The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

  “Here we are.” Menion pointed to a spot on the dirt map representing the fringe of the Black Oaks. “At least that’s where I think we are,” he added quickly. “To the north is the Mist Marsh and farther north of that the Rainbow Lake, out of which runs the Silver River east to the Anar Forests. Our best bet is to travel north tomorrow until we reach the edge of the Mist Marsh. Then we’ll skirt the edge of the swamp,” he traced a long line, “and come out on the other side of the Black Oaks. From there, we can travel due north until we run into the Silver River, and that should get us safely to the Anar.”

  He paused and looked over at the other two. Neither seemed to be happy with the plan.

  “What’s the matter?” he asked in bewilderment. “The plan is designed to get us past the Black Oaks without forcing us to go directly through them, which was the cause of all the trouble the last time we were here. Don’t forget those wolves are still in there somewhere!”

  Shea nodded slowly and frowned.

  “It’s not the general plan,” he began hesitantly, “but we’ve heard tales of the Mist Marsh …”

  Menion clapped his hand to his forehead in amazement.

  “Oh, no! Not the old wives’ tale about a Mist Wraith that lurks on the edges of the marsh waiting to devour stray travelers? Don’t tell me you believe that!”

  “That’s fine, coming from you,” Flick blazed up angrily. “I suppose you’ve forgotten who it was that told us how safe the Black Oaks were just before that last trip!”

  “All right,” soothed the lean hunter. “I’m not saying that this is a safe part of the country and that some very strange creatures don’t inhabit these woods. But no one has ever seen this so-called creature of the marsh, and we have seen the wolves. Which do you choose?”

  “I suppose that your plan is the best one,” interjected Shea hastily. “But I would prefer it if we could cut as far east as possible while traveling through the forest to avoid as much of the Mist Marsh as possible.”

  “Agreed!” exclaimed Menion. “But it may prove to be a bit difficult when we haven’t seen the sun in three days and can’t really be sure which way is east.”

  “Climb a tree,” Flick suggested casually.

  “Climb a …” stuttered the other in unabashed amazement. “Why, of course! Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll just climb two hundred feet of slick, damp, moss-covered tree bark with my bare hands and feet!” He shook his head in mock wonderment. “Sometimes you appall me.”

  He glanced wearily over at Shea for understanding, but the Valeman had bounded excitedly to his brother’s side.

  “You brought the climbing equipment?” he demanded in astonishment; when the other nodded, he clapped him heartily on his broad back.

  “Special boots and gloves and rope,” he explained quickly to a bewildered Prince of Leah. “Flick is the best climber in the Vale, and if anyone can make it up one of these monsters, he can.”

  Menion shook his head uncomprehendingly.

  “The boots and gloves are coated with a special substance just before use that makes the surface rough enough to grip even damp, mossy bark. He’ll be able to climb one of these oaks tomorrow and check the position of the sun.”

  Flick grinned smugly and nodded.

  “Yes, indeed, wonder of wonders.” Menion shook his head and looked over at the stocky Valeman. “Even the slow-witted are starting to think. My friends, we may make it yet.”

  When they awoke the following morning, the forest was still dark, with only faint traces of daylight filtering through at the tops of the great oaks. A thin mist had drifted in off the lowlands which, when glimpsed from the edges of the forest, appeared as sunless and dismal as ever. It was cold in the woods—not the damp, penetrating chill of the lowland country, but rather the brisk, crisp cool of a forest’s early morn. They ate a quick breakfast, and then Flick prepared to climb one of the towering oaks. He pulled on the heavy, flexible boots and gloves, which Shea then coated with a thick pasty substance from a small container. Menion looked on quizzically, but his curiosity changed to astonishment as the stocky Valeman grasped the base of the great tree and, with a dexterity that belied both his bulky size and the difficulty of the task, proceeded to climb rapidly toward the summit. His strong limbs carried him upward through the tangle of heavy branches and the climbing became slower and more difficult. He was briefly lost from sight upon reaching the topmost branches, then reappeared, hastening down the smooth trunk to rejoin his friends.

  Quickly the climbing gear was packed and the group proceeded in a northeasterly direction. Based on Flick’s report of the sun’s present position, their chosen route should bring them out at a point along the east edge of the Mist Marsh. Menion believed that the forest trek could be completed in one day. It was now early morning, and they were determined to be through the Black Oaks before darkness fell. So they marched steadily, at times rapidly, in single file. The keen-eyed Menion led, picking out the best path, relying heavily on his sense of direction in the semidarkness. Shea followed close behind him, and Flick brought up the rear, glancing occasionally over his shoulder into the still forests. They stopped only three times to rest and once more for a brief lunch, each time quickly resuming their march. They spoke infrequently, but the talk was lighthearted and cheerful. The day wore quickly away, and soon the first signs of nightfall were visible. Still the forest stretched on before them with no indication of a break in the great trees. Worse than this, a heavy graying mistiness was once again seeping into view in gradually thickening amounts. But this was a new kind of mist. It lacked the inconsistency of the lowland mist; this was an almost smokelike substance that one could actually feel clinging to the body and clothes, gripping in its own peculiarly distasteful fashion. It felt strangely like the clutching of hundreds of small, clammy, chilled hands seeking to pull the body down, and the three travelers felt an unmistakable revulsion at its insistent touch. Menion indicated that the heavy, foglike substance was from the Mist Marsh, and they were very close to the end of the forest.

  Eventually, the mist grew so heavy that it was impossible for the three to see more than a few feet. Menion slowed his pace to a crawl because of the increasingly poor visibility, and they remained close to each other to avoid separation. By this time, the day was so far gone that even without the mist the forest would have appeared almost black; but with the added dimness caused by the swirling wall of heavy moisture, it was nearly impossible to pick out any sort of path. It was almost as if the three were suspended in a limbo world, where only the solidity of the invisible ground on which they trod offered any evidence of reality. It finally became so difficult to see that Menion instructed the other two to bind themselves together and to him by a length of rope to prevent separation. This was quickly done and the slow march resumed. Menion knew that they had to be very near the Mist Marsh and carefully peered into the grayness ahead in an effort to catch a glimpse of a breakthrough.

  Even so, when at last he did reach the edge of the marshland bordering the north fringes of the Black Oaks, he did not realize what had happened until he had already stepped knee-deep into the thick green waters. The chill, deathlike clutching of the mud beneath, coupled with his surprise, caused him to slip farther down, and only his quick warning saved Shea and Flick from a similar fate. Responding to his cry, they hauled in on the rope that bound them together and hastily pulled their comrade from the bog and certain death. The sullen, slime-covered waters of the great swamp covered only thinly the bottomless mud beneath, which lacked the rapid suction of quicksand, but accomplished the same result in a slightly longer time span. Anything or anyone caught in its grip was doomed to a slow death by suffocation in an immeasurable abyss. For untold ages its silent surface had fooled unwary creatures into attempting to cross, or to skirt, or perhaps only to test its mirror-less waters, and the decayed remains of all lay buried together somewhere beneath its placid face. The three travelers stood silently on its banks, looking at it and experiencin
g inwardly the horror of its dark secret. Even Menion Leah shuddered as he remembered its brief, clutching invitation to him to share the fate of so many others. For one spellbound second, the dead paraded as shadows before them and were gone.

  “What happened?” exclaimed Shea suddenly, his voice breaking the silence with deafening sharpness. “We should have avoided this swamp!”

  Menion looked upward and about for a few seconds and shook his head.

  “We’ve come out too far to the west. We’ll have to follow the edge of the bog around to the east until we can break free from this mist and the Black Oaks.”

  He paused and considered the time of day.

  “I’m not spending the night in this place,” Flick declared vehemently, anticipating the other’s query. “I’d rather walk all night and most of tomorrow—and probably the next day!”

  Their quick decision was to continue along the edge of the Mist Marsh until they reached open land to the east and then stop for the night. Shea was still concerned about being caught in open country by the Skull Bearers, but his growing dread of the swamp overshadowed even this fear, and his foremost thought was to get as far away as possible. The trio tightened the rope about their waists and in single file began to move along the uneven shoreline of the marsh, their eyes glued to the faint path ahead. Menion guided them cautiously, avoiding the tangle of treacherous roots and weeds that grew in abundance along the swamp’s edge, their twisted, knotted forms seemingly alive in the eerie half-light of the rolling gray mist. At times the ground became soft mud, dangerously like that of the marsh itself, and had to be skirted. At other times huge trees blocked the path, their great trunks leaning heavily toward the dull, lifeless surface of the swamp’s waters, their branches drooping sadly, motionless as they waited for the death that lay only inches below. If the Lowlands of Clete had been a dying land, then this marsh was the death that waited—an infinite, ageless death that gave no sign, no warning, no movement as it crouched, concealed within the very land it had so brutally destroyed. The chilling dampness of the lowlands was here, but coupled with it was the unexplainable feeling that the heavy, stagnant slime of the swamp waters permeated the mist as well, clutching eagerly at the weary travelers. The mist about them swirled slowly, but there was no sign of wind, no sound of a breeze rustling the tall swamp grass or dying oaks. All was still, a silence of permanent death that knew well who was master.

  They had walked for perhaps an hour when Shea first sensed that something was wrong. There was no reason for the feeling; it stole over him gradually until every sense was keyed, trying to find where the trouble lay. Walking silently between the other two, he listened intently, peering first into the great oaks, then out over the swamp. Finally, he concluded with chilling certainty that they were not alone—that something else was out there in the invisible beyond, lost in the mist to their poor vision, but able to see them. For one brief moment the young Valeman was so terrified by the thought that he was unable to speak or even to gesture. He could only walk ahead, his mind frozen, waiting for the unspeakable to happen. But then, with a supreme effort he calmed his scattered thoughts and brought the other two men to an abrupt halt.

  Menion looked around quizzically and started to speak, but Shea silenced him with a finger to his own lips and a gesture toward the swamp. Flick was already looking cautiously in that direction, his own sixth sense having warned him of his brother’s fear. For long moments they stood motionless at the edge of the marsh, their eyes and ears concentrated on the impenetrable mist moving sluggishly above the surface of the dead water. The silence was oppressive.

  “I think you were mistaken,” Menion whispered finally as he relaxed his vigil. “Sometimes when you are this tired, it is easy to imagine things.”

  Shea shook his head negatively and looked at Flick.

  “I don’t know,” the other conceded. “I thought I sensed something….”

  “A Mist Wraith?” chided Menion, grinning.

  “Maybe you’re right,” Shea interceded quickly. “I am pretty tired and could imagine anything at this point. Let’s keep moving and get out of this place.”

  They hastily resumed the dreary trek, but for the next few minutes remained alert for anything unusual. When nothing happened, they began to let their thoughts drift to other matters. Shea had just succeeded in convincing himself that he had been mistaken and the victim of an overactive imagination brought about by lack of sleep, when Flick cried out.

  Immediately Shea felt the rope that bound them together jerk sharply and begin to drag him in the direction of the deadly swamp. He lost his balance and fell, unable to distinguish anything in the mist. For one fleeting moment he thought he glimpsed his brother’s body suspended several feet in the air over the swamp, the rope still tied to his waist. In the next second, Shea felt the chill of the swamp grapple at his legs.

  They might have all been lost had it not been for the quick reflexes of the Prince of Leah. At the first sharp jerk of the rope, he had instinctively grasped at the only thing near enough to keep him on his feet. It was a huge, sinking oak, its trunk embedded so far into the soft ground that its upper branches were within reach, and Menion rapidly hooked one arm about the nearest bough and with the other grasped the rope about his waist and tried to pull back. Shea, now up to his knees in the swamp mud, felt the rope go taut on Menion’s end and tried to brace himself to aid. Flick was crying out sharply in the darkness above the swamp, and both Menion and Shea shouted encouragement. Suddenly, the rope between Flick and Shea went slack, and out of the gray mistiness emerged the stout, struggling form of Flick Ohmsford, still suspended above the water’s surface, his waist gripped by what appeared to be a sort of greenish, weed-coated tentacle. His right hand held the long, silver dagger, which gleamed menacingly as it slashed in repeated cuts at the thing which held him. Shea yanked hard on the rope which bound them, trying to aid his brother in breaking free, and a moment later he succeeded as the tentacle whipped back into the mist, releasing the still-struggling Flick, who promptly fell into the marsh below.

  Shea had barely pulled his exhausted brother from the clutches of the swamp, freed him from the rope, and helped him to his feet before several more of the greenish arms shot out of the misty darkness. They knocked the shaken Flick sprawling and one closed about the left arm of an astonished Shea before he could think to dodge. He felt himself drawn toward the swamp and drew his own dagger to strike fiercely at the slime-covered tentacle. As he fought, he caught sight of something huge out in the marsh, its bulk covered by the night and the swamp. To one side, Flick again became entangled in the grip of two more tentacles, and his stocky form was dragged relentlessly toward the water’s edge. Valiantly, Shea broke free from the tentacle that held his arm, slashing through the repulsive limb with one great cut; struggling to reach his brother, he felt another tentacle grasp his leg, knocking his feet out from under him. As he fell, his head struck an oak root, and he lost consciousness.

  Again they were saved by Menion, his lithe form leaping out of the darkness behind, the great sword flashing dully in a wide arc as it severed in one powerful swing the tentacle which held the unconscious Shea. A second later, the highlander was at Flick’s side, cutting and chopping his way past the arms which suddenly reached for him out of the darkness, and with a series of quick, well-placed blows freed the other Valeman. For a moment the tentacles disappeared back into the mist of the swamp, and Flick and Menion hastened to pull the unconscious Shea back from the unprotected edge of the water. But before any of them could reach the safety of the great oaks, the greenish arms again shot out of the darkness. Without hesitation, Menion and Flick placed themselves in front of their motionless friend and struck out at the encircling arms. The fight was silent, save for the labored breathing of the men as they struck again and again, chopping off bits and pieces and sometimes whole ends of the grasping tentacles. But any damage they caused did not seem to affect the monster in the swamp, which attacked with re
newed fury at each stroke. Menion cursed himself for not remembering to drag the great ash bow within reach so that he might have taken a shot at whatever it was that lay beyond the mist.

  “Shea!” he yelled desperately. “Shea, wake up, or for the love of heaven, we’re done for!”

  The silent form behind him stirred slightly.

  “Get up, Shea!” pleaded Flick hoarsely, his own arms exhausted from the great strain of fighting off the tentacles.

  “The stones!” yelled Menion. “Get the Elfstones!”

  Shea struggled to a kneeling position, but he was knocked flat again by the force of the battle in front of him. He heard Menion shouting, and dazedly felt for his pack, realizing almost immediately that he had dropped it while helping Flick. He saw it now, several yards to the right, the tentacles waving menacingly over it. Menion seemed to realize this at the same moment and charged forward with a wild cry, his long sword cutting a path for the others. Flick was at his side, the small dagger still in his hand. With a final surge of his fading strength, Shea leaped to his feet and launched himself toward the pack containing the precious Elfstones. His slim form slipped between several of the grasping arms, and he threw himself on the pack. His hand was inside, groping for the pouch, when the first tentacle reached his unprotected legs. Kicking and struggling, he fought to keep his freedom for the few seconds he needed to find the stones. For a moment he thought he had lost them again. Then his hand closed over the small pouch, and he yanked it from his fallen pack. A sudden blow from the writhing tentacles almost caused him to drop it, and he clutched it tightly to his chest as he loosened the drawstrings with numbing slowness. Flick had been forced back so far that he stumbled against Shea’s outstretched body and fell over backward, the tentacles coming down on top of them both. Now only the lean form of Menion stood between them and the giant attacker, both hands gripping tightly the great sword of Leah.

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