Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

“Tell us where you come from, my dear,” PaleStar said. “It will be a start.”

Slowly the Goodwife told the two Icarii about her husband and children in northern Arcen, their lives devoted to sheep and a few meagre crops. “This is the first time I have been more than five leagues from my home,” she finished on a whisper, certain she must have bored the Icarii Enchanters witless.

However, they looked anything but bored. “And your mother?” StarShine asked gently. “Does she stay behind to watch over your children while you have come to market?”

The Goodwife shook her head. “No. My mother died of the milk-fever three weeks after birthing me.”

PaleStar sat back, frowning. “Then who raised you, Goodwife?”

“My grandmother, gracious Lady.”

“Ah,” both the Enchanters breathed. “Your grandmother.” All the Icarii Enchanters who travelled south through eastern Tencendor had spent time looking for women such as this. But they were few and far between among the Acharites. The Seneschal had been … vigilant.

“She must have been an unusual lady,” StarShine said.

“Talented,” PaleStar added and lifted one of the Goodwife’s hands out of her lap. “Perhaps she told you pleasant stories when you were a little girl.”

Very tense now, the Goodwife nodded her head but did not speak. She kept her eyes firmly in her lap.

“You are safe,” StarShine said, and laid her hand over the Goodwife’s where it rested in PaleStar’s. A feeling of peace infused the Goodwife’s body, and she looked up. “Safe,” StarShine repeated.

“I have never told anyone,” the Goodwife mumbled, and now her eyes were full of guilty tears. “Never.”

“Of course not,” StarShine soothed. “You were good. You had to be.”

“They took her away,” tears slipped down the Goodwife’s cheeks, “when I was eight. And every year for ten years they would come back to ask me questions. I was afraid.”

“I have no doubt.” PaleStar’s voice was edged with anger, but the Goodwife knew the anger was not directed at her.

The Goodwife sniffed, wiping her nose along her sleeve. “They burnt her. They told me that.”

“They will not burn you,” StarShine said, and she impulsively leaned forward to give the woman a brief hug. “You are safe now.”

The Goodwife took a tremulous breath, slowly relaxing. “All the Brothers have gone. When I travelled south I saw none, and there are none here in this town.”

“No. All the Brothers have gone, and there are few Plough-Keepers left, Goodwife. You are free to do what you like now, free to believe what you like.”

“Will you tell me what has happened? I have heard so little – mostly hearsay.”

“Of course, Goodwife,” and StarShine told her briefly what had transpired in the land over the past two years.

If possible, the Goodwife’s face became even more astounded than before. “Then I am safe? The Seneschal will not hurt me if I … if I …”

“You are safe, Goodwife. Do what you will. Do you have a daughter who …?” StarShine let the question trail off.

The Goodwife shook her head. “No. Neither of my daughters have the talent. I was glad, for I thought that they would be safe. But now … now I am sad. I should have liked a daughter to carry on.” Abruptly the Goodwife realised she had lost her awe of the Icarii and was chatting to them as if they were old friends. She grinned shamefacedly.

StarShine’s smile faded and she leaned forward, extending her hand to rest her palm on the Goodwife’s forehead. “Shush, Goodwife, I do you no harm. I only want to help you remember.”

Bright music flooded the Goodwife’s body, and she gasped. “Oh! I had forgotten so much!”

“Disuse engenders forgetfulness, Goodwife.” StarShine leaned back, looking wan with her effort. That had been a powerful enchantment, and she would have to rest a day or so now before she could fly on to Carlon. “Make sure you do not forget again.”

The Goodwife nodded.

“Make sure you make good use of what you have remembered, Goodwife, because this new land needs such as you.”

She sat for a very long time after the two Enchanters left her, watching the street life with unseeing eyes. Remembering.

When she was a little girl, too young to help in the fields, her grandmother had told her stories. Told her stories and taught her herbs. Herbs and spells. Nothing dangerous, nothing evil, only herbal recipes that, when used in conjunction with the spells, would ward against hurt or infection, calm tempers, or engender love. Simple things, but enough to have her grandmother seized and burned by the Seneschal.

From the day the Seneschal had taken her grandmother the young girl had lived an unblemished life. She had never (well, hardly ever) used the herbals again, and had never spoken the spells again (except a cradle song or two). She had grown to marry the Goodman Renkin and live an exemplary life in their little home.

Exemplary … and boring.

It was strange, for the Goodwife had never thought of her life as boring until the Lady Faraday had come to stay so briefly. She had hardly even remembered her grandmother or her grandmother’s tales and teachings until then.

But once the Lady had gone, once the Goodwife tried to settle back into her old life, she discovered it to be stupefyingly boring and yearned for excitement and adventure. She had found herself muttering old verses over the stew pot and plucking wild herbs as she drove the sheep along the worn paths of northern Arcness. She had begun to look over her shoulder, remembering the day they had come for her grandmother. The pounding of their horses’ hooves. The wicked gleam of their axes.

Now she took a deep breath. What was she going to do?

Go home. What else could she do? She stood up and nodded to the proprietor as she wandered back into the street. She had the money for the sheep – and a goodly sum it was too – and she had her pack, and there was nothing else to do.

But would she use her talents if she went home? Goodman Renkin would not tolerate any of that, not when she could be working out in the fields, and none of her children would want to learn the old ways.

But she did not want to live out the rest of her life applying herbed bandages to corn-crippled feet.

The Goodwife stopped in the street just before she reached the market square, uncertainties creasing her homely face. Suddenly she spotted StarShine EvenHeart standing some paces away, her wings folded behind her, staring at the Goodwife.

“Please,” the Goodwife breathed as she hurried over. “Tell me what to do.”

“You must do as you see best,” StarShine said.

The Goodwife stood and thought, shuffling from foot to foot, her eyes on the ground. “Goodman Renkin does not need me as he once did,” she said eventually, speaking slowly as she thought it through. “The boys are old enough to take on many of the responsibilities about the farm now, and he has coin enough to hire labour to help with the harvest and shearing. My eldest girl can take care of the tot and the twins.”

She smiled as a thought occurred to her and looked up. “Gracious Lady, do you perchance know of the Lady Faraday?”

Truly surprised, StarShine stared at the Goodwife. “Faraday? Yes. Yes, I know her.” And how do you know her, she wondered. Did PaleStar and I discover you by chance or by design?

“Do you know where she is?”

StarShine nodded slowly. “She travels east, Goodwife. I passed her on my way to Tare, somewhere just south of the Silent Woman Woods. She travels alone with two white donkeys, and she goes east. That is all I know.”

The Goodwife’s face fell. “East? Alone? Oh, the poor Lady! Oh, goodness! That won’t do at all!”

StarShine’s face relaxed. Whether by chance or by design, it looked as though Faraday would have some company in whatever quest she was engaged in.

And that would be no bad thing at all. Not at all.