8

Midnight Sun

The king of Suderhold could wander the halls of his great fortress city without escort if he so chose, and on this day he did so choose. He told his wife that he merely wanted some solitude before he performed the Ceremony of the Midnight Sun in the presence of thousands, but Grimwar Bane had another reason to seek some private time, as well.

He emerged from his apartment and stretched his great arms, working out the kinks in his back, allowing a deep growl of contentment to rumble in his chest.

He advanced to the edge of the balcony above the central atrium, looking all the way down through the levels of Winterheim to the placid waters of the enclosed harbor. From the Royal Quarter, many hundreds of feet above sea level, he could view the heart of his great city. The enclosed waters were sunlit now, as the great doors of the anchorage stood open, and the sun, low in the north, spilled directly across the gently rippled surface.

Very little of that illumination reached high into the cavernous city. Instead, the placid waters sparkled like a dazzling mirror, outlining the wharves and the two great galleys in sparkling light. The Royal Quarter, and other midlevels of the palace, had massive windows of translucent ice, magically protected against melt, exposed to the sky. During the months of summer these admitted enough illumination to diminish the darkness throughout the underground capital.

Even on a bright day such as this, however, great swaths of the halls and chambers were cloaked in semi-darkness, and this suited Grimwar as he departed the balcony and began to walk along the great avenue encircling the atrium. He met many human slaves, all of whom bowed respectfully and halted as he passed, and several braces of Royal Watchmen clapped their halberds to their gold-studded breastplates. They stood at attention, faces blank and tusks gleaming, and the king acknowledged each with a regal nod.

A massive ogre waddled out from a lordly manor, wiping crumbs from his chin, trailing a cloud of red silk as he waved at the king. “Your Majesty! Your Majesty!” He pulled his free arm through the red silk, which turned out to be a dressing gown, and tried to make himself presentable.

“I have completed the viewing assignments for the Ceremony of the Midnight Sun. The baron of Glacierheim and his entourage will have the place of honor, just below the King’s Roost. Lord Darsoonian wanted to be there, but I told him that the baron was the queen’s uncle and that he had come all this way and I wasn’t about to make him stand on some silly lower outcrop. So, I told him, he, Darsoonian that is, would just have to-”

“Yes, fine, Lord Quendip,” Grimwar said. “Was there anything else that you wanted?”

“What, well, no… just to let you know that I had things under control. There were so many special requests, but I tried to honor them when I could. That is, to put the nobles where I thought you wanted them to be.”

“That’s very thoughtful,” said the king, tilting his head to avoid the noxious waft of garlic tainting the obese ogre’s breath. “Now, if you don’t mind …” He indicated his intent to keep walking.

“Oh, not at all,” said the lord, missing the hint entirely as he fell into step beside the king, jowls bouncing as he hurried to keep up. “But say,” Quendip added conspiratorially, “I spotted the Lady Thraid along the Promenade. I imagine she would be particularly delighted to see-ouch!”

The pudgy ogre recoiled, hand to his ear, eyes wide as he ducked away in anticipation of a second blow. Instead, Grimwar leaned close and growled into his underling’s quivering jowls, “Do watch your tongue, Lord Quendip… and have a care with a lady’s good name. Do you take my meaning?”

“Er… yes, Sire! Of course I do! I meant no insult… oh, and I have to go… er, my lunch! It awaits!”

The king had already turned away as Quendip, blubbery knees quaking, lumbered back to his apartment. Grimwar continued his tour, walking slowly past a statue of an ogre five times life size. This was King Garren Icetusk, first king of the Tusk Dynasty. The statue was the most imposing of its kind in Winterheim, for King Garren was the monarch who had advanced Suderhold from the small colony established by the Barkon rulers, founders of the kingdom, to the mighty realm it remained today.

Under Garren’s leadership the ogres who had journeyed to the Icereach from Ansalon nearly five thousand years ago had expanded beyond Winterheim, establishing strongholds in Glacierheim, Icewall, and Dracoheim, among other places. It was this expansion that for nearly five thousand years had ensured that ogres were the dominant race upon this southern continent. The Tusk founder was now remembered with this towering statue, the likeness of the ogre sheeted in pure gold, looking over his city with an expression of scowling concern.

The king nodded in reflection, feeling vaguely inadequate as he looked up at his great ancestor. There were lessons to be drawn from King Garren Icetusk’s reign, though he wasn’t entirely certain what those lessons might be. He ought to remember them. His old tutor, Baldruk Dinmaker, had spent weeks, months, drumming this kind of trivial fact into his skull, and it irritated the king that he could no longer recall the details. Somehow, now that Baldruk was gone, it seemed more important that the king know these things. But who was there left to ask?

More to the point, the large statue was good cover, and he had previously visited it for just that purpose. He could only hope that she would remember….

A trace of color caught his eye and he stepped around the base of the monument to see Thraid Dimmarkull standing at the balcony, looking across the atrium from a position of deep shadow between the statue’s knees. Wisps of steamy fog had begun to rise from the harbor, and Grimwar had the sudden feeling that he and the ogress were outside, alone in some mountain fastness.

“Hello,” he said, stepping to the edge, carefully placing his hands upon the rail of carved whaletusk. He wanted to reach out, to embrace her, but he knew that Stariz had spies even-especially-here, in Winterheim. With great restraint he kept his voice low. “You look beautiful….”

She did. From here he looked out the corner of his eye and could see her in profile, the full lips and sensuous, rounded cheeks. She was pleasantly round elsewhere, he noted, as his eyes trailed down the tight-fitting bodice of her ice-blue gown to where her waist narrowed, so unusual in an ogress. Grimwar drew a ragged breath as the ache of desire seized him.

Furtively he looked around. The mist was pale vapor rising and growing thick as the air cooled, obscuring the view from all but the nearest balconies. So far as he could see, those were empty. The huge statue concealed them from the avenue.

In another instant it didn’t matter. He couldn’t stop himself. He stepped to her side and pulled her to his chest with brute force. She grunted in eager pleasure at the rough contact. He kissed her, fully, heatedly, and felt her melt against him. His growl rumbled unconsciously, and she squealed as he bit, tasted blood.

“My lord-do I please you?” she gasped teasingly.

He smothered her with another embrace, then released her and turned away.

“When can we steal a moment, my king?” she asked, squeezing his arm as she pouted.

“I will come to you-soon!” he promised, “but not until it is safe.”

“I understand,” Thraid whispered.

Footsteps echoed on the avenue, the booming laughter of young ogres. A party of slaves came past, one young man glancing over to see the king, then hastily averting his eyes. Straightening himself, wanting nothing so much as to stay here, with this woman, the king of Suderhold marched onto the avenue and marked his course toward the mountaintop, and the preparations for the Ceremony of the Midnight Sun.

The advent of the first of the nightless days was a time of rare beauty and profound ceremony throughout the Icereach. In the mountain fortress of the ogre king, the rituals dated hack more than five thousand years, remnants of histories written in realms thousands of miles away from here. But in none of those lands, no other corner of the world, Grimwar felt certain, was there the start of a day when the sun would never set. The ritual would occur at midnight, and the sun flickering low on the southern horizon inevitably provided a perfect symbol of light and power when viewed from up here, atop the great, glacier-shrouded peak of Winterheim.

The land fell away to all sides, shades of black rock and stark ice contrasting with the pale green of tundra and meadow. Distant peaks ringed them, and these were haloed in purple and pink as the low-lying sun cast rays across them all. To the north, the waters of Black Ice Bay were shrouded in the mountain’s shadow, while the distant White Bear Sea remained shiny in the lingering daylight.

The route to the summit emerged from the Royal Quarter, the upper level of the mountain’s hollow core. A massive gate, consisting of two granite slabs hewn from the bedrock of the peak, stood open to admit the summer breeze into the mountain’s heart. At the same time, it allowed passage from the cavernous interior onto a lofty shoulder of the massif.

From the gate, a winding trail angled across the steep terrain. Now, in high summer, the ground was alive with wildflowers and copses of lush, low grass. Streams spilled between rocky outcrops, and waterfalls were common. These sparkled like diamonds in the bright sunlight, and Grimwar paused to relish the sight-and catch his breath-before he climbed the last dozen steps up to the mountain’s small summit platform.

This was a square clearing no more than three paces on a side. Stones had been carefully fitted to make a smooth floor. Every spring, masons climbed to the top of the mountain to repair damage wrought by the winter snow and ice. These workers only crawled when they came onto the platform, for these stones were hallowed-they would bear no feet except those of the monarchs of Suderhold.

The King’s Roost, it was called, and Grimwar treasured this place and this ceremony more perhaps than any other aspect of his kingship. He watched the shadows play across the plaza as the sun, still visible at midnight on the southern horizon, cast its rays horizontally across the platform, highlighting the numerous tiny irregularities. A pebble stretched a shadow as long as his finger. The rim of a tiny crack loomed like a bluff over a plain.

He heard Stariz cry out, “The moment of zenith is now!”

That was his cue. Knowing that the hour was exactly midnight-as accurately as that hour could be identified by his high priestess-the ogre king strode onto the small platform, planted his great fists on his hips, and turned his tusked face southward, squarely facing toward the sun. There was little warmth, for the sun was too low in the sky, but there was undeniable brightness there. He squinted, his eyes pained by the unaccustomed light.

He looked below to see the other nobles of Winterheim moving into their places. The baron of Glacierheim stood with his wife and several companions on a small, smooth clearing a little distance below. The baron was Stariz’s uncle, a proud and haughty bull with a thick mane of gray hair, now an honored guest who had come to Winterheim for this ceremony. His eyes were fixed upon the king, and he nodded with great dignity when Grimwar’s gaze fell upon him.

Beyond, the monarch saw Lord Quendip, stumbling, leaning on the sturdy arms of two human footmen, struggling to make it to a patch of level ground on a ridge some distance below the king. Queen Stariz stood just below the Roost, her expression invisible behind the huge black mask of Gonnas. The tusked image of the ogre god stared sternly up at Grimwar as his gaze swept across the rest of the crowd.

Thraid was a stone’s throw away, amidst a small crowd, resplendent in a dress of metallic gold, the material shimmering like a liquid in the bright sunlight. The king dared to allow his gaze to linger on her voluptuous form for a moment, before his wife’s ostentatious cough drew his attention back to the matter at hand. Grimwar straightened, staring at the sun again as Stariz began to intone the ritual benediction.

“Gonnas the Mighty! Willful deity of ogrekind-Lord of Suderhold, and master of tusk and talon! Hear our pledges, and be pleased!

“God of my kings, I hereby pledge to secure your sacred kingdom against all threats,” Grimwar chanted, reciting the words he stated every midsummer. “Your enemies are mine. I wage war against them at your will and maintain my mastery over all your realm. Hear my pledge, and be pleased!”

The prayers rippled farther down the mountain, then, as the other noble ogres made their promises of faith. The commoners began soon after, and the noise of thousands of voices merged together into a placid rumble. The king was soothed by that sound, borne upward as if it freed him from the bonds of gravity.

After the stolid resonance of the prayers, Stariz ber Glacierheim ber Bane advanced. All eyes went to the high priestess, who loomed even taller than usual in the great mask of her god. She stalked toward the base of the King’s Roost with manifest urgency. Many ogres gasped when it appeared that she would actually set foot upon the sacred stone, but she halted at the last instant and stood motionless, staring up at Grimwar.

“Speak, my queen, priestess of our mighty god!” he declared, eyeing her warily. Would she keep her side of the agreement?

“I may speak for the god on some matters, but in matters of his will you should listen to Gonnas alone.” She looked at him pointedly. “It must be you, my king, who beseeches his sign. Only then shall you know if you truly work the will of the god.”

“Indeed.” The king lifted his head again, then turned back to the south and raised his massive arms. He knew this ritual too. Grimwar considered himself a faithful servant of Gonnas, but he didn’t expect the god to speak to him directly, now or ever. Smugly, he began.

His two great hands extended toward that midsummer’s beacon, as if he would embrace it. He roared the traditional words in a voice that boomed down the mountainside and echoed from the faces of glacier and cliff.

“Gonnas the Mighty! God of my fathers and my sons! If you are displeased with my loyal efforts to work your will, give me a sign! Show me… show my people. We will obey!”

Facing that sparkling sun, the king allowed his delight to spread across his face. He would make the attack on Brackenrock when he wished, not when his wife commanded. Indeed, it was Stariz herself who had, all unknowingly, suggested to him the means to prove his god’s favor. He closed his eyes, savored the tiny bit of warmth he could extract from those feeble rays. The favor of his god was like a blessing on his skin, and he exerted his strength, holding the pose for a very long time. He knew that he was a masterful figure, that the eyes of all his people were upon him. Gonnas himself would approve.

Someone gasped. “What’s happening?”

“The sun-it grows dark!” cried another.

Grimwar opened his eyes and stared in alarm. Surely they were imagining it, old women cackling like frightened chickens! The sun was still bright, painful to look at as it blazed on the horizon.

The mountaintop seemed cloaked in an eerie shadow, and that shade seemed to be growing. Grimwar stared now in disbelief-it was if as something had taken a bite out of the sun, obscuring more and more of the fiery disk. Dumbstruck, the king of Suderhold realized that the sun was being swallowed, darkened and obscured by a black presence of unmistakable might.

“Gonnas?” he croaked weakly. “Are you displeased?”

The answer was clear, even before Stariz articulated the sign for those who might have trouble understanding.

“It is the will of our god!” cried the priestess, sounding awestruck herself. “He has heard your cry, and he sends the sign!”

Grimwar stayed on the King’s Roost for a long time, determined not to show his fear as his world was plunged into a chill and artificial night. The weeping and crying of his people, bold warriors as well as women and youngsters, was a cacophony of terror across the whole vast summit of Winterheim. Some turned and fled, while others huddled in misery and fear, looking from the sun to the king and back again.

The king knew when he was defeated. Grimwar bowed his head, and pledged to do the will of his god, muttering the statement, then raising his voice and crying aloud his mission. Very slowly, the daylight brightened, the midnight sun escaping from the grip of the shadow to once again wash Icereach in its pearly light.

Grimwar was the last one through the gates into the city, following right behind Stariz. He watched her, that lofty mask and the wide-shouldered ceremonial robe, and thought again about the darkening sun.

He wondered how his wife had done it.

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