Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks


  Nightshade had seemed happy enough with her efforts until today. Today she announced, rather abruptly, that she desired Mistaya to create a third monster, this one less human and more powerful than the original two. For the first time since she had arrived, Mistaya questioned a command. What was the purpose of creating a third monster? What was the reason for this exercise, since she had performed it twice already? For just a moment she thought that Nightshade was going to be angry. There was a darkening of her strange eyes and a tightening of the tendons along her slender neck. Then she turned away momentarily, her face lost from view, and just as quickly turned back again.

  “Mistaya, listen to me,” she said. She was calm, poised, still. “I hoped to spare you this, but it seems I cannot. Your father is already under attack from Rydall and his wizard. Creatures are being sent against him, and he is being forced to use the magic of Questor Thews and the Paladin to survive. Thus far he has been successful. But Rydall’s wizard will summon ever greater forces. Eventually your father may not be able to defend himself. Then it will be up to you. The best defense against one monster is another. That is the purpose of this exercise.”

  Nightshade’s logic won out over Mistaya’s doubt. So the girl worked hard at her creation all that day. Sunset approached, and she was exhausted. Nightshade’s coaching had taken her far in the use of her magic, and some of what she did frightened her. Some of what she envisioned and brought to life was truly terrifying. But Nightshade was quick to sweep it all up, to gather it into the closet of first efforts, and to close it safely away. Mistaya was relieved. She did not want to see any of it again.

  Now she sat alone in front of a small cooking fire—the only light the Witch of the Deep Fell permitted after dark—rolling dough into bread to fry with vegetables. Parsnip had taught her how. She cooked mostly for herself since Nightshade ate less than Haltwhistle. In truth, Nightshade rarely lingered once the day’s lessons were complete, disappearing back into whatever place she occupied when she wanted to be alone. Sometimes she stayed close, just out of sight; Mistaya could feel her presence when she did that. The closer they became, the more aware the girl was of the witch. It was as if something in their shared use of magic brought them closer physically as well as emotionally, as if ties were being formed that allowed the girl to know more of what the other was about. She could not read Nightshade’s thoughts or know her mind, but she could sense her presence and movements. Mistaya wondered if it was the same for Nightshade, and knew somehow it was not.

  On this night the witch did not retire as usual, but came instead to sit with Mistaya before the fire. In silence she watched the girl work, watched her knead and roll the dough, form it into patties, wash and peel the vegetables, and place all of it in a pan with oil to cook. She continued to watch after Mistaya removed the meal from the fire and ate it. She sat as still as stone, looking over as if what she was observing were the most interesting thing she had ever seen. Mistaya let her sit. She knew that when Nightshade was ready to speak, she would do so. She knew as well that Nightshade had something to say.

  It wasn’t until the pan and dishes were washed and put away in the large wooden chest that sat out in the middle of the clearing as if it belonged there that the witch finally said, “I am pleased with you, Mistaya. I am encouraged by your progress.”

  The girl looked up. “Thank you.”

  “Today’s effort was especially good. What you created was quite wonderful. Are you as satisfied with it as I am?”

  “Yes,” Mistaya lied.

  Nightshade’s cold white face lifted to the haze as if searching for stars and then lowered again to the fire. “I will tell you the truth. I was not certain you were equal to the task I set for you. I was afraid that you might not be able to master the magic.”

  Her eyes shifted, fixing on the girl. “It was clear to me from the first that your magic was strong. It was clear that your potential for using it was virtually limitless. But possession of the magic is never enough. There are intangibles that limit the user’s success. Desire is one. Determination. Focus and a sense of purpose. Magic is like a great cat. You can harness and direct its energy, but you must never look away, and you must never let it see fear in your eyes.”

  “I am not afraid of the magic,” Mistaya declared firmly. “It belongs to me. It feels like an old friend.”

  Nightshade gave her a brief, small smile. “Yes, I can see that. You treat it as you might a friend. You are comfortable with it yet do not regard it lightly. Your sense of balance is very good.” She paused. “You remind me of myself when I was your age.”

  Mistaya blinked. “I do?”

  Nightshade looked through and past her into some distant place. “Very much so. It seems odd to contemplate now, but I was your age once. I was a girl discovering her latent talents. I was a novice in search of a life, in quest of my limits as a witch. I was younger than you when I first discovered I possessed magic. It was a long time ago.”

  She trailed off, still looking away into the darkness. Mistaya shifted closer. “Tell me about it,” she encouraged.

  Nightshade shrugged. “The past is gone.”

  “But I would like to hear. I want to know how you felt. It might help me understand myself. Please, tell me.”

  The strange red eyes shifted back into the present, fixing on the girl. They penetrated with such ferocity that for a moment Mistaya was frightened. Then the glare changed to something worn and faded.

  “I was born in the fairy mists,” the Witch of the Deep Fell began, her tall, spare form as still as moon shadows on a windless night. She brushed at her raven hair with her slender fingers. “Like you, I inherited the blood of more than one world. Like you, I inherited the gift. My mother was a sorceress come out of one of the worlds that border on Landover, a world where magic is feared. She was very powerful, and she could cross back and forth between worlds through the mists. She was not a fairy creature, but she could walk among them comfortably. One day, while she was crossing between worlds, she met my father. My father was a changeling, a creature who had no true form but adopted whatever form he chose to suit his needs. He saw my mother and fell in love with her. He made himself into something that attracted her. A wolf, all black hair and teeth. In the end he seduced her and made her his own.”

  Her voice was flat and devoid of emotion, but there was an edge to it that Mistaya did not miss. “He kept her with him for a time, then abandoned her and went on to other interests. He was a fickle and irresponsible creature, like all of the fairy folk, unable to comprehend the demands and responsibilities of love. I was born of that union, conceived in the madness of spring light when the second cycle rounds and the shards of winter spill into melting ice.”

  Her gaze went away again. Her words, though poetic and lyrical, were nevertheless incomprehensible to the girl.

  “My father took the shape of a wolf when he conceived me with my mother. My mother embraced him as a beast and was, I think, his equal in fury and passion.” She blinked once, dismissing some picture that formed in her mind. “I took from their coupling a part of each, beast and madwoman, fairy and human, magic of one world and magic of the other. I was born with eyes that could freeze you alive. I was born with the ability to transform myself into a beast. I was born with disdain for life and death.”

  She looked at Mistaya. “I was a child still, and I was soon alone. My father was gone before I came into the world. My mother gave birth to me, but then she was taken away.”

  She trailed off, the echo of her words lacing the silence with bitterness. Mistaya waited, knowing better than to speak.

  “The fairies condemned her for her efforts to become one of them. She had mated with a fairy and conceived a child, and that was not allowed. She was an outcast for this. She was sent from the mists and forbidden to return. She begged the fairies to reconsider. She wanted me to have the training and experience that only they could offer. She wanted me to have my father’s life as well as hers. She wan
ted everything for me. But she was turned away. She was sent back into her own world. It was a death sentence. She had been able for too long to travel the mists, to cross from one world to another, to fly where she chose. Confinement in one world was unbearable. She bore it as long as she could. Then she threw caution to the winds and tried crossing once more through the mists. She went in, and she never came out. She disappeared like smoke on the wind.”

  Nightshade’s gaze was gathering focus once more. The force of her words was palpable. “Do you see how alike we are? Like you, it was left for me to discover on my own who I was. Like you, the truth of my birthright was hidden from me. I was given over to other people to raise, a man and a woman who did not understand my needs, who did not recognize the magic growing within me. They kept me for as long as I would let them, and then I ran away. I had begun to sense my power, but I did not yet comprehend its uses. There were stirrings, but I could give them no voice. Like you, I grew in the fairy way, in spurts that eclipsed human measure. The man and the woman were frightened of me. If I had stayed, they might have killed me.”

  Like you, she was on the verge of saying, but did not. Nevertheless, Mistaya could hear the whisper of the words in the silence, and she was startled by them. She was not like Nightshade, of course. Not in that way, at least. She could see it quite plainly. Yet Nightshade felt an overwhelming need to believe that they shared more than they did. There was something happening here that the girl did not understand, and it made her uneasy and cautious.

  Nightshade’s eyes glittered in the firelight. “I escaped into a forest that bordered on the fairy mists, a shelter for those who were part of both worlds and accepted in neither. I found companions there, some of one species, some of another. We were not friends, but we had much in common. We were outlaws without reason; we were condemned for who we were. We taught each other what we knew and learned what we could. We explored our talents. We uncovered the secrets hidden within us. It was dangerous to do so, for we were unskilled, and some of our secrets could kill. More than a few of us died. Some went mad. I was fortunate to escape both fates and emerge the mistress of my talent. I came away a full-grown woman and a witch of great power. I found and mastered knowledge.”

  Wood from the fire crackled suddenly, sending sparks flying into the air. Mistaya started, but Nightshade did not move. She stayed frozen against the firelight, rigid with concentration.

  Her eyes fixed on Mistaya. “I was younger than you when I learned of my power. I was alone. I did not have another to guide me, as you have me. But we are alike, Mistaya. I was hard inside, and nothing could break me. I was stone. I would not be lied to. I would not be cheated or tricked. I understood what I wanted, and I set about finding ways to obtain it. I see all that in you. I see such determination. You will do whatever you set your mind to, and you will not be deterred. You will listen to reason but will not necessarily be dissuaded from a course of action because of it, not if what you covet is important to you.”

  Mistaya nodded not so much in agreement, for she was not at all sure she agreed with this assessment, as in encouragement. She wanted to hear more. She was fascinated.

  “After a time,” Nightshade said slowly, “I determined that I would go into the fairy mists. I had been banished, but that was before I had discovered the extent of my powers. Now, I felt, things were different. I belonged among the fairies. It was my right to travel between worlds as my mother had once done. I went to the edge of the mists and called. I did so for a very long time. No answer came. Finally, I simply entered the mists, determined that I would confront those who had banished me. They found me at once. They gave me no hearing. They refused me out of hand. I was cast out, unable to prevent it despite my magic.”

  Her mouth had grown tight and hard. “I did not give up. I went back again and again, unwilling to accede to their wishes, determined in the end that I would die first. Years passed. I lived several human lifetimes but did not age. I was impervious to time’s dictates. I was more fairy than human. I belonged in the mists. Still, I was not allowed to enter.

  “Then I found a rift that let me come into the mists unseen. I changed shape to disguise myself, to keep from being discovered. I entered the mist and hid among its lesser creatures. No one recognized me. I stayed first as one thing, then as another, always keeping carefully back from the light of discovery. I became accepted. I found I could pass freely among the fairies. I began to use magic as they did. I worked my spells and performed my conjuring, and I lived as they did. My deception had worked. I was one of them.”

  She smiled, cynical and bitter. “And then, like my mother, I fell in love.” Her voice was suddenly very small and brittle. “I found a creature so beautiful, so desirable, that I could not help myself. I had to have him. I was desperate to be his. I followed him, befriended him, companioned with him, and in the end gave myself to him completely. To achieve this, I was forced to reveal myself. When I did so, he spurned me instantly. He betrayed me. He exposed my presence. The fairies were not kind. I was banished out of hand. Because I fell in love. Because I used poor judgment.”

  One eyebrow arched in bitter reflection. “Like my mother.”

  She was almost crying, Mistaya realized suddenly. There were no tears, but the girl could feel the knife edge of the witch’s pain, sharp and close against her skin.

  “I was sent here,” Nightshade finished. “To the Deep Fell. Banished from the fairy mists, banished from my homeland. Banished to Landover to live out my life. I had used my magic and left my mark upon their world, and I wasn’t one of them. I had transgressed. So I was punished. I was placed at the gateway of all the worlds I could never enter. I was placed at the edge of the mists I could never pass through.” Her hands clasped, and her fingers tightened into knots. Her head shook slowly from side to side. “No, the fairies were not kind.”

  “It seems very unfair,” Mistaya offered quietly.

  Nightshade laughed. “The word has no meaning for the fairy people. They have no conception of it. There is only what is allowed and what isn’t. If you think about it, the whole idea of fairness is a fool’s fiction. Look at our world, here in Landover. Fairness is determined by those who wield the power to deny it. Invocation of its use is a beggar’s plea for help when all else fails. ‘Be fair with me!’ How pitiful and hopeless!”

  She spit out the words in disgust. Then she bent forward with sudden intent. “I learned something from what was done to me, Mistaya. I learned never to beg, never to expect kindness, never to rely on chance or good fortune. My magic sustains me. My power gives me strength. Rely on these and you will be protected.”

  “And do not fall in love,” Mistaya added solemnly.

  “No,” the witch agreed, and there was such fury in her face that she was momentarily unrecognizable, a beast of the sort into which she claimed she could transform herself. “No,” she repeated, the word bound in iron, and Mistaya knew she was thinking of someone in particular, of a time and place quite close, of an event that still burned inside her with a white-hot heat. “No, never again.”

  Mistaya sat motionless in the dwindling firelight and let Nightshade’s rage drain away, willing herself to be little more than another shadow in the dark, nonthreatening and inconsequential. Had she revealed herself to be anything else, it seemed that the witch’s rage might have swallowed her whole.

  Nightshade looked at her as if reading her mind, then gave her a disarming smile. “We are alike,” she said once more, as if needing to reassure herself. “You and I, Mistaya. The magic binds us, witches first and always, born with power that others can only covet and never possess. It is our blessing and curse to live apart. It is our fate.”

  Her hand lifted and filled the air with emerald light, a dust that spread against the darkness and fell away like glitter.

  Later, when she rolled herself into her blankets, Mistaya was still thinking of what Nightshade had revealed to her. So much misery, bitterness, and solitude in the other’s da
rk life. So much anger. Like me, the witch had repeated over and over again. You and I.

  Mistaya’s uncertainty grew as she pondered the words. Perhaps there was more truth to their claim than she was willing to allow. She had not thought so, but she was beginning to wonder. Since she was a witch, too, perhaps she belonged here with Nightshade.

  She was so troubled by the possibility that she only just remembered to call Haltwhistle before she fell asleep.

  Juggernaut

  Dawn brought a change in the weather in the lake country, and when Ben and Willow awoke, a slow, steady rain was falling. They dressed; ate a light breakfast of fruit, bread and jam, and goat’s milk; wrapped themselves in their travel cloaks; and went out to find the River Master. Elderew was misty and shadowed beneath a ceiling of dark clouds, and the city’s canopy of rain-drenched boughs shed chilly droplets on them as they moved along the deserted trail toward the city. They did not hurry. The River Master would have been advised by now that they were awake. He would come to meet them before they were required to ask for him, because that was the way he was.

 
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