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


  “Watch your tongue, youngster!” The scarlet stranger leaped in front of him, brandishing the iron pike. The broad face was distorted in sudden hate, the constant smile suddenly villainous beneath the small mustache as anger flashed sharply in the dark eyes. “What you may think of us had best be kept to yourself. I’ve come a long way in this world, and no one has ever given me anything! Since this is so, I let no man take anything away!”

  Shea backed away guardedly, terrified that he had foolishly overstepped his bounds with the unpredictable pair. Undoubtedly, his own rescue had been almost an afterthought on their part, their primary concern having been the theft of the Elfstones from the Gnome raiders. Panamon Creel was no one to fool around with, and a reckless tongue at this stage of the game could cost the Valeman his life. The tall thief stared balefully at his frightened captive a moment longer and then stepped back slowly, the angered features relaxing and a faint hint of his former good-naturedness returning in a quick smile.

  “Why should we deny it, Keltset and I?” He swaggered backward and around a few paces, wheeling abruptly on Shea again. “We are wayfarers of fortune, he and I. Men who live by their wits and by their cunning—yet we are no different than other men, save in our methods. And perhaps our disdain for hypocrisy! All men are thieves in one way or another; we are simply the old-fashioned type, the honest type who are not ashamed of what they are.”

  “How did you happen on this camp?” Shea asked hesitantly, fearful of aggravating the temperamental man further.

  “We came across their fire last night, just after sunset,” the other replied easily, all traces of hostility gone. “I came down to the edge of the clearing for a closer look and saw my little yellow friends playing with those three blue gems. I saw you as well, all trussed up for delivery. So I decided to bring Keltset down and kill two birds with one stone—ah, ha, you see, I wasn’t lying when I told you that I did not like to see a fellow Southlander in the hands of those devils!”

  Shea nodded, happy to be free, but unsure whether he was better off now than when he had been a prisoner of the Gnomes.

  “Quit worrying, friend.” Panamon Creel recognized the unspoken fear. “We don’t mean you any harm. We only want the stones—they’ll bring a good price, and we can use the money. You’re free to go back to where you came from anytime.”

  He turned away abruptly and walked over to the waiting Keltset, who was standing obediently next to a small pile of arms, clothing, and assorted articles of value that he had collected from the fallen Gnomes. The huge frame of the Troll dwarfed the normally large figure of his companion; the dark, barklike skin made him appear somewhat like a gnarled tree casting its shadow over the scarlet-clad human. The two conversed briefly, Panamon speaking in low tones to his giant friend while the other replied with sign language and nods of his broad head. They turned to the pile of goods, which the man shuffled through quickly, casting most of the effects aside as useless junk. Shea watched momentarily, uncertain what he should do next. He had lost the stones, and without them he was virtually defenseless in this savage land. He had lost his companions in the Dragon’s Teeth, the only ones who would stand with him, the only ones who could really help him recover the stones. He had come so far that it was unthinkable to turn back now, even if he thought he could do so safely. The others in the company depended on him, and he would never desert Flick and Menion whatever the dangers involved.

  Panamon Creel cast a short glance over his shoulder to see if the Valeman had made any move to leave, and a faint trace of surprise registered on his handsome face when he saw the youth still standing where he had left him.

  “What are you waiting for?”

  Shea shook his head slowly, indicating that he wasn’t quite sure. The tall thief watched him a moment longer, and then waved him over with a short smile.

  “Come on and have a bite to eat, Shea,” he invited. “The least we can do is feed you before you start back for the Southland.”

  Fifteen minutes later the three were seated around a small campfire, watching strips of dried beef warm enticingly in the smoking heat. The mute Keltset sat silently next to the little Valeman, the deep eyes fixed on the smoking meat, the huge hands clasped childlike as he squatted before the small fire. Shea had an uncontrollable urge to reach out and touch the strange creature, to feel the rough, barklike skin. The features of the Troll were indescribably bland even from this close distance. The Troll never moved while the meat was cooking, but sat absolutely still like some immobile rock that time and the ages had passed by without changing. Panamon Creel glanced over once and noticed Shea casting a watchful eye on the huge creature. He smiled broadly, one hand coming across to clap the startled Valeman on the shoulder.

  “He won’t bite—long as he gets fed! I keep telling you the same thing, but you don’t listen. That’s youth for you—wild and fancy-free and no time for the old folks. Keltset is just like you and me, only bigger and quieter, which is what I like in a partner in this line of work. He does his job better than any man I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with quite a few, I can tell you.”

  “He does what you tell him, I suppose?” Shea asked shortly.

  “Sure he does, sure he does,” came the quick answer; then the scarlet figure bent closer to the other’s pale face, the iron pike coming up sharply in emphasis. “But don’t get me wrong, boy, because I don’t mean to say he’s any kind of animal. He can think for himself when it’s needed. But I was his friend when no one else would even look his way—no one! He’s the strongest living thing I’ve ever seen. He could crush me without half thinking about it. But do you know what? I beat him, and now he follows me!”

  He paused to judge the other’s reaction, eyes wide with delight at the Valeman’s startled look of disbelief. He laughed merrily and slapped his knee with exaggerated humor at the reaction he had drawn.

  “I beat him with friendship, not strength! I respected him as a man, treated him as an equal, and for that cheap price, I won his loyalty. Hah, surprised you!”

  Still chuckling at his thin attempt at humor, the thief lifted the strips of beef from the fire and held out the stick on which they rested to the silent Troll, who removed several and began munching hungrily. Shea helped himself slowly when offered and suddenly realized that he was starving. He couldn’t even remember when he had eaten last, and gnawed ravenously at the tasty beef. Panamon Creel shook his head in amusement and offered the Valeman a second piece before taking one himself. The three ate in silence for several minutes before Shea ventured a further inquiry concerning his companions.

  “What made you decide to become … robbers?” he asked guardedly.

  Panamon Creel shot a quick look at him, arching his eyebrows in surprise.

  “What do you care what the reasons were? Plan on writing our life story?” He paused and caught himself suddenly, smiling quickly at his own irritability. “There’s no secret to it, Shea. I’ve never been much at making an honest living, never very good at common work. I was a wild kid, loved adventure, loved the outdoors—hated work. Then I lost my hand in an accident, and it became even harder to find work that would make me a comfortable living, get me what I wanted. I was deep in the Southland then, living in Talhan. I got in a little trouble and then a lot more. The next thing I knew I was roaming the four lands robbing for a living. The funny thing was I found myself so good at it that I couldn’t quit. And I enjoyed it—all of it! So here I am, maybe not rich, but happy in the prime of my youth—or at least, my manhood.”

  “Don’t you ever think about going back?” Shea persisted, unable to believe the man was being honest with himself. “Don’t you ever think about a home and …?”

  “Please, let’s not be maudlin, lad!” The other roared in laughter. “Keep this up and you’ll have me in tears, begging for forgiveness on my tired old knees!”

  He broke into such an uncontrollable fit of raucous guffaws that even the silent Troll glanced over in quiet contemplation
for a moment before returning to his meal. Shea felt a fierce flush of indignation spreading over his face and turned slowly back to his food, chewing the beef with grinding bites of anger and embarrassment. After several moments the laughter died into small chuckles, the thief shaking his head in amusement as he tried to swallow a little food. Then without further prompting, he continued his narration in a quieter tone of voice.

  “Keltset has a different story than mine, I want to make that clear. I had no reason to take up this kind of life, but he had every reason. He was a mute since birth, and the Trolls don’t like deformed people. Kind of a joke on them, I guess. So they made life pretty rough for him, kicked him around and beat him when they were mad at anything that they couldn’t take their anger out on directly. He was the butt of every joke, but he never fought back because those people were all he had. Then he became big, so big and strong that the others were frightened of him. One night some of the young ones tried to hurt him, really hurt him so he might go away, even die. But it didn’t work out quite as they expected. They pushed him too far, and he fought back and killed three of them. As a result he was driven from the village, and an outcast Troll has no home once outside his own tribe or whatever they are. So he wandered around on his own until I found him.”

  He smiled faintly and looked over at the massive, placid face bent intently over the last several strips of beef, eating hungrily.

  “He knows what we’re doing, though, and I guess he knows that it’s not honest work. But he’s like a child who’s been so badly mistreated that he has no respect for other people because they never did him any good. Besides, we stay in this part of the country where there’s only Gnomes and Dwarfs—a Troll’s natural enemies. We steer away from the deep Northland and seldom get south very far. We do all right.”

  He returned to his piece of beef, munching absently as he stared into the dying embers of the fire, poking them with the toe of his leather boot, the sparks rising in small showers and fading into dust. Shea finished his own food without further comment, wondering what he could possibly do to regain the Elfstones, wishing that he knew where the other members of the company were now. Moments later the meal was ended, and the scarlet-clad thief rose abruptly, scattering the embers of the fire with a swift kick of his boot. The massive Rock Troll rose with him and stood quietly waiting for his friend to make the next move, his great bulk towering over Shea. The Valeman stood at last and watched Panamon Creel gather up several small trinkets and a few weapons to place in a sack which he handed to Keltset to carry. Then he turned to his small captive and nodded shortly.

  “It’s been interesting knowing you, Shea, and I wish you good luck. When I think of the little gems in this pouch, I shall think of you. Too bad it couldn’t work out so that you could save them, but at least you saved your life—or rather, I saved it. Think of the stones as a gift for services rendered. It may make losing them easier. Now you’d better be moving along if you plan to reach the safety of the Southland in the next several days. The city of Varfleet lies just to the south and west, and you’ll find help there. Just stick to the open country.”

  He turned to leave, motioning Keltset to follow, and had taken several long strides before he glanced back over his shoulder. The Valeman had not moved, but was looking after the departing men as if in a trance. Panamon Creel shook his head in disgust and walked a bit farther, then stopped in annoyance and wheeled about, knowing the other was still standing immobile where he had left him.

  “What’s the matter with you?” he demanded angrily. “Now don’t tell me that you have any foolish ideas about trailing us and trying to get the gems back? That would spoil a very nice relationship because I’d have to cut your ears off—maybe worse! Now get going, get out of here!”

  “You don’t understand what those stones mean!” Shea shouted desperately.

  “I think I do,” came the quick reply. “They mean that for a while Keltset and I will be more than merely poverty-stricken thieves. It means we won’t have to steal or beg for a handout for quite some time. It means money, Shea.”

  Desperately, Shea dashed after the two robbers, unable to think of anything but recovering the precious Elfstones. Panamon Creel watched him approach in astonishment, certain that the Valeman was crazed to the point of daring to attack them to regain possession of the three blue gems. Never had he encountered such a persistent fellow in all his days. He had spared the lad’s life and graciously given him his freedom, but still it didn’t seem to be enough to satisfy him. Shea came to a panting halt several yards away from the two tall figures, and the thought flashed through his mind that he had reached the end of his rope. Their patience was exhausted and now they would dispose of him without further consideration.

  “I didn’t tell you the truth before,” he gasped finally. “I couldn’t … I don’t know it all myself. But the stones are very important—not only to me, but to everyone in all the lands. Even to you, Panamon.”

  The scarlet robber looked at him with a mixture of surprise and distrust, the smile gone, but the dark eyes still free of anger. He said nothing, but stood motionless waiting for the exasperated Valeman to speak further.

  “You’ve got to believe me!” Shea exclaimed vehemently. “There’s more to this than you realize.”

  “You certainly seem to believe so,” admitted the other flatly. He looked over at the huge Keltset, who stood at his elbow, and shrugged his incredulity at Shea’s strange behavior. The Rock Troll made a quick move toward Shea, and the Valeman shrank back in terror; but Panamon Creel stopped his massive companion with a raised hand.

  “Look, just grant me one favor,” Shea pleaded desperately, grasping at any chance to gain a little time to think. “Take me north with you to Paranor.”

  “You must be mad!” cried the thief, aghast at the suggestion. “What possible reason could you have for going to that black fortress? It’s extremely unfriendly country. You wouldn’t last five minutes! Go home, boy. Go home to the Southland and leave me in peace.”

  “I’ve got to get to Paranor,” the other insisted quickly. “That was where I was going when the Gnomes captured me. I have friends there—friends who will be searching for me. I have to join them at Paranor!”

  “Paranor is an evil place, a spawning ground for Northland creatures even I would be afraid to run into!” Panamon said heatedly. “Besides, if you do have friends there, you probably plan to lead Keltset and me into some sort of trap so you can get your hands on the stones. That’s your plan, isn’t it? Forget it right now. Take my advice and turn south while you still can!”

  “You’re afraid, aren’t you?” Shea sputtered angrily. “You’re afraid of Paranor and afraid of my friends. You haven’t the courage …”

  He trailed off sharply as the deep fires of anger kindled explosively in the scarlet thief, the broad face flushing heatedly at the accusation. For a moment Panamon Creel stood motionless, his entire frame quivering with rage as he glared at the small Valeman. Shea stood his ground, gambling everything on this final plea.

  “If you won’t take me with you—just to Paranor—then I’ll go alone and take my chances,” he promised. He watched their reaction for a moment and then continued: “All I’m asking is to be taken just to the borders of Paranor. I won’t ask you to go beyond; I won’t lead you into a trap.”

  Panamon Creel shook his head once again in disbelief, the anger gone from his eyes and a faint smile playing over his tightened lips as he turned from the Valeman to look at the giant Rock Troll. He shrugged shortly and nodded.

  “Why should we be worried?” he mused mockingly. “It’s your neck on the block. Come on along, Shea.”

  SIX

  The three strange companions journeyed northward through the rough hill country until midday, when they paused for a quick meal and a few welcome minutes of rest. The terrain of the country had remained changeless during the morning’s march, a consistently rugged series of elevations and depressions that made traveli
ng extremely difficult. Even the powerful Keltset was forced to climb and scramble with the two men, unable to find sure footing or level ground that would permit him to walk upright. The land was not only humped and misshapen, but also rather barren and unfriendly in appearance. The hills were grass-covered and dotted with brush and small trees, but they conveyed a lonely and wild emptiness to the travelers that caused them to feel uneasy and moody. The grass was a tall, whiplike weed so strong that it slapped at the men’s pants legs with stinging swipes. When crushed down by their heavy boots, it lay matted only seconds before springing back into place. Upon looking back in the direction from which they had come, Shea could not tell from the appearance of the land that anyone had passed that way. The scattered trees were gnarled and bent, filled with small leaves, but giving the overall impression that they were nature’s stepchildren, stunted at birth and left to survive in this lonely country as best they could. There was no sign at all of any animal or bird life, and since dawn, the three men had neither seen nor heard another living creature.

  Conversation was not lacking, however. In fact, there were several times when Shea wished that Panamon Creel would tire of his own voice for a few minutes. The tall thief carried on a steady conversation with his companions, with himself, and on occasion with no one in particular, for the entire morning. He talked about everything imaginable, including a good many things about which he seemed to know nothing. The one topic of conversation he scrupulously avoided was Shea. He acted as if the Valeman were merely a comrade in arms, a fellow thief with whom he could freely speak about his own wild experiences without fear of reprimand. But he meticulously avoided mentioning Shea’s background, the Elfstones, or the purpose of this journey. Apparently he had concluded that the best way to handle the matter was to get the bothersome Valeman to Paranor as quickly as possible, reunite him with his friends, and without further delay continue on. Shea had no idea where the two had intended to travel before encountering him. Perhaps even they had been uncertain of their destination. He listened attentively while the thief rambled on, interjecting comments of his own when he thought it appropriate or the other seemed interested in his opinion. But for the most part, he concentrated on the journey and tried to decide the best way to go about recovering the stones. The situation was somewhat untenable no matter how he went about it; both the thieves and he knew that he was going to try to get the stones away from them. The only question remaining was the method he would try. Shea was convinced that the clever Panamon Creel would merely toy with him, give him enough rope to find out how he planned to get the stones, and then gaily haul in the noose about the Valeman’s neck.

 
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