Bearers of the Black StaffBy: Terry Brooks
BLACK ICE COATED EARTH FROZEN HARD BY NIGHT temperatures that had dropped below freezing, a thin skein of slickness that challenged the grip of his toughened-rawhide boot soles. Yet the Gray Man stepped with grace and ease across the treacherous smoothness, not oblivious to the danger so much as accustomed to it. He passed through the woods along the snow line close by the valley’s rim, only slightly less transparent than the wraiths to which he was so often compared. Amid the dark of the trunks and limbs and the deep green of the conifer needles, he was another of night’s shadows.
Until you got close enough to realize he wasn’t a figment of the imagination, but as substantial as the rumors that tracked him in whispers and long silences, and then he was something much more.
Through the night’s slow retreat he passed, watching daybreak lighten the sky above the eastern rim of the valley, so far away it was little more than a hazy glow. He had been walking for several hours, his sleep ended early. Each day found him someplace else, and even though he followed the same route over and over, tracking the rim of the valley from mountain peak to barren ridge to escarpment and back again, he was never bothered by time or speed; only with order. It was given to him to navigate the heights from one mountain pass to another, one valley’s passage to the next, always in search of an opening that led out—or in. The mists that had sealed the valley since the time of the Hawk had not yet receded, but that would change and it would do so in his lifetime.
His dreams had told him so.
The wall that kept the survivors of the Great Wars safely sealed in, and the things that roamed the world beyond locked out, would not hold forever, although there were many who thought differently. The wall was a conjuration of power unlike any he could imagine, although he wielded considerable power of his own. But nothing was permanent; all things must change. And no matter the beliefs of some and the wishes of others, life had a way of surprising you.
A hawk screamed from somewhere high above, soaring across the snowfields and rocky promontories, and something in the sound of that cry reminded the Gray Man that time slipped away and the past was catching up.
He quickened his pace, moving silently through the deep woods, his tattered robes trailing from his lean form. He did not stride through the trees so much as flow, a spectral creature formed of bits and pieces of color and smoke, of aether and light. He touched things as he went, small brushings and tiny rubs of fingertips, nothing more, reading from each something of the world about him. He sniffed the air and studied the look of the tiny ends of branches. Everything spoke to him. A Koden had passed here. There was fresh springwater not far away over there. Fledgling ravens had departed the nest last summer and flown off to breed families of their own. A family of black squirrels lived within that stand of blue spruce, perhaps watching him as he passed. It was all there for those who might read it, but he was one of only a handful who could.
After all, it was in his blood.
He was tall and rangy in the way of mountain men and long-range Trackers from the communities of Men and Elves alike, and broad-shouldered and hard in the way of the Lizards, though not burdened with the armor of their skin. He was quick when he needed to be and slow when quickness could get you killed. He was dangerous all the time. There were stories about him in every settlement, every village, every safehold and way station, and he had heard them all. Some were partly true, though none told all his tale. He was one of a kind and the last, as well—unless he found the next bearer. It was something he thought of now and then. But time allowed for little deviation from his duty, least of all seeking out and training the successor whom he fervently hoped he would not need for some years to come.
His hands tightened about the black staff that marked him for who and what he was, conscious of the deep carving of its runes and the pulse of the magic they commanded. He did not call upon the power much these days, did not have cause to do so, but it was comforting to know that it was there. The Word’s magic was given to him by his predecessor and before that by his, and so on over a span of five centuries. He knew the story of its origins; all those who carried the staff knew. They passed it on dutifully. Or when time and events did not allow for an orderly passage, they learned it another way. The Gray Man was not familiar with the experiences of those others who had borne the staff; he knew only his own. He had never been visited by the Lady who served as the voice of the staff’s maker. She had never come to him in his dreams as she had sometimes come to others.