Page 23 of Stardust

“Hullo,” said Tristran. There were burrs and leaves in the lion’s mane. He held the heavy crown out toward the great beast. “You won. Let the unicorn go.”And he took a step closer. Then he reached out both trembling hands and placed the crown upon the lion’s head.

The lion clambered off the prone body of the unicorn and began to pad, silently, about the clearing, its head raised high. It reached the edge of the wood, where it paused for several minutes to lick its wounds with its red, red tongue, and then, purring like an earthquake, the lion slipped away into the forest.

The star hobbled over to the injured unicorn and lowered herself to the grass, awkwardly, her broken leg splayed out by her side. She stroked its head. “Poor, poor creature,” she said. It opened its dark eyes and stared at her, and then it laid its head upon her lap, and it closed its eyes once more.

That evening, Tristran ate the last of the hard bread for his supper, and the star ate nothing at all. She had insisted they wait beside the unicorn, and Tristran had not the heart to refuse her.

The clearing was dark, now. The sky above them was filled with the twinkling of a thousand stars. The star-woman glittered too, as if she had been brushed by the Milky Way, while the unicorn glowed gently in the darkness, like a moon seen through clouds. Tristran lay beside the huge bulk of the unicorn, feeling its warmth radiating out into the night. The star was lying on the other side of the beast. It sounded almost as if she were murmuring a song to the unicorn;Tristran wished that he could hear her properly. The fragments of melody he could make out were strange and tantalizing, but she sang so quietly he could hear next to nothing at all.

His fingers touched the chain that bound them: cold as snow it was, and tenuous as moonlight on a millpond or the glint of light on a trout’s silver scales as it rises at dusk to feed.

And soon he slept. The witch-queen drove her chariot down a forest path, lashing the flanks of the twin white billy goats with a whip when they flagged. She had observed the small cooking fire burning beside the path from almost half a mile back, and she knew from the color of the flames that it was the fire of one of her people, for witch-fires burn with certain unusual hues. So she reined in her goats when she reached the brightly painted gypsy caravan, and the cooking fire, and the iron-haired old woman who sat beside the fire, tending to the spit over the flames on which a hare was roasting. Fat dripped from the hare’s open gut, hissing and sizzling in the fire, which gave off the twin aromas of cooking meat and of wood smoke.

A multicolored bird sat by the driver’s seat at the front of the caravan, on a wooden perch. It raised its feathers and called out in alarm when it saw the witch-queen, but it was chained to its perch and could not leave.

“Before you says anything,” said the grey-haired woman, “I should tell ye that I’m just a poor old flower-seller, a harmless old biddy who’s never done nothing to no one, and that the sight of a grand and terrifying lady such as yourself fills me with dread and fear.”

“I will not harm you,” said the witch-queen.

The harridan screwed her eyes to slits and looked the lady in the red kirtle up and down. “That’s what you says,” she said. “But how am I to know that it’s so, a sweet old dear like me, who’s all a-tremble from her toes to her water? You might be planning to rob me in the night, or worse.” And she poked the fire with a stick, so it leapt up. The smell of the cooked meat hung on the still evening air.

“I swear,” said the lady in the scarlet kirtle, “that, by the rules and constraints of the Sisterhood to which you and I belong, by the puissance of the Lilim, and by my lips and br**sts and maidenhood, that I mean you no harm and shall treat you as if you were my own guest.”

“That’s good enough for me, dearie-ducks,” said the old woman, her face breaking into a smile. “Come and sit down. Supper’ll be cooked in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

“With good will,” said the lady in the red kirtle.

The goats snuffled and munched at the grass and the leaves beside the chariot, eyeing with distaste the tethered mules that pulled the caravan. “Fine goats,” said the harridan. The witch-queen inclined her head and smiled modestly.

The firelight glinted on the little scarlet snake wrapped as a bracelet about her wrist.

The harridan went on, “Now, my dear, my old eyes aren’t what once they were by any means, but would I be correct in supposing that one of those fine fellows started life walking on two legs, not four?”

“Such things have been heard of,” admitted the witch-queen. “That splendid bird of yours, for example.”

“That bird gave away one of the prizes of my stock of items for sale, gave it away to a good-for-nothing, nearly twenty years ago. And afterward, the trouble she put me through scarcely bears considering. So these days, she stays a bird, unless there’s work that needs doing, or the flower-stall to run; and if I could find a good strong servant, not afraid of a little hard work, why then she would stay a bird forever.”The bird chirruped sadly upon her perch.

“They call me Mistress Semele,” said the harridan.

They called you Ditchwater Sal, when you were a young chit of a thing, thought the witch-queen, but she did not say this aloud. “You may call me Morwanneg,” said the witch instead. It was, she reflected, almost a joke (for Morwanneg means wave of the sea, and her true name was long since drowned and lost beneath the cold ocean).

Mistress Semele got to her feet and made her way into the interior of the caravan, emerging with two painted wooden bowls, two wooden-handled knives, and a small pot of herbs, dried and flaked to a green powder. “I was going to be eating with fingers on a plate of fresh leaves,” she said, handing a bowl to the lady in the scarlet kirtle.

The bowl had a sunflower painted upon it, under a layer of dust. “But I thought, well, how often does I get such fine company? So nothing but the best. Heads or tails?”

“Let it be your choice,” said her guest.

“Head, then, for you, with the luscious eyes and brains, and the crispy-crunchy ears of him. And I’ll have the rump, with nothing but dull meat to nibble.” She lifted the spit off the fire as she spoke, and, using both knives so fast they seemed little more than a glitter of blades, she parted the carcass and sliced the meat from the bones, and dealt it out, fairly equitably, into each bowl. She passed the pot of herbs to her guest. “There’s no salt, my dear, but if you shake this on, it will do the trick. A little basil, a little mountain thyme — my own receipt.”The witch-queen took her portion of roasted hare, and one of the knives, and sprinkled a little of the herbs onto the dish. She speared a bite on the point of the knife and ate it with relish, while her hostess toyed with her own portion, then blew on it fastidiously, steam coming from the crisp brown meat.