the mist. He felt something brush at his feet and looked down to see Fiend tagging along with a bounce in his step and tail a-wag.
“Go back, boy. This ain’t no place for the like of you.” He could feel the mist surrounding him and knew that if he did look back he wouldn’t see anything anyway. But surely the pup could find it’s way out. Fiend looked up at him, head cocked to one side, and said nothing. “Go on. Shoo!” Jacques waved his hands. “Begone foul beast from the pits of hell.”
Fiend wagged his tail a bit more, and gave a cheerful yip.
“Come along then, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Hell, I’d have thought being dead once would have been enough even for an animal as stupid as you.”
The jester looked around in the mist in an attempt to determine where, exactly, he should go. If it actually mattered.
Or even if he should go.
All the while he’d been travelling with Laurelyn, Thomis, and the others he’d never really considered the boon. It had been foolishness to even believe they find the ship, let alone that anything would actually come of it. He’d been along for the ride – simply because he had nowhere else to go, and because somehow he’d felt drawn.
No choices at all.
And when Venlesser had asked what boon he wished he had replied without thought, without consideration. Pure frustration, hopelessness, and – the more he thought about it – stupidity.
“So where do we go then, boy?” He looked down at the pup as if Fiend could guide him.
“Here will do as good as anywhere,” came a voice from behind him. A voice he could not but recognise, and that set his heart jumping. Almost, he turned around. Almost.
“Anne-Marie?” What in the hell was he supposed to say now? She sounded so … sad. And he could hardly bring himself to look at her.
“Of course! Do you think the captain lies still?”
Jacques turned with a reply on his tongue, and stopped dead as he was hit by a realisation he had never considered, never realised, though surely he should have. Anne-Marie stood before him as young and beautiful and full of life as he ever recalled. The light in her eyes, the hint of smile always in her lips, the flow of her hair. Just like she had been in that day before she died at the hands of the creatures.
Just exactly the same.
She smiled sadly. “You know now, don’t you?”
Fiend gave a mournful whine, but Jacques didn’t hear him.
Gods, what madness, he thought. What insanity of a wandering old fool’s mind had led him to this.
“Yes,” he said faintly, quietly. And he did. It was not that some things shouldn’t be undone. There was nothing that had reason enough in itself that it should not be reversed. But there was a time for everything, and a time for the undoing of everything.
And his time, her time, had passed.
He could not ask this woman, this young and wise and altogether impossible woman, to return to him. To an old fool, bitter and filled with self-hate and pity and anger. Her death had changed him, and the literal decades since had changed him more.
And she had not changed at all – except perhaps in knowledge. For she knew him, he could see it in her eyes. She knew everything.
“Forgive me, Anne-Marie. Forgive an old fool’s broken heart.” Jacques hung his head sadly, even the bells on his hat sounding mournful in the mists. “Forgive my selfishness, and …” he stopped, unable to ask for what he truly needed.
“You are forgiven, mon amour. For everything. But we will not return, even those who have not been spun out again. You see now that it is not right, that all things have changed. Not one here could return to where they were, not one here has a life so unchanged in the world they could return. “
“Your son has been reborn,” replied Anne-Marie. “Though I will not tell you where, or who. Best that you do not know.” Jacques looked suspiciously at Fiend, bizarre and troubling thoughts bubbling through his mind. Anne-Marie laughed. “No, not him. Though he is your chance. Your only chance.“
And then she was gone, and there was nothing but mist.
For what seemed like an eternity, Jacques simply stood and wept, though for what he could not honestly have said. For himself, possibly. For Anne-Marie, most likely. For a lacking, a hopelessness, and a belief that all had been wasted, certainly. And when he was done, he pulled the simple wooden pipe from his pocket. The pipe Andreas had carved so very many years before.
And returned to The Star Dreamer.
As Jacques stepped from the silvered tunnel Venlesser studied the man, and the path behind the jester. However, when it became obvious that none – but Fiend – would be following the Captain held the tunnel open and said, “There are two here who have journeys to make…..Who will take the next step….?”
Once again Keir felt a pang of sorrow as another of the original companions faded from sight. The departure of Enris hadn’t produced much more than a dull numbness, he never really took to the man. Though he had been most helpful at the Dun by tending to the casualties there was something about the man that raised the hackles on his neck whenever he spoke of his country and his “leader” Keir shuddered still though he knew not why.
Jacques on the other hand had been steadfast and brave, even if his bravado at times had perhaps been attributable to the vast quantities of alcohol the jester consumed at every opportunity. Yet he had seemed just as feisty sober, Keir could respect that.
“It is time I took my leave Mistress Laurelyn and Master Thomis,” he proclaimed, trying to keep the quaver out of his voice but failing. “I… I leave you in good hands I hope.” Turning to stare at Venlesser he found his tone steadied but could not return his gaze to the faces of the pair. “Once I am settled I’ll try and send word to Morrow’s Hold, my people are seafaring also so mayhaps our paths shall cross again.” With one last effort he managed to look both in the eye. “At least I hope it shall be so.”
This was the first that truly mattered, Thomis realized. Ulric, at least, had been returning to a relatively certain home, and even if he expected to face treachery, the tall warrior had known what awaited him. Enris – frankly, Thomis had felt little but relief at seeing the mage on his way. But only Jacques and Fiend (who had returned with only themselves from the silver tunnel) had been with them longer than Keir. And Keir stepped off into an unknown, with no promises that he would find his people well, and joyous at his return. “May the path carry you home,” he said roughly, gripping the Hortus’ shoulder in farewell. “And may the patterns bring us together again.” The ring that Keir had given him, matching the one Laurelyn wore, glittered in the sunlight.
“You are a good friend,” Laurelyn said, not fighting the tears that were brimming in her blue eyes. Master Keir had been as steadfast a friend as any could wish for, and his parting would leave an emptiness that would be hard to fill. “May you find your people and happiness. And may the Gods will that our paths cross again.”
With a respectful bow to Rudolpho and a similar one to Fionn, he nodded disapprovingly at Maeve, shook hands with Jacques, winked at Tirlina. Planted his staff firmly on the deck and spinning on his heels he strode into the shimmering gateway, resisting the urge to look back.
The highlander had returned the bow, perhaps with less grace than Rudolpho but with a similar expression of loss, and held Nora Davynn so that she could watch, eyes wide, as the Hortus – her protector at the Dun – disappeared into the gateway. “A whole section of your song will be about him,” he whispered in highland into the baby’s ear.
The sniff from Rudolpho was sudden and unexpected, and the boy squared his shoulders as he looked up at Maeve. “I guess that leaves me,” he said softly, the tremble in his voice even worse than Keir’s had been. Just as suddenly, he threw his arms around the girl’s slender waist and buried his face against her shirt for a moment. “I’ll come back to check on you,” he swore, before pulling away, torn between being a child needing comfort and pretending to be braver than he felt. “And you too,” he said to Nora, as he stepped over to touch the infant on the face, “though maybe I don’t need to with your uncle and Aliea to look after you.” For the sprite, a smile. To Fionn, he said nothing, but just returned a hand-shake.
Turning away, he stood in the midst of them, nodded to Eric and Brenna, whom he barely knew, and then looked at Jacques with his head cocked to one side. Finally, he squatted low to the deck to tickle Fiend’s ears. “Grow big and eat lots of rabbits,” he said to the puppy before standing again to study the jester once more. Lots of hard feelings between them at the Dun, and even though he’d stopped being angry with Jacques, he had no idea how to get around them.
“I hope I’m never as hard as you,” he said bluntly. “And never as hurt, either.” Maybe that didn’t make much sense, the two statements seemed contradictory. But he didn’t know how to reconcile the vastness of Jacques’ pain and courage with the jester’s flintiness towards others.
“I have to go now,” Rudolpho said as he stood before Laurelyn and Thomis, taking one of their hands in each of his. “Tell Beud I’ll be visitin’,” he added to Laurelyn, his sad expression suddenly replaced with a wide grin. “After all, she’s a lady of station now.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say or do, except to hold on to them both for a minute or so more.
“And one perhaps to be courted by a gypsy prince,” Thomis answered, with his own grin. So small the boy seemed, with his hands – rough were they were – outsized even by Laurelyn’s. Not every orphan had Nora’s, to be swept into a guardian’s care and his innocence sheltered. And not every man had Rudolpho’s strength. “May the threads carry you home, and may the patterns weave us together again.” Ritual words only, from his own people, perhaps. But a heartfelt wish, nonetheless, not only for Keir, but for Rudolpho also. And for Laurelyn and Thomis themselves.
Laurelyn caught her lip between her teeth, and held Rudolpho’s hand; feeling its warmth, its smallness, and the strength in his nimble fingers. A young wanderer who had snuck around the fears about her heart. A child who, despite all she’d wish for him, had hands touched by blood, but somehow, someway, had kept his young heart. “May you find kin …and love,” she said softly.
“I already have,” Rudolpho answered simply.
In the end, they did not let him pull away without giving him their own embrace. But eventually, no matter how hard they held him, he stepped apart, and turned to the Captain to give another bow. “Thank you,” was all that he had left to say, not only to Venlesser, but to all of them. He paused before the silver gateway, outlined against it. And when he looked back once, over his shoulder, to grin again, Thomis thought he could see the tall shape and the bright colors of the man Rudolpho would become.
Then the gateway closed behind him, and he was gone.
Only the snap of the sails in the mild breeze could be heard. A sound that caught Laurelyn’s attention and made her look up from the slowly-closing tunnel. It was the first time she realized that the sun was a glorious ball of ruddy color as it set in the West – sending out trails of pinks, oranges, and yellows across the blue sky. She had not realized that they had sailed from twilight to twilight.
Venlesser followed her gaze and said, “Yes, Laurelyn, the hour has come.” His smile was peaceful, but with a hint of wistfulness, and he said, “As I have heard your stories part of me as yearned to walk this clay again and see the world as it is now.” Then he shook his head and looked over at Jacques and Fiend, and said, “But as some might be able to tell you ….there is a time and place for all of us, and mine has long since drowned in the tide of Time.” Venlesser pointed towards the water, where now sat The Brenna Rose, and said, “So I have yet one more place to sail and all of you have to row back to Captain Dunn’s ship. So now I must bid the last of my valiant friends ….Farewell.”
Before Laurelyn could speak the Captain’s gaze focused on Jacques again, and Venlesser said, “Jacques, you have counted your dead and I hope have found some peace – for you and them, but before you go I give you an offering of a thought. Count those you have saved for they are many. Some of them now stand at your side. It is not even given to a legend to know the true weavings of the Lady Fates, but think on this – you were all called together to follow a balladeer’s mad dream, and in doing so you have broken three curses. Two of which will lessen the blood the land will drink from murder, and one of which will let many ancient souls rest. Think on that old Warrior when the hour grows dark. And then find the living.”
Laurelyn offered Captain Venlesser her hand once more, and said, “Fair Winds, Captain, and a port of peace.”
“And to you, Balladeer…Laurelyn Parch,” he offered, “And may your travels bring you many tales to be told at warm and friendly hearths.” He looked at Thomis, and said, “Warm hearths to be always shared with the blessing of love.”
Venlesser shook hands with each, lingering for a moment to gaze at Nora, Fiend, and Tirlina. “Guard her well, Good Lady,” he said quietly to the sprite. Then he pointed the direction they were to sail, owards a white cloudbank in the East, and watched as the first, then the second, trip was made across to The Brenna Rose in the small seaboat.
And at last the remainder of the seekers stood again aboard the smaller boat.
Once aboard Laurelyn stepped to the railing and looked out at The Star Dreamer, to see her dark silhouette against a glorious sunset. But she could picture Captain Venlesser standing at the helm, dressed in his fine, spotless, uniform, with his hair glowing gold in the fiery, fading, light.
“It’s done,” she whispered, half-believing, and closing her fingers around Thomis’s hand, “And now we stand witness to the end of a myth. It’s a strange feeling.” Laurelyn grappled for words to describe the hollow feeling within her; that emptiness that was born of the loss and the journey’s end, but she felt at peace as well – for not only had they won past the darkness but had seen ancient pain eased. Finally she asked, “What requiem do you give a legend?”
The Oath-bound, elbows proppped against the railing, thought for a moment as he watched the bright sails against the falling sun. Somewhere behind him, he could hear the faint, laughing murmur of Brenna, joyous at her return to her husband’s arms, and the clear chuckle of Nora Davynn.
“It will be told by all of them,” he answered quietly. The child reNamed, the wife returned. And somewhere, their fates a mystery, four others seeking the comfort of home. Ulric and Keir and Rudolpho, and even Enris, maddening as he was in his single-mindedness. They had cast themselves elsewhere, their endings perhaps never to be told to him.
Thomis cradled Laurelyn’s hand in both his own, and looked down at the rings. With one fingertip, he traced the band she wore, round one side and back again.
In a way, the very distance and the unknowing were both sorrow and hope.
[Eric and Brenna Dunn]
The reunited couple moved to join Thomis and Laurelyn at the railing and watch The Star Dreamer disappear as it completed its final voyage. Eric stood with one arm around Brenna’s waist, and Brenna’s hand resting on his. Her head lay on his shoulder, spilling her blond hair across his chest and back. Only after the former ghost ship had faded did the silence break.
“Time to return,” Eric said quietly.
Jacques sat at the far end of the boat, as far from the others as he could get without jumping over the side. And while that had a certain level of appeal, it was also the easy way out. And he couldn’t choose that, for all that he sometimes wished it. The easy way had never been hers, and he owed her that. And more.
He cradled Fiend lightly in an arm held close against his chest, and stared at the mast. No point looking out over the sea, for there was nothing he would see. The departures of the others had passed by him without him paying more than the required attention. They weren’t important, though Rudolpho had a bare hint of himself at that age. A hint that had worried him at first, and that he had hoped to scour. Now it was irrelevant. People came, people left. None of them were of much import beyond the moment.
Still, it was time to return to dry land, and head somewhere else. Maybe north.
“What do you say, boy? North?” His voice was a bare whisper.
Fiend looked up at him and kept his own counsel.
Thomis turned to lean one hip against the railing and look across and down the deck of the boat. “Yes,” he agreed with Eric. “Time to return.” An unfamiliar feeling, this, unsure of where they would go next (for Morrow’s Hold, he knew, would not keep Laurelyn long) after the time in Chatterton, and the many months of searching for The Star Dreamer. Not an uneasy feeling, just … unfamiliar.
He half-smiled as he met the other man’s gaze over the top of Brenna’s head. She was as lovely as Eric had said, and worth the hunt. Perhaps this pair would find some completion from this. Odd, he thought, as he studied the others, that none of the boons came with guarantees. Not for any of those who had gone, stepping into gateway the Captain had opened. And not for most of those who remained – not for Fionn, with the babe in his lap and a sprite hovering at his shoulder, nor for the slender willful girl who had wrapped her shawl so tightly around her shoulders and settled down away from them, eyes fixed resolutely towards the horizon, where the first stars could be seen.
And not for Jacques. Try as he might, Thomis could think of no words to offer the jester that would not simply trivialize and offend. The circle had turned for him, and it had turned again without him.