Chapter Three


    Upon the forest hung a sparkling frost. The air was cold and thick. If a twig snapped it would crackle for miles around but only the muted whisper of the trees could be heard. Above, the Moonstar hovered bright and clear in a deep dark sky. The Moon itself was not even a sliver, just a deeper darkness blotting out the glistening haze of the Roads of Light
Near the forest’s tangled heart lay a glade where the darkness moved strangely. dancing over the pale snow like mist in a squall. The skulkrin paused at the clearing’s edge; though darkness was his daylight this was beyond his ken. Nameless fears urged him to turn and run but his muscles would not move nor his eyes unfix themselves from the dancing shadows.
    As he watched, his fears seemed to drift away as though they were just brief clouds that had enshrouded him and were now passing into the far, far distance. The skulkrin edged forwards into the glade. He felt a beautiful, glowing glory shiver through him. He was completely bewildered; never, not even as a young skulkling, had he been happy like this. Unaccountably, he felt good and kind and gentle.
    The feeling gnawed at him like an aching tooth. In a daze, he wandered to the centre of the glade and as the shadows danced around him he peered up at the Moonstar. Its bright needles of light pierced him with wonder. His mind had never before grasped what beauty was and now the strange, intoxicating experience overwhelmed him. In a gentle, lilting voice, he began to sing a song he had never heard.
    The forest filled with the skulkrin‘s fleeting song. The smaller creatures of the night hearing only the deadly burr of a skulkrin, however well-disguised, fled to the burrows and nests. The larger creatures paused, as bewildered as the skulkrin itself, and then quickly passed on their way, suspecting some devious skulkrin trap.
    Yet there was one who heard and understood. Waking himself easily from his walking sleep, Corleth the Fey turned and made his way towards the strange singer. His long, flowing strides carried him swiftly to the glade. There, at the edge of the clearing, Corleth stood and watched the tiny man-thing as it sang from the bottom of its ill-used heart
    In a soft deep whisper, Corleth added his own voice to the refrain. Then, as if prompted, a breath of wind murmured through the trees and the whole forest seemed to hum with joy.
    Gradually the skulkrin’s song shrivelled to silence. The creature stirred from his dream and looked around himself. The dancing shadows had gone but across the clearing he spotted a tall, dark figure clad in a cloak that seemed to shimmer with stars. Corleth stepped forward, laughing gently.
    "Now, little skulkrin, you know what it is to be a child of the earth, not just a spawn of the Ice Lord."
    Fawkrin smiled foolishly. Not knowing what to say in reply, he scampered up to Corleth and stroked his cloak of midnight blue, gazing in wonder as tiny pinpricks of light glinted in the gaps between his fingers.
    "Come, little skulkrin, tell me on what mischief you are bound! ‘’
    "None, my Lord," lied the skulkrin automatically. Then, having said so, he suddenly regretted it. A longing to be truthful stabbed so fiercely at him that he cried out with a squeal of pain. Even so, his skulkrin ways were not so easily abandoned and the most he could bring himself to say was, "None of my own, Fey Lord."
    "I need not ask whose," smiled Corleth.
    The skulkrin shook his head slowly from side to side.
    "I have been bad, my Lord. I sprinkled sleep-frost on the Lord Luxor and found out where he was bound. And the boy who served him . . . well, I was hungry . . . even skulkrin have to eat, my Lord. He was a nasty boy anyway. He prodded my throat with his knife."
    Corleth’s eyes lit with sudden anger. The skulkrin realised his mistake and babbled away in fearful haste.
    "I only gave him a nip on the hand. I didn’t eat him. He was a kind boy, a nice boy, surely he was," whined the skulkrin.
    "Be at peace, little skulkrin," said Corleth, "To each his own way. I know, in truth, you are but a tool in the hand that made you."
    The skulkrin began to fidget nervously.
    "The Cold One will frostify me for sure. He sees thoughts, you know, sees thoughts. Can’t escape him. Make me forget, Fey Lord, surely you can make me forget!"
The skulkrin looked up at Corleth with wide, pleading eyes. Corleth shook his head.
    "I cannot save you from the beauty of the world. I can make you forget this forest, this glade, but you have tasted the sweetness of life and that is beyond my powers to dispel. Besides, how could I bring myself to steal such a remembrance from you? Better kill you than cripple you again."
    "Very kind of you, surely, but I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble," said the skulkrin.
    Corleth laughed.
    "You have a wry tongue, skulkrin. It may save you yet. Here, a small gift for you before I leave."
    Into the skulkrin’s hand, Corleth dropped a small amber crystal. The sphere lay in Fawkrin’s palm like a tiny sun, glowing with its own soft and soothing light. The skulkrin gazed on it and smiled; he felt it was very precious. A single tear trickled down his cheek. No one had ever given him a gift before and Fawkrin was sure this was peerless amongst all gifts that had ever been given.
    "Thank you, my Lord!" he gasped and tore his gaze from the jewel to look at Corleth. Corleth was already disappearing into the dark of the forest.
    "Wait, my Lord, wait!" cried the skulkrin.
    A deep and distant voice called in reply, "Farewell little skulkrin, and begone swiftly; I suspect the wrath of the Lord Luxor will not be far behind you ."
    The skulkrin looked nervously around the glade, as if Luxor might burst out of the darkness at any moment. Then he clenched his fist tightly around the glowing heartstone and scurried to cover. Though he was fearful of his return to Ushgarak. return he must. This time, he had a glimmer of hope to comfort him: the marvellous discovery that there     was another being in the world who cared about his fate.
Corleth did not resume his own journey but instead followed the skulkrin’s old trail southwards. It was a difficult path to follow if you were not a skulkrin and Corleth made slow progress. At length, he emerged onto a forest road. His eyes quickly scoured the width of the pathway for hoof prints and finding none. he smiled to himself, seated himself on a nearby tree-trunk and waited.
    It was not long before the riders he expected appeared. Luxor slowed his horse to a trot and approached Corleth with his sword drawn. Corleth stood and smiled.
"What’s your business, tall one?" said Luxor.
    "I know a skulkrin who shows me more courtesy than that," laughed Corleth.
Morkin reined in beside Luxor and drew his sword swiftly from its scabbard.
"He must be one of Doomdark’s. my Lord," hissed the boy, in what he imagined was a whisper, " Let me slay him."
    Corleth laughed again. a long languorous laugh that rolled through the night air like a gentle mist.
    "You may try, Morkin, if you wish," said Corleth. He tugged a cord at his neck and the cloak of midnight blue fell away from him, revealing a shirt of mail so finely woven it seemed like a skin of silver. Corleth rested his hand on the hilt of his sword and waited. Morkin looked astonished, but nevertheless he frowned, bared his teeth in an attempt to look grim and fearsome, and urged his horse towards Corleth.
    As Morkin’s sword scythed down, Corleth stepped lightly aside and caught the boy’s wrist in his hand. Both Morkin and his sword tumbled into the snow. At once, Morkin scrambled towards his dropped weapon but Corleth was quicker. He took up the sword and held its point against the boy’s chest.
    "I will not yield." blurted out Morkin, red and angry, "You must kill me first!"
"Then it seems I must yield, for I would not kill you," said Corleth. Then he reversed the sword and handed it. hilt first, to the boy.
    Morkin jumped to his feet and held the sword uncertainly against Corleth’s shining shirt of mail.
    "Will you give quarter, young knight?’’ asked Corleth with only a hint of a smile breaking on his lips.
    "Only if you give your word that you will not try to escape," answered Morkin.
    "Luxor, my friend, you have a bold squire!" laughed Corleth.
    "Friend?" said Morkin.
    "Friend indeed," said Luxor, striding up beside Morkin, "We fought side-by-side on the Plains of Blood in the last war against Doomdark. I did not recognise him at first, but this is Corleth the Fey. This prisoner of yours will fetch a hefty ransom, Morkin!"
    Morkin dropped the point of his sword to the ground and turned towards Luxor, his face burning.
    "How was I to know that? You let me make a fool of myself."
    Luxor placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
    "No, Morkin, Corleth was testing your spirit: it is better to know your comrade’s mettle before the real battle begins, is it not?"
    "And you made no fool of yourself," added Corleth. ‘’You did what any true warrior would."
    Morkin frowned and sheathed his sword. "Truly?" he asked.
    "Truly," said Luxor. Morkin beamed with pleasure. He turned to Corleth.
    "You fought quite well too, my Lord." he said, magnanimously. Then the man and the boy and the fey all laughed together.
    Morkin lent his horse to Corleth and sat afore Luxor as they rode north along the forest road. Luxor did not wish to lose more time than necessary and didn’t mention the matter of the skulkrin until they were on their way. When he did relate the tale, Corleth remained silent until Luxor had finished. Then, at last, he spoke.
    "I met this skulkrin but an hour past," said Corleth.
    "Why did you not say?" asked Luxor incredulously, "We must find it and silence it."
    "At peace, my friend; you must give some quarter even to skulkrin. Are they not creatures of flesh and blood? His only crime is knowledge and you cannot slay him for that alone. Who knows? Perhaps he will not tell Doomdark of his knowledge."
    "Perhaps snow is not cold," said Luxor bitterly.
    "Perhaps it is not," said Corleth, "Would you believe that I found this skulkrin in a glade of shadows. singing his heart out to the Moonstar? Would you believe that he told me truly of his deeds this night? Would you believe that when I made him a gift of a heartstone, a tear rolled down his cheek?"
    "If any but you had told me, I would not," said Luxor.
    "Then believe me when I say we must let him live and find his own destiny. If we do not, why are we fighting Doomdark?"
    "Yes, you are right, my friend." said Luxor wearily. Then he added darkly. "The cold wears me down."
    "Your heart is strong enough. Believe that too." smiled Corleth.
Luxor fell silent, remembering earlier days when they had ridden together across the lands of Midnight with cares that seemed as light as falling snow. He hoped his heart was strong enough. Then hearing the gentle snoring of Morkin asleep before him, Luxor seemed to hear all the peoples of the Free slumbering innocently while incomprehensive dangers gathered about them and knew he must be strong. He shrugged the coldness from him and rode on towards the Tower of the Moon a little more gladly.

Chapter Two

CONTENTS Chapter Four