Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

“No. They disappeared the day before Axis left to march north. No-one knows where they are. No-one.”

Disturbed, Faraday thought for a few minutes. Had she upset them so badly with her recriminations and tears that they had vanished? She had been sure that the Sentinels would stay with Axis.

Azhure remembered Dru-Beorh’s report. “And there is further worrying news, Faraday. Moryson and Gilbert have been seen travelling east. Be careful. I cannot but think that they might prove a danger to you.”

And a warning is the best I can do for her, Azhure thought, if Axis thinks an armed escort would be inappropriate.

Faraday, still concerned over the disappearance of the Sentinels, brushed the matter of Moryson and Gilbert aside. “I cannot think that either of them would do much except rant at me, Azhure. But thank you for the warning. Now,” she handed Caelum back to his mother and smiled. “I have a wonder to show you and wondrous people for you to meet. But I think you must leave the hounds here by the fire.”

As they’d sat talking the idea had slowly grown in Faraday’s mind that she might take Azhure to see the Sacred Grove. She wondered if the Horned Ones, or even the Mother, might object, but in the end Faraday decided that it was her decision.

“Come,” she said, standing, and stretched out her hand. Carefully stepping over the sleeping hounds, Faraday led Azhure and her son into the Sacred Grove.

Both Azhure and Caelum were transfixed with wonder as Faraday’s power then the emerald light of the Mother surrounded them.

Mama! Caelum cried, leaning forward and stretching his hands out as far as he could.

Azhure’s arms tightened automatically about her son but otherwise she paid him no attention. While healing Azhure’s back, Faraday had described to her the sensation of walking through the emerald light then watching it gradually shift and change until it resolved itself into the trees and sky of the Sacred Grove.

Now Azhure experienced it for herself.

Without knowing exactly when the transition took place, Azhure found herself wandering down a path carpeted with soft pine needles, trees to either side of her, the sky above filled with stars reeling through their eternal dance. She stared at them, thinking she could actually see them move.

Finally lowering her eyes, Azhure glanced to one side and saw that Faraday wore a gown such as she had never seen before. It reminded her of the emerald light as it had darkened and shifted and changed; when Faraday walked, the colours in the gown shimmered from emerald to blue to violet to brown, then back to emerald again.

Faraday herself seemed changed as well. Far more powerful, far more sure, far, far more lovely.

“Are you certain that I should step these paths?” Azhure asked, unsure about her reception here. “The Avar refused to accept me, and their Banes,” she thought of the coolness Barsarbe had consistently displayed towards her, “might be furious that I now visit their Sacred Grove. They did not like my violence.”

But Faraday did not seem perturbed. “I will accept responsibility,” she said. “Now, hush. See? We enter the Grove itself. You will know soon enough how the Sacred Horned Ones regard you.”

When Faraday had pulled Axis into the Grove to witness Raum’s transformation she had felt almost instantly the resentment that emanated from the trees. They had tolerated him, for Faraday’s sake, but they certainly did not like him. But Faraday felt none of this now; instead she experienced the love and exultation that usually enveloped her when she stepped the paths to the Grove.

“Say nothing until you are spoken to,” Faraday said, and Azhure nodded, hoping that Caelum would behave himself. Never before had she been exposed to such power as she felt here, and it awed and frightened her. As they stepped into the centre of the Grove, giant trees rearing on either side, Azhure felt strange eyes watching her from under their dark branches.

She looked straight ahead … and jumped. Walking towards her was the most magnificent – and most frightening – creature Azhure had ever seen. With the splendid head of a stag atop the muscular man’s body, this was one of the Sacred Horned Ones, the magical creatures that male Avar Banes transformed into when they died.

Was Raum here?

But this Horned One was not Raum, for he was not a complete stag, but he did have a noble silver pelt that extended over his shoulders and halfway down his back, and Azhure instinctively realised that he was among the senior of the Horned Ones.

“Greetings, Tree Friend,” the silver pelt said, and leaned forward to rub cheeks with Faraday.

Azhure started at the sound of normal speech and managed to compose herself only the instant before the Horned One turned her way.

“Sacred One,” Faraday said. “I have brought my friend, Azhure SunSoar, to meet with you. I hope you will accept her presence here in the Sacred Grove.”

The silver pelt stepped before Azhure and stared into her eyes. His gaze was cold and hard, and Azhure felt herself tremble, but she did not drop her eyes.

She could feel Caelum holding his breath against her body.

“I know who you are,” the silver pelt said, his voice puzzled. “I know you!”

This was the woman for whom the StarMan had betrayed Tree Friend. But this was not why he was puzzled. Slowly he lifted a hand to Azhure’s face and traced his middle three fingers down her forehead.

“You have already been accepted into the Grove and the company of the Horned Ones,” he said, with surprise.

“Already accepted?” Faraday frowned. Acceptance was reserved only for Banes of the Avar and those children they brought to the Mother.

“Oh!” Azhure said, memories flooding her mind. Her hand, slowly turning Hagen over until she could see the knife protruding from his belly. His blood steaming in pools on the floor. Shra, the Avar girl Raum had brought back from Fernbrake Lake, scrambling from the bed, dipping her fingers into Hagen’s blood and drawing three lines down Azhure’s forehead. “Accepted,” she had lisped. And none had known what she had meant.

“Accepted,” Azhure whispered, remembering, and shared her memory with Faraday and the silver pelt.

The Horned One smiled – and, with his great square yellowing teeth and cold black eyes it was a dreadful sight. “A sacrifice was accepted on your behalf. Be well and welcomed to the sacred paths, Azhure.”

Faraday was puzzled by the distress on Azhure’s face. “Azhure? Why so concerned? You have been granted a great honour. Few are welcomed so freely to the Sacred Groves.”

Azhure blinked at Faraday, then turned back to the Horned One. Her mouth trembled. “Oh, Sacred One, I am aware of the honour that you do me. But it troubles me that an act of wanton violence, violence which has turned many of the Avar against me, should prove the deed that gains me entrance to these sacred paths."

The Horned One lifted a hand and cupped Azhure’s face between his fingers.

“Azhure. I was only surprised because I knew you, and I only know people who have been accepted into the Grove. Shra, who will grow to be one of the most powerful Banes the Avar have ever birthed, recognised your worth. Hagen’s death as such did not make you acceptable to us –”

“Much as it may have further endeared you to us,” said a second Horned One who had appeared at the silver pelt’s shoulder. Behind him four or five others had materialised from beyond the dark trees.

“– for his death was merely the method by which one of the greatest Avar Banes yet born chose to accept you as worthy to step the sacred paths to this Grove.”

“Worthy? Why am I worthy?”

Faraday smiled. Despite what Azhure had learned about herself since she had fled Smyrton, she still found it hard to believe that she was worthy of all the attention, regard and love that had come her way.

“Worthy?” The silver pelt’s smile faded and his fingers tightened momentarily about Azhure’s face. “Why are you worthy to step the paths into this Grove? You are worthy simply because of who you are, Azhure. You are a Sacred Daughter. You have drunk the blood of the Stag. You have saved the lives of many Avar – despite their ungratefulness. The Sacred Grove thanks you for your actions at the Earth Tree Grove. You saved Raum’s life and helped him and Shra to escape the Smyrton villagers. But most of all, Azhure, you are worthy because of the ring you wear and the Circle you complete.”

He lifted Azhure’s hand and held it for all the other Horned Ones to see. “The Circle of Stars has come home; Shra saw the power within you as well – no wonder she accepted you. Hagen’s death was merely a convenient occasion to formally announce the acceptance, it was not the reason she accepted you … or why we accept you. You have great power, Azhure, and deep compassion, and you have aided the Avar and you have aided Faraday and will continue to aid her. Because of all these things, you are beloved and welcomed into the Sacred Grove.”

“And,” he let go of Azhure’s face and hand and picked Caelum out of her arms, “your son is welcomed too. Welcome, Caelum, and may your feet always find the paths to the Sacred Grove.”

Caelum, awed but not frightened, submitted to the silver pelt’s embrace, overcoming his awe to thrust a curious finger into the Horned One’s face so that the silver pelt had to avert his eye to prevent it being poked.

“Caelum!” Azhure muttered, embarrassed, but wondering at the name the Horned One had given the Enchantress’ ring; what did it mean? And what ‘circle’ did she complete? She opened her mouth to ask, but the Horned One forestalled her.

“Your son bears your blood, and he was conceived at Beltide under the Song of the Earth Tree. He will wield much of your power and he will be as compassionate. But, Azhure –”

The Horned One’s voice hardened. Azhure paled at the sudden transformation, remembering how the Horned Ones had terrified Axis the first time he had come to the Grove in a dream vision. She realised that these Horned Ones could kill at the snap of a finger and with considerably less effort.

“Azhure, never, never, bring those children you carry within you to this Grove. Their feet are not welcome on the sacred paths.”

“But they were conceived at Beltide, too,” Azhure said, more puzzled and frightened than defensive. What was wrong with these babes?