Paladins of Shannara: Allanon's Quest by Terry Brooks

  He closed the door to the toolroom and walked back around to the front of the barn, glancing up momentarily to where the hayloft opened out on the yard.

  “Up here!” a voice called suddenly from behind.

  There was a man standing on the porch, waving. Allanon stared. Where had he been before? “Are you Weir?”

  “I am,” the other said. “Come closer, where we can talk.”

  Allanon started back toward the house. He was no more than ten feet from the man when he noticed the nervous shifting of his horse in the dusty yard, the stamping of hooves, and the sudden shaking of his head.

  A warning …

  Too late. The man on the porch moved first, one arm whipping up sharply, a throwing knife streaking toward the Druid and burying itself in his chest. Allanon tried to react but was a fraction of a second too slow. He staggered back, stricken.

  Immediately, a whole raft of armed men emerged, pouring out of the house, out of the barn, seemingly out of the ground, howling and brandishing weapons of every stripe. Allanon threw up a protective shield of magic, throwing back as many of his attackers as he could. He dropped to one knee to make himself a smaller target, then yanked out the knife as he tried to gather his strength. To remain where he was would mean his death. Once they sensed the extent of his weakness, they would be on him.

  A handful broke through, but he was back on his feet to meet them and flung them away as if they were straw men. He moved quickly, rushing his attackers. They stumbled back from him, none of them eager to stand his ground against this angry giant. But one in their midst, a big man like himself, was shoved forward by the rest, perhaps to champion their failed efforts, perhaps out of desperation only. All dark fury and cold intent, Allanon was reaching for him when he caught sight of archers rushing forward and drawing back their bowstrings. The Druid barely had time to act. Snatching the tunic of the man in front of him, the Druid whipped him about and used him as a shield. A cluster of arrows struck the man, who jerked and went limp. Allanon threw him down in disgust and brought up his protective magic once again.

  Those of his attackers still able to do so came at him, some throwing knives, some firing arrows, some using slings, all trying to bring him down. But he was warded by his magic and not so easily reached. His attackers were thrown back again. Even those remaining at what seemed a safe distance found that the Druid magic could reach them easily, and they were tossed aside as well. Bones snapped, and lives were extinguished. Twice more the attackers came at him, and twice more they failed to reach him.

  Finally, their numbers reduced by more than half, they turned and fled into the fields and the surrounding countryside, the desire to fight gone out of them.

  Allanon clung to one of the uprights supporting the porch roof, watching them flee. Derrivanian’s help had been worth nothing. He would have to go back and start over. Once he healed, of course. Once he felt strong enough to do so.

  Dizziness washed through him, and a glance down at his robes reinforced his suspicion that he was losing blood rapidly. He pressed gently against the knife wound, trying to staunch the bleeding, using a thin skein of healing magic to help close the ragged opening.

  He was engaged in that effort when the Skull Bearer appeared.

  He didn’t see it at first, but he heard the slow beating of its wings. Then it was swinging around from behind the farmhouse, making no effort to disguise its coming, settling in slow, insolent fashion onto the corpse-strewn yard in front of the porch. Black-scaled from head to foot, and long-limbed in a way that made its crooked arms and legs seem all out of proportion, it was warded by the cape of its huge wings. Eyes, bright and expectant, glittered from beneath a heavy brow that shadowed its roughhewn face.

  “Druid,” it hissed at him.

  “You arranged all this,” Allanon replied, making it a statement of fact.

  “I did.”

  “Why go to such trouble?”

  The other’s breathing was deep and rough, as if its lungs could not manage to draw in enough air. “Because the Master wishes it. Because it pleases me. Do you know what you have done this day? You have put an end to your last chance at preventing our return.”

  Allanon stared, uncertain what the creature was saying.

  “The man lying at your feet, the one you used to shield yourself? He is Weir, and he is the last of the Shannara. The last hope you had. We would have killed him ourselves, but you saved us the trouble.”

  Allanon felt despair fill him—what had he been manipulated into doing?—but his expression never changed. “Is this your hope, creature? I think a man who sold his services to the Warlock Lord was never the Shannara we needed, and killing him is of no importance.” But doubt still nagged at him. What if the man had been an innocent, trapped, like himself, by the Warlock Lord’s forces? What if his last hope truly was gone?

  The great wings drew close about the dark body. “Think what you wish. It matters not the least to me. But your end draws near, Allanon. Like the man lying at your feet, you are the last of your kind. Time will not save you.”

  “Do you intend to finish what your assassins started?” Allanon asked the Skull Bearer. “Because your power lessens in daylight, does it not?”

  The other hissed at him. “Why bother to kill you? I have come to bear witness to your misery. You hide it well, but your despair is revealed nevertheless. You hoped this man would save your people, but now that cannot happen. Worse still is the way it was accomplished. You were betrayed, Druid. The one who sent you gave you over to me. Think on that. Then do with him what you will.”

  The Skull Bearer spread its wings and began to lift away, circling upward into the sky.

  “My brothers and I will return for you soon, Allanon!” it called back to him. “Watch for us!”

  Then the creature was gone, and the Druid was alone.

  Allanon chose not to spend the night in the farmhouse even though his knife wound was serious enough that it would be wiser to stay where he was. But with dead men all around him and the prospect of the Skull Bearer changing its mind and making a return trip—perhaps with others for company—the Druid decided it was better to put a little distance between himself and the day’s events. Using his magic to strengthen himself as best he could and setting course for friendlier ground, he mounted his horse and rode south into the forests of the Elven Westland and found refuge with friends in a small outpost miles from anything.

  There he allowed his wounds to be treated by the wife’s practiced hands and took to bed, where he slept undisturbed for thirty hours. Then he rose to wash himself and eat and drink for the first time in two days, and went back to bed.

  It took four days of rest, traditional healing skills, and Druid magic before he was fit enough to travel again. At the end of that time, as dawn broke and the day began, he reclaimed his horse, bid his friends farewell, and set out for Archer Trace.

  His plans for Derrivanian were still unformed. He understood his options, and he knew that, when the time came, he would have to choose among them. But his thoughts were dark and tinged with anger, and he did not want to get too close to them until he understood for certain what had happened. It was too easy to conclude that he already understood everything. But he had believed that once before, when going in search of Weir, and it had almost been the death of him. This time he would be more circumspect and less resolute about what he thought he knew.

  He rode through the day at a steady pace, but he made frequent stops to rest and took time to eat and drink and replenish the magic that healed his wounds. He breathed in the spring air, feeling warmth in its breezes, the first hint of summer’s approach. It was a time of rebirth in the world, the yearly beginnings of new life and fresh possibility. He wanted to feel just a little of that, wanted to hold it in his heart and draw from its strength.

  Twilight approached as he came to the edge of Archer Trace and turned down the roadway that would lead to the cottage of Eldra Derrivanian. He no longer bother
ed to consider what he was going to do, even though it was not yet decided. He would know when he faced the man. His instincts and his intellect would show him the way. He was a Druid, after all, and a Druid always knew.

  He reined in his horse at the gate bearing the rooster carving, left it tied to the fence, and walked to the door of the cottage. Derrivanian opened the door before Allanon reached it.

  “You’re alive,” the old man said, and in the tone of his voice, Allanon detected an unexpected note of relief.

  They stood on the porch staring at each other. “Why did you give me up to them like that?” Allanon asked finally.

  Derrivanian shook his head. “I wasn’t offered a choice. Come in. I will tell you everything.”

  They entered Derrivanian’s home, which looked exactly the same as it had when the Druid had visited the last time—counters and dusty furniture cluttered with pieces of clothing and unwashed dishes, mattress and bedding shoved into one corner, and the bedroom door closed.

  The old man beckoned the Druid to the kitchen table, asked if his guest would like a glass of ale and, on receiving a negative answer, turned his back to pour one for himself. He studied the glass a moment, then returned to the table. Once again, the two men sat across from each other in the mix of fading daylight and approaching night.

  “I did not want you to be killed,” Derrivanian said.

  “That’s very reassuring.” Allanon kept his voice steady even though he was seething. “But if you didn’t want me killed, why did you put me in that situation? You aren’t pretending you didn’t know what they would do, are you?”

  The old man shook his head. “No, I knew exactly what they intended. The Skull Bearer told me when it came to find me several weeks ago. I don’t know how it found me, but it did. It explained very carefully what I was to do and why I should do it. It told me that if I failed, Collice would die. If I did as I was told, she would be allowed to live. That was the choice I was given.”

  He rubbed at his eyes, and his knuckles came away wet. “It was plain enough. I was to let myself be seen by one of Eventine Elessedil’s Elven Hunters. They come through here regularly, guarding against the Warlock Lord and his minions. Once I was identified, it was virtually assured that word would get back to the King. Because of my knowledge of Elven genealogy and your need to find a Shannara heir, you would be sent to speak with me. For something as important as this, no one else would do. When you came, I was to tell you of Weir. The Skull Bearers knew of him already, having tracked him down on their own. But he was an evil man and in no way likely to take up the Sword and become a champion for the Elves. He had already announced to the Skull Bearers that he wished to be an ally of the Dark Lord. What he didn’t realize was that it had already been decided he would be used in another way.”

  “As a lure to attract me.” Allanon saw it now.

  “Yes. But not for the reason you think. Not to kill you. The Warlock Lord had something more insidious in mind. Since Weir was the last of the Shannara, what Brona wanted was for his death to come at your hands. He wanted revenge against the Druids for the terrible harm Bremen had caused him all those years ago when he forged the Sword and placed it in the hands of Jerle Shannara.”

  Allanon’s expression hardened, but still the knowledge served as a balm to his heart. He might have destroyed the world’s last hope, but he had not killed an innocent man. “But if you knew it was a trap, why didn’t you warn me? I could have helped you protect Collice.”

  Derrivanian was already shaking his head once again. “You couldn’t have helped. No one could. And warning you wasn’t possible. If I had told you anything other than what I did, Collice would be dead. The Skull Bearer was in the back room with her when you were out here talking with me.”

  Derrivanian’s face was haggard, and his eyes were filled with despair. “Don’t you see? I had to choose between you and Collice. I had already lost everything else that mattered in my life. I was not about to lose her, as well.”

  He leaned forward, the fingers of his hands knotted together. “The Skull Bearer cautioned against saying anything that would warn you. If Weir did not die by your hand, if anything happened to change that outcome, if you learned it was a trap—even by accident—it promised it would return for Collice.”

  “But you believed I might survive anyway?”

  The old man could hardly bear to look at the Druid. “I hoped as much. Judge me as you wish. I deserve it. It was a roll of the dice with lives at stake. I knew the risks. I simply took the choice that seemed best at the time. I wagered your life against Collice’s.”

  Allanon looked away. “You should know that the Skull Bearer still lives. I was too weakened from the struggle to destroy it.”

  Derrivanian shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. It will gain nothing by killing me now. It’s too late. I tricked it.”

  The Druid’s eyes locked on him. “How did you do that?”

  The old man had a strange look on his face. “It was surprisingly easy. I knew that no matter what happened, it would return for me eventually. It never intended to keep its word. Once I had done what it wanted and tricked you into going after Weir, it would have no further use for me. It would wait for a time, then it would come back to finish me.”

  He paused. “If I were in its place, I would do the same. But it waited too long. It made a mistake. It should have started by making very certain that Weir was indeed the last of the Shannara instead of wasting time playing games with you.”

  Allanon stared. “What are you saying?”

  “When I told you that Weir was the last of the Shannara kin, I lied. There is another. Weir was not the last.”

  “Another heir? Are you lying this time, too?”

  The old man shook his head. “It was necessary to tell you that Weir was the last. The Skull Bearer was listening. I was betraying you, but I was also using the betrayal to reinforce what the Skull Bearer wrongly believed. If you lived, I told myself, I would give the name to you. If you died, there was probably no hope for any of us. In any case, I would not allow my knowledge to fall into the wrong hands.”

  Allanon could hardly believe what he was hearing. “So you’re sure? There really is another? Weir was not the last?”

  Derrivanian shifted his gaze, first to the door, then to the windows, as if to reassure himself that no one else was listening. “There was a boy who was orphaned as a child, a boy whose father was an Elf and whose mother came west from the Borderlands.”

  He paused. “The boy approaches manhood now, but he is not yet fully grown. His parents were good people, intelligent and responsible, the right sorts. It may be so with this boy.”

  “His name?”

  “Aren Shea.”

  Allanon shook his head in rebuke, his dark face intense. “I recognize the name. But a fever took him while he was still very small, shortly after his parents died. That was years ago.”

  “Yes. Tragic. He was the last of his line. The burial service was poorly attended since there were no longer any living relatives among the Elves. He was buried and forgotten. Even by you, it seems. Though you can visit his gravesite in Arborlon, if you wish.”

  The Druid paused. “Are you saying he didn’t die?”

  “Exactly—though I arranged for the circumstances surrounding his death to look as convincing as possible.”

  “Because you knew. Even then. You knew he would be hunted.”

  “His parents were killed under mysterious circumstances. Just before this happened, his mother brought the child to Collice and asked her to take him. She sensed the danger, I think. The women were close friends, and the boy’s mother knew my wife could be trusted. She asked Collice to keep him until she was certain the danger was past, then she would take him back. But if anything happened to the parents, we were to fake the boy’s death, then convey him to her brother’s home in the Borderlands and tell no one what we had done. We were to hide the truth from everyone so that her son might have a chance to l

  “So you did as she asked? And the Warlock Lord and his Skull Bearers have not discovered the truth?”

  “They have no reason to suspect the boy still lives. No one in the whole of the Westland knows the truth.”

  “You are certain of this?”

  “As certain as I can be. You will have to determine if I am right or not for yourself. The boy’s name is different now. He is called Shea Ohmsford. He was given his uncle’s surname. He resides in the village of Shady Vale in the forests south of the Border Cities.”

  Derrivanian gave a weak smile and a shrug. “I have done what I promised myself I would do if you returned. It is the only thing I can offer as recompense for my behavior. I hope you can understand.” Then he gestured toward the door. “You should go now. Find the boy. Save him.”

  Allanon rose. “You should take you own advice, then. Leave here immediately. Take your wife to Arborlon and ask the King for protection.”

  The old man shook his head. “I sent her away to stay with friends the moment the Skull Bearer left to follow you. I asked them to hide her until they heard from me. I don’t know where she is.”

  “Then join her. Do so before the Skull Bearer comes for you.”

  The other man smiled, but there was no warmth. “No, it’s too late for that. It was always too late.” He took the glass of ale he had brought for himself and drained it. His eyes fixed on Allanon. “Do you really think we would be safe from the Warlock Lord and his Skull Bearers in Arborlon? Do you think we would be safe anywhere?”

  “Eventine Elessedil is not his father. He harbors no bitterness toward you. He is dedicated and compassionate. He will do his best to protect you.”

  “I am the only one who can do what is necessary to protect Collice, and I have done it.” He gestured toward the glass. “You see this? A permanent sleeping potion. The kind you hear about all the time. I am putting myself beyond the Warlock Lord’s reach. I know myself. I am weak, and if pressure were brought to bear, I would give up everything I know. But if I can’t talk, I can’t tell.”

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