Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

He turned back to Timozel. “I will give you one of this creature’s pups as your own. Go on, pat her head, scratch the back of her neck, she likes that. With one of these creatures as your mount you will be able to sail the thermals as easily as do the Icarii.”

As Timozel bent down to the Gryphon fawning at his feet, Gorgrael took the Dark Man by the elbow and led him away a few steps, talking quietly.

“Perhaps there is something I should tell you, Dark Man.”

Hearing the perverse pleasure in Gorgrael’s voice, the Dark Man knew the news was going to be bad.

“Dear Man, I know you planned that the Gryphon should stop breeding after the second pack was whelped. I know you planned that the numbers of Gryphon would be limited.”

Months ago Gorgrael and the Dark Man had created a Gryphon, a creature with the head of an eagle, the wings of a bird, and the body of a great cat. The Dark Man had infused deep enchantments into the making of the Gryphon; the single female had been created pregnant, and soon after she had been created she had whelped nine pups. And these nine pups had been born female and pregnant. After four months they too whelped, each bearing nine pups. But the Dark Man had thought he had manipulated the enchantments so that the breeding would stop there. He wanted Gorgrael to have a powerful air-borne force – and the eighty-two Gryphon created in this fashion would surely be that – but he did not intend that the breeding should continue.

“But the breeding has continued,” Gorgrael hissed, and he felt the Dark Man twitch under his hand. “Already I have seven hundred and twenty-nine. And soon they will whelp. Each will whelp nine pregnant pups. Do you know how many that will be, Dear, Dear Man?”

The Dark Man was silent, almost overcome with horror.

“Over six and a half thousand. And in another four months those six and a half thousand will whelp – almost sixty thousand pups. And in four months those sixty thousand will –”

“Stop!” the Dark Man cried, and jerked his arm from Gorgrael’s grasp.

“And not to forget, of course, the second Gryphon I created. She and hers have generated eighty-one Gryphon. In just over a month those eighty-one will become seven hundred and –”

“Yes, yes!” the Dark Man spat. “I understand!”

“No,” Gorgrael said very, very softly. “I do not think you do. I am the Destroyer, Dear Man, and I plan to destroy. Whatever pretty enchantments Axis can throw my way, I will still destroy Tencendor. With the Gryphon-breeding as they do, in less than a year there will be five-hundred thousand of them in the skies of Tencendor, Dear Man. Think of it. Five-hundred thousand. So what if my comely brother can stab one or two here or there? Or his army forty or fifty thousand? Even if one escapes, one, that one will breed nine, and those nine will whelp nine each, and … I need not continue. Even if one escapes, within two years at least sixty thousand will repopulate the skies of Tencendor.”

Behind his hood the Dark Man stared at Gorgrael, appalled.

“So you see,” Gorgrael said, “even if Axis destroyed me in battle, I have planned that he shall have nothing left to enjoy. Not even Axis can counter the virulence of the Gryphon. Eventually there will be nothing left of this green and pleasant land except the shadows of Gryphon wheeling and shrieking through the sky. They will blot out the sun and they will destroy and destroy and destroy until there is nothing – nothing – left!”

Oh Stars, thought the Dark Man, and felt the plans of three thousand years crumble to dust about him.

Gorgrael grinned triumphantly. At last he had bested the Dark Man. And if he could do that, then Gorgrael knew that he would best Axis.

5 A Holy Crusade (#ulink_d26144f6-d32b-5fae-b680-0b21827296d0)

Gilbert had known from the moment the Corolean transports disgorged their traitorous pirates into the seething mass that was the Battle of Bedwyr Fort that Borneheld was all but dead. Borneheld and his armies had failed to protect the Seneschal, and had failed in their supreme duty to Artor.

Not only would the beautiful Tower of the Seneschal now be overrun by Axis and the Forbidden, but Gilbert had realised that Carlon itself was lost. Sooner or later, Axis would seize the capital of Achar as well.

Gilbert had understood very clearly that his future lay as far away from Jayme, Borneheld and Carlon as he could get. He also knew that the future of the Seneschal and the Way of the Plough probably rested with him. Jayme had proved useless in massing the not inconsiderable resources of the Seneschal against Axis’ forces; now the Brotherhood lay scattered among the ruins of Achar.

So Gilbert had backed silently away from Jayme and Moryson as they stood atop the parapets of Carlon, and sped down back stairs and corridors until he reached the home of one of his many cousins within the city. There he had begged a horse, clothes, supplies and a purse of gold coins and had ridden out of Carlon not five minutes before Borneheld and Gautier, fleeing from the battlefield, had ordered the gates sealed.

He rode hard and fast south, turning east after two days (fording the Nordra late one night and almost drowning in the process) to begin his long trek across the southern plains of Tare. He was not completely sure where he was going; he had a vague compulsion to travel east, perhaps to Arcness, maybe then north to Skarabost.

Each night Gilbert would pray to Artor for guidance. Surely Artor would not desert him or the Seneschal in this, its hour of greatest need?

It was now the third week of DeadLeaf-month, almost a month after the Battle of Bedwyr Fort, and Gilbert sat morosely by his tiny campfire, considering his future. It did not look very promising. From what he had heard from the occasional passing trader, many of whom had been returning to Nor from Carlon, Axis had destroyed the throne of Achar and had proclaimed himself StarMan of Tencendor. Gilbert snorted. StarMan of Tencendor? A gaudy title for the rebirth of an evil world.

He shivered in the cool night air and pulled his cloak tightly about him. Since he had escaped from Carlon he had not been able to travel very far; currently he was, at his best estimation, somewhere in the northern regions of Nor, or perhaps western Tarantaise.

He fingered his purse. He had carefully hoarded his coins, bargaining fiercely in the markets of the small towns he had passed through for food and supplies. He travelled as a minor nobleman – an easy disguise to assume since Gilbert had originally come from one of the nobler families of Carlon – because in these eastern territories, where Axis’ armies and the Forbidden who travelled with him had already passed, it would not be very wise to be seen to be a Brother. Gilbert had also heard from the few merchants he had encountered that the names of old gods were now mouthed with increasing confidence across eastern Achar.

He leaned forward and prodded the bread he had baking in the coals. He had no life but that he had built for himself in the Seneschal. A young man, not yet thirty, Gilbert had risen quickly through the ranks of the Brotherhood. Six years ago Jayme had appointed him as his junior adviser, and Gilbert was not ashamed to admit to himself that his eye rested on the throne of the Brother-Leader itself. Jayme was old, as was Moryson, and who better to succeed Jayme than the talented younger adviser?

Of course, this possibility had been blown awry when this Destroyer had invaded from the north, and the BattleAxe had revealed his true colours and set about destroying both Achar and the Seneschal. Now Gilbert was left with little more than his broken ambitions to comfort him.

So Gilbert sat, desolately prodding the bread that seemed determined not to rise, until he gradually became aware that he was being watched.

For some time he continued to sit, absolutely still, his eyes on the now blackening bread, his ears straining. After long minutes of silence, Gilbert could stand it no longer.

“Who’s there?” he called, injecting as much bravado into his voice as he could.

Silence still then a small scratching noise as someone shifted a foot.

“Gilbert?” a thin, reedy voice quavered. “Gilbert?”

“Artor’s arse!” Gilbert swore, so completely forgetting himself that he used an obscenity which until now he’d only heard soldiers mouth. “Moryson?”

“Aye, ’tis I,” Moryson said, then shuffled into the light of the fire.

Gilbert’s mouth dropped as he stared at the man who had been Jayme’s senior adviser. Moryson looked even thinner and more fragile than usual, his clothes hanging tattered and dirty from his spare frame. A week-old stubble covered his cheeks, and his right hand trembled spasmodically as if he had damaged a nerve in his arm or neck.

“May I join you?” Moryson asked, looking as if he was about to fall, and Gilbert gestured to a spot by the fire. Moryson sank down gratefully. “You are a hard man to catch, Gilbert.”

Gilbert continued to stare. Moryson was the last person he would have expected to appear in this lonely night. “Why aren’t you with –?”

“With Jayme?” Moryson’s voice was stronger now that he’d taken the weight off his legs. “Why not? Because Jayme was ultimately a fool, Gilbert, and a loser. I may be old but I am not yet prepared to die.”

Slowly Gilbert closed his mouth. Moryson was the last one he would have thought to desert Jayme. For perhaps forty years the pair had been inseparable, the friendship between them so deep and so strong – and so exclusive, Gilbert thought resentfully – that he would have wagered his own immortal soul on the fact that Moryson would elect to stay and share Jayme’s fate.

“How did you escape Carlon?” Gilbert asked.

And why are you here, now?

Moryson coughed, a harsh guttural sound, and Gilbert passed across a waterskin.

Moryson took a deep draught, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Thank you. I have not drunk in over a day. Well now, how did I escape? I saw you flee down the stairs as it became evident that Borneheld, the fool, had lost the battle with Axis. I knew why you left. There was nothing protecting Carlon now, and Axis would have little sympathy for you – nor for Jayme or myself.

“I tried to follow you down the stairs, but my legs are old and weak, and I lost you within minutes.”

Gilbert frowned; surely he would have heard if Moryson had stumbled down the stairs after him?

“Jayme might choose to stay and confront his former BattleAxe, but I chose to leave and risk my life elsewhere,” Moryson continued. “After I had lost you I fled to a small door I knew of, which opens onto Grail Lake. There I found a small boat moored. Exhausted, but frightened by the thought that soon Axis himself might come riding into Carlon, I rowed my way across the lake to a spot well north of the Tower of the Seneschal, then began my tedious flight.”

Moryson’s voice strengthened as he warmed to his tale. “For days I stumbled east, then south-east, desperate to avoid Axis and the Forbidden, snatching food where I could, rest where I dared. After a week I heard tell from a passing merchant, Dru-Beorh by name, that he had encountered you further south in Nor. I wondered if perhaps my future lay with you. Alone I could do nothing, but Gilbert, I thought, Gilbert must have a plan. I shall find Gilbert. So, here I am.”

Gilbert just stared at the old man. Deprivation and fright have driven him senseless, he thought. How had he managed to survive this long?