The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks


  They moved hurriedly out of the valley, up the gentle slopes of the enclosing mountain range, up the broad, winding path shrouded by tall, silent trees, thinking only of the wounded men they carried. The familiar sounds of the forest returned, indicating that the danger of the valley was past. None of them had time to notice now save the taciturn Dwarf, whose battle-trained mind registered the changes of his forest homeland automatically. He thought back bitterly on the choice that had brought them into the valley, wondering what had happened to Allanon and to the promised markers. Almost without considering it, he knew that the tall wanderer must have placed markers before taking the high trail, and that someone or something, perhaps the creature they had encountered, had realized what the markers were for and removed them. He shook his head at his own stupidity in failing to recognize the truth at once and stamped harder on the ground passing beneath his booted feet, grinding his wrath in bits and pieces.

  They reached the lip of the valley and continued on, without pausing, through the forests that stretched ahead in an unbroken mass of great trunks and heavy limbs, tangled and woven together as if to shut out the mountain sky. The path grew narrow once more, forcing them to proceed in single file with the stretchers. The afternoon sky was rapidly changing from a deep blue to a mixed bloodred and purple that marked the close of another day. Hendel calculated that they could expect no more than another hour of sunlight. He had no idea how far they were from the Pass of Jade, but he was fairly certain that it could not be far from where they were now. All of them knew that they would not stop at nightfall, could not get any sleep that night or possibly even the next day if they expected to save the lives of the Valemen. They had to find Allanon quickly and have the injuries of the brothers treated before the poison reached their hearts. No one voiced any opinion and no one felt it necessary to discuss the matter. There was only one choice and they accepted it.

  As the sun dropped behind the western mountain ridges an hour later, the arms of the four bearers had reached the limit of their endurance, stiff and strained from the uninterrupted haul out of the valley. Balinor called a brief rest and the group collapsed in a heap, breathing heavily in the early-evening quiet of the forest. With the coming of night, Hendel relinquished his position as leader of the company to Dayel, who was obviously the most exhausted from carrying Flick’s stretcher. The Valemen were still unconscious, wrapped in the layered blankets for warmth, their drawn faces ashen in the fading light and covered with a thin layer of perspiration. Hendel felt their pulse and could barely discern a flicker of life in the limp arms. Menion stormed audibly about the rest area in an uncontrolled fury, swearing vengeance against everything that came to mind, his lean face flushed red with the heat of the past battle and the burning desire to find something further on which to vent his wrath.

  The company resumed its forced march after a short ten minutes’ rest. The sun had disappeared entirely, leaving them in blackness broken only by the pale light of the stars and a sliver of new moon. The absence of any real light made the traveling slow and hazardous over the winding and often uneven path. Hendel had taken up Dayel’s position at the end of Flick’s stretcher, while the slim Elf utilized his highly developed senses to locate the trail through the darkness. The Dwarf thought ruefully of the cloth strips Allanon had promised he would leave to guide them out of the Wolfsktaag. Now, more than any time previously, they were needed to mark the proper route—not for himself, but for the two Valemen, whose lives depended on speed. As he walked, his arms not yet feeling the strain of carrying the stretcher, his mind mulling over the situation facing them, he found himself gazing almost absently at two tall peaks which broke the smoothness of the night sky to his left. It was several minutes before he realized with a start that he was looking at the entrance to the Pass of Jade.

  At the same moment, Dayel announced to the group that the trail split in three directions just ahead. Hendel quickly informed them that the pass would be reached by following the left path. Without pausing, they moved onward. The trail began to lead them downward out of the mountains in the direction of the twin peaks. Reassured that the end was in sight, they marched faster, their strength renewed with the hope that Allanon would be waiting. Shea and Flick were no longer lying motionless on the stretchers, but were beginning to twitch uncontrollably and even thrash violently beneath the tightened blankets. A battle was raging within the poisoned bodies between the tightening grip of death and a strong will to live. Hendel thought to himself that it was a good sign. Their bodies had not yet given up the struggle to survive. He turned to the others in the company and discovered that they were gazing intently at what appeared to be a light gleaming sharply against the black horizon between the twin peaks. Then their own ears caught the distant sounds of a heavy booming noise and a low hum of voices coming from the location of the light. Balinor ordered them to keep moving, but told Dayel to scout ahead and to keep his eyes open.

  “What is it?” asked Menion curiously.

  “I can’t be sure from this distance,” Durin answered. “It sounds like drums and men chanting or singing.”

  “Gnomes,” declared Hendel ominously.

  Another hour’s travel brought them close enough to determine that the curious light was caused by the burning of hundreds of small fires, and the noises were indeed the booming of dozens of drums and the chanting of many, many men. The sounds had grown to deafening proportions, and the two peaks marking the entrance of the Pass of Jade loomed like huge pillars in front of them. Balinor felt certain that if the creatures ahead were Gnomes, they would not venture into their taboo land to post guards, so the company would be reasonably safe until they reached the pass. The sound of the drums and the chanting continued to vibrate through the heavy forest trees. Whoever was blocking the pass was there to stay for a while. Only moments later, the group had reached the edge of the Pass of Jade, just beyond reach of the firelight. Moving silently off the path into the shadows, the company held a brief conference.

  “What is going on?” Balinor asked anxiously of Hendel, when they were all crouched in the protection of the forest.

  “It’s impossible to tell from back here, unless you’re a mind reader!” the Dwarf growled irately. “The chanting sounds like Gnomes, but the words are blurred. I had better go ahead and check it out.”

  “I don’t think so,” Durin advised quickly. “This is a job for an Elf, not a Dwarf. I can move more quickly and quietly than you, and I’ll be able to sense the presence of any guards.”

  “Then it had better be me,” Dayel suggested. “I’m smaller, lighter, and faster than any of you. Be back in a minute.”

  Without waiting for an answer, he faded into the forest and had disappeared before anyone could voice an objection. Durin swore silently, fearing for his young brother’s life. If there were indeed Gnomes in the Pass of Jade, they would kill any stray Elf they caught prowling about in the dark. Hendel shrugged in disgust and sat back against a tree to wait for Dayel’s return. Shea had begun to moan and thrash more violently, throwing aside his blankets and nearly rolling off the stretcher. Flick was behaving in the same manner, though less forcibly, groaning in low tones, his face frighteningly drawn. Menion and Durin moved quickly to wrap the blankets back around the Valemen, this time tying them securely in place with long strips of leather. The moans continued, but the company had little fear of discovery with all the noise coming from the other side of the pass. They sat back quietly waiting for Dayel, looking anxiously at the bright horizon and listening to the drums, knowing that somehow they would have to find a way past whomever was blocking the entrance. Long minutes slipped by. Then Dayel appeared suddenly out of the darkness.

  “Are they Gnomes?” asked Hendel sharply.

  “Hundreds of them,” the Elf replied grimly. “They’re spread out all across the entrance to the Pass of Jade and there are dozens of fires. It must be some sort of ceremony from the way they’re beating the drums and chanting. The worst of it is
that they are all facing right into the pass. No one could possibly go in or out without being seen.”

  He paused and looked briefly at the pain-wracked forms of the injured Valemen before turning back to face Balinor.

  “I scouted the entire entrance and both sides of the peaks. There is no way out except straight through the Gnomes. They have us trapped!”

  TWELVE

  AYEL’S BLEAK REPORT brought an immediate reaction. Menion leaped to his feet, reaching for his sword and threatening to fight his way out or die in the attempt. Balinor tried to restrain him, or at least to quiet him, but there was complete bedlam for several minutes as the others joined the shouting highlander in his vow. Hendel questioned the somewhat shaken Dayel about what he had seen at the entrance to the pass, and after a few brief questions loudly ordered everyone to be silent.

  “The Gnome chieftains are out there,” he informed Balinor, who had finally managed to restrain Menion long enough to listen to the Dwarf. “They have all the high priests and members of surrounding villages here for a special ceremony that takes place once each month. They come at sunset and sing praises to their gods for protecting them from the evils of the taboo land, the Wolfsktaag. It will last all night, and by morning we can forget about helping our young friends.”

  “Wonderful people, the Gnomes!” exploded Menion. “They fear the evils of this place, but they align themselves with the Skull Kingdom! I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not giving up because of a few half-wit Gnomes chanting useless spells!”

  “No one is giving up, Menion,” Balinor said quickly. “We’re getting out of these mountains tonight. Right now.”

  “How do you propose to do that?” demanded Hendel. “Walk right through half the Gnome nation? Or perhaps we’ll fly out?”

  “Wait a minute!” Menion exclaimed suddenly and leaned over the unconscious Shea, searching eagerly through his clothing until he produced the small leather pouch containing the powerful Elf-stones.

  “The Elfstones will get us out of here,” he announced to the others, grasping the pouch.

  “Has he lost his mind?” asked Hendel, incredulous at the sight of the highlander eagerly waving the leather pouch.

  “It won’t work, Menion,” declared Balinor quietly. “The only one with the power to use the stones is Shea. Besides, Allanon once told me they could only be used against things whose power lies beyond substance, dangers that confuse the mind. Those Gnomes are mortal flesh and blood, not creatures of the spirit world or the imagination.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I do know that these stones worked against that creature from the Mist Marsh, and I saw it work …” Menion trailed off despondently, reflecting on what he was saying, and finally lowered the pouch and its precious contents. “What’s the use? You must be right. I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore.”

  “There has to be a way!” Durin came forward, casting about for suggestions. “All we need is a plan to draw attention away from us for about five minutes and we could slip by them.”

  Menion perked up at the suggestion, apparently finding some merit in the idea, but unable to think of a way to distract the attention of several thousand Gnomes. Balinor paced about for a few minutes, lost in thought while the others threw out random suggestions. Hendel suggested in bitter humor that he walk into their midst and let himself be captured. The Gnomes would be so overjoyed at getting their hands on him, the man they had tried so hard to destroy all these years, that they would forget about anything else. Menion thought little of the joke and was all for allowing him to do what he suggested.

  “Enough talk!” roared the Prince of Leah finally, losing his temper altogether. “What we need now is a plan, one that will get us out of here right away, before the Valemen are completely beyond help. Now what do we do?”

  “How wide is the pass?” asked Balinor absently, still pacing.

  “About two hundred yards at the point the Gnomes are gathered,” Dayel replied, avoiding a confrontation with Menion. He thought a minute longer, and then snapped his fingers in recollection. “The right side of the pass is completely open, but on the left side there are small trees and scrub brush growing along the cliff face. They would give us some cover.”

  “Not enough,” interrupted Hendel. “The Pass of Jade is wide enough to march an army through, but trying to get past with the little cover offered would be suicidal. I’ve seen it from the other side, and any Gnome looking would spot you in a minute!”

  “Then they’ll have to be looking somewhere else,” Balinor growled as the faint glimmer of a plan began to form in his mind. He stopped suddenly, and kneeling on the forest floor drew a crude diagram of the pass entrance, looking to Dayel and Hendel for approval. Menion had stopped complaining long enough to join them.

  “From the drawing, it appears that we can stay under cover and out of the light until we reach here,” Balinor explained, indicating a point of ground near the line representing the left cliff face. “The slope is gentle enough to allow us to remain above the Gnomes and within the cover of the brush. Then there is an open space for about twenty-five or thirty yards until the forests begin against the steeper cliff face beyond. That is the point of diversion, the point where the light will show us clearly to anyone looking. The Gnomes will have to be turned another way when we cross that open space.”

  He paused and looked at the four anxious faces, wishing fervently that he had a better plan, but knowing there was no time to come up with another if they were to preserve any chance of recovering the Sword of Shannara. Whatever else was at stake now, nothing was of such paramount importance as the life of the frail-looking Valeman who was heir to the Sword’s power and the one chance left to the people of the four lands to avoid a conflict that would consume them all. Their own lives could be sold comparatively cheaply to preserve that single hope.

  “It will take the best bowman in the Southland,” the tall borderman announced quietly. “That man will have to be Menion Leah.” The highlander looked up in surprise at the unexpected declaration, unable to hide the sense of pride he felt. “There will be only one shot,” continued the Prince of Callahorn. “If it is not exactly on target, we will be lost.”

  “What is your plan?” interrupted Durin curiously.

  “When we reach the end of our cover at the open space, Menion will locate one of the Gnome chieftains to the far side of the pass. He will have one shot with the bow to kill him, and in the confusion that follows, we can slip by.”

  “It won’t work, my friend,” growled Hendel. “The minute they see their leader struck by the arrow, they’ll be all over that pass entrance. You’ll be found in minutes.”

  Balinor shook his head and smiled faintly, but unconvincingly.

  “No, we won’t, because they will be after someone else. The minute the Gnome chieftain falls, one of us will show himself back in the pass. The Gnomes will be so incensed and so eager to get their hands on him, that they won’t take the time to search for anyone else, and we can slip by in the confusion.”

  Silence greeted his appraisal of the situation, and the anxious faces looked from one person to the next, the same thought in every mind.

  “It sounds just fine for everyone but the man who stays behind to show himself,” broke in Menion in disbelief. “Who gets that suicidal chore?”

  “It was my plan,” declared Balinor. “It will be my duty to stay behind and lead the Gnomes into the Wolfsktaag, until I can circle back and join you later at the edge of the Anar.”

  “You must be insane if you think I’m letting you stay behind and claim all the credit,” Menion declared. “If I make the shot, I stay to take the bows, and if I miss …”

  He trailed off and smiled, shrugging casually, clapping Durin on the shoulder as the other looked on incredulously. Balinor was about to object further when Hendel stepped forward shaking his broad head in disagreement.

  “The plan is fine as it goes, but we all kn
ow that the man who stays behind will have several thousand Gnomes attempting to track him down, or at best, waiting for him to come out of their taboo land. The man who stays must be a man who knows the Gnomes, their methods, how to fight and survive against them. In this case, that man is a Dwarf with a lifetime of battle knowledge behind him. It must be me.

  “Besides,” he added grimly, “I told you how badly they want my head. They won’t pass up the chance after such an affront.”

  “And I’ve already told you,” insisted Menion again, “that’s my…”

  “Hendel is right,” Balinor cut in sharply. The others looked at him in amazement. Only Hendel knew that the decision the borderman had made, however distasteful, was the same one he would have made had their positions been reversed. “The choice has been made, and we will abide by it. Hendel will have the best chance to survive.”

  He turned to the stocky Dwarf warrior and extended a broad hand. The other gripped it tightly for a brief moment, then turned quickly from them and disappeared up the trail at a slow trot. The others watched, but he was gone in a matter of seconds. The booming of the drums and the chanting of the Gnomes rolled deeply out of the lighted sky to the west.

  “Gag the Valemen so they cannot cry out,” ordered Balinor, startling the other three with the sharpness of the sudden command. When Menion failed to move, but remained rooted to the spot, looking silently up the path Hendel had taken a moment before, Balinor turned to him and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Be certain, Prince of Leah, that your shot is worthy of his sacrifice for us.”

  The still-twisting bodies of the two Valemen were quickly secured to the makeshift stretchers and their low cries effectively muffled by tightly bound cloth gags. The four remaining men picked up their gear and the stretchers and moved out of the cover of the trees toward the mouth of the Pass of Jade. The Gnome fires blazed up before them, lighting the night sky in a brilliant aura of yellow-and-orange flame. The drums crashed out in steady rhythm, the sound deafening in the ears of the four as they drew closer. The chanting grew louder until it seemed as if the entire Gnome nation must be gathered. The overall sensation was one of eerie unreality, as if they were lost in that primitive world of half-dreams traversed by mortal and spirit alike in strange rituals that have no recognizable purpose. The walls of the towering cliffs rose jaggedly into the night sky on either side, distant but ominously huge intruders on the little scene taking place at the high entrance to the Pass of Jade. Rock walls glimmered in a shower of color—red, orange, and yellow blended into an overriding deep green that danced and flickered in the man-made firelight. The color reflected off the hardness of the rock and mirrored softly in the grim-set faces of the four stretcher bearers, touching momentarily the fear they were trying to conceal.

 
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