Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks

  Ben glanced about surreptitiously for the Ardsheal but did not see it. He could feel its presence, though. He could sense it watching from the gloom.

  The River Master appeared as they neared the city center, standing alone in a clearing through which the trail passed. He greeted Ben with a nod and Willow with a brief embrace, neither gesture offering much in the way of warmth, and advised them that their horses were waiting. He did not ask if they would like to stay longer. Now that he had given them the Ardsheal, he expected them to continue the search for Mistaya. He elicited their promise to keep him advised on their progress. Bunion appeared with Jurisdiction and Crane, his gnarled body hunched and dripping in the gloom, eyes narrowed to yellow slits. As Ben and Willow mounted, the River Master put aside his reserve long enough to declare that if he was needed in the effort to reclaim his granddaughter, they had only to send for him and he would come at once. It was an unexpected deviation from his deliberate distancing of himself from them. Ben and Willow were surprised but did not show it. They took him at his word and rode out.

  Wood sprites met them at the edge of the old growth leading down from Elderew to guide them back through the swamp and timber mass that warded the city. Rain continued to fall, a drizzle that turned the ground beneath their horses’ hooves sodden and slick. When their guides had returned them to the more lightly forested country below Elderew, they paused to rest before continuing on.

  “Have you seen it yet this morning?” Ben asked Willow as they passed an ale skin back and forth while standing down from their horses beneath the canopy of the trees.

  “No,” she replied. “But Bunion has. He said it is tracking us back in the shadows, keeping pace. Bunion doesn’t like having it along any better than I do.”

  Ben glanced over. Bunion was crouched to one side in a covering of trees, looking disgruntled. “He certainly appears unhappy, even for him.”

  “He considers himself your bodyguard. The presence of the Ardsheal suggests that he isn’t capable of doing his job.”

  Ben looked at her. “You don’t think the Ardsheal should be here, either, do you?”

  “As a matter of fact, that isn’t what I think at all. I think the Ardsheal will do a better job of protecting you than anyone.” She gave him a long, cool look. “That doesn’t mean I like having it along, though.”

  He nodded. “You said as much last night. Why is that?”

  She hesitated. “I will tell you later. Tonight.” She was silent for a moment. “I told Bunion that the Ardsheal was a gift from my father and that it would have been impolite and possibly dangerous to refuse it. Bunion accepted that.”

  Ben looked at the kobold again. It was staring back at him, yellow eyes glittering. When it saw Ben looking, it smiled like a hungry alligator.

  “Well, I hope you’re right,” he said absently. His gaze shifted to meet hers. “I’ve been thinking. Should we try to contact the Earth Mother? She always seems to know what is happening in Landover. Perhaps she could give us some insight into what’s become of Mistaya and the others. Perhaps she knows something of Rydall.”

  Rain dripped off the edge of Willow’s hood onto her nose, and she pulled the hood forward for better protection. “I gave thought to that. But the Earth Mother would have come to me by now in my dreams if she had any help to give. Mistaya is important to her, a promise of some special fulfillment. She would not let her be harmed if there was anything she could do to prevent it.”

  Ben prodded a bit of rotting wood with his boot. “I wish some of these people would be more consistent with their help,” he muttered sourly.

  She gave him a small smile. “Help is a gift that one must never grow to expect. Now, where do we go from here?”

  He shrugged and looked off into the trees again. He hated that he couldn’t see the Ardsheal. It was bad enough being shadowed by his enemies. Did he have to put up with being shadowed by his protector as well?

  He sighed. “Well, I can’t see any reason to go back to Sterling Silver. If we do, Rydall will just send another monster. And we won’t be any closer to finding Mistaya.” He frowned as if questioning his own reasoning. “I thought we might go into the Greensward. Kallendbor knows every adversary Landover has ever faced. He has fought against most of them. Perhaps he will know something of Rydall and Marnhull. Perhaps he will have heard something that will help us find Mistaya.”

  “Kallendbor isn’t to be trusted,” she advised him quietly.

  He nodded. “True. But he has no reason to favor an invading army. Besides, he owes me for sparing him worse punishment than I gave when he sided with the Gorse. And he knows it. I think it’s worth a try.”

  “Perhaps.” She did not look convinced. “But you should be especially careful where he is concerned.”

  “I will,” he assured her, wondering how much more careful he needed to be now that he had the Paladin, Bunion, and the Ardsheal all standing guard over him.

  They remounted and rode on. Bunion, advised of their new destination, scurried ahead through the trees, scouting the land they would pass through, leaving them to the temporary care of their invisible bodyguard. The Ardsheal, however, stayed hidden. The day stretched away with languid slowness, morning turning into midday, midday into afternoon. Still the rain continued. They moved northeast toward the Greensward, the trees thinning as the lake country gave way to the hills below Sterling Silver. They stopped for lunch at a stream, where they took shelter beneath an old cedar. Rain dripped off the sagging limbs, a steady patter on the muddied ground. The world around them was cool and damp and still. When the meal was finished, they rode on. They didn’t see another traveler all day.

  Nightfall brought them to the edge of the Greensward, where the grasslands spread away through the provinces of Landover’s lesser Lords to the Melchor. Sunset was an iron-gray glimmer in the west above the distant mountains, its light hammered tin reflecting off the advancing night. Ben and Willow made camp in a grove of cherry and Bonnie Blues on a rise that overlooked the plains. Bunion returned to share dinner, a cold meal prepared without the benefit of a fire, and then he was gone again. The Ardsheal did not appear at all.

  When night had fallen and they were alone in its deep silence, the rains having abated to a damp mist that floated across the grasslands like ghost robes, Ben put his arms around Willow, pulled her back against him so that they were both staring out at the gloom, and said, “Tell me about the Ardsheal.”

  She did not say anything at first, resting rigid and unmoving against him as his arms cradled her. He could feel her breathing, the rise and fall of her breast, the small whisper of air from her lips. He waited patiently, looking past the veil of her hair to the thickening roil of mist beyond.

  “There have always been Ardsheals,” she said finally. “They were created to protect the once-fairy after they left the mists and came into the world of humans. The Ardsheals were an old magic, one born of earth lore, and because they were elementals, they could be summoned from anywhere. The once-fairy used them only rarely, for they were destroyers, cast of harsh purpose and desperate need. When the threat was so great that the once-fairy feared there would be loss of life among their people, the Ardsheals were called in. A few were usually all it took. In years long past, before the old King, when Landover was newly conceived and birthing yet its lands and peoples, there were wars between humans and once-fairy. Humans occupied Landover first; the once-fairy came after and were regarded as invaders. In the battles fought, Ardsheals were summoned to do battle against creatures conjured by wizards who served the humans.”

  She stopped, gathering her thoughts. “That was a long time ago. Since then, Ardsheals have been used only rarely. The last time was not long ago. It happened when one of Abbadon’s demons penetrated the wards of Elderew disguised as a once-fairy. It was a sorcerous being, a changeling who sought entry for its fellows through the heart of the lake country. The magic harbored there, it reasoned, would then belong to them. So it disguised itself a
nd came into the city, and it tried to kill my father.”

  “Because he was the River Master?” Ben asked softly.

  “Yes, because of that. Because he was the leader of his people.” Willow’s words were almost inaudible. “The demon tried and failed. But in its attempt to kill my father, it destroyed a handful of others, including several children. The demon escaped. There was terrible panic among the once-fairy. And rage. My father and the elders summoned five of the Ardsheals and sent them in search of the demon. The Ardsheals tracked the creature from house to house, caught it at last in one of its many disguises, and killed it.”

  She took a deep breath. “It was my house it was hiding in when they found it. It had disguised itself as one of my sisters. It was very clever. It had worked its way back to the one place it thought it might be safe: the River Master’s own house. But the Ardsheals were relentless. They could track by touch, smell, taste, the smallest sound, even by a change of heat caused by the casting of a shadow. Nevertheless, they were not infallible. Not this day. They had been conjured quickly and imperfectly. Haste led to carelessness. The demon took several shapes before he took the one in which they caught him. The one he took before that was of my sister Kaijelln. The Ardsheals were closing on it by then, and when they came into our house, bursting through the entry, tearing apart the doors as if they were cloth, they thought the demon was Kaijelln still.

  “And so,” she whispered, her voice shaking now, “they killed her without taking time to discover the truth. They acted on instinct. They killed her right in front of me.”

  Ben swallowed against the dryness in his throat. “Your father couldn’t stop them?”

  Willow shook her head. “They were too quick. Too powerful. An Ardsheal, when it attacks, is unstoppable. It was so that day with Kaijelln. She was gone in the blink of an eye.”

  They were silent for a long time then, Ben holding the sylph tight against him, neither of them moving, eyes staring out into the darkness. Somewhere a night bird called, and another responded. Water dripped from leaves in the stillness.

  “We should have left it behind,” Ben said finally. “We should have refused it.”

  “No!” Willow’s voice was hard and certain this time. “Nothing can stand against an Ardsheal. Nothing! You need it to protect you against whatever else Rydall chooses to send. Besides, my father will have taken great pains to make certain that this one does what it is supposed to do and nothing more.”

  She twisted suddenly in his arms and looked directly at him. “Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter that I am afraid of it. It only matters that it will keep you alive.” She leaned forward until her face was only inches away. “I love you that much, Ben Holiday.”

  Then she kissed him and went on kissing him until he forgot about everything else.

  At dawn they rode out once more. The day was gray and misty, but the rains had moved on. Bunion had come back during the night and this time traveled with them as they moved out onto the open grasslands, the kobold skittering ahead eagerly to lead the way. The Ardsheal appeared as well, emerging from the forest to take up a position some twenty yards to their rear. It stayed there as they journeyed, attached to them like a shadow. They watched it for a while, glancing back over their shoulders, marveling at the easy, fluid motion of its stride. It wore nothing, and its body was virtually featureless—arms, legs, feet, hands, torso, and head smooth and slick with the damp, skin stretched seamless and taut, eyes black holes boring straight ahead into the gloom. It did not acknowledge them as it traveled; it never spoke. It stopped when they did, waited patiently for them to begin moving again, then resumed its steady pace.

  By midmorning they quit looking for it. By midday they stopped thinking about it completely.

  The grasslands were carpeted thickly with mist, and the towns and farms of the people of the Greensward and the castle fortresses of the Lords materialized with ghostly abruptness before them. They skirted all, intent on reaching Rhyndweir and Kallendbor by nightfall. They bought hot soup from a vendor at a market on the edge of a small town and sipped it from tin cups while they rode. Bunion finished his in the blink of an eye and was off. The Ardsheal stayed back in the gloom and ate nothing.

  Ben and Willow traveled in silence, riding side by side, content to be company for each other, not needing to speak. Ben spent much of the day thinking on the tale of the Ardsheal and Kaijelln. He found himself comparing the Ardsheal to the Paladin, both destroyers, both perfect fighting machines, both in his service and therefore his responsibility for whatever damage they might do. The comparison bothered him more than he could say. It made him ponder anew what his transformation into the Paladin was doing to his psyche. Would he someday reach the point where the difference between them was no longer discernible? Would he then become like the Ardsheal, a passionless, remorseless killing machine, a creature without a conscience, serving only its master? He found himself thinking about how he had felt when, as the Paladin, he had been trapped within the Tangle Box, how he had lacked identity beyond his role as King’s champion, how he had been lost to everything but his skills as a warrior. The thoughts spun and twisted together with insidious intent, making him question anew his strength of purpose in the battle with Rydall’s monsters. He struggled with his thoughts but kept the struggle carefully to himself.

  By late afternoon they had come in sight of Rhyndweir. The castle of Kallendbor rose on a bluff at the juncture of the Anhalt and Piercenal rivers, walls, parapets, and towers lifting darkly above the grasslands. A town lay below the castle gates, bustling and crowded, filled with buyers and sellers of goods: tradesmen, farmers, trappers, and craftsmen of all sorts. Rain had begun falling again, a gray drizzle that mingled with the mist and shrouded buildings and people alike, turning them to dark, uncertain images in the gloom.

  Ben and Willow had come with no fanfare, no escort, and no advance notice. There was no one expecting them and no one to guide them to the palace. But this fit with Ben’s intent. He wanted to surprise Kallendbor, to catch Rhyndweir’s Lord unprepared so that he would be forced to improvise a response to Ben’s coming. There was a better chance of enlisting his cooperation if he was not given time to weigh the gain and loss.

  Ben slowed when they reached the Anhalt and the bridge that spanned it to the castle. He called Bunion back to him, then turned to the Ardsheal and beckoned it close. To his surprise, it did as it was asked. It came to stand directly next to him, face flat and expressionless, eyes staring straight ahead. Ben arched his eyebrow at Willow, told them all to stay close, and nudged Jurisdiction forward.

  They crossed the bridge and entered the town, riding through the people and rain as the afternoon light faded toward murky dark. People were hurrying home now, so few paid much attention to the riders and their footmen. Those who did looked quickly away. An Ardsheal and a kobold were not something they wished to ask questions about.

  The little company reached the castle gates and was quickly halted by the guards. There were wide eyes and protestations of all sorts, but Ben simply ordered the nearest functionary to guide them to the palace. Word would be sent ahead in any event, and he did not care to wait for its arrival. One commander, braver than his companions, questioned the presence of the Ardsheal and was silenced by Ben’s curt reply. The Ardsheal was the High Lord’s personal guard. Where the High Lord went—or his Queen—so went the Ardsheal. The commander gave ground, and they were allowed to enter.

  They rode through gateways and cobblestone passages, up several levels of defenses, and past quarters for the soldiers who served Kallendbor to the grassy flats on which the palace sat. Their guide tried to slow the pace to give time for word to reach his Lord and for his Lord to prepare, but Ben pushed Jurisdiction ahead and almost rode the lagging functionary down. In minutes they were before the palace entrance and dismounting.

  To his credit, Kallendbor came out immediately to greet them. He was alone save for the doorman who stood waiting nervously at the entran
ce; apparently there had been no time to summon retainers. The Lord of Rhyndweir was a tall, rawboned man with fiery red hair and a temper to match. Battle scars crisscrossed his hands and forearms and marred an otherwise handsome face. He wore a broadsword strapped to his waist as if it were a natural part of his dress. He was flushed as he approached and his eyes were angry, but he gave his guests a deep, respectful bow.

  “Had I known you were coming, High Lord, I would have prepared a better welcome,” he added, almost hiding his petulance. He took in Bunion with a glance and then for the first time saw the Ardsheal. “What is the meaning of this?” he snapped, and now his anger was obvious. “Why do you bring this creature here?”

  Ben glanced at the Ardsheal as if he had forgotten it was there. “It was a gift from the River Master. It serves as my protector. Shall we go inside where it’s dry and talk it over?”

  Kallendbor hesitated and looked as if he might object, then apparently thought better of it. He led them out of the rain into the front hall and then down a long corridor to a sitting room dominated by a vast stone fireplace that rose from floor to ceiling. The blaze from the logs burning in the hearth threw heat and light from wall to wall and made their shadows dance as they crossed to chairs to sit before it. Bunion had remained to see to the horses. The Ardsheal stopped by the door and merged with the shadows that crowded forward from the hall.

  Kallendbor seated himself across from Ben and Willow. His anger had not abated. “Ardsheals have been the enemy of the people of the Greensward for centuries, High Lord. They are not welcome here. Surely you must know that.”

  “Times change.” Ben looked at the empty glasses set next to the decanter of amber liquid on the table between them and waited for Kallendbor to fill two and pass them to himself and Willow. The Lord of Rhyndweir’s lips were set in a tight line, and his great hands were knotted into fists.

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