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A rather tumbledown, grey-walled hovel sat in the centre of the clearing. Flowerbeds surrounded the hut, but they were overgrown with mouldy-stemmed weeds and thistles. A picket fence surrounded the hovel and its gardens; most of the pickets were snapped off. The once-white paint had faded and peeled from the pickets that remained whole, so that the fence resembled nothing so much as the sad mouth of a senile gape-brained man.
Ur’s enchanted nursery had fallen into unhappy days.
Two women sat on a garden seat set in a small paved area.
Several of the paving stones had crumbled, and dust crept across the uneven court.
The Mother wrapped Her fingers around a cup of tea and tried not to sigh again. She was tired — the effort of closing off the trails to the Sacred Groves against any incursions by the Demons had been exhausting — but more worrying was Her overwhelming feeling of malaise. The Mother did not feel well. In truth, She felt profoundly ill.
Tencendor had been wasted by Qeteb, the Earth Tree was gone (surviving only in embryonic form in the seedling She had given Faraday), and the Mother could feel the life force ebbing from Her.
But not before — oh gods, not before! — that life could be restored elsewhere!
“Is it gone?” a cracked voice beside Her asked, and the Mother jumped.
“What? Oh, no, thank you, I still have a half cup left.” And yet almost everything else had gone, hadn’t it? Everything…
Ur grumbled incoherently into her cup, and the Mother looked at her. The hood of Ur’s red cloak was lying over her angular shoulders, revealing the woman’s bald skull. The skin over Ur’s face was deeply wrinkled, but it stretched tight and angry over the bones of her skull.
Ur had lost her forest. For over fifteen thousand years Ur had tended her nursery hidden deep within the trees of the Sacred Groves. As each female Avar Bane had died, so her soul had come here to be transplanted out as a seedling in a tiny terracotta pot. Forty-two thousand Banes had transformed in this manner, and Ur had known them all — their names, their histories, their likes and loves and disappointments. And, having cradled them, Ur had then handed them over to Faraday to be replanted as the great Minstrelsea Forest.
Which, after only forty-two years of life, Qeteb had then turned to matchsticks.
Matchsticks! Ur rolled the word over and over in her mind, using it as both curse and promise of revenge.
Ur’s beloved had been reviled, murdered, and utterly destroyed by the excrement of the universe.
Her lips tightened away from her teeth — incongruously white and square — and Ur silently snarled at her ravaged garden. Revenge …
“It is not good to think such thoughts,” the Mother said, and laid Her hand on Ur’s gaunt thigh.
Ur closed her lips into a thin hard line, and she did not speak.
The Mother fought again to repress a sigh and looked instead out to the forest beyond Ur’s decaying garden.
Everything was fading. The forests of the Sacred Groves, even the Horned Ones themselves. The Mother had not realised how closely tied to Tencendor the Groves were — as was the health of all who resided in them. Tencendor had been wasted, and if DragonStar could not right the wrong of Qeteb and his companion Demons, and finish what the Enemy had begun so many aeons before, then eventually the Groves would die.
As would Herself, and all the Horned Ones, and even perhaps Ur.
The Mother shot another glance at the ancient nursery-keeper. And perhaps not. Ur appeared to be keeping lively enough on her diet of unremitting need for revenge.
“But We are safe enough for the while,” the Mother whispered. “Safe enough for the while.”
Chapter 3 A Son Lost, A Friend Gained (#ulink_02b58386-1b78-504e-8003-9e024cbf191e)
Sanctuary should have been crowded. Over the past weeks hundreds of thousands of people, as well millions of sundry insects, animals and birds, had swarmed across the silver tracery bridge, along the roadway meandering through the fields of wildflowers and grasses and into the valley mouth. Yet despite the influx of such numbers, Sanctuary continued to remain a place of delightful spaces and untrodden paths, of thermals that seemingly rose into infinite heights, and Mazes of corridors in its palaces that appeared perpetually unexplored.
Sanctuary had absorbed the populations of Tencendor without a murmur, and without a single bulge. It had absorbed and embraced them, offering them peace and comfort and endless pleasantness.
And yet for many, Sanctuary felt more like a prison. The endless peace and comfort and pleasantness had begun to slide into endless irritation and odious boredom which found temporary release in occasional physical conflict (an ill-tempered slap to a face, a harder than needed smack to a child’s legs) and more frequent spiteful words.
For others, it was more personal aggravations that made them feel like prisoners in a vast, amiable gaol.
StarDrifter, wandering the corridors and wondering what more he could do to ease Zenith into the love she tried to deny.
Zenith herself, wondering when it was that she would be able to think of StarDrifter’s embrace with longing instead of revulsion.
DareWing, dying, yet still driven by such a need for revenge that he hauled himself from tree to tree and from glade to glade, seeking that which might ease his frustration.
Azhure, weeping for the children she had lost.
Isfrael, seething with resentment at the loss of his inheritance.
Faraday, her eyes dry but her heart burning, wondering if she would have the courage to accept a love she feared might once more end in her destruction.
Katie, clinging to Faraday’s skirts, grinning silently and secretly, and wondering if Faraday would ever be able to accept the sacrifice.
Sanctuary was a brooding, sad place for something so apparently beauteous and peaceful.
Sanctuary was proving unbearable for yet one more man.
Axis had spent his life controlling the world that battered at his doorstep. As BattleAxe he had theoretically been subordinate to the Brother-Leader of the Seneschal, but in reality had largely controlled his own destiny as he had the destinies of his command. As a newly-discovered Enchanter he had found he had much to learn, but had gloried in that learning and the added power it gave him (as in the woman it brought him). As StarMan, Axis had held the fate of an entire land and all its peoples in his hand, and he had held it well, plunging the Rainbow Sceptre into Gorgrael’s chest and reclaiming the land for the Icarii and Avar.
Yet in the past year Axis had learned that he’d only been a pawn in some Grand Plan of this ancient race known as the Enemy, and an even tinier pawn of the Star Dance itself which had manipulated not only the Enemy, but every creature on Tencendor.
And for what? To breed the battleground and the champion to best the most ancient of enemies; festering evil in the shape of the TimeKeeper Demons.
“We have all been for nothing,” Axis whispered to himself, “save to provide the Star Dance with the implements for whatever final act it has planned.”
And what part would he play in that plan?
“And damn you to every pit of every damned AfterLife,” Axis murmured, “for making of me a mere pawn where once I had been a god!”
Then he laughed, for it was impossible not to so laugh at his own frustrated sense of importance. Axis consciously relaxed his shoulders, and looked about him.
It was a fine, warm day in Sanctuary — as were all days — and he was walking down the road from Sanctuary towards the bridge (at last! to have escaped the confinement of unlimited safety!). To either side of him waved pastel flowers, wafting gentle scent in the soft breeze. The plain between the mountains that cradled Sanctuary and the bridge that led from the sunken Keep apparently stretched into infinity on either side of the road, and Axis wondered what would happen if he set off to his left or right. Would the magic of Sanctuary eventually return him to the spot from which he had commenced, even though he walked in a deliberately straight line? Would he be allowed to escape the glorious inaction of Sanctuary?
“I wonder if I might ever manage to —” Axis began in a musing tone, then halted, stunned.
A moment previously he had been a hundred paces from the bridge, he could have sworn it! Yet now here he was, one booted foot resting on the silvery surface of the bridge’s roadway.
“Welcome, Axis SunSoar, StarMan,” the bridge said. “May I assist you?”
Axis grinned. The bridge sounded as enthusiastic as an exhausted whore on her way home after a laborious night’s work entertaining her clientele. His grin broadened at the thought. The bridge had borne a heavy load of bodies recently, after all.
And every one of them to be questioned as to the trueness of their intentions.
“Well,” he said, and leaned his crossed arms on the handrail so he could peer into the clouded depths of the chasm below the bridge. “I admit I grow lonesome for some witty conversation, bridge, and I remembered the pleasant nights I spent whiling away the sleepless hours with your sister.”
And was she still alive, Axis suddenly wondered, in the maelstrom that had consumed Tencendor?
“She has ever had a more companionable time than I,” grumbled the bridge. “Here I sat, spanning the depths between your world and Sanctuary, desperate for company yet hoping I would never find it.”
Axis nodded in understanding. Company would have meant — did mean — that complete disaster threatened the world above.
“And, yes,” the bridge added softly, “my sister still lives. The disaster is not yet complete, Axis SunSoar.”
Axis shifted uncomfortably. This bridge was far more adept at reading unspoken thoughts than her sister. “And when the disaster is complete? What then?”
“What then? Victory, my friend. Utter victory.”
Axis straightened, biting down his anger. “Disaster is utter victory? How can that be?”
An aura of absolute disinterest emanated from the bridge. “I am not the one who can show you that answer, Axis.”
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