The Ancient by R. A. Salvatore

  The Crutch

  Still holding the gemstone tight against his forehead, Bransen leaped up to his feet, catching himself surely and with incredible agility. He was the Highwayman now, the rogue who could scale a castle wall of tightly fit weather-worn stones. He was the Highwayman, who could challenge a laird’s champion in battle and win.

  Bransen pulled the gemstone away. Immediately, he swayed. He caught himself, though, and kept Cadayle at bay with an upraised hand. Then he stubbornly put his gemstone back in his pouch and let it go.

  He took a step, awkward and unsteady. He nearly fell over, but he did not, and he even managed to glance back at Cadayle to see her and her concerned mother exchanging frowns.

  Hand shaking, arm flailing, Bransen managed to get his fingers back around the precious gemstone and secured it to his forehead.

  How could he be so fortunate and miserable all at the same time?

  And how, he wondered as he brought his hand up to check on the security of the gemstone, could he both appreciate and resent its healing magic? The soul stone freed him from his infirmities, made him whole-heroic, even. And yet at the same time it trapped him and held him dependent to its powers.

  Bransen wanted to be free of it, but he could not tolerate the reality of that freedom. “I will find my physical strength,” he insisted. “It is there-the soul stone shows it to me. I will overcome this infirmity.”


  The Highwayman

  The Ancient






  NOTE: If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

  This is a work of fiction. All the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


  Copyright © 2008 by R. A. Salvatore

  All rights reserved.

  Map illustration by Joseph Mirabello

  Chapter opening illustrations by Shelly Wan

  A Tor Book

  Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

  175 Fifth Avenue

  New York, NY 10010

  Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

  ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-5774-1

  ISBN-10: 0-7653-5774-5

  First Edition: March 2008

  First Mass Market Edition: December 2008

  Printed in the United States of America

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  As with everything I do, this is for Diane and our children. Their support through this long journey has made it wonderful, indeed.

  For this book, I also have to give my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Mary Kirchoff. She found me in a slush pile twenty years ago and gave a (kind of) young writer a chance, and then two decades later found me again and brought me to Tor Books to continue my Demon-Wars work. So to Mary, a dear friend, a fabulous editor (again!) … but most of all, a dear friend.

  Doing this book gave me something I’ve wanted for a long, long time—the chance to work with Tom Doherty. Tom is old-school publishing, maybe the last remnant of the days when every decision didn’t have to go up one chain of command and down the other. He doesn’t talk a good game, he does a good game. All I can say about my expectation compared to my actual experience is: As advertised. I’m proud to be a part of the Tor family now. Top to bottom, I’ve dealt with nothing but competence, enthusiasm, and a constant reminder that, at the end of the day, this is supposed to be fun.


  A Few Years Ago …

  He walked across the windblown ice of the glacier known as Cold’rin, its frozen surface not causing him the slightest discomfort, not even in his feet, though he wore open-toed sandals.

  He was Badden, Ancient Badden, leader of the Samhaists, who knew the magic of the world more intimately than any others in the world. Badden was the greatest of them; no creature alive was more connected to those magics than this man. So while he stood upon hundreds of feet of solid ice, he felt, too, the earth below that freeze, where the hot springs ran. Those very springs had led him to this place, and as he neared the edge of the glacier, the wide expanse of Alpinador opening before him, the old Samhaist trembled with excitement.

  He knew.

  He knew before he glanced down from the edge of the glacier that he had found it: Mithranidoon, the steamy lake of legend, the place where the god Samhain forsook his mortal coil and melted down into the earth, the source of all magic, the guardian of eternity. Samhain’s servant was Death, men like Badden believed, who would bring the souls to the harsh judgment of the god who suffered no fool.

  It was a clear morning. When Badden looked down his breath fell away from him, and many heartbeats passed before he could catch it once more. Below him was a fog-shrouded, huge, warm lake, perhaps twenty miles long and half that wide.


  The old man smiled at the rarely seen sight. He had found the holiest of Samhaist places and the source of his greatest magic just as his war with the Abellicans in Vanguard to the south had begun to ignite.

  “Dame Gwydre,” he mouthed, referring to the leader of the men of Vanguard. “You chose poorly in taking an Abellican as your lover.” He ended with a chuckle, and no aged wheeze could be detected in the voice of the strong man, however many decades had passed since his birth. Most who knew him—or knew of him, for few actually knew Badden in any real way—believed that eight full decades and part of the ninth were behind him.

  Ancient Badden slowly turned about to survey the area. He could feel Mithranidoon’s strength keenly now that he had confirmed the location. Mithranidoon had beaten the glacier, and her power permeated the standing ice. He could feel it in his feet.

  This place would serve, he thought, continuing his scan. Up here on the glacier he had easy access to the low mountain passes that would get him to the roads leading south into Vanguard. The vantage also afforded him solid defense against any advancing armies, though he recognized that no hostile army would ever get anywhere near to him. Not here, not with Mithranidoon feeding him her power.

  “Mithranidoon,” the old man said with great reverence, as if merely glimpsing the place from afar was enough to validate his entire existence, his sixty years as a Samhaist priest. But it wasn’t enough, he realized suddenly, and he looked up to the heavens.

  “You, there!” he said loudly, lifting his hand toward a distant, circling crow.

  The bird heard him and could not ignore the call. Immediately it turned and swooped, speeding down, upturning its wings at the last moment to light gently on Ancient Badden’s outstretched hand.

  “I would see below the mists,” the old Samhaist whispered to the bird. Badden stroked his hand over the crow’s face and closed his own eyes. “To the scar Samhain rent in the earth.”

  Suddenly Badden launched the crow with the flick of his hand, his eyes tightly shut for he did not need them anymore. Ancient Badden saw through the eyes of the crow. The bird followed his instructions perfectly, sweeping down from the glacier, soaring vertically the hundreds of feet before it straightened out and rushed across the lake, barely a tall man’s height above the water.

  Ancient Badden took it all in: the caves of the trolls, lining the bank; the multitude of islands, dozens and dozens, some no more than a few rocks jutting above the steamy waters, others large and forested. One of those, particularly large and tr
ee-covered, was dotted with huts of the general design common to the barbarians of the region, though not nearly as fortified against the elements as those found on the Alpinadoran tundra. Sure enough he spotted the tribesmen, large and strong, decorated with necklaces of claws and teeth, though, as they resided on a warm lake, they wore far less clothing than the average Alpinadoran barbarian.

  Badden fell within himself and experienced the warm air coming off the spring-fed lake, warming the wings of his host.

  So the barbarians had dared to inhabit this holy place. He nodded, wondering if he could somehow enlist them in his battles against Gwydre. Some tribes had joined him, if only for brief excursions against the Southerners, but none of those occasions had gone as Badden would have hoped. These Northerners, the Alpinadorans, were a stubborn lot, predictable only in their ferocity and wedded to traditions too fully for Badden to hold much sway over them.

  The old Ancient chuckled and reminded himself why it was important for him to keep his eyes turned southward, toward the northern Honce province of Vanguard and to Honce proper herself. These were his people, his flock, the civilized men and women who had followed the Samhaist ways for centuries. They had followed un-questioningly until the upstart Abelle had brought them false promises in the days when Badden was but a child.

  The Samhaist let those unpleasant thoughts go and basked again in the beauty of Mithranidoon, but he winced soon after as the crow continued its glide over an almost barren lump of rock. Almost barren, but not uninhabited, he saw as the bird sped past. It pained the old man greatly to see powries, red-capped dwarves, settled upon the lake.

  But even that could not prepare him for the next sight, and when the bird passed another of the islands, Badden noted a familiar-looking design well under construction. Even here, they had come! Even in this most holy of Samhaist locations, the Abellican heretics had ventured and now seemed as if they meant to stay.

  So shocked was Badden that he lost connection to the bird, and he staggered so badly that he nearly toppled from the edge of the glacier.

  “This cannot stand,” he muttered over and over again.

  His mind was already whirling, calculating, searching for how he might cleanse Mithranidoon of this awful infection. All thoughts of enlisting the barbarians on the lake dissipated from him. They were all unclean. They all had to die.

  “This will not stand,” Ancient Badden declared, and in all his many years as leader of the Samhaists he had never once made such a declaration without seeing it to fruition.



  I knew my course. How could I not? I had escaped my infirmities partly through use of the Abellican gemstone known as the hematite or soul stone, but even with that item of focus most of my liberation had come as a result of the training I had received by reading the book penned by my father. The Book of Jhest, the body of knowledge of the Jhesta Tu mystics, an order to which my mother belonged in the southern land known as Behr. If there was more freedom to be found from my affliction, I would find it there.

  The road was obvious. All my hopes to free myself from the gemstone and the shadow of the Stork resided in one place to be sure.

  That place lay to the south and east, through the port city of Ethelbert dos Entel, around the arm of the mountains and into the desert land of Behr. There I would find the Walk of Clouds and the Jhesta Tu mystics; there I would strengthen my understanding of the ways of Jhest to the point, it was my hope, where I would be free of the Stork.

  It wasn’t just my hope, but my only hope.

  And therein lay my fear, deep and rooted and pervasive to the point of paralyzing.

  We left Pryd Town, banished and glad to be. With war raging between the lairds there would be no easy passage, of course, but the ease with which I turned away from the road to Entel to the more hospitable lands surprised me, even as I justified it to Cadayle and her mother. Pretty words, grounded in logic and honest fears, made the change in course an easy sell to my companions, but no amount of apparent justification could hide the truth from me.

  I changed course, delayed my journey to Ethelbert dos Entel and beyond, because I was afraid.

  This is no new epiphany. I knew when I changed paths the true reason for my hesitance; it was not based in the many fierce soldiers Laird Ethelbert has spread across the land. Even as I offered that very reason—“too dangerous”—to Cadayle and Callen, I recognized the lie.

  And now I accept it, for what is left to me if I travel all the way through the deserts of Behr to the land of the mystics only to find there that there is no deeper understanding to be gained? What is left to me if I learn that I have progressed as far as I can ever hope to climb, that the shadow of the drooling, gibbering Stork will never be more than a stride behind me?

  My condition dominates every aspect of my life. Even with the soul stone strapped to my forehead, focusing my line of chi, I wage constant battles of concentration to keep the Stork at bay. I practice for hours every day, forcing deep-seeded memories into my muscles so that when they are needed they will hopefully heed my call. And yet I know that one slip, one break of concentration, and all of my work will be for naught. I will bumble, and I will fail. And not just in battle. My concerns run far deeper than simple vanity or even the price of my own life. I cannot make love to my wife without fear that she may birth a child of similar disability to my own.

  My one great hope is to be free of the Stork, to live a normal existence, to have children and raise them strong and healthy.

  And that one great hope lies in the Walk of Clouds and nowhere else.

  Is it enough to have the hope, even if it is never realized? Would that be a better existence than discovering ultimate futility, that there is no hope? Perhaps that is the secret—the hope—for me and for all men. I hear the dreams of so many of the folk, their claims that one day they will go and live quietly in a peaceful place, by a stream or a lake or at the edge of the mighty Mirianic. So many claim those dreams throughout their lives, yet never actually find the time to execute their plans.

  Are they afraid, I wonder, as I am afraid? Is it better to have the hope of paradise than to pursue it truthfully and find that it is not what you expected?

  I laugh at the folly and preposterousness of it all. Despite all of my worries, I am happier than I have ever been. I walk beside Cadayle and her mother Callen and am warm and in love and loved.

  My road at present is west and north. Not to Ethelbert dos Entel. Not to Behr. Not to the Walk of Clouds.



  The Would-Be King

  Small and thin, Bransen nevertheless walked with the stride of a confident man. He wore the simple clothing of a farmer, breeches and shirt and a wide-brimmed hat under which sprouted tufts of black hair. He carried a thick walking stick, too thick, it seemed, for the fit of his fine hands. But it, like the hat—like the man himself—concealed a great secret, for within its burnished wood was a hollow, and within that hollow a sword, a fabulous sword, the greatest sword in all the land north of the Belt-and-Buckle Mountains. Fashioned of wrapped silverel steel, decorated with etchings of vines and flowers and with a handle of silver and ivory that resembled a hooded serpent, the sword would grow sharper with use as the thicker outer layers of wrapping were nicked or worn away.

  It was a Jhesta Tu blade, named for the reclusive mystics of the southern nation of Behr. No detail of the sword had been overlooked, not even the prongs of the crosspiece, each resembling smaller snakes poised as if to strike. For to the Jhesta Tu, the making of the sword was a holy thing, a signal of deeper meditation and perfect concentration. This sword had been fashioned by Bransen’s mother, Sen Wi, and whenever he held it he could feel in its details and workmanship the spirit of that remarkable woman, long dead.

  A simple wagon pulled by two horses and a donkey tethered behind rolled beside him on the cobblestone road, driven by a woman who commanded Bransen’s attention so
completely that he was caught off his guard when another woman walked up beside him and tucked his silk bandanna up higher under his hat.

  Instinctively, Bransen’s hand snapped up to catch the wrist of the older woman, Callen Duwornay, his mother-in-law. He turned to her with a smile.

  “I like the way you look at her,” Callen said to him quietly, motioning with her chin toward her daughter. Oblivious of Bransen’s stare, Cadayle sang while she steered the wagon.

  “She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” Bransen replied quietly enough so that Cadayle couldn’t hear. “Every time I look at her she seems more beautiful still.”

  Callen flashed him a wide smile. “A man looked at me like that once,” she said. “Or so I thought.”

  Though she smiled her voice was filled with wistful-ness and a hint of regret. Bransen understood the latter all too well, for he knew Callen’s sad tale because it was intricately and intimately entwined with his own.

  Callen had been in love once, but not with her husband. She met her soulmate after she had already been given in marriage, without choice and without say, as had been the custom twenty years before in Honce. The revelations of her adulterous affair had brought her a death sentence. As per the brutal Samhaist tradition, young Callen had been “sacked”—placed in a canvas bag with a poisonous snake. After being bitten repeatedly, her veins coursing with deadly poison, she had been staked out at the edge of Pryd Holding and left to die.

  Bransen’s mother had come upon Callen on the path and intervened, had used her Jhesta Tu magic to draw the poison from Callen and into her own body. But unknown to Sen Wi she was with child, with Bransen, and the poison damaged him severely.

  Thus he kept close his second secret, concealed under a bandanna that he wore under his hat. The bandanna held in place a soul stone, a hematite, a magical gemstone enchanted with the Abellican powers of healing. While wearing that stone Bransen could walk normally with confidence. Without it he reverted to the clumsy and awkward creature often derided as “the Stork.”

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