Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

The other two women had said their private farewells to their husbands earlier; Rivkah was now formally married to Magariz, for they had taken their marriage vows before their friends the day after Axis and Azhure had married. None of the witnesses had realised that the smile both Rivkah and Magariz wore was not only because of their love for each other, but also because this was for them a renewal of their vows. Long ago, as impetuous teenagers, they had bribed a Brother of the Seneschal to marry them the day before Rivkah’s father forced her north to marry Duke Searlas of Ichtar.

Azhure squeezed Cazna’s hand reassuringly as the girl composed her face. She was a beautiful girl, greatly resembling Azhure, and would mature into yet greater loveliness. Azhure prayed that Belial gave the girl the love she deserved.

Boots sounded in the doorway a few paces away and all three women tensed. Axis and his senior ground force commanders, Belial, Magariz and Ho’Demi, stepped into the courtyard, cloaks flaring as they pulled on their riding gloves, their faces grim and silent. Arne followed a pace behind them, his eyes on Axis’ back. Waiting for them was a small escort of a hundred mounted men-at-arms carrying standards and trumpets – they would make a good enough showing to please the crowds outside.

As Ho’Demi walked to his horse, Azhure glanced at the Ravensbund Chief, envying his wife Sa’Kuya who would be riding into war alongside her husband.

Axis paused by the group of three women. He and Azhure had said all they had to say to each other, but Axis was not going to waste another opportunity to drink in her beauty.

He did not know if he would ever see her again.

“I wish you well,” was all he said as he leaned forward to kiss her briefly on the mouth in farewell.

And I you.

Magariz farewelled Rivkah just as briefly, although Belial lingered to murmur to Cazna. She nodded and smiled for him, then Belial joined the others at their horses. They mounted swiftly, the horses’ hooves skittering impatiently on the cobbles of the courtyard, and Axis turned Belaguez for a final look at Azhure.

You will prevail! she whispered with her mind’s voice and Axis stared at her, then nodded briefly.

I cannot wait until I see you again.

Then he swung Belaguez’s head for the archway into the streets beyond and dug his heels into the stallion’s flanks. Snorting with excitement, Belaguez plunged through the archway, the other riders close behind, the cheers of the crowds already rising to greet them.

For some time Azhure stood there, her heart beating wildly in her breast, then she turned back to the doorway. She would go straight to her apartments, she thought, for she could not bear to watch him ride away.

When she lifted her eyes, Azhure saw that StarDrifter stood in the doorway, staring at her.

13 Upstairs Downstairs (#ulink_27d139e1-d236-563b-b710-4d030c2e47f4)

Faraday and Embeth travelled slowly to Tare, seeing only a few sheep and pig herders along the way. Faraday stayed only two days in Tare. Embeth pleaded with her to stay longer, but memories of Axis were too vivid, and Faraday wanted to escape them as soon as she could. Besides, the further east she went, the more persistent became the feeling that she should begin to plant the seedlings from the Enchanted Wood. So Faraday bid a tearful Embeth farewell and set off for the Silent Woman Woods with her two donkeys.

This was the first time Faraday had ever been alone, and, day by day, loneliness became an increasingly crushing burden that she could scarcely endure. Every night, as she sat by her solitary fire, Faraday had to fight not to give in to tears.

“Mother!” she muttered to herself one night. “You will have to spend months planting out the seedlings in the lonely reaches of western Tencendor. Will you fret like a baby for its teat the whole way?”

On the morning of her third day out from Tare, Faraday’s isolation was relieved by the unexpected company of three Icarii Enchanters; but even their company proved a two-edged sword.

The Enchanters hailed her from the air, then dropped down to speak with her. Faraday recognised them from the eight days she had spent with Axis in Carlon – BrightStar FeatherNest, StarShine EvenHeart and PaleStar SnapWing. They chatted an hour or more, the Enchanters wondering why she was travelling eastwards so alone.

“I merely play my part in the Prophecy,” Faraday said, and the Enchanters nodded. They knew Faraday was Tree Friend.

The Enchanters were on their way back to Carlon from the Bracken Ranges where they had been involved in the recovery of the Icarii cities, and they extended to Faraday a gracious invitation to stay with the Icarii should she pass through the Ranges – or the Minaret Peaks, as they called the ranges now.

Faraday enjoyed the company of the three Enchanters, but was nevertheless glad when they made their goodbyes and flew west towards Tare. Their presence recalled too vividly the false happiness of those eight days in Carlon and, in the end, they reminded her all too clearly of what she’d lost.

On the afternoon of the fifth day out from Tare, as Faraday approached the Silent Woman Woods, she was gripped by such a black and all-consuming depression she had to consciously force herself on. For the past two days she’d lost all will to eat, and the only reason she had kept moving was because she knew that if she stayed in camp she would roll up in her blankets one night and never wake to see the dawn.

Some fifty paces from the dark tree line, Faraday stood, leaning on one of the donkeys for support, gazing blankly at the Woods. The wind was cold, biting through her cloak, but Faraday scarcely felt it. She was tired, very tired, and she tried to decide whether or not she would camp outside the Woods and enter in the morning, or risk walking through the trees in the darkness. Already the sun was starting to sink into the clouds on the western horizon.

It was the donkeys who decided her. The animal she leaned on put one hoof forward, then another, forcing Faraday to take a step, while the one behind her butted the woman’s back with its head, pushing her forward yet another step. So, haltingly, the donkeys hauled, pushed and shoved her into the Silent Woman Woods.

The trees comforted Faraday the instant she stepped beneath their shelter. When Jack had brought her here so long ago the trees had shown her a vision of what she believed at the time to be Axis’ death. That vision had horrified her, but the Song the trees now sang for her as she walked down the path towards the Keep was one of joy and compassion, haunting in its beauty yet passionate and full-blooded.

As soon as Faraday heard the Song a smile lit her face and her loneliness and depression dissipated. Within fifty paces her steps became light and she let go the mane of the donkey she had been holding.

“You are beautiful!” she cried, clasping her hands and swinging about in a full circle of delight. “Beautiful!”

One day, she thought rapturously, much of eastern Tencendor will sing like this!

When, as BattleAxe, Axis, his Axe-Wielders and Brother Gilbert had ridden through these woods they had found them dark and close, sharp branches blocking the path to scratch faces and hands, roots humping out of the ground to snag at their horses’ hooves. Axis may have been the StarMan, but at that time he was still encased by the lies of the Seneschal, and he was accompanied by the loathsome Gilbert who would never break free of the lies that consumed him. The Woods had only allowed the four men passage after they had seized their axes within a hundred paces of entering them.

But the woman who now skipped down the path towards the Keep was Faraday Tree Friend, beloved of the Mother and of all creatures and beings of the Sacred Grove. So the trees sang joyously for her and the Woods appeared as spacious and as full of light and as mysteriously inviting as the Enchanted Woods themselves.

Axis and his companions had ridden for almost a day to reach the Keep, but Faraday thought she had been walking through the Woods for only an hour or so before she saw the golden glow of Cauldron Lake through the trees.

She paused in wonder at the Lake’s edge, leaning down to run her fingers through such magical golden water that left her hand as dry as before she had dipped it in. A quarter of the way around the Lake sat the pale, yellow-stoned Keep, and Faraday smiled, for a warm glow gleamed from the windows and the door stood invitingly open. Even from this distance she felt that the Keep not only expected her, but yearned for her company.

At the Keep Faraday unpacked and unsaddled the donkeys and they trotted around the back, there, no doubt, to find a warm stable and oats already waiting for them. Faraday stepped into the Keep and stopped dead, breathless with wonder.

Both Timozel and Axis had described its interior to her, and Faraday knew that what the Keep presented to her was vastly different to the interior it had shown the men. The huge, circular room was furnished comfortably with deep armchairs and couches, upholstered and cushioned in jewelled fabrics; tables and chairs, bookcases, chests and cabinets of rich amberwood; lamps and candlesticks of shining brass; patchwork comforters and patterned rugs scattered ankle-deep. To one side was a four-poster bed with a crazily stitched quilt thrown over it and feather pillows piled at its head. On the other side of the chamber a kitchen range glowed, the kettle only just beginning to sing, and a table set for one and laden with food in front of it. In the very centre of the room a well-stoked fire crackled cheerfully on a round hearth, the copper hood above drawing away all traces of smoke. To one side stood a large box piled high with pine cones and knots of apple wood.

Faraday wandered further into the Keep, her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide, and felt utterly and completely loved.

For a week the Keep comforted and kept her. It was a time of deep healing, a time when she replenished her courage and fortitude. When she’d arrived that first night Faraday had eaten, then crept into bed fully clothed – so tired she could not be bothered disrobing – and had not awoken for almost eighteen hours. When she did awake it was to find that she was wearing a warm flannel nightgown and pink bedsocks, and that the kettle once again sang atop the range; next to it sat a deep pan of scrambled eggs and bacon warming for her breakfast. Toast and milk and pats of rich golden butter on thick white china plates sat on the table.

That day Faraday had done nothing but eat and sleep – a fresh meal ready for her whenever she awoke from a nap – but subsequent days she had spent in the Sacred Grove and Ur’s nursery.

Today, the eighth since she had arrived, Faraday intended to spend luxuriating in the comfort that the Keep provided her. Perhaps she would explore the upper levels and read, if she could, some of the ancient Icarii texts that Ogden and Veremund said were secreted there. Faraday knew she would have to leave the Keep soon. She had now learned almost all the names of the seedlings in Ur’s enchanting nursery, and once the last one was committed to memory she would resume her journey east – and begin to plant the Enchanted Wood back into this world.

But for now Faraday squirmed deeper into the armchair and wriggled her toes with sensual abandon before the fire. She slipped into a doze, only barely aware of the Keep about her.

Suddenly she blinked and snapped awake.

She could feel Azhure very, very close.

“Azhure?” Faraday said, rubbing her eyes fully awake. “Azhure, is that you?”

She was puzzled, but not in the least afraid.

Almost as depressed as Faraday had been when she arrived at the Silent Woman Woods, Azhure asked Hesketh, the captain of the palace guard, to row her across to Spiredore. Azhure wanted nothing more than to escape the confines of the palace at Carlon. The royal apartments, so beautiful and comforting when she had shared them with Axis, were now lonely and cold.

StarDrifter had been a constant companion. He was, apart from FreeFall who was already on the Island of Mist and Memory, the most senior of the Icarii present in southern Tencendor and, as such, was involved in much of the discussions and decisions regarding the Icarii nation’s move south. As grandfather to Caelum and to the unborn twins and as a powerful Enchanter, StarDrifter also spent time training all three of Axis and Azhure’s children. Those hours, in the evening or early morning, when StarDrifter came to the Jade Chamber to sit by Azhure’s side, place his hands on her swollen belly and sing to the twins, were uncomfortable ones for Azhure. She would recall Axis’ plea that if anything should happen to him she should marry StarDrifter, and Azhure wondered if Axis had said anything to his father. StarDrifter’s face and thoughts gave nothing away and always he behaved with the utmost politeness when he was so intimately close to her, yet Azhure could never quite dismiss the thought that StarDrifter somehow hoped that one day his hands might touch her more intimately yet.

All in all, Azhure thought as she drifted across Grail Lake, it would be a pleasure to spend a relaxing afternoon in Spiredore. There was the possibility that WolfStar might appear, but Azhure did not particularly want to see him, and she thought that if she made her feelings known to Spiredore when she first stepped inside, then WolfStar might stay – or be kept – away.

Azhure carried Caelum with her, for over these past days she had not spent as much time with her delightful son as she had wished. The small row boat was also packed with the warm bodies of seven of the Alaunt hounds, including Sicarius. They had padded silently after her down the corridors of the palace and had leaped equally silently, but with discernible determination, into the row boat, eliciting a string of curses from Hesketh – who had then, embarrassed, begged Azhure’s forgiveness.

Poor man, Azhure thought as they neared Spiredore’s pier, he looks to be in the grip of an even blacker mood than me. A week ago, Yr and the rest of the Sentinels had disappeared and Azhure, as Axis and everyone else close to the Prophecy, had worried about their abrupt and secretive departure. Perhaps Hesketh, deeply emotionally involved with Yr, had worried the worst, and Azhure thought she might ask him to share a midday meal with her one day. Perhaps he only needed to talk.