The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

  “How do I know that you are who you say you are?” he demanded quickly.

  The stranger smiled.

  “The same way I know you, Shea. By the three Elfstones you carry in your shirt pocket—the Elfstones given you by Allanon.”

  The Valeman’s startled nod was barely perceptible. Only someone sent by the tall historian could have known about the stones. He leaned forward cautiously.

  “What has happened to Allanon?”

  “I cannot be sure,” the big man replied softly. “I have not seen nor heard from him in over two weeks. When I left him, he was traveling to Paranor. There was rumor of an attack against the Keep; he was afraid for the safety of the Sword. He sent me here to protect you. I would have reached you sooner, but I was delayed by the weather—and by those who sought to follow me to you.”

  He paused and looked directly at Shea, his hazel eyes suddenly hard as they bored into the young man.

  “Allanon revealed to you your true identity and told you of the danger you would someday face. Whether you believed him or not is of no consequence now. The time has come—you must flee the valley immediately.”

  “Just pick up and leave?” exclaimed the astounded Shea. “I can’t do that!”

  “You can and you will if you wish to stay alive. The bearers of the Skull suspect you are in the valley. In a day, perhaps two, they will find you and that will be the end if you are still here. You must leave now. Travel quickly and lightly; stick with trails you know and the shelter of the forest when you can. If you are forced to travel in the open, travel only by day when their power is weaker. Allanon has told you where you are to go, but you must trust to your own resourcefulness to get you there.”

  The astonished Shea stared at the speaker for a moment and then turned to Flick who was speechless at this new turn of events. How could the man expect him just to pack up and run? It was ridiculous.

  “I have to leave,” the stranger rose suddenly, his great cloak wrapped tightly about his broad frame. “I would take you with me if I could, but I have been followed. Those who seek to destroy you will expect me to give you away eventually. I will serve you better as a decoy; perhaps they will follow me still farther, and I will be able to give you a chance to slip away without being noticed. I will ride south for a while, and then swing back toward Culhaven. We will meet again there. Remember what I said. Do not linger in the Vale—flee now, tonight! Do as Allanon has said and guard the Elf-stones with care. They are a powerful weapon.”

  Shea and Flick rose with him and shook the extended hand, noticing for the first time that the exposed arm was covered with gleaming chain mail. Without further comment, Balinor moved swiftly across the room and disappeared through the front door into the night.

  “Well, now what?” Flick asked as he collapsed back into his seat.

  “How should I know?” replied Shea wearily. “I’m no fortuneteller. I don’t have the vaguest idea if what he told us was the truth any more than what Allanon said! If he is right, and I have an uneasy suspicion that there is at least some truth in what he says, then for the sake of everyone concerned, I’ve got to get out of the valley. If someone is after me, we cannot be sure that others, like yourself and Father, won’t be hurt if I stay.”

  He gazed despondently across the room, hopelessly entangled by the tales he had been told, unable to decide what his best move would be. Flick watched him silently, knowing he could not help, but sharing his brother’s confusion and worry. Finally, he leaned across and put his hand on Shea’s shoulder.

  “I’m going with you,” he announced softly.

  Shea looked around at him, plainly startled.

  “I can’t have you doing that. Father would never understand. Besides, I may not be going anywhere.”

  “Remember what Allanon said—I’m in this with you,” Flick insisted stubbornly. “Besides, you’re my brother. I can’t let you go alone.”

  Shea stared at him wonderingly, then nodded and smiled his thanks.

  “We’ll talk about it later. At any rate, I can’t leave until I decide where I am going and what I will need—if I even go. I’ve got to leave some kind of note for Father—I can’t just walk out, despite what Allanon and Balinor think.”

  They left the table and retired to the kitchen for dinner. The remainder of the evening was spent restlessly wandering about the lounge and kitchen area, with several side trips to the sleeping quarters, where Shea rifled through his personal belongings, absently noting what he owned and setting aside stray items. Flick followed him about silently, unwilling to leave him alone, inwardly afraid that his brother might decide to depart for Culhaven without telling him. He watched Shea push clothing and camping equipment into a leather pack, and when he asked his brother why he was packing, he was told that this was just a precaution in case he did have to flee suddenly. Shea assured him that he would not leave without telling him, but the reassurance did not make Flick any easier in his mind, and he watched Shea all the more closely.

  It was pitch-black when Shea was awakened by the hand on his arm. He had been sleeping lightly, and the cold touch woke him instantly, his heart pounding. He struggled wildly, unable to see anything in the darkness, and his free hand reached out to clutch his unseen attacker. A quick hiss reached his ears, and abruptly he recognized Flick’s broad features vaguely outlined in the dim light of the cloud-masked stars and a small crescent moon that shone through the curtained window. The fear eased, replaced by sudden relief at the familiar sight of his brother.

  “Flick! You scared …”

  His relief was cut short as Flick’s strong hand clamped over his open mouth and the warning hush sounded again. In the gloom, Shea could see deep lines of fear in his brother’s face, the pale skin drawn tightly with the cold of the night air. He started up, but the strong arms holding him grasped him tighter and drew his face near tightly clenched lips.

  “Don’t speak,” the whisper sounded in his ears, the voice trembling with terror. “The window—quietly!”

  The hands loosened their grip and gently, hastily pulled him from the bed and down along the floor until both brothers were crouched breathlessly on the hard wooden planks deep within the shadows of the room. Then Shea crawled with Flick toward the partly open window, still crouching, not daring even to breathe. When they reached the wall, Flick pulled Shea to one side of the window with hands that were now shaking.

  “Shea, by the building—look!”

  Frightened beyond description, he raised his head to the windowsill and carefully peered over the wooden frame into the blackness beyond. He saw the creature almost immediately—a huge, terrible black shape, stooped in a half-crouch as it crawled, dragging itself slowly through the shadows of the buildings across from the inn, its humped back covered by a cloak that rose and billowed softly as something beneath pushed and beat against it. The hideous rasping sound of its breathing was plainly audible even from that distance, and its feet emitted a curious scraping sound as it moved across the dark earth. Shea clutched the sill tightly, his eyes locked on the approaching creature, and in the instant before he ducked below the open window, he caught a clear glimpse of a silver pendant fashioned in the shape of a gleaming Skull.


  HEA COLLAPSED wordlessly next to the dark form of his brother, and they sat huddled together in the blackness. They could hear the creature moving, the scraping sound growing louder as the seconds passed, and they were certain they had heeded Balinor’s warning too late. They waited, not daring to speak, even to breathe as they listened. Shea wanted to run, torn by the knowledge that the thing outside would kill him if it found him now, but afraid that if he moved he would be heard and caught on the spot. Flick sat rigid beside him, shaking in the cool of the blowing night wind that whipped the curtains about the window frame.

  Suddenly they heard the sharp bark of a dog sound again and again, then shift to a hoarse growl of mingled fear and hatred. Cautiously, the brothers raised their heads above th
e windowsill and looked out, squinting in the dim light. The creature bearing the Skull mark was crouched against the wall of the building directly across from their window. Some ten feet away was a huge wolf dog, a hunter for one of the Valemen, its white fangs bared and gleaming as it watched the intruder. The two shapes faced each other in the night shadows, the creature breathing in the same slow, rasping wheeze, and the dog growling low and snapping the air before it, inching forward in a half-crouch. Then, with a snarl of rage, the big wolf dog sprang at the intruder, its jaws open and reaching for the blackened head. But the dog was caught suddenly in midair by a clawlike limb that whipped out from beneath the billowing cloak and jerked at the throat of the hapless animal, smashing him lifeless to the ground. It happened in an instant, and the brothers were so astonished that they almost forgot to duck down again to avoid being seen. A moment later, they heard the strange scraping sound as the creature began to drag itself along the wall of the adjacent building—but the sound grew fainter and appeared to be moving away from the inn.

  Long moments passed as the brothers waited breathlessly in the shadows of the room, shivering uncontrollably. The night grew quiet around them, and they strained their ears for some indication of the creature’s position. Eventually Shea worked up enough courage to peer once more over the edge of the windowsill into the darkness beyond. By the time he ducked down again, the frightened Flick was ready to scramble for the nearest exit, but a hurried shake of Shea’s head assured him that the creature was gone. He hastened back from the window to the warmth of his bed, but caught himself halfway under the covers as he saw Shea begin to dress hurriedly in the darkness. He tried to speak, but Shea raised a finger to his lips. Immediately, Flick began pulling on his own clothes. Whatever Shea had in mind, wherever he was going, Flick was determined to follow. When they were both dressed, Shea pulled his brother close and whispered softly in his ear.

  “Everyone in the Vale will be in danger as long as we remain. We must get out tonight—now! Are you determined to go with me?”

  Flick nodded emphatically and Shea continued.

  “We’ll go to the kitchen and pack some food to take with us—just enough to get by on for a few days. I’ll leave a note for Father there.”

  Without another word, Shea picked up his small bundle of clothing from inside the closet and disappeared noiselessly into the pitch-black hallway that led to the kitchen. Flick hurriedly followed, groping his way from the bedroom behind his brother. It was impossible to see anything in the hallway, and it took them several minutes to feel their way along the walls and around the corners to the broad kitchen door. Once inside the kitchen, Shea lit a candle and motioned Flick over to the foodstuffs while he scratched out a note for his father on a small sheet of paper and stuck it under a beer mug. Flick finished his job in a few minutes and came back to his brother, who quickly extinguished the small candle and moved to the rear door where he stopped and turned.

  “Once we’re outside, don’t speak at all. Just follow me closely.”

  Flick nodded doubtfully, more than a little concerned about what might be waiting for them beyond the closed door—waiting to rip out their throats as it had the wolf dog’s a few minutes before. But there was no time for hesitation now, and Shea swung open the wooden door carefully and peered out into a brightly moonlit yard bordered by heavy clumps of trees. A moment later, he motioned to Flick, and they stepped cautiously from the building into the cool night air, closing the door carefully behind them. It was brighter outside the building in the soft light of the moon and stars, and a quick glance revealed that no one was around. There was only an hour or two until dawn, when the hamlet would begin to awaken. The brothers paused next to the building as they listened for any sound that would warn of danger. Hearing nothing, Shea led the way across the yard, and they disappeared into the shadows of an adjacent hedgerow, Flick casting a last, wistful glance back at the home he might never see again.

  Shea silently picked his way through the buildings of the hamlet. The Valeman knew that the Skull Bearer was uncertain who he was or it would have caught them at the inn. But it was a good bet that the creature suspected he lived within the valley and so had come into the sleeping town of Shady Vale on an exploratory search for the missing half son of the house of Shannara. Shea ran back over the plan of travel he had hastily formed at the inn. If the enemy had discovered where he was, as Balinor had warned, then all the possible escape routes would be watched. Moreover, once they discovered he was missing, they would lose no time in tracking him down. He had to assume that there was more than one of these frightening creatures, and that they were probably watching the whole valley. Flick and he would have to seize the advantage of stealth and secrecy to get out of the valley and the country immediately surrounding it within the next day or so. That meant a forced march with very few hours’ sleep. This would be tough enough, but the real problem was where they would flee. They had to have supplies within a few days, and a trip to the Anar would take weeks. The country beyond the Vale was unfamiliar to both brothers, except for a few well-traveled roads and hamlets that the Skull Bearers would certainly be watching. Given their present situation, it would be impossible to do much more than choose a general direction. But which way should they run? Which direction would the prowling creatures least expect them to go?

  Shea considered the alternatives carefully, though he had already made up his mind. West of the Vale was open country except for a few villages, and if they went that way, they would be moving away from the Anar. If they traveled south, they would eventually reach the comparative safety of the larger Southland cities of Pia and Zolomach where there were friends and relatives. But this was the logical route for them to take to escape the Skull Bearers, and the creatures would be carefully watching roads south of the Vale. Moreover, the country beyond the Duln forests was broad and open, offering little cover for the fugitives and promising a long journey to the cities, during which they could be easily caught and killed. North of the Vale and beyond the Duln was a broad sweep of land encompassing the Rappahalladran River and the huge Rainbow Lake and miles of wild, unsettled land that led eventually to the kingdom of Callahorn. The Skull Bearers would have passed through it on their journey from the Northland. They would in all likelihood know it far better than the brothers and would be watching it closely if they suspected that Balinor had come to the Vale from Tyrsis.

  The Anar lay northeast of the Vale, through miles and miles of the roughest, most treacherous country in all of the vast Southland. This direct route was the most dangerous one, but the one in which the enemy searchers would least expect him to run. It wound through murky forests, treacherous lowlands, hidden swamps, and any number of unknown dangers that claimed the lives of unwary travelers every year. But there was something else that lay east of the Duln forests that even the Skull Bearers could not know about—the safety of the highlands of Leah. There the brothers could seek the aid of Menion Leah, Shea’s close friend and, despite Flick’s fears, the one person who might be able to show them a way through the dangerous lands that led to the Anar. For Shea, this seemed the only reasonable alternative.

  The brothers reached the southeast edge of town and halted breathlessly beside an old woodshed, their backs to the coarse boarding. Shea looked cautiously ahead. He had no idea where the prowling Skull creature might be by this time. Everything was still hazy in the clouded moonglow of the dying night. Somewhere off to their left, several dogs barked furiously, and scattered lights appeared in the windows of nearby houses as sleepy owners peered out curiously into the blackness. Dawn was only a little over an hour away, and Shea knew they would have to chance discovery and run for the lip of the valley and the concealment of the Duln forests. If they were still in the valley when it became light, the creature searching for them would see them climbing the slopes of the open hills, and they would be caught trying to escape.

  Shea clapped Flick on the back and nodded, breaking into a slow jog as he
moved away from the shelter of the Vale homes into the heavy clumps of trees and brush that dotted the valley floor. The night was silent around them except for the muffled sound of their feet padding on the long grass that was wet with early-morning dew. Leafy branches whipped at them as they ran, slapping their unprotected hands and faces in small, stinging swipes that left the dew clinging to their skin. They ran hurriedly for the gentle, brush-covered eastern slope of the Vale, dodging in and out of the heavy oaks and hickories, bounding over loose nut shells and fallen twigs that were scattered beneath the wide limbs ribbing the deep sky overhead. They reached the slope and scampered up the open grassland as quickly as their legs would carry them, not pausing to look back or even down in the darkness, but only ahead to the ground that rushed by them in sudden bounds and disappeared into the Vale behind. Slipping frequently on the damp grass, they reached the lip of the Vale, where their eyes were greeted with a clear view of the great valley walls to the east, studded with shapeless boulders and sparse shrubbery, looming like a great barrier to the world beyond.

  Shea was in excellent physical condition, and his light form flew across the uneven ground, moving agilely among the clumps of brush and small boulders that blocked his path. Flick followed doggedly, the stout muscles of his legs working tirelessly to keep his heavier frame even with the fleet figure ahead. Only once did he risk a quick glance back, and his eyes recorded only a blurred image of mingled treetops that rose above the now hidden town and were outlined in the glow of the fading night stars and clouded moon. He watched Shea run ahead of him, bounding lightly over small rises and scattered rocks, apparently intent on reaching the small wooded area near the base of the eastern slope of the valley about a mile ahead. Flick’s legs were beginning to tire, but his fear of the creature somewhere behind them kept him from lagging. He wondered what would happen to them now, fugitives from the only home they had known, pursued by an incredibly vicious enemy that would snuff out their lives like a small candle’s flame if they were caught. Where could they go that they wouldn’t be found? For the first time since Allanon had departed, Flick wished fervently that the mysterious wanderer would reappear.

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