But his removal from Paranor was not altogether a terrible thing, for Bremen learned that dark forces were on the move from the Northlands. That seemingly invincible armies of trolls were fast conquering all that lay to their south. That the scouts for the armyand its principal assassinswere Skull Bearers, disfigured and transformed Druids who had fallen prey to the seductions of the magic arts. And that at the heart of the evil tide was an archmage and former Druid named Brona!
Using the special skills he had acquired through his own study of Magic, Bremen was able to penetrate the huge camp of the Troll army and learn many of its secrets. And he immediately understood that if the peoples of the Four Lands were to escape eternal subjugation they would need to unite. But, even united, they would need a weapon, something so powerful that the evil magic of Brona, the Warlock Lord, would fail before its might...
About the Author
Hometown:Pacific Northwest and Hawaii
Date of Birth:January 8, 1944
Place of Birth:Sterling, Illinois
Education:B.A. in English, Hamilton College, 1966; J.D., Washington and Lee University
Read an Excerpt
The old man just appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The Borderman was watching for him, sitting well back within the concealing shadows of a spreading hardwood high on a hillside overlooking the whole of the Streleheim and the trails leading out of it, everything clearly visible in the light of a full moon for at least ten miles, and he still didn’t see him. It was unnerving and vaguely embarrassing, and the fact that it happened this way every time didn’t make it any more palatable. How did the old man do it? The Borderman had spent almost the whole of his life in this country, kept alive by his wits and experience. He saw things that others did not even know were there. He could read the movements of animals from their passage through tall grass. He could tell you how far ahead of him they were and how fast they were traveling. But he could not spy out the old man on the clearest night and the broadest plain, even when he knew to look for him.
It did not help matters that the old man easily found him. Moving quite deliberately off the trail, he came toward the Borderman with slow, measured strides, head lowered slightly, eyes tilted up out of the shadow of his cowl. He wore black, like all the Druids, cloaked and hooded, wrapped darker than the shadows he passed through. He was not a big man, neither tall nor well muscled, but he gave the impression of being hard and fixed of purpose. His eyes, when visible, were vaguely green. But at times they seemed as white as bone, too—now, especially, when night stole away colors and reduced all things to shades of gray. They gleamed like an animal’s caught in a fragment of light—feral, piercing, hypnotic. Light illuminated the old man’s face as well, carving out the deep lines that creased it from forehead to chin, playing across the ridges and valleys of the ancient skin. The old man’s hair and beard were gray going fast toward white, the strands wispy and thin like tangled spiderwebs.
The Borderman gave it up and climbed slowly to his feet. He was tall, rangy, and broad-shouldered, his dark hair worn long and tied back, his brown eyes sharp and steady, his lean face all planes and angles, but handsome in a rough sort of way.
A smile crossed the old man’s face as he came up. “How are you, Kinson?” he greeted.
The familiar sound of his voice swept away Kinson Ravenlock’s irritation as if it were dust on the wind. “I am well, Bremen,” he answered, and held out his hand in response.
The old man took it and clasped it firmly in his own. The skin was dry and rough with age, but the hand beneath was strong. “How long have you been waiting?”
“Three weeks. Not as long as I had expected. I am surprised. But then I am always surprised by you.”
Bremen laughed. He had left the Borderman six months earlier with instructions to meet him again on the first full moon of the quarter season directly north of Paranor where the forests gave way to the Plains of Streleheim. The time and place of the meeting were set, but hardly written in stone. Both appreciated the uncertainties the old man faced. Bremen had gone north into forbidden country. The time and place of his return would be dictated by events not yet known to either of them. It was nothing to Kinson that he had been forced to wait three weeks. It could just as easily have been three months.
The Druid looked at him with those piercing eyes, white now in the moonlight, drained of any other color. “Have you learned much in my absence? Have you put your time to good use?”
The Borderman shrugged. “Some of it. Sit down with me and rest. Have you eaten?”
He gave the old man some bread and ale, and they sat hunched close together in the dark, staring out across the broad sweep of the plains. It was silent out there, empty and depthless and vast beneath the night’s moonlit dome. The old man chewed absently, taking his time. The Borderman had built no fire that night or on any other since he had begun his vigil. A fire was too dangerous to chance.
“The Trolls move east,” Kinson offered after a moment. “Thousands of them, more than I could count accurately, though I went down into their camp on the new moon several weeks back when they were closer to where we sit. Their numbers grow as others are sent to serve. They control everything from the Streleheim north as far as I can determine.” He paused. “Have you discovered otherwise?”
The Druid shook his head. He had pushed back his cowl, and his gray head was etched in moonlight. “No, all of it belongs now to him.”
Kinson gave him a sharp look. “Then …”
“What else have you seen?” the old man urged, ignoring him.
The Borderman took the aleskin and drank from it. “The leaders of the army stay closed away in their tents. No one sees them. The Trolls are afraid even to speak their names. This should not be. Nothing frightens Rock Trolls. Except this, it seems.”
He looked at the other. “But at night, sometimes, at watch for you, I see strange shadows flit across the sky in the light of moon and stars. Winged black things sweep across the void, hunting or scouting or simply surveying what they have taken—I can’t tell and don’t want to know. I feel them, though. Even now. They are out there, circling. I feel their presence like an itch. No, not like an itch—like a shiver, the sort that comes to you when you feel eyes watching and the owner of those eyes has bad intentions. My skin crawls. They do not see me; I know if they did I would be dead.”
Bremen nodded. “Skull Bearers, bound in service to him.”
“So he is alive?” Kinson could not help himself. “You know it to be so? You have made certain?”
The Druid put aside the ale and bread and faced him squarely. The eyes were distant and filled with dark memories.
“He is alive, Kinson. As alive as you and I. I tracked him to his lair, deep in the shadow of the Knife Edge, where the Skull Kingdom puts down its roots. I was not sure at first, as you know. I suspected it, believed it to be so, but lacked evidence that could stand as proof. So I traveled north as we had planned, across the plains and into the mountains. I saw the winged hunters as I went, emerging only at night, great birds of prey that patrolled and kept watch for living things. I made myself as invisible as the air through which they flew. They saw me and saw nothing. I kept myself shrouded in magic, but not of such significance that they would notice it in the presence of their own. I passed west of the Trolls, but found the whole of their land subdued. All who resisted have been put to death. All who could manage to do so have fled. The rest now serve him.”
Kinson nodded. It had been six months since the Troll marauders had swept down out of the Charnals east and begun a systematic subjugation of their people. Their army was vast and swift, and in less than three months all resistance was crushed. The Northland was placed under rule of the conquering army’s mysterious and still unknown leader. There were rumors concerning his identity, but they remained unconfirmed. In truth, few even knew he existed. No word of this army and its leader had penetrated farther south than the border settlements of Varfleet and Tyrsis, fledgling outposts for the Race of Man, though it had spread east and west to the Dwarves and Elves. But the Dwarves and Elves were tied more closely to the Trolls. Man was the outcast race, the more recent enemy of the others. Memories of the First War of the Races still lingered, three hundred and fifty years later. Man lived apart in his distant Southland cities, the rabbit sent scurrying to earth, timid and toothless and of no consequence in the greater scheme of things, food for predators and little more.
But not me, Kinson thought darkly. Never me. I am no rabbit. I have escaped that fate. I have become one of the hunters.
Bremen stirred, shifting his weight to make himself more comfortable. “I went deep into the mountains, searching,” he continued, lost again in his tale. “The farther I went, the more convinced I became. The Skull Bearers were everywhere. There were other beings as well, creatures summoned out of the spirit world, dead things brought to life, evil given form. I kept clear of them all, watchful and cautious. I knew that if I was discovered my magic would probably not be enough to save me. The darkness of this region was overwhelming. It was oppressive and tainted with the smell and taste of death. I went into Skull Mountain finally—one brief visit, for that was all I could chance. I supped into the passageways and found what I had been searching for.”
He paused, his brow wrinkling. “And more, Kinson. Much more, and none of it good.”
“But he was there?” Kinson pressed anxiously, his hunter’s face intense, his eyes glittering.