Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

“Embeth! What are you doing down here? Why are you cloaked so heavily?”

Embeth tugged back the hood. Her face was pale and drawn, her eyes showing the strain of sleepless nights.

“You’re leaving, Faraday?”

Faraday stared at the woman, remembering how Embeth, like the Sentinels, had urged her into the marriage with Borneheld. She also remembered that Embeth and Axis had been lovers for many years. Well could you dissuade me from Axis and urge me to Borneheld’s bed, she thought sourly, when you had enjoyed Axis for so long.

But Faraday forced herself to remember that Embeth had been doing only what she thought best for a young girl untutored in the complexities of court intrigue. Embeth had known nothing of prophecies or of the maelstrom that had, even then, caught so many of its victims into its swirling dark outer edges.

“Yes. There is no place for me here, Embeth. I travel east,” she replied, deliberately vague, letting Embeth think she was travelling back to her family home in Skarabost.

Embeth’s hands twisted in front of her. “What of you and Axis?”

Faraday stared unbelievingly at her before she realised that Embeth probably had no knowledge of the day’s events.

“I leave Axis to his lover, Embeth. I leave him to Azhure.” Her voice was so soft that Embeth had to strain to hear it.

“Oh, Faraday,” she said, hesitating only an instant before she stepped forward and hugged the woman tightly. “Faraday, I am sorry I did not tell you … about … well, about Azhure and her son. But I could not find the words, and after a few days I had convinced myself that you must have known. That Axis must have told you. But I saw your face yesterday when Axis acknowledged Azhure and named her son as his heir and I realised then that Axis had kept his silence. That everyone had. Faraday, please forgive me.”

Faraday finally broke down into the tears she had not allowed herself since that appalling moment at the ceremony when she had realised the depth of Axis’ betrayal. She sobbed, and Embeth hugged her fiercely. For a few minutes the two women stood in the dim stable, then Faraday pulled back and wiped her eyes, an unforced smile on her face.

“Thank you, Embeth. I needed that.”

“If you are going east then you must be going past Tare,” Embeth said. “Please, Faraday, let me come with you as far as Tare. There is no place here in Carlon for me any more. Timozel has gone, only the gods know where, my other two children are far distant – both married now – and I do not think either Axis or Azhure would feel comfortable with my continuing presence.”

As mine, Faraday thought. Discarded lovers are a source of some embarrassment.

“Judith still waits in Tare, and needs my company. And there are … other … reasons I should return home.”

Faraday noted the older woman’s hesitancy. “StarDrifter?” she asked.

“Yes,” Embeth said after a moment’s hesitation. “I was a fool to succumb to his well-practised enticements, but the old comfortable world I knew had broken apart into so many pieces that I felt lost, lonely, unsure. He was an escape and I … I, as his son’s former lover, was an irresistible challenge.”

A wry grin crossed her face. “I fear I may have made a fool of myself, Faraday, and that thought hurts more than any other pain I have endured over the past months. StarDrifter only used me to sate his curiosity, he did not care for me. We did not even share the friendship that Axis and I did.”

We have both been used and discarded by these damn SunSoar men, Faraday thought. “Well,” she said, “as far as Tare, you say? How long will it take you to pack?”

To her surprise Embeth actually laughed. “As long as it takes me to saddle a horse. I have no wish to go back inside the palace. I already wear a serviceable dress and good boots, and should I require anything else then I have gold pieces in my purse. We shall not want for food along the way.”

Faraday smiled. “We would not have wanted for food in any case.” She patted one of the saddlebags.

Embeth frowned in puzzlement at the empty saddlebag, but Faraday only reached out her hand. “Come, let us both walk away from these SunSoar men. Let us find meaning for our lives elsewhere.”

As Faraday and Embeth left the palace of Carlon, far to the north Timozel sat brooding on the dreary shores of Murkle Bay. To his right rose the cheerless Murkle Mountains that spread north for some fifty leagues along the western border of Aldeni. Relentless cold, dry winds blew off the Andeis Sea, making life all but impossible within the mountain range.

The darkness of the waters before Timozel reflected the blackness of his mind. If, far to the south, Embeth worried about her lost son, Timozel spared no thought for his mother – Gorgrael dominated his mind awake and asleep.

Over the past nine days Timozel had ridden as hard as he dared for the north. With each league further away from Carlon and Faraday he could feel Gorgrael’s grip clench tighter about his soul.

The horror Timozel had felt when Faraday dropped the pot and shattered the ties that bound him to her had dimmed, but had not completely left him. In those odd hours when he snatched some sleep, nightmares invariably claimed him and he always woke screaming. Three times this day he had dropped off in the saddle, only to find Gorgrael waiting for him in his dreams, his claws digging into Timozel’s neck, his repulsive face bending close to Timozel’s own. “Mine,” the dream-Gorgrael would hiss. “Mine! You are mine!”

And with his every step further north the more potent became the nightmares. If only he could turn his back on Gorgrael and ride for Carlon. Beg forgiveness from Faraday, find some way to reconstitute his vows of Championship. But Gorgrael’s claws had sunk too deep.

Despair overwhelmed Timozel, and he wept, grieving for the boy he had once been, grieving for the pact he had been forced to make with Gorgrael, grieving for the loss of Faraday’s friendship.

Beside him lay the cooling carcass of the latest horse he’d killed. The animal had staggered to a halt, stood a moment, and then sunk wearily to the sandy beach. This was the sixth horse he had literally ridden into the ground in recent days – and Timozel had slid his feet quickly from the stirrups and swung his leg over the horse’s wither as it slumped to the ground, standing himself in one graceful movement.

As Timozel sat on the gritty beach, watching the grey waves, he wondered what to do next. How was he going to keep moving north now this damned horse had died on him?

And what had driven him to the shores of Murkle Bay in the first instance? It was many leagues to the west of where he should have been heading – Jervois Landing, then north into the Skraeling-controlled Ichtar through Gorken Pass and then north, north, north to Gorgrael’s Ice Fortress. It would be a hard journey, perhaps months long, and only Timozel’s determination and his bond to Gorgrael would see him through.

As each horse fell Timozel had stolen another one – not a difficult proposition in the well-populated regions of Avonsdale. But he was unlikely to find a horse in the desolate regions surrounding Murkle Bay or in the mountains themselves.

He squared his shoulders. Well then, he would walk and Gorgrael – if he truly wanted Timozel – would no doubt provide.

But not today. Even his fear of Gorgrael-sent nightmares would not keep Timozel from sleep tonight. He shivered and pulled his cloak closer, shifting uncomfortably on the cold, damp sand. Somehow he would have to find enough fuel for a fire to keep him warm through the night. A rumble in his belly reminded him that he had not eaten in over two days, and he wondered if he could snatch a fish from Murkle Bay’s depths.

His eyes narrowed as he gazed across the bay. What was that out to sea? Perhaps a hundred paces distant from the beach Timozel could see a small, dark hump bobbing in the waves. He’d heard stories of the whales that lived in the Andeis Sea and wondered if perhaps this dark shape was the back of one of the mammoth ocean fish that had strayed into Murkle Bay.

Timozel stared, blinking in the salty breeze. As the dark shape came closer Timozel leapt to his feet.

“What?” he hissed.

The hump had resolved itself into the silhouette of a heavily cloaked man rowing a tiny boat. He was making directly for Timozel.

Timozel’s dull headache abruptly flared into white heat and he cried out, doubling over in agony. But the pain died as quickly as it had erupted and after catching his breath Timozel slowly straightened out. When he looked up again he saw that the man and his boat were almost to shore.

He shivered. The man was so tightly cloaked and hooded Timozel could not see his face, yet he knew that this was no ordinary fisherman. But what disturbed him most was that although the man made every appearance of rowing vigorously, the oars that dipped into the water never made a splash and the boat itself sailed as smoothly and as calmly as if it were pushed by some powerful underwater hand.

Magic! Timozel took a step back as the boat slipped smoothly ashore.

The man shipped his oars and stood up, wrapping his cloak about him. Timozel could feel but not see a smile on the man’s face.

“Ah, Timozel,” he said in a deeply musical voice, stepping smoothly out of the boat and striding across the sand that separated them. “How fortunate you should be waiting for me.”

Sweat beaded in the palms of Timozel’s hands and he had to force himself not to wipe them along his cloak. For the first time in nine days thoughts of Gorgrael slipped completely from his mind. He stared at the dark man who had halted some three or four paces in front of him.

“Timozel,” the man said, and despite his fears Timozel relaxed slightly. How could a man with such a gentle voice harbour foul intent?

“Timozel. It is late and I would appreciate a place beside the warmth of your campfire for the night.”

Startled, Timozel looked over his shoulder at where the man pointed. A bright fire leaped cheerfully into the darkness; a large rabbit sizzled on a spit and a pot steamed gently to one side of the coals.

“How …?” Timozel began, doubt and fear resurfacing in his mind.

“Timozel,” the man said, his voice slipping into an even deeper timbre. “You must have lit the fire earlier and, in your exhaustion, forgotten the deed.”

“Yes.” Timozel’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Yes, that must be it. Yes, my mind is so hazy.”