Chapter Three

    Tarithel and Morkin tarried long in the warmth of each other's company before they rose to meet the day. Then, side by side, they rode out through the Gate of Dreams towards the pavilions of Luxor and his Lords. The crowds of soldiers and townsfolk parted, with a flurry of whispers and questions, and closed in again behind them, staring in wonderment. But when they dismounted at the doorway of Luxor's pavilion, Morkin found the way barred by a sentry.
    "You cannot pass, sir. Prince Luxor is in council and will not be disturbed."
    "I fear he will be if you bar the way to his son, good soldier. Pray let us pass."
    The whole assembly turned as they entered and the Moonprince leapt to his feet at the unasked-forintrusion. At first he looked puzzled, not expecting to see such slight and slender figures approach. Then, suddenly recognizing the boy, his countenance lightened and filled with joy. He flung his arms out high and wide.
    "Rise, my Lords!" he shouted, "My son has returned!"
    Shining with pride, Luxor cast aside his chair at the high table and rushed to greet the boy as he climbed, hand-in-hand with Tarithel, the steps to the dais. He stared fondly at the boy for a moment, then clapped a hand to his shoulder.
    "Morkin, my boy! Others would return haggard and drained from such a quest as yours, but you have thrived! Is it two inches or four that you have grown?" laughed the Moonprince.
    Morkin smiled, suddenly rendered speechless. Then, finding his tongue, he said, " Father! Once I thought never to see you again but you have won the great victory and stand before me alive and well. I may have grown in height but not so much as in happiness to see you once more!"
    There was a murmur of approval at this from the gathered Lords. Few had set eyes on the boy before but his courtesy warmed their hearts to him. Rumour, which had it that he was brash and wild, they now put aside. Luxor turned to them and raised Morkin's arm up high.
    "This is the boy who saved us at Ushgarak, who, as we fought our bloody way through hordes of Foul creatures to the gates of the Witchking's palace and felt his cold breath clawing at our strength and our courage, smashed the heart of his dread power and lifted the burden of the Ice Crown's terror from us! Salute him, my Lords. Though mine was the sword which plunged into the Foul One's heart, this is truly the hand that slew him!"
    The assembled warriors lifted their swords high into the air and cheered loud and long. Morkin tried to tug his hand down, but Luxor kept a firm grip until the applause had dwindled. Then the Moonprince turned back to the boy.
    "My son, I would thank thee for simply being still alive, but now we all have cause to give thee our thanks. If there is a gift that lies in my power to grant, name it and it shall be yours."
    "Father, do not praise me so, the victory was yours! You slew the Witchking, your armies took Ushgarak, your skill and vigour brought him to his knees, " said the boy fiercely.
    "Your part was as much," insisted the Moonprince," More! Do you imagine we could have succeeded without you? Is peak not now as your father, Morkin, but as Moonprince of Midnight; name your wish. The Lords of Midnight will not countenance your refusal ."
    "I fear it is not yours to grant, my Lord," said the boy.
    "How so?" asked Luxor, puzzled and disturbed by this strange turn of events. "Tell me your desire! "
    "The hand, tomorrow, of this fair maiden who stands beside me: Tarithel, Lady of the Forest of Dreams. That is my wish, Father."
    Morkin looked up steadily into the eyes of the Moonprince, as if daring him to say aught against his ambition. Amongst the assembled Lords, there were more than a few swiftly stifled guffaws and the company was suddenly beset by an outbreak of coughing and clearing of throats. Luxor stayed impassive, as if he had not heard the words his son had uttered. Then Morkin turned to Tarithel and Tarithel turned to him. The smiles that passed between them left no doubt as to the candour of the boy's resolve. Stiffly, the Lord of Dreams rose to his feet and began to speak.
    "My Lord Moonprince," he began,"This is my only daughter who stands before you. Her hand may not be yours to give but, if she will sit, I would give it gladly to your son."
    "I do, Father, I do!" cried Tarithel suddenly.
    "Then let this be a token," said the Lord of Dreams, "That the Fey and the Free are now as one under the protection of the House of the Moon. My consent is given."
    With that, the Lord of Dreams sat down again. There was turmoil, then, amongst the gathered company. Loud cheers and congratulations filled the long pavilion. The Moonprince smiled and waited bll the tumult died away.
    "Your wish seems granted, Morkin, and a fairer daughter I could not hope for. Yet you are both so young. Think upon it, both of you, before you tie a knot that all of time cannot undo."
    His words were hardly from his mouth before they both answered, almost in unison, "We have, my Lord!"
    The Moonprince turned to his council and laughed, as if in appeal to them.
    "What can I do, my Lords? I have given my word,' he said. Then turning back to face Morkin and Tarithel, he softened his voice and added, "So it shall be. On the morrow you shall wed. All that remains now is to celebrate this happy, unlooked-for moment. Come, sit with me, and we will talk of the things that have passed 'fore the new feast begins - a feast this night of love, not war!
    "Many tales were told that day, many battles fought again by tongue. Luxor s high council, summoned to decide the fate of Doomdark's old dominions, putaside its purpose and fell to reminiscing. The mead flowed, brave deeds grew braver, terrors waxed more terrible yet and the day drew slowly on.Yet, before evening fell, a strange event came to pass. A white falcon flew in through the open doorway of the pavilion, circled thrice above the high table, then came to rest on the shoulder of the Lord of Dreams. As the rest of the company stared in amazement at the bird, Tarithel reached a gentle hand towards it and nimbly untied its jesses. Then, at a soft word from her, it took flight again and disappeared from the pavilion.
    Tarithel handed the message attached to the leather thong to her father. He puzzled at the seal for a moment, then broke it apart to unravel the parchment. The ancient Fey runes he found there surprised him; his skill in them had not been lost but it was many moons since he had needed to use it. He read the message slowly and carefully before turning to Luxor. His expression was a mixture of astonishment and concern.
    "My Lord Moonprince," he began, "This message hails from lands beyond our ken, from the cold Icemark which has been severed from Midnight for a thousand moons and more. A Lord who calls himself Imorthorn writes it, addressing himself to his brothers Fey of the Forest of Dreams. It warns of a great storm flying from the North towards Midnight and of the evil designs of one he calls the Heartstealer upon our fairland. He also calls her Empress of the Frozen Empire and hints that she may have made some pactwith the Witchking before his demise. I know not what to make of it but one thing is certain - it was indeed written by the hand of a Fey. The ancient runes are known to few of us and none, to be sure, of others."
    The Moonprince shook his head slowly, as if lost for anything to say. A heavy burden seemed to have fallen on his shoulders. At length, he spoke.
    "If this message bears the truth, then it seems our long struggle is not over yet, but surely this Imorthorn cannot be right. The Frozen Wastes lie between us and the lost land of Icemark. Why else was a falcon sent to bear the seill-tidings to us? I cannot see how any Empress of the North, however evil her intent, can threaten the peace that now befalls Midnight. The Wastes would destroy armies a thousand times stronger than Doomdark's before they ever reached our borders. As for warning of a storm, should we sharpen our swords, wax our bow strings and prepare to do battle against the wind and snow? This message makes no sense," said the Moonprince, wearily.
    "We can at least tighten the guy-ropes of our tents and wear thicker cloaks," shouted the Lord of Ithrorn." Perhaps this Lord Imorthorn is a dealer in furs and cannot find market for his wares!"
    The company of Lords broke into laughter at this. More ribald suggestions followed and the portent of the strange message was forgotten in the general merriment. Yet Luxor remained troubled. He drew the Lord of Dreams aside and spoke to him quietly.
    "My friend, see what more you can discover of this matter. Though I cannot see how, I fear this message is more timely than we imagine."

Chapter Two Contents Chapter Four