Ilse Witch by Terry Brooks




  More praise for

  The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara:

  Ilse Witch

  “The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara should help fill the void Harry Potter fans feel in the pits of their stomachs, and they might even find themselves waiting for the next Shannara novel with the same thirst they have for Harry.”

  —Rocky Mountain News

  “If you were delighted and entranced by Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story, you will definitely want to sample one or more of Terry Brooks’s books.”

  —Santa Cruz Sentinel

  “This lively new adventure, set a generation later, combines the familiar quest format used in The Sword of Shannara with an array of well-defined characters and malevolent beings. … Fans familiar with the Shannara series, and new readers as well, will enjoy this first Shannara tale in four years.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “The myriad Shannara fans will relish the adventure, the mystery, the magic, and the well-developed characters … The ending is a gripping cliff-hanger.”

  —Booklist

  “The Shannara mythology gains a new level of history and depth in a tale that should appeal to the series’ legions of fans.”

  —Library Journal

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Contents

  Map

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Excerpt from The Measure of the Magic

  Dedication

  Other Books by This Author

  Copyright

  ONE

  Hunter Predd was patrolling the waters of the Blue Divide north of the island of Mesca Rho, a Wing Hove outpost at the western edge of Elven territorial waters, when he saw the man clinging to the spar. The man was draped over the length of wood as if a cloth doll, his head laid on the spar so that his face was barely out of the water, one arm wrapped loosely about his narrow float to keep him from sliding away. His skin was burned and ravaged from sun, wind, and weather, and his clothing was in tatters. He was so still it was impossible to tell if he was alive. It was the odd rolling movement of his body within the gentle swells, in fact, that first caught Hunter Predd’s eye.

  Obsidian was already banking smoothly toward the castaway, not needing the touch of his master’s hands and knees to know what to do. His eyes sharper than those of the Elf, he had spotted the man in the water before Hunter and shifted course to effect a rescue. It was a large part of the work he was trained to do, locating and rescuing those whose ships had been lost at sea. The Roc could tell a man from a piece of wood or a fish a thousand yards away.

  He swung around slowly, great wings stretched wide, dipping toward the surface and plucking the man from the waters with a sure and delicate touch. Great claws wrapped securely, but gently, about the limp form, the Roc lifted away again. Depthless and clear, the late spring sky spread away in a brilliant blue dome brightened by sunlight that infused the warm air and reflected in flashes of silver off the waves. Hunter Predd guided his mount back toward the closest piece of land available, a small atoll some miles from Mesca Rho. There he would see what, if anything, could be done.

  They reached the atoll in less than half an hour, Hunter Predd keeping Obsidian low and steady in his flight the entire way. Black as ink and in the prime of his life, the Roc was his third as a Wing Rider and arguably the best. Besides being big and strong, Obsidian had excellent instincts and had learned to anticipate what Hunter wished of him before the Wing Rider had need to signal it. They had been together five years, not long for a Rider and his mount, but sufficiently long in this instance that they performed as if linked in mind and body.

  Lowering to the leeward side of the atoll in a slow flapping of wings, Obsidian deposited his burden on a sandy strip of beach and settled down on the rocks nearby. Hunter Predd jumped off and hurried over to the motionless form. The man did not respond when the Wing Rider turned him on his back and began to check for signs of life. There was a pulse, and a heartbeat. His breathing was slow and shallow. But when Hunter Predd checked his face, he found his eyes had been removed and his tongue cut out.

  He was an Elf, the Wing Rider saw. Not a member of the Wing Hove, however. The lack of harness scars on his wrists and hands marked him so. Hunter examined his body carefully for broken bones and found none. The only obvious physical damage seemed to be to his face. Mostly, he was suffering from exposure and lack of nourishment. Hunter placed a little fresh water from his pouch on the man’s lips and let it trickle down his throat. The man’s lips moved slightly.

  Hunter considered his options and decided to take the man to the seaport of Bracken Clell, the closest settlement where he could find an Elven Healer to provide the care that was needed. He could take the man to Mesca Rho, but the island was only an outpost. Another Wing Rider and himself were its only inhabitants. No healing help could be found there. If he wanted to save the man’s life, he would have to risk carrying him east to the mainland.

  The Wing Rider bathed the man’s skin in fresh water and applied a healing salve that would protect it from further damage. Hunter carried no extra clothing; the man would have to travel in the rags he wore. He tried again to give the man fresh water, and this time the man’s mouth worked more eagerly in response, and he moaned softly. For an instant his ruined eyes tried to open, and he mumbled unintelligibly.

  As a matter of course and in response to his training, the Wing Rider searched the man and took from his person the only two items he found. Both surprised and perplexed him. He studied each carefully, and the frown on his lips deepened.

  Unwilling to delay his departure any longer, Hunter picked up the man and, with Obsidian’s help, eased him into place on the Roc’s broad back. A pad cushioned and restraining straps secured him. After a final check, Hunter climbed back aboard his mount, and Obsidian lifted away.

  They flew east toward the coming darkness for three hours, and sunset was approaching when they sighted Bracken Clell. The seaport’s population was a mixture of races, predominantly Elven, and the inhabitants were used to seeing Wing Riders and their Rocs come and go. Hunter Predd took Obsidian upland to a clearing marked for landings, and the big Roc swung smoothly down into the trees. A messenger was sent into town from among the curious who quickly gathered, and the Elven Healer appeared with a clutch of litter bearers.

  “What’s happened to him?” the Healer asked of Hunter Predd, on discovering the man’s empty eye sockets and ruined mouth.

  Hunter shook his head. “That’s how I found him.”

  “Identification? Who is he?”

  “I don’t know,” the Wing Rider lied.

  He waited until the Healer and his attendants had picked up the man and begun carrying him toward the Healer’s home, where the man would be placed in one of the sick
bays in the healing center, before dispatching Obsidian to a more remote perch, then following after the crowd. What he knew was not to be shared with the Healer or anyone else in Bracken Clell. What he knew was meant for one man only.

  He sat on the Healer’s porch and smoked his pipe, his longbow and hunting knife by his side as he waited for the Healer to reemerge. The sun had set, and the last of the light lay across the waters of the bay in splashes of scarlet and gold. Hunter Predd was small and slight for a Wing Rider, but tough as knotted cord. He was neither young nor old, but comfortably settled in the middle and content to be there. Sun-browned and windburned, his face seamed and his eyes gray beneath a thick thatch of brown hair, he had the look of what he was—an Elf who had lived all of his life in the outdoors.

  Once, while he was waiting, he took out the bracelet and held it up to the light, reassuring himself that he had not been mistaken about the crest it bore. The map he left in his pocket.

  One of the Healer’s attendants brought him a plate of food, which he devoured silently. When he was finished eating, the attendant reappeared and took the plate away, all without speaking. The Healer still hadn’t emerged.

  It was late when he finally did, and he looked haggard and unnerved as he settled himself next to Hunter. They had known each other for some time, the Healer having come to the seaport only a year after Hunter had returned from the border wars and settled into Wing Rider service off the coast. They had shared in more than one rescue effort and, while of different backgrounds and callings, were of similar persuasion regarding the foolishness of the world’s progress. Here, in an outback of the broader civilization that was designated the Four Lands, they had found they could escape a little of the madness.

  “How is he?” Hunter Predd asked.

  The Healer sighed. “Not good. He may live. If you can call it that. He’s lost his eyes and his tongue. Both were removed forcibly. Exposure and malnutrition have eroded his strength so severely he will probably never recover entirely. He came awake several times and tried to communicate, but couldn’t.”

  “Maybe with time—”

  “Time isn’t the problem,” the Healer interrupted, drawing his gaze and holding it. “He cannot speak or write. It isn’t just the damage to his tongue or his lack of strength. It is his mind. His mind is gone. Whatever he has been through has damaged him irreparably. I don’t think he knows where he is or even who he is.”

  Hunter Predd looked off into the night. “Not even his name?”

  “Not even that. I don’t think he remembers anything of what’s happened to him.”

  The Wing Rider was silent a moment, thinking. “Will you keep him here for a while longer, care for him, watch over him? I want to look into this more closely.”

  The Healer nodded. “Where will you start?”

  “Arborlon, perhaps.”

  A soft scrape of a boot brought him about sharply. An attendant appeared with hot tea and food for the Healer. He nodded to them without speaking and disappeared again. Hunter Predd stood, walked to the door to be certain they were alone, then reseated himself beside the Healer.

  “Watch this damaged man closely, Dorne. No visitors. Nothing until you hear back from me.”

  The Healer sipped at his tea. “You know something about him that you’re not telling me, don’t you?”

  “I suspect something. There’s a difference. But I need time to make certain. Can you give me that time?”

  The Healer shrugged. “I can try. The man inside will have something to say about whether he will still be here when you return. He is very weak. You should move swiftly.”

  Hunter Predd nodded. “As swift as Obsidian’s wings can fly,” he replied softly.

  Behind him, in the near darkness of the open doorway, a shadow detached itself from behind a wall and moved silently away.

  The attendant who had served dinner to the Wing Rider and the Healer waited until after midnight, when the people of Bracken Clell were mostly asleep, to slip from his rooms in the village into the surrounding forest. He moved quickly and without the benefit of light, knowing his path well from having traveled it many times before. He was a small, wizened man who had spent the whole of his life in the village and was seldom given a second glance. He lived alone and had few friends. He had served in the Healer’s household for better than thirteen years, a quiet, uncomplaining sort who lacked imagination but could be depended on. His qualities suited him well in his work as a Healer’s attendant, but even better as a spy.

  He reached the cages he kept concealed in a darkened pen behind the old cabin in which he had been born. When his father and mother had died, possession had passed to him as the eldest male. It was a poor inheritance, and he had never accepted that it was all to which he was entitled. When the opportunity had been offered to him, he snatched at it eagerly. A few words overheard here and there, a face or a name recognized from tales told in taverns and ale houses, bits and pieces of information tossed his way by those rescued from the ocean and brought to the center to heal—they were all worth something to the right people.

  And to one person in particular, make no mistake about it.

  The attendant understood what was expected of him. She had made it clear from the beginning. She was to be his Mistress, to whom he must answer most strongly should he step from between the lines of obedience she had charted for him. Whoever passed through the Healer’s doors and whatever they said, if they or it mattered at all, she was to know. She told him the decision to summon her was his, always his. He must be prepared to answer for his summons, of course. But it would be better to act boldly than belatedly. A chance missed was much less acceptable to her than time wasted.

  He had guessed wrongly a few times, but she had not been angry or critical. A few mistakes were to be expected. Mostly, he knew what was worth something and what was not. Patience and perseverance were necessary.

  He’d developed both, and they had served him well. This time, he knew, he had something of real value.

  He unfastened the cage door and took out one of the strange birds she had given him. They were wicked-looking things with sharp eyes and beaks, swept-back wings, and narrow bodies. They watched him whenever he came in sight, or took them out of the cages, or fastened a message to their legs, as he was doing now. They watched him as if marking his efficiency for a report they would make later. He didn’t like the way they looked at him, and he seldom looked back.

  When the message was in place, he tossed the bird into the air, and it rose into the darkness and disappeared. They flew only at night, these birds. Sometimes, they returned with messages from her. Sometimes, they simply reappeared, waiting to be placed back in their cages. He never questioned their origins. It was better, he sensed, simply to accept their usefulness.

  He stared into the night sky. He had done what he could. There was nothing to do now, but wait. She would tell him what was needed next. She always did.

  Closing the doors to the pen so that the cages were hidden once more, he crept silently back the way he had come.

  Two days later, Allardon Elessedil had just emerged from a long session with the Elven High Council centered on the renewal of trade agreements with the cities of Callahorn and on the seemingly endless war they fought as allies with the Dwarves against the Federation, when he was advised that a Wing Rider was waiting to speak to him. It was late in the day, and he was tired, but the Wing Rider had flown all the way to Arborlon from the southern seaport of Bracken Clell, a two-day journey, and was refusing to deliver his message to anyone but the King. The aide who advised Allardon of the Wing Rider’s presence conveyed quite clearly the other’s determination not to be swayed on this issue.

  The Elf King nodded and followed his aide to where the Wing Rider waited. His arrangement with the Wing Hove demanded that he accede to any request for privacy in the conveyance of messages. Pursuant to a contract drawn up in the early years of Wren Elessedil’s rule, the Wing Riders had been serving the Land
Elves as scouts and messengers along the coast of the Blue Divide for more than 130 years. They were provided with goods and coin in exchange for their services, and it was an arrangement that the Elven Kings and Queens had found useful on more than one occasion. If the Wing Rider who waited had asked to speak with Allardon personally, then there was good reason for the request, and he was not about to ignore it.

  With Home Guards Perin and Wye flanking him protectively, he trailed after his aide as they departed the High Council and walked back through the gardens to the Elessedil palace home. Allardon Elessedil had been King for more than twenty years, since the death of his mother, the Queen Aine. He was of medium height and build, still fit and trim in spite of his years, his mind sharp and his body strong. Only his graying hair and the lines on his face gave evidence of his advanced years. He was a direct descendant of the great Queen Wren Elessedil, who had brought the Elves and their city out of the island wilderness of Morrowindl into which the Federation and the hated Shadowen had driven them. He was her great-great-grandson, and he had lived the whole of his life as if measuring it against hers.

  It was difficult to do so in these times. The war with the Federation had been raging for ten years and showed no signs of ending anytime soon. The Southland coalition of Bordermen, Dwarves, and Elves had halted the Federation advance below the Duln two years earlier on the Prekkendorran Heights. Now the armies were stalemated in a front that had failed to shift one way or the other in all that time and continued to consume lives and waste energy at an alarming rate. There was no question that the war was necessary. The Federation’s attempt at reclaiming the Borderlands it had lost in the time of Wren Elessedil was invasive and predatory and could not be tolerated. But the King couldn’t help thinking that his ancestor would have found a way to put an end to it by now, where he had failed to do so.

  None of which had anything to do with the matter at hand, he chided himself. The war with the Federation was centered at the crossroads of the Four Lands and had not yet spilled over onto the coast. For now, at least, it was contained.

 
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