Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

Plaster fell to the floor in a torrent as the wall came alive behind him.

Jayme whimpered softly again, so horrified he could not move. His eyes remained glued to the terror in the reflection.

Nothing in his life could have prepared him for this, and yet he knew precisely what it was.

Artor, come to exact revenge for the failings of the BrotherLeader of his Seneschal.

“Beloved Lord,” Jayme croaked.

In the reflection Jayme saw the wall ripple and a form bulge through, taking the shape of the icon Jayme had scratched in the plaster days ago.

It was too much, and Jayme screwed shut his eyes in terror.

Have you not the courage to face Me, Brother-Leader? Have you not the courage to face your Lord?

Jayme felt a powerful force seize control of his body. Suddenly he was spun around and slammed back against the window; he retained only enough power over his muscles to keep his eyelids tightly closed. Some part of his mind not yet completely numbed with terror hoped that Artor would use too much force and the window panes would crack behind him, allowing him to fall to a grateful death on the cobbles below.

But Artor knew His own power, and Jayme did not hit the glass with enough force to break it.

He was held there, his feet a handspan off the floor, and none of the crowd celebrating Axis and Azhure’s marriage spared so much as a glance above to see Jayme pinned against the window as effectively as a cruel boy will pin an ant to a piece of paper.

The great god Artor the Ploughman completed His transformation and stepped into the room. He was stunningly, furiously angry, and His wrath was a terrible thing to behold. Jayme had failed Him. The Seneschal was crumbling, and soon even those fragments that were left would be swept away in the evil wind that blew over the land of Achar. Day by day Artor could feel the loss of those souls who turned from the worship of Artor and the Way of the Plough to the worship of other gods. He was the one true god, He demanded it, and Artor liked it not that those gods He had banished so long ago might soon walk this land again.

Jayme had failed Artor so badly and so completely that the god Himself had been forced from His heavenly kingdom to exact retribution from Brother-Leader Jayme for his pitiful failure to lead the Seneschal against the challenge of the StarMan.

What have you done, Jayme?

Jayme shuddered, and found that Artor had freed those muscles he needed to speak with. “I have done my best, Lord,” he whispered.

Meet My eyes, Jayme, and know the god that you promised to serve.

Jayme tried to keep his eyes tightly shut, but the god’s power tore them open – and Jayme screamed.

Standing before him was a man-figure, yet taller and more heavily musclebound than any man Jayme had ever seen before. Artor had chosen to reveal Himself in the symbolic attire of the ploughman: the rough linen loincloth, the short leather cape thrown carelessly over His shoulders, its hood drawn close about Artor’s face, and thick rope sandals. In one hand Artor held the traditional goad used to urge the plough team onwards; the other hand He had clenched in the fist of righteous anger. Underneath the leather hood of His cape Artor had assumed the heavy, pitted features of a man roughened by years of tilling the soil, while His body was roped with the thick muscles needed to control the team and the cumbersome wheeled plough.

And underlying this immensely powerful and angry physical presence was the roiling fury of a god scorned and rejected by many of those who had once served Him.

Artor’s eyes glittered with black rage. Daily My power diminishes as the Seneschal crumbles into dust. Daily the souls of the Acharites are claimed by other, less deserving gods. For this I hold you responsible.

“I could not have foreseen –” Jayme began, but Artor raised the goad menacingly above His head and took a powerful step forwards, and Jayme fell into silence.

The power of the Mother threatens to spill over into this land as the bitch you failed to stop prepares to sow the seeds of the evil forest across Achar. The Star Gods now threaten to spread their cold light through this land again.

“I had not the knowledge or the power to stop these gods of whom you speak –”

Yet you incubated the egg that would hatch the traitorous viper. You nursed the viper to your – to My – bosom! You raised him, you taught him, you gave him the power and the means, and then you turned him loose to destroy all that I have worked to build.

“Axis! I could not have known that he –”

As the Brotherhood of the Seneschal falls to its knees so the worship of the Plough fades and I grow weak. Long-forgotten gods seek to take My place and banish Me from this land.

“Give me another chance and I will try to –”

But Artor did not want to hear empty excuses or useless promises. His judgment was final.

I shall seek out among those remaining to find one who will work My will for me. One who is still loyal. One who can steer the Plough that you have left to wheel out of control. Die,Jayme, and prepare to live your eternity within My eternal retribution. Feel My justice, Jayme! Feel it!

As Artor stepped forward, Jayme found breath enough for a last, pitiful shriek.

The guard standing outside the door thought he heard a cry, and he started to his feet. But the next moment a burst of fireworks lit the night sky and the guard relaxed, smiling. No doubt the noise had been the echo of the street celebrations below.

Another burst of fireworks exploded, drowning out the screams from the chamber as Artor exacted his divine retribution.

Faraday and Embeth, almost a league into the Plains of Tare, paused and looked back as the faint bursts of the fireworks reached them.

“He has married her,” Faraday said tonelessly, “and now the people celebrate.”

She turned the head of the donkey and urged it eastwards.

Later that night, when the guard checked his prisoner, all he discovered was a pile of plaster by the far wall and a bloody body lying huddled underneath the locked window.

It looked suspiciously like … well, like it had been ploughed.

2 The Song for Drying Clothes (#ulink_eab89078-27dc-5f79-990e-67c5c2b2d6d3)

Restoration of the royal apartments in the ancient palace of Carlon had been going on since Axis had defeated Borneheld, but the workmen doubled their efforts in the days after Axis married Azhure. Helping them – else how could so much work have been accomplished in so short a time? – were twelve of the best Icarii Enchanters who discovered the ancient lines and colours hidden behind a thousand years of veilings, and who directed the workmen and sewing women in the best and simplest ways to redecorate the chambers to suit the StarMan and the Enchantress.

The Icarii were amazed by the news that the Enchantress’ ring had resurfaced to fit snugly on Azhure’s finger – and yet, they said among themselves, who better to wear both ring and title than the woman who already commanded the Wolven and the Alaunt and the heart of the StarMan? Those who had seen her in the past few days had noted how the promise of strange power lay in the shadows of her eyes, and they wondered whether the ring had placed that power there, or whether the power released during her ordeal of her wedding day had called the ring to her.

None, whether Icarii or human, doubted that Azhure was a figure who could be as powerful as the StarMan, a legend in her own right.

Now Axis, Azhure and StarDrifter sat in their living chamber, Caelum playing quietly in a corner. On two walls windows stretched from the floor to the foot of a great jade dome, gauzy curtains billowing in the cool breeze of late afternoon. They had been there for some hours, and Azhure was clearly tired. Axis turned from her and addressed his father.

“These rooms are of Icarii origin, StarDrifter, and the Chamber of the Moons is obviously patterned on the Star Gate. How so? I thought Carlon an entirely human affair.”

StarDrifter, sprawled on his belly across a couch some paces away, his wings spreading across the floor on either side, shrugged his shoulders.

“The Icarii had to live somewhere, Axis. In the time of Tencendor gone, both human and Icarii must have lived in Carlon – it is a very ancient city.”

He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Both Axis and Azhure, wingless, wondered at StarDrifter’s grace in rolling completely over without entangling himself in his wings.

“I have no doubt that Carlon would have been a popular residence for Icarii, Axis,” StarDrifter continued, “as close as it is to the sacred Grail Lake and Spiredore.” He paused, his face dreamy. “One could lift directly from those windows into the thermals rising off the great plains.”

Azhure smiled briefly at Axis. StarDrifter looked far too lazy to do anything more than loll about the chamber. Her smile died as she shifted uncomfortably and pushed a pillow into the small of her back – every day the unborn twins grew larger and more cumbersome.

Axis looked at her, concerned. We have tired you, beloved.

“No,” she said, although both StarDrifter and Axis could see the exhaustion tugging at her eyes. “No, I want to try again. Please, one more time before you go back down to your army.”