Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks

  Bunion also advised them that a thorough search of the Anhalt and its banks by Kallendbor’s soldiers had revealed no trace of either their attacker or the Ardsheal.

  They summoned breakfast and ate it in their room, then had their belongings gathered and went down to the main hall. Kallendbor met them there, stern-faced and subdued from the previous night’s events. Ben advised him that they were leaving, and there was veiled relief in the other’s eyes. Ben had expected as much, since they were hardly friends under the best of circumstances. He offered his thanks for the other’s hospitality and made him promise anew that he would send word if he learned anything of Mistaya or Rydall. Kallendbor walked them to the palace doors, where their horses were already saddled and waiting. Ben smiled to himself. Kallendbor would never make a good poker player.

  They mounted and rode out the fortress gates and back through the town. They crossed the bridge over the Anhalt and headed southwest, retracing their steps in the direction of Sterling Silver. Willow gave Ben a questioning look, wondering anew at his plans, but he just cocked an eyebrow and said nothing. It was not until they were well beyond the castle and deep into the grasslands beyond that he swung Jurisdiction about and stopped.

  “I didn’t want Kallendbor to see where we were really going,” he offered by way of explanation.

  “Which is?”

  “East, to the Wastelands, to the one other creature who might know something of Mistaya.”

  “I see,” Willow replied quietly, way ahead of him by now.

  “He’ll talk to you. He likes you,”

  She nodded. “He might.”

  They worked their way back toward the Anhalt and followed it for the remainder of the day. By nightfall they had reached the beginning of the Wastelands. They camped there, taking shelter in a grove of ash on a hill that provided a good view in all directions of the surrounding countryside. They ate dinner cold. Bunion offered to stand watch for the entire night, but Ben would not hear of it. The kobold needed his rest as well, particularly if he was to be of any use when the next attack came—and there was no longer any pretense that it wouldn’t. Since they were all dependent on one another, they would share the responsibility, he insisted.

  There were no monsters this night, and Ben slept undisturbed. By morning he was feeling revitalized. Willow seemed rested, too. All three were anticipating what lay ahead. Even Bunion had figured it out. He went on ahead to scout while Ben and Willow followed at a more leisurely pace. They left the Greensward behind and entered the Wastelands. The day was cloudy and gray once again, but there did not appear to be any immediate threat of rain. Even without sunshine the air was hot and dry, the ground parched and cracked, and the country about them empty of life and as still as death.

  By midday they were deep into the Wastelands, and Bunion came back to report that the Fire Springs were directly ahead and that Strabo the dragon was at home.

  “If anyone knows of Rydall, it will be Strabo,” Ben said to Willow as they rode into the craggy hills surrounding the Springs. “Strabo can go anywhere he wishes, and he may have flown through the fairy mists into Marnhull at some point. It’s worth asking, in any case. As long as you’re the one who does the asking.”

  Strabo did not much care for Holiday, although they were somewhat closer now after their shared experience in the Tangle Box. But the dragon genuinely liked Willow. He was fond of declaring that dragons had always had a soft spot for beautiful maidens, even though from time to time he thought that he was mistaken in this and that it was eating them that dragons really enjoyed. Too vain to admit his confusion, he had allowed himself to be charmed by the sylph on several occasions. Still, each visit to the Fire Springs was a new and uncertain experience, and Strabo the dragon was nothing if not temperamental.

  When they were close enough to feel the heat of the pits, long after they had spied the smoke and inhaled the smell, they dismounted, tethered the horses, and proceeded on foot. It was a difficult walk over rugged, barren hills and across rock-strewn gullies. Bunion led the way as always, but he stayed close to them now. They had gone on for some minutes when they heard the crunching of bones. Bunion glanced over his shoulder and showed all his teeth in a humorless smile.

  The dragon was feeding.

  Then they crested a ridge, and there it was.

  Strabo lay coiled about the mouth of one of the Springs, his forty-foot bulk as black as ink, all studded with spines and spikes, his sinewy body gnarled and sleek by turns. He was lunching on the remains of what appeared to have been a cow, although it was hard to tell since the dragon had reduced the carcass to legs and part of one haunch. Wicked blackened teeth glimmered as it gnawed on a large bone, stripping it of a few last shreds of flesh. Yellow eyes hooded by strange reddish lids focused on the bone, but as the newcomers topped the rise and came into view, its massive horned head lifted and swung about.

  “Company?” it hissed none too pleasantly. The yellow eyes widened and blinked. “Oh, Holiday, it’s only you. How boring. What do you want?” The voice was low and guttural, marked by a sibilant hiss. “Wait, don’t tell me, let me guess. You want to know about this cow. You’ve come all the way from the comforts of your shiny little castle to reprimand me about this cow. Well, save your breath. The cow was a stray. It wandered into the Wastelands, and that made it mine. So no lectures, please.”

  It always surprised Ben that the dragon could talk. It went counter to everything life experience had taught him in his old world. But then, there were no dragons in his old world, either.

  “I don’t care about the cow,” Ben advised. He had made Strabo promise once upon a time that he would give up stealing livestock.

  The dragon’s maw split wide, and it laughed after a fashion. “No? Well, in that case I’ll confess that perhaps it wasn’t quite inside the boundaries of the Wasteland when I took it. There, I feel much better. The truth shall set you free.” The eyes narrowed again. “Well, well. Is that the pretty sylph with you, Holiday?” He never called Ben “High Lord.” “Have you brought her to me for a visit? No, you would never be that considerate. You must be here for some other reason. What is it?”

  Ben sighed. “We’ve come to ask—”

  “Wait, you’re interrupting my dinner.” The dragon’s nostrils steamed, and it gave a rough cough. “Politeness in all things. Please take a seat until I’ve finished. Then I’ll hear what you have to say. If you keep it brief.”

  Ben looked at Willow, and reluctantly they sat down on the knoll with Bunion and waited for Strabo to complete his dinner. The dragon took his time, crunching up every single bone and devouring every last shred of flesh until nothing remained but hooves and horns. He made a deliberate production out of it, smacking his lips and grunting his approval with every bite. It was an endless performance, and it produced the intended effect. Ben was so impatient by the time the dragon had finished that he could barely contain his temper.

  Strabo tossed away a stray hoof and looked up at them expectantly. “Now, then, let’s hear what you have to say.”

  Ben tried to refrain from gritting his teeth. “We have come to ask your help with something,” he began, and got no further.

  “Save your breath, Holiday,” the dragon interrupted with a curt wave of one foreleg. “I’ve already given you all the help you’re getting in this lifetime—more help, in point of fact, then you ever deserved.”

  “Hear me out at least,” Ben urged irritably.

  “Must I?” The dragon shifted as if trying to get comfortable. “Well, for the sake of the lovely young lady, I will.”

  Ben decided to cut to the chase. “Mistaya is missing. We think she has been taken prisoner by King Rydall of Marnhull. . At least he claims to have her. We are trying to get her back.”

  Strabo stared at him without speaking for a moment. “Am I supposed to know what you’re talking about? Mistaya? Rydall of Marnhull? Who are these people?”

  “Mistaya is our daughter,” Willow said quickly, i
nterceding before Ben lost his temper completely. “You helped Ben find us when I was carrying her out of the Deep Fell.”

  “Ah, yes, I remember.” The dragon beamed. “Good of me, wasn’t it? And you’ve named her Mistaya? Very pretty. I like the name. It sings with the promise of your own beauty.”

  Gag me with a spoon, Ben thought blackly, but kept his mouth shut.

  “She is a beautiful child,” Willow agreed, keeping the dragon’s attention focused on her. “I love her very much, and I am determined to see her safely home again.”

  “Of course you are,” Strabo affirmed indignantly. “Who is this King Rydall who’s taken her?”

  “We don’t know. We were hoping you could help.” Willow waited.

  Strabo shook his horn-crusted head slowly. “No. No, I don’t think so. I’ve never heard of him. Another in a long line of lesser Kings, I expect. There’s literally hundreds of them, all parading about, all posturing as if anyone of note could ever for a minute be impressed.” He gave Holiday a meaningful glance. “Anyway, whoever he is, I don’t know him. And he’s from some place called Marnhull? Really? Marnhull? Sounds like what’s left after you crack a nut open.”

  The dragon laughed uproariously, the laughter culminating in a choked gasp as he fell backward into one of the Fire Springs, sending ashes and shattered rock flying everywhere. He hauled himself upright with an effort. “Marnhull! Ridiculous!”

  “So you’ve never heard of either?” Ben pressed, unable to keep silent any longer.

  “Never.” Strabo snorted dirt and steam from his nostrils. “They don’t exist, either of them.”

  “Not outside Landover, beyond the fairy mists, perhaps?” Ben pressed, disbelieving. “Not even there?”

  The great black head swung sharply about. “Holiday, pay attention here. I have traveled all the lands that ever were and a few that weren’t. I have been to all those that surround the mists. I have been well beyond. I have been alive a long time, and travel has always agreed with me—especially when I find places where I am not welcome and can feed on the inhabitants.”

  The yellow eyes lidded. “So. If a land called Marnhull existed, I would have found it. If a King named Rydall existed, I would have heard of him. I haven’t. So they don’t.”

  “Well someone calling himself King Rydall exists, because he’s come to Sterling Silver twice now to threaten me, claims he’s taken Mistaya, and promises to send monsters to try to kill me!” Ben’s patience was at an end. “Mistaya’s disappeared, and I’ve been attacked three times already! Something’s happening, wouldn’t you say?”

  “I wouldn’t,” the dragon declared with studied disinterest, “since I don’t know what you are talking about. I have better things to do than to keep up on the local gossip. If you’ve been attacked, it’s news to me. Rather unimportant news, I might add.”

  Willow took Ben’s arm and gently pulled him back, then stepped forward to face the dragon. “Strabo, listen to me, please. I realize what we are telling you is of little personal interest. You are involved in much larger concerns than ours. And if you say you have never heard of Rydall or Marnhull, then it must be so. Everyone knows that dragons never lie.”

  This was the first time Ben had heard of that, but it appeared to please Strabo, who gave a courtly nod in response.

  “Now, I must ask you as someone who has been my friend,” Willow continued, “to consider helping me find my daughter. She has disappeared, and we have searched the whole of Landover for her without success. We have spoken with everyone we could think of in an effort to discover where she is. No one can help. You are our last hope. We thought that if anyone would know of Rydall or Marnhull, it would be you. Please, is there anything you could tell us, anything at all that might be of help? Is there anyone you know who might be Rydall? Or any place that might be Marnhull?”

  The dragon was silent for a long time. All about him the Fire Springs belched and coughed, spewing forth ashes and smoke. The grayness of the day deepened as the sun drifted west, and the clouds locked together in the skies overhead to form a solid covering. Below the clouds and smoke the landscape stretched away in numbing solitude, bleak and desolate.

  “I treasure my privacy,” Strabo said finally. “That’s why I live out here, you know.”

  “I know,” Willow acknowledged.

  The dragon sighed. “Very well. Tell me more of Rydall. Tell me whatever you either know or suspect.”

  Willow did so, leaving out nothing but the information about the medallion. When she was finished, Strabo thought some more.

  “Well, Holiday,” he advised softly, “it appears I must help you once again, even though it is against my better judgment. Such help as you receive, however, is due entirely to my considerable affection for the lovely sylph.”

  He cleared his throat. “Nothing passes through the fairy mists without my knowing. That is simply the way of things. Dragons have excellent hearing and eyesight, and nothing escapes their attention.” He paused, considering. “If they deem it worthy of their attention, that is.” He appeared to remember his earlier disclaimer of any knowledge about what had been taking place at Sterling Silver. “The point is, no one has come through the mists recently. But even if I were mistaken in this—and a lapse in my attention span could have occurred just as Rydall or whoever was passing through, I suppose—there would still be a discoverable trace of that passing. In short, I could find out anyway.”

  He gave them a broad smile and added, “If I were to choose to do so.” He cocked his ugly head at Willow. “I wonder, my Lady, if you would favor me with one of your exquisite songs. I do miss the sound of a maiden’s voice now and then.”

  It was his favorite thing in all the world, and although once it would have embarrassed him to ask, he seemed to have gotten over his discomfort. Willow had been expecting this. Her success in charming him before had been due in large part to her singing, so she did not hesitate now to do so again. There was an unspoken bargain being made, and the price the dragon was asking for his help was certainly small enough. Willow sang of meadows and wildflowers filled with dancing maidens and of a dragon who was lord over all. Ben had never heard the song and found it more than a little saccharine, but Strabo lay his horn-crusted head on the rim of one of the springs and got very dreamy-eyed.

  By the time she had finished he was almost reduced to the limpness of a noodle. Tears leaked from his lantern eyes.

  “When you return from your search,” she called over to him, reminding him of his end of the bargain, “I will sing one more song for you as a further reward.”

  Strabo’s head lifted slowly from its resting place, and his teeth showed in a pathetically futile attempt at a smile. “Je t’adore,” he advised softly.

  Without another word great wings spread from his serpent’s body and lifted him skyward, circling up and away until he was lost from view.

  They waited through the remainder of the day and all night for his return. Bunion went back for their blankets, and all three took turns standing watch, settled down on the windward side of the Fire Springs so they would not have to breathe the smoke and soot. Flames licked out of the craters, and molten rock belched forth at regular intervals, effectively disrupting attempts to sleep. The heat was intense at times, relieved only when a small breeze blew across them on its way to a better place. But they were safe enough, for nothing would dare to venture into the dragon’s lair.

  It was nearing dawn when Strabo returned. He came out of a sky in which Landover’s moons were already down and the stars were fading into a faintly brightening east, his bulk a massive dark shadow that might have been a chunk of sky unexpectedly broken away. He settled earthward as smoothly and delicately as a great butterfly, without sound, without effort, belying his monstrous bulk.

  “Lady,” he greeted Willow in his deep, raspy voice. There was weariness and regret in that single word. “I have flown the four borders of the land, from Fire Springs to Melchor, from Greensward to lak
e country, from one range of mountains and mists to the other. I have searched the whole of the boundaries that mark the passage from Landover to the fairy worlds. I have smelled all tracks, studied all markings, and hunted for the smallest sign. There is no trace of Rydall of Marnhull. There is no trace of your child.”

  “None?” Willow asked quietly, as if perhaps he might reconsider his answer.

  The dragon’s gnarled head swung away. “No one has passed through the mists in recent days. No one.” He yawned, showing row upon row of blackened, crooked teeth. “Now, if you will excuse me, I need to get some sleep. I am sorry, but I can do nothing more. I release you from your pledge to sing further. I regret to say I am too tired to listen. Good-bye to you. Good-bye, Holiday. Come again sometime, but not for a while, hmmm?”

  He crawled off through the rocks, snaked his way down between the simmering craters, curled up amid the debris, and promptly began to snore.

  Ben and Willow stared at each other. “I don’t understand it,” Ben said finally. “How can there be no sign at all?”

  Willow’s face was pale and drawn. “If Rydall did not come through the mists, where did he come from? Where is he now? What has he done with Mistaya?”

  Ben shook his head slowly. “I don’t know.” He reached down for his blanket and began to fold it up.

  “What I do know is that something about all this isn’t right, and one way or another I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”

  Taking Willow’s hand in his own and with Bunion leading the way, he turned disconsolately from the Fire Springs and the sleeping dragon and started back toward their horses.


  They rode out from the Fire Springs and back into the Wastelands, heading west. The sun crested the horizon behind them in a hazy white ball, obscured by mist and clouds and the thickness of heat on the summer air. Already it was hot and threatening to grow hotter. Clouds rolled in from the west, beginning to build on one another, promising rain before the day was done. Ahead, the land stretched away, stark and unchanging.

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