First King of Shannara

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Del Rey Books
  • Published: (1996)

Horrified by the misuse of magic they had witnessed during the First War of the Races, the Druids at Paranor devoted themselves to the study of the old sciences, from the period before the collapse of civilization a thousand years before. Only the Bremen and a few trusted associates still studied the arcane arts. And for his persistence, Bremen found himself outcast, avoided by all but the few free-thinkers among the Druids.

But his removal from Paranor was not altogether a terrible thing, for Bremen learned that dark forces were on the move from the Northlands. That seemingly invincible armies of trolls were fast conquering all that lay to their south. That the scouts for the army–and its principal assassins–were Skull Bearers, disfigured and transformed Druids who had fallen prey to the seductions of the magic arts. And that at the heart of the evil tide was an archmage and former Druid named Brona!

Using the special skills he had acquired through his own study of Magic, Bremen was able to penetrate the huge camp of the Troll army and learn many of its secrets. And he immediately understood that if the peoples of the Four Lands were to escape eternal subjugation they would need to unite. But, even united, they would need a weapon, something so powerful that the evil magic of Brona, the Warlock Lord, would fail before its might…

Reviews

“You can’t find the Four Lands on any map of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth; but, given all the elves, dwarves, warlocks, trolls and gnomes that run rampant in the setting of Brooks’s many Shannara novels (The Talismans of Shannara, etc.), readers can be forgiven for trying. Tolkien’s influence is so strong in this prequel to The Sword of Shannara (1977), which launched the series, that many of the events here seem predictable or repetitive. Set 500 years before the events of Sword, the novel chronicles the destruction of ivory-towered Paranor and its Druid scholars, tracing the subsequent adventures of the outcast Druid-magician Bremen. With a handful of companions, he must find and hide the Black Elfstone from the Warlock Lord and forge a magic sword for Elven King Jerle Shannara to wield against the warlock. Brooks’s prose generates a breakneck pace, but it lacks depth of characterization and also the wealth of linguistic invention that the most satisfying high fantasy offers. As an allegory of the eternal struggle between good and evil, the vital basis of fantasy, Brooks’s mythical universe also suffers from a crucial dearth of those magical moments of heart-stopping revelation when, against all hope, against all reason, against all the forces of evil, salvation comes at last.” — Publishers Weekly

“With this volume, Brooks seems to launch yet another subsaga within the larger saga of Shannara, an undertaking rapidly approaching its twentieth anniversary. The story opens at an indeterminate but considerable time after the conclusion of The Talismans of Shannara (1993), with the Druids having abandoned magic (too dangerous) in favor of reviving science (long lost). One renegade Druid believes magic and science are both needed and conclusively proves the truth of this when he needs to face yet another host of the Dark Forces–this time, trolls led by magic-corrupted former Druids serving an archimagical potentate named Brona. The Shannara books continue to contain a singular mixture of classic fantasy elements, slabs of narrative long enough to become boring, and scenes of great power. Fortunately, there are more of the latter here than there have been in many Shannara yarns; Brooks’ craftsmanship is undeniably improving. True Brooks fans may still feel that the Magic Kingdom books constitute his most lasting legacy, but there are hordes of faithful Shannara readers out there ready to make this helping sell best, too.” — Booklist

Excerpt: Chapter One

The 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, too–now, 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 light–feral, 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 was 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 head. 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. “Then …”

“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 taken–I 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 itch–like 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 finally–one 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.”

“That isn’t so,” Kinson said at once.

“No,” the other quickly agreed, “it isn’t. I keep some sense of right and wrong about me, and I am not yet a slave to the magic. Though that is what you fear I will become, isn’t it?”

Kinson did not answer. “Tell me how you managed to get so close. How was it that you were not discovered?”

Bremen’s eyes looked away, focusing on some distant place and time. “It was not easy,” he replied softly. “The cost was high.”

He reached again for the aleskin and drank deeply, the weariness mirrored in his face so heavy it might have been formed of iron links dragging against his skin. “I was forced to make myself appear one of them,” he said after a moment. “I was required to shroud myself in their thoughts and impulses, in the evil that roots within their souls. I was cloaked in invisibility, so that my physical presence did not register, and I was left only with my spirit self. That I cloaked in the darkness that marks their own spirits, reaching deep within myself for the blackest part of who I am. Oh, I see you question that this was possible. Believe me, Kinson, the potential for evil roots deep in every man, myself included. We restrain it better, keep it buried deeper, but it lives within us. I was forced to bring it out of concealment in order to protect myself. The feel of it, the rub of it against me, so close, so eager, was terrible. But it served its purpose. It kept the Warlock Lord and his minions from discovering me.”

Kinson frowned. “But you were damaged.”

“For a time. The walk back gave me a chance to heal.” The old man smiled anew, a brief twist of his thin lips. “The trouble is that once brought so far out of its cage, a man’s evil is reluctant thereafter to be contained. It presses against the bars. It is more anxious to escape. More prepared. And having lived in such close proximity to it, I am more vulnerable to the possibility of that escape.”

He shook his head. “We are always being tested in life, aren’t we? This is just one more instance.”

There was a long moment of silence as the two men stared at one another. The moon had moved across the sky to the southern edge of the horizon and was sinking from view. The stars were brightening with its passing, the sky clear of clouds, a brilliant black velvet in the vast, unbroken silence.

Kinson cleared his throat. “As you said, you did what was required of you. It was necessary that you get close enough to determine if your suspicions were correct. Now we know.” He paused. “Tell me. Did you see the book as well? The Ildatch?”

“There, in his hands, out of my reach, or I would surely have taken it and destroyed it, even at the cost of my own life.”

The Warlock Lord and the Ildatch, there in the Skull Kingdom, as real as life, not rumor, not legend. Kinson Ravenlock rocked back slightly and shook his head. Everything true, just as Bremen had feared. As they had both feared. And now this army of Trolls come down out of the Northland to subdue the Races. It was history repeating itself. It was the First War of the Races beginning all over again. Only this time there might not be anyone to bring it to an end.

“Well, well,” he said sadly.

“There is more,” the Druid observed, lifting his eyes to the Borderman. “You must hear it all. There is an Elfstone they search for, the winged ones. A Black Elfstone. The Warlock Lord learned of it from the
Ildatch. Somewhere within the pages of that wretched book, there is mention of this stone. It is not an ordinary Elfstone like the others we have heard about. It is not one of three, one each for the heart, mind, and body of the user, their magic to be joined when summoned. This stone’s magic is capable of great evil. There is some mystery about the reason for its creation, about the use it was intended to serve. All that has been lost in the passing of time. But the Ildatch makes deliberate and purposeful reference to its capabilities, it seems. I was fortunate to learn of it. While I clung to the shadows of the wall in the great chamber where the winged ones gather and their Master directs, I heard mention of
it.”

He leaned close to the Borderman. “It is hidden somewhere in the Westland, Kinson–deep within an ancient stronghold, protected in ways that you or I could not begin to imagine. It has lain concealed since the time of faerie, lost to history, as forgotten as the magic and the people who once wielded it. Now it waits to be discovered and brought back into use.”

“And what is that use?” Kinson pressed.

“It has the power to subvert other magic, whatever its form, and convert it to the holder’s use. No matter how powerful or intricate another’s magic might be, if you hold the Black Elfstone, you can master your adversary. His magic will be leached from him and made yours. He will be helpless against you.”

Kinson shook his head despairingly. “How can anyone stand against such a thing?”

The old man laughed softly. “Now, now, Kinson, it isn’t really that simple, is it? You remember our lessons, don’t you? Every use of magic exacts a price. There are always consequences, and the more powerful the magic, the greater that consequence will be. But let’s leave that argument for another time. The point is that the Warlock Lord must not be allowed to possess the Black Elfstone because consequences matter not at all to him. He is beyond the point where reason will hold sway. So we must find the Elfstone before he does, and we must find it quickly.”

“And how are we to do that?”

The Druid yawned and stretched wearily, black robes rising and falling in a soft rustle of cloth. “I haven’t the answer to that question, Kinson. Besides, we have other business to attend to first.”

“You will go to Paranor and the Druid Council?”

“I must.”

“But why bother? They won’t listen to you. They mistrust you. Some even fear you.”

The old man nodded. “Some, but not all. There are a few who will listen. In any case, I must try. They are in great danger. The Warlock Lord remembers all too well how they brought about his doorfall in the First War of the Races. He will not chance their intervention a second time–even if they no longer seem a real threat to him.”

Kinson looked off into the distance. “They are foolish to ignore you, but ignore you they will, Bremen. They have lost all touch with reality behind their sheltering walls. They have not ventured out into the world for so long that they no longer are able to take a true measure of things. They have lost their identity. They have forgotten their purpose.”

“Hush, now.” Bremen placed a firm hand on the tall man’s shoulder. “There is no point in repeating to ourselves what we already know. We will do what we can and then be on our way.” He squeezed gently. “I am very tired. Would you keep watch for a few hours while I sleep? We can leave after that.”

The Borderman nodded. “I’ll keep watch.”

The old man rose and moved deeper into the shadows beneath the wide-boughed tree, where he settled down comfortably within his robes on a soft patch of grass. Within minutes he was asleep, his breathing deep and regular. Kinson stared down at him. Even then, his eyes were not quite closed. From behind narrow slits, there was a glimmer of light.

Like a cat, thought Kinson, looking away quickly. Like a dangerous cat.

 

* * * * *
 

Time passed, and the night lengthened. Midnight came and went. The moon dropped below the horizon, and the stars spun in vast, kaleidoscopic patterns across the black. Silence lay heavy and absolute over the Streleheim, and on the emptiness of the plains nothing moved. Even within the trees where Kinson Ravenlock kept watch, there was only the sound of the old man’s breathing.

The Borderman glanced down at his companion. Bremen, as much an outcast as himself, alone in his beliefs, exiled for truths that only he could accept.

They were alike in that regard, he thought. He was reminded of their first meeting. The old man had come to him at an inn in Varfleet, seeking his services. Kinson Ravenlock had been a scout, Tracker, explorer, and adventurer for the better part of twenty years, since the time he was fifteen. He had been raised in Callahorn, a part of its frontier life, a member of one of a handful of families who had remained in the Borderlands when everyone else had gone much farther south, distancing themselves from their past. After the conclusion of the First War of the Races, when the Druids had partitioned the Four Lands and left Paranor at the crux, Man had determined to leave a buffer between itself and the other Races. So while the Southland reached as far north as the Dragon’s Teeth, Man had abandoned almost everything above the Rainbow Lake. Only a few Southland families had stayed on, believing that this was their home, finding themselves unwilling to move to the more populated areas of their assigned land. The Ravenlocks had been one of these.

So Kinson had grown up as a Borderman, living on the edge of civilization, but as comfortable with Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Trolls as with Men. He had traveled their lands and learned their customs. He had mastered their tongues. He was a student of history, and he had heard it told from enough different points of view that he thought he had gleaned the most important of the truths that it had to offer. Bremen was a student of history as well, and right from the beginning they had shared some common beliefs. One of these was that the Races could succeed in their efforts to maintain peace only by strengthening their ties to one another, not by distancing themselves. A second was that the greatest obstacle to their success in doing so was the Warlock Lord.

Even then, even five years earlier, the rumors were already being passed around. There was something evil living in the Skull Kingdom, a collection of beasts and creatures like nothing ever seen before. There were reports of flying things, winged monsters scouring the land by night in search of mortal victims. There were stories of men going north and never being seen again. The Trolls stayed away from the Knife Edge and the Malg. They did not attempt to cross the Kierlak. When they traveled in proximity to the Skull Kingdom, they banded together in large, heavily armed groups. Nothing would grow in this part of the Northland. Nothing would take root. As time passed, the whole of that devastated region became shrouded in clouds and mist. It became arid and barren. It turned to dust and rock. Nothing could live there, it was said. Nothing that was really alive.

Most dismissed the stories. Many ignored the matter entirely. This was a remote and unfriendly part of the world in any case. What difference did it make what lived or didn’t live there? But Kinson had gone into the Northland to see for himself. He had barely escaped with his life. The winged things had tracked him for five days after they had caught him prowling at the edge of their domain. Only his great skill and more than a little luck had saved him.

So when Bremen approached him, he had already made up his mind that what the Druid was saying was true. The Warlock Lord was real. Brona and his followers lived north in the Skull Kingdom. The threat to the Four Lands was not imagined. Something unpleasant was slowly taking shape.

He had agreed to accompany the old man on his journeys, to serve as a second pair of eyes when needed, to act as courier and scout, and to watch the other’s back when danger threatened. Kinson had done so for a number of reasons, but none so compelling as the fact that for the first time in his life it gave him a sense of purpose. He was tired of drifting, of living for no better reason than to see again what he had already seen before and to be paid for the privilege. He was bored and directionless. He wanted a challenge.

Bremen had certainly given him that.

He shook his head wonderingly. It surprised him how far they had come together and how close they had grown. It surprised him how much both of those things mattered to him.

A flicker of movement far out on the empty stretches of the Streleheim caught his eye. He blinked and stared fixedly into the dark, seeing nothing. Then the movement came again, a small flutter of blackness in the shadow of a long ravine. It was so distant that he could not be certain what he was seeing, but already he suspected. A cold knot tightened in his stomach. He had seen movement like this before, always at night, always in the emptiness of some desolate place along the borders of the Northland.

He remained motionless, watching, hoping he was wrong. The movement came again, closer this time. Something lifted from the earth, hung suspended against the dark patchwork of the night plains, then dipped downward once more. It might have been a great winged bird in search of food, but it wasn’t.

It was one of the Skull Bearers.

Still Kinson waited, determined to make certain of the creature’s path. Again the shadow lifted away from the earth and soared into the starlight, angling along the ravine for a distance before moving away, coming steadily closer to where the Borderman and the Druid were concealed. Again it dipped downward and disappeared into the blackness of the earth.

Kinson realized with a sinking feeling what the Skull Bearer was doing. It was tracking someone.

Bremen.

He turned quickly now, but the old man was already beside him, staring past him into the night. “I was just about to …”

“Wake me,” the other finished. “Yes, I know.”

Kinson looked back across the plains. Nothing moved. “Did you see?” he asked softly.

“Yes.” Bremen’s voice was alert, but calm. “One of them tracks me.”

“You are certain? It follows your trail, not another’s?”

“Somehow I was careless in my passage out.” Bremen’s eyes glittered. “It knows I have passed this way and seeks to find where I have gone. I wasn’t seen within the Skull Kingdom, so this is a chance discovery. I should have used more caution crossing the plains, but I thought myself safe.”

They watched as the Skull Bearer reappeared, lifting skyward momentarily, gliding soundlessly across the landscape, then lowering into shadow once more.

“There is time yet before it reaches us,” Bremen whispered. “I think we should be on our way. We will disguise our tracks to confuse it should it choose to follow us further. Paranor and the Druids await. Come, Kinson.”

Together they rose and slipped back through the shadows and down the far side of the hill into the trees. They went soundlessly, their movements smooth and practiced, their dark forms seeming to glide across the earth.

In seconds they had disappeared from view.