Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks

  They came together in a rush, weapons clashing and grating as metal and iron-bound wood caught, held momentarily, then slid away. They parted grunting, then clashed again. The giant was powerful and determined, using leverage and his awesome strength in an effort to overpower his quarry. But the Paladin was too battle-tested to be taken down so easily. A moment later he had thrust the giant aside, knocked the club from his hands, and thrown him to the earth.

  The giant struck heavily, rolled free of the sword blade that hovered over him, and came back to his feet, club in hand once more, unharmed. He came at the Paladin instantly. The Paladin parried another monstrous blow and struck the giant alongside the head. The giant went down, tumbling away, blood smearing the dusty earth where he struck.

  Then he was back on his feet yet again, the blood drying and the wound closing. For the first time the Paladin hesitated. The giant should be hurt, but its wounds had healed immediately. Either blow should have slowed or weakened him; neither had.

  The giant attacked anew, stronger now than before, thrusting into the Paladin with such force that the King’s champion was driven backward to the castle wall. The giant pinned him there, wresting away his sword and bringing the massive club up under his chin to break his neck. The Paladin tried to twist free of the killing hold and could not. The giant grunted with the effort of pushing forward against the Paladin’s neck. The dark eyes glinted. The great body heaved mightily. The Paladin’s breath was cut off. He could not break loose.

  In desperation he hammered both iron-gloved fists into the giant’s midsection. The giant grunted in pain. The Paladin struck at him again, this time where his ribs joined. The giant fell back, clutching himself, the club falling away. The Paladin struck him once more, this time squarely between the eyes. The giant reeled backward and collapsed.

  But then, impossibly, he came to his feet again, righted as if he had never fallen, his club hefted eagerly as he advanced anew. The Paladin had lost his sword, and now he freed the mace he wore tied to his belt. It was shorter than the giant’s club, though just as deadly. Still, there was no weapon to match the speed of the giant’s recovery each time he was felled. It was as if the blows gave him new strength.

  The giant attacked the Paladin again, hammering at his armored body with blows so powerful that they knocked the mace aside as if it were a toy. The Paladin grappled with his adversary, leaping inside the killing arc of the club. With his arms locked about the great body, he heaved upward to throw the giant down. The giant roared in dismay. Something about this attack clearly bothered him. The Paladin pressed forward. Together, the combatants staggered across the courtyard, grunting and straining from the effort of their struggle. The giant was trying to break free, the club abandoned, both massive arms hammering down on the Paladin’s armored body. But the Paladin had discovered something useful. When he lifted upward on his adversary, the giant weakened noticeably. He lost the fury and intensity of his effort. He howled in obvious frustration. He wanted to be put down again, and so the Paladin fought to hold him aloft, to break his connection to the earth, for it was from the earth, it now appeared, that the giant gained his strength.

  Finally the Paladin brought the giant to the steps of the watchtower and threw him down upon the stone. The giant kicked and fought to roll from the steps to the earth of the courtyard, but the Paladin would not let him break free. The giant roared anew, and now there was blood spurting from his nostrils and mouth, leaking from his wounds at every turn. The Paladin thrust his adversary farther up the steps, farther from the courtyard dirt, and the giant fell back with a sudden convulsive gasp. Up another few steps the Paladin heaved the great body, and now the giant could no longer breathe. His arms fell back, and his legs sprawled askew on the steps.

  The Paladin held him there, pinned and helpless, until he was dead. When his life departed, the giant turned to dust.

  Afterward, when the Paladin had vanished and Ben had come back to himself, he wondered if he could have saved the giant’s life. It was not a simple matter to resolve. There was the question of whether the Paladin would have permitted it, for when Ben was the Paladin, he was subject to the knight’s ethics and life rules, and they were far different from his own. The Paladin had no interest in saving the life of an enemy. Enemies were to be killed swiftly and remorselessly. Ben was not certain he could exercise sufficient control over his alter ego to permit even a small consideration for the sparing of a life. There was also the question of whether the giant would have cooperated or whether he would have disdained compassion as thoroughly as the Paladin had and gone on fighting until he was killed. There was the question finally of whether the giant was even real. It had turned to dust on dying, and creatures of flesh and blood did not do that so swiftly. It seemed probable that the giant was a thing of magic and that its destruction was inevitable in the face of a stronger magic.

  All of which did nothing to make Ben feel any better about what he had been put through. The impact of having killed the giant was not lessened by the fact that the giant might not have been a mortal man. His dying had been real enough, and it had come at Ben’s hand. He could still feel the giant’s struggles weakening as he held him pinned fast on the tower steps. He would remember for as long as he lived the other’s eyes as the life went out of them.

  He went back to his bedchamber with Willow and slept for a time, seeking escape from the experience. She stayed with him while he rested, lying close beside him on the bed, her cool hands running across his chest and arms, her voice whispering to him compassionately, soothingly. He did not know how he could live without her, so close was she, so much a part of him. If the Paladin was his dark side, then she most certainly was his light. He took heart from her radiance and drifted in warmth and peace.

  When he awoke, it was midday. He ate then, hungry again and anxious to get on with matters that required his attention. He did not speak to Willow of what had happened. He had never told her—never told anyone, for that matter—the truth about the Paladin. No one knew that Landover’s King and her champion were one and the same, joined by the magic of the medallion, bound irrevocably in the defense of the realm. No one knew that when the latter surfaced, the former was submerged, one supplanting and repressing the other, one dominant. But it was becoming increasingly difficult for Ben to keep this secret from his wife. The strain of holding himself together after each transformation, of keeping whole when bits and pieces of himself were being ripped away, was beginning to tell. He could not avoid the fact that when he was the Paladin, he gloried in the power of the magic that transformed him and did not want to change back again. One day, he feared, he would succumb to its lure.

  Visitors to the castle included officials of the land reformation committee he had appointed to oversee changes in the application of agricultural techniques and irrigation in various parts of the kingdom, particularly the arid Eastern Wastelands, and he met with them at length to discuss their progress in convincing the Lords of the Greensward to commit manpower and materials to his project. The meeting produced mixed results but encouraged him sufficiently to plan a visit to a few of those who remained recalcitrant, notably but not surprisingly Kallendbor of Rhyndweir. Kallendbor resisted everything Ben proposed and two years ago had been persuaded to rise up against him in rebellion through the machinations of a dark fairy called the Gorse. Kallendbor had been all too willing to participate, so Ben Holiday had punished him severely. One year in exile and the loss of certain titles and land had been the punishment decreed. Kallendbor had accepted the verdict without complaint, recognizing perhaps that his punishment could—and some said should—have been much worse. His year in exile had been served, and some of his land and titles had been restored. But he continued to be obstreperous and challenging at every turn, and it was clear to Ben that for all Kallendbor had suffered, he had learned almost nothing.

  Ben moved from the committee meeting to a reception with several of his judicial representatives that lasted only
a short time, then on to a perusing of law documents concerning disputes over property. Having to deal with those matters without Abernathy’s able assistance made him think again on the kidnapping of Mistaya. He pondered anew the inadequacy of his efforts to find her, warding off the despair he felt every time he envisioned losing her. His already white-hot hatred of Rydall grew measurably. That Marnhull’s King should use such despicable tactics to force him to play this ridiculous game of pitting Kings’ champions against each other was unforgivable. But it was puzzling as well. It lacked balance somehow; it lacked good sense. Something about it suggested that there was more to the puzzle than Ben was seeing.

  He would have considered the matter further perhaps, but Bunion arrived in a rush to announce that another of Rydall’s champions had appeared.

  Ben was stunned. A second, so soon? He had barely bested the first! It seemed that Rydall was determined to have the matter of Landover’s Kingship resolved quickly.

  Ben headed for the battlements, Bunion scurrying ahead. Guards stepped aside with his passing, uttering words of encouragement and disdain for this latest challenge. By now everyone realized what was happening, knew that an unknown outside force was attempting to wrest control of the throne. There had been peace in Landover since the defeat of the Gorse two years earlier, but now here was a new threat. Ben acknowledged the kind words with a nod and an occasional word of encouragement back. He was joined by Willow, emerald hair streaming out behind her, beautiful face hardened by her iron will, as he mounted the watchtower steps. King’s Guards were assembling in force in the courtyard, readying to march forth. Retainers were bringing up a line of warhorses. Everyone was preparing for battle.

  Ben climbed to the top of the wall overlooking the drawbridge, Willow and Bunion at his side, and stopped dead.

  Armored all in silver, its lance tilted upward in salute, a solitary knight waited at the far end of the causeway. It was instantly recognizable even from this distance. Ben Holiday found himself looking at the Paladin.

  He stared in speechless shock, unable to believe what he was seeing. The Paladin? Here, unsummoned? Had it come to do battle with its master? Had Rydall somehow subverted it?

  “This can’t be possible,” he muttered.

  “That isn’t the Paladin.” Willow was the first to say it. “It can’t be. You haven’t summoned it, and no one else can. This knight is a fraud, a pretender.”

  But a realistic-looking one for all that, Ben thought darkly. Well, there was no help for it. He was faced with the same dilemma that he had confronted when the giant had appeared. Waiting was pointless. If he refused to meet the knight without, he would all too soon find it within.

  Ben put his hands on the stones of the castle wall and tried to decide if he was strong enough to do battle again so soon. For while his transformation into the Paladin required little of him physically, it was excessively demanding mentally and emotionally. When the battle was finished and another challenger lay dead, it was his psyche that the shards of battle would have damaged. He stared down grim-faced at this newest threat from Rydall. This one, at least, was faceless, but the prospect of doing battle with himself—or a part of himself—was unnerving, even if it wasn’t really a part but only something that seemed to be …

  He gave up on his ruminations. Too much of that could be deadly. There was no choice offered him in this matter. If Rydall sent three champions this day, he would still have to fight them all.

  “Ben,” Willow said softly, her arm linking into his.

  He nodded. “I know; you don’t have to say it. But I can’t make that thing down there go away by ignoring it.”

  “There will be another trick to winning,” she said, “just as there was with the giant.”

  She released him reluctantly then, and he brought forth the medallion. A moment later he summoned the Paladin. He felt a measure of relief when it appeared in a flare of light from out of the forest at the edge of the meadow; now he could be certain that it was not the real Paladin who served Rydall. His protector wheeled toward the pretender, lance lowered for the attack. Ben felt himself transported once more, flowing easily with the change this time, used to it since this morning, almost welcoming it. The Paladin’s armor closed about him, its memories stirred in his blood, and the expectation of battle was a rush of heat that flooded through bone and muscle and into the iron of his weapons.

  The Paladin kicked his warhorse in the flanks, and the beast surged forward to the attack. Ahead, the false knight turned and spurred toward him in response. Lances lowered, they raced across the grassy stretch of the meadow in a thunder of hooves and met with a clash of iron and splintered oak as both lances shattered into pieces.

  Still mounted, shields cracked and scarred, the combatants wheeled back toward each other, battle-axes in hand. They rushed together a second time, weapons swinging. The Paladin deflected the other knight’s heavy blade, and his adversary did the same with his. A second blow got through, but so did one of his adversary’s. The knights hammered at each other, and then both axes snapped at the hilt and fell away, broken and useless.

  Reining their warhorses about savagely to get into position, the combatants reached for their broadswords.

  A third time they came together, the blades of their broadswords striking fire in the late afternoon sun, sparks exploding from their weapons and armor. Their horses were weakening, snorting and huffing from the strain of bearing their armored riders and absorbing the shock of the blows dealt. Finally both went down together, throwing their riders free, rising shakily, and standing with heads lowered and blood on their muzzles, unable to continue.

  The twin Paladins rose as well, broadswords still in hand, and advanced to the attack on foot. If they were tired, they did not show it. They went at each other with single-minded determination, and it was clear to everyone watching that neither would give quarter until the other was down for good.

  Atop the castle wall Willow observed the struggle with growing apprehension. For every blow landed, a matching one was dealt. The Paladins were exact duplicates of each other, wheeling and charging, striking and blocking, moving with synchronized movements in a bizarre dance of destruction. Soon it became impossible for her to tell which was which. The real Paladin should have been able to distinguish itself from the pretender through its experience and battle skill, but it did not seem able to do so. The longer the struggle went on, the more impossible it became to tell one from the other. They attacked and defended exactly the same—blow for blow, wound for wound, damage for damage—no difference in their looks, no variation in their strategies, no counters that were not instantly imitated. Something was wrong with the way in which the struggle was progressing, and she realized soon enough what it was. The Paladin could not gain an edge in this battle because it was fighting itself. It was like watching yourself in a mirror, seeing your image reflected back at you, seeing everything you did imitated exactly. Your reflection never tired and never slowed sooner than you did. While you stood before the mirror, you could never escape it …

  She caught herself. She realized the secret of Rydall’s champion then. She recognized, too, how it could be defeated.

  “Ben!” she shouted above the clash of armor and weapons. She clutched at him, but there was no response. He stood beside her, looking out at the battle, motionless, voiceless, seemingly entranced. “Ben!” she shouted again, shaking him harder.

  He turned toward her, a barely perceptible movement. He seemed to be looking at her from a great distance off.

  “Ben, send the Paladin back!” she cried out. “Send him away! Rydall’s champion is stealing his strength. He’s using him up! Listen to me, Ben! If you send the Paladin away, Rydall’s champion will disappear, too!”

  From somewhere in the back of his mind Ben heard the plea. But he was too far away to respond, trapped in the Paladin’s body, caught up in the terrible struggle with his twin, an adversary that seemed to know his every move, to anticipate his ever
y attempt at surprise, to counter his every strategy.

  Ben! he heard the voice call frantically. Ben, listen to me!

  The Paladin brushed aside the plea and renewed his attack. He thought he sensed a weakening in his enemy. He refused to accept that it reflected his own.

  In desperation, Willow released her grip on the unresponsive Ben and went down off the wall in a rush. Ben did not seem to be able to act; something was happening with him that she did not understand. Since he could not respond to the Paladin’s need, it was left to her to do so. She gained the courtyard below, snatched a spear from a weapons rack, crossed to where a knot of King’s Guards stood before the open gates watching the struggle taking place beyond the castle walls, vaulted onto the back of the closest warhorse, and, heedless of the cries that immediately sprang up around her, kicked the horse forward and went out through the gates.

  She thundered across the drawbridge and onto the grasslands beyond, heading for the combatants. Shouts of alarm trailed after her, but she was heedless of them. She knew what was needed. The Paladin and Rydall’s champion were locked in a battle of twins that was intended to destroy them both. The only thing that would save the Paladin was a disruption of the magic Rydall’s champion relied on. This time it was not the earth that sustained it, as had been the case with the giant, but the Paladin’s own strength and skill. Rydall’s champion was a form of succubus, a reflection in the mirror that fed off its original, imitating it, copying its every move, draining it of its life.

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