Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

“Say again what you saw, RuffleCrest.”

RuffleCrest bowed his head in shame. He sat at the great circular table in the Privy Chamber, and about him sat Crest-Leaders, Princes, Chieftains, Enchanters and, halfway around the table from him, the StarMan himself, the Enchantress by his side. He had never been in such exalted company before, and he could feel their power keenly.

And, to his utter disgrace, he could hardly remember a thing.

He did not know that much the same had happened to SpikeFeather TrueSong when Axis had recreated him. Spike-Feather and his Wing had been returning to Sigholt from a scouting mission over Hsingard when they had been attacked by a pack of Gryphon; only SpikeFeather and EvenSong, Axis’ sister, had survived, yet SpikeFeather had been so badly injured that by the time EvenSong had got him home to Sigholt he had been heartbeats away from death. But he had been lucky, as RuffleCrest had been, for Axis SunSoar was there to greet him and to recreate him.

SpikeFeather had remembered nothing of the attack that had all but killed him.

“I can recall so little,” RuffleCrest said, and to one side FarSight CutSpur, the senior Crest-Leader of the Icarii Strike Force, leaned forward and motioned irritably for RuffleCrest to speak up.

RuffleCrest’s face reddened in mortification, and he repeated his words in a louder voice. “I can recall so little, StarMan.” In his lap, hidden by the table, his hands twisted around and about each other. “I can recall Jervois Landing being struck by an ice tempest so appalling that four of my Wing were frozen mid-air. I can remember day after day huddled about fires, unable even to step outside for fear of instant death in the winds. I remember …” his voice faltered and FarSight frowned. RuffleCrest hurriedly cleared his throat and went on. “I remember a sudden calm, and I remember Earl Jorge shouting at me to fly to Carlon with a message for you, but I cannot remember what that message was. I am ashamed to admit my incompetence,” he finished on a whisper. “I should have died with my command.”

Axis stood up, remembering SpikeFeather’s experience. He walked about the table, his commanding presence pulling every eye to him.

RuffleCrest blinked, awed that this powerful man should regard him so kindly.

“RuffleCrest,” Axis said as he reached the birdman. “It is hardly your fault that you do not recall. I probably muddled your memory when I recreated you, and if anyone should writhe so in mortification it should be I, not you.”

“You saved my life, StarMan.”

“Aye, that I did,” Axis said, placing a restraining hand on RuffleCrest’s shoulder to prevent him from rising. “And because of the life that currently suffuses you, I will be able to recall the memory of what happened for all gathered in this chamber. A small enchantment, RuffleCrest, do not tense so.”

But RuffleCrest had tensed in excitement rather than nervousness. He would trust the StarMan with his life – had done so – and if the StarMan could help him recall what everyone about this table needed to know, then RuffleCrest would be indebted to him twice over.

Axis stood behind RuffleCrest, resting both his hands on the birdman’s shoulders, and began to sing. All the six Enchanters present recognised the Song of Recall that he sang, but it was sung with such consummate skill and power that most were left agape with astonishment, even StarDrifter. Every time his son demonstrated his power it left StarDrifter almost breathless, sometimes with pride, oftentimes with envy.

The air over the centre of the table shimmered and formed a grey haze. Everyone’s eyes turned from Axis to the vision appearing before them. In the grey haze appeared the form of Jorge, twisting away from the window as he shouted at RuffleCrest to get his Wing out of Jervois Landing. Every military commander in the room, Axis and Azhure among them, involuntarily winced at the fear and desperation on Jorge’s face. Perhaps Jorge had erred in staying by Borneheld’s side for so long, but he was an exceptional commander and a brave man, and if so much fear twisted his features and clouded his eyes then it surely meant that Jorge knew his death was close.

Then the view shifted and changed, and the watchers flew with RuffleCrest as he lifted the remaining seven of his Wing out of the building and circled briefly above the town.

“Mother!” Belial cried as he saw what horror invaded the town.

Of them all, only RuffleCrest did not see, for Axis had worked the enchantment so that the birdman would not re-live the horror that had almost killed him.

They flew with RuffleCrest as he led his Wing south, and each and every one of the watchers paled when the Wing was attacked by the Gryphon. As they saw with RuffleCrest’s eye the birdwoman explode in a shower of red spray, Axis cut off the enchantment. They had all seen enough.

He glanced at Azhure. Although pale, she seemed composed.

RuffleCrest looked about the table. “Did it work?” he asked, puzzled by the distress evident on the faces about him.

Axis patted his shoulder. “Yes, RuffleCrest, it worked well. You have done remarkable duty in bringing us this message, and for your bravery I thank you and honour you.”

RuffleCrest flushed with pride, but he could also hear dismissal in the words, and knew that the commanders in this room would prefer to discuss his message privately.

He stood, and Axis took his hand and arm briefly. “You will need to rest, RuffleCrest. Your body and spirit still have to heal after the trauma you have endured.”

RuffleCrest saluted Axis, then the commanders about the table, then he turned and left the room. All could feel his relief as he finally slipped through the door.

“Well, my friends?” Axis said.

Belial took a deep breath. “Jervois Landing would have been destroyed in under half an hour with the force that invaded it.”

“We could all see from the aerial views,” Magariz said, “how the canals were frozen and how the Skraelings and Ice Worms had invaded the town from just about every avenue. Neither Jorge nor his command would have been able to resist.”

“And Jorge knew that,” Azhure said. “He knew he was going to die. I am glad for his sake that RuffleCrest managed to get through.”

Axis sat back down. “How long ago?” he asked. “How long ago did Jervois Landing fall? FarSight, how long would it take for someone in RuffleCrest’s condition to fly south to the Western Ranges?”

FarSight thought. “Perhaps two or three days, StarMan. He would hardly have rested, so desperate would he have been to escape as far as he could from the Gryphon.”

“No rest?” Belial was amazed. How could a birdman, almost crippled, fly for two or three days without rest?

“All birdmen have deep reserves of stamina, far more than humans,” replied Hover Eye Black Wing, one of the senior Crest-Leaders present. “Besides, there would have been a wind at his back. Much of the time RuffleCrest would have drifted in the air currents, almost asleep.”

“So,” Axis said, focusing everyone’s attention back on the critical issue. “Four days ago at most Jervois Landing was attacked and destroyed by a massive Skraeling force. They must have moved –”

“Axis,” Magariz interrupted. “Can you recall that vision with RuffleCrest gone?”

Axis nodded.

“There was something about the Skraelings that I saw when RuffleCrest was in the air. Can you recall it?”

Magariz’s voice was urgent, and Axis quickly recalled the vision of Jervois Landing and its surroundings, half of the Skraeling force still massed outside the town, the other half penetrating deeply between the houses.

“Yes,” Magariz said. “Yes! Axis, my friends. Look at the Skraeling force. What is it that is so different about them?”

“Well,” Azhure began, “the Skraelings themselves are different. Axis and I saw Skraelings in Hsingard that looked like this. Fully fleshed, almost armoured with those bony protuberances. Magariz, we told you about this.”

“Yes, yes, I know of that, but this is not what I mean,” Magariz said. “Come now, surely you can see it?”

Understanding suddenly replaced the confusion on Axis’ face. “By the Stars, Magariz! That is not a mass of Skraelings at all. Look, here and here and here,” his finger stabbed into the grey vision as it hung over the table, “they are formed into regular units. This is an army under tight discipline, not the chaos that we have been used to previously.”

“Yes,” Magariz said. “Gorgrael has got himself a good WarLord, it seems.”

“I cannot imagine any of his SkraeBolds effecting this remarkable transformation,” Axis said, frowning as he thought this through.

Azhure suddenly remembered WolfStar’s comment about the Traitor of the third verse of the Prophecy having already made his move. She chewed her lip anxiously. She had yet to tell Axis of the encounter and resolved to do so this evening. Had the Traitor done this? And if so, who was he?

“Look!” FarSight cried, living up to his name. “Look to the west. This is not the main force attacking Jervois Landing at all, but merely a detachment from the force that is already moving south into Aldeni!”

Everyone looked to where he pointed. Axis went grey with shock. A massive column (and column again, not a seething mass) of Skraelings and Ice Worms were slowly moving across the frozen system of canals.

“Are there any more shocks for me?” he asked, desperate to end the hateful vision, but only after they had gleaned all the information from it they could.

For a few minutes longer they stared into the visionary landscape before them, then, one by one, they shook their heads. RuffleCrest had not circled for long; it was a miracle that his mind had stored this much information.

“Well,” Axis said as he stopped the enchantment and the vision faded from view. “We march. It is all we can do.”