Home > Stardust(10)

Author: Neil Gaiman

“For a kiss, and the pledge of your hand,” said Tristran, grandiloquently, “I would bring you that fallen star.” He shivered. His coat was thin, and it was obvious he would not get his kiss, which he found puzzling. The manly heroes of the penny dreadfuls and shilling novels never had these problems getting kissed.

“Go on, then,” said Victoria. “And if you do, I will.”

“What?” said Tristran.

“If you bring me that star,” said Victoria, “the one that just fell, not another star, then I’ll kiss you. Who knows what else I might do. There: now you need not go to Australia, nor to Africa, nor to far Cathay.”

“What?” said Tristran.

And Victoria laughed at him, then, and took back her hand, and began to walk down the hill toward her father’s farm.

Tristran ran to catch her up. “Do you mean it?” he asked her.

“I mean it as much as you mean all your fancy words of rubies and gold and opium,” she replied. “What is an opium?”

“Something in cough mixture,” said Tristran. “Like eucalyptus.”

“It does not sound particularly romantic,” said Victoria Forester. “Anyway, should you not be running off to retrieve my fallen star? It fell to the East, over there.” And she laughed again. “Silly shop-boy. It is all you can do to ensure that we have the ingredients for rice pudding.”

“And if I brought you the fallen star?” asked Tristran lightly. “What would you give me? A kiss? Your hand in marriage?”

“Anything you desire,” said Victoria, amused.

“You swear it?” asked Tristran.

They were walking the last hundred yards now, up to the Foresters’ farmhouse. The windows burned with lamplight, yellow and orange.

“Of course,” said Victoria, smiling.

The track to the Foresters’ farm was bare mud, trodden into mire by the feet of horses and cows and sheep and dogs. Tristran Thorn went down on his knees in the mud, heedless of his coat or his woolen trousers. “Very well,” he said.

The wind blew from the east, then.

“I shall leave you here, my lady,” said Tristran Thorn. “For I have urgent business, to the East.” He stood up, unmindful of the mud and mire clinging to his knees and coat, and he bowed to her, and then he doffed his bowler hat.

Victoria Forester laughed at the skinny shop-boy, laughed long and loud and delightfully, and her tinkling laughter followed him back down the hill, and away. Tristran Thorn ran all the way home. Brambles snagged at his clothes as he ran and a branch knocked his hat from his head.

He stumbled, breathless and torn, into the kitchen of the house on Westward Meadows.

“Look at the state of you!” said his mother. “Indeed! I never did!”Tristran merely smiled at her.

“Tristran?” asked his father, who at five and thirty was still middling tall and still freckled, although there were more than a few silvering hairs in his nut-brown curls. “Your mother spoke to you. Did you not hear her?”

“I beg your pardon, Father, Mother,” said Tristran, “but I shall be leaving the village tonight. I may be gone for some time.”

“Foolishness and silliness!” said Daisy Thorn. “I never heard such nonsense.”But Dunstan Thorn saw the look in his son’s eyes. “Let me talk to him,” he said to his wife. She looked at him sharply, then she nodded. “Very well,” she said. “But who’s going to sew up the boy’s coat? That’s what I would like to know.” She bustled out of the kitchen.

The kitchen fire fizzed in silver and glimmered green and violet. “Where are you going?” asked Dunstan.

“East,” said his son.

East. His father nodded.

There were two easts — east to the next county, through the forest, and East, the other side of the wall. Dunstan Thorn knew without asking to which his son was referring.

“And will you be coming back?” asked his father.

Tristran grinned widely. “Of course,” he said.

“Well,” said his father. “That’s all right, then.” He scratched his nose. “Have you given any thought to getting through the wall?”Tristran shook his head. “I’m sure I can find a way,” he said. “If necessary, I’ll fight my way past the guards.”His father sniffed. “You’ll do no such thing,” he said. “How would you like it if it was you was on duty, or me? I’ll not see anyone hurt.” He scratched the side of his nose once more. “Go and pack a bag, and kiss your mother good-bye, and I’ll walk you down to the village.”Tristran packed a bag, and his mother brought him six red, ripe apples and a cottage loaf and a round of white farmhouse cheese, which he placed inside his bag. Mrs. Thorn would not look at Tristran. He kissed her cheek and bade her farewell.

Then he walked into the village with his father.

Tristran had stood his first watch on the wall when he was sixteen years old. He had only been given one instruction: That it was the task of the guards to prevent anyone from coming through the gap in the wall from the village, by any means possible. If it was not possible to prevent them, then the guards must raise the village for help.

He wondered as they walked what his father had in mind. Perhaps the two of them together would overpower the guards. Perhaps his father would create some kind of distraction and allow him to slip through . . . perhaps . . .

By the time they walked through the village and arrived at the gap in the wall, Tristran had imagined every possibility, except the one which occurred.

On wall duty that evening were Harold Crutchbeck and Mr. Bromios. Harold Crutchbeck was a husky young man several years older than Tristran, the miller’s son. Mr. Bromios’s hair was black, and curled, and his eyes were green, and his smile was white, and he smelled of grapes and of grape juice, of barley and of hops.

Dunstan Thorn walked up to Mr. Bromios and stood in front of him. He stamped his feet against the evening chill.

“Evening, Mister Bromios. Evening, Harold,” said Dunstan.

“Evening, Mister Thorn,” said Harold Crutchbeck.

“Good evening, Dunstan,” said Mr. Bromios. “I trust you are well.”Dunstan allowed as that he was; and they spoke of the weather and agreed that it would be bad for the farmers and that, from the quantity of holly berries and yew berries already apparent, it would be a cold, hard winter.

As he listened to them talking,Tristran was ready to burst with irritation and frustration, but he bit his tongue and said nothing.

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