Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks

  Ben shook his head. “With Rydall? Why would she do that?”

  Willow’s smile was hard and bitter. “She hates you. That’s reason enough.”

  Ben stared off into the empty hills, into the glare of the sun, looking at nothing. Willow finished cleaning off his face and kissed him lightly. “She hates all of us.”

  Ben nodded. He was thinking suddenly of something else. “Willow,” he said, “I remember now where I’ve seen Rydall’s monsters—all three of them.”

  The sylph stepped back from him. “Where?”

  He looked back at her, and there was wonder in his eyes. “In a book.”


  Mistaya woke early that same morning and found herself alone for the first time since she had arrived in the Deep Fell. Her reaction was disbelief; Nightshade never left her alone. She rose in the gray, misted dawn and looked about expectantly, waiting for the mistress of the hollow to present herself. When she failed to appear, Mistaya called for her. When she still didn’t show, the girl walked all about the edges of the clearing, searching. There was no sign of Nightshade.

  Unexpectedly, Mistaya found herself relieved.

  There had been considerable changes of late, and chief among them was her relationship with the witch. In the beginning Nightshade had been a willing, enthusiastic teacher, a companion in the magic arts, anxious to share her knowledge, a secret friend who could instruct Mistaya in the uses of her mysterious, intriguing power. Mistaya was there to discover the truth about her birthright, Nightshade had said. She was there to find ways to help her father in his struggle against Rydall of Marnhull. There was good to be achieved from the skills they would uncover. But somehow all that had gotten lost along the way. There was no longer any mention of Rydall or of her birthright. There was barely any mention of the world outside the hollow. All that seemed to matter now was how swift and compliant Mistaya could be in carrying out the witch’s instructions. Patience, once so much in evidence, had dropped by the wayside. Diversity and exploration had been abandoned entirely. For days now all they had done was use the magic for a single purpose: to create monsters. Or if they weren’t actually creating monsters, they were talking about it. In the process the student-teacher relationship had suffered drastically. Instead of continuing to grow closer to each other, it seemed to Mistaya that they were now growing farther apart. Praise and encouragement had been replaced with criticism and disgust. Accusations flew. Mistaya wasn’t trying hard enough. She wasn’t concentrating. She wasn’t thinking. She seemed to have reached a point where she couldn’t do anything right.

  When Mistaya had devised the robot, another of the creatures she had seen in her father’s old book, Nightshade had pronounced it wonderful. Then, barely two days later, she had dismissed it as a failure. It wasn’t good enough; she wanted something better. Mistaya tried to think of a new monster, but under the intense pressure of the witch’s demands and her own growing disinterest in the project, she had been unable to come up with anything. In exasperation, Nightshade had devised a creature of her own—a wurm, she called it—which together they had changed from a harmless crawler to a dangerous predator. This time Mistaya had balked openly, saying that she was tired of monsters, weary of this particular use of the magic, and anxious to try something new. Nightshade had dismissed her complaint with a scathing look and a reminder of the girl’s promise to do as she was told in exchange for the privilege of being taught. Mistaya was tempted to remark that the exchange had grown decidedly one-sided, but she held her tongue.

  In truth, she didn’t understand what was happening. Their differences notwithstanding, she still looked upon Nightshade as her friend. There was a closeness between them that transcended even her present dissatisfaction, but she was discovering that it was grounded in the reality of shared powers and bordered more and more on an increasingly intense form of competition, as if somehow both of them knew that rather than be friends, they were fated to be rivals. Each day there was more tugging and pulling against than with each other, and the breach between them continued to widen inexorably. Mistaya did not want this to happen, but she found herself powerless to prevent it. Nightshade would not listen to her; she would not make any effort to compromise or conciliate. She wanted Mistaya to do as she was told, to not ask questions, and to repress any and all objections. More and more Mistaya found she could not do that.

  So this morning she was alone, and she breathed the air as if it were new and fresh. Wary about her unexpected freedom, she cast a simple spell to be certain that Nightshade was not attempting some sort of deception. But no trace of the witch revealed itself, so she called for Haltwhistle. The mud puppy appeared immediately, materializing out of the gloom, eyes soulful, ears cocked slightly, tail wagging.

  “Good old Haltwhistle,” she greeted him with a smile. “Good morning to you.”

  Haltwhistle sat back on his haunches and thumped the ground with his tail.

  “Shall we do something, you and I?” she asked her four-legged friend. “Just the two of us?”

  She looked around the clearing as if expecting the answer to present itself. The familiar misty haze cloaked everything. Trees and brush were shrouded in gloom, the sky was invisible, and the world was a cocoon of silence. She was tired of being confined in so small a space; she wanted to see farther than the edge of the mist. She remembered the world without, and she wanted to look upon it again—on sunlight, green grass, blue skies, lakes, forests, mountains, and living things. She had been thinking about her parents lately, something she hadn’t done for a while. She was wondering why they hadn’t come to see her or written her or sent word of some sort asking how she was. And what about her friends at Sterling Silver? Why hadn’t she at least heard from Questor Thews? They were best friends. What had happened to everybody?

  She had not asked this of Nightshade. She knew what the witch would say. They were being careful because Rydall was searching for her. They were making sure she stayed safe. But the answer didn’t satisfy her the way it should have. It seemed inadequate somehow. There should have been a way for her parents and friends to contact her, even here. Like it or not, Mistaya was becoming homesick.

  “Well,” she declared impulsively. “Enough standing about. Let’s go for a walk.”

  She started out resolutely and without further consideration of her decision. She was about to take a big chance, and she knew it. She intended to walk out to where she could see for more than fifty feet at a time, where there was light and warmth, where there were living things. She intended to go outside the Deep Fell, and that meant breaking Nightshade’s rules.

  Oddly enough, she didn’t much care.

  She conjured up a stalk of Bonnie Blue to chew on, anxious for something she hadn’t seen for a while. Travel was easy. Once she would not have been able to find her way out of the Deep Fell. Now she employed her magic with barely a thought and was at the base of the slope leading up to the rim in no time at all. She found a pathway and climbed toward the light. Haltwhistle plodded steadfastly along behind her.

  Moments later she emerged from the murky haze into a day filled with sunshine and summer smells. She smiled as the light fell across her face and arms. She blinked away its brightness as she looked first left into forested hills with their deep green shadows and then right across a valley of blue and yellow wildflowers. Purple-shadowed mountains rose on the distant horizon, clouds scraping across their peaks. Birds flew in the trees close by, and a woodland rabbit darted away through the long grasses of the valley.

  “Well, which way shall we go?” she asked Haltwhistle with a bright, determined smile.

  Since the mud puppy didn’t seem to have a preference, Mistaya made the choice for them. They struck out east into the trees, winding their way through glens and clearings, seeking out small streams and quiet ponds, watching for forest creatures, and smelling out nuts and berries. Mistaya meandered without concern for where she was going, knowing her magic would allow her to find her wa
y back again when she was ready. She gave Rydall a passing thought, then dismissed him. Her wards were up, the magic lines that kept her alert to anyone who might approach so that she would be warned well in advance of discovery. She did not think Rydall would find her out here in any event. She did not think anyone would.

  She was surprised when, in the middle of skipping stones across a small pond, she sensed somebody just a short distance off. She stopped what she was doing and stood perfectly still, using her magic to send out feelers. Nightshade had taught her a lot. She found the other without difficulty. One man, all alone. She sensed no danger from him. She debated what to do, then decided it might be fun to speak with someone. After all, she hadn’t talked with anyone besides the witch in weeks. She would have a look at him, and if he seemed safe, she would show herself.

  With Haltwhistle in tow, she slipped through the trees, treading soundlessly, cloaking herself in her magic. She found her quarry sitting cross-legged in a clearing before a tiny fire, chewing on the remains of some small animal he had cooked. He was an odd-looking fellow, small-limbed, round-bodied, and hairy all over. He had whiskers that stuck out from his face like the bristles of a brush and tiny pointed ears that were ragged at the ends. His clothes were badly sewn, ill fitting, and frayed from wear. He wore a gold ring in one ear with a dilapidated feather hanging off it. He was encrusted in dirt and grime from his bare feet to his bare head.

  She searched her memory in an effort to identify what sort of creature he was and decided finally that he was a G’home Gnome.

  Safe enough to talk to, she believed, and she strolled bravely out into the clearing.

  “Good morning,” she greeted him.

  The fellow at the fire started so that he dropped the bone he was gnawing into the dirt. “Jumping junipers, don’t do that!” he exclaimed irritably. “Give a person some warning, will you? Where did you come from, anyway?” He reached down hurriedly to pick up the bone, wiping it off with his fingers.

  “Sorry,” she apologized. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

  “Didn’t scare me! Didn’t scare me one bit! No sir!” He was instantly defensive. “Startled me was all. Thought I was alone out here. Had every reason to feel that way, too. No one comes to these woods, you know. Say, who are you, anyway?”

  She hesitated. “Misty,” she said, no fonder of the name now than before but opting for caution over pride. “What’s yours?”

  “Poggwydd. That your pet, cute little fellow behind you?” His eyes were suddenly sharp. “What is he?”

  She came all the way over and stood looking down at him. Haltwhistle followed. “What are you eating?” she asked in return.

  “Eating? Oh, uh, a rabbit, yes, a rabbit. Caught it myself.”

  “It has a rather long tail for a rabbit, doesn’t it?” She indicated the leavings of his meal piled next to him in a bedraggled heap.

  Poggwydd frowned petulantly. “Well, I forget. Maybe it’s not a rabbit. Maybe it’s something else. What difference does it make?”

  “It looks like a cat.”

  “It might be. So what?”

  Mistaya shrugged and sat down across from him. “I just didn’t want you to get any ideas about Haltwhistle, that’s all.” She indicated the mud puppy, who was sniffing at the ground. “You’re a G’home Gnome, aren’t you?”

  “Proud to be so,” he announced with uncharacteristic boldness for one of Landover’s most despised peoples.

  “Well, everyone knows G’home Gnomes eat pets.”

  Poggwydd threw down his bone in disgust. “That’s a lie! An outright lie! G’home Gnomes eat creatures of nature and the wild, not those of house and hearth! Now and then a stray gets eaten, but that’s its own fault! See here, little girl, we must have an understanding if we’re to continue this conversation. I will not be maligned. I will not be reviled. I will not sit here and defend myself. I was here first, so if you feel compelled to impugn the integrity and character of G’home Gnomes, you must leave now!”

  Mistaya wrinkled her brow. “You seem awfully grouchy.”

  “You’d be grouchy, too, if you had to spend your whole life bearing up under the abuse of others. G’home Gnomes have been wrongfully accused since the dawn of time for crimes of which they were not guilty. They have been scorned and ridiculed with never a thought given to the harm that was done. Innocent little girls like you should know better than to follow in the ways of your ignorant, prejudiced elders. Not everything you hear is true, you know.”

  “All right,” Mistaya acknowledged. “I’m sorry for being suspicious. But there are lots of stories about you.”

  Poggwydd screwed up his whiskered face in distaste. “Humph! Stories, indeed!” He glanced again at Haltwhistle. “So what is he, anyway?”

  “A mud puppy.”

  “Never heard of it,” Poggwydd held out one grimy hand. “Come over here, Haltwhistle. Come here, boy. Let old Poggwydd give you a pet.”

  “You do not pet mud puppies,” Mistaya declared quickly. “You never touch them.”

  Poggwydd looked at her suspiciously. “Why not?”

  “You just don’t. It’s dangerous.”

  “Dangerous?” Poggwydd looked back at the mud puppy. “He doesn’t look dangerous. He looks rather silly.”

  “Well, you mustn’t touch him.”

  “Suit yourself.” The G’home Gnome shrugged. He looked down at the bones gathered in his lap. “Want something to eat?”

  Mistaya shook her head. “No, thank you. What are you doing out here?”

  Poggwydd ate a sliver of meat off a bone. His teeth looked sharp. “Traveling.” He shrugged. “Enjoying my own company for a while, getting away from the noise and bustle of home, escaping from this and that.”

  “Are you in trouble?”

  “No, I’m not in trouble!” He gave her a peevish look. “Do I look like I’m in trouble? Do I? Say, what about you? Little girl wandering around out here in the middle of nowhere. Are you in trouble?”

  She thought about it a moment. She was in trouble, she supposed. Not that she was going to tell him. “No,” she lied.

  “No, huh? What are you doing out here, then, all by yourself? Taking a long walk, maybe? Are you lost?”

  Her jaw tightened defensively. “I’m not lost. I’m visiting.”

  “Hah!” Poggwydd made a face. “Visiting who? The witch, maybe? That’s who you’re visiting?” The look on her face brought him up short. “Now, now, I was only teasing; no need to be frightened,” he reassured her hastily, misreading the look. “But she’s right over there, you know. Just a mile or so off in the Deep Fell. You don’t want to be wandering about down there. Just remember that.” He cleared his throat and tossed away the last of the bones. “So who are you visiting way out here?”

  She smiled coyly. “You.”

  “Me? Ho, ho! That’s a good one! Visiting me, are you?” He rocked with laughter. “You must lack much in the way of choices, then. Visiting me! As if that were something a little girl would do!”

  “Well, I am.”

  “Am what?”

  “Visiting you. Sitting here having this conversation is visiting, isn’t it?”

  He gave her a sharp look. “You are too smart by half, little girl. Misty, is it? You tell me now, if we’re really friends—who are you?”

  She tried her best to look confused. “I already told you that.”

  “So you did. Misty, out for a walk in the middle of nowhere. Come to visit a new friend she didn’t know she had until just now.” Poggwydd shook his whiskered face at her. “Well, you look like trouble to me, so I don’t think I want to talk with you anymore. I don’t need any more trouble in my life. G’home Gnomes have enough as it is. Good-bye.”

  He rose and brushed himself off, sending dust and crumbs flying. She stared at him in disbelief. He really meant it. She scrambled up with him.

  “I don’t see what difference it makes who I am,” she declared angrily. “Why can’t we just talk?”
  He shrugged. “Because I don’t like little girls who play games, and you’re playing one with me, aren’t you? You know who I am, but I don’t know who you are. I don’t like that. It isn’t fair.”

  “Isn’t fair?” she exclaimed.

  “Not a bit.”

  She watched him begin to gather up his few belongings. “But I don’t really know who you are, either,” she pointed out quickly. “I don’t know any more about you than you know about me. Except your name. And you know mine, so we’re even.”

  He stopped what he was doing and looked at her. “Well, now, I suppose that’s right. Yes, I suppose it is.”

  He put down his pack with a small clatter of implements and sat down again. Mistaya sat with him.

  “I’ll make you a deal,” he said, holding up a single grimy finger for emphasis. “You tell me something about you, and I’ll tell you something about me. How about that?”

  She held out her finger and touched it to his, binding the agreement. “You first.”

  Poggwydd frowned, shrugged, and rocked back. “Humph. Let me see.” He looked marginally thoughtful. “Very well. I’ll tell you what I’m doing out here. I’m a treasure hunter for the King, for the High Lord himself.” He gave her a conspiratorial look. “I’m on a special mission, looking for a very valuable chest of gold that’s hidden somewhere in these woods.”

  She arched one eyebrow. “You are not.”

  “I am so!” He was immediately indignant. “How would you know, anyway?”

  “Because I just do.” She was grinning in spite of herself. Poggwydd made her laugh almost as much as Abernathy did.

  “Well, you don’t know anything!” He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “I have been a treasure hunter for the King for years! I have found a good many valuable things in my travels, I can tell you! I know more about treasure hunting than anyone, and the High Lord appreciates that. That’s why he employs me.”

  “I bet he doesn’t even know you,” she persisted, enjoying the game. It was the most fun she’d had in some time. “I bet he has never seen you before in his entire life.”

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