| As darkness seeped
through the trees, the skulkrin shivered and grunted. Still asleep in a nest of leaves and
bracken, he cowered as he lay there and his tiny hands quivered in supplication.
"O Great One," he whimpered, "Fawkrin would not fail you. Fawkrin is your faithfullest servant."
The skulkrins long tongue lolled out to lick an absent hand. A cold, crackling voice rang out in the creatures dream.
"Wretch! I would not trust you further than I could kick you!"
As if to demonstrate, Doomdark aimed the toe of his boot at the skulkrins thin belly. Fawkrin, half-expecting such a response, darted away but not swiftly enough. The blow caught him on the backside and sent him sprawling. Doomdark sneered.
The skulkrin picked himself up and dusted the splinters of ice from his ragged tunic.
"Youre too kind to Fawkrin, Great One. Fawkrin loves to be kicked around. Oh surely, Fawkrin loves a sore backside, oh surely, too kind!" said the skulkrin, adding under his breath, "Great mound of flatulence."
In a withering voice, Doomdark whispered, "Go."
Fawkrin cringed as the Witchkings frozen breath rolled towards him, trailing a glittering cloud of ice as it clawed through the air. Fawkrin shrieked, shook and woke.
"Must find Luxor," he muttered to himself, "Surely must."
Shaking himself as he stood up, the skulkrin pawed at all his bodily parts to make sure they were still there, then scuttled off into the murk of the forest.
Fawkrin moved swiftly, skipping over the crisp snow where the ground was even, dropping to all fours when fallen trees and stray boulders made a mountain range of the forest floor. For a few moments, he imagined he was a young skulkrin again, dancing alone and carefree through the white wilderness, but presently he remembered, stopped and sniffed. The simmering breath of the trees streamed into his twitching nostrils but then a different warmth mingled with the resinous gloom of the forest: man-warmth. The skulkrin shivered and sniffed again. There was another warmth there too - boy-warmth!-His long tongue slavered out over his lips. A bite to eat would not go amiss.
Fawkrin found his quarry in a clearing. There was no fire, else he would have found them sooner, and the man and the boy were huddled under a makeshift roof of branches and ferns. Quiet as a snowfall, Fawkrin crept into the bivouac. He pawed around in his tunic and from the grubby depths he tugged out a small pouch of matted fur. From it, the skulkrin poured a heap of glowing white dust into his palm which he quickly sprinkled over the sleeping faces of the humans. Even so, Fawkrin felt a frosty numbness gripping his fingers like a glove of ice.
He muttered to himself, "Rotten Doomdark magic. Could make magic that dont hurt Fawkrin, surely could." Then he shook his clawed little hand until he felt the blood trickle back, whimpering softly all the while.
It seemed that stars had fallen from the sky to settle on the faces of the man and the boy. One by one, each glinting speck faded and disappeared as the sleep-frost melted into their skin. Fawkrin waited until the last glimmer had died, then edged closer to the man. He sniffed at the mans tepid breath, his nose wrinkling and twitching as he tested its warmth and texture. Then he giggled in delight.
"Khlee-khlee-khlee! The great Lord Luxor! Khlee-khlee! Now He wont kick Fawkrin on his backside, surely not."
The skulkrin knelt down, brought his mouth close to Luxors ear and in a mellow, soothing voice that seemed absurd from such a creature, he whispered, "Lord Luxor, great Lord Luxor, brave Lord Luxor, why have you come to the Forest of Shadows, tell me, Oh tell me where you are bound!"
Luxor stirred. Eyes still closed, his arm rose mechanically and his hand wavered towards the knife in his belt. The skulkrin scurried away with a squeak of terror but Luxors arm fell back. lifeless, to the ground. Fawkrin crouched in the darkness a full minute before he found courage enough to crawl back to Luxor. In truth, even this was simply the courage of necessity, his fear of Doomdark reasserting itself over his fear of the warlord.
"Great Lord Luxor! " sang the skulkrin, Tell me where you are bound!"
This time, Luxor did not stir. He spoke in a faint, weary murmur.
"I have been called by the Wise," he slurred, "I have been called to their Council at the Tower of the Moon, summoned."
"But why, tell me why?" crooned the skulkrin.
"The Solstice. Doomdark grows stronger yet. We must act. I know no more. The Wise keep their own counsel."
Fawkrin guessed this was the truth. Though a great warlord of the Free, even Luxor would not be privy to the secrets of the Wise.
"Bah! Great war lump. Might as well tell Doomdark the sun will rise tomorrow. Sore backside for Fawkrin."
Then a thought struck the skulkrin and he grinned a jagged, twinkling grin.
"O great lord, how do you think of the Witchking? Is he not greater than you?" hissed the skulkrin.
"Doomdark is hag-spawn, a foul pestilence, a piece of scum adrift on the fair waters of Midnight. If he fought like a man, I would slay him in two breaths."
The skulkrin convulsed in tremendous giggles. Though he shivered at the thought of Him, there was nothing more deliciously exciting than to hear Him insulted. Suddenly, a cold breath trickled down Fawkrins neck. His laughter stopped just as suddenly and he clenched his hands together.
"I wasnt laughing, O Great One, oh no! Surely I wasnt."
Only silence and the gentle whisper of the trees was the reply. The skulkrin sighed and smiled crookedly.
"Silly skulkrin. Cant hurt you here, can He?"
He swivelled round and turned to the sleeping boy. He snuffled at his face and shoulders and chest.
"Mmmm. Fresh! And so warm! " he declared.
Morkin was lying on his side, towards the skulkrin, with his bare forearm hooked in front of his face. Fawkrin tugged another pouch from his tunic and poured some more white powder into his palm . Sparingly, he sprinkled it over the boys arm. No melting glow could be seen for this time the white dust was more mundane; it was salt. Fawkrin opened his jaws wide and ducked eagerly forward.
Just as the skulkrins fangs were about to sink into the morsel prepared, Morkin opened his eyes. Had the skulkrin been turned to ice, an event not unfamiliar to Doomdarks servants, he could not have stopped in mid-bite more swiftly. For half a moment, Fawkrin was at a loss and could only stare in amazement and terror. Then, a half-moment more and his gaping bite had suddenly transformed itself into a broad grin.
Hello, young sir! " the skulkrin gulped. He gulped again as a knife-point pressed sharply against his throat.
"If you so much as twitch, little furry one, youll twitch no more. Whats your business with us?" said Morkin.
"Nothing, young sir, nothing, surely. Fawkrin only seeks warmth and shelter. Gets fine hospitality too. Knife at his throat. Questioned like a criminal. Fine hospitality, surely."
Oh!" said Morkin, mockingly, Hospitality in your country stretches to becoming a meal for your guests. Fine hospitality that!"
"Oh no, young sir, oh no! Fawkrin is a good skulkrin. He would not eat such a fine, strong, handsome, kind boy."
The salt, then, is for good luck, I suppose."
"So clever, young lord, surely. Yes, good luck. Course!"
"I ought to make your end now but I fear you have worked some doomish spell on my Lord. He sleeps strangely and has not stirred. Wake him and Ill spare you your skin and bones."
"Only the light of day can do that, young sir," whimpered the skulkrin.
Youre lying, fur-thing!" said the boy angrily. He prodded the creatures throat with the knife-point. Fawkrin winced.
Its dangerous. young sir, dangerous, surely."
"More so if you dont," said Morkin, prodding more firmly with the knife.
"I think, perhaps, I should try to wake him young sir," squeaked the skulkrin.
With his knife-hand, Morkin waved the creature towards Luxor. Fawkrin took yet another pouch from his tunic and waved it to and fro under Luxors nose. Languidly, the man opened his eyes. For a moment, Morkins gaze left the skulkrin. The skulkrin bit savagely at the boy and, instinctively, the boy lashed out with the skulkrin clamped to his hand. The creature crashed through the thin branches that sheltered them. His jaws dropped open at the shock of impact but his flight continued, out into the forest towards a particularly prickly clump of brambles. He scrambled to his feet and raced off northwards, plucking out thorns as he ran.
Armour," he muttered glumly, "Thats what Fawkrin needs, armour on his bum. Rotten Doomdark magic. Dont even work on food. Fah!"
Morkin was gently shaking Luxor.
"Luxor, my Lord, are you hurt?"
At peace, Morkin; I was only dreaming. Whats amiss?"
"A furry creature was about to make a meal of my arm before I stopped It at knife-point. It had put you under a spell, my Lord.
Did it speak?"
"Yes; it said it was a skulkrin.
A skulkrin! Then Doomdark senses something. The skulkrin rarely come so far south. Did you tell it anything, Morkin?"
"No my Lord, but it was speaking to you when I woke."
Luxor sat up and peered at the folds of the cloak where his head had lain. A few specks of glimmering dust lingered on the dark fabric.
"Sleep-frost! Morkin, did you kill it?"
Morkin shook his head.
"No, my Lord. It escaped."
Come, we must ride! You did well enough to wake, though how you did that after sleep-frost I cannot fathom."
Luxor grasped Morkins hand firmly. Morkin winced and Luxor felt the warm slick of blood.
"Youre hurt Morkin."
"Its only a bite, my Lord."
"A skulkrin bite turns foul in hours," said the man.
"Then must I cut it open and suck out the poison?"
Luxor laughed. "You listen to too many ale-tales, Morkin. No, a few leaves of sweet flame will clean the wound. We will ride now and gather some on the way, but we must find the skulkrin. If we do not, I fear Doomdark may get untimely warning that the Wise are awake."