Chapter Five

    Morkin was not seen again. No word of him was heard, no trace of him could be found. Three days later, Tarithel disappeared as well, taking with her one of her father's swiftest mounts. The Moonprince despatched messengers far and wide but of the fate of Morkin or Tarithel not a whisper returned. The armies camped 'neath the battlements of the Citadel of Dreams dispersed and wound their way southwards to home and hearth and kin. Only Luxor remained with a lousand riders of his Houseguard, waiting for news.
    For three moons, none came. Then, out of the North rode Rorthron the Wise, bearing ill-tidings. When news of the boy's disappearance had reached him, he had ridden to the broken Citadel of Ushgarak and then West across the Plains of Despair to the Tower of Doom itself, hoping to find some clue to Morkin's fate. In Ushgarak he had found nothing but at the Tower he had unearthed a letter addressing itself to "My dearest Father, Doomdark, Witchking of Midnight," and signed, "Your ever-loving Shareth, of the Frozen Empire."
    His suspicions roused, Rorthron had turned his far-reaching vision Northwards across the Frozen Wastes to the land of Icemark, but he could not penetrate further than the southern borders of a grey and desolate domain he imaged must be the Empire spoken of. Shareth, it seemed, had powers too. In the swirling mists at the grey borders, she conjured up an image of herself, radiant with cold and piercing beauty. She challenged him fiercely to try his powers further and when he refused, she laughed scornfully.
    "You are all so puny and pathetic! Soon I will have you all in my power," she had crowed, "Tell this to your precious Moonprince: I have his son in my grasp already. The boy is mad with love for me and lies at this very moment locked in one of my less pleasant dungeons, pining piteously for my embraces. When I am ready, I shall set him at the head of my armies and send him back to Midnight to shatter the peace you snivellers are so fond of! Seven moons from now I, Shareth, Empress of the Icemark, will ride forth to avenge Doomdark, my beloved Father. The Frozen Gates I shall tear down. Midnight I shall lay waste and through the portals of XaJorkith I will pass, triumphant. All shall adore me and despair! Or, if the Moonprince prefers, Iet him ride to hammer at my door and find defeat more swiftly!
    Fearing that Shareth's words were not an idle boast, Rorthron had ridden East with all haste- and came at last to the Tower of Lorgrim. There he learnt that the Frozen Gates had cracked open atthe last new moon. A lonely figure, riding northwards, had plunged into the dark caverns beneath the barrier ice before a sudden, thunderous ice-fall had closed the Gates once more. Rorthron tarried no longer but sped south to the Forest of Dreams.
    To Luxor, everything now grew clear - the strange warning of the white falcon, the murderous storm that heralded the disappearance of Morkin, even Tarithel's sudden absence so soon after the first vanishing. She had surely guessed Morkin's peril, as surely as she divined the slow, slumbrous songs of the dreaming trees. Though doubtless many leagues behind, she would have followed, listening for the distant whispering of his bewitched and troubled dreams. The Moonprince hardly paused before deciding upon the course of action that must be taken.
    Northwards at once they must ride; any delay would only serve to allow Shareth time to gather her power more fully. Against failure, the Lord of Dreams would remain in Midnight to marshal the Fey and the Free but Rorthron would ride with the Moonprince to the Frozen Gates. Swiftness was the watchword, to strike at the Empress while she felt safe and secure. Before the hour had passed, the riders of the Houseguard of the Moon thundered north towards Lorgrim with Luxor and Rorthron at their head. Banners swirling, helms and spears gleaming in the clear noon sun, they swept through the Forest of Dreams like a torrent.
    They rode without pause, passing Droonhenge at Midnight, reaching the Plains of Fadrath by next morning. Never had an army ridden so swiftly. By nightfall of that day, the Tower of Lorgrim rose before them, flanked by the grim wilderness of the Icy Wastes. Only at the foot of the Frozen Gates did they come to a halt. The jagged ridge of ice gleamed blood-red as the westering sun cast its fading brilliance on the cold towers and barren pinnacles. The Gates themselves, black and cavenous mouths that led to secret ways beneath the glacial ice, were closed, blocked by mountainous shards that had toppled from the ice-ridge above.
    Few hearts did not quail, but Rorthron, seizing his staff in his right hand, galloped forward and charged at the great bergs that stood before them. As he rode, his deep voice boomed out across the wilderness, quelling the insistent wails of the North Wind and echoing back in a thousand fragments from the endless wall. His words held no meaning for those who heard them, but all could sense they were Words of Power. The army waited breathlessly for fire to leap forth from his staff. No such spectacle ensued, instead the ice seemed to turn to molten glass and sink back into the precipitous face of the barrier ridge parting like a curtain as it slithered backwards. Suddenly thejaws of the Frozen Gates were revealed and Rorthron, now a mere speck in the distance, rushed into the throat of their age-long darkness.
    The Moonprince and his riders cheered and sprang forward after him. Swiftly the darkness swallowed them and there, in the mouth of a broad tunnel, they paused to look one more time upon the fair land of Midnight. Rorthron's commanding voice spurred them to swift motion again.
    "Ride swiftly, my friends, ride swiftly! The spell will not hold! If we tarry, the Gates will come crashing down upon us."
    Now, at last, his staff burst forth with fire and Rorthron launched himself into the black depths beyond like a blazing comet. The Moonprince and his riders galloped after the fleeing light with as much speed as they could muster. The crack and thunder of exploding ice that followed them as they rode left no doubt in their minds as to the truth of Rorthron's words.
    Though soon safe in the bowels of the earth, the cohorts of the Moonprince pressed on with all speed. The last road to the Icemark was dank and malodorous, broken, slithery and pitted. Curses and oaths filled the rank air. Tired beyond mere exhaustion, none wished to pause. Finally, after many hours of dark passage, the army emerged into the clear night of the Icemark.
    Luxor turned and looked up at the deserted towers and walls of the Gate of Varenorn, Guarding the northern entrance of the road to Midnight. He smiled.
    "It seems our haste has not been in vain, Rorthron. The witch looks not to guard herself against us," he said.
    "Perhaps, my Lord Moonprince, perhaps, or perhaps she has simply left the door of the coop open to entice a fox. It was your hand that slew Doomdark; it will be your death she desires most of all, even though she lusts after all of Midnight," cautioned Rorthron.
    "If I fall, so be it: the safety of my son is paramount."
    "If you fall, Luxor, so will Midnight. Creatures such as Shareth feed on their own success and quaffthe power of their victims. She will be unassailable, I fear, if her vengeance is assuaged."
    "Then do you advise me against this course, Rorthron?" asked the Moonprince.
    "No, my friend. The boy must be rescued; 'twould be unthinkable to leave him in such foul hands, even were it not that the Heartstealer has the power to twist him and use him against the land of his birth. We are caught in a cleft stick, I fear."
    "Rorthron, we must strike atthe source of her power, at her stronghold, wherever that may lie. I have no doubt you speak truly, yet her arrogance may still be used against her. If she expects anything, she will expect us to attempt no more that a rescue before fleeing from the Icemark. Let us instead strike at the vitals of her cold Empire! While Doomdark's daughter lives, Midnight will remain in mortal peril. Let us rid ourselves of this pestilence in a single stroke!" said Luxor forcefully.
    "Indeed, my Lord, I see no other way. Nothing would more imperil Morkin's life than an army hammering at the gate of his prison. But come, we must all rest before the day breaks. We are strangers in this land and may be forced to follow unforeseen paths before we win through; we must find friends as well as enemies."
    When dawn broke, the Moonprince mounted his charger. He took once more the Moonring, last of Midnight's great Rings of War, and slipped it on his finger, where it had not rested since the slaughter of Doomdark. Then, he lofted his hand to the sky, the Moonring blazing there like a fragment of the rising sun. As its glad power shone out, a rousing cheer came from the long ranks of riders.
    "For Midnight!" cried Luxor, "For Midnight and the Free! Hear me, Shareth Heartstealer; we ride to tear the Frozen Empire a sunder!"
    Rorthron whirled his staff about his head, flinging a storm of golden fire into the chill air, the trumpets of the heralds blew a proud fanfare, and the cohorts of the Moonprince rode forth from the Gate of Varenorn into the Icemark.
    Far away, in a deep and dreamless forest, Tarithel reined in her horse and paused, listening with her mind to the whisper of hope that rippled through the morning mists. The Moonring is unveiled, she thought to herself, the Moonprince rides! She too had travelled the dark road that led from Midnight to the Gate of Varenorn, searching for many days along the ridge of the Frozen Gates before finding a crevice that would let her through. Now, with all hope of finding Morkin's trail lost, she was journeying towards rumours of the City of Imorthorn in search for any scrap of news, in search of any person who might remember his passing. Though she had seen the new moon turn to full and wane again, she had found no trace of him. Despair had worked its way with her and she rebuked herself constantly for keeping her fears to herself when she rode off in pursuit of her Morkin, even though at the time those fears had been so vague and formless that she could not have put word to them. Only when it was too late to turn back for help did she realise the immensity of her task, and feel the cold, implacable power of the Heartstealer's dreams.
    The thought, now, that Midnight was roused and that its mighty Lords marched upon the Frozen Empire warmed her like a fire. She put aside her doubts and despair.
    "Morkin, I will find thee, my love, ' she whispered. "No ice, no storm, no sword or shaftshall keep me from thy side, no hagwitch's twisted dreams shall come between us. Let her fling a thousand foul armies in my path, still I will find thee!
    Tarithel rode on towards Imorthorn. The webs of time shook softly and a shiver trembled across the land of Icemark. Many tears were about to be shed, much blood to be spilt.
    The wind howled.

Chapter Four Contents Guide