Synopsis of a novel by Eugene Marckx (112,000 words)
Part One: For years it is an unspoken shame that Queen Vernice cannot carry a child to term. But in the aftermath of a terrible storm she falls into the garden mud with King Daemus. And she is with child again. Then out of stubborn fear of once more losing this life, she will discuss it with no one. The wise sisters, who come to council her, as well as the king, are rebuffed. He is thrown back to his orphan boyhood when Erta, wisest sister of all, asked, “Are you the one?” and then dismissed him. Yet when he spoke of seeing the Titan of Wisdom old King Aldis believed.
In great joy at the birth of a baby girl, king, queen and nobles follow the sisters down a long staircase to the Star Sword Lake beneath the castle for naming and blessing the princess. At the last moment Erta comes with a prophecy. Born the same night on the sea coast, the son of poor fisher folk is destined to marry the princess in years to come. Everyone is appalled at this, their anger barely contained. Fisher people are faithless back-stabbers! Erta then departs and her news is quietly forgotten. But Daemus cannot forget. Any such marriage will tear the kingdom apart in bloody rebellion. All winter he searches up the sea coast and finds the boy. He buys him for two bags of gold and takes him in his cradle into the mountains, there to kill him. But in the act he loses his dagger. The cradle falls into an icy torrent. Still he knows the boy can’t survive.
He comes home to trouble with smugglers from the south. In skirmishes young Hilary is killed—wasted. Daemus could wish for such a fine son as he. Then Vernice scolds him. He did not actually kill the infant boy. “You had to scotch it with your own hands!” Star Sword Night comes, rites of spring at bonfires to bless the land, cattle and people. On his horse King Daemus declaims “The Ulfrid Poem.” But for all of his title and power, he feels shut out from his life.
Part Two: In spite of natural disasters, cruelties of the nobles and raids of the outlaws, the folk are heartened by Princess Seena. And her father cherishes her most of all. Yet Daemus has only a few days at a time with her, so often is he gone to stamp out troubles. As much as she loves him, she feels a growing mood of tyranny as more and more outlaws are hanged.
Chasing outlaws, the king goes astray in deep forest, and then rushes after a white stag. In pursuit of this legendary creature he is unhorsed by a tree limb, and can barely use his left leg. Recovering at a miller’s cottage, he hears the couple’s red-haired boy is not their own, but came downriver to their millpond in a cradle. In a crisis of conscience, Daemus writes a letter to Vernice, with this young Lach to deliver it—hang him. But in a storm Lach falls exhausted at the outlaws’ hideout. As he sleeps they find the letter and change it—marry him to our daughter.
On his return, the king hears this news and sees how Vernice marvels over the young couple. He confronts the boy with the entrenched bigotry of the noble classes, and, evoking the old tale, he suggests that Lach win favor by going on a quest to the netherworld to bring back three golden hairs from the Titan of Wisdom. The nobles call this a brilliant stroke. They have no belief in that tale, but this upstart prince will now be gone. And no one comes back from the Titan. But both Seena and Vernice are full of grief and anger at his departure.
Part Three: Impossible as it seems—facing the Titan’s fire—Lach knows he is meant for this quest. But on the north road, chased by outlaws, he is thrown from his horse and flung deep into thick brambles. In delirium from feverous wounds, he is carried by Darklings into high woodlands to a group of castoff stragglers who heal him in their cave. These wounded hobbled men are joined together in trust. They hear from Darklings that Lach bears the promise. When outlaws discover them they all travel west with him in search of his fisher parents.
His father is alive and has a new ship ready to sail. Erta comes with stones to bless his ship. She offers stones to Lach as well for his journey. He keeps them in a pouch at his chest. Then she goes off into the night. Next day Lach and his brothers man his father’s ship, and they sail north to the netherworld. But fog becalms the ship. Lach begins to see that his father can do no more. He must go forth alone on his quest. They let him off in a skiff among ice floes.
Part Four: Icebergs crush the skiff, but he climbs over grinding ice hills to the muddy stony shore. Char-marks and wreckage are everywhere. Outlaws burst into an abandoned cottage and almost find him. He spends a night with Doberman and his children in an old fortress-castle. The bearded man cannot believe this boy is out to face the Titan. “He knows everythin’!” Yet he wants Lach to ask the Titan why his children are so unruly. Lach agrees, and he plods on to a remote black-house, of stone and thatch, to spend a night with Docie, Fitz and their family. These parents want Lach to ask the Titan why their children never want to be polite.
Trekking across the ice, he is dazzled by sunlight, never setting for days on end, with sundogs on either side. He finally falls exhausted into a sudden crevasse opening in the ice. And sudden darkness falls. Freezing night air suffocates him. In a circle above are the phantoms of all those who love him. And from the sky one star shoots down a beam that wakes and tempers the core of him. He climbs out and follows that star cloaked in a ghost moon before him.
Then blasts of fire, arcing down upon him in the night, shatter the ice. He runs helter-skelter and stumbles onto a seashore, with an island in the distance. A boatman warns him to turn back. Lach hears that the man cannot step onto land, trapped in his boat for centuries. If the boatman takes him to the castle he offers to ask the Titan why this is so. In ferrying him, the man tells of the Titan’s mother also living there—“smaller ‘n he, but ten times bigger ‘n you.”
As Lach climbs to the castle she catches him up, drops him on her tall table and skins a white stag. While roasting the carcass, she says to him, “You’re next!” But he praises her—The Mother of Wisdom. She decides to help him. Her son comes in blazing, and she slips Lach in her apron pocket. And as she asks the questions and torments her son in plucking three hairs from his scalp, Lach is roasted alive in her pocket. Yet for all of his terrible pain he does not die. The Titan bowls out fiery blasts into the night with his snores, but at last mother and son settle into slumber. Lach too is soothed into sleep by worms crawling over him, kissing him.
In the morning after her son leaves, blue moths in a flurry fly out of her pocket. She examines Lach—with red and blue and black scars on him—and says he survived because of the tempered Star Sword in him—gotten from that star where his fisher mother keeps watch. The stones he carried are now fused together, with one tiny hole. He strings the mass of them at his neck with one of the mother’s own black hairs. She dresses him in the skin of the white stag and sends him out with three golden circlets of her son’s hair around his neck.
When the boatman brings him back, Lach tells him the Titan said he is to give his oar to the next man who comes. Then he can step ashore. But in two days of mulling the Titan’s words for Docie and Fitz—“their masks on too tight”—Lach on his return to them cannot puzzle out this clue. As he arrives, the circlets themselves lead these two into new roles—new masks. With Darklings in the shadows the whole family finds new roles to take up and a new balance against the blackening chaos of the Titan. Doberman too finds, in wearing a circlet, courage enough to trudge through the ashes of his own past and so reawaken the warm spring so long dormant in his courtyard. All these people marvel at Lach, covered in scars and wearing the skin of a white stag. As he waits for his father’s ship, outlaws ride in to kill him. But the Titan descends to swallow them, horses and all, and chase after them. Then two more riders come galloping down on him.
Part Five: Vernice and Daemus are full of distress that Seena, in her impetuous grief and abandon over the loss of Lach, might lose the child within her as well. Then a ship enters the harbor. Lach takes his wife upstairs. Daemus is astounded at his scars, his white apparel and those circlets of gold. A terrible longing runs through him. He has chased a white stag, and was unhorsed. The sea captain, Lach’s father, hands him for safe-keeping two bags of gold for when Lach should need them. Unlike those other two, these bags have Darkling gold from two families that Lach helped to heal. The ship sails away, and Daemus is pulled in a nameless longing.
The next morning, the sisters lead some nobles, Lach and Seena, Daemus and Vernice, down the staircase to the Star Sword Lake beneath the castle. Lach lets everyone touch the golden circlets, and then he casts them into the lake. The age-old fog lifts from the surface. That evening in the great hall Lach tells the assembled nobles the wisdom is threaded deep into the soil of the kingdom. But some who were not present in the morning question the very existence of the golden hairs. Now Daemus leaps to his feet and calls out for any one of them to ride with him back to the netherworld, to renew the quest for three more hairs of wisdom. Silence falls over the nobles. He stands in that silence, and finally shouts to them all, “Then I go alone!” He sets his crown on Lach’s head and rides north into the night.
King Lach on the following morning releases the prisoners from the dungeon back to their estates, and declares henceforth that all servants will be paid for their labor. Angry nobles crowd into the hall, but with his kingsmen the young king faces them. “If one of your men falls into crime and has not been paid his wages, then you too will be held liable for his crimes.” They cannot take him seriously in this. But he and Seena, along with Queen Vernice, ride in a carriage from region to region through the kingdom. One by one, they get to know these nobles.
They arrive in the north, with Seena about to go into labor. Here men come down from the upland valleys, on news that if they give a fieldstone to the sisters, they may have the land of that stone to work. King Lach blesses each man with a coin of Darkling gold. As this begins, Lach is suddenly shot in the heart with an arrow. He collapses in blood, and Darklings carry him into a cave. Meanwhile Seena begins her labor.
People cease their work and fall into a shuffling line dance and hum an ancient dirge. Every village and hamlet is flooded in grief. Nobles are left speechless, powerless. Seena gives birth to a boy in a manor house not far from her husband lying in a cave. After a long night of mourning, Darklings and Erta lead Lach from the cave, shaky, wounded, but able to walk. And there is jubilation with singing and circle dances among the folk. Lach comes to see his baby, showing Seena how the fused stones shattered at his chest, blunting the force of the arrow. The outlaw who shot him is imprisoned. The king says he will remain there as a privy council, for whatever he may say or show.
Daemus month after month thrusts his way north. Helped by two families, he treks over ice to the sea of the netherworld, where the boatman warns him away. Daemus tries to bargain, but the boatman quickly hands him the oar and steps into the water and ashore. Now suddenly trapped, he cannot step out of the boat. He lives on for many years, watching the Titan and his mother bicker and fight. The mood between them grows fiercer. One whole night they have it out and fall into the sea amid gouts of steam that seethe and seethe for days. Then everything freezes. Daemus dies of frost. Darklings carry the seed of him underground, guided by old Erta—and Hilary, here from the skirmishes long ago. The seed is stored in caverns away from all time. At last it is planted by the Darklings’ fiery hands into a baby boy, just birthing from his mother. The forest is alive in storm, and wolves all around the child are howling in joyful chorus.