The Sword of Shannara: The Druids' Keep: The Druids' Keep by Terry Brooks

  Unfortunately for the Gnomes, they had forgotten to watch the open stairway against the possible chance that the Elves were not alone. At the instant they rushed Durin and Dayel, the other three members of the company burst through the doorway and fell upon the unprepared attackers. The Gnomes had never in their lives encountered men such as these. In the center came the huge borderman from Callahorn, his gleaming sword cutting a path through the shorter swords with such ferocity that the Gnomes fell over each other trying to escape. On one side they ran headlong into the bludgeoning mace of the powerful Dwarf, while on the other they faced the quick blade of the swift, agile highlander. For a moment they stood and fought against the five madmen, then wavered slightly as the attack pressed ahead, and finally broke and ran, all thoughts of winning abandoned. Without a word, the five battered warriors charged down the magnificent hall, leaping over the wounded and dead, their hunting boots ringing on the polished marble. The few Gnomes who stood against them as they came soon went down before the rush, to lie in silent, unmoving heaps. After all that they had suffered and lost, the five who remained from the little company would not be denied any longer the victory they had sought so desperately.

  Near the end of the ancient corridor, now littered with dead and wounded Gnomes, the tapestries and paintings torn and scattered from the sharp battle, a last desperate band of guards crowded together in tight formation before a set of tall, carved wooden doors that stood closed and barred. Their short hunting swords held before them like a wall of spikes, the determined Gnomes prepared to make a final stand. The attackers made a short rush at the deadly wall, trying to break through at the center behind the long swords of Balinor and Menion, but the battle-hardened guards repulsed the assault after several minutes of bitter fighting. The five withdrew in exhaustion, panting and sweating freely with the exertion, their bodies cut and battered. Durin dropped heavily to one knee, both an arm and a leg badly slashed by Gnome swords. Menion had been clipped along one side of his head by a pike edge, and the blood rose to the wound in a vivid red streak. The highlander seemed unaware of the injury. Again the five attacked and again, after long minutes of bitter hand-to-hand combat, they were repulsed. The number of Gnomes had diminished by almost half, but time was running out for the men of the company. There was no sign of Allanon, and the Gnomes would have reinforcements on the way to protect the Sword of Shannara, if indeed it did stand within the chamber they now so desperately sought to hold.

  Then, in an amazing display of raw strength, the towering Balinor rushed to the other side of the hall and with one mighty heave overturned a huge stone pillar, at the top of which was affixed a metal urn. Pillar and urn struck the stone floor with a crash that jarred everyone to the bone, the echoes reverberating through the bloodied hall. Stone should have shattered, but the pillar remained whole. With the aid of Hendel, the giant borderman began to roll the rounded battering ram sideways toward the wedge of Gnomes and the closed doors to the chamber beyond, the monstrous roller gathering speed and power with each revolution as it thundered toward the hapless guards. For an instant the wiry yellow creatures hesitated, their short swords held ready as the crushing weight of the stone pillar bore down on them. Then they broke, bolting for safety, their spirit gone, the battle lost. Even so, several were not fast enough to escape the makeshift ram and were caught beneath its great bulk as it crashed amid a shower of stone and wood splinters into the barred doors. The doors shuddered and buckled with the blow, the wood cracking and the iron fastenings snapping like the crack of a whip, yet somehow they withstood the force of the ram. But an instant later they flew off their hinges with a resounding crash as the weight of the Prince of Callahorn struck them, and the five men rushed into the chamber beyond to claim the Sword of Shannara.

  To their amazement, the room stood empty. There were tall windows and long, flowing curtains, masterful paintings that lined the walls, and even several small pieces of ornate furniture placed carefully about the large chamber. But nowhere was there any trace of the coveted Sword. In shocked disbelief, the five gazed slowly about the closed room. Durin dropped heavily to his knees, weak from loss of blood and close to passing out. Dayel came quickly to his aid, tearing up strips of cloth to bind the open wounds, then helping his brother to one of the chairs, where he collapsed in exhaustion. Menion looked from one wall to the next, searching for another exit to the room. Then Balinor, who had been pacing the floor of the chamber in slow scrutiny of its marble finish, gave a low exclamation. A portion of the floor at the very center of the room was scarred and discolored beneath a poor attempt to conceal the fact that something large and square had stood there for many years.

  “The block of Tre-Stone!” exclaimed Menion quickly.

  “But if it has been moved, it must have been recently,” Balinor speculated, his breathing labored, his voice weary as he tried to think. “So why did the Gnomes try to keep us out …?”

  “Maybe they didn’t know it had been moved,” suggested Menion desperately.

  “Perhaps a decoy …?” ventured Hendel abruptly. “But why waste time with a decoy unless …?”

  “They wanted to keep us busy here, because the Sword was still in the castle and they hadn’t gotten it out!” finished Balinor excitedly. “They haven’t had time to get it out, so they tried to decoy us! But where is the Sword now—who has it?”

  For a moment all three were at a loss. Had the Warlock Lord known that the company was coming all along, just as the Skull Bearer in the furnace had seemed to indicate? If their attack had caught everyone by surprise, what could have happened to the Sword since Allanon had last seen it in this chamber?

  “Wait!” exclaimed Durin weakly from across the room, rising slowly to his feet. “When I came through the staircase, there was something happening on another set of stairs down the hall—men moving up those stairs.”

  “The tower!” shouted Hendel, racing for the open doorway. “They’ve got the Sword locked in the tower!”

  Balinor and Menion hurried after the disappearing Dwarf, the weariness gone. The Sword of Shannara was still within reach. Durin and Dayel followed at a slower pace, the former still weak and leaning heavily on his younger brother for support, but their eyes bright with hope. A moment later, the chamber stood empty.

  Flick climbed despondently to his feet after a few minutes’ rest and decided that the only course of action left to him was to choose one of the passageways and follow it to the end, hoping that it would take him to a stairway leading upward to the fortress. He thought briefly of the others, somewhere in the corridors above, perhaps already in possession of the Sword. They could not know of Allanon’s fall nor of his own fate, lost in these impossible tunnels. He hoped they would search for him, but realized at the same time that, if they did get the Sword, there would be no time to waste looking for him. They would have to make their escape before the Warlock Lord could send the Skull Bearers to retrieve the coveted blade. He wondered what had become of Shea, if he had been found alive, if he had been rescued. Somehow he knew that Shea would never leave Paranor while Flick was alive; but then there was no way for his brother to know that he had not perished in the furnace chamber. He had to admit that his own situation looked pretty hopeless.

  At that instant there was a loud clamor from one of the tunnels, the sound of boots thudding on the stone floor, of men rushing directly toward the rotunda. In a flash, the Valeman crossed the room and hastened into concealment down a different tunnel, keeping flat against the rock in the protective shadows. He paused just within sight of the lighted rotunda and drew his short hunting knife. A few moments later a swarm of fleeing Gnome guards charged into the connecting room and disappeared down another of the passageways without pausing. The sounds of their flight were soon lost in the bends and turns of the rock. Flick had no idea what they were running from or perhaps running to, but wherever they had been was where he wanted to be. It was a good bet that they had come from the upper chambers of the Druid’s
Keep, and that was the place the Valeman had to reach. He moved cautiously back into the lighted chamber and crossed to the tunnel from which the Gnomes had come. Backtracking their path of flight, he entered the now-deserted corridor and disappeared into the darkness beyond. He held his knife before him, groping his way along the dimly lit walls toward the first torch rack. Freeing the burning wood from its clasp, he proceeded deeper into the passage, his eager eyes scanning the rough walls for signs of a door or an open stairway. He had gone only about a hundred yards when without warning a portion of the rock slid open almost at his elbow, and a single Gnome stepped into view.

  It was disputable as to which of the two was more surprised at the appearance of the other. The Gnome guard was a straggler from the larger group fleeing the battle in the halls above, and the sight of another of the invaders here in the tunnels momentarily startled him. Although smaller than the Valeman, the Gnome was wiry and armed with a short sword. He attacked immediately. Flick dodged instinctively as the sweeping blade went wide of the mark. The Valeman leaped onto the Gnome before he could recover and wrestled him to the stone floor, trying vainly to take the sword away from his agile opponent, his own knife lost in the scuffle. Flick was not trained in hand-to-hand combat, but the Gnome was, and this gave the little yellow man a distinct advantage. He had killed before and would do so again without a second thought, while Flick sought only to disarm his attacker and escape. They rolled and fought across the floor for several long minutes before the Gnome again broke free and took a vicious cut at his adversary, barely missing the exposed head. Flick threw himself back, desperately looking for his knife. The little guard charged at him just as his groping fingers closed over the heavy wood of the torch he had dropped at the first assault. The short sword came down, glancing off Flick’s shoulder and cutting into the exposed flesh of his arm painfully. At the same moment, the stunned Valeman brought the torch up with a powerful swing and felt it strike the Gnome’s raised head with jarring impact. The guard sprawled forward with the force of the blow and did not move again. Flick slowly regained his footing and recovered his knife after a moment’s search. His arm throbbed painfully and the blood had soaked into his hunting tunic, running down his arm and into his hand where he could clearly see it. Afraid that he was bleeding to death, he quickly tore up strips of cloth from the fallen Gnome’s short cloak and bound them about the injured limb until the bleeding had stopped. Picking up the other’s sword, he moved over to the still partially open rock slab to see where it led.

  To his relief, he found a winding staircase beyond the doorway that spiraled upward. He slipped into the passage, closing the rock slab behind him with several pulls of his good arm. The stairs were dimly outlined by the familiar torchlight, and he proceeded to climb with slow, cautious steps. All was quiet in the passage as he moved steadily upward, the long torches in iron racks giving him enough light to pick out his footing on the rough stone. He reached a closed door at the top of the stairway and paused there to listen, his ear placed next to the cracks between the iron bindings. There was only silence beyond. Cautiously, he pushed the door open a bit and peered through into the ancient halls of Paranor. He had reached his goal. He opened the door a bit farther and stepped watchfully into the silent corridor.

  Then the steel grip of a lean dark hand came down on his extended sword arm and yanked him into the open.

  Hendel paused hesitantly at the bottom of the stairway that led to the tower of the Druid’s Keep, peering upward into the gloom. The others stood quietly at his back, following his gaze intently. The stairway consisted of little more than a set of open stone steps, narrow and treacherous-looking, that wound upward in a spiral along the walls of the rounded turret. The entire tower was shrouded in gloomy darkness, unlighted by torches or openings in the dark stone. From their poor vantage point, the members of the company could see little beyond the first few turns in the staircase. The open stairwell dropped away from where they stood into a blackened pit. Menion crossed to the edge of the landing and peered downward, mindful of the absence of any guard rail either here or along the stairs. He dropped a small pebble into the black abyss and waited for it to hit bottom. No sound came back to him. He glanced again at the open stairs and the gloom above, then turned to the others.

  “Looks like an open invitation to a trap,” he declared pointedly.

  “Very likely,” Balinor agreed, stepping forward for a closer look. “But we have to get up there.”

  Menion nodded, then shrugged casually, moving toward the stairway. The others followed without a word, Hendel right at the highlander’s heels, Balinor next, and the Elven brothers bringing up the rear. They moved cautiously up the narrow stone steps, alert for any sign of a trap, their shoulders close to the wall, away from the dangerous open edge of the stairwell. They wound their way steadily through the musty gloom. Menion studied each step as he went, his keen eyes searching the seams of the stone-block wall for hidden devices. From time to time, he tossed stones onto the steps ahead of them, testing for traps that might be released by any sudden weight on the steps. But nothing happened. The abyss below was a silent black hole cut into the heavy gloom of the tower air, no sound penetrating its dark serenity save the soft scraping of hunting boots ascending the worn steps. At last, the faint light of burning torches cut through the darkness far above them, the small fires flickering briskly with the gusting of an unknown source of wind from the turret peak. A small landing came into view at the summit of the staircase, and beyond, the dim shape of a huge stone door, bound with iron and standing closed. The top of the Druid’s Keep.

  Then Menion sprang the first hidden trap. A series of long, barbed spikes shot out of the stone wall, triggered by the pressure of Menion’s foot on the stone stairway. Had Menion still been on the step, they would have cut into his unprotected legs, crippling him and forcing him over the edge of the open stairwell into the black abyss below. But Hendel had heard the click of the released spring an instant before the trap opened. With a quick pull he yanked the astonished highlander backward to the others, almost knocking them all off the narrow steps. They staggered wildly in the heavy gloom, inches from the sharpened steel spikes. Regaining their footing, the five remained flattened against the wall for several long minutes, breathing audibly in the still darkness. Then the taciturn Dwarf smashed the spikes before them with several well-placed blows of his great mace, opening the route once more. Now he led the way in alert silence, while the shaken Menion dropped back behind Balinor. Quickly Hendel found a second trap of the same type and triggered it, breaking the spikes and moving on.

  They were almost to the landing now, and it appeared they would reach it without further difficulty when Dayel called out sharply. His keen Elven hearing had caught something that the others had missed, a small click that signaled the triggering of still another trap. For a moment everyone froze in position as alert eyes searched the walls and steps. But they found nothing, and at last Hendel ventured a single step farther on the stairs. Surprisingly, nothing happened, and the cautious Dwarf proceeded to the top of the stairway while the others remained in position. Once he had safely reached the landing, the others hastened after him until at last all five stood together at the top, looking anxiously down the winding staircase into the black pit. How they had managed to escape the third trap they could not imagine. Balinor was of the opinion that it had failed to function properly due to long years of neglect, but Hendel was not so easily persuaded. He could not shake the feeling that somehow they had overlooked the obvious.

  The tower hung like a huge shadow over the open stairwell, its dark stone chill and wet to the touch, a mass of giant blocks that had been assembled ages ago and had stubbornly withstood the ravages of time with the endurance of the earth itself. The huge door at the landing appeared to be immovable, its surface scarred, the iron bindings as sturdy as the day they had been imbedded in the rock. Great iron spikes, hammered into the stone, held the hinges and lock in place, and
it appeared to the five who stood before it that nothing less than an earthquake could force the monstrous slab of stone open even an inch. Balinor approached the formidable barrier cautiously and ran his hands along the seams and lock, trying to find some hidden device that might release it. Gingerly, he turned the iron handle and pushed forward. To the astonishment of all, the stone slab slid partially open with a shudder and a grinding of rusted iron. A moment later, the mystery of the tower was revealed as the door swung open all the way, striking the inner walls with a sharp crash.

  In the exact center of the rounded chamber, set in the polished black surface of the giant Tre-Stone block, blade downward so that it rose before them like a gleaming cross of silver and gold, they beheld the legendary Sword of Shannara. Its long blade flashed brightly in the light of the sun streaming through the high, iron-barred windows of the tower, reflecting sharply off the mirror finish of the square stone. None of the five had ever seen the fabulous Sword, but they were instantly sure this was it. For a moment they remained framed in the doorway, gazing in astonishment, unable to believe that at last, after all their effort, the endless marches, the miserable days and nights of hiding, there before them stood the ancient talisman they had risked everything to find. The Sword of Shannara was theirs! They had outwitted the Warlock Lord. Slowly they filed into the stone chamber, smiles on their faces, the weariness gone, their wounds forgotten. They stood for long moments staring at it, silent, wondering, grateful. They could not bring themselves to step forward and take the treasure from the stone. It seemed too sacred for mortal hands. But Allanon was missing, and Shea was lost as well, and where …

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