Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

“They were conceived well beyond the Avarinheim, and they do not share your compassion, Azhure. Beware of them, Daughter, for they may one day do you and yours great harm.”

Beware? Azhure paled until her face was almost white, her eyes great and dark. Faraday stepped forward and put her hand on Azhure’s arm.

“Now, I have a garden to show you, Azhure,” she said, “and two women who would, I think, dearly like to meet you.”

At the pressure of Faraday’s hand Azhure walked away a few paces, then she turned back to the silver pelt who still stood watching her.

“Thank you for your acceptance,” she said, finally finding her voice. “It means a great deal to me.” Then she turned and followed Faraday.

That evening, well after the sun had sunk into the west and Carlon was almost frantic wondering what had become of her and Caelum, Azhure walked down the stairs of Spiredore. Behind her the Alaunt snuffled happily. In her absence they had eaten to excess in the Silent Woman Keep.

It had been a wondrous day. The friendship that Faraday had promised Azhure had matured and deepened. She had not only visited, but had been accepted into the Sacred Grove. Faraday had led her past the dark tree line so she could discover the enchanted world that lay beyond – what other mother had ever watched her son play with blue and orange splotched panthers amid the dancing rivulets of a magical stream while diamond-eyed birds fluttered about his shoulders? She had met Raum-that-was, the White Stag, and had cried gently as he let her stroke his velvety nose before bounding away to run unfettered through the Enchanted Wood. And she had sat and talked for hours with two women, one middle-aged and dressed in a soft blue dress with a rainbow sash, the Mother, and one old and red-cloaked, reminding her vividly of Orr. Both women had, in their own way, awed her far more than the silver-pelted Horned One.

They had sat in the warm sun on the garden bench in Ur’s nursery, the four women and the baby boy. While the Mother held her hands over Caelum’s ears (for such knowledge was not his right), Ur told Azhure the secret of the seedlings.

Moved beyond words, Azhure had taken Faraday’s hand, and the women sat for some time, enjoying each other’s company, and laughing at the baby as he crawled, serenely oblivious to the significance of what surrounded him, through the pathways of the nursery. In the serenity and comfort of the garden and the company, Azhure set aside her fear at the Horned One’s words regarding her twins. All her questions would surely be answered on the Island of Mist and Memory.

“I have been blessed,” she whispered into Caelum’s ear as she stepped forth from Spiredore to greet a relieved Hesketh, half the palace guard, and StarDrifter, who had been just about to go in after her.

14 Goodwife Renkin Goes to Market (#ulink_76e8393b-b6e4-5913-bfc5-2e295bbdc1cb)

Goodwife Renkin shook out her heavy woollen skirts and sat gratefully down on the stool by the sheep pen. About her the market place of Tare bustled cheerfully; this was one of the major fair days in southern Achar – Tencendor, she reminded herself – and Tare was full of traders and peasants come to buy and sell and gape and gossip.

The Goodwife leaned back against the stone wall behind her and closed her eyes. She’d set out from her small farm in northern Arcness fifteen days ago, driving her flock of twenty-eight ewes slowly so they could graze the rolling grass plains as they went. Normally her husband would have taken the sheep to market, but he, poor soul, had such bad corns on his toes this year the Goodwife had come instead. She sighed blissfully, and interlaced her fingers across her large belly. It was nice to escape both her husband and her large brood of children. She loved them dearly, but ever since that exquisite Lady had stayed overnight in their farmhouse two years ago the Goodwife had been plagued with odd dreams of adventure and excitement – and there was precious little adventure and excitement in her isolated life in northern Arcness.

So the Goodwife had clucked over her husband’s toes, wrapped them in bandages infused with cooling herbs, left instructions with her eldest daughter about the care of the younger children, and set off cheerfully with the ewes. They were good ewes, bright of eye and fat with lamb, and the Goodwife knew she would get a good price for them. Not that she or her husband were desperate for the cash. Ever since the Lady Faraday – may she live in happiness forever – had left them the gold and pearl necklet to pay for the supplies she and her companions took north with them the Renkins had existed in a comfort and security that made them the envy of their neighbours.

“Lady Faraday,” Goodwife Renkin whispered to herself, and wondered what had become of the Lady since she had left the Renkins’ home.

She opened her eyes and glanced about the market place. The square was crowded, and with more than traders and peasants. Now and then the Goodwife glimpsed the bright fabrics and feathered wings of those called the Icarii, and she wondered what the gorgeous creatures could want here.

She sniffed and sat up straight. Life had indeed changed over the past year or so. It was confusing. What was once Forbidden was now welcomed. What was once lost in the dark now stalked the midday sun. The old stories, once told only in whispered secrets on moonlit nights, were now being sung by every passing minstrel – even now a young, gaily dressed man was strumming his lute and singing a song of ancient enchantments to a throng of admiring peasants and their children.

And not a Plough-Keeper or Brother of the Seneschal in sight. Once such a minstrel would have been gagged and dragged away to face charges of incitement to heresy, and there would have been a burning in the morning. But now the people in the market square laughed and clapped as he finished his song, and they tossed copper coins into the hat at his feet. And no-one paid overmuch attention to the winged people among them.

The Goodwife, as so many others, decided she rather liked this new world. It was far more colourful, far gayer, far more exciting than the old one. She did not miss the teachings of the Brotherhood of the Seneschal, nor the occasional visit from one of its Plough-Keepers. She did not miss having to glance over her shoulder every time she wandered the pathways of the plains to gather herbs for healing, and she did not miss having to watch her tongue in front her children lest she let slip a whisper of the old stories her grandmother had once murmured fearfully to her.

Life had indeed changed, and it seemed that the changes began the moment the Lady Faraday had graced her poor home with her presence.

“Goodwife Renkin!”

Startled from her reverie, the Goodwife jumped to her feet. Standing before her, a great welcoming smile across his broad face, was Symonds Dewes, a sheep trader from Arcen. He shook the Goodwife’s hand enthusiastically, recognising her from the two occasions he had travelled across northern Arcen to the sheep fairs of Rhaetia.

“Goodwife Renkin, you cannot know how glad I am to find you here. Renkin’s ewes are sought-after prizes, and I see you have presented your best stock for Tare’s market day.”

The Goodwife simpered with delight. Dewes always gave more than a fair price for the sheep he purchased and should he buy all twenty-eight ewes then she would have virtually the entire day to wander wide-eyed about the market place with a full purse. She assumed a severe expression. “They are the jewels from our herd, Symonds Dewes, and you shall have to pay a high price if you think to relieve me of their care.”

Dewes grinned. Goodman Renkin always haggled at length for the best price for his sheep, and it looked like his Goodwife would do no less. “But they look thin and haggard from their journey, Goodwife. Perhaps you should not ask full-price for half-sheep.”

For ten minutes they happily haggled back and forth, the Goodwife resolute, the trader determined. Finally they settled on a price that left both Goodwife and trader convinced each had got the best of the bargain. The gold coins jingled into the Goodwife’s outstretched hand and she raised her eyes in delight, about to thank the trader for his generosity, when the words caught in her throat at the sight of two of the winged creatures approaching.

“Symonds!” she whispered, and the trader followed her eyes and looked over his shoulder. Two of the Icarii women, Enchanters by the look of the rings on their fingers and the power in their eyes, were bending and exclaiming over the closest sheep.

“Have you not met any of the Icarii?” Dewes asked, and the Goodwife shook her head, round-eyed. “Well then, shall we ask why they find your … my sheep so fascinating?”

Without waiting for a reply Dewes took the Goodwife’s elbow and guided her over to the two Icarii. Both were dressed in clothes of the most exquisite colour and weave that the Goodwife had ever seen, and their wings and eyes glowed with jewel-like intensity in the weak morning sun.

The trader bowed and introduced himself and the Goodwife.

The Icarii stood, and the closest of them laughed and held out her hand. “My name is StarShine EvenHeart, and this is my companion PaleStar SnapWing,” the other Icarii smiled and nodded, “and I apologise from the depths of my heart if we have upset your fine sheep, Trader Dewes and Goodwife Renkin.”

“I am merely surprised,” Dewes said, the Goodwife too tongue-tied to do anything but stare at the Icarii Enchanters, “that you should find such mundane creatures so fascinating.”

StarShine shook Dewes’ hand. “We were trapped for so long in our mountain home, Trader Dewes, that we find pleasure and excitement in what you must consider the most trifling of things. Sheep are virtually unknown to us, and these have such fine ivory wool that we could not resist touching it. And their eyes, full of such liquid darkness, reminded us of our cousins the Avar.”

“The Avar?” the Goodwife finally managed. “Who are the Avar?” Instantly she reddened, ashamed to have asked a question of such noble creatures.

But StarShine smiled kindly and took the Goodwife’s hand. “They are the people of the Horn, Goodwife Renkin, and they live far away to the north in the Avarinheim. One day they will move south, once the forests are replanted.” StarShine stopped, puzzled, a slight frown on her face, and she gently massaged the Goodwife’s hand between her own.

Her companion looked closely at StarShine’s expression, then turned sharply to stare at the Goodwife.

“Is there something wrong?” Dewes asked.

StarShine’s hands tightened about the Goodwife’s, but she shifted her eyes and smiled brilliantly into Dewes’ face. Her face assumed such beauty, and her green eyes such power, that Dewes took an involuntary step backwards. A hint of music drifted about the small group.

“Have we interrupted your business with the Goodwife, Trader Dewes?”

“Er, no,” he stammered. “I was just paying Goodwife Renkin for her sheep when you approached.”

“Then how fortunate,” StarShine said, “for that means the Goodwife must now be free of her charges. Is that not so?” she asked the woman.

Entranced by the Icarii, the Goodwife only nodded.

“Free,” the Enchanter said, “to come sit with PaleStar and myself and tell us stories of your sheep. Would you like to do that, Goodwife?”

The Goodwife nodded once more.

StarShine let the woman’s hand go. “Then pick up your pack, Goodwife. Farewell your sheep, and come share some time with Us.”

So it was that Goodwife Renkin found herself lunching with two Icarii Enchanters under the awning of a food hall next to the market square of Tare. Both the Enchanters nibbled delicately at the fare the proprietor had placed before them; the Goodwife stared at them, her food untouched.

For some time StarShine and PaleStar ate, unspeaking, but sharing unspoken thoughts. Every so often one of them would lift her head and smile reassuringly at the Goodwife, then lower her eyes and concentrate again on her food.

The Goodwife, whose thoughts of adventure and excitement had never gone beyond seeing the market square of Tare, continued to stare at them.

Finally StarShine raised her head and pushed her plate away. “Goodwife, you must tell us something about yourself.”

The Goodwife slowly opened her mouth, then closed it silently again. What was there to say about her humdrum life in northern Arcness that might interest these magical creatures?