Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy


Azhure murmured in her sleep and rolled over. Awakened, worried, Axis watched her carefully, but Azhure slipped back silently into her dreams, and Axis closed his eyes and relaxed.

For a heartbeat nothing happened, then the moonlight that rippled over the waves flickered, faltered, then coalesced in one spot on the water a few paces in front of Yr.

“I thank you,” she whispered, and she dived into the water.

She swam downwards for a very long time, following the silver path of the moon. Her hair trailed behind her, glowing silver now itself, and her sharp blue eyes were open wide as she peered into the depths. On either side of her the water deepened from blue to indigo and then to black as she swam deeper and deeper into the mystery of Grail Lake.

She swam deeper than any human could, but then Yr was not human.

She swam longer than anyone had a right to without breathing, but then the Prophet had imbued her with his strength and his breath.

She swam even when others would have given up, sure that they were lost, but Yr believed, and that would see her through.

And always the silvery light of the moon showed Yr her path and guided her into the unknown depths of the lake.

The Charonites spoke of the legend when gods even more ancient than the Star Gods had made a gift of the Sacred Lakes. In a storm that lasted many days and nights, fire rained down from the sky and almost blasted all life from the land. When those few hardy souls who had survived emerged from the deep caves that had sheltered them, they had found lakes where before there were none, and mountains where before there had been only plains. They gazed at the lakes in awe, for then their waters were clearer than they are now, and in the depths they could see the vague outlines of what lay there.

It was said that the ancients themselves lay sleeping in the depths of the Sacred Lakes.

Now these legends were remembered only by the Charonites.

But Yr was privy to knowledge that other Charonites were not, and she believed, and so she swam on.

Just when she thought her strength would finally fail her, she saw lights glowing in the dark far below her. With her goal so near she pushed on with added resolve, despite the fact that her muscles were aching and weak and her lungs screamed for lack of air.

The Prophecy was so close, so close, to achieving fulfilment that Yr swam on, empowered for the final few strokes with the certainty of eventual success.

There!

The Repository lay directly below her, massive, almost totally buried in the silt. Only its smooth spherical top broke the surface of the lake bed, ringed around its outer surface with soft lights glowing in an infinity of different hues. Its skin was smooth and grey, and Yr knew that if it was exposed to strong light it would appear as silvery as the Prophet’s suit or her hair as it floated out behind her.

Yr swam over the Repository, searching its immense surface for the opening that she knew must be there.

Ah! This must be it! Yr ran her hands over the smooth surface of the closed entrance, finding a dome of multicoloured gems. Drawing on the instructions the Prophet gave her three thousand years ago, Yr carefully struck individual gems with her fingers, listening to the chimes they gave off, revelling in the beauty of the music they made.

Suddenly the music ceased and the dome sank below the surface of the outer skin of the Repository. In the next instant a circular door slid open and a pool of blackness appeared beneath her and, grateful beyond measure that soon she would be able to draw breath again, Yr gave a last powerful kick with her legs and dropped into it.

As soon as her feet had passed the level of the outer skin the circular door closed silently behind her and, praise the Prophet, the next moment the water drained out of the chamber she had entered. Scrambling to her feet, Yr stood for a very long time, hands on knees, gulping in sweet fresh air, her body recovering from its arduous dive.

Now that she was finally here Yr forgot her sadness and her regrets. As her body responded to the air and rest, a sense of sweet excitement filled her.

She straightened and looked about. The chamber was small and plain, but in the wall across from her was cut another circular door. She walked slowly over and spoke in a strange language, which the Prophet had told her was the language of the ancients, and the door slid open. A softly lit corridor stretched into infinity before her and, confident and joyous, Yr began to walk down it.

She continued for a long time and passed many strange things – chambers, caverns, closets and yet more corridors – but Yr knew her destination and she was not tempted to explore these other wonders.

She was going to the great Well of Power in the very heart of the Repository.

After walking some time Yr heard a dulcet song, hummed with almost breathless intensity, and she knew that she approached the Well. The magic that the Prophet had told her the ancient gods had once commanded fuelled the Well of Power, but Yr had not thought that it would sing so beautifully.

Or with such deadliness.

She paused before an arched doorway, open and ringed with light. Inside she could hear the Well sing. Not even the Star Gate, she thought, sang this beautifully.

The chamber was circular, as was so much of this Repository, and in the very centre sat the Well. Yr was surprised, for she had thought it would be a massive thing, but it was relatively small, about twice the circumference of a thickened body. Its walls stood waist high, and glowed golden with the Power they contained.

She walked over to the Well and stood there a while, staring at the golden Power within it, listening to its music. Then, sighing, she stepped forward so her lower body leaned against the walls, and plunged her arms and face into the Power that called to her.

When Yr surfaced the four watchers thought she had not changed at all. But when she stepped forth, they saw her blue eyes glittering strangely, brilliant with Power.

All longed to touch her, but they knew that to do so would be death. So they smiled sadly, nodded and silently filed away.

Yr, after retrieving her gown, followed at a distance of four or five paces.

They began the slow walk east.

12 Farewell (#ulink_9f780d5e-c810-53cf-b8ce-5742a7b878c5)

The crowds had lined the streets of Carlon since early morning. Today the great lord Axis, StarMan of all Tencendor, would lead his army north to defeat Gorgrael the Destroyer. Once he had fulfilled his destiny, all would live great and good lives, and there would be laughter and joy for time without end.

The air of excitement grew almost unbearable. Colourful flags fluttered from houses and shops alike, people leaned out windows, and street musicians attempted, in vain, to keep the crowd entertained.

The army waited in orderly units in the fields outside the city walls. Any air of excitement was notably absent among these men, for most were hardened veterans of the wars fought against Gorgrael and with each other over the past two years. But each and every one was proud to be there, and prepared to fight to the death for his StarMan. The core of the army was the twelve hundred former Axe-Wielders who had fought with and behind Axis for many years. Their numbers were augmented by a variety of units, ranging from Ysgryff’s mounted knights, the softly chiming Ravensbundmen, the infantry of Achar, militia from Arcen, sundry swords, pike and spearmen, to Azhure’s squads of archers. All in all, not counting the Icarii Strike Force that would not fly out for another day yet, the army numbered some thirty-thousand men. All were impressively uniformed in grey, and all wore the blood-red blazing sun on their breasts.

The uniforms, like the emptied laundry hampers, were another of the minor miracles that had swept Carlon over recent days. Axis had always strived to have his men-at-arms clothed uniformly, and ever since Azhure had arrived in Sigholt over a year ago she had been directing needlewomen to sew suitable outfits. But in recent months Axis’ army had grown to huge proportions, especially with the addition of seven or eight thousand men who had joined from Borneheld’s defeated army, and there had not been the time or the thread to give every man a uniform.

Yet when each soldier had woken this morning, there at the foot of his bedrolls was a neatly folded uniform. Each one a perfect fit, each one a perfect match, each perfectly emblazoned for the rank of the man who would wear it, and each one perfectly unexplainable.

When a messenger, breathless with excitement, brought news of the miracle to the StarMan as he sat at breakfast with the Enchantress, Axis turned and looked at Azhure.

He raised his eyebrows, although he kept his face carefully neutral.

Azhure flushed and stared out the window. After a moment she spoke, her voice quiet.

“I had a dream last night. I dreamed I saw a glittering army arrayed in the fields outside Carlon. I dreamed they all wore perfectly matched grey uniforms, all with your sun blazing across their chests. And in the dream I bewailed the fact that there had not been enough time to fit out the entire army identically.”

Axis stared at her for a very long time. “Then pray dream me a great victory,” he said finally, his voice hoarse, and Azhure gazed at him, her eyes deep with longing.

“Then pray me the power to control my dreams,” she said, “and I will do just that.”

The Icarii Strike Force, uniformed in black, lined the balconies and parapets of the palace, their faces impassive, their wings extended slightly to ruffle in the breeze. They waited to farewell their Strike-Leader and his ground force, but they would join them soon. Several Wings had already flown to the lower Western Ranges to scout the north as best they could, trying to find the horde of Skraelings that they knew must be in Aldeni somewhere.

Inside the palace Azhure stood with Rivkah and Cazna in the stableyard, the three women waiting to farewell their husbands. Cazna, not yet nineteen and the horror of not knowing Belial’s fate at Bedwyr Fort still fresh in her mind, was trembling as she fought to keep her emotions under control.

Azhure reached over and took one of her hands. She was fond of Cazna, and not only because, as Ysgryff’s daughter, she was one of her new-found family – Niah, Azhure’s mother, had been the elder sister of Ysgryff.

“Come now, Cazna, smile for your husband. You should not leave him with the memory of your tears.”

Cazna’s mouth jerked in a tight smile. She loved Belial desperately, and was terrified of the danger that he now rode to face. She wondered how Azhure and Rivkah could be so composed.