Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

She nodded slightly, reluctantly. “I feel pulled in so many different directions. So many people, demanding different things from me. I do need time alone.”

He leaned down and scratched Sicarius under the muzzle, then glanced back at Azhure. “You look very much like your mother, Azhure, and she was very, very desirable.”

Later, as WolfStar sat huddled under the stars, he thought on the afternoon’s encounter with his daughter. First Gorgrael and his Gryphon, then Artor, and now the Enchantress’ ring resurfaces. Were things moving beyond his control?

Perhaps, but the fact that the ring had chosen Azhure gave him great hope for the future. Suddenly neither Artor nor a sky blackened with Gryphon seemed such an insurmountable threat.

9 Jervois Landing (#ulink_39d9fb07-1028-583b-bb88-d8a58bf7ddff)

For the past ten or eleven days an icy nightmare had closed about Jervois Landing. Nothing Jorge had seen before – not even the appalling conditions at Gorkenfort or the weather that Gorgrael had thrown their way last winter – had been this bad. The storm front, if such a mild expression could possibly describe what had descended on them, had moved into the town in an unbelievable two minutes. One minute it had been cool and blustery, the clouds heavy with the promise of snow, the next … the next blew a wind so severe that only the strongest stone houses in the town were left standing. The wind carried with it ice and death, and everyone caught exposed to it had died; Jorge had lost over two thousand men in five minutes. The four Icarii scouts just returning to the town had fallen from the sky frozen solid.

When they hit the streets their bodies were shattered into such tiny pieces they were scattered away within moments.

Day after day Jorge and the remnants of his command had huddled by fires. No-one was left manning the defences of Jervois Landing – the system of canals that Borneheld had caused to be built – for none could survive in the open. And what defences anyway? Jorge thought. The canals must have frozen within minutes of the storm’s arrival. He grimaced under his blanket and crept an inch or two closer to the fire. Jervois Landing did not have defences any more.

The six thousand remaining men were, to the best of Jorge’s knowledge, scattered throughout the town. He no longer sent men out into the streets to gather information, for that was far too cruel in this weather, so Jorge frankly had no idea about the state of his command.

The remaining eight Icarii were the most miserable of all. The Wing had arrived the day before the weather closed in, and now four of them were dead and the others cramped about what warmth the fires provided.

Jorge knew that his men all expected to die, because when he moved from group to group, trying to revive spirits, he found men praying, preparing their souls for the inevitable journey to the AfterLife. Some, but only a few, prayed to Artor. The Icarii prayed to their Star Gods, the few Ravensbund men in his command prayed to their own mysterious deities. But, to his surprise, Jorge found many men praying to Axis, the StarMan, invoking his name as a god. Some even prayed to Azhure, the woman who had ridden with Axis and whose reputation with the bow was almost as legendary as the Wolven itself and the ghost hounds that ran at her back.

Jorge had backed away, sickened, when he first heard a group of three soldiers praying in a low monotone to Axis. Had these men gone mad? Axis was a man like any other, was he not? Did a string of military victories qualify one for god-like status? Jorge had returned to his spot by the fire and sat for many hours, his thoughts in turmoil. Somehow this disturbed him even more than the Gorgrael-driven storm outside.

Had the world turned completely upside down? Did Axis now insist that his command worship him as a god?

Unknown to Jorge, Axis was not behind the actions of these men. He would have been confused and horrified had he known that many men within his command, and their wives and children, had begun, slowly and unconsciously, to perceive him as a god. The process had started a long time ago, among the three thousand who had followed Axis out of Gorkenfort to lead the Skraeling mass away from the fort so that Borneheld and the remaining soldiers could escape to Jervois Landing. They had seen him wield the emerald fire, and they had watched five magical winged creatures greet him at the foot of the Icescarp Alps. Once Axis’ command had been ensconced in Sigholt the trend to understand Axis as something other than human or even mortal had continued apace. Surely no mere mortal could wield the power that he did? Surely no mortal power could command the winged creatures as Axis did? Surely no mortal could live in such a magical castle as Sigholt now showed itself to be? Then Axis had led his command south through Achar, defeating the murderer and usurper Borneheld, and had created for them the mighty realm of Tencendor. No mortal, many muttered, could have done all of this.

Slowly but surely, men and women everywhere were starting to worship Axis as their god of choice – the StarMan. Others preferred the calm beauty and the sure deadliness of the Enchantress.

Especially those who still recalled the ancient prayers to Lady Moon.

It was this trend, more than anything else, that had terrified Artor out of His heavenly kingdom and into flesh to try to stop the rot.

Jorge shivered and pulled his blanket closer and listened to the muttered prayers echo about him. Had he ever thought he’d live to see the day when the names of so many gods could be evoked by a force he led? Damn the impulse that had seen him volunteer to lead the command in Jervois Landing! Jorge had not wanted to linger in Carlon after the death of Borneheld and Axis had granted his request to come further north. Now the price of his impetuousness was apparently going to be death, and Jorge suddenly realised that he did not want to die. He might be close to seventy and he may have led a full life, but Jorge still had a lot that he wanted to do.

Jorge considered praying himself, but he did not know who to pray to. His life-long devotion to Artor seemed inconsequential; of what use was a Plough-God here among the ice? Had Artor protected those who had called His name but had still died over the past two years? No, Artor was ineffectual, but Jorge was not yet ready to pray to any of the Star Gods, nor was he prepared to invoke the names of Axis or Azhure to his aid.

So he just sat.

And waited for death.

In the space of a heartbeat, the storm stopped. The sudden silence almost hurt the ears, but it did not cause any gladness. All knew what it meant.

Gorgrael was ready to attack.

High above circled the Gryphon. As soon as the winds had ceased the clouds too had faded away, as if they had needed the howling wind to exist themselves. Timozel had asked Gorgrael for a clear blue sky under which to conduct his massacre – as yet, he still preferred the sunshine to the gloom.

Now he sat on the Gryphon, his years of training as a horseman adapting easily to the creature’s movements. The Gryphon dipped and soared, and screamed with the voice of despair. Timozel turned and to the west saw a mighty army that undulated for leagues in every direction. He fought for a Great Lord, and in the name of that Lord he would …

“Reap remarkable victories,” Timozel whispered, caught in the recurring thrall of his vision. At last, he had found his appointed place. All would be well.

Timozel turned his head slightly. Circle lower, he commanded the creature, and the Gryphon gave a cry as she wheeled through the sky.

There. Timozel smiled in satisfaction. Below him lay the crippled town of Jervois Landing. Many of the buildings were slicked so deep with ice they were almost buried; when he peered closer Timozel could see at least three houses so completely iced over that they were closed to the outside world. His smile deepened. If any people had been inside those houses they would by now have frozen to death. He was well pleased.

Battalions of Skraelings were moving quickly south, outflanking the town. Timozel had spared only a quarter of his army for this attack; the rest of the Skraeling mass he was already pushing south to their destination. Timozel was on a tight schedule; he needed to dispose of what pitiful force Axis had here in less than half a day, then move his army south and then … well, then move them to their hiding place. But he needed to get them there within ten days to be sure of avoiding the force that Axis was sure to send north once he heard of Jervois Landing’s collapse.

Although Gorgrael could recloak the entire northern regions of this land in storms so devastating that no man could survive more than a few minutes, Timozel did not want Axis to face weather that severe. Bitter cold, surely, but nothing that would prevent him finally leading his army north. Timozel very, very much wanted Axis to get through.

We are ready. Timozel shared his thoughts not only with his subcommand – the SkraeBolds and the Skraelings of higher than average intelligence – but also with Gorgrael, eagerly following the course of the excitement with his mind’s eye, deep within his Ice Fortress.

Privately, very privately, Timozel harboured resentment that Gorgrael should remain safely shrouded within his Fortress. Did he not want to face Axis himself? Or … was he afraid of him?

Timozel kept these thoughts very dark and very, very deep.

But he had better things to think of now, namely the killing that awaited him below.

Begin, he ordered.

Ninety Ice Worms moved in first. Men in buildings closest to the northern outskirts of the town heard the sound first, a frightful slithering and screeching as the Worms hunched and scraped their way through the frozen streets.

No-one assayed forth to attack them. Even if they had, archers would have lowered their bows in horror.

Like his Skraelings, Gorgrael had been working on the IceWorms over the past few months. In unrestrained narcissism, he had created all of his creatures with the huge silver eyes that he himself enjoyed.

The only problem, and it had been the problem that had largely frustrated Gorgrael’s attempts to push south to this point, had been that all of his creatures, whether Skraeling or Ice Worm or even SkraeBold, had been terribly vulnerable through their eyes.

Not so now. Now both Skraelings and IceWorms had their heads wrapped in bony armour that left only narrow slits over their eyes. Their vision was somewhat restricted, but it would take a skilled and extremely calm swordsman or archer to deliver a killing thrust.

Behind the IceWorms crept thousands of Skraelings, fully fleshed, equipped with bony protective armour, their mouths hanging open in delicious anticipation of the killing that awaited them.

Calmly, and with the most supreme confidence, the IceWorms crawled to the main buildings where most of the troops were likely to be located. Crouched behind one of the lower windows of the market hall where he was camped, Jorge was dry-mouthed with fear. He knew he was powerless to stop their attack; all he could do for his men was order them away from the windows and to the lower floors.

But what did it matter when it would delay their deaths but a few minutes?

He glanced behind him to the remainder of the Icarii wing. “Get out!” he rasped, “get back to Carlon. You alone will have a chance of escape. Tell your StarMan what you have seen here today. Go!” he shouted. “Do not linger!”

The Wing commander, RuffleCrest JoyFlight, signalled to the other seven Icarii. He did not share Jorge’s belief that they would get back to Carlon. Surely Gorgrael would have Gryphon circling above – and RuffleCrest had seen what a Gryphon could do. But he nodded anyway. Perhaps one or two of them could get back.

They swiftly moved to a rear door and lifted on silent wings into the air. They blinked in the unexpected sunshine, circled for as long as they dared, noting the awesome forces that were crawling through the town and, further west, through the northern Aldeni plains, then they bunched close together for protection and sped south.

To the north Timozel’s eyes narrowed. So. He had expected such a foolish display of courage. Did they really expect to escape unscathed?

SkraeFear, who waited with one of the Skraeling units still outside Jervois Landing, screeched in his mind. Let us destroy them, Lord Timozel! Or send the Gryphon! They can rip them to shreds in seconds!

Fool! Timozel replied and drew on the well of power that Gorgrael had given him to wrap SkraeFear’s mind and body with bands of cold steel. He could feel, if not hear, SkraeFear scream far below him. How had Gorgrael managed with such incompetents previously?

He touched the minds of a pack of thirty Gryphon circling to the west and directed them after the Icarii. But I want one or two of them to escape, he ordered, and he felt the Gryphon minds accept and agree. At least the Gryphon understood the principle of unquestioning obedience.