Authors: Terry Brooks
A Del Rey
BALLANTINE BOOKS * NEW YORK
he old man just appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The Borderman was watching for him, sitting well back within the concealing shadows of a spreading hardwood high on a hillside overlooking the whole of the Streleheim and the trails leading out of it, everything clearly visible in the light of a full moon for at least ten miles, and he still didn't see him. It was unnerving and vaguely embarrassing, and the fact that it happened this way every time didn't make it any more palatable. How did the old man do it? The Borderman had spent almost the whole of his life in this country, kept alive by his wits and experience. He saw things that others did not even know were there. He could read the movements of animals from their passage through tall grass. He could tell you how far ahead of him they were and how fast they were traveling. But he could not spy out the old man on the clearest night and the broadest plain, even when he knew to look for him.
It did not help matters that the old man easily found him. Moving quite deliberately off the trail, he came toward the Borderman with slow, measured strides, head lowered slightly, eyes tilted up out of the shadow of his cowl. He wore black, like all the Druids, cloaked and hooded, wrapped darker than the shadows he passed through. He was not a big man, neither tall nor well muscled, but he gave the impression of being hard and fixed of purpose. His eyes, when visible, were vaguely green. But at times they seemed as white as bone, tooânow, especially, when night stole away colors and reduced all things to shades of gray. They gleamed like an animal's caught in a fragment of lightâferal, piercing, hypnotic. Light illuminated the old man's face as well, carving out the deep lines that creased it from forehead to chin, playing across the ridges and valleys of the ancient skin. The old man's hair and beard were gray going fast toward white, the strands wispy and thin like tangled spiderwebs.
The Borderman gave it up and climbed slowly to his feet. He was tall, rangy, and broad-shouldered, his dark hair worn long and tied back, his brown eyes sharp and steady, his lean face all planes and angles, but handsome in a rough sort of way.
A smile crossed the old man's face as he came up. “How are you, Kinson?” he greeted.
The familiar sound of his voice swept away Kinson Ravenlock's irritation as if it were dust on the wind. “I am well, Bremen,” he answered, and held out his hand in response.
The old man took it and clasped it firmly in his own. The skin was dry and rough with age, but the hand beneath was strong. “How long have you been waiting?”
“Three weeks. Not as long as I had expected. I am surprised. But then I am always surprised by you.”
Bremen laughed. He had left the Borderman six months earlier with instructions to meet him again on the first full moon of the quarter season directly north of Paranor where the forests gave way to the Plains of Streleheim. The time and place of the meeting were set, but hardly written in stone. Both appreciated the uncertainties the old man faced. Bremen had gone north into forbidden country. The time and place of his return would be dictated by events not yet known to either of them. It was nothing to Kinson that he had been forced to wait three weeks. It could just as easily have been three months.
The Druid looked at him with those piercing eyes, white now in the moonlight, drained of any other color. “Have you learned much in my absence? Have you put your time to good use?”
The Borderman shrugged. “Some of it. Sit down with me and rest. Have you eaten?”
He gave the old man some bread and ale, and they sat hunched close together in the dark, staring out across the broad sweep of the plains. It was silent out there, empty and depthless and vast beneath the night's moonlit dome. The old man chewed absently, taking his time. The Borderman had built no fire that night or on any other since he had begun his vigil. A fire was too dangerous to chance.
“The Trolls move east,” Kinson offered after a moment. “Thousands of them, more than I could count accurately, though I went down into their camp on the new moon several weeks back when they were closer to where we sit. Their numbers grow as others are sent to serve. They control everything from the Streleheim north as far as I can determine.” He paused. “Have you discovered otherwise?”
The Druid shook his bead. He had pushed back his cowl, and his gray head was etched in moonlight. “No, all of it belongs now to him.”
Kinson gave him a sharp look. “ThenÂ .Â .Â .”
“What else have you seen?” the old man urged, ignoring him.
The Borderman took the aleskin and drank from it. “The leaders of the army stay closed away in their tents. No one sees them. The Trolls are afraid even to speak their names. This should not be. Nothing frightens Rock Trolls. Except this, it seems.”
He looked at the other. “But at night, sometimes, at watch for you, I see strange shadows flit across the sky in the light of moon and stars. Winged black things sweep across the void, hunting or scouting or simply surveying what they have takenâI can't tell and don't want to know. I feel them, though. Even now. They are out there, circling. I feel their presence like an itch. No, not like an itchâlike a shiver, the sort that comes to you when you feel eyes watching and the owner of those eyes has bad intentions. My skin crawls. They do not see me; I know if they did I would be dead.”
Bremen nodded. “Skull Bearers, bound in service to him.”
“So he is alive?” Kinson could not help himself. “You know it to be so? You have made certain?”
The Druid put aside the ale and bread and faced him squarely. The eyes were distant and filled with dark memories.
“He is alive, Kinson. As alive as you and I. I tracked him to his lair, deep in the shadow of the Knife Edge, where the Skull Kingdom puts down its roots. I was not sure at first, as you know. I suspected it, believed it to be so, but lacked evidence that could stand as proof. So I traveled north as we had planned, across the plains and into the mountains. I saw the winged hunters as I went, emerging only at night, great birds of prey that patrolled and kept watch for living things. I made myself as invisible as the air through which they flew. They saw me and saw nothing. I kept myself shrouded in magic, but not of such significance that they would notice it in the presence of their own. I passed west of the Trolls, but found the whole of their land subdued. All who resisted have been put to death. All who could manage to do so have fled. The rest now serve him.”
Kinson nodded. It had been six months since the Troll marauders had swept down out of the Charnals east and begun a systematic subjugation of their people. Their army was vast and swift, and in less than three months all resistance was crushed. The Northland was placed under rule of the conquering army's mysterious and still unknown leader. There were rumors concerning his identity, but they remained unconfirmed. In truth, few even knew he existed. No word of this army and its leader had penetrated farther south than the border settlements of Varfleet and Tyrsis, fledgling outposts for the Race of Man, though it had spread east and west to the Dwarves and Elves. But the Dwarves and Elves were tied more closely to the Trolls. Man was the outcast race, the more recent enemy of the others. Memories of the First War of the Races still lingered, three hundred and fifty years later. Man lived apart in his distant Southland cities, the rabbit sent scurrying to earth, timid and toothless and of no consequence in the greater scheme of things, food for predators and little more.
But not me, Kinson thought darkly. Never me. I am no rabbit. I have escaped that fate. I have become one of the hunters.
Bremen stirred, shifting his weight to make himself more comfortable. “I went deep into the mountains, searching,” he continued, lost again in his tale. “The farther I went, the more convinced I became. The Skull Bearers were everywhere. There were other beings as well, creatures summoned out of the spirit world, dead things brought to life, evil given form. I kept clear of them all, watchful and cautious. I knew that if I was discovered my magic would probably not be enough to save me. The darkness of this region was overwhelming. It was oppressive and tainted with the smell and taste of death. I went into Skull Mountain finallyâone brief visit, for that was all I could chance. I slipped into the passageways and found what I had been searching for.”
He paused, his brow wrinkling. “And more, Kinson. Much more, and none of it good.”
“But he was there?” Kinson pressed anxiously, his hunter's face intense, his eyes glittering.
“He was there,” affirmed the Druid quietly. “Shrouded by his magic, kept alive by his use of the Druid Sleep. He does not use it wisely, Kinson. He thinks himself beyond the laws of nature. He does not see that for all, however strong, there is a price to be paid for what is usurped and enslaved. Or perhaps he simply doesn't care. He has fallen under the sway of the Ildatch and cannot free himself in any case.”
“The book of magic he stole out of Paranor?”
“Four hundred years ago. When he was simply Brona, a Druid, one of us, and not yet the Warlock Lord.”
Kinson Ravenlock knew the story. Bremen himself had told it to him, though the history was familiar enough among the Races that he had already heard it a hundred times. Galaphile, an Elf, had called together the First Council of Druids five hundred years earlier, a thousand years following the devastation of the Great Wars. The Council had met at Paranor, a gathering of the wisest men and women of all the Races, those who had memories of the old world, those who retained a few tattered, crumbling books, those whose learning had survived the barbarism of a thousand years. The Council had gathered in a last, desperate effort to bring the Races out of the savagery that had consumed them and into a new and better civilization. Working together, the Druids had begun the laborious task of assembling their combined knowledge, of piecing together all that remained so that it might be employed for a common good. The goal of the Druids was to work for the betterment of all people, regardless of anything that had gone before. They were Men, Gnomes, Dwarves, Elves, Trolls, and a smattering of others, the best and wisest of the new Races risen from the ashes of the old. If some small wisdom could be gleaned from the knowledge they carried, there was a chance for everyone.
But the task proved a long and difficult one, and some among the Druids grew restless. One was called Brona. Brilliant, ambitious, but careless of his own safety, he began to experiment with magic. There had been little in the old world, almost none since the decline of faerie and the rise of Man. But Brona believed that it must be recovered and brought back. The old sciences had failed, the destruction of the old world was the direct result of that failure, and the Great Wars were a lesson that the Druids seemed determined to ignore. Magic offered a new approach, and the books that taught it were older and more tried than those of science. Chief among those books was the Ildatch, a monstrous, deadly tome that had survived every cataclysm since the dawn of civilization, protected by dark spells, driven by secret needs. Brona saw within its ancient pages the answers he had been seeking, the solutions to the problems the Druids sought to solve. He resolved to have them. His course of action was set.
Others among the Druids warned him of the dangers, others not so impetuous, not so heedless of the lessons history had taught. For there had never been a form of power that did not evoke multiple consequences. There had never been a sword that did not cut more than one way. Be careful, they warned. Do not be reckless. But Brona and those few followers who had attached themselves to him would not be dissuaded, and in the end they broke with the Council. They disappeared, taking with them the Ildatch, their map of the new world, their key to the doors they would unlock.
In the end, it led only to their subversion. They fell sway to its power and became forever changed. They came to desire power for its own sake and for their personal use. All else was forgotten, all other goals abandoned. The First War of the Races was the direct result. The Race of Man was the tool they employed, made submissive to their will by the magic, shaped to become their weapon of attack. But their effort failed in the face of the Druid Council and the combined might of the other Races. The aggressors were defeated, and the Race of Man was driven south into exile and isolation. Brona and his followers disappeared. It was said they had been destroyed by the magic.
“Such a fool,” Bremen said suddenly. “The Druid Sleep kept him alive, but it stole away his heart and soul and left him a shell. All those years, we believed him dead. And dead he was, in a sense. But the part that survived was the evil over which the magic had gained dominance. It was the part that sought still to claim the whole of the world and the things that lived within it. It was the part that craved power over all. What matter the price that reckless use of the Sleep demanded? What difference the changes exacted for the extension of a life already wasted? Brona had evolved into the Warlock Lord, and the Warlock Lord would survive at all costs.”
Kinson said nothing. It bothered him that Bremen could condemn so easily Brona's use of the Druid Sleep without questioning at the same time his own. For Bremen used the Sleep as well. He would argue that he used it in a more balanced, controlled way, that he was cautious of its demands on his body. He would argue that it was necessary to employ the Sleep, that he did it so that he would be there for the Warlock Lord's inevitable return. But for all that he might try to draw distinctions, the fact remained that the ultimate consequences of the use were the same, whether you were Warlock Lord or Druid.
One day, it would catch up with him.
“Did you see him, then?” the Borderman asked, anxious to move on. “Did you see his face?”
The old man smiled. “He has no face or body left, Kinson. He is a presence wrapped in a hooded cloak. Like myself, I sometimes think, for I am little more these days.”