Page 27 of Stardust


Primus sat beside the embers of his fire and he shivered beneath his thick black robe. One of the black stallions, waking or dreaming, whinnied and snorted, and then rested once more. Primus’s face felt strangely cold; he missed his thick beard. With a stick he pushed a clay ball from the embers. He spat on his hands, then he split open the hot clay and smelled the sweet flesh of the hedgehog, which had cooked, slowly, in the embers, as he had slept.

He ate his breakfast meticulously, spitting the tiny bones into the fire circle once he had chewed the meat from them. He washed the hedgehog down with a lump of hard cheese and a slightly vinegary white wine.

Once he had eaten, he wiped his hands upon his robe and then he cast the runes to find the topaz stone which conferred the lordship of the crag towns and the vast estates of the Stormhold. He cast them, then he stared, puzzled, at the small, square, red granite tiles. He picked them up once more, shook them in his long-fingered hands, dropped them onto the ground and stared at them again. Then Primus spat into the embers, which hissed lazily. He swept the tiles up and dropped them into the pouch at his belt.

“It is moving faster, further,” said Primus to himself.

He pissed on the embers of the fire, for he was in wild country, and there were bandits and hobgoblins and worse in those lands, and he had no desire to alert them to his presence. Then, he hitched the horses to the carriage and climbed into the driver’s seat and drove them toward the forest, to the west, and to the mountain range beyond. The girl held tight to the unicorn’s neck as it tumbled headlong through the dark forest.

There was no moonlight between the trees, but the unicorn glimmered and shone with pale light, like the moon, while the girl herself glittered and glowed as if she trailed a dust of lights. And, as she passed through the trees, it might have appeared to a distant observer that she seemed to twinkle, on and off and off and on, like a tiny star.

Chapter Six

What the Tree Said

Tristran Thorn was dreaming.

He was in an apple tree, staring through a window at Victoria Forester, who was getting undressed. As she removed her dress, revealing a healthy expanse of petticoat, Tristran felt the branch begin to give way beneath his feet, and then he was tumbling down through the air in the moonlight . . .

He was falling into the moon.

And the moon was talking to him: Please, whispered the moon, in a voice that reminded him a little of his mother’s, protect her. Protect my child. They mean her harm. I have done all I can. And the moon would have told him more, and perhaps she did, but the moon became the glimmer of moonlight on water far below him, and then he became aware of a small spider walking across his face, and of a crick in his neck, and he raised a hand and brushed the spider carefully from his cheek, and the morning sun was in his eyes and the world was gold and green.

“You were dreaming,” said a young woman’s voice from somewhere above him. The voice was gentle and oddly accented. He could hear leaves rustle in the copper beech tree overhead.

“Yes,” he said, to whoever was in the tree, “I was dreaming.”

“I had a dream last night, too,” said the voice. “In my dream, I looked up and I could see the whole forest, and something huge was moving through it. And it got closer, and closer, and I knew what it was.” She stopped talking abruptly.

“What was it?” asked Tristran.

“Everything,” she said. “It was Pan. When I was very young, somebody — maybe it was a squirrel, they talk so much, or a magpie, or maybe a fishie — told me that Pan owned all this forest. Well, not owned owned. Not like he would sell the forest to someone else, or put a wall all around it —”

“Or cut down the trees,” said Tristran, helpfully. There was a silence. He wondered where the girl had gone. “Hello?” he said. “Hello?”There was another rustle of leaves from above him.

“You shouldn’t say things like that,” she said.

“Sorry,” said Tristran, not entirely sure what he was apologizing for. “But you were telling me that Pan owned the forest . . .”

“Of course he does,” said the voice. “It’s not hard to own something. Or everything. You just have to know that it’s yours and then be willing to let it go. Pan owns this forest, like that. And in my dream he came over to me.

You were in my dream, too, leading a sad girl by a chain. She was a very sad, sad girl. Pan told me to help you.”

“Me?”

“And it made me feel all warm and tingly and squishy inside, from the tips of my leaves to the end of my roots. So I woke up, and there you were, fast asleep with your head by my trunk, snoring like a pig-wiggin.” Tristran scratched his nose. He stopped looking for a woman in the branches of the copper beech tree above him and looked instead at the tree itself. “You are a tree,” said Tristran, putting his thoughts into words.

“I didn’t always used to be a tree,” said the voice in the rustling of the copper beech leaves. “A magician made me a tree.”

“What were you before?” asked Tristran.

“Do you think he likes me?”

“Who?”

“Pan. If you were the Lord of the Forest, you wouldn’t give a job to someone, tell them to give all possible aid and succor, unless you liked them, would you?”

“Well . . .” said Tristran, but before he had decided on the politic answer, the tree had already said, “A nymph. I was a wood-nymph. But I got pursued by a prince, not a nice prince, the other kind, and, well, you’d think a prince, even the wrong kind, would understand about boundaries, wouldn’t you?”

“You would?”

“Exactly what I think. But he didn’t, so I did a bit of invoking while I was running, and — ba-boom! — tree. What do you think?”

“Well,” said Tristran. “I do not know what you were like as a wood-nymph, madam, but you are a magnificent tree.”The tree made no immediate reply, but her leaves rustled prettily. “I was pretty cute as a nymph, too,” she admitted, coyly.

“What kind of aid and succor, exactly?” asked Tristran. “Not that I am grumbling. I mean, right now I need all the aid and succor I can get. But a tree is not necessarily the obvious place to look for it.

You cannot come with me, or feed me, or bring the star here, or send us back to Wall to see my true love. I am certain you would do a remarkable job of keeping off the rain, were it to rain, but it is not, at present, raining . . .”The tree rustled. “Why don’t you tell me your story so far,” said the tree, “and let me be the best judge of whether or not I can be of help.”Tristran began to protest. He could feel the star moving further and further away from him, at the speed of a cantering unicorn, and if there was one thing he did not have time for, it was the recitation of the adventures of his life to date. But then it occurred to him that any progress he had made on his quest so far he had made by accepting the help that had been offered to him. So he sat on the woodland floor and he told the copper beech everything he could think of: about his love, pure and true, for Victoria Forester; his promise to bring her a fallen star — not any fallen star, but the one they had seen, together, from the top of Dyties Hill; and of his journey into Faerie. He told the tree of his journeyings, of the little hairy man and of the small fair folk who stole his bowler hat; he told her of the magic candle, and his walk across the leagues to the star’s side in the glade, and of the lion and the unicorn, and of how he had lost the star.

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