Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy


“And what sort of plan did you think I might have in mind?” he asked. “What did you think I would be able to do for you?”

“I thought that you might know somewhere to hide,” Moryson said, his voice slipping back into fragility. “I won’t survive on my own, but, I thought, my old friend Gilbert will help me.”

Old friend indeed, Gilbert thought angrily. Moryson and Jayme kept me at arm’s length for years, never trusting me with their secret confidences, never truly thinking I was worthy of their regard. Yet now Moryson, frightened and directionless, dares to sit here and tell me that he is and has always been my friend.

“I thought perhaps we could find some of our scattered brethren,” Moryson said. “Axis must have dispossessed dozens of Plough-Keepers as he rode through eastern Achar towards Carlon.”

Gilbert finally noticed the blackened remains of the bread and busied himself pulling the loaf clear of the coals, thinking carefully as he did so. Moryson’s vague words had given him the germ of an idea. He was right. There must be many Brothers of the Seneschal, scholars as well as the local Plough-Keepers – the Brothers who ministered within the villages – wandering as vaguely and with as little direction as he and Moryson. Singly they could do nothing, but together …

“You have hit the matter on the head, Moryson,” he said. “I intend to move eastwards and gather what remnants of the Brotherhood remain.”

“And then?” Moryson asked. “What will we do then?”

“It is best that I wait until we are a dozen or so, Moryson,” Gilbert replied smoothly, “and then I shall inform you of my plan.”

Moryson nodded, his shoulders hunched. Gilbert remembered Moryson as a strong and proud man, in spirit if not in body, but the man who now sat across the fire seemed shattered, almost servile.

Well, he thought, Moryson has had a bad few weeks, and has seen his life and his power destroyed. No wonder the old man now appears to want nothing more than a blanket-wrapped chair by a fire. Gilbert smiled as he realised that the relationship between himself and Moryson had altered dramatically. Now he was the driving force, now he would say what was to be done and when, and Moryson would nod and agree and say that Gilbert knew best. Sitting about this fire were the two most senior members of the Seneschal remaining (for Axis had surely skewered Jayme by now), and of the two, Gilbert was the strongest. That makes me the leader of the Seneschal, he realised suddenly. I am to all effects and purposes the Brother-Leader of the Seneschal!

After gloating to himself for some minutes, Gilbert finally thought to carve up what was left of the bread and pass some to Moryson with some beef and a wizened apple. That should keep the old man alive until morning.

Once they had finished eating and as the fire died down, Gilbert led the nightly prayers to Artor. Even during the most harried days of his escape, Gilbert had never neglected his evening and dawn prayers to Artor. Of all the things that could be said about Gilbert, lack of dedication to his beloved god was not one of them.

Moryson and Gilbert were startled from their observances by a strange rhythmic thumping. It surrounded them, and the men exchanged puzzled and fearful glances as the noise grew louder.

“What is it?” Gilbert finally asked, not raising his voice above a whisper.

Moryson actually whimpered, and Gilbert glanced his way. If Moryson had seemed weak and fearful previously, now he was absolutely terrified. He had curled himself into as small a ball as possible, as if he could somehow burrow into the earth and escape whatever it was that came their way.

“What is it?” Gilbert hissed.

“Ahhh!” Moryson moaned, and wriggled some more, actually scraping at the earth with his fingers.

“Moryson!”

“Artor!” Moryson cried. “It is Artor!”

Gilbert stared at him wide-eyed. Artor? For an instant Gilbert’s reaction vacillated between outright terror and transcendent ecstasy.

Ecstasy won.

“Artor!” he screamed and leapt to his feet. “Artor! It is I! Gilbert! Your true servant! What must I do to serve you? What is your desire?”

Damn fool, damn fool, damn fool, Moryson muttered over and over in his mind, not sure whether he referred to himself or Gilbert. Damn fool! He curled himself into an even tighter ball.

The strange thumping increased, now almost a thunder, and Gilbert could see a light in the distance. “Artor!” he screamed yet again.

As the light drew closer, Gilbert saw it emanated from two monstrous red bulls that were yoked to an equally monstrous plough. Behind strode Artor, one hand on the plough, the other raised to goad His team forward. The ploughshare cut deep into the ground, making a rhythmic thump as it thudded through the earth. Behind Artor ran a wide and deep furrow, straight as an arrow, heading directly for Gilbert.

Breath steamed in great gouts from the flared nostrils of the bulls, and they flung their heads from side to side, rolling their furious eyes as if they wanted to trample all unbelievers and scorners in their path.

But Gilbert was neither an unbeliever nor a scorner, and he stood his ground confidently.

“Furrow wide, furrow deep!” he screamed as if he had suddenly become privy to the greatest secrets of life and death. He threw open his arms in an extravagant gesture of welcome and flung his head back. “Blessed Lord!”

My good, true son.

“Oh!” Gilbert could not believe himself to be so utterly blessed.

Artor halted His team not four or five paces from the ecstatic Gilbert and stepped out from behind the plough, appearing as He had before Jayme – a huge man muscled and scarred from a lifetime behind the plough. He pushed back His hood so that Gilbert might the more easily see the face of his god.

His muscles bunched and rolled as He strode forth, the goad still clasped in one hand.

Who is that who huddles in the dirt?

“It is but Moryson, Blessed Lord, a poor man who has been all but broken by the events of the past months,” Gilbert said.

Fool, fool, fool, fool, Moryson droned over and over to himself, and somewhere in his terror-riddled mind he knew that he meant himself with that word. Fool to be here at this moment!

Artor had laid the blame for the Seneschal’s loss squarely at Jayme’s feet, and He lost interest in Moryson immediately. Snivelling cowards He had seen a-plenty. What Artor needed now was a man who had soul and courage enough to restore Artor to His rightful place as supreme god of Achar. He seethed. Why, the viper had even changed the name of the land from the blessed Achar to the ancient and cursed Tencendor.

He turned His eyes back to Gilbert. You are a man of true spirit. A man whom I can lean on. A man who can rebuild the Seneschal for Me.

Gilbert fell to his knees and clasped his hands to his breast in adoration, tears in his eyes. At least Artor recognised his true worth.

For centuries Achar lay safe and pristine under My benevolence. Now it is befouled by the footsteps of the Forbidden and by worship of their frightful interstellar gods.

Artor did not like competition; the Seneschal had always disposed quickly and harshly of any who spoke of other ways and other gods.

The Way of the Plough sickens nigh unto death, and the Seneschal is grievously wounded. It will take commitment to ensure its survival and ultimate resurrection to all-consuming power. Are you committed, Gilbert?

“Yes,” Gilbert all but shouted in an effort to convince his god.

I have a task for you, Gilbert.

“Anything!”

You know of this Faraday?

Gilbert blinked. Faraday? What could Artor want with –

DO YOU KNOW OF THIS FARADAY? Artor roared through his mind.

Gilbert cursed his hesitation. “Yes! Yes! I know her! She is married to Borneheld. Was, I suppose, if Borneheld is dead.”

She is dangerous.

“She is but a woman.”