Druidstone Quest

by Roderick T. Long

Book One: The Sword of the Highlands
Part One: Darkness in the Water

[Note: When I was about 15 (thus 1979-ish), I started writing a fantasy trilogy. Fortunately for the world, I completed only five chapters of this hopelessly derivative tale. Here they are.]
1.“Black the River ...”
2.The Quest
3.The Wolves
5.Swords and Shadows
6. [unfinished, untitled chapter]

Chapter One:
“Black the River ...”

Froststorm Blackfinger.

How can I write of him? The memory brings pain to my heart, even now. He was the first sign of the Resurgence to come to our inconsequential corner of the Isthmus – not that we called it that, or even knew that there was anything to Resurge.

But this must be told. I must endeavour to relate these events as if they had happened to another and not myself. If I could!

It was the fourth day of the Spring festival when the highlander came to Delving. His tunic was the green and brown of the Northern Mountains, with a loose-fitting, gold-buckled leather belt slung over his right shoulder across his chest to his left side, around his waist twice, and back across his back to his right shoulder. Attached to the belt were several small parcels, a gun the length of a manís arm from the elbow to the thumb, and a large broadsword in a wooden scabbard. He carried a large pack on his back, and an oak staff in his hands. The ends of his pants were tucked into his tall boots, contained as the fury of black hair that erupted from beneath his broad-brimmed hat was not. The red feather that protruded from his hat-band at a ludicrous angle contrasted strongly with the dark, fierce face with the scornful lips, the hard jaw, and the icy eyes that stared penetratingly from beneath the shadow of his hat.

He stood on the edge of the bank of the river Clearstream which runs through the heart of Delving, looking into the water that swirled and eddied whitely past the smooth rocks. Suddenly, he turned his head to a spot a few yards away where I and a group of other boys had stopped playing to stare at the stranger. “Boy,” he said, gesturing to me. I looked at him, startled.

“Look into the stream,” he said. I did so, puzzled. I saw the same river that I had seen every day of my twelve years. The highlander had undoubtedly followed the stream down from its origin at the Northern Sea.

“What do you see?”

“Why, water, sir.”

“Do you see aught else?”

“No, sir,” I said. Then, in a moment of boldness, “What do you see, sir?”

“Blood,” he said. “Blood of beasts, and Men, and Elves – mixed in with the stench of the southern wastes. You will see it too, when the water turns black and foul.”

The southern wastes! They were a fairy-tale, a story to frighten children! The outlander was mad, then – banished from the Northern Mountains to wander from town to town. Surely, one could see from the intensity of his eyes that the man behind them could only be either the maddest or the sanest man alive. Nothing between would fit.

As if sensing my thoughts, he looked at me wildly, his mouth curving into an unnatural; smile. “Remember what I say, lowland boy,” he grinned. “When the streets of your town run red with the blood of its men, remember the words of Froststorm Blackfinger.” With a slightly hysterical laugh, he thrust his left hand toward me, and I noticed for the first time that the smallest finger was missing.

Suddenly, the wild look and mad smile disappeared from his face, to be replaced by the grim mask of silence he had worn earlier. It was difficult to believe that any other expression had ever been written there. He withdrew his hand and said in a normal tone of voice, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, “Can you tell me where I may find an inn?”

He had found a subject I could speak on. Of blood and Elves and southern wastes I knew nothing, but inns I was well acquainted with. There was only one inn in Delving, and my older brother ran it. I told the madman as much, as well as where to find it, though when I had finished it seemed to me as if he had known without my telling. With a curt nod, he turned and strode away.

As an afterthought, he stopped and looked back, “What news, lowland boy,” he asked, “of the East?”

“The East, sir?” Anything further east than Lowtown was impossibly remote. “None to speak of, sir.”

“There will be.” With these words, he pivoted swiftly, and once more strode deliberately in the direction of my brother’s inn. Curiosity overcoming fear, my friends and I followed – albeit at a discreet distance.

When he reached the inn, the mad Northerner who called himself Froststorm Blackfinger hurled across the table and shouted for a room. I could tell by the sound the coin made when it hit the table that it was not a local gilded standard, but true Northern gold. With his eyes, the stranger dared my brother to reject the coin; but my brother knew that one Northern gold piece, melted down, was worth ten standards with the same face value. No, he would not be likely to reject it.

When Blackfinger had gone to his room, I took my older brother aside. “Are you sure you should let him stay?” I asked. “I’m quite sure that he’s insane. Things he said by the river ....”

“No fear, Runde. If he makes a scene I’ll boot him out the door fast enough. Now go out and get some water for tonight or I’ll tan your hide.” He gave me a friendly shove toward the door. “If our parents were still alive, they’d see that you did some work around here, instead of loafing all day and following strangers around. Get going; leave the raving lunatics to me.”

As I dipped the buckets in the Clearstream, the only source of water in the town, I thought of the highlander’s words. For an instant, I thought I saw the river filled with murky scum; and in the scum I saw reflected the cottages of Delving in flames, and my brotherís body slashed and soaked with blood. Then, the vision was gone, and the crystal depths of the Clearstream smiled up at me.

That night, my brother attempted to engage the wanderer in conversation as he polished the glasses. “We don’t get too many travelers through Delving,” he began. Froststorm Blackfinger looked at him, but said nothing.

“What I mean is –”; the glass made a clunking sound as he put it on the wooden counter and picked up another. “What I mean is, with the great mountains to the north, and the sea to the west and south. There’s no place to go but” – CLUNK! – “back.” He was obviously curious to know what brought the stranger so far from home.

This time, the outcast answered. “And what lies beyond the sea and mountains?”

“More sea, and more mountains, I suppose.” – CLUNK!

The stranger shook his head and smiled. “Your maps are incomplete indeed.” But, even when my brother pressed him, he would say no more.

From where I kneeled to tend the fire I glanced surreptitiously at the northerner. He seemed to me to be about thirty. He gave the impression of being proud and dangerous. I wondered if he were truly insane. If he were not, then his sanity was not like that of other men. It was a fierce, wild, bitter sanity; even an insane sanity, if such a thing could be. I dismissed the thoughts.

The highlander stayed in my brother’s inn for several weeks. I saw him often: sometimes he sat in the main dining room; at other times, I would see him walking by the river, humming tunelessly to himself. He paid little attention to me, though once or twice he said something like, “Ai! Lowland boy! We must talk sometime about the southern wastes!” Then he would grin vacantly, and I would be sure that he was mad. One night as I was getting ready for bed, I heard an eerie howl echoing across the hills. A wolf? It had to be. But I had heard wolf-howls before; never had they sent shivers of terror up my spine as this one did. What hellish sort of wolf could voice a cry like that? When I finally got to bed, my sleep was troubled, and I dreamed of raving highlanders riding wolves as large as houses through the burning town of Delving.

That morning, I rose earlier than usual. I dressed slowly, reluctantly. I did not wish to go out, I was afraid to go out, afraid of what I might see; but I knew that I would go out, and I dressed slowly.

By the rime I got to the road, it was almost dawn. I felt drawn to the river; I did not know why. But to the river I went. Moving as if in a dream. And, as if in a dream, I saw the northlander standing by the bank, as I had feared I would – as I had known I would. I watched dully as the first light of the dawn touched the slowly-moving water that had one tripped and jumped and rushed.

The river was black.

Chapter Two:
The Quest

We stood together at the edge of the dark, sluggish stream for some time in silence. Then, I said, “Well, sir, I guess I am ready for our talk.”

“Not here,” he said. “My room. And quickly.”

When we reached the inn, we fund everyone still sleeping. Once in his room, he said, “Do you have a map?”

I left the room and was back in a minute with a roll of parchment in my hands. He unrolled it and scrutinized the map carefully.

“As I thought,” he said. “Nothing to the south of the Green Forest. At least you admit the existence of Mill Tarn – I suppose that is something – although it’s in quite the wrong place.” He grabbed a quill pen and a sheaf of paper from the desk and sketchily filled in what he told me were the lands of the Far South on a sheet of paper which he pinned to my brother’s map. The names on the map were names from fairy-tales I had heard at my parents’ feet – Deathswamp, Ashwaste, Mount Morbid ... but I no longer believed Blackfinger to be insane, and I knew from the blackness of the river Clearstream that he was no liar. And if the names on the map were neither lies nor the ravings of a madman, that left only one alternative: truth.

When he was satisfied with the map, he lifted the pen again and made a bold stroke across the map from the Great Fire Barrier through the Green Forest and from there up to the Northern Mountains.

“This represents the forces of the Enemy,” he said. “They have cut across the Clearstream at its beginning; hence the resulting slime you saw outside.”

“An enemy has advanced that far without anyone knowing?” I asked incredulously. “Who is this enemy?”

“His name,” the highlander told me grimly, “is Beerbreath Foulfeller.”

I gasped. “Don’t speak that name here!” I pleaded.

He smiled. “Why not? It is only a name from a fairy-tale – unless, of course, you believe what I’ve been telling you is true, which you supposedly don’t.

“But you are right – it is not wise to speak of the Enemy too freely. But it is indeed His armies that are sweeping across the isthmus with alarming speed. That is why I came here to find you, lowland boy.”

“Me, sir?”

“Yes. What is your name?”

“Runde, sir.”

“Runde! What kind of name is that? Hard to pronounce and doesn’t tell a thing about you! Who gave you that name?”

“My parents, sir.”

“What does it mean in the language of normal men?”

“Godhope, sir. The priests said I was born under the morning star and named me Godhope. My parents thought it might sound pretentious, and Runde is Godhope in the Common Speech, so – I am Runde.”

“I shall call you Godhope,” the wanderer said. “It is a better name than the other. It is a single name, but perhaps you shall find a companion for it in the southern wastes.”

“The southern wastes!” I shrieked, and then lowered my voice for fear of being heard. “Iím not going to the southern wastes! Iím not going anywhere!”

“Did you not hear me tell you of the forces of the Enemy? Armies of magic-spawned Slimewroughts are advancing northwest even as we speak! If they are not turned back, highland and lowland are doomed alike!”

“This may be true, sir, but what does it all have to do with me?”

“Now,” he said, “we are coming to business. Have you ever heard of the Druid Stone?”

“Vaguely, sir, in legends. Wasn’t it destroyed or something?”

“The Druidstone exists, Godhope, though in the hands of the Enemy – it is the only thing that can defeat him forever. And only you can wield it!”

“Me? But surely there are others ... more powerful ... could you not use it yourself?”

“Perhaps my very power makes it impossible for me to use it. I am too strong ... it would destroy me, just as a giant oak will be felled by a great wind, while a reed, which bends, is unharmed. But the Druid Stone is a ring – and you are the only person who can place it on his finger and live!”

“But, sir, how did you find me – how did you know it was me?”

The highlander held out his disfigured left hand. “Sometimes I feel strange sensations where my missing finger once was. My master, Windfriend Magewing, taught me to recognize these sensations, and understand them. I felt a strong tingling when I looked at you. That is how I knew that you were the one that Magewing sent me to find.” His lips curled with scorn. “It is well that I had that sign, for otherwise I would have doubted that matters of such great importance could rest on the shoulders of an ignorant, cowardly, half-grown lowland peasant boy such as yourself.”

This angered me. “Iím as good as your fancy northern Magewing any day! And I’ll be damned if I’ll go on your bloody quest! I don’t give a damn what happens to Hightown – or Lowtown either for that matter! ”

He reached out angrily, grabbed me by the shoulders, and shook me until my teeth rattled. “Don’t you understand, you sniveling brat, that the Slimewroughts won’t be satisfied until they’ve eradicated both Man and Elf from the face of the Earth? If you think they’ll spare Delving, youíre sorely mistaken! And you’re also mistaken if you think I’m going to let you sit back and watch the world die! You’re coming with me if I have to drag you all the way to Mount Morbid!

“Godhope,” he said in a softer tone, “don’t you realize that if the Enemy discovers that you are the sole threat to his empire, he will spare no effort to destroy you? The Slimewroughts are far away; but he has other agents. You heard the cry last night?”

“I heard a wolf.”

“That was no mortal wolf, lowland boy. That was a Grimwolf.” I realized as he spoke that, indeed, that howl could not have come from the throat of any other creature. I had thought Grimwolves the stuff of fairy-tales, but in the presence of Froststorm Blackfinger any dire thing seemed possible.

“There are darker things than Grimwolves abroad in these times,” he was saying. “The hand of the Enemy is everywhere. He must be stopped – forever. Do you see that, lowland boy?” I nodded my head slowly, unhappily.

“Then we must get ready. Where in Delving can I purchase a longbow?”

I tried to laugh, failed under the stare of his dark eyes. “You will have trouble finding a longbow in Delving. Perhaps they might sell them in the market at Greathall.”

“That is unfortunate. I have a sword and a gun, but even so, possession of a longbow is a decided advantage that I shall miss on the first leg of our journey.”

“But surely, sir, you do not expect us to be attacked before we even reach Greathall!”

“I told you, boy – the Enemy’s hand is everywhere. There are Grimwolves and worse on the roads. We must make haste; we leave tonight.”

“Runde!” I heard my brother call.

“Tonight!” said the northerner as he pushed me out the door. “Now go!”

When the people of Delving found out what had happened to the river, they did not panic, but, in the pragmatic fashion my people are noted for, devised a solution. There was a spring just south of the Great Wood, a couple of miles beyond the outskirts of town. Men went up to the spring with ponies and buckets to carry large amounts of water down to the town reservoir.

I climbed up the pine-needle path with one of the groups. As I looked at the broad back, strong arms, and curly black hair of my brother and listened to his shouted commands to the other men, I wondered if I would ever see him again.

Now that I was near the trees, in the sunlight, and the stench of the river no longer filled my nostrils, Mount Morbid seemed father away than ever, and I wondered whether it was not I that was mad to go off on a quest with a man, possibly insane, of whom I knew nothing, to a place that I had been taught did not exist, with little or no hope of success.

But I did not believe Blackfinger insane; not any more. For the smell of the Clearstream still hung in my mind if not in the air, and the Grimwolf’s howl was still vivid in my memory.

I thought of my brother. I would have liked to have him accompany us, but I knew Blackfinger would not hear of it. Besides, if I told my brother of the quest, he would say that it was nonsense and neither go nor permit me to. And that, if Blackfinger had spoken the truth, would be the downfall of Mankind. Blackfinger had spoken of Elfkind as well, but I knew little of Elves and had no desire to learn more.

I did not see Blackfinger when we returned. When I asked for him, I was told that the highlander had left that morning. I was stunned. Was he mad after all? He had come all the way to Delving to find me, or so he had said, and now he had gone away without explanation. I should have felt relieved, for I had not been looking forward to the journey with much enthusiasm, but I only felt anger, as if I had somehow been cheated.

That night after dinner I went again to his room. The map he had drawn for me lay on the table. I sat down to look at it. The moonlight streamed across it, making patterns of shadowed silver across its rustling surface. He had said that the fate of the world rested on my shoulders, and I had believed him. Now he was gone.

My eyes fell on the spot marked “Mount Morbid.” It was there, as I understood it, that the Druid Stone lay. Blackfinger was gone, but his words still rang in my ears. I had believed them. Did I still? His words could not be true; he had left. If they had been true, he would have stayed. Had he not said that he would drag me all the way to Mount Morbid if necessary? Lies, I told myself. But, lies or not, they danced through my head and gave me no rest. I must believe or lose my sanity. And if I believed, I had no choice in what I must then do. I folded the map, slipped it into my pocket, went to my room, and began to pack.

As I rolled my clothes and a few other belongings into a bundle, I said to myself, this is madness. A single boy, alone and unarmed, wandering through the wilderness, seeking to pit his puny strength against the lord of darkness himself. Such a boy could not survive a day! But I packed.

A note. I must leave my brother a note, I thought. But what could I say? “Going on quest – return doubtful – request simple funeral service – cremation procedures previously provided courtesy of Castle Moribund – Love Runde.” No, that would never do.

I finally decided on: “Dear Brother: I am staying with Grandfather for a few weeks; tried to wake you. Don’t worry about me. Love Runde.” Grandfather lived in the Great Wood, which was in exactly the opposite direction of where I was going. My brother would worry, of course, and he would also be as mad as hell. I didn’t know what he’d do when, after storming up to Grandfather’s house, he found out that I had never been there. I was afraid that the note would do little for his peace of mind, but I knew that I had to go, and if I wrote where I was really going he’d come after me.

I waited until I was sure that the house was quiet. Then I tiptoed down the hall to the kitchen and got some food, which I put in my pack. I opened the cash box and got out some money, including all the northern gold pieces with which Blackfinger had paid for his stay. I felt badly about this, but I told myself that the future of Mankind depended on it. What a fool should I feel if I found the southern wastes a myth! But I did not think that I would do so. I looked at the clock before sneaking quietly out the door. It was half past eleven.

It was the nineteenth day of Spring, but there was still frost on the ground at night, and the road crunched pleasantly beneath my feet. It was undoubtedly even colder in the Northern Mountains, whose tops are snow-covered all during the year. In Greathall and Delving, the first day of Summer is considered to be the first day of the year, while in Lowtown it is Spring, which always seemed far more sensible. I believe the Northerners celebrate New Year’s Day on the first day of Winter. I do not know how the seasons are reckoned in the southern wastes. Incidentally, years are reckoned from the founding of the city. In Hightown, the year was 210; in Lowtown, 237; and in Greathall, 181. In Delving, we numbered the years from Greathall’s founding.

As I walked I heard once more the terrifying howl that I had heard last night. I suddenly remembered that Blackfinger had said we might be attacked on the road to Greathall. I did not even have a knife with me. I began to walk faster, although there was no hope of my reaching Greathall that night. I was frightened.

I heard another Grimwolf, closer this time. I broke into a run, expecting at any moment to feel jaws closing on my leg. I do not know how long I ran, terrified, gravel beneath my feet and shafts of moonlight making shadows into grinning mouths with giant teeth, until suddenly I was lying on the dew-wet grass that ran along the edge of the road, my foot twisted against the tree-root I had tripped over, hair in my mouth, and my throat dry, and my hands sweaty, and my heart beating like a roaring avalanche. I waited for the touch of fangs on my neck, but it did not come.

I turned over in wonder. The full moon shone clearly upon the road below. There were no wolves in sight – only the dull throbbing of my heart and the sounds of the crickets. I stood up and continued wearily along the road.

Suddenly I saw a light up ahead. It was a campfire; of that I was sure. I resisted the impulse to cry out, to run to the camp, to hear a human voice – it seemed years since I had heard one. But Blackfinger had said that the agents of the Enemy were everywhere. Might not this be a trap?

When I got close enough, I dropped down on my stomach and crept silently through the bushes, toward the flame. Finally, I saw a man, sitting silently by the fire. He was facing the fire, with his back to me. I could only see a stark black silhouette. What if it were not a man, but a hideous wraith in the form of a man? For all I knew, its face might be the face of a demon! What if it should turn its head, and I should see that it had no face at all?

Then a familiarly sardonic voice broke the silence. “If that is the most stealth you can muster, we might as well approach Mount Morbid with horns and cymbals!”

I collapsed on the ground, laughing and crying, weak with relief.

Chapter Three:
The Wolves

When I felt strong enough to move, I got up and shakily moved over to a log in front of the fire. Since Blackfinger did not seem likely to volunteer the information, I asked him, “Why did you leave?”

“You heard the wolves?”

I shuddered. “Yes.”

“They werenít after you,” he smiled. “As yet, the Enemy doesn’t suspect that you’re the one He’s looking for. But He’s ordered the Grimwolves to keep track of me – I’ve been troublesome to Him before. The wolves were beginning to close in on Delving, and I thought a confrontation with them at that point might be unpleasant for the townspeople. So I came here to wait for you.”

“But you could have told me – you didnít even leave a note! How did you know I would come?”

“You have a destiny, Godhope.”

I remembered my terror on the road. Blackfinger was probably laughing at me the whole time. But I had not known that he had stayed – I was going to Mount Morbid alone! Was I praised for my bravery? Never! He had taken it for granted that I would follow him. My blood boiled.

I opened my mouth to make a sharp remark, but Blackfinger, guessing my intentions, poured sand on the fire to out it out, pulled his blanket up over his head, and gruffly announced, “I am asleep.” I groped around in the dark for my pack, found it, took out my blanket, and did likewise. I watched the stars until I fell asleep.

When I woke the next morning, I found Blackfinger up before me, sitting and stirring the dead ashes with his staff. I did not expect him to say “Good morning,” and he did not disappoint me. I stuffed my blanket into my sack and we were ready to go.

As we walked along he hummed the same tuneless traveling song I had heard earlier. In a few minutes he began to sing words to it. They went something like this:

When there’s gloom
     in the gloaming,
That’s when doom
     goes a-roaming;
Black the river,
     black the sky,
We are all
     doomed to die.
There was a great deal more of it, which I do not remember, but it ran in much the same vein as this, and not very cheerful you may think it, especially when one is setting out on a quest.

When the sun had sunk low in the sky, Blackfinger decided it was time to make camp. We sat down and ate in silence. Finally, I spoke up.

“Yesterday,” I said, “you mentioned that you were sent here by someone called Windfriend Magewing.”

“Magewing,” the highlander told me, “is a man who figures in our most ancient legends. He is a wizard, a warrior, a poet, a prophet, a philosopher, a historian, a naturalist, a High Lord, and my teacher. While nobody knows his age, some speculate that he was old the day the filtering station was built.”

“Filtering station?”

“Where does the Clearstream originate?”

“The Northern Sea, of course.”

“Have you never wondered, then, why the river-water is not salt?”

I was embarrassed. “I guess not.”

He grinned, then said seriously, “He took an Elvish bride back about F.H. They have two grown sons in Fairelven and a thirteen-year-old daughter who will undoubtedly accompany us on our quest.”

“Not on your life!” I said. I had little use for girls and less for Elves. “She’d only slow us down – get in the way!”

“And who are you to say what one of Elvish blood may or may not do?” he said sharply.

He was in one of his better moods this night, but I thought it wise not to provoke him, so I changed the subject.

“The fire is low, and we have finished eating. What are we waiting for?” There was an air of watchfulness about him, and his hand was resting on his sword-hilt.

He lifted his head and sniffed, as if testing the wind. “Only a fool sleeps in the camp of his enemy.”

“Do you expect us to be attacked?”

“It seems likely.”

“But we were not attacked last night.”

“The agents of the Enemy believed me to be in Delving then. They will have found me by now.” He fell into a moody silence.

When an hour had passed by uneventfully, and I had begun to think Blackfinger’s fears groundless, a low hiss erupted out of the darkness. In an instant, Blackfinger was on his feet, his sword out of its sheath. This was the first time I had seen the sword, which I had always assumed to be of steel. Instead, the blade was composed of a hard, unfamiliar black substance, cut like a jewel. But the majority of my attention was focused on the hulking shape in the bushes. It appeared to be a huge dog or wolf with red eyes that shone dully out of its silver face. Its mouth grinned widely, revealing two rows of needle-sharp teeth.

“Greetings, brother,” a voice grated softly. I realized with a shock that it came from the animal before me. “Did I startle you?” the creature asked with mock politeness.

“When last we met, you were in the Black Forest,” Blackfinger replied, with no hint of politeness. “What brings you so far west?”

“I might ask you the same question myself,”Ē the Grimwolf hissed. Its eyes glittered, from the firelight, no doubt, though at the time the dim sparks of red seemed to be generated by the eyes themselves. “Abandon your foolish attempts to defy the Master! It is futile!”

“Begone!” the highlander snapped. “I have no patience for you and your kind!”

“Impolite he is, is he? Sssss,” the Grimwolf remonstrated. “Then you leave me no choice.” The creature threw back its head and emitted a chilling howl.

The howl was answered a few yards away. Black shapes began to close in. I could see them coming down the hill on our left by the coal-like points of ember light that steadily advanced. The shaggy, sniffing bodies broke through the underbrush. In a moment they were upon us.

Blackfinger moved in front of me to guard me. As the first Grimwolf leaped upon us, the highlanderís sword whipped forward and caught him on the side of the neck, shattering his collarbone. The animal gave a shriek of pain and fell to the ground.

Two more Grimwolves moved in at his legs. Blackfinger’s blade slashed upward, catching one by the throat and ripping it open. He struck down at the third wolf. The edges of the sword began to shimmer with an eerie blue light.

“Get him! Destroy him!” the Grimwolves’ leader rasped. By this time, the entire sword was brightly glowing. More and more wolves appeared out of the darkness, but all were repelled by the arc of lambent blue that protected us. Soon the wolves stopped coming. Finally there were only a handful of Grimwolves, the leader among them, who limped away into the bushes, muttering curses in the foul tongue of the south.

I glanced around the camp. The bodies of some two dozen Grimwolves lay scattered on the ground. The flicker of blue was already beginning to die on the highlanderís ebon blade.

“What kind of sword is that?” I asked.

“It is a sword of adamant,” he replied. “It shines blue whenever it is used against the servants of the Enemy. This blade is one of the last of its kind; it was made only by the ancient lorelords of Lodore.” I tried to recall a “Lodore” on his map, but I remembered none.

“When you were talking to the wolf – you sounded as if you knew him.”

“That I do. His name is Greyflank Moonstalker – the leader of all the Grimwolves. He and I are ... old enemies.

“We will not be attacked again tonight.” I recognized this as a closing statement and managed to get into bed before Blackfinger doused the fire and left me in darkness.

Chapter Four:

The next day passed uneventfully. We walked for many miles over rolling green countryside. Spring was definitely here. Trees and flowers were beginning to blossom. My companion’s lack of loquacity gave me time to think to myself. Even with Blackfinger’s monotonous gloom doom song droning in my ear, the southern wastes and the Slimewrought army seemed a million miles away. I was glad we had not followed the other road east, which followed the now-fouled Clearstream.

I thought about the encounter the night before. He had killed at least twenty Grimwolves with a single sword! Okay, it was a magic sword – heíd admitted that. But still –! This line of thought led me to wonder why he had not used his gun. But then I realized that to attempt to figure out anything about the anomalous highlander was futile.

The day after that saw Froststorm Blackfinger the most cheerful he’d been yet. Instead of “Gloom Doom” he whistled what he said was an old Elvish air:

Gaely I wander,
     gaely I singe,
Tho’ I ken notte
     what ye morrow moot bringe.
O’er road and o’er river,
     gaely I roame,
Till dancing and singen
     cumme wandering home.
It sounded more like a highland traveling ballad to me, but I said nothing, letting my legs get the rhythm of the song.

We arrived early at Greathall. It was surrounded by a high stone wall – a reminder of days when life had been less peaceful. Now, of course, the gates remained open, letting all who wished to do so pass through. Most of my brother’s business came from merchants who came from Greathall to Delving to inspect their holdings and crops.

I could see workers – what Froststorm Blackfinger would call farmers in the north and peasants in the south – coming to the city to buy and sell. I had only been here once before, and I must have seemed an impossible hick, staring up in wonder at the tall towers. The Northerner was, I think, a little impressed himself, although he attempted to appear nonchalant. He was much better at this than I. The sight of our great city did not lessen his contempt for the lowlands, anyway.

I had smelled the salt water for quite a while, but as we topped the rise I got the first glimpse of Great Harbor. The air was full of the cries of seagulls. The harbor was full of ships with brilliantly colored sails, and the noonday sun sparkled golden on the water.

By this time we had reached the gates of Greathall. At the far end of the great road where old King Goldfingerer lived. We were in the market, which was permeated by the smell of fresh and not-so-fresh fruit, among other less pleasant things. There were many booths with merchants shouting their wares from beneath faded awnings. One was selling “Fine Weapons! Fine Weapons!”

But Froststorm Blackfinger turned away from the clatter and din of the grand marketplace, leading me down a twisting cobblestone alley of barking dogs and women throwing pails of dirty water out into the street (not at us, though a few came pretty close). It was hard to believe the highlander had never been to Greathall before.

Here and there were more booths selling rather dubious-looking articles. “Sir!“ they called to him, or “young master!” to me. Blackfinger ignored them all. Finally he stopped in front of a booth where a lanky young man of twenty or so lounged among an assortment of disreputable junk. Blackfinger said something to him under his voice, and the man replied in a strong Northern accent. Then he invited us inside the tent.

“Hail, cousin Blackfinger,” he said. “What brings you to my humble booth?”

“I want a longbow – and two steel swords, one for me and one for this youth. I intend to teach him the art of swordfighting.”

“This is the one, then? A bit small for a savior, eh? Well, I can get the bow and swords well enough.” He moved toward a large scrapheap. I wandered what use anything in that dilapidated pile could be. The Northern shopkeeper kicked the rubbish in front of the pile away, pulling out two rusty, dented scabbards, which he tossed to Blackfinger, and then went further back into the booth.

“What good are these?” I asked Blackfinger. He pulled the swords out of their sheaths to answer me. They were beautiful. I knew little of swords, but I could tell these were excellent. “Are these swords magic, too?” I asked.

“Nay, lad,” replied the shopkeeper, who had come up behind us, “but they’re fine highland steel, and that’s good enough for your purposes.” He handed Blackfinger a large longbow and a quiver of arrows. The highlander strapped both on his back.

The shopkeeper gestured toward Blackfinger’s gun. “Want any ammunition for that?” he asked, grinning as of savoring some private joke. Blackfinger looked as if he understood the joke but did not share the shopkeeper’s mirth. “No,” he replied. “What I have is sufficient.”

“Farewell, then, Cousin Blackfinger. There is an inn around the corner – the Blue Unicorn. It’s run by Alewright Barrelbeater. Not one of us – but a friend, all the same.” Blackfinger did not pay for the weapons, nor was he asked to do so. My last glimpse of the shopkeeper found him relaxing in front of his tent again, with a pipe in his mouth and his feet propped up on what looked like part of an old boiler.

We found the Blue Unicorn easily enough. The letters on the swinging wooden sign above the door had long since worn off, but the figure of the blue unicorn itself had been redone in fresh paint recently, and the glossy surface reflected the afternoon sun like a shining beacon.

I did not think the inn as cozy as our inn at home, but it was very pleasant, and the food was delicious. After the dinner, we sat in front of the fire and Froststorm Blackfinger actually cracked a few jokes (his favorites were ones with grim endings). He appeared to be becoming more and more human, and even wished me goodnight before we went up to our rooms.

The next morning we left early, following the same twisted route that Blackfinger had brought me down the previous afternoon. We passed the junk booth again, where Blackfinger’s Northern friend was attempting to interest a customer in a bird cage with no bars. We left through the large gate and continued on our way. I looked back at the towers of Greathall, half-silhouetted by the morning sun. I wondered when I would see them again.

Chapter Five:
Swords and Shadows

“No! No! Like this!” corrected Blackfinger, grabbing my wrist and loosening my grip on the steel hilt. “You’re not holding a shovel, boy, you’re holding a sword! You should have a firm grip – by all means a firm grip – but don’t grasp it like a drowning man. Hold it lightly!” He showed me, letting his sword swing lightly with his wrist. “You must use both your wrist and your arm. Now your hold’s too loose – you could get away with that trick on one of these swords, because the guards curve around to the base of the hilt, but if you try that on a cross-hilted sword like my black one, itíll be pulled right out of your hand!”

He stepped backwards. “Now watch.” The Northerner brought the steel sword up in a swift arc, and thrust it forward in midswing. I tried to follow his action, but missed the breaking-off point, and the stroke continued up past my forehead. “You have just exposed your entire body to the enemy,” Blackfinger snapped.

“I couldn’t help it,” I retorted, annoyed. The sword was heavy, the sun was hot, and we had been training a full hour. “The momentum of my swing carried my sword up before I could chop the swing off. It’s awkward and dumb anyway.”

“Momentum!” Blackfinger barked. “Never trust your sword to momentum! You must be in complete control of it at every instant! The sword is swung upwards because a swing is the fastest way to move a sword from one place to the next – but the purpose of this swing is to get your sword in position for the thrust. If you swing the sword up wildly, and then cut short with a jerk, that’s awkward, and you will probably die for it. Don’t throw the sword from place to place. That’s called ‘hacking and flailing,’ and it’s an invitation to the enemy to kill you while your sword is way off somewhere to the right or left. A swordfight is a series of controlled motions, not a symphony of grand gestures.”

“But how do you put your body behind a blow, then? My brother taught me how to fight with my fists – you put your full strength behind each blow. How can I do that when I have to have a thrust coming out of nowhere?”Ē

“Your brother is an ignorant peasant who undoubtedly excels in brawls with other peasants who fight the same way he does. Never out your full body behind a blow, boy! If that blow fails, you canít retreat. Besides, by watching the movements of your body, your enemy can tell where your next blow is going to go. You want your thrust to come out of nowhere. You can be sure his is going to.”

His remarks about my brother angered me, but I remembered his victory over the Grimwolves, so I figured that he knew what he was talking about. It still seemed wrong to me; I instinctively wanted to make dramatic, unbroken sweeps with my sword. But I followed his example and the lesson continued.

When we had finished I fell to the ground in exhaustion. ď“Can’t we rest a while?” I pleaded.

“We have spent two hours in attempting to teach you some rudiments of swordfighting,” he replied. “We have already lost too much time by taking this long route to Mill Tarn – simply because your pesthole of a village had no longbow.”

“You haven’t even used the longbow you got at Greathall,” I pointed out, “although it was you who insisted that we get it.” I was no longer as afraid of him as I had once been. Perhaps familiarity does indeed breed, if not contempt, at least ... familiarity.

He continued the lessons on the following days, as we followed the line of the coast down to Lowtown. While the nights were still cool, only the sea breezes made the days bearable. Such heat this early in the year was unnatural. I asked Blackfinger if the Enemy had something to do with this. He merely grumbled that we’d be in for much worse – which wasn’t exactly an answer to my question. Perhaps he didn’t know, but was incapable of admitting ignorance.

Three days after leaving Greathall, I noticed a sudden chill in the air. The sky suddenly seemed dark, and the sea looked cold. With this sudden turn in the weather came a terrifying sound that I shall never forget. It was a horn blowing a single deep, low, lonely, ululating note, like a sob of pain; but there was something threatening about it too, an ominous sense of wrongness, a rhythm like a human heartbeat, but with an inexorable slowness that my own heart began to follow. My very bones began to vibrate with this dreadful beat. Blackfinger hurled me and himself off the road into a ditch behind some bushes, and motioned that I should spread myself as flat and low as possible, so as not to be seen – I dared not ask by what. he did the same, scarcely breathing, for fear of being heard by whatever it was that had voiced that cry, so much more awful than the Grimwolvesׄ howls.

I had thought it dark, but now an even colder, darker shadow seemed to fall in us. The leaves of the bushes seemed grey. The sun itself seemed grey. The shadow stretched back and back to its source. And then I saw it.

On a hill, perhaps a mile away, I made out the silhouette of a black rider on a black horse. He was not moving; he was simply standing there, as if searching with his eyes. For us, I knew.

Horse and rider were of normal size – but that shadow! It spread across the countryside, out to the sea. But my eyes were riveted on the rider, a gash of black against the grey sky, as he raised a horn to his lips and sounded once more that weird, jarring cry. Then, suddenly, horse and rider were in the air, and that massive shadow was moving over us, and that black thing was in the air, moving slowly across the sky, and was gone. The air became warm once more, and the sun bright, but my skin still crawled from the cold and the fear.

Fir the first time since I had met Froststorm Blackfinger, he seemed stricken. His right hand clenched his left in pain. He was whispering numbly, “No ... not this far north ... not now ... it cannot be!”

He quickly regained his composure, and stood upright. “Come,” he said, “we must hurry. There is even less time than I thought.”

“But – what was it?”

“A Ringlord. One of the Enemy’s servants. The Ringlords were men who tried to control the Druid Stone – and failed.” He laughed darkly, painfully, then whirled, showing me his scarred, four-fingered hand. “A Ringlord did this!” he chucked unhappily.

Then he recovered, and spoke normally. “We will have to make a change in our plans. If the Enemy is secure enough to send Ringlords north of the southern wastes, we will have to defeat him immediately. We will not go to Mill Tarn. I had hoped to have the guidance of Windfriend Magewing before we confront the Enemy, but that is impossible. When we reach Lowtown, we shall proceed directly through the Green Forest to the southern wastes. To travel on a road as open as the road to Mill Tarn would mean our deaths. We shall go no further today. We shall sleep early, and rise well before dawn. We should reach Lowtown by early morning.” We proceeded to make camp.

Chapter Six:
[unfinished, untitled chapter]

Froststorm Blackfinger woke me around two o’clock in the morning, and we reached the outskirts of Lowtown just as the sun was rising. How different this was from our arrival in Greathall! A clammy mist obscured our vision. All was nearly silent. As we drew near the town, a fetid stench assailed our nostrils. I remembered that a subsidiary of the befouled Clearstream ran though Lowtown.


Well, I warned you not to expect much originality. I was writing a mish-mash of Lord of the Rings, Sword of Shannara, Star Wars, and Thomas Covenant (the latter’s influence most evident in the names – only Donaldson’s hypnotic influence could have led me to believe I could get away with Beerbreath Foulfeller and Castle Moribund as non-facetious names), wallowing in every high-fantasy cliché I could find. My grimwolves, slimewroughts, and ringlords (why not stonelords, at least?) are wince-inducing carbon copies of Tolkien’s wargs, orcs, and ringwraiths; my character’s sword glows blue when fighting the enemy because Tolkien’s swords glowed blue when the enemy were near (a rather more useful trait, the latter). And my plot rips off Terry Brooks even more closely than it does Tolkien. (Despite the black sword, I don’t think Elric was a major influence, as I hadn’t read much Moorcock yet.)

Its only saving grace, really, is the character of Froststorm Blackfinger, who, while he draws on some literary precedents (Tolkien’s Aragorn, Brooks’ Allanon, Donaldson’s Covenant), is not a direct copy of any of them; what little originality I managed to find my way to is bound up in him. And while Blackfinger never quite gels into a consistent characterisation (and becomes a bit too tame in the later chapters), at least he is interesting – unlike my protagonist, Runde, who is, alas, relentlessly uninteresting. (Even Runde’s pedestrian older brother is marginally more interesting.) All the same, given that I wrote it at fifteen I’m fairly pleased with it.

I believe this was written prior to my Randian period; at least I think (hope?) I would have composed a less derivative story with a less boring main character if I’d read Rand by this point. On the other hand, some of the early descriptions of Blackfinger sound as though they might be Rand-influenced (the “scornful lips” and all that), so I’m not sure.

I’ve resisted the frequent temptation to improve the text (why put band-aids on a corpse?), except to fix obvious goofs like missing prepositions and an occasional “Clearwater” for “Clearstream.” (Three “suddens” in a row? I grate my teeth and leave them in.) Plus I fear that the profusion of titles in Druidstone Quest; Book One: The Sword of the Highlands; Part One: Darkness in the Water; Chapter One: “Black the River ...” now reminds me irresistibly of Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Squad 7: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure.

I don’t know why the founding dates for the cities are so recent (Greathall in particular feels as though it should be a lot older than 181 years) or why, in a narrative overflowing with names, Runde’s brother and Blackfinger’s cousin go so persistently unnamed (a stray note says Runde’s brother should have a “name like Crankeep”). Nor do I know what the menace worse than Grimwolves is that Blackfinger expects to meet on the road. (Ringlords are evidently worse than Grimwolves, but Blackfinger seems not to have expected them.)

I should note that I knew, and know, absolutely nothing about swordfighting (or fistfighting, for that matter), and so have no idea how right or hopelessly wrong Blackfinger’s combat advice to Runde in chapter 5 is; that advice had nothing to do with any knowledge of fact on my part and everything to do with illustrating a contrast in personality and character between Runde’s old and new mentors – e.g., between one who lacks, and one who has, reason to fear losing control. (Still, I think my contrast was inspired by the apparent contrasts I noticed between kung fu and ordinary fisticuffs.)

Along with the manuscript are some associated materials, most notably a map:

This is obviously the map described in chapter 2 (Delving is at the upper left, just south of the Great Wood), though I suspect the notation “Fairelven renamed Darkelven” would have been added later in the story. The purpose of the “Great Fire Barrier,” and of the seaward extension of the Fearsbane Mountains below it, is obviously to explain why Blackfinger and Runde can’t approach their goal by sea.

There are also some drawings of Blackfinger, the grimwolf attack, Runde, and the Druid Stone:

In addition there is a calendar of events in the story; “F.G.,” “F.H.,” and “F.L.” evidently stand for the Foundings of Greathall, Hightown, and Lowtown, respectively (hence Blackfinger’s remark that Magewing “took an Elvish bride back about F.H.” places the marriage over two centuries ago). “A.F.” represents the Elvish reckoning but there’s no notation as to what it stands for. (After Founding? Anno Fairelveni?)

181 F.G. (summer) 210 F.H. (winter) 236 F.L. (spring) 1006 A.F. (spring)

237 F.L.
1007 F.L. March 22First day of Spring Festival; Lowland and Elvish New Year’s
March 25 Fourth day; Blackfinger arrives in Delving
April 9Nineteenth day; river is defiled; quest begins
April 10Twentieth day; party is attacked by grimwolves
April 12Twenty-second day; party arrives at Greathall
April 13Twenty-third day; party leaves Greathall
April 16Twenty-sixth day; party sights Ringlord
April 17Twenty-seventh day; party arrives at Lowtown

There are also notes – highly compressed and elliptical – as to where the story was heading. Most of these are maddeningly cryptic and, after 30 years, inscrutable to me (lots of remarks like “BF = Arnol” and “is stone evil then fire”), but I can reconstruct this much:

Blackfinger’s original plan had been to follow the Clearstream from Lowtown to Hightown and thence to Mill Tarn. (Why not from Greathall directly to Hightown? Presumably because there’s no road; Greathall’s exaggerated size on the map makes it look like there’s a road, but that more northerly road goes directly from Delving to Hightown and bypasses Greathall. That road is probably the one Blackfinger took to get to Delving in the first place, since he hadn’t come through Greathall; Blackfinger probably would have taken the same road on the way back too if he hadn’t needed to pass through Greathall to get weapons.) In Mill Tarn he had planned to consult with Magewing and, he anticipated, add Magewing’s warrior daughter to the party. (I guess “two grown sons in Fairelven and a thirteen-year-old daughter” means that only the sons, not the daughter, were in Fairelven; the daughter was at Mill Tarn.) The party would then have traveled from Mill Tarn through “Blackwood” (did I mean the Black Forest?) and on south (through Ashwaste, I suppose).

Initially Blackfinger abandons this plan after seeing the Ringlord. The new plan is to proceed from Lowtown through the Green Forest to Fairelven and thence south. But they find the path to Fairelven “guarded” (by Slimewroughts, I assume; has Fairelven been conquered? is this when it becomes Darkelven?) so they bypass it to the north and on into “Blackwood” (which again I assume means the Black Forest). But while sneaking through “Blackwood” they overhear the Slimewrought army planning to attack Mill Tarn, so they head back up (via Lowtown and Hightown) to the Elvish colony at Arkhaven (on the shores of Mill Tarn) to warn them. (Arkhaven and Fairelven are obviously Rivendell/Lothlorien-type places.) This is when Magewing and his daughter, named Sunhair Starsinger, enter the story; predictably, the half-Elvish girl for whom Runde expressed such disdain in chapter 3 becomes his love interest.

While in Mill Tarn either Blackfinger or Runde (the notes make it unclear which) starts singing the gloom doom song and is chastised – “don’t sing that here!” – but Sunhair, an edgier gal than her name might indicate, is delighted by the song. Bloodbane Harbinger, the leader of the Ringlords – a wizard who “almost succeeded by magic [at] what Runde did naturally,” namely controlling the Druid Stone (he seems to be a cross between Saruman and the Witch-King) – shows up at Mill Tarn, where his mere presence wilts the grass, but Magewing tells him he has no power there. Blackfinger, however, attacks Harbinger (who was apparently the Ringlord who chopped off Blackfinger’s left pinky finger, which incidentally seems too mild a wound for the character), though evidently both survive this encounter.

On the Plain of War, a great battle between the Slimewroughts (led by their captain, Slobber Soulrot, and presumably by Harbinger as well) and the Elves ensues, in which Runde and Sunhair participate; this battle winds up the first volume. (I assume the Elves are victorious.)

In the second volume, titled The Southern Wastes (Part One of which is called The Tree in Fairelven), it is decided that Ashwaste is too open (danger of Ringlords), so instead of heading directly south they circle back (via Hightown and Lowtown again) to Fairelven (is it not Darkelven any more – was it liberated in the battle? or does it become Darkelven later?), intending to head through Deathswamp. In Fairelven they find that the last of the Caretaker Trees, whatever those are, is dying (a result of a preceding Slimewrought occupation?); only one small shoot survives but it can’t be saved by any means known to the Elves. Runde volunteers his own background in horticulture (what background in horticulture?) and starts twisting leaves and chopping branches; the Elvish gardener, Fairbeard, is horrified – “you can’t treat the Tree like a common shrub” – but of course in the third volume it would be shown to have worked and Runde would receive his full name of Godhope Treehealer. (My caveat above about swordfighting applies to horticulture as well.)

Anyway, still back in volume two, the party (Runde, Blackfinger, and Sunhair; possibly others) heads south through Deathswamp but finds the Fearsbane Mountains impassable at that point, so they have to head east through Ashwaste anyway to find a pass near the rising of the Doomwash and Southern River. (I seem to have had a lot of aimless wandering planned.) In Ashwaste they meet a friendly (I think?) giant named Bearheart Fire-eater, who sounds all too similar to the friendly giant Saltheart Foamfollower in Thomas Covenant.

I have far fewer notes as to what happens in the third volume, titled The Dragon Ring. Obviously the party (presumably with Fire-eater’s assistance) makes it to Castle Moribund and Runde somehow gets his hands on the Druid Stone. (Notes indicate that wearing the Druid Stone makes time slow down; the wearer can dodge arrows, etc.) Runde slays Foulfeller in a duel, and something (probably the castle) “explodes.”

After the explosion there is a final confrontation between Blackfinger and Harbinger; my notes describe Blackfinger, both generally and in this particular battle, as “a dark figure attempting to overcome surrounding darkness with [his] own”; sometimes it is the darkness that seems darker and sometimes it is Blackfinger; Runde is afraid to look, but sees “two shadows blend” until Blackfinger is “lost to sight.” Does this mean that Harbinger slays Blackfinger? Or that they slay each other? Or that Blackfinger falls to the dark side? Or what? Beats me. But obviously Blackfinger meets some sort of tragic end, as the opening lines of the first chapter seem in any case to indicate.

There are a few more notes. Blackfingerís sword, forged at “Mount Lodore” and recovered from the “Gap of Lodore,” wherever that is, was one of “seven swords adamant-forged taken in Elder Years.” The mystery about his gun was simply that he was, uncharacteristically, a lousy shot. There was to be a subplot about a Golden Amulet as old as the Druid Stone; the Amulet is apparently given to Runde for protection by Sunhairís mother and subsequently given by Runde to Sunhair. There were to be characters named Wieldwood Songsinger and Lawholder Duric; a lake named Murmurmere; a weapon named Skullcleaver; and a (dwarvish?) fortress named either Harthfast or Harrowfast.

At some point (whether in this trilogy or in a planned sequel – probably the latter), King Goldfingerer of Greathall is overthrown by a young prince who establishes a dictatorship and starts massacring people; a 15-year-old Runde and his brother flee into the Great Wood where their grandfather lives; they meet up with Sunhair and have some adventure beyond the Northern Mountains where “man-hating dwarrows [i.e., dwarves] fight.” (Fight whom?) So maybe an original plotline was struggling to emerge; other hints of this come from cryptic notes like these: “lights (no visible source) in Castle Moribund; later in Greathall”; “Giants rise again”; “technology increases”; and “skimmer arrowknifed into canyon.” I suspect I may come across more notes elsewhere, but for now, that’s all I know.

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