It was a crystalline clear day, the kind of day in which the sunlight is so bright and the colors so brilliant that it almost hurts the eyes to look. The skies were empty of clouds from horizon to horizon, a deep blue void that stretched away forever. Out of that void and those skies blazed the sun at midday, a white-hot glare that could only be seen by squinting and quickly looking away again. It flooded down upon the Four Lands, bringing out the colors of late summer with startling clarity, even the dull browns of dried grasses and dusty earth, but especially the greens of the forests and the grasslands, the blues of the rivers and lakes, and the iron grays and burnt coppers of the mountains and flats. The sun's heat rose in waves in those quarters where winds did not cool, but even there everything seemed etched and defined with a craftman's precision, and there was a sense that even a sharp cry might shatter it all.
It was a day for living, where all the promises ever made might find fulfillment and all the hopes and dreams conceived might come to pass. It was a day for thinking about life, and thoughts of death seemed oddly out of place.
Walker's smile was faint and bitter. He wished he could find a way to make such thoughts disappear.
He stood alone outside Paranor's walls, just at their northwest corner beneath a configuration in the parapets that jutted out to form a shallow overhang, staring out across the sweep of the land. He had been there since sunrise, having slipped out through the north gates while the Four Horsemen were gathered at the west sounding their daily challenge. Almost six hours had passed, and the Shadowen hadn't discovered him. He was cloaked once again in a spell of invisibility. The spell had worked before, he had argued to Cogline while laying out his plan. No reason it shouldn't work again.
So far, it had.
Sunlight washed the walls of the Dragon's Teeth, chasing even the most persistent of shadows, stripping clean the flat, barren surface of the rocks. He could see north above the treeline to the empty stretches of the Streleheim. He could see east to the Jannisson and south to the Kennon. Streams and ponds were a glimmering of blue through the trees that circled the Keep, and songbirds flew in brilliant bursts of color that surprised and delighted.
Walker Boh breathed deeply the midday air. Anything was possible on a day like this one. Anything.
He was dressed in loose-fitting gray robes cinched about his waist, the hood pulled down so that his black hair hung loose to his shoulders. He was bearded, but trimmed and combed. Nothing of this was visible, of course. To anyone passing, and particularly to the Shadowen, he was just another part of the wall. Rest and nourishment had restored his strength. The wounds he had suffered three days earlier were mostly healed, if not forgotten. He did not give thought to what had befallen him then except in passing. He was focusedon what was to happen now, this day this hour.
It was the tenth day of the Shadowen seige. It was the day he meant for that seige to end.
He glanced back over his shoulder along the castle wall as another of the Four Horsemen circled into view. It was Famine, edging around the turn that would take it along the north wall, skeletal frame hunched over its serpent mount, looking neither left nor right as it proceeded, lost in its own peculiar form of madness. Gray as ashes and ephemeral as smoke, it slouched along the pathway. It passed within several feet of Walker Boh and did not lookup.
Today, the newest of the Druids thought to himself.
He looked out again across the valley, thinking of other times and places, of the history that had preceded him, of all the Druids who had come to Paranor and make it their home.
Once there had been hundreds, but they had all died save one when the Warlock Lord had trapped them there a thousand years ago. Bremen alone had survived to carry on, a solitary bearer of hope for the Races and wielder of the Druid magic. Then Bremen had passed away, and Allanon had come. Now Allanon was gone, and there was only Walker Boh.
The empty sleeve of his missing arm was drawn back and pinned against his body. He reached across to test the fitting, to touch experimentally his shoulder and the scarred flesh that ended only inches below. He could barely remember any more what it had been like to have two arms. It seemed odd to him that it should be so difficult. But much had happened to him in the weeks since his encounter with the Asphinx, and it might be argued that he could not be expected to remember anything of his old life, so completely had he changed. Even the anger and mistrust he had felt for the Druids had dissipated, useless now to one who had become their succssor. The Druids he had despised belonged to the past. Gone too was the fury he had borne for the Grimpond, relegated to that same past. The Grimpond had tried its best to destroy him and failed. It would not have another chance. The Grimpond was a shadow in a shadowland. It could never come out, and Walker would never go back to see it. The past had carried away Pe Ell and the Stone King as well. Walker had found the strength to survive all of the enemies that had been set against him, and now they were memories that barely mattered in the scheme of his life's present demands.
Walker breathed the air, closed his eyes, and drifted away into a place deep inside him. War was passing now, all sharp edges and spikes, glinting armored plates and black breathing holes. Walker ignored the Shadowen. Settling into the silence and the calm that lay within, he played out once more what was to happen. Step by step, he went over the plan he had formed while he lay healing, taking himself through the events he would precipitate and the consequences he would control. There would be nothing left to chance this time. There would be no testing, no halfway measures, no quarter given. He would succeed, or he would....
He almost smiled.
Or he would not. He opened his eyes and glanced skyward. The midday was past now, edging on toward afternoon. But the light was not yet at its brightest and the heat not yet at its greatest, and so he would wait a little longer still. Light and heat would serve him better than it would the Shadowen, and that was why he was out there at midday. Before, he had thought to slip away in darkness. But darkness was the ally of the Horsemen, for they were creatures born of it and took their strength therefrom. Wlaker, with his Druid magic, would find his strength in brightness.
It was to be a testing of strengths, after all, that would determine who lived and died this day.
Strengths of all kinds.
He remembered his last conversation with Cogline. It was nearing dawn and he was preparing to go out. There was movement on the steps leading down through the gate towers to the entry court where he was positioned, and Cogline appeared. His stick-thin body slipped from the stairwell shadows in a soft flutter of robes and labored breathing. The seamed whiskered face glanced at Walker briefly from beneath the edges of his frayed cowl, then looked away again. He approached and stopped, turning toward the door that led out.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
Walker nodded. They had discussed it all--or as much of it as Walker was willing to discuss. There was nothing more to say.
The old man's hands rested on the stone bulwarks that shielded and supported the iron-bound entry, so thin that they seemed almost transparent. "Let me come with you," he said quietly.
Walker shook his head. "We have discussed this already."
"Change your mind, Walker. Let me come. You will have need of me."
He sounded so sure, Walker recalled thinking. "No. You and Rumor will wait here. Stay by the door--let me back in if this fails."
Cogline's jaw tightened. "If this fails, you won't need me to let you back in."
True, Walker thought. But that didn't change things. He wasn't going to let the old man and the moor cat go out there with him. He wasn't going to be responsible for their lives as well. It would be enough that he would have to worry about keeping himself whole.
"You think I can't look after myself," the old man said, as if reading his thoughts. "You forget I took care of myself for years before you came along--before there were any Druids. I took care of you as well, once."
Walker nodded. "I know that."
The old man fidgeted. "Could be I was meant to take care of you again, you know. Could be you'll have need of me out there." He turned his face within the cowl to look at Walker. "I'm an old man, Walker. I've lived a long time--lived a full life. It doesn't matter so much what happens to me anymore."
"It matters to me."
"It shouldn't. It shouldn't matter a whit." Cogline was emphatic. "Why should it matter? Since when did you like me all that much anyway? I was the one who dragged you into this business. I was the one who persuaded you to visit the Hadeshorn, then to read the Druid History. Have you forgotten?"
Walker shook his head. "No, I haven't forgotten any of it. But it was me who made the choices that mattered--not you. We've talked all this ou, too. You were as much a pawn of the Druids as I was. Everything was decided three hundred years ago when Allanon bestowed the blood trust on Brin Ohmsford. You are not to blame for any of it."
Cogline's eyes turned filmy and distant. "I am to blame for everything that has happened in my life and yours as well, Walker Boh. I chose early on to take up the Druid way and chose after to discard it. I chose the old sciences to learn, to recover in small part. I made myself a creature of both worlds, Druid and Man, taking what I needed, keeping what I coveted, stealing from both. I am the link between the past and the present, the new and the old, and Allanon was able to use me as such. How much of what I am has made your own transformation possible, Walker? How far would you have gone without me there to prod you on? Do you think for a moment that I wasn't aware of that? Or that Allanon was blind to it? No, I cannot be absolved from my blame. You cannot absolve me by taking it upon yourself."
Walker remembered the vehemency in the other's voice, the hard edge it had revealed, the insistence it had conveyed. "Then I shall not attempt to absolve you, old man," he replied. "But neither shall I absolve myself. You did not make the choices for me; nor did you hinder me in making them. Yes, there were compelling reasons to choose as I did, but those reasons were not suggested by you before I had considered them mnyself. Besides, I could claim as you do, if I wished. Without me, what part would you have had in all of this? Would you have been more than a messenger to Par and Wren if you had not been tied to me as well? I don't think that you can say so."
The old man's face lowered into shadow by then, seeing the other's inflexibility, hearing his resolve.
"You will help me best by waiting here," Walker finished, reaching out to touch the other's arm. "Always before, you have understood the importance of knowing when to act and when not to. Do so again for me now."
It had ended there, Cogline standing with him until the sound of the Shadowen challenge had reverberated through Paranor's stone walls and Walker had gone out into the gloomy dawn to meet it.
Strengths of all kinds, he repeated as he stood now in the lee of the castle wall and listened to the approach of the next of the circling Shadowen. He would need especially a resolve of the sort that Cogline possessed--a fierce determination not to give in to the hardest and most certain of life's dictates--if he was to survive is day. Famine, Pestilence, War and Death-- the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, come to claim his soul. But on this day, he was Fate, and Fate would determine the destiny of all.
He looked up as Pestilence appeared, then straightened perceptibly. It was time.
Walker Boh waited in the shadow of the wall, an invisible presence, while the Horseman approached. It came disinterestedly, lethargically, borne on its serpent mount, a swarm of buzzing, plague-ridden insects gathered in the shape of a man. Pestilence lacked features and therefore expression, and Walker could not tell what it was seeing or thinking. It passed without slowing, serpent claws scraping roughly on the path. Walker fell into step behind it. The spell of invisibility kept him from being seen, and the sound of the serpent's own passage kept him from being heard. Walker had considered using the spell of invisibility to slip clear of the Shadowen entirely. But they had been quick enough to find him when he had tried to escape through Paranor's underground tunnels, even though he had been as silent as thought, and he believed that they could sense him when he was far enough from the Keep, from his sanctuary and the source of the his Druid power. Even invisibility might not protect him then. Better, he decided, to use his advantage where it could be relied upon and put an end to the Horsemen once and for all.
In the wake of Pestilence he circled the castle walls, the silence of midday broken only by the scrabble of serpent claws and the buzzing of caged insects. They moved out of the cooler north wall and down along the west, passing the gates at which each morning the Horsemen gathered to issue challenge to him. He had chosen the north wall in which to hide, aware that he would be out there for hours in the heat, hoping that the castle's lee shadows might give him some protection. But the south wall was where he would fight these Shadowen--south, where the sunlight was strongest. Already it was brightening ahead as they passed from the last shade offered by the castle's ramparts and edged out into the light.
They rounded the corner of the south wall, a towering, flat expanse of burning stone that faced out across a broad sweep of forestland towards the densely clustered peaks of the Dragon's Teeth. A worn, dusty stretch of bluff offerd what passageway there was below the wall, barren save for a smattering of scrub and a few stunted trees that fell away in a steep slide toward the cooler woodlands. The heat rose in a swelter that threatened to suck the air from Walker's lungs, but he held himself steady against the burning rush, trailing Pestilence at the same distance, catching sight momentarily of Famine far ahead disappearing into the shadows formed by the parapet arch beneath the eastern fasthold.
The seconds slipped away. Walker could feel the tension build inside. Be patient, he reminded himself. Wait until it is time.
Within, his magic began to come together.
When Pestilence was midway between the near watchtower and the south gates, Walker Boh struck. Still concealed within the spell of invisibility, he unleashed a thunderbolt at Pestilence that sent both rider and mount tumbling to the earth. The Horseman tried to rise, and Walker struck again, the magic a cool heat lancing from his hands, slamming the Shadowen backward in shock. Already Walker could hear the sound of the others coming, a shriek in his mind. Already he could feel their anger.
Famine appeared first, wheeling through the arch of the fasthold that had momentarily swallowed it, closer to the struggle than the others. Skeletal frame hunched low, bony hands stretched forth, the Horseman charged ahead. But there was a cloud of dust and smoke in its way, stirred by Walker in anticipation of its coming, and it could not see clearly what was happening. When it broke through the screen, it found itself right on top of its prey. Walker Boh was struggling with Pestilence, grappling with the shadowen, trying to wrest it from atop its writhing serpent, fighting to keep either from rising.
Famine swept past, finger bones raking Walker across the face.
Missing him completely.
Catching Pestilence instead. And being caught by the other in turn.
Both of the Horsemen screamed as the magic of each attacked the other. Pestilence fell back, weakened by hunger and want. Famine lurched away, sickened and retching.
Fire exploded out of the stone walls between them, dealing Famine a ferocious blow that sent the Shadowen reeling.
Now War appeared, come around the west end of the wall, the huge mace raised overhead as the Horseman thundered to the fray. Its serpent breathed flames, and there was a glimmer of fire in the eye slits beneath the armor. It saw Walker Boh clearly, saw the Druid grappling with Famine, and it attacked at once. It might have heard Famine scream in warning, but if it did it failed to heed. It brought the mace down with a crunching blow, intending to finish Walker Boh with a single pass. But Walker had disappeared, and the blow struck Famine instead, hammering right through the Shadowen and deep into his serpent. Famine wailed in anguish and collapsed in a pile of bones. Serpent and rider lay unmoving in the dust.
War wheeled back, and suddenly there were plague flies all over it, stinging and biting past weapons and armor. War shrieked, but the strike was quick and certain. Pestilence had seen Walker dodge the blow that had felled Famine, seen him launch himself into War and begin to strangle the Shadowen. Pestilence, dazed and battered, had reacted out of instinct, sending fever and sickness in a swift counterattack. But somehow things had gone awry; it was not Walker Boh who was struck, but the Horseman War. .....