They walked the remainder of the night through the sheltering forest, Kinson leading, Bremen a shadow following in his footsteps. Neither spoke, comfortable with the silence and each other. They did not see the Skull Bearer again. Bremen used magic to hide their tracks, just enough to conceal their passing without calling attention to it. But it seemed that the winged hunter had chosen no to go below the Streleheim in its search, for had it done so they would have sensed its presence. As it was, they sensed only the creatures who lived there and no others. For the moment at least, they were safe.
Kinson Ravenlock's stride was tireless, its fluid movement honed and shaped from dozens of years of travel afoot through the Four Lands. The Borderman was big and strong, a man in the prime of his life, still able to rely on reflex and speed when the need arose. Bremen watched him admiringly, remembering his own youth, thinking how far down the path of his life he had travelled. The Druid Sleep had given him a longer life than most -- a longer one than he was entitled to by nature's law -- but still it was not enough. He could feel his strength leaking from his body almost daily. He could still keep up with the Borderman when they travelled, but it was no longer possible to do so without the aid of his magic. He supplemented himself at almost every turn these days, and he knew that the time left to him in this world was growing short.
Still, he was confident in himself. He had always been so, and that more than anything had kept him strong and alive. He had come to the Druids as a young man, his training and skills in the fields of history and ancient tongues. Times had been much different then, the Druids still active in the evolution and development of the Races, still working to bring the Races together in the pursuit of common goals. It was only later, less than seventy years ago, that they had begun to withdraw from thier involvement in favor of private study. Bremen had come to Paranor to learn, and he had never stopped wanting and needing to do so. But learning required more than closeted study and meditation. It required travel and interaction with others, discussions on subjects of mutual interest, an awareness of the tide of change in life that could only come from observance, and a willingness to accept that the old ways might not offer all the answers.
So it was that early on he accepted that magic might prove a more manageable and durable form of power than the sciences of the old world before the Great Wars. All the knowledge fleaned from memories and books from the time of Galaphile forward had failed to produced what was needed of science. It was too fragmented, too removed in time from the civilization it was needed to serve, too obscure in its purpose to provide the keys to unlock the doors of understanding. But magic was another matter. Magic was older than science and more readily accessible. The Elves, who had come from that time, had knowledge of it. Though they had lived in hiding and isolation for many years, they posessed books and writings far more decipherable in thier purpose than those of the old-world sciences. True, much was still missing, and the great magics of faerie were gone and would not be easily recovered. But there was better hope for these than for the sciences over which the Druid Council continued to struggle.
But the Council remembered what evocation of the magic had cost them in the First War of the Races, what had befallen Brona and his followers, and they were not about to unlock that door again. Study of magic was permissible, but discouraged. It was treated as a curiosity with few usable tools, the practice in general not to be embraced as a doorway to the future under any circumstances. Bremen had argued the point endlessly and without success. The majority of the Druids at Paranor were hidebound and not open to the possibility of change. Learn from your mistakes, they intoned. Do not forget how dangerous the practice of magic can be. Best to forget your momentary interests in place of serious study. Bremen would not, of course -- could not, in fact. It went counter to his nature to discard a possibility simply because it had failed once. Failed because of blatant misusem, he would remind them -- something that did not necessarily have to happen a second time. A few agreed with him. But in the end when his persistence grew intolerable and he was banished from the Council, he departed alone.
He travelled then to the Westland and lived with the Elvesfor many years, studying their lore, poring over their writings, trying to recover some of what they had lost when the creatures of faerie gave way to mortal men. A few things he brought with him. The secret of the Druid Sleep was already his, though still in its rudimentary form. Mastery of its intricacies and acceptance of its consequences toop time, and it did not serve as a useful tool until he was already quite old. The Elves embraced Bremen as a kindred spirit and gave him access to their store of small magics and all but forgotten writings. In time, he discovered treasures amid the discards. He went out into the other lands, discovering bits of magic their as well, though not so highly developed and in many instances foreign even to the people whom they served.
All the while he worked steadily to confirm his growing conviction that the rumors of the Warlock Lord and his Skull Bearers were true, that these were the rebel Druids who had fled Paranor all those years ago, that these were the creatures who had been defeated in the Forst War of the Races. But the proof had been like the scent of flowers carried on the wind, there one moment and gone the next. He had tracked it relentlessly, across borders and kingdoms, through villages near and far, from one tale to the next. In the end, he had tracked it to the Skull Kingdom itself, to the heart of the Warlock Lord's domain, there in the catacombs where he had concealed himself with the dark one's minions, waiting out events that would allow him to escape with his truth. Had he been stronger, he might have gotten to that truth sooner. But it had taken him years to develop the skills necessary to survive a journey north. It had taken years of study and exploration. It might have taken less time had the Council supported him, had they put aside their superstitions and fears and embraced the possibilities as he had, but that had never happened.
He sighed, remembering it now. Thinking of it made him sad. So much time wasted. So many opportunities missed. Perhaps it was already too late for those at Paranor. What could he say now to convince them of the danger they faced? Would they even believe him when he told them what he had discovered? It had been more than two years since he had visited the Keep. Some probably thought him dead. Some might even wish him so. It would not be easy to convince them that they had been wrong in their assumptions about the Warlock Lord, that they must rethink their commitment to the Races, and, most important, that they must reconsider their refusal to use magic.
They passed out of the deep forest as dawn broke, the light brightening from silver to gold as the sun crept over the rim of the Dragon's Teeth and poured down through breaks in the trees to warm the damp earth. The trees thinned before them, reduced to small groves and solitary sentinels. Ahead, Paranor rose out of the misty light. The fortress of the Druids was a massive citadel seated on a foundation of rock that jutted from the earth like a fist. The walls of the fortress rose skyward hundreds of feet to form towers and battlements bleached vivid white. Pennants flew at every turn, some honoring the separate insignia of the High Druids who had served, some marking the houses of the rulers of the Four Lands. Mist clung to the high reaches and swathed the darker shadows at the castle base where the sun had not yet burned away the night. It was an impressive sight, Bremen thought. Even now, even to him who was an outcast.
Kinson glanced inquiringly over his shoulder, but Bremen nodded for him to go on. There was nothing to be gained by delay. Still, the very size of the fortress gave him pause. The wieght of its stone seemed to settle down across his shoulders, a burden he could not overcome. Such a massive implacable force, he thought, mirroring in some sense the stubborn resolve of those who dwelled within. He wished it might be otherwise. He knew he must try to make it so.
They passed out of the trees, where the sunlight was still an intruder amid the shadows, and walked clear of the fading night down the roadway to approach the main gates. Already there were a handfull of armed men emerging to meet them, part of the multinational force that served the Council as the Druid Guard. All were dressed in gray uniforms with a torch emblem embroidered in red on their left breast. Bremen looked for a recognizable face and found none. Well, he had been gone two years, after all. At least these were Elves set at watch, and Elves might hear him out.
Kinson moved aside deferentially and let him step to the fore. He straightened himself, calling on the magic to give him added presence, to disguise the weariness he felt, to hide any weakness or doubt. He moved up to the gates determinedly, black robes billowing out behind him, Kinson a dark presence on his right. The guards waited, flat-faced and expressionless.
When he reached them, feeling them wilt just a bit with his approach, he said simply, "Good morning to all."
"Good morning to you, Bremen," replied one, stepping forward, offering a short bow.
"You know of me then?"
The other nodded. "Iknow of you. I am sorry, but you are not allowed to enter."
His eyes shifted to include Kinson. He was polite, but firm. No outcast Druids allowed. No members of the Race of Man either. Discussion not advised.
Bremen glanced upward to the parapets as if considering the matter. "Who is Captain of the Guard?" he asked.
"Caerid Lock," the other answered.
"Will you ask him to come down and speak with me?"
The Elf hesitated, pondering the request. Finally, he nodded. "Please wait here."
He disappeared through a side door into the Keep. Bremen and Kinson stood facing the remaining guards in the shadow of the fortress wall. It would be an easy matter to go by them, to leave them standing there looking at nothing more than empty images, but Bremen had determined not to use magic to gain entry. His mission was too important to risk incurring the anger of the Council by circumventing their security and making them look foolish. They would not appreciate tricks. They might respect directness. It was a gamble he was willing to take.
Bremen turned and looked back at the forest. Sunlight probed its deep recesses now, chasing back the shadows, brightening the fragile stands of wildflowers. It was spring, he realized with a start. He had lost track of time on his journey north and back again, consumed with his search. He breathed the air, taking in a hint of the fragrance it bore from the woods. It had been a long time since he had thought about flowers.
There was movement in the doorway behind him, and he turned. The guard who had left reappeared and with him was Caerid Lock.
"Bremen," the Elf greeted solemnly, and came up to offer his hand.
Caerid Lock was a slight, dark complected man with intense eyes and a careworn face. His Elven features marked him distinctly, his brows slanted upward, his ears pointed, his face so narrow he seemed gaunt. He wore gray like the others, but the torch on his breast was gripped in a fist and there were crimson bars on both shoulders. His hair and beard were cut short and both were shot through with gray. He was one of a few who had remained friends with Bremen when the Druid was dismissed from the Council. He had been Captain of the Druid Guard for more than fifteen years, and there was not a better man anywhere for the job. An Elven Hunter with a lifetime of service, Caerid Lock was a thorough professional. The Druids had chosen well in determining who would protect them. More to the point, for Bremen's purpose, he was a man they might listen to if a request was proffered.
"Caerid, well met," the Druid replied, accepted the others hand. "Are you well?"
"As well as some I know. You've aged a few years since leaving us. The lines are in your face."
"You see the mirror of your own, I'd guess."
"Perhaps, still travelling the world, are you?"
"In the good company of my friend, Kinson Ravenlock," he introduced the other.
The Elf took the Borderman's hand and measure by equal terms, but said nothing. Kinson was equally remote.
"I need your help, Caerid," Bremen advised, turning solemn. "I must speak with Athabasca and the Council."
Athabasca was High Druid, an imposing man of firm belief and unyielding opinion who had never much cared for Bremen. He was a member of the Council when the old man was dismissed, though he was not yet High Druid. That had come later, and then only through the complex workings of internal politics that Bremen so hated. Still, Athabasca was leader, for better or worse, and any chance of success in breaching these walls would necessarily hinge on him.
Caerid Lock smiled ruefully. "Why not ask me for something difficult? You know that Paranor and the Council both are forbidden to you. You cannot even enter these walls, let alone speak with the High Druid."
"I can if he orders it," Bremen said simply.
The other nodded. Sharp eyes narrowed. "I see. You want me to speak to him on your behalf."
Bremen nodded. Caerid's tight smile disappeared. "He doesn't like you," he pointed out quietly. "That hasn't changed in your absence."
"He doesn't have to like me to talk with me. What I have to tell him is more important than personal feelings. I will be brief. I will be brief. Once he has heard me out, I will be on my way again," He paused. "I don't think I am asking too much, do you?"
Caerid Lock shook his head. "No." He glanced at Kinson. "I will do what I can."
He went back inside, leaving the old man and the Borderman to contemplate the walls and gates of the Keep. Their warders stood firmly in place, barring all entry. Bremen regarded them solemnly for a moment, then glanced towards the sun. The day was beginneing to grow warm already. He looked at Kinson, then walked over to where the shadows provided a greater measure of shade and sat down on a stone outcropping. Kinson followed, but refused to sit. There was an impatient look in his dark eyes. He wanted this matter to be finished. He was ready to move on. Bremen smiled inwardly. How like his friend. Kinson's solution to everything was to move on. He had lived his whole life that way. It was only now, since they had met, that he had begun to see that nothing is ever solved if it isn't faced. It wasn't that Kinson wasn't capable of standing up to life. He simply dealt with unpleasantness by leaving it behind, by outdistancing it, and it was true that things could be handled that way. It was just that there was never any permanent resolution.
Yes, Kinson had grown since those early days. He was a stronger man in ways that could not be readily measured. But Bremen knew that old habits died hard, and for Kinson Ravenlock, the urge to walk away from the unpleasant and the difficult was always there.
"This is a waste of our time," the Borderman muttered, as if to give credence to his thoughts.
"Patience Kinson," Bremen counseled softly.
"Patience? Why? They won't let you in. And if they do, they won't listen to you. They don't want to hear what you have to say. These are not the Druids of old, Bremen."
Bremen nodded. Kinson was right in that. But there was no help for it. The Druids of today were the only Druids there were, and some of them were not so bad. Some would still make worthy allies. Kinson would prefer they deal with matters on their own, but the enemy they faced was too formidable to be overcome without help. The Druids were needed. While they had abandoned their practice of direct involvement in the affairs of the Races, they were still regarded with a certain deference and respect. That would prove useful in uniting the Four Lands against a common enemy.
The morning wore on towards midday. Caerid Lock did not reappear. Kinson paced for a time, then finally sat down next to Bremen, frustration mirrored on his lean face. He sat wrapped in silence, wearing his darkest look.
Bremen sighed inwardly. Kinson had been with him a long time. Bremen had handpicked him from among a number of candidates for the task of ferreting out the truth about the Warlock Lord. Kinson had been the right choice. He was the best tracker the old man had ever known. He was smart and brave and clever. He was never reckless, always reasoned. They had grown so close that Kinson was like a son to him. He was certainly his closest friend.
But he could not be the one thing Bremen needed him to be. He could not be the Druid's successor. Bremen was old and failing, though he hid it well enough from those who might suspect. When he was gone, there would be no one left to continue his work. There would be no one to advance the study of magic so necessary to the evolution of the Races, no one to prod the recalcitrant Druids of Paranor into reconsidering their involvement with the Four Lands, and no one to stand against the Warlock Lord. Once, he had hoped that Kinson Ravenlock might be that man. The Borderman might still be, he supposed, but it did not seem likely. Kinson lacked the necessary patience. He disdained any pretense of diplomacy. He had no time for those who could not grasp truths he felt were obvious. Experience was the only teacher he had ever respected. He was an iconoclast and a persistent loner. None of these characteristics would serve him well as a Druid, but it seemed impossible that he could ever be any different from the way he was.
Bremen glanced over at his friend, suddenly unhappy with his analysis. It was not fair to judge Kinson so. It was enough that the Borderman was as devoted as he was, enough that he would stand with him to the death if it was required. Kinson was the best of friends and allies, and it was wrong to expect more of him.
It was just that his need for a successor was so desperate! He was old, and time was slipping away too quickly.
He took his eyes from Kinson and looked off into the distant trees as if to measure what little remained.
It was past midday when Caerid Lock finally reappeared. He stalked out of the shadows of the doorway with barely a glance at the guards or Kinson and came directly to Bremen. The Druid climbed to his feet to greet him, his joints and his muscles cramped.
"Athabasca will speak with you," the Captain of the Druid Guard advised, grim faced.
Bremen nodded. "You must have worked hard to persuade him. I am in your debt, Caerid."
The Elf grunted noncommittally. "I would not be so sure. Athabasca has his own reasons for agreeing to this meeting, I think." He turned to Kinson. "I am sorry, but I could not gain entrance for you."
Kinson straightened and shrugged. "I will be happier waiting here, I expect."
"I expect," agreed the other. "I will send you out some food and fresh water. Bremen, are you ready?"
The Druid looked at Kinson and smiled faintly. "I will be back as soon as I can."
"Good luck to you," his friend offered quietly.
Then Bremen was following Caerid Lock through the entry of the Keep and into the shadows beyond.
They walked down cavernous hallways and winding, narrow corridors in cool, dark silence, their footsteps echoing off the heavy stone. They encountered no one. It was as if Paranor were deserted, and Bremen knew that it was not so. Several times, he thought he caught a whisper of conversation or a hint of movement somewhere distant from where they walked, but he could never be certain. Caerid was taking him down the back passageways, the ones seldom used, the ones kept solely for provate comings and goings. it seemed understandable. Athabasca did not want the other Druids to know he was permitting this meeting until after he had decided if it was worth having. Bremen would be given a private audience and a brief opportunity to state his case, and then he would be either summarily dismissed or summoned to address the Council. Either way, the decision would be made quickly.
This Terry Brooks
WebRing page is owned by |
Want to join the Terry Brooks WebRing?
|[Skip Prev] [Prev] [Next] [Skip Next] [Random] [Next 5] [List Sites]|