Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy


“Yes.”

WolfStar took a deep breath and composed himself. He’d been driven by a powerful but little understood need to conceive Azhure with Niah, but until this moment he’d not realised the precise nature of what he’d seeded. Hesitantly he touched the ring.

“This ring is representative of great and unimaginable power.” Reluctantly he let Azhure’s hand go. He looked up and tried to smile but it was an abysmal failure. “When I gave it to Orr I thought never to see it again. To find it now on the finger of my own daughter is almost beyond my comprehension.”

“Should I fear it, WolfStar?”

He lifted his hand and softly touched her cheek, wonder in his eyes. “No. No. The ring has chosen you, it has come home to you.” By the Stars!, he thought, the Circle has completed itself in my daughter! “That is an unimaginable honour. Unimaginable. You need not fear it.” Now his mouth did curl slightly, wonderingly. “It makes me fear you, though.”

Azhure felt herself succumbing to WolfStar’s immense appeal as he stroked her cheek and smiled into her eyes. She knew she should be angry with him, she knew she should hate him for abandoning Niah and herself to Hagen, but her anger was fading with every stroke of his fingers. Again she understood why her mother must have yielded to him.

But while her anger faded, her curiosity and her desperation for answers still flared bright. “Who was the Enchantress, WolfStar, what power does her ring contain? And why did you tremble so when you spied it on my finger?”

“So many questions, Azhure.”

A touch of determination hardened her voice. “I have almost thirty years of questions, WolfStar. These three will do to start with.”

He sighed and dropped his hand. These three questions would not be the worst she would ask him.

“What do you know of the Enchantress? No, wait,” he said quickly as he saw Azhure gesture in irritation. “I only ask this so that I do not repeat what you already know.”

“That she was the mother from whom both Charonite and Icarii races sprang. That she was very powerful, the first of all the Enchanters. That this ring, which was hers, holds unknown powers. She used her power differently to other Enchanters – or Charonite mages, for all I know.”

“The Enchantress was the Mother of Nations, yes.”

Azhure blinked. The Ferryman had called her that when she had travelled with the Icarii and Raum to Talon Spike via the ancient Waterways.

“Not much is known about her. All we have now are legends … and this ring. She was a remarkable woman, and many of her powers and magic she passed on to her two youngest sons.”

“Her youngest sons?”

WolfStar grinned. “The Enchantress did not favour her eldest son at all; it was he who fathered the Acharite race.”

Azhure’s mouth dropped open. “Do you mean that the Icarii, the Charonites and the Acharites all sprang from the one mother?”

WolfStar’s grin became more feral. “The children of her unfavoured eldest son became the toilers of the soil, while the children of those sons she did favour grew to hunt the mysteries of the universe.”

Azhure wondered how the Acharites would react if they realised they sprang from the same source as the Icarii and Charonites. “Are the Avar descended from her as well?”

“No. The Avar come from different stock altogether. Now, this ring. Again, like the Enchantress herself, what knowledge we have of this ring is ancient and riddled with mystery because of it.” WolfStar knew far more than that about the ring, but it was not his place to tell Azhure. That right belonged to the … others. “It does not so much contain power itself as it represents power – unimaginable power. For many thousands of years it has manipulated as it sees fit to achieve its own ends, that is why I trembled so when I saw it on your finger. I, too, have been manipulated by this ring.”

He was silent a moment. “You have, no doubt, heard the Icarii tell of my reign as Enchanter-Talon.”

“Yes,” Azhure whispered. Her father had hurled hundreds of innocent children to their deaths through the Star Gate in an effort to understand its mysteries. Eventually WolfStar’s younger brother, CloudBurst, had assassinated him before WolfStar could murder the entire Icarii race. Of course, no-one among the Icarii – or any other race that knew the story – had counted on WolfStar coming back through the Star Gate.

“My fascination was not only with the Star Gate, Azhure,” and WolfStar’s voice took on the quality of confession, “but also with this ring that my forebears had guarded for so many thousands of years. I know I cannot excuse what I did to those children, but the ring had haunted my dreams from childhood, and it drove me to maniacal deeds. It was the ring that whispered to me that I needed to sacrifice those children into the Star Gate … it was the ring that whispered to me that it wanted to be taken to the waterways, there to wait until it decided to move on again.”

And was it the ring that sent me to Niah? WolfStar wondered. And whispered to me the name of the child she was to conceive?

Azhure’s mind told her not to believe WolfStar, that he was merely using the ring as an excuse for his own inexcusable behaviour, but her heart told her that he spoke the truth.

“Then it will only seek to use me,” she said, horrified, twisting the ring off her hand. “It will use me and force me to do its will!”

“No!” WolfStar cried and clasped her hands between his to stop her pulling off the ring. “No! Legends said that one day the ring would seek out the hand of one who was fit to wear it – even the Enchantress was only a custodian, the ring was not truly hers. It has taken tens of thousands of years, but the ring has finally come home. Azhure, I trembled not only because I feared the power the ring represents, but also because I suddenly realised that I ought to fear you more.”

Azhure was silent, staring at her father with great smoky eyes. Her entire body was still, her breathing so shallow that her breasts scarcely rose.

“Azhure, the ring has chosen you … and it is now subservient to you. It has chosen you as its home.”

“But I do not know how to use it, or this power you say it represents,” she said. “WolfStar, one of the reasons I came here today was to ask you how I can use my powers. You must teach me! Axis needs me!”

“One day I will teach you what I can, Azhure, but that day is not yet here.” And what I can teach you is going to be little indeed, Azhure-heart.

“Damn you!” Azhure cried, and tore her hands from his. “I need to know!”

“Azhure, listen to me. This is not the time nor the place. No! Listen to me! I will not teach you, nor will any others, while you are pregnant with those twins – there are secrets you will learn that those babies should not know.”

Azhure opened her mouth automatically to defend her twins, but closed it again as she remembered their continued antagonism to her and Axis. She rested a hand on her belly.

“And this is not the place to teach you,” WolfStar continued. “There is one place that you can learn quickly and easily, a place where others can be involved in your teaching, a place where power is more likely to flare into life.”

“The Island of Mist and Memory. Temple Mount.”

“Yes. How did you know that?”

“Niah told me to go to Temple Mount … as she lay dying.”

WolfStar ignored the hard edge of the last phrase, and his eyes dimmed in memory. “Ah … Niah.” Perhaps Niah had known what WolfStar had only just come to understand. But then, she had been First, and perhaps the First was more intimately aware of the secrets of the gods than even he.

“Please,” Azhure began. “Explain to me now why you treated us as you did.”

“I cannot, Azhure,” he said. “There are many things that must be explained, but I will need to wait until you are alone –” she knew he meant after she had given birth, “ – and you are on the Island of Mist and Memory.”

For some time Azhure sat half turned away from him. She had wanted to learn so much more from this meeting.

“All I have done has been for a purpose,” WolfStar said eventually, understanding her hurt. “One day the reasons will become clear. But this I will tell you.”

Azhure turned her eyes back to her father.

“I am not the Traitor that many think. The third verse of the Prophecy speaks of a Traitor, but I am not he.”

“You seem to know your way about the Prophecy very well,” Azhure said sharply.

“The Traitor has already made his move, Azhure. Fear not the people about either you or Axis. The Traitor is already with his master. He has already made his decision to betray, although he has not yet committed the final betrayal.”

Azhure stared at WolfStar. Who was the Traitor? But WolfStar would not answer this unspoken query. He lifted his fingertips to her cheek again, the touch so light that Azhure could hardly feel it.

“Be assured, Azhure. You will find the answers you need to know on the Island. You think that you need to be by Axis’ side, that you need to be there to fight for him, but the greatest service you can do for him now, as for yourself, is to spend time alone to accept and develop your power.”