Luxor stood at the doorway of the hut. gazing into the white gloom of the forest. A thin scatter of ersh, the fine powder-snow of the new moon, was floating down onto the frozen ground. It was time, thought Luxor, it was time. An icicle of fear touched him and shivered through him. He drew his cloak tightly around himself, as though it would warm the chill in his heart, and turned from the forest.
    "You are troubled, my Lord," said Morkin. The boy looked up at Luxor, his face a mirror of the man’s sadness.
    "The world is troubled," said the Forest Keeper. He threw another log onto the fire and sent a flock of sparks flying into the smoky darkness of his hut.
    "Come and warm yourself by the fire, my Lord," said the boy. He stood up and offered the stool he was crouched on.
    "No, Morkin, we must go. The Solstice is nearly upon us and Doomdark is already waking from his slumber. We must reach the Tower of the Moon by tomorrow yet our ride promises to be long and hazardous."
    "The horses, my Lord?"
    "Yes, fetch them and let’s be on our journey."
    The boy scurried out. Luxor turned to the Forest Keeper.
    "Your fire and shelter have been a precious gift, Keeper: I thank you."
    "If you and your young squire can keep Doomdark’s scum from my trees, you’re more than welcome," growled the Keeper. Then, grudgingly, he added, "My Lord," and spat into the fire.
    Luxor turned and strode out of the hut into the crisp forest air. Morkin was already astride his horse, waiting. Luxor swung himself up onto the saddle of his white war-stallion. Then, at a word to the horses, they rode off into the trees. Ersh was still falling and in an hour, there was no trace of their passing.
    For many hours they rode in silence, Luxor lost in his thoughts, the boy watching the forest in a mixture of fear and fascination. He had heard the tales men told and couldn’t quite believe they were only tales. Yet, the forest had its own vast and lonely beauty, its trees standing still as stones but each drinking a silent power from the earth that could thrust them, as tall as towers, towards the sky. Morkin felt smaller than he had ever felt.
    As darkness neared, the boy grew bred of the forest and turned to speak to his Lord. Luxor was gazing into the distance as though in a dream.
    "Why does the Solstice trouble you, my Lord?" asked the boy.
    Luxor turned his head slowly towards Morkin. For a few moments he said nothing and then, as though he had suddenly remembered, he began to speak.
    "Our world wasn’t always white, Morkin. You’ve heard the legends of Summer when the land was green and teeming with life. Ten thousand moons ago it was, so long that men barely believe such a time ever existed. Yet the Wise remember. They have scrolls that tell of the first snows falling and the first carpets of ice covering the land. Suddenly, all the lands of Midnight were plunged into this winter of ours. Then came famine, a great famine that ravaged our people, and with famine came war."
    "But the Solstice, my Lord," insisted the boy.
    "I am coming to it, Morkin, I am coming to it. The Wise shut themselves up in their towers and let war take its course. They had not foreseen this winter, yet they knew that war was the only way, for the lands that had teemed with people in the long moons of Summer could not feed such a throng any longer. Only one of the Wise, Gryfallon the Stargazer, stayed with his Lord and gave him much counsel concerning war and conquest. Gryfallon was astute, his advice was well-measured, and soon the Lord he served was powerful throughout the lands of Midnight, no longer a mere Lord but, by conquest, a King."
    "Was that Doomdark, then?" asked the boy.
    "No, the King was not Doomdark. Lord Ushgarak reigned for but twelve moons before Gryfallon had him murdered and took the crown for himself. The people and the Lords were not displeased, for they knew Gryfallon had advised wisely and they knew nothing of his crime. They told each other that Gryfallon the Wise would see them through. So he did, after a fashion, but he ruled not through wisdom but through fear and slaughter and sorcery. As the years passed, an icy chill spread through the hearts of those not already enslaved to him. No longer did people call him Gryfallon the Wise but instead Doomdark, Witchking of Midnight. Even this was his own doing, for it pleased him to know so many trembled in fear of him."
    "So Doomdark is one of the Wise! " said Morkin, in surprise.
    "Who else but they could wield such power?" asked Luxor.
    "You could, my Lord," the boy replied, fiercely.
    Luxor smiled.
    "Your heart speaks louder than your head, Morkin. I would not seek such power, even if I could wield it."
    "But, my Lord, what of the Solstice? Why is the Solstice so important?"
    "The Solstice, Morkin, is the deepest, darkest day of winter. The Witchking, by his sorcery, draws his power from the very winter itself; he sucks from its heart the cold that fills his own and turns its icy force to his own will. For many moons now Midnight has known a false peace while Doomdark waits and prepares for the Solstice. Doomdark’s last full assault on the Free was moons before you were born, Morkin, and even then we barely held him at bay. When the Solstice comes and winter is deepest, Doomdark will draw more power than he has ever known from its icy heart. Then he will unleash all the hellhounds of Midnight against us and I fear we may not withstand him."
    A stricken look passed across Morkin’s bright face.
    "How so, my Lord? We are the Free and you are the mightiest warrior in all of Midnight!" the boy exclaimed.
    Luxor smiled wryly.
    "Morkin, you do me more than justice, but even if I were as you say it will take more than swords and strong arms to defeat the Witchking. In the last war he made against us, I slew score upon score of his foul creatures yet always there were more to take their place. But worst was the ice-fear, the cold blast of terror he sent creeping over the land to stab at men’s hearts and turn their blood to water. This time it will be as cold as the Frozen Wastes."
    "Even they can be crossed, so the legends say."
    "Perhaps, Morkin, perhaps."
    Morkin was silent for a moment, as though lost in thought. Then, as gravely as one of the Wise, he said, "We’ll win, my Lord.’’
    "How so?" said Luxor.
    The boy grinned, mischievously.
    "This time you’ve got me to help you! "
    Luxor shook his head in disbelief and galloped after his runaway squire. innocent, affectionate conceit. Morkin, suddenly realising how boastful his words had sounded, burst into laughter too.
    "Morkin," said the Lord Luxor, still laughing, "I doubt the ice-fear could ever touch you. There’s not a chink it could pierce."
    "It couldn’t catch me anyway!" said Morkin, suddenly galloping ahead.
    Luxor shook his head in disbelief and galloped after his runaway squire.


CONTENTS Chapter Two