Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

15 Three Brothers Lakes (#ulink_c6f56f02-9b52-5a16-acdd-583ecba0701d)

The Three Brothers Lakes had frozen into a crisp corrugated beauty, but none of the thirty-thousand men camped along the edge of the most southern lake spared much time to admire the view. Axis had taken almost four weeks to march his army across northern Avonsdale and then through the gentle passes of the Western Ranges. When they got through, he had expected to be met by Gorgrael’s frozen winds hurling sheets of ice.

But all that had greeted them had been an icy calm.

Why? Why? Surely Gorgrael should have struck with all his power, with all his ice, once Axis and his army emerged from the Western passes?

Conditions were so clear that Icarii scouts reported that they could see as far as the mist-encased Murkle Mountains and the still-frozen Nordra and Fluriat rivers.

“And not a Skraeling in sight,” Axis whispered as he stood at the northern edge of the camp, gazing into the frozen wastes before him. “Not a Skraeling in sight. FarSight?”

The most senior of the Strike Force Crest-Leaders stepped to his side, his black uniform and wings incongruous in this pristine environment. He’d only just returned from speaking to the last of the farflight scouts he had sent north three days ago.

“How far have the Strike Force scouts penetrated into Aldeni?”

“Not far, StarMan.”

Axis frowned, and FarSight hurried on. “There are Gryphon out there, and I will not expose small numbers of scouts to their fury.”

“How many? Where? Have they attacked?”

“There are packs of some fifteen to twenty, ranging over most of north-western Aldeni. None of the scouts have risked attack by flying too close and the Gryphon appear not to have seen them. Our eyesight is better than theirs, I think. All scouts have returned.”

“And what have they seen?” said Belial, who joined them.

“Frozen fields and shattered buildings …”

Axis shifted uncomfortably, remembering the Skraeling nests that the broken streets of Hsingard had hidden.

“Wagons coated with ice and the stripped corpses of men and cattle, their bones cracked and drained of nourishment.”

“The Skraeling force that we saw marching past Jervois Landing in RuffleCrest’s vision would have to strip the province bare to feed itself,” Axis said, “and yet having fed, they have disappeared. Belial? Gather Ho’Demi and Magariz. We will share our evening meal … and our thoughts.”

The mood was sombre that night and the meal eaten in silence in most of the camp sites. Axis sat hunched with his senior commanders about an inadequate fire of brush. His mood had bleakened with each day that they rode north until, as now, he was mostly surrounded by silence.

Somewhere out there in the frozen wastes was a massive army – at least ten times the size of his own – and Axis did not know how he would defeat it even if he could find it.

He sighed. Gorgrael had the initiative, and if Axis could not seize it back, if he could not find the power to defeat this writhing mass of Skraelings to his north (or were they east? Or west? Or, Stars forbid, south?) then they were all dead.

At least Azhure would be safe. She must be on her way south to the Island of Mist and Memory by now, Axis thought. Azhure and Caelum. If anything must be saved, they must be. Even if he died, then they could, eventually, fight back.

But for what? For what?

He started, realising that Ho’Demi had spoken.

“I am sorry, Ho’Demi, my thoughts were elsewhere,” Axis said. “You were saying?”

The Ravensbund Chief put down his tin mug. “I can send bands of my Ravensbund warriors north, StarMan. The farflight scouts, while useful,” Ho’Demi inclined his head at FarSight but the birdman still glowered at the ‘useful’, “are vulnerable to the Gryphon and dare not range too far north lest they be attacked. The Ravensbundmen revel in these conditions – we are born to them. The snow was our nursemaid as mewling infants and our lover as men. We can use it and manipulate it and the Gryphon will never spot us. Small groups of us can penetrate far north with minimal risk. Use us.”

“You would go with them, Ho’Demi?” Axis said. He did not want to risk Ho’Demi. “You could not counter the Skraelings when they invaded the Ravensbund.”

“I only suggest scouts, StarMan, not raiding parties. I leave that to you. And … yes, I would go with them. I hunger for action against these creatures that have stolen my homeland from me.”

“How soon can you organise the scouting parties?”

“By morning, StarMan. Where would you have us go?”

Axis looked to Belial and Magariz. “Your advice, my friends?”

“Damn it, Axis,” Magariz said. “Where could they have gone?”

“Skarabost?” Belial suggested.

Axis shook his head, catching FarSight’s eye. “No, Belial. Skarabost remains free from Skraelings, although much of it lies under a killing frost.”

“Then could they have outflanked us and moved south … to Carlon?”

Magariz flinched at Belial’s words. Rivkah was in Carlon, but then so was Cazna, and Magariz knew Belial would be as worried about his wife as Magariz was about his.

Axis shivered and blew on his hands in a vain attempt to warm them. “We would have known if they had outflanked us. We have scouts and sentries throughout the Western Ranges and so many Icarii now throng the Bracken Ranges that they would sound the alarm if the Skraelings had struck that far west.”

“Axis, we should have some reports of the Skraelings. Thousands of peasants fled south before the ice while they still could. Has nothing useful come from them?”

But Magariz was only speaking empty words, and he knew it. All the peasants who had managed to flee Aldeni before the wind and frost became too lethal had reported Skraelings on every breath of wind, in every puff of snow. If Axis believed everything the fleeing peasants reported, then the Skraelings should have sunk Aldeni into the Andeis Sea by now through sheer weight of numbers.

Belial cursed at the silence about the campfire. “They must be in Aldeni.”

“And if they are, then we will find them,” Ho’Demi finished softly. “If they have dug themselves into pits in the snow then the Ravensbund will find them. I will find them!”

Axis looked up from the flames. “Pray do, Ho’Demi,” he said, “before they find us.”

Deep in the shafts dim torches glowed, and in the glow teeth and talons crowded.

The SkraeBolds hunched, miserable.

But Timozel was pleased. It was time to call most of the Gryphon in, for there was no further need of them … yet. They had kept the Icarii farflight scouts away from his position, and that was all they had to do for the moment.

But he would keep a few in the northern skies.

Axis would expect that.

16 The Island of Mist and Memory (#ulink_a6f41179-44e9-5f04-8ccf-13e553b035b4)

Azhure eased back in the chair sailors had placed on deck for her and wondered if she would ever be comfortable again. Barely seven months pregnant and all she could do was wonder at what point it was that the twins could survive without her – no doubt the twins wondered the same thing. Even now they stirred restlessly, the heels of their feet drumming against the walls of her womb, as if they dreamed of freedom … or hungered for escape.

She rolled her head to one side and looked at StarDrifter standing tense and excited in the prow of the ship, his wings bunched behind him as if he yearned for flight. They had been sailing the choppy waters of the Sea of Tyrre for two days now, and surely could not be far from their destination. If he wanted StarDrifter could take to the skies and be on the Island before nightfall, but he had said he would stay with her, and this he did.

They had sailed from Carlon four days ago in one of Ysgryff’s private ships, the Seal Hope. Azhure had never been to sea before, and if she had not been so unwell she knew she would have found the experience exhilarating. The Seal Hope was commodious and comfortable, did not roll overmuch in the waves, and a warm and salty and infinitely comforting breeze blew from the south-west to fill the dusky pink sails. With Azhure came a goodly assortment of court officials and servants, a Wing of the Strike Force, Prince Ysgryff, and Caelum, currently in the care of his nurse, Imibe, below decks.