Chapter Four


    Dawn approached stealthily, running swift fingers of light over the Lands of Midnight. Far to the east, it touched the grim Keep of Utarg with a brief golden haze: the Targ sentries yawned and looked around only to see if the next watch approached to relieve them. The dawn moved on. trembling over the Downs of Athoril, cloaking them in scarlet and saffron. The hills which had seemed hunched herds of vast menacing creatures in the absence of light, seemed now to draw apart and unfold.
    The daylight spread further westwards, painting the Plains of Dawn first crimson, then amber, then a deep glowing yellow so that they looked, for a fleeting moment. as they did at any noon of the Long Summer. clad in wheaten gold. In lonely hamlets scattered across the broad plains, villagers stirred and smiled to see the warmth of daylight return, then bent themselves to their daily tasks.
    Over the Forest of Thrall sped the hand of the Sun. shooting bright arrows of light into the sepulchral darkness of the trees, and then further west to caress the sheer walls and tall towers of the Citadel of Shimeril. As the first blaze of sunlight fell into the Courtyard of the Kings. the great horn sang out over the city. Twelve times the great horn bellowed its simple fanfare, a short, deep boom followed by a longer, more strident note. A-wake, a-wake, it sang and then fell silent. The city roused itself dreamily. with creakings of shutters, rattling of doors and the growing murmur of feet on its cobbled streets.
    The dawn did not linger but hurried on its endless journey, ever westward, ever westward till the world ceased to spin. Across the Plains of Blood it shed its own, brighter blood. What men moved there shivered in reluctant remembrance and did not pause to gaze upon the colours of the sunrise. Then, at last, the light grazed the edges of the Forest of Shadows, rose up and flew over a sea of mist-wrapped trees to touch the high stones of the Tower of the Moon.
    From its crowning dome of Looking-Crystal, Rorthron was watching. Through the mists of the forest, he saw a wind of light blow away the darkness and speed towards him over the leagues and leagues of trees. And though he would not have cared to count how many dawns he had watched from his solitary post, he smiled as he always did when the sun rose in full glory over the green rim of the forest.
    Rorthron turned and looked to the west where the light still advanced inexorably upon the dark army of trees. He sighed. Such a brief summer this starved Sun brought each day. He had been not much more than a boy at the height of the Long Summer. Then, the great disk of the Sun seemed to fill the sky; a day seemed to stretch forever as the languid hours glided by; and people sought cool shade, not crackling fires. It did not seem ten thousand moons ago.
    Rorthron shook his head as if to deny that the Long Summer had ever existed. He roused himself from his memories and set his gaze beyond the horizon. He looked first to the north, to Ushgarak, the eye of his mind not seeing pictures but instead absorbing a crowd of thoughts that clamoured in the far. far distance.
    There was much commotion in the great Citadel. Men, and fouler creatures, were preparing themselves for war. The captains of Doomdark were tallying supplies, marshalling their war-bands, bustling to and fro in the Winter Palace with last-minute orders and requisitions. Their thoughts were only of victory; already they were exultant at the havoc they would wreak, the vast slaughter that lay at their command.
    The lesser minions of the Witchking were less sanguine. Though they too had no doubt of the final victory, they knew equally that they might not be granted the privilege of enjoying it, knew that their lives were the coinage of war to be spent wantonly as their cold master decreed. Some were filled with disgust at themselves that their weakness and abject fear had brought them to this, fighting in the service of the loathsome Doomdark. Others, more pragmatic, simply counted themselves lucky that they, at least, had a chance to survive whilst the enemies of the Cold One most certainly did not. And there were some. of course, who despite their fears for their own wretched lives took comfort in the knowledge that soon they would be reaping a rich harvest of death and pain across the battlefields of Midnight and nourished their uncertain courage with lurid visions of rape and pillage.
    Rorthron turned away. He had seen nothing he had not expected to see, yet still it filled him with infinite sadness to see the people and creatures of Midnight used thus. The Wise had failed. So long ago, in the very dawn of the world, his race had been charged with its guardianship. Now, their complacent folly had allowed this to happen and all they could bring themselves to do was to lock themselves securely in their towers and choose to forget that the world still existed beyond the high stones.
    At length, Rorthron turned this mind-gaze south-east to Corelay and the Citadel of Xajorkith. Here was a different commotion; children playing in the streets, waggoners foddering their horses. market-sellers calling out to early customers, inn-keepers pouring the first ale of the morning into great jugs, blacksmiths stoking their forges. The city was at peace, its people content. And if there were vague fears for the future itching in the depths of men’s minds, they were forgotten in the brightness of morning, each dawn a new hope, a new beginning.
    One day from the Solstice, Corelay still had an air of summer about it. The sadness lifted a little from Rorthron’s thoughts. While Corelay was free, there was still hope and goodness in the world and he must bend all his powers to preserve it. Rorthron walked briskly to the stairway and descended from his eyrie to greet the riders approaching out of the Forest of Shadows.
    Luxor, Corleth and Morkin were greeted warmly by Rorthron. They bathed first after their long journey and then joined Rorthron to break fast in the High Hall. A blazing fire was burning in the great stone fire place and they sat before it with Rorthron to eat and drink. There were many tales to be told but as the day grew older, Luxor turned to more serious matters.
    "When does the Council begin, Rorthron? Surely, there is much to discuss.’’
    "My friend, it has already begun. I am guilty of a little deceit; no others of the Wise will stir themselves. They think I am a foolish old man with a hopeless dream and will have no part in the coming war against Doomdark. They wait for better times, as if better times will appear by magic out of nowhere," said Rorthron wearily.
    "This cannot be so!" cried Luxor, aghast.
    "It is so, my friend; I am the Last Council of the Wise."
Corleth laughed. "Then at least we can hope for unanimous decisions. Besides, one of you, Rorthron, is worth a score of the rest. We should not be troubled when the hopeless desert us."
    Rorthron smiled gratefully, Luxor nodded his reluctant acceptance of the truth and their talk turned to Midnight and the realms of the Free. In the east, the Targ still preserved a fiery independence. The Utarg of Utarg would suffer none to cross his lands, Free or Fey or Foul and though the Witchking was known to have sent embassies to him, only one ambassador had been returned, flayed alive. To the north of the Plains of Targ, Kumar had not been invaded for many moons. On its northern borders, the Forest of Whispers had swallowed many a doomish war-band and to the west the Marshal of Kumar kept a strong watch on the Mountains of Ithril.
    West of the Targ, Marakith remained free, though war-bands had been spotted on the western plains scurrying for the cover of the Forest of Thrall. Further west, the Plains of Blood had become a dangerous place for the lonely traveller, though still passable by a strong troop. The Marshal of Shimeril sent frequent raiding parties north into the plains. Many of the Foul had been slain but with each passing day their strength grew and the Gap of Valethor could no longer be reached without an army to clear the way.
    Around the Forest of Shadows itself, there was little to be seen of Men, Foul or Free, yet further south on the Plains of Gard, Doomdark kept a strong raiding band that had even ventured to the walls of the Citadel of Gard. Of all the lands of Midnight, only Corelay remained untouched by Doomdark’s cold hand.
    None of them doubted that Doomdark would deploy his main strength on the plains of Valethor and once again attempt to force a passage south across the Plains of Blood. To the east the Mountains of Ithril were too formidable a barrier for the numberless armies of the Witchking to be supplied across, let alone to march across. To the west, the bleak passage between the Mountains of Ashimar and Dodrak was too narrow a road for him to risk.
    But could they hold Doomdark this time on the Plains of Blood, as they had done so many times before? If not, Doomdark could choose from many roads after gaining the Plains; he could strike out at his leisure in any direction and the armies of the Free would be caught running to one breach after another. Luxor was not hopeful.
    "Doomdark is too strong. How can we hope to hold him now on the Plains of Blood when we so barely succeeded the last time?"
    "Perhaps we should not try," said Corleth. "If we let him move his hordes onto the Plains of Blood and further south if necessary, that would leave the way open for us to strike at Ushgarak itself."
    "To do that, we would need to pass through the Gap of Valethor ourselves," said Luxor. "We could not do that with Doomdark camped on the Plains."
    "Have you forgotten Ithrorn, my friend? Is not the Citadel of Ithrorn still free?" asked Corleth.
    "Tenuously so," said Rorthron, "The Marshal of Ithrorn is sorely pressed."
    "From Ithrorn we could strike north without the Mountains of Ithril to block our way, then turn west at Droonhenge and approach Ushgarak by its back door.’’
    "And what of Marakith and Shimeril and Corelay? Are we to leave them defenceless in the face of Doomdark whilst we ride off on a hopeless sortie? No, Corleth, I will not do that," shouted Luxor.
    "Is it any less hopeful than defending the Plains of Blood? Either way, all may be lost, but if we should take Ushgarak, Doomdark would be finished."
    "At what price?" asked Luxor, angrily.
    Rorthron got to his feet and stood before them.
    "At peace, my friends. All ways are perilous but we must not exclude any if we are to defeat Doomdark. His greatest weapon is fear and confusion. We must not think that any task is hopeless - and it is not! Even Doomdark was once flesh and blood. Now he is more ice and water, how much easier should it be to defeat him’’ said Rorthron, smiling benignly.
    Luxor was still bitter. "I know you are not senile yet Rorthron. If your words are meant to comfort us, they are ill-chosen."
    "Perhaps you need more than words," said Rorthron calmly. He reached out his hand towards Luxor and opened it out, palm upwards. "Perhaps you need this."
There, in the palm of the Wise, lay a ring of red gold into which was set a single jewel. as round and smooth as a pearl but of a clear, sparkling blue that flashed and flickered like lightning.
    "I have rings already, Rorthron."
    "Not one like this, my friend," laughed Corleth. Luxor looked curiously at Corleth, wondering what joke this could possibly be.
    "I never thought to see it. I’ll wager no Man or Fey has seen it in our lifetimes. Luxor, this is the Moon Ring, the last of the Great War Rings of Midnight!"
    Luxor turned his gaze again to Rorthron’s palm and looked in wonder at the legendary ring that lay there. The mists of despair that had clung to his thoughts for many moons seemed to clear and fade away as he watched. Beside him, Morkin was craning his neck so far forward to get a better view that he almost fell off his seat. Luxor looked up at Rorthron.
    "You know I cannot take this, Rorthron, it is not my right."
    "Forgive me, Luxor," said Rorthron, "I have kept this from you too long, but with good reason. You are not simply Lord Luxor of the Free, you are the last heir of the House of the Moon. You, my Lord Luxor, are the Moonprince and this ring is yours by right, to be worn only in circumstances of gravest peril. Once slipped on your finger, it cannot be removed until you are dead or the peril has passed. It will give you the Power of Command and the Power of Vision over those lords and subjects loyal to you, even at great distances. With the Power of Vision you will be able to see through their eyes what they see. With the Power of Command you will be able to urge them to undertake any task they would willingly perform for you. And more than this, it will echo the warmth and strength of your mind and send forth a tide of hope across the cold lands of Midnight. It is yours. Take it. and use it with care."
    Rorthron the Wise stepped forward and dropped the Moon Ring into Luxor’s hand. Luxor was quite speechless for a while. Then, at length, he spoke.
    "Thank you, Rorthron the Wise; this is a gift beyond gifts. Yet, I do not understand why you have kept all this from me so long. Surely, in the last war against Doomdark, this ring would have been a help beyond price?"
    "Yes, Luxor, it surely would but the Wise have their reasons. The Solstice is the peak of Doomdark’s power. Defeat him before that and he will return as surely as the snow will fall. Defeat him at the pinnacle of his power and he will never return, never blight the lands of Midnight again with his foul schemes. Nor could I tell any of your true ancestry for fear that Doomdark would gain the knowledge too and hunt you down like vermin. Even now, he suspects nothing and when the morrow comes. the Solstice itself, he will expect all its glory for himself. From Ushgarak will issue forth an ice-fear the like of which has never been seen, rolling its terror across Midnight like a plague. Tomorrow, at dawn, you must don the Moon Ring and send a blaze of hope winging across the land, melting his ice-fear, stabbing him with shock that a warmth still exists that can resist him and filling him with doubt. Then you must ride swiftly to Corelay and rally all the peoples of the Free to your banner. You must challenge Doomdark everywhere; leave one pathway unguarded, one chink open and a flood will pour through. The Moon Ring itself will lend you the power to guide the forces of the Free and under your guidance they will march against Doomdark as one. The Captains of Cold will be blind compared to those whose way is lit by the War Ring of the House of the Moon.’’
    "And a plan?" asked Luxor, "Are we not to have a battle-plan?"
Corleth grasped Luxor’s arm firmly.
    "Of course, Luxor," he said, "But don’t you see? This time, this war, the Moon Ring lends us the power to change our plans at a moment’s notice. No longer must we stake all upon a single throw."
    "Yes, of course," mused Luxor, still dazed at his new-found inheritance.
    "There is one matter we have not yet considered," said Rorthron, a note of warning thrumming in his voice.
    "What is that, Wise One?’’ prompted Corleth.
    "The Ice Crown."
    Even Corleth seemed to pale at its mention. Morkin tugged gently at Luxor’s sleeve and whispered a question to him. Rorthron smiled and turned to the boy.
    "Fashioned of the purest, coldest crystals of ice, forged in the Frozen Wastes on the bleakest of nights by Doomdark himself, the Ice Crown is the source of all his power for it enables him to suck from the heart of the Winter all the bitter forces of cold and bend them to his will. He keeps it in the Tower of Doom, north of Ushgarak across the Plains of Despair. Few have seen it and lived. yet all have felt its bitter touch.’’
    ‘’Do you think we could seize it?" asked Luxor. New hope had dawned in him now and he could almost begin to believe that even such a desperate folly as this might succeed.
    "I think we must try," said Rorthron," If we succeed and destroy it, Doomdark’s power will be shattered. Even if we fail, the attempt will distract him and thus help our armies to prevail."
    "We cannot spare more than a few for such a perilous task," said Luxor.
    "No, indeed. And No more than one for the final journey to the Tower of Doom, one who can resist the ice-fear that streams from it as sunlight streams from the sun. It is your choice. Moonprince."
    "I cannot lay such a task on another’s shoulders. I must go myself."
    "Bravely said," said Rorthron," But that cannot be: the Moon Ring throws forth mind warmth -that is its boon and its bane. Doomdark would sense your presence before you got within fifty leagues of the Ice Crown. You must choose another. I would go myself but the Wise have too much knowledge of each other: I could not hide myself from Doomdark any more than he can hide himself from me."
    "Then there is only Corleth." said Luxor reluctantly, "No other than he can resist the ice-fear at its coldest, no other that I know of."
    Luxor turned to Corleth. The Fey looked troubled. He turned his eyes away from Luxor, then rose silently and wandered towards the colonnade that circled the High Hall. He stopped by a slender column and gazed out through the Looking-Crystal over the Forest of Shadows. The others remained silent, waiting for him to decide. After a long while, Corleth returned and stood before them all in front of the great fire. His eyes were heavy and his face drawn.
    "There is another," he said. ‘’One stronger than I could ever be in the face of the ice-fear."
    "Then who?" asked Luxor, puzzled and frustrated by the riddles of the Fey.
    ‘’If I could keep this from you, my friend Luxor, I would, but in truth I cannot. The old songs say that one will be born, half-fey, half-human, whom the ice-fear cannot touch. armoured with the laughter and lightness of the Fey and the wild fire of Men, the ice-fear will roll from him like drops of rain in a summer shower."
Corleth paused and his eyes glazed over as he tried to imagine what such a summer, what such a shower would be like. Then he blinked and forced himself to continue.
    "My Lord, my friend, Luxor, Moonprince - he sits beside you! "
    The Fey bent his head and gazed at the floor: he could not bring himself to look Luxor in the eye. The silence was profound.
"Me?’’ whispered Morkin, "How can it be me?"
Corleth lifted his head and turned his deep eyes towards the boy.
    "Tell me what you know of your father and mother, Morkin," said the Fey gently. The boy looked startled.
    "I know nothing, my Lord. I was only a babe when my Lord Luxor found me, while hunting boar in the Forest of Thimrath. He gathered me up and took me home and cared for me, as he has cared for me ever since: he has been like a father to me all my life."
    Corleth smiled and looked up towards the distant ceiling of the High Hall.
    "It was many moons ago," he said, "We had prevailed over the foul hordes of Doomdark on the Plains of Blood, but the price was heavy. Many were slain, more were shattered in mind by the last tide of Ice-fear he sent against us. After the battle, a host of our faithful warriors wandered lost and demented across the bloody fields, their hearts empty, their minds full of horror. There were so many that those who had survived unscathed could not hope to find them all before they took their own path to peace or simply wasted away in the cold, bitter nights."
    "Such a man, wounded to the quick in body and mind, found his way into the depths of the Forest of Thrall. It was there, exhausted and close to death, that one of the Fey, the fair Aleisha, found him. She dragged him on a trestle of branches to her tree-home and there she nursed him to health again. As his strength grew, so did his enchantment with Aleisha and so did her enchantment with him."
    "When he was fully strong again, his mind healed by her comfort and words of peace, his body mended by her subtle, feyish skills, they made their love complete. Yet Aleisha was troubled. She knew their love, however strong, could not last, for he was a mortal Man and she a Fey. She said nothing to him but let the days and nights of their love linger on until she could bear it no longer. Then, gathering all her courage, she freed his mind of every memory of her, not wishing him to bear the pain of their impossible love. She led him to the southern edge of the Forest of Thrall and watched him dwindle into the distance as he walked out across the Plains of Iserath towards the Mountains of Morning and his distant home.’’
    "Some moons later Aleisha bore a child, a rare child, his child as well as hers. Her delight almost overwhelmed the pain of parting but even in this moment of joy she thought only of him. Out of love had she made him forget yet she knew she would not forego her own memories, however painful. She was determined that he too should keep something of the harvest of their love. And so, barely a moon later, she journeyed south with her babe across Iserath and Rorath to the borders of Corelay."
    "How many times had he told her of hunts he rode in the Forest of Thimrath, how many times had he pictured in her mind its winding paths and gentle glades. She knew where he would be. As dawn approached, she listened for the hoof beats of his horse and when she was sure, she bundled the babe in warm furs and laid him by the path. She dared not linger for fear that she would cry out as he approached and run to his arms. So, with a parting kiss for her child, she turned back to the north, never to see her son or her lover again."
    "That son was you, Morkin. Your father is my friend, Luxor."
Rorthron the Wise sniffed loudly and dabbed at his eyes with the long sleeves of his gown. Luxor, for the second time that morning, was dumbfounded. But Morkin, brimming with joy, leapt to his feet and flung his arms around the Moonprince.
    "You always have been and now it’s true," he said. In some confusion. Luxor smiled and returned his son’s embrace.
"It is all I could wish, Morkin," he said, then added, "Save that all secrets were as happy as this when revealed - and revealed sooner."
Suddenly, Morkin whirled round on Corleth.
    "Yes! Why did you keep this secret from . . . from my father? You are his friend."
    "And yours too, Morkin. The Fey have long suspected that the House of the Moon still survived. The Wise are not the only guardians of knowledge. I could not be sure until today when Rorthron held forth the Moon Ring, but since I have known him, I have harboured a secret hope that your father was the Moonprince. I did know, as Rorthron did, that Doomdark suspected nothing. To have revealed your kinship would have placed you both in double jeopardy as it does even now. My words may yet be your death, Morkin. I pray you will forgive me. These are dark times."
    Morkin looked subdued.
    "I suppose you did right, my Lord Corleth. It is I who should be sorry, not you," he said grudgingly. "I hate Doomdark. He spoils everything."
    "He does indeed, Morkin, my well-named son," said Luxor. "Corleth the Fey, you have given me a hard choice. How can I send a boy, even if he is my own son, on such a perilous quest? He may be able to scorn the ice-fear--that I can well believe - but there are many other dangers on the road to the Tower of Doom."
    It was Morkin who answered first.
    "You must send me, Father. If you do not, Midnight might be lost anyway and then what would become of me?"
    "The boy is right," said Rorthron, "We must take every chance. It has come to that."
    Luxor nodded slowly. He clasped Morkin’s hand.
    "If you wish it Morkin, seek the Ice Crown and attempt its destruction. I will not send you, but you may go if you wish."
    There was fire in the boy’s voice and a gladness shining in his eyes.
    "Of course I will go, Father! Don’t wish me luck: it’s Doomdark who will need it! "

Chapter Three CONTENTS Chapter Five