Laurelyn, who couldn’t bring herself to touch the food or drink – she remembered too many tales of those who ate food from the spirit realm, said, “If you don’t mind, Captain, I request to go last.”
His laugh had the heartiness of storm waves beating against the rocks, and he said, “Balladeer, such pride – to think you can win my boon and save your friends if they fail!! Do you think you’re the first to have thought of that? And perhaps you should wonder how many of them now serve aboard The Star Dreamer.”
“I doubt that there will be many ‘firsts’ this night,” Laurelyn said, meeting his gaze, and admitting nothing. “Not if the legends speak true and this ship has been sailing for more centuries than can be counted.”
“The legends speak truly,” Venlesser said – his tone icy, and he turned his gaze back to the others. “We have the last spot spoken for – who then will go first?”
Jacques picked listlessly at the food. Certainly he wasn’t going to be damn fool enough to speak up more than need be. When his turn came, he’d take it, but under no circumstances was he going to go first.
Unless maybe that damn fool boy Rudolpho volunteered.
“This stuff needs spice,” he muttered and picked at the tasteless morsels. He dug in a pocket in his motley and pulled out a small doll, about 4 inches high. It was of some young woman with short dark hair, a thin clinging black dress, and holding what appeared to be a small metal rod with a golf ball attached to the top.
“Posh,” he read silently from the label on the doll’s feet. “What in the hell kind of spice is that?”
He cursed quietly, and tossed the doll under the table, where it squeaked.
“Damn fool magic, can’t trust any of it.”
He scowled at Venlesser, and waited to see who was going to risk their immortal soul first.
Ulric looked up slowly, thoughtfully. He had spent the entire trip so far in quiet contemplation, a silence that he had perhaps hoped would shield him – but the look on his face showed how defenceless he felt at this moment.
He cleared his throat, aware that not even the comforting sound of the sea could be heard.
“I have only poetry of my people for you,” he said to the captain, “I hope it survives my translation.”
He paused a moment to gather his thoughts.
What memory have I There is not a blade as sharp
Nor a pain more deep
What remembrance is
Khorven twice did steal the moon and thrice stolen the wind
Silent Death has stolen my son this eve
Do the stars not shine more dimly on the horizon
The sand stirs not beneath your boots
The land rejects your grim steps
You cannot stay
The horizon is yours for eternity
What it covets is yours to be found
Completeness lies in the journey that ends
Home calls from the horizon with the Rapturous warmth of the sun or a loved one
All that is missing is returned one day
Ulric finished, well aware that the meaning of the poem was most likely lost on those not of his culture. It was a poem recited to young warriors on their first voyage into other lands, and he had most certainly not understood it when he had first heard it those many years ago.
But now it moved him to the brink of tears, even in the company of these foreigners and this spirit lord. Perhaps he had only just understood it for the first time. He did not care any longer if the Star Dreamer’s captain chose to send him home or cure his woes – though such wishes had been strong in his mind these past days – he felt oddly adrift and wishless.
But his heart was settling inside him for the first time in decades… a surety settled on his soul for the moment, and he exhaled slowly, tiredly. Perhaps he could even hear the waves.
In the silence that followed Laurelyn looked up to study Venlesser’s face, but he was simply sipping his wine.
Though she would have sworn she heard him whisper, “Home always calls…..but the Horizon never nears….”
The servers continued to remove plates and replace them, pale-eyed and silent all the while. In her basket, on the chair next to Fionn, Rue cackled unexpectedly, as if the cold gloom of the ship was simply the latest in a long series of entertaining places she had visited. ”They named her for sorrow,” Fionn said quietly; his dark eyes stayed on his niece’s round face, and did not turn to Maeve. Maeve herself kept her stare on her plate, though she took no food. ”For regret.”
Thomis himself looked up and to Laurelyn, hearing in Fionn’s voice the beginning of the highlander’s offering. Hearing also, from the hesitant way the younger man spoke, that it would mean pain for Maeve. And that he would spare her that, if he could, if there were anything else a huntsman could give. At least Rudolpho was next to her, one hand creeping into her lap beneath the table, to take her own.
“As if she could bring anything but joy.” Fionn stopped, perhaps hearing the caution and sadness in his own words. ”Born in a hut with an ill-patched roof, on a hillside in winter. With only her uncle to catch her, bloody and wailing, in his arms.” For a moment, the highlander looked like he might catch the babe up again, and hold her to him, warmth to warmth. ”A double curse she carries. One in the name her mother gave her. The other in the name she took from her father, that of the Fhaolain.” In the basket, two pudgy fists flailed, until one caught his left thumb, and clasped it tightly. With that reassurance, Fionn looked up again, towards the Captain, though not quite meeting his eyes, as if aware that too many curses sat at the table that night.
“This is the tale of the curse on Fhaolain women, and their sons, why this clan is mi-earbsach … honorless.” Black eyes moved to those at the head of the table. ”It is a woman’s song, but she is too young …”He swallowed, and drew another breath, before continuing. ”Ta me ag ra amhrain seo Ealasaid, alainn deirfiur.” Within the first few syllables, he had settled into a rhythmic cadence of the highland tongue, before repeating, carefully, fearing a mis-step, “I sing for Ealasaid, beautiful sister. Born of Eilios, whose grand-dame was Luatha, Adh Seidh, mother of lies, who walks at night.”
In the basket, Rue tucked one fist into her mouth, suckling noiselessly, round-eyed stare fixed on her uncle’s face.
And after a moment more, Thomis himself became as motionless; despite Fionn’s alternating between common and clan-tongue, every other line, he lost the words. Eyes closed, he listened to the song of Ealasaid, daughter of the Fhaolain, so lovely that the young warriors lay sleepless for thoughts of her smile. He thought, for a moment, that he could hear the faint echoes of her laugh in her father’s hall.
“And most restless were Manas and Maoilios, brothers, only sons of the chief of the Na Rosaich …” By the time Fionn had spoken the line in common, Thomis already could see in his mind the tall, blonde pair, whose love for each other was as fierce as the hearth-fire in their father’s keep. And who both came to long for Ealasaid, with her dark eyes and raven’s hair. It was Manas who won her, and wed her in the spring, and even Moailios, with his heart torn, danced in joy at their pairing.
Did neither of them see the faithlessness in her eyes? Even Maoilios, when his brother took the clans to war, did he realize the ease with which she broke her vows? Or was he so drunk on her beauty that he cared only for the warmth he found in her bed? And when Manas returned, blooded and victorious, did neither of them see that the betrayal was of her making?
It was for her eyes and her kiss that Manas banished his brother. And, afterwards they would say, it was for want of her that Maoilios crept back later, knife in hand for his brother’s throat. ”Beasag, Ealasaid’s serving-girl, saw him,” Fionn said softly, “slipping from bedchamber, hands red with his kinsman’s blood.” That winter, he was taken, hunted down by the Na Rosaich, unrepentant, silent in the face of his father’s anger. Left hanging, six feet above the snow, by his father’s own command. If the old man wept as he rode away, for his dead sons, none would say.
“Faithless as she was fair,” Fionn continued quietly; perhaps he lanced at Maeve, pale and unspeaking, all too aware that he reminded her of her own faithlessness. “That is the tale of Ealasaid as the other clans know it.”
And here he looked to Laurelyn, for the storyteller had followed the spoken ballad, always knowing how it would end with the chief’s last son swinging from an oak. ”But among the Fhaolain, the song tells otherwise. For it was not Maoilios that Beasag saw outside the bedchamber, with a bloodied knife in his hand, but Mata, her own husband, there by Ealasaid’s command. And Ealasaid herself lay that night in Maoilios’ arms, miles from the murder.
“Perhaps the Na Rosaich knew, perhaps he saw it in the widow’s still laughing eyes, before she returned to her own father’s hall. A husband betrayed, and a lover hung for a killing that was her own. Curses upon her dark eyes and upon her dark heart, and upon the daughters and sons of the Fhaolain name. Honorless and faithless, and a sorrow to all who love them.”
In the basket, Rue kicked, but made no sound.
“Ta me ag ra amhrain seo Ealasaid, dubh croi, inion breagaci,” Fionn chanted slowly. “I sing for Ealasaid, black heart, daughter of falsehood.”
“But it was a Fhaolain who warned in time of a treachery,” Laurelyn said, meeting Fionn’s eyes, “A treachery that would have destroyed my clan.”
Venlesser’s gaze traveled between storyteller and highlander, and towards a basket he could not see. His expression was still noncommittal.
But again a hint of blue shown in his grey-tinged eyes.
The huntsman, his eyes circles of black in his face, just nodded in acknowledgement of Laurelyn’s words. The small fingers of Rue’s hand still clutched his thumb, and tugged. There might be a price claimed later, if he ever stepped from this damned ship, by Luatha, for the speaking of the clan’s dark myth. But for this, for the strength of that small hand, and for those laughing eyes, perhaps she would forgive. The revelation of the true basis of one curse, for the hope of breaking another.
A moment more Thomis waited, to allow the echoes of Ealasaid to fade into silence, before he set aside his own crystal goblet, drawing the Captain’s cold eyes towards him. ”There are tales I could offer you,” he began, with a touch to the scar across the bridge of his nose. ”Tales of curses and of death. Songs of grief.” For a moment, he could almost feel the threads moving across his arms, whispering of magicks broken, loved ones lost, a shimmer of Wyland shattered in Kallin’s arms. “But those are not mine to give. Nor are there words for them, yet.” Perhaps never, he thought as he looked to Laurelyn. Perhaps some tales should never be sung.
“But one I can give you, simply told. A true one, though, of small things such as pups and babes. And grand things, of the dead walking. It begins,” he continued, with a slight smile as he saw understanding in Laurelyn’s face, “with an auburn-haired storyteller, far from home, in a wreck of a city. And a scar-nosed swordsman with onepromise kept and the road before him one of his own choosing. And on the first morning out, or perhaps it was the second, by a riverside, a jester appeared, pup in hand, in search of lager.”
The first part of the telling was light, to match the mishaps of Fiend and the honeypot, the chase of the goat, and even that first night in Helgastop, “where a small gypsy boy at loose ends joined them.” Others joined them that night, Thomis mentioned, a dark-haired artist with the gift of drawing others’ thoughts, and a young musician. Not least among them, though, a stalwart Hortus with a heart as strong as his appetite.
The road before them would see perils bested, friends found and lost to the curses that came with a circle of stones. And after that, a black hound with stars in its eyes had herded them, towards a way-hut on a hillside, where they found a young girl and infant and a grim huntsman who tended them both, faithfully, as if they carried his heart in thrall. And into their party had fallen a wounded warrior, far from home, who had collapsed at their feet before he could even try the oatmeal.
“They came, at night, near to the Dun of Sorrows,” Thomis continued, “where treachery would set kin against kin, and the dead would rise to do battle.” By the time they had left the Dun, the stories were already forming, so that now he could tell – though he had witnessed little of it – of the poisoned wine, the bloody fate of the serving women in the cellars, the camp-follower who had carried warning to the chieftain, and the way a certain Hortus had guarded a wayward babe throughout the battle.
When the piper rose, and the dead with him, Thomis’ voice slowed and softened. But the long night reached its dawn with a peace struck, a marriage made, a hope for an end to an old clan enmity, and one lost mage who had followed them to Morrow’s Hold.
“You would think a small fishing village would be a welcome stop in their journey,” Thomis continued with a note of irony in his voice. “But for the newlyweds, there was a mother to face, and various kinsmen.” And for the others, as Thomis had been told later, an unfortunate incident at the Laboring Goose, an impatient sprite making off with a certain babe-filled basket, and a near-drowning of a village girl by a lonely ondine. But there they found a seaman, and a boat, to help them finish their search for a dark-sailed ship. ”No one leads,” he finished, “but all follow the hopes they have.”
For a moment, the first in many hours, a smile came to Laurelyn’s lips as she listened to her husband’s rich voice, and remembered the hours they had spent on the porch of the Leastholder farmhouse, with the youngest son prompting Thomis for more tales.
But then her attention traveled back to the Captain – to see his reaction, and Laurelyn would have sworn she saw the first glimmer of emotion in Venlesser’s eyes. And if pushed – she might have called that glimmer “hope.”
Venlesser ignored her scrutiny, and simply held his wine glass out so that one of the hollow-eyed servers could refill it. “And yet more tales of treachery and quests,” was all he said.
The seaman blinked for the first time since the servers had entered, and then glanced over at Thomas as he finished his story. He rubbed his eyes and then looked back at the young woman holding the wine pitcher. She stood waiting to refill the glasses, wearing the same plain gown that she had worn when he last saw her. Her golden hair hung limply around her shoulders, and there was nothing in her pale blue eyes. If she was even aware of him, she did not show it. ”Brenna,” Eric whispered under his breath.
She stepped forward soundlessly and refilled the captain’s glass. Then she returned to her place by the wall.
[Above Deck – Fiend]
Snuffling around in the grey fog, the pup had managed to find himself on the steps leading up to the wheelhouse. He jumped up a couple, and was then standing on the rime stained railing, the sea a few metres drop to his left.
Fiend whined quietly.
Finally reaching the end of the climbing passageways, Tirlina flew out into the fog the swirled on the main, and stopped to hover glancing around for the lone pup. The swirling grey mist obscured everything, and she darted back and forth a few times, searching intently and wishing Fiend would howl again. Then she caught the sound of a faint whine, and followed the elusive sound through the gloom.
Jacques looked at those who had spoken and ran a hand along his moustache thoughtfully. Then, he pulled a small vial of something deep and green from his pocket.
“Captain, I see now why this ship has such a dour and dreary reputation. Assuredly if all such ‘entertainment’ is the bleating of those who should know better then to spend one’s eternity listening must be a hell indeed.”
He used his pipe to light a small taper that protruded from the vial, and then puffed a few smoke rings into the air.
“I was,” he continued as the taper burned slowly, “going to juggle flaming cannonballs.” He shrugged, setting the bells ringing. “But somehow that seems somewhat …. passe, now.” He somehow pulled an enormous iron ball from a pocket in his motley and placed it, awash with flame, on the table. Neither flame nor ball marked the wood.
“Perhaps,” he continued, “some puppy juggling, which has gone down well in the past.” He shrugged again, bells a’ring. “But my pup seems to be astray. But then, he was a stray when I found him.”
On deck, Fiend caught sight of something glittering, shining, in the distance, and turned towards it. His paws slipped on the rim soaked surface of the railing, and he gave a startled yelp as he skidded.
“And of course, there’s a lack of lager. I always work better with lager.”
The taper had burned into the vial now, and was extinguished with a soft, almost inaudible, hiss. From the top of the vial seeped a pale green smoke, that spread into a wavering cloud perhaps 5 inches across.
“And then I though to myself, what does a man who’s been stuck on a ship for eternity really want? Money?”
The smoke shifted, and formed. Jewels, gems, coins crowns, sceptres.
“No. Surely not. What use is it?”
The image vanished.
An image of Venlesser, enthroned, with men and women of all kinds bowing.
“The pleasures of the flesh?”
The smoke shifted again, swirled, formed. And there was a perfect, though green, sheep.
Jacques raised his eyebrows, and feigned shock.
“Well, to each his own, Captain. I didn’t know you had it in you. Though I hadn’t heard any bleating at all.”
The pup scrabbled at the railing with his claws, and let out a terrified yelp. And then slipped over the side of the ship, to fall to the icy waters below with a near-silent splash.
Again the smoke shifted, and there were three small, but perfectly formed, nude dancing girls performing some bizarre dance Jacques couldn’t quite follow, involving lots of high kicks.
“And then I thought, what does such a person really want. Not just something to while away the time. Not something to pass the eons. What would one really want?”
The smoke shifted, and there was the shadowy form of The Star Dreamer herself. The boat rocked and swayed in a pale green, smokey, sea. And there, just for an instant that Jacques swore was his imagination, was the impossibly tiny form of a pup’s head breaking the surface, before vanishing again.
He stared at the spot for some seconds, but the phantom did not return.
“What would he really want?” Jacques voice dropped low, but carried easily across the dining table. “The happiest, most joyous thought in our captain’s mind, I wondered. What could it be?”
The smokey ship rocked, and shook, and then, from all points, began to leak. To take on water with an ever growing, ever rushing, pace. It heeled and swayed.
“What would he want? What would I want in his place, as assuredly as I would be damned to be?”
The phantom ship shuddered, and split lengthwise. Masts shattered and fell overboard to vanish into a pale green sea.
“What do you say Captain? Do you want an end?”
Silently, the tiny Star Dreamer broke in half and sank beneath the rolling pale green waves, leaving nothing but the thought, the belief that it had been there all along.
“Or do you want your life back?”
An image of a small cottage on a cliff somewhere. A beautiful young woman emerging with babe in her arms, and a smiling Captain Venlesser running towards them.
And then the cottage was gone, and suddenly there were the three naked dancing girls.
“Or you can have the dancing girls if you prefer.” Jacques winked. “Or the sheep.”
Tirlina heard the pup’s sudden yelp and the sharp scrap of claws on slippery wet wood, and she shot forward through the gloom, her moonglow trailing behind her in the fog like a tiny comet tail. Anxiety gripped her tiny heart as she barely caught sight of Fiend through the grey ahead as he disappeared over the side, and a moment later punctuated her alarm with a dull, almost muffled splash far below.
Somewhere out in the sea, a lone, frightened pup took a desperate breath, and swallowed a dual lungful of sea water.
The sprite shot out over the ship’s railing and hovered, scanning the dark water below her frantically for a sign of splashing, or the slightest whine or whimper, but there was only silence, as grim and foreboding as the grey ship itself. Slowly she sank down toward the water, the glittering light of her wings not even reflecting off the black side of the ship, or the water around it. It was only when she was a few feet above the eerily still dark water that she saw him, his small form barely floating and barely noticeable in the drifting fog. With a small cry of distress, Tirlina darted over and hovered above him, whispering to him urgently in a sing song tongue that did nothing to stir the pup back to life to obey her.
For a few moments she anxiously guarded the small body, watching the looming ship that towered darkly above them, hoping someone had followed her when she left and would come to help. But she knew there was nothing the Big Folk could do now either, and her anxiety turned to sadness as she dipped close to lightly stroke the silent pup’s wet ear with a pale, delicate little hand.
Venlesser gave a harsh chuckle, and rewarded Jacques with a grim smile. The Captain said, “Though you, Jester, have a greater insight than many at this table as to what eternity is like, you do not hold within your bag of tricks what I would prefer.”
After a slow sip of his wine he said, “Actually, Jester, the question should be – how would you care to spend the rest of eternity?”
He paid the briefest of attention to Jacques’ display. His attention was focused completely on the woman who had drawn him here, his wife, Brenna. A single tear rolled down his cheek as he watched her stand so listless and pale. His Brenna had been as full of life as the shade was void of it.
“But of course,” replied Jacques with a nod. “Were it in any of our power to give you what you truly wished, Captain, I feel we would.”
He brushed his moustache again, and slid the vial, still full of green liquid, back into a pocket.
“How would I care to spend eternity, Captain? What would I want to do with it? If you could capture an eternity of love, Captain. An eternity of utmost selflessnes, of joy, of delight, of wonder, and perfection. If you could capture that Captain Venlesser, then it would be valueless by comparison to but a moment with my Anne-Marie.”
Idly he wondered where Fiend was. Surely Andreas would have liked such a pet. Surely Anne-Marie would have let the boy keep it.
“My life, I spend in the hope of being worthy of her, and in penance for what I let happen to her. An eternity would not let me achieve that. What need have I of eternity without her? And without hope?”
He puffed at the pipe, and then realised what he’d said amongst this group of strangers. For indeed, they were still strangers for all that had happened. Strangers by his choosing, but nonetheless so for that.
Damn old fool.
“Now there is a question to ask the gods,” Venlesser said, with self-mockery in his voice, “How long should penance be asked?”
He sighed and tore his gaze from Brenna. Moving slowly to stand, he lifted his black case and set it in the chair he had just vacated. ”I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t ponder such things. I do know that the last time I saw this ship, I lost the one thing that gave my life any meaning. Since that time, I have tried to turn the pain in my heart into music. This is Brenna’s dirge.” With that, he lifted the violin from it’s case and set it to his shoulder.
The first notes were quiet, almost below hearing. Then the music rose in volume. The song was slow and mournful, filled with the pain and loss that Eric had no words to express. He stood unmoving except for his arm and hands. His eyes were closed and his features locked into a mask of grief. As the music filled the room, tears began to roll freely down Eric’s cheeks. Finally, the song faded slowly away. Eric dropped his arms to his sides, instrument in one hand and bow in the other. For several long seconds he stood with his head lowered and cried silently.
The sprite stayed with Fiend until his body slowly began to sink deeper into the water as his lungs filled with water and stole the remainder of his bouyancy. She thought that perhaps the Big Folk would not understand if she left him here to contribute his body to the cycle of life, and become food for the sea, and yet he was much too large and heavy for her in her natural form. So with a flare of starshine, Tirlina resumed the childlike form she’d adopted when she’d stolen Rue, and the tips of her toes barely touched the water as she bent to lift Fiend, dripping and limp, and tucked him against her chest. Looking up at the looming ship, she launched herself upward and landed lightly on the deck, her feet making no sound, but leaving little glittering footprints of starlight as she tiptoed across the deck to the passage that would take her back below to the others.