Page 31 of Stardust

“Good. That’s good. Let us get it burning high and hot within you, eh? Burning bright inside you.”

“I am sure that under your care my heart shall blaze and burn with happiness,” said the star.

The innkeeper’s wife leaned over and chucked the star under the chin. “There’s a pet, such a duck it is, the fine things it says.” And the woman smiled indulgently and ran a hand through her grey-streaked hair. She hung a thick toweling robe on the edge of the screen. “This is for you to wear when you are done with your bath — oh no, not to hurry, ducks — it’ll be nice and warm for you, and your pretty dress will still be damp for a while now. Just give us a shout when you want to hop out of the tub and I’ll come and give you a hand.” Then she leaned over, and touched the star’s chest, between her br**sts, with one cold finger. And she smiled. “A good strong heart,” she said.

There were good people on this benighted world, the star decided, warmed and contented. Outside the rain and the wind pattered and howled through the mountain pass, but in the inn, at the Sign of the Chariot, all was warm and comfortable.

Eventually the innkeeper’s wife, assisted by her dull-faced daughter, helped the star out of her bath. The firelight glinted on the topaz set in silver which the star wore on a knotted silver chain about her waist, until the topaz, and the star’s body, vanished beneath the thick toweling of her robe.

“Now my sweet,” said the innkeeper’s wife, “you come over here and make yourself comfortable.” She helped the star over to a long wooden table, at the head of which were laid a cleaver and a knife, both of them with hilts of bone and blades of dark glass. Leaning and limping, the star made it to the table and sat down at the bench beside it.

Outside there was a gust of wind, and the fire flared up green and blue and white. Then a deep voice boomed from outside the inn, over the howl of the elements. “Service! Food! Wine! Fire! Where is the stableboy?”Billy the innkeeper and his daughter made no move, but only looked at the woman in the red dress as if for instructions. She pursed her lips. And then she said, “It can wait. For a little. After all, you are not going anywhere, my dearie?” This last to the star. “Not on that leg of yours, and not until the rain lets up, eh?”

“I appreciate your hospitality more than I can say,” said the star, simply and with feeling.

“Of course you do,” said the woman in the red dress, and her fidgeting fingers brushed the black knives impatiently, as if there were something she could not wait to be doing. “Plenty of time when these nuisances have gone, eh?” The light of the inn was the happiest and best thing Tristran had seen on his journey through Faerie. While Primus bellowed for assistance, Tristran unhitched the exhausted horses, and led them one by one into the stables on the side of the inn.

There was a white horse asleep in the furthest stall, but Tristran was too busy to pause to inspect it.

He knew — somewhere in the odd place inside him that knew directions and distances of things he had never seen and the places he had never been — that the star was close at hand, and this comforted him, and made him nervous. He knew that the horses were more exhausted and more hungry than he was. His dinner — and thus, he suspected, his confrontation with the star — could wait. “I’ll groom the horses,” he told Primus. “They’ll catch a chill otherwise.”The tall man rested his huge hand on Tristran’s shoulder. “Good lad. I’ll send a pot-boy out with some burnt ale for you.”Tristran thought about the star as he brushed down the horses and picked out their hooves. What would he say? What would she say? He was brushing the last of the horses when a blank-looking pot-girl came out to him with a tankard of steaming wine.

“Put it down over there,” he told her. “I’ll drink it with goodwill as soon as my hands are free.” She put it down on the top of a tack box and went out, without saying anything.

It was then that the horse in the end stall got to its feet and began to kick against the door.

“Settle down, there,” called Tristran, “settle down, fellow, and I’ll see if I cannot find warm oats and bran for all of you.”There was a large stone in the stallion’s front inside hoof, and Tristran removed it with care. Madam, he had decided he would say, please accept my heartfelt and most humble apologies. Sir, the star would say in her turn, that I shall do with all my heart. Now, let us go to your village, where you shall present me to your true love, as a token of your devotion to herHis ruminations were interrupted by an enormous clattering, as a huge white horse — but, he realized immediately, it was not a horse — kicked down the door of its stall and came charging, desperately, toward him, its horn lowered.

Tristran threw himself onto the straw on the stable floor, his arms about his head.

Moments passed. He raised his head. The unicorn had stopped in front of the tankard, was lowering its horn into the mulled wine.

Awkwardly, Tristran got to his feet. The wine was steaming and bubbling, and it came to Tristran then — the information surfacing from some long-forgotten fairy tale or piece of children’s lore — that a unicorn’s horn was proof against . . .

“Poison?” he whispered, and the unicorn raised its head, and stared into Tristran’s eyes, and Tristran knew that it was the truth. His heart was pounding hard in his chest. Around the inn the wind was screaming like a witch in her madness.

Tristran ran to the stable door, then he stopped and thought. He fumbled in his tunic pocket, finding the lump of wax, which was all that remained of his candle, with a dried copper leaf sticking to it. He peeled the leaf away from the wax with care. Then he raised the leaf to his ear and listened to what it told him.

“Wine, milord?” asked the middle-aged woman in the long red dress, when Primus had entered the inn.

“I am afraid not,” he said. “I have a personal superstition that, until the day I see my brother’s corpse cold on the ground before me, I shall drink only my own wine, and eat only food I have obtained and prepared myself. This I shall do here, if you have no objection. I shall, of course, pay you as if it were your own wine I was drinking. If I might trouble you to put this bottle of mine near the fire to take the chill from it? Now, I have a companion on my journey, a young man who is attending to the horses; he has sworn no such oath, and I am sure that if you could send him a mug of burnt ale it would help take the chill from his bones . . . ? ” The pot-maid bobbed a curtsey, and she scuttled back to the kitchens.