Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

Fool! Think not to contradict Me!

“She is dangerous, oh Blessed One.”

Yes. She is dangerous. She must be found and she must be stopped.

“You have only to say the word, Lord, and she will die.”

Artor laughed, and it was a terrible sound. She will not be that easy, Gilbert, but she will be a good test of your commitment. She means to ride east, but her evil enchantments cloud my senses and I know not where she is. Your task is to find her and to stop her before she can replant the forests across good plough-land. If she completes that task then I … I …

Gilbert sensed the god’s fear. He did not know what Artor was talking about, and he could not see how Faraday could wield evil enchantments or why she was so dangerous. But that must be part of the test.

Then I am lost, the god whispered. Then I am lost with that single act. It worried Him greatly that He could not spy out Faraday with His power. It meant that the power of the Mother, which Faraday drew on, was growing stronger day by day.

The forest is evil, and it must be destroyed, never to rise again. Now Artor spoke from the Book of Field and Furrow, the holy text that He had given to mankind thousands of years ago. Wood exists only to serve man, and it must never be allowed to grow wild and unrestrained, free to shelter dark spirits and wicked sprites.

Gilbert experienced a rare flash of insight. “It is why we took the axe to the dark forest a thousand years ago, Blessed One. Should it spring to life again then the Way of the Plough will be strangled among its roots.”

Yes. Yes, you will do well, good Gilbert. Make sure that you do well, Gilbert, for My wrath is a terrible thing.

Gilbert had every intention of doing well. How hard could it be to find Faraday and dispose of her? “I shall gather the remaining Plough-Keepers and Brothers together, Great Lord, all that I can find. The more eyes I have at my command the more likely it is that I can find the woman. And then when I find her, I will kill her.”

Artor smiled. The fool had a lot to learn, but what he lost in naivety, he made up for in commitment and a singular adoration for Artor. There were not many like him left.

Good. I will direct homeless Brothers who still have the faith into your path. They will be your servants.

He touched Gilbert’s forehead in benediction.

You will do well, Brother-Leader Gilbert. You have embarked on a Holy Crusade for My sake. Do well.

Then he vanished.

Moryson remained curled in a ball for almost an hour before he dared stand up. He could hardly believe that Artor had let him live. In his long, long life, this was the closest that Moryson had come to personal disaster. He looked around for the younger man.

Gilbert sat by the now dead fire, fervour shining bright in his eyes, planning his divine mission.

WolfStar huddled deep within the dark, dark night. Everything was going wrong. Gorgrael promised to fill the skies with everincreasing numbers of Gryphon, and now Artor, curse His ravening immortal soul, walked Tencendor seeking vengeance. Had either of these two events been foreseen by prophecy? No, and no again.

“I must think,” he muttered to himself. “I must think.”

After some time the thought came to him. Azhure. Stars, but he needed Azhure. Tencendor needed Azhure.

6 Carlon (#ulink_dc2601bf-a881-5542-b830-e59cfd3e4302)

Axis rubbed his tired eyes and consciously worked to keep the deep uneasiness from showing on his face. He remembered Priam sitting in this very Privy Chamber, ragged lines of worry etching his face, as he shared his bad news with his commanders.

In the ten days since his marriage, Axis had finally begun sending troops northwards to Jervois Landing. He supposed that Gorgrael would again attempt to break through into southern Tencendor with the main part of his force through Jervois Landing as he had last winter. The troops had embarked on river transports, normally the quickest and most efficient system of moving large numbers of troops and supplies. Normally.

“They have no way of breaking through?” Axis asked.

Belial gazed steadily at his friend. “The Nordra is completely frozen beyond the valley in the Western Ranges, Axis. No ship, no transport, can sail into Aldeni or Skarabost. The north is isolated.”

“As are those troops currently in Jervois Landing, Axis,” Magariz added.

Axis looked about the room, trying to gather his thoughts. The great Privy Chamber had not altered much since the days Axis had attended Priam’s council here as BattleAxe of the Seneschal. But if the great Privy Chamber had not altered much in structure or hangings, it certainly had in the people grouped about the great circular table. Apart from Axis, Prince Ysgryff was the only one present who would have attended Priam’s council. Duke Roland was still in Sigholt, slowly dying; the unlucky Earl Jorge had moved north to Jervois Landing with the first transports; and Baron Fulke was currently seeing to the last of the grape harvest in Romsdale.

Now Icarii Crest-Leaders shared the conference table with a Ravensbund Chieftain and human princes. There were others, stranger, grouped about or under the table. StarDrifter, not part of the conference, but present nevertheless. Azhure, looking slightly better but still weary, sat further around the table. At her feet, and around the chamber, lay the fifteen great Alaunt hounds.

Come on, man, think, Axis berated himself. They wait on you. They believe in you.

But the truth was that Axis had not thought very much at all about what he would do once he had defeated Borneheld and proclaimed Tencendor. He had never really thought about how he was going to confront Gorgrael. Now it looked as though Gorgrael was going to force the issue, as though the final battle would be fought on Gorgrael’s terms.

Axis roused himself, aware that the others were staring. “FarSight, is it possible to send your farflight scouts north to spy the danger?”

FarSight CutSpur, the senior Crest-Leader in the Icarii Strike Force, shook his dark head emphatically. “No, StarMan. No. The weather worsens hourly. Great winds of sleet and frost bear down from the north. If the farflight scouts actually survived the winds, then they would see nothing anyway.”

Azhure spoke, her voice soft. “How many men do you have in Jervois Landing, Axis?”

“Over eight thousand. Five that Borneheld had left there, three from our own force. And one lonely wing of the Strike Force; they must be grounded if the weather at Jervois Landing is as bad as I fear.”

Magariz and Belial exchanged glances.

“If Gorgrael attacks,” Magariz said, “then they are lost. Eight thousand could not possibly hold out against the forces he could throw against them.”

“Damn it, I know that!” Axis shouted. “But what can I do? I have no way of moving any more forces north quickly – even the Andeis Sea has succumbed to storms so violent that five ships have been lost this past week alone.” He paused and calmed himself. “Gorgrael will strike,” he resumed, “and he will strike soon. All we can do is prepare as best we can.”

“We move north?” Belial said.

Axis looked at him steadily, then gazed about the room, fixing the eyes of each of his commanders in turn. “We begin to prepare today.”

He hesitated, then decided to voice his concern. “Truth to tell, my friends, I am unsure what to do. Where will Gorgrael strike? Jervois Landing, surely, but we will never be able to get there in time. Then where? If all of Aldeni is frozen he could mass his troops anywhere. I am loath to commit my force to any action or to any route north until I have a better idea what Gorgrael is going to do.”

It was Ichtar all over again, Axis thought. If Gorgrael broke through Jervois Landing he would have the entire province of Aldeni to roam in. And he would be only some fifty leagues from Carlon itself.

“Well, enough of my doubts.” Axis spoke briskly, and more formally. “Princes Belial, Magariz and Ysgryff and,” he smiled slightly at his wife, “my Lady Azhure, Guardian of the East. Within three days I want from all of you a list of the resources that your provinces will be able to provide to support Tencendor’s fight against Gorgrael. I want to know everything you’ve got, from food to wagons to fighting men to weapons to any one or any thing that can contribute to the war effort.”

Magariz’s mouth twitched, but his eyes were grave. “I do not need three days to compose a list, StarMan. My northern province can provide only one thing, but that in abundance – the enemy.”

There was silence, then Axis spoke again.

“Sooner or later we will to have to ride into that icy hell above the Western Ranges,” he said. “And I fear that there will be no glorious battle at the end of this march.”

Especially if I cannot find the skills and the courage to wield enough of the Star Dance to use effective Songs of War, he thought, black despair threatening to overwhelm him.

“Eleven days ago, amid shouts of rejoicing, I proclaimed Tencendor. Ten days ago I married the woman I love more than life itself. But this has been a false summer, I think. Have we all celebrated too fast? Has darkness merely bided its time, waiting to catch us off guard?”

All that afternoon Azhure attended to her duties as Guardian of the East. Hers was a special responsibility, that of making sure that the integration of three races, three cultures, and three religions went smoothly and with the least rancour possible. It was a challenge that Azhure relished; she had spent time among all three races – Acharites (as the humans were still known), Avar and Icarii. Although the Avar still had not moved from their forest homelands, and probably would not until Faraday had planted the forest below the Fortress Ranges, Azhure had more than enough to do with the influx of Icarii into the southern lands of Tencendor. She was impatient with the paperwork that the scribes continually thrust her way; Azhure liked to hear a problem from all sides before making a decision that was best for the parties involved. She had got very used to the despairing cry of the scribes and administrators –“But it’s never been done that way before!” – to which she always replied, with as much graciousness as she could, “Well, it’s the way it’s going to be done now.”

In the early evening, Azhure wandered back to the royal apartments along the busy corridors of the palace. She hoped that Axis would soon return from his consultations with Belial and Magariz over preparations for their eventual march north. She needed to speak with him about what she had learned this afternoon and did not want to leave it for later that night as she was now so tired that she longed only for a simple meal and her bed.