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StarMan - Sara Douglass

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Published: 30th October 1996
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The acclaimed international bestseller in a fresh new jacket.

Weakened by their terrible encounter with Borneheld's men, Axis and his army are forced to march north as Gorgrael breaks through Jervois Landing and invades Tencendor with ice and terror. But under a sky black with Gryphon, Axis discovers that he's confronting a seemingly invincible enemy.

As the Prophecy of the Destroyer hurtles towards fulfilment, Azhure and StarDrifter unravel the mysteries of the Island of Mist and Memory, where they finally confront WolfStar; Faraday moves east to re-plant the ancient forests of Tencendor; and the Sentinels begin a lonely journey planned for them thousands of years ago.

Enveloping all looms the promise of treachery - treachery that threatens to strike into the very heart of Axis and Azhure's family.

'a superior adventure fantasy' - Booklist.


1


The Day of Power


It was a long day, the day Axis tried to kill Azhure, then married her. It was a day filled with power, and thus power found it easy to wrap and manipulate lives. The power of the Enchantress—untested and, for the moment, uncontrolled—had dominated the morning. Now, as the Enchantress smiled and kissed her new husband, it lay quiescent, waiting.
But as the gate that had imprisoned Azhure’s power and identity had shattered that day, so had other gates shattered, and so other powers had moved—and not all of them welcomed by the Prophecy.
As the Enchantress leaned back from her husband, accepting the warmth and love of her friends and family about her, so power walked the land of Tencendor.
It would be a long day.
* * *
Axis pulled the Enchantress’ ring from a small secret pocket in his breeches. He held it up so that all in the room could see it, then he slid the ring onto the heart finger of Azhure’s left hand. It fit perfectly, made only for this woman, and for this finger.
“Welcome into the House of the Stars to stand by my side, Enchantress. May we walk together forever.”
“Forever?” the GateKeeper said. “You and the Enchantress? For ever? As you wish, StarMan, as you wish.”
She laughed, then, from one of the bowls on the table before her she lifted out two balls and studied them.
“Forever,” she muttered, and placed them with the group of seven sparkling balls at the front of her table. The Greater. “Nine. Complete. The Circle is complete! At last…at last!”
She fellsilent, deep in thought. Her fingers trembled. Already he had one child, and more to follow. And then…the other.
She held a hand over one of the bowls again, dipped it in sharply, and brought out four more balls. She dropped them into the pile of softly glowing golden balls which represented those who did not have to go through her Gate. The Lesser.
“Yet one more!” A spasm of pain crossed her face. Her hand lifted slowly, shaking, then she snarled and snatched a dull black ball from the pile of those who refused to go through her Gate.
She hissed, for the GateKeeper loathed releasing a soul without exacting fair price. “Does that satisfy your promise, WolfStar? Does it?”
She dropped it with the other four on the pile of the Lesser.
“Enough,” she said in relief. “It is done. Enough.”
* * *
Faraday tightened the girth on the donkey and checked the saddlebags and panniers. She did not carry much with her: the bowl of enchanted wood that the silver pelt had given her so long ago; the green gown that the Mother had presented to her; some extra blankets; a pair of sturdy boots should the weather break; and a few spare clothes.
It was not much for a widowed Queen, thought Faraday, fighting to keep her emotions under control. Where were the retainers? The gilded carriage and the caparisoned horses? The company of two white donkeys was paltry considering what she had done for Axis and for Tencendor—and what she would yet do.
Carriages and horses? What did she need with those? All she needed, all she wanted, was the love of a man who did not love her.
She thought about Azhure and Caelum, envying the woman yet sharing her joy in her son. Well, she thought, no matter. I am mother to forty-two-thousand souls. Surely their birthing will give me pain and joy enough.
The stables, as the rest of the palace of Carlon, were still and quiet. When she had left the Sentinels earlier Faraday had heard that the princes and commanders closest to Axis and Azhure had been called to the apartment where Faraday had left them.
“A wedding, I hope,” Faraday murmured, and did not know whether to smile for Azhure’s sake, or cry for her own.
She took a deep breath and steeled herself. She had her own role to play in the Prophecy and it would take her far from Carlon. Faraday could not wait to leave the palace and the city. There were no happy memories here. Even the recent eight days and nights she had spent at Axis’ side had turned out to be nothing but a lie and a betrayal. It was their memory Faraday wanted to escape most of all.
Why had no one told her about Azhure? Everyone close to Axis—indeed, many distant from him—had known of his love for Azhure, yet none had thought to tell Faraday. Not even the Sentinels.
“You let me think that once Borneheld was dead Axis would be mine,” she had cried to the Sentinels. “All I had to comfort me during that frightful marriage was the thought that one day my efforts for the Prophecy would be rewarded with Axis’ love, and yet that comfort was a lie.”
Ogden and Veremund hung their heads in shame, and when Yr stepped forward to comfort Faraday, she jerked away.
“Did you know?” Faraday shouted at Jack. “Did you know from the very beginning that I would lose Axis?”
“None of us know all of the twists and turns of the Prophecy, sweet girl,” Jack replied, his face unreadable.
Faraday had stared flatly at him, almost tasting the lie he’d mouthed.
She signed. Her meeting with the Sentinels had not gone well. She now regretted the harsh words she’d lashed at them before she’d stalked out the door. Ogden and Veremund had scurried after her, their cheeks streaked with tears, asking her where she was going. “Into Prophecy—where you have thrust me,” Faraday had snapped.
“Then take our donkeys and their bags and panniers,” they’d begged.
Faraday nodded curtly. “If you wish.”
Then she had left them standing in the corridor, as much victims of the Prophecy as she was.
* * *
Now all she knew was that she had to go east and that, sooner or later, she would have to begin the transfer of the seedlings from Ur’s nursery in the Enchanted Woods beyond the Sacred Grove to this world.
Faraday gathered the leads of the placid donkeys and turned to the stable entrance. A heavily cloaked figure stood there, shrouded in shadows. Faraday jumped, her heart pounding.
“Faraday?” a soft voice asked, and she let out a breath in sheer relief. She’d thought that this dark figure might be the mysterious and dangerous WolfStar.
“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 traveling 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 realized 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 realized 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 realized 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 anymore. 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-practiced 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 the 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 farther 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 farther 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 gray waves, he wondered what to do next. How was he going to keep moving north now that this damned horse had died on him?
And what had driven him to the shores of Murkle Bay in the first place? 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 Avonsdaie. 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 leaped 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 harbor 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 timber. “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.”
Beneath his hood the Dark Man’s smile broadened. Poor, troubled Timozel. His mind had been shadowed for so long that it was now an easy task to manipulate it.
“The rabbit smells good,” he said, taking Timozel’s arm. Surprisingly, all traces of Timozel’s headache faded completely at the man’s touch. “Shall we eat?”
* * *
An hour later Timozel sat before the fire, feeling more relaxed than he had in months. He no longer minded that his companion chose not to reveal his features. In these past months he had seen stranger creatures, like those feathered abominations that now crawled over the fouled palace of Carlon. His lip curled.
“You do not like what you have seen in Carlon, Timozel.”
“Disgusting,” Timozel said.
“Oh, absolutely.”
Timozel shifted, his loathing of the Icarii rippling through his body. “Borne-held tried to stop them, but he failed.”
The Dark Man shrugged. “Unfortunate.”
“Treachery undid him.”
“Of course.”
“He should have won!” Timozel clenched his fists and stared across the fire at the cloaked man. “He should have. I had a vision—”
He stopped. Why had he mentioned that vision? Would this strange man laugh at him?
“Really?” The Dark Man’s voice held no trace of derision; indeed, it held traces of awe. “You must be beloved of the immortals, Timozel, if you have been granted visions.”
“But I fear the vision misled me.”
“Well,” the cloaked man said slowly, as if reluctant to speak, “I have traveled widely, Timozel, and I have seen many bizarre sights and heard even stranger stories. One of the things I have learned is that visions can sometimes be misunderstood, misinterpreted. Would you,” his hands twisted nervously before him, “would you share your vision with me?”
Timozel considered the man through narrowed eyes. He had never shared the details of the vision with anyone—not even Borneheld, although Borne-held knew Artor had enabled Timozel to foresee his victory over Axis.
But Borneheld hadn’t won, had he? And Artor seemed powerless in the face of the Forbidden invasion; even the Brother-Leader had gibbered impotently before Axis. Timozel dropped his gaze and rubbed his eyes. Perhaps the vision was worthless. A phantasm, nothing more.
“Tell me of the vision,” the Dark Man whispered. Share.
Timozel hesitated.
“I want to hear of it.” Share
“Perhaps I will tell you,” Timozel said. “It came time and time again. Always the same. I rode a great and noble beast—it cried with such a voice that all before it quailed.” As Timozel spoke he fell under the spell of the vision again, and his voice sped up, the words turning from his mouth. “I fought for a Great Lord, and in his name I commanded an army that undulated for leagues in every direction.”
“Goodness,” the Dark Man said. “A truly great vision.”
“Hundreds of thousands screamed my name.” Now Timozel leaned forward, his voice earnest. “They hurried to fulfill my every wish. The enemy quivered in terror; they could do nothing. Remarkable victories were mine for the taking…in the name of my Lord I was going to clear the filth that invaded Achar!”
“If you did that then your name would live in legend forever,” the Dark Man said, and Timozel could hear the admiration in his voice.
“Yes! Yes, it would. Millions would thank me. I saw more—”
“Tell me!”
“I saw myself seated before a fire with my Lord, and Faraday at our side. The battles were over. All was well. I…I had found my destiny. I had found my light.”
He dropped his face into his hands momentarily, and when he raised his eyes again the Dark Man could see they were reddened and lost. “But it was all a lie.”
“How so?”
“Borneheld lies dead—I saw Axis tear his heart out myself. His armies are dead or have betrayed his name and fled to Axis. In any case, Borneheld would never give me command.”
“He did not trust your vision. Perhaps that is why he lost,” the stranger said, and Timozel nodded slowly.
“Now Faraday lies with Axis and becomes his wife, and we are all lost. Lost. And now…now…”
“Now?” the Dark Man asked. “Do you experience other visions? Dreams, perhaps?”
Timozel’s eyes flared, his suspicions aroused. “How did you know?”
“Oh,” the Dark Man soothed. “You have the look about you. The look of a man troubled by visions.”
“It is not visions that wrap my thoughts now, but dark nightmares that ensorcel my soul!”
“Perhaps you have misinterpreted—”
“How can I misinterpret the fact that Gorgrael has his talons locked into my soul! It is over! Finished!”
He stopped, appalled. He had never, never, mentioned Gorgrael to another person before. How would Gorgrael punish him, now he had shared the secret?
The stranger did not seem overly perturbed by Timozel’s mention of Gorgrael. “Ah yes, Gorgrael is a good and dear friend of mine.”
Timozel recoiled in horror, almost falling backward in his haste to put more distance between himself and the cloaked man.
“Your friend?”
“Ah,” the Dark Man said. “I fear you have fallen under the spell of the evil rumors about Gorgrael that sweep this land.”
Timozel stared at him.
“Timozel, my friend, how can Gorgrael be evil and dark when he fights the same things that you do?”
“What do you mean?” How could that appalling creature not be evil and dark?
“Consider this, Timozel. Gorgrael and Borneheld fight-fought—for the same thing.”
“What?” Perhaps he should slice this stranger’s head off and be done with it, Timozel thought.
“Listen to me,” the Dark Man said, his voice soothing, calming. “Gorgrael hates the Forbidden—the Icarii and the Avar—as Borneheld did. Gorgrael wants to see them destroyed as much as Borneheld did. Both shared the same purpose.”
Timozel struggled with the stranger’s words. Yes, it was true that Borneheld hated the Forbidden and ached for their destruction. And Gorgrael wants the same thing?
“He surely does,” the Dark Man whispered. “He surely does.”
“But the Prophecy says…” Timozel tried to remember exactly what it was that the Prophecy said.
“Bah!” The Dark Man grinned to himself under his hood. “The Prophecy is nothing but a tool of the Forbidden to cloud men’s minds and blind them to their true Savior—Gorgrael.”
“Yes…yes.” Timozel thought it through. “That makes sense.”
“And Gorgrael aches to kill Axis as much as Borneheld did.”
“Axis.” Now Timozel’s voice was edged with unreasoning hatred.
“Who has brought the Forbidden back to crawl over Achar’s lands, Timozel?”
“Axis!” Timozel hissed.
The Dark Man spoke very slowly, emphasizing every word. “Gorgrael is committed to killing Axis and ridding this fair land of the Forbidden. Is that not what you want?”
“Yes. Yes, that is what I want!”
“Gorgrael will help rescue Faraday from the foul clutches of Axis and the Forbidden.”
“Faraday! He will help rescue Faraday?” Was there hope for Faraday yet?
“With your help, Timozel. With your help.”
“With my help?” Could he redeem himself in Faraday’s eyes?
“Ah, Timozel,” the Dark Man said dejectedly. “Gorgrael is truly misunderstood and he fights for a true cause, but he is not a good war leader.” He sighed, and Timozel leaned even closer, eager. “Timozel, he needs a war leader. He needs you and you need him. Together you can rid Achar of its foul corruption.”
A small voice deep in Timozel’s soul told him not to listen to this man, not to believe his smooth words. Had not Borneheld fought Gorgrael as well? Were not the Skraelings as evil as the Forbidden? But, caught as he was by the weight of the enchantments being woven about him and by the blackness that was eating into his soul, Timozel pushed those thoughts out of existence. Gorgrael would be the one to restore sanity and good health to Achar.
“He would give me command of his army?”
“Oh, surely. He knows that you are a great warrior.”
Timozel sat back, enthralled. A command of his own, at last! Even Borneheld had not done that for him.
“Don’t you see, Timozel?” the Dark Man asked, drawing the net of his lies closed. “Don’t you understand? Gorgrael is the Great Lord of your visions. Fate must have sent me south to fetch you, to bring you north so that your Lord can give you control of his armies.”
“Truly?” Perhaps there was still a chance the visions would be fulfilled. That there was still a chance he could do some good. Yes, fate must have maneuvered this meeting.
“Very truly, Timozel.”
Timozel thought about it, one thing gnawing at him. “But why has Gorgrael been disturbing my sleep with such dark dreams?”
The stranger reached out his hand and rested it on Timozel’s shoulder. “The Forbidden are desperate to turn you from Gorgrael. They have been the instigators of those dreams, not Gorgrael. You will have no more bad dreams from now on.”
Certainly not once I have a word with Gorgrael, the Dark Man thought. There had never been any need to disturb the boy’s mind with such dreams—but Gorgrael was ever inclined to the melodramatic.
All doubts had gone from Timozel’s mind now. At last he had found the right path. The visions had been true.
“Gorgrael will free Faraday from Axis’ foul clutches?” he asked.
“Oh, assuredly,” the Dark Man said. “Assuredly. He will be a master whom you will be proud to serve. You will sit by the fire with your Great Lord, Timozel, with Faraday by your side, sipping wine.”
“Oh,” Timozel breathed ecstatically, letting the vision engulf him.
“Now,” the Dark Man rose with the Icarii grace that he could not completely repress, “why don’t I take you to Great Lord? I have a boat, and in only a few short hours we shall reach his fortress. Your savior’s fortress. Will you come?”
“Friend.” Timozel stood by the Dark Man’s side, shaking sand from his cloak. “You have not told me your name.”
The Dark Man pulled his hood closer. “I have many names,” he said quietly, “but you may call me Friend.”
* * *
As Timozel climbed into the boat he realized how familiar Friend’s voice sounded. Why? Who was he? Where had he heard the voice before?
“Timozel? Is anything the matter?”
Timozel stared at the man, then he shook himself and climbed in.
“No, Friend,” he said. “Nothing’s the matter.”
* * *
Jayme abased himself before the icon of his beloved Artor the Plowman, the one true god of all Acharites—or at least, who had been until the setbacks of recent weeks.
Once the powerful Brother-Leader of the Seneschal, most senior mediator between Artor the Plowman and the hearts and souls of the Acharites, now Jayme mediated only between his own broken soul and the ghosts of his dreams and ambitions. He had once manipulated kings and peasants alike; now he manipulated little more than the buckles on his sandals. He had once resided in the great Tower of the Seneschal; now the Forbidden had reclaimed the Tower and burned the accumulated learning of over a thousand years. He had once sat easy with power, protected by the might of the military wing of the Seneschal, the Axe-Wielders and their BattleAxe. But now the remaining Axe-Wielders had cast aside their axes to serve the ghastly Forbidden, and their BattleAxe now claimed to be a Prince of the Forbidden. The BattleAxe. He had been as a son to Jayme, yet had betrayed both Jayme’s love and the Seneschal in leading the Forbidden back into Achar.
Jayme had once enjoyed the friendship and support of his senior adviser, Moryson. But now Moryson had deserted him.
Slowly Jayme rose to his knees and stared about the chamber where he had been incarcerated for the past nine days. They had not left him much. A single wooden chair and a plain table. A bedroll and blanket. Nothing else. Axis believed Jayme might try to kill himself, and so guards had emptied the room of everything save what Jayme needed for basic comfort.
Twice a day guards came to bring him food and attend his needs, but otherwise Jayme had been left alone.
Apart from his two visitors. His eyes clouded as he remembered.
Two days after the death of Achar’s hopes in the Chamber of the Moons, the Princess Rivkah had come to see him…
* * *
She entered the room silently and Jayme did not know she was there until he stood from his devotions before the sacred icon of Artor.
The moment Jayme turned and saw her his mouth went dry. He had never expected to be confronted by the woman he thought he and Moryson had murdered so many years previously.
For long minutes Rivkah just stood and stared at him. Jayme could not but help contrast her proud bearing with his own hunched and subservient posture. How is it, he thought, that the woman who did Achar and Artor so much wrong can stand there as if justice was on her side? How is it that she can stand there so beautiful and queenly when all Moryson and I deposited at the foot of the Icescarp Alps was a broken woman near death? Artor, why did you let her survive? Artor? Artor? Are you there?
“Why?” she eventually asked.
Surprising himself, Jayme actually replied in a moderately strong voice. “For the wrong that you did your husband and your country and your god, Rivkah. You did not deserve to live.”
“I was the one wronged, Jayme,” she said. “Yet you would that I had died a horrible death. You did not have the courage, as I remember, to put a knife through my throat.”
“It was Moryson’s idea,” Jayme said. “He thought it best that you die in a place far enough removed from civilization that your bones would not corrupt Artor-fearing souls.”
“Yet you let my son live.”
“He was innocent of your evil—at least, that’s what I thought at the time. I did not know then what it was that had put him in your belly. Knowing what I know now I would have put a knife to your throat, Rivkah. Well before you had a chance to give that abomination birth.”
Rivkah’s hands jerked slightly, the only sign she had been disturbed by Jayme’s words. At that moment she longed to flee, so great was her loathing for him, but she had one more thing to ask.
“Why did you name my son Axis?”
Jayme blinked at her, surprised by the question, and fought to remember. He shrugged slightly.
“Moryson named him.”
“But why Axis?”
“I do not know, Rivkah. It seemed a good enough name at the time. I could not have known then that he would prove to be the axis about which our entire world would turn and die.”
Rivkah took a deep breath. “You denied me my son and warped his soul for almost thirty years, Jayme, while you left me to die a slow, lingering death.” She stepped forward, and spat in Jayme’s face. “They say that forgiveness is the beginning of healing, Jayme, but I find it impossible to forgive the wrong you have done myself, my son and his father.”
She turned and strode to the door.
Just as she reached it Jayme spoke. Where the words came from he did not know, for the knowledge behind them and their sudden ferocity were not his.
“It is my understanding that the birdman you betrayed Searlas for has now betrayed and rejected you, Rivkah. You have been discarded, thrown aside because of your aging lines. Betrayal always returns to those who betray.”
Rivkah turned and stared at him, appalled. This was not strictly correct, but it was close enough to the truth to hurt. Had the price for her betrayal of Searlas been the eventual death of StarDrifter’s love for her? What price would she pay for the hurt she had caused Magariz so many years ago? She licked her lips and silently cursed her voice as it quavered.
“Then I am confident you will die a ghastly death, Jayme,” she said.
Despite her brave words, Rivkah’s entire body shuddered, and she flung the door open, running past the startled guard and down the corridor.
* * *
Jayme smiled, remembering Rivkah’s agitation. But the smile died as he recalled his second visitor.
* * *
Jayme had heard Axis well before he entered the room.
Axis stood outside the closed door for several minutes, talking with the guard posted there. Jayme knew Axis was toying with him, letting the sound of his casual conversation outside increase Jayme’s trepidation.
And his tactic worked. Jayme’s stomach heaved as he heard the key in the lock.
“Jayme,” Axis said flatly as he stepped inside the room.
Axis had always carried an aura of power as BattleAxe—now it was magnified ten times and carried with it infinite threat. Jayme opened his mouth to speak, but there was nothing to say.
“I have decided to put you on trial, Jayme. Rivkah has told me of your conversation,” Axis said, “and of your wretched effort to lay the blame for her attempted murder at Moryson’s feet. But it is not only the wrongs you have done me and my mother that you should answer for, Jayme, but the wrongs you have done the innocent people of Tencendor.”
Jayme found his voice and his courage. “Yet how many innocent people have you murdered for your depraved purposes, Axis? Justice always seems to rest with the victor, does it not?”
Axis stabbed an accusing finger at the former Brother-Leader. “How many innocent people did I murder in the name of the Seneschal, Jayme? How many people, guilty of nothing save innocent questions, did you send your BattleAxe out after, to ride down into the earth? How many innocent people have I murdered? You tell me. You were the one who sent me out to murder them in the name of Artor!”
“I only did what Artor told me, Axis. I only did what was right for the Way of the Plow.”
The anger faded from Axis’ face and he stared incredulously at Jayme. “Have you never thought to question the world about you? Have you never thought to question the narrow and brutal Way of the Plow? Have you never stopped to think what beauty the Seneschal destroyed when it drove the Icarii and the Avar beyond the Fortress Ranges a thousand years ago? Have you never stopped to question Artor?”
“Axis,” Jayme said, stepping forward. “What has happened to you? I thought I knew you, I thought I could trust you.”
“You thought you could use me.”
Axis stared at Jayme a moment longer, then turned for the door.
“I only used you for Artor’s sake,” Jayme said so softly that Axis barely heard him.
Axis looked around to his once-beloved Brother-Leader. “I shall spare no effort in dismantling the Seneschal, Jayme. I shall grind it and the cursed Way of the Plow into the dust where it belongs. I shall bury your hatreds and your bigotry and your unreasoning fears and I shall never, never, allow it or any like it to raise its deformed head in Tencendor again. Congratulations, Jayme. You will yet live to witness the complete destruction of the Seneschal.”
Jayme’s face was now completely white and his mouth trembled. He held out a hand. “Axis!”
But Axis was gone.
* * *
The memory of that visit disturbed Jayme so much that he abased himself once more before Artor’s icon, seeking what comfort the crude figure could give him.
The guards had taken from his room the beautiful gold and enamel icon of Artor that had held pride of place in the center of the main wall. During the first two days of his captivity Jayme had laboriously carved out a life-sized outline of the great god into the soft plaster of the wall. Even though he had torn his nails with the effort, at least he had an icon to pray to.
He pressed his forehead to the floor.
* * *
The sound of noisy celebrations in the streets below finally roused him in the early evening. Curious despite his despondency, Jayme wandered over to the window.
Cheerful crowds thronged the streets and Jayme listened carefully, trying to make out what they shouted. Most held beakers of beer or ale, a few had goblets of wine. All were smiling.
“A toast to our lord and lady!” Jayme heard one stout fellow shout, and the crowd happily obliged.
“A marriage made in the stars, they say!” shouted another, and Jayme was horrified to see that it came from one of several winged creatures in the crowd.
He frowned. Had Axis married Faraday already?
A tiny piece of plaster fell to the floor behind him. Then another. Deep in concentration on the scene below him, Jayme did not hear.
“To Axis!”
“And to Azhure!”
Large cracks spread across the wall, and a piece of plaster the size of a man’s fist bulged into the room.
“Azhure?” Jayme said. “Azhure?”
More plaster crumbled to the floor as further cracks and bulges raced across the wall, but Jayme was so engrossed in the crowd’s celebrations he did not hear it.
“Who is this Azhure?” Now Jayme had both hands and face pressed to the window pane in an effort to catch the shouts of the crowd.
She is one of the many reasons for your death, fool.
Jayme whimpered in terror and his eyes refocused away from the street below him and onto the reflection in the glass.
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 Brother-Leader 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 Plowman 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 Plow to 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 muscle-bound than any man Jayme had ever seen before. Artor had chosen to reveal Himself in the symbolic attire of the plowman: 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 plow team onward; 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 plow.
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 forward, 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 Plow 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 Plow 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 eastward.
* * *
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 plowed.

ISBN: 9780732251598
ISBN-10: 0732251591
Series: The Axis Trilogy
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 704
Published: 30th October 1996
Dimensions (cm): 18.1 x 11.2  x 4.2
Weight (kg): 0.38

Sara Douglass

Sara Douglass was born in Penola, South Australia, and moved to Adelaide when she was seven. She spent her early working life as a nurse before completing three degrees at the University of Adelaide. After receiving a PhD in early modern English history, Sara worked as a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at La Trobe University, Bendigo, until 2000.

Sara′s first novel, BattleAxe, was published in 1995 and she wrote a further 19 books of epic and historical fantasy fiction, a collection of short stories, and two books of non-fiction. Three of her novels won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy and many were shortlisted.

Sara shifted to Hobart, Tasmania, in 2005 and lived there writing full-time and restoring her beautiful old house and garden, until her death in September 2011.

Visit Sara Douglass's Booktopia Author Page