Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

Axis was still deeply worried about her health and, though they never spoke of it, both were extremely concerned over her continuing lack of control over her power. The morning after StarDrifter and Axis had tried to teach Azhure the Song for Drying Clothes, Carlon had awakened to a minor miracle.

The contents of every single laundry hamper in the city had been mysteriously emptied overnight, laundered, folded and stored.

There could be no explanation except that, somehow, Azhure had unconsciously used her power as she slept. She had no knowledge of how she had done it, and had become tearful when Axis had pressed her, and the matter of the clean clothes had been quietly dropped. But Azhure could feel Axis’ and StarDrifter’s eyes on her occasionally, wondering. Wondering what? she thought. Wondering what might have happened if it had been a less innocuous Song? What if it had been the Song of Muddlement – would Carlon then have awoken with its population wandering the streets, dazed and disorientated?

Azhure sighed with relief when she reached the royal apartments; Axis was already there, and servants had just finished laying a meal for them on a low table in the Jade Chamber.

As they ate, Azhure occasionally stole a glance at Axis, noting the lines of worry on his face. Some of them she knew were for her, but most were for the desperate situation faced by the troops currently at Jervois Landing. Axis worried for each soldier under his command; every time a man died Axis fretted. Could he have prevented it? Was the man’s death the result of a bad decision on his part? Belial had told her of Axis’ deep guilt after the loss of three hundred men at the Ancient Barrows when Gorgrael had rained down his cruel ice spears on them, and his even worse guilt after the disastrous loss of life in the battle for Gorkentown. Since she had been with him, Azhure had seen much the same thing. Stars knows how he must be berating himself inside for not foreseeing the probable slaughter at Jervois Landing.

“Why do you smile?” Axis asked as he peeled back the purple skin of a juicy malayam fruit.

“I was thinking on the dismay of the scribes and recorders this afternoon. I do not, it seems, do things in the right order, at the right time, or use the correct bureaucratic procedure.”

To her relief Axis laughed, his whole face lightening. “Then you are doing well, beloved, if you have already annoyed the bureaucrats.”

They smiled at each other, then Azhure’s expression became serious. “Axis. There is a matter that I ought to discuss with you. Do you mind?”

“Never fear to talk with me, Azhure. We have wasted months of our lives because we did not talk truthfully to each other.”

“It is only a mundane matter, perhaps,” she said, “but it needs to be aired. Dru-Beorh came to me this afternoon with some disturbing news.” She paused. “He has seen both Moryson and Gilbert in his travels between here and Nor.”

Axis grimaced. He should have known that their names would re-emerge.

“They were both alone at the time he saw them, Moryson wandering south through the Plains of Tare, Gilbert travelling east through northern Nor. I thanked him for the information and said I would think further on it. Axis, Faraday was heading east when she left here. I cannot but think that perhaps she may encounter one of them.”

Axis returned his eyes to the remains of the malayam fruit. After a moment he gave up all pretence at eating it and wiped his fingers on a napkin.

“I would give much to have those two locked securely in the palace dungeons, Azhure. Together with Jayme, they were directly responsible for many of the injustices that the Seneschal perpetuated. And that I helped perpetuate.” Another guilt.

They both turned their minds to Jayme, and they shared their thoughts regarding his strange death. No-one had been able to explain it, and while Axis had been pleased to see that Jayme had died in a manner befitting his crimes, he was unhappy that Jayme had escaped his trial. The guard had heard or seen nothing, and both Axis and Azhure could not help but feel that some dark enchantment had been at work in Jayme’s death.

“Faraday?” Azhure prompted. “Do you think Faraday is in any danger? It is not only Gilbert and Moryson who concern me – there must be a number of Plough-Keepers wandering eastern Tencendor. They can be nothing but trouble.”

Axis sipped some wine thoughtfully. He’d not had time to deal with the problem of the Seneschal and the Way of the Plough, and undoubtedly would not for many months to come. Despite the collapse of the Seneschal and the abandoning of Artor by so many people in these days of prophecy, Axis knew that in many villages the Plough-Keepers retained considerable power.

“Faraday?” Azhure asked yet again.

He started and smiled guiltily. “Sorry. Faraday …” Stars, another guilt, and the worst of all. She was, as Belial had once told him in anger, too wondrous a woman for him to have treated the way he had. “The east is massive. I doubt they will run into each other. And Faraday can look after herself, Azhure. She is infused with the power of the Mother, and the Mother will aid her should she need it.”

“I had thought that perhaps I could send a small unit of men to protect her.”

“Would they find her? Would she welcome such company? And,” the crux of the matter, “can we spare the men?”

“No. Perhaps you are right,” Azhure said, worried nevertheless. Faraday had treated her with kindness, respect and friendship where Azhure had expected only bitterness and recrimination.

She forced her mind from Faraday for the moment. “Some Icarii are moving down from Talon Spike in small groups, Axis. Many of them are like children, so excited they know not what to see or do next.”

“I hope they are not frightening the Acharites with their excitement.”

“No. The majority still wait in Talon Spike, and RavenCrest, and I have asked that those who fly south restrain themselves. Most groups are flying to the Bracken Ranges where, so I am informed, there are ancient Icarii cities hidden under layers of dirt and boulders. Apparently, during the Wars of the Axe, when the Seneschal was succeeding in its bid to drive the Icarii from Achar, the Icarii Enchanters hid their cities in the Bracken Ranges with enchantments and, so they tell me, just a little dirt. Most of the Icarii efforts thus far have gone into dusting both enchantments and dirt from their ancient homes.”

Axis smiled briefly, his eyes whimsical. “I would like to see these cities one day, but I do not know when. Not with the threat that seeps down from the north.”

For some minutes Axis described the preparations that engulfed much of Carlon in getting some thirty-thousand men-at-arms ready for a march north. He had only succeeded in sending a fraction of his command north before the Nordra froze over. And for that, he thought grimly, I suppose I ought to be grateful. Better to have the majority here in Carlon where they will survive Gorgrael’s inevitable attack on Jervois Landing.

“I wish,” he concluded softly, taking her hand, “that you could travel north with me. And yet I am relieved that your pregnancy will force you to remain behind. At least something will be saved if disaster engulfs us in the north.”

If disaster engulfs you in the north, my love, Azhure thought, I will have no reason left to live.

Azhure wished she could fight by Axis’ side, but she knew that her physical state, while not desperate, was still sufficiently weak to cause concern. Each advancing day her unborn twins sapped more of her energy; Azhure had longed for Caelum to be born so that she could hold her wondrous son in her arms, but she longed for these twins to be born just so she could be freed of their encumbrance.

Axis watched her easy acceptance of his words with disquiet. The Azhure he had known would have fought bitterly to be allowed to ride at his side, pregnant or not. It was an indication of how deeply unwell she was that Azhure so meekly accepted the fact she would have to remain behind.

But Azhure had no intention of staying behind permanently. “Once they are born I will come,” she said, squeezing his hand. “The birth is only three months away at the most. Then I will be free to join you.”

If there is anything left to join, Axis thought to himself. If you still have a husband to join.

7 Timozel Plans (#ulink_6d33aece-5d93-519e-aed6-f09a594333f2)

Ever since Gorgrael had told him about his success with the Gryphon, the Dear Man had disappeared. Gorgrael supposed that perhaps he was slightly miffed at Gorgrael’s achievements. But it did not matter, for now he had Timozel to talk to, and Timozel was such good company, not only because of his intelligence, but because he was totally under the Destroyer’s control.

Today was the last day that Timozel would spend at the Ice Fortress before he joined the bulk of the Skraeling army north of Jervois Landing. He had already begun to mould the Skraelings, relaying orders and receiving information through the SkraeBolds and the Gryphon. Gorgrael hiccupped with pleasure when he remembered how SkraeFear and his two remaining brothers had sulked and brooded when introduced to Timozel, deeply resenting the loss of their favoured spot at Gorgrael’s side. But Gorgrael had taught Timozel how best to use his well of power, and Timozel had brooked no resentment nor resistance from the SkraeBolds; all three now wore the welts to remind them that it was not a good idea to cross Timozel.

Gorgrael looked fondly across the crazily canted table at his able lieutenant.

“What is it you plan, Timozel? How will you work my will?”

Timozel did not look up from the map he held straight with only the most extreme difficulty; damn Gorgrael’s preference for ridiculous angles and planes in his furniture! “I will work your will to the best of my ability, Lord.”

“Yes, yes.” Gorgrael shifted impatiently. “But what is it you plan?”

Timozel tapped the map. “From the reports your Gryphon have brought me, the force at Jervois Landing remains relatively small. The freezing of the Nordra has effectively stopped Axis sending any more troop transports north.” He paused. “I know Jervois Landing well. Now that the canals have been frozen as solid as the Nordra the town’s defences are virtually nil. I shall overwhelm and crush Jervois Landing with little trouble.”

“You won’t attack through the WildDog Plains?”

“No.” Both Timozel and Gorgrael were very reluctant, not only to split their force for a two-pronged attack through both Jervois Landing and the WildDog Plains, but to expose a Skraeling force to the powerful magic of Sigholt on the one flank and the Avarinheim on the other. Since he had been with Gorgrael, Timozel had learned a great deal about the magic of the land he and his master planned to invade. “No. We attack with full force at Jervois Landing. They won’t even have time for final prayers before dying.”

“And then you overrun Aldeni and Skarabost?” Gorgrael asked.

Timozel lifted his eyes from the map, and Gorgrael stilled at the cold light in them. “No.”

Gorgrael was puzzled. “Well, straight to Carlon then. There is much beauty to destroy there.”

The coldness deepened in Timozel’s eyes. “No.”

“Well, then, what?”

“Our main objective must be to destroy Axis’ army. I have a better plan. Listen.”