Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks


  “I have never doubted that,” he replied softly. “I would have been finished long ago if I did.”

  She stroked his forehead gently, kissing him once more. Gradually he felt himself relax and begin to drift. “Go to sleep,” she whispered.

  He nodded, his breathing growing slower and deeper. Some of the pain eased. Some of the ache lessened. The memories of his battle as the Paladin lost their hard edge, giving way to the softness of Willow’s touch. Sleep would renew his strength, and with morning he would be able to go on. All that would remain was the inescapable knowledge that he must go through this again with each new transformation. And even that could be accepted, he supposed. Even that.

  He stilled himself, pushed back the fear and despair. Find Mistaya, he thought. Find her safe and well, and it would all be worth it. Bring back Questor Thews and Abernathy. Put an end to Rydall of Marnhull and his insidious games.

  In the inky night’s stillness the words were a whisper of hope.

  Seek out Nightshade in the Deep Fell. Look there for the truth.

  Then he was asleep.

  Dog Dreams

  When Abernathy woke the next morning, having slept particularly well considering the trauma of yesterday’s events, Questor Thews was sitting in a chair across from his bed, staring at him like Death’s coming. It was very disconcerting. Abernathy blinked, reached for his glasses, and gave the wizard a long, slow deliberate look.

  “Is something the matter?” he asked.

  The wizard nodded, then shook his head, unable to decide. “We have to talk, old friend,” he announced wearily.

  Abernathy almost laughed at the solemnity of the declaration. Then he saw the look in the other’s empty eyes and felt something cold settle into the pit of his stomach. Questor Thews was deeply troubled.

  “Well,” he said in reply, and went still again, as if that one word had addressed the matter and disposed of it without the need for further conversation.

  He rose to a sitting position, taking a moment in spite of himself to admire the smooth line of his arms and legs, pausing then to give critical consideration to the look of his fingers and toes. His fingers were long and slim, but his toes were all scrunched up like those gummy things he had recently acquired a taste for. Elizabeth kept a bag of them down in the kitchen and was forever offering him one. He didn’t care for the idea that they reminded him of his toes.

  He cleared his throat. “What would you like to talk about?” he asked, hoping it was something other than Poggwydd.

  Questor Thews bestirred himself sufficiently to rise from the chair and pace to the window, a tall, bent scarecrow with the stuffing coming out at the seams. He parted the curtain and looked out, squinting against the light. The day was sunny and warm, the sky cloudless, the world coming awake. “Let’s go down to the yard and sit in the shade of those trees,” he suggested, sounding cheerful in a forced sort of way.

  Abernathy sighed. “Let’s.”

  He showered, shaved, and dressed, and in the middle of doing so it occurred to him that what Questor Thews wanted to talk about was the book. Theories of Magic and Its Uses. Abernathy had forgotten about the book, all caught up in Poggwydd’s unexpected appearance at Graum Wythe and resultant capture, the G’home Gnome another outcast from Landover, trapped now as he was, the difference being, of course, that Poggwydd really didn’t want anything at all to do with this world, while Abernathy was growing steadily more comfortable with his exile.

  Which meant, he concluded, that the book had revealed something to Questor about leaving. That was why the wizard was still awake: he had found the answer he was looking for and was trying to decide how to tell Abernathy, who he knew wasn’t as keen to be getting back. Although, he argued to himself, he really was, because he understood as well as Questor that the High Lord needed them, Mistaya was in the hands of Nightshade, and something awful was going to happen if they didn’t get back in time to prevent it.

  But what? What was going to happen? He wished he knew. A little certainty in the matter certainly wouldn’t hurt.

  He finished pulling on his shoes and went out of the bathroom to stand before Questor. The wizard faced him, seemed startled by what he saw, and quickly turned away.

  “Well, thank you very much, I’m sure!” Abernathy snapped. “Are my pants on backward? Are my shoes the wrong color?”

  “No, no.” The other put a hand to his forehead, pained. “In fact, you look quite sartorial.” The wizard waved vaguely at the air. “I’m sorry to be so rude. But I’ve been up all night reading, and I didn’t particularly care for the end of the story.”

  Abernathy nodded, having no idea at all what he was nodding about. “Why don’t we go on down and get started with this talk,” he pressed, anxious to get it over with. “We can see if Elizabeth is awake and ask her to join us.”

  But Questor quickly shook his head. “No, I’d rather this discussion was just between you and me.” He looked down, then bit at his lower lip. “Indulge me, please.”

  Abernathy did. They went out the door of the bedroom, along the short hallway, and down the stairs. As they passed Elizabeth’s closed door, they heard her singing inside. At least someone was feeling cheerful. They walked from the living room into the kitchen and came face to face with Mrs. Ambaum. She was standing in front of the stove making tea, bluff, hardy, watchful, and decidedly triumphant as she turned to face them.

  “I spoke with Elizabeth’s father last night. He doesn’t recall having an Uncle Abernathy. Doesn’t recall anyone by that name. What do you have to say to that?”

  One hand gripped a tea strainer. Armed and dangerous if they were foolish enough to try anything.

  Abernathy offered his most disarming smile. “We haven’t seen each other in years. We were just boys the last time.”

  The corner of her mouth twitched. “He said to tell Elizabeth he’s flying in tonight. He wants to have a look at you.”

  Abernathy blinked, conjuring up a picture of the meeting. Mrs. Ambaum cocked her head as if trying to get a look inside his.

  Questor Thews quickly took charge. “Imagine that!” he declared. He took Abernathy by the arm and steered him past the startled housekeeper and out the back door. “Don’t be worried, now,” he called over his shoulder. “It will all get straightened out before you know it!”

  They went down the porch steps and into the yard, Abernathy working very hard at not looking back over his shoulder to see if Mrs. Ambaum was staring after them. “I don’t much care for that woman,” he muttered.

  Questor Thews grimaced. “Fair enough. She doesn’t much care for you, either.”

  They moved out into the backyard, well away from the house, where curious ears might pick up what they had to say. Abernathy gazed at the sky and took in the sweep of its vast blue dome. He breathed in the smell of flowers and grasses and fading damp. Mrs. Ambaum was forgotten.

  They reached an old bench painted glossy white to protect the wood against weathering and seated themselves, looking east across a broad stretch of empty fields to where the Cascade Mountains rose white-peaked against the depthless sky.

  After a moment’s silence Abernathy looked at Questor. “Well?” he said.

  The wizard sighed, folded his hands in his lap, fidgeted, and sighed again. “We have a problem,” he said.

  Abernathy waited until it was clear that Questor did not know what to say next. “Could you possibly speak more than one sentence at a time, Questor Thews? That way we won’t waste the whole day.”

  “Yes, all right.” The wizard was flustered. “The book. Theories of Magic and Its Uses. I read it last night. Read it twice, as a matter of fact. Made a very thorough study of what it had to say. I think it is what we are looking for.”

  Abernathy nodded. “You think? Not very encouraging for those of us expecting a definite yes or no.”

  “Well, it’s about magic—the book, that is—and magic is never exact. As you know. And this is a book about theory, a gener
al discussion of how various magics work, about their principles, their commonalities. So it doesn’t say, for instance, ‘Take the eye of a newt, mix with a frog’s foot, and turn around three times left’ or some such.”

  “I certainly hope not.”

  “Well, that isn’t a real spell, anyway, of course. But it’s an example of a specific spell as opposed to general theory. This book is theory, as I said, so you can’t be certain about anything until you’ve tried it out; you can only apply the theory to the situation and be reasonably sure.”

  Abernathy frowned. “Why do I not feel reassured by this? I wonder. Why does this conjure up memories of other times?”

  Questor Thews threw up his hands. “Drat it, Abernathy, this is serious! You are not helping matters by making flippant remarks! Please, no more attempts at humor! Just listen!”

  They faced each other in stunned silence. The smile dropped from Abernathy’s face. “I apologize,” he said, surprised that he could even speak the words.

  Questor nodded hurriedly and brushed the apology aside. Unnecessary between friends, he was saying. “Theory,” he continued, picking up the thread of his conversation. “The book reveals a theory that I remember from the days I studied under my brother in the time of the old King. It goes something like this. When one magic intervenes to change the result of another, to alter that result in a substantive way, then to undo the consequences of the intervening magic, you must use a third magic to put things back exactly the way they were. So magic one is applied, magic two changes the result, and magic three puts everything back the way it was before magic two was applied.”

  Abernathy stared. “What about the consequences of magic one where the consequences of magic two are negated?”

  “No, no, that doesn’t have any bearing on things! Magic one is already disposed of!” Questor’s thin lips tightened, and his bushy eyebrows narrowed. “Are you following me on this?”

  “Nightshade tried to kill us with her magic. She failed because another magic intervened, the one that belongs to the mud puppy, we think. Now we have to use a third magic to put things back the way they were. You lose me there. Put what things back?”

  Questor’s eyes hooded. “Wait, there’s more. The second magic, in order to overcome the first and at the same time facilitate the future possibility of its own negation, must use a catalyst, a powerful hook, a peripheral consequence that can’t be mistaken for anything other than what it is. This consequence facilitates the dominance of the second magic over the first. Think of it as a form of sacrifice. In some cases it actually is. One life given to save others, for instance. Pretty hard to reverse that one. Normally the consequence has no meaning in the course of events beyond providing a clear indication of what it is that needs putting back in place.” He took a long breath. “I’m sorry. I know this is confusing.”

  But Abernathy shook his head slowly, his face suddenly gone pale. “You’re talking about me, aren’t you, Questor Thews? Talking about changing me back again from a man to a dog. Aren’t you?”

  His friend sighed and nodded. “Yes.”

  “You think that if magic is used to change me back again, back into a dog, then the consequences of the second magic will be undone and we will all be sent back into Landover. Don’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “That’s ridiculous.”

  But he didn’t sound as if it were, and he didn’t believe it, either. Some part of him already whispered that it was so. Some part of him had been expecting this from the first moment he had discovered his good fortune. It was an inevitability that he should not enjoy such luck without consequences, not be allowed to escape from his fate so easily. He hated himself for thinking like this, but he could not help it. Damned by fate. Consigned to purgatory. He had been given a vacation from reality, nothing more.

  “You could be wrong,” he pressed, trying to stay calm, feeling desperation begin to build inside already, feeling the heat of it rise along his neck and into his face.

  “I could be,” Questor Thews acknowledged. “But I don’t think I am. We have already agreed that we were dispatched to the High Lord’s old world to save our lives and because something hidden here would help us find our way back again. The magic that sent us, and whoever used it, would have provided us with the key to our prison. Everything fits into place except your transformation—unless your transformation itself is the key. There is no other reason for it to have happened. It is too dramatic a result to be simply a side effect. It must be something more, and what else is there for it to be?”

  Abernathy came to his feet—his human feet—and stalked off. He stopped when he was far enough away from the wizard that he felt alone and stared out at nothing. “I am not going to do this!” he shouted.

  “I’m not asking you to!” the other replied.

  Abernathy threw up his hands in disgust. “Don’t be ridiculous! Of course you are!”

  He wheeled about in challenge. Questor Thews looked old and frail. “No, Abernathy, I’m not. How could I? I was the one who changed you in the first place. An accident, yes, but that doesn’t excuse what happened. I changed you from a man into a dog, and then I couldn’t change you back again. I have lived with that failing, that stupidity, every day of my life since. Now I find myself maneuvered into a position where I am expected to change you a second time. I must relive the worst moment of my life, knowing, mind you, that I still cannot undo the magic’s consequences once they are in place.” There were tears in the old man’s eyes, and he wiped at them savagely. “I do not mind telling you that it is almost unbearable to contemplate!”

  For both of us, Abernathy thought dismally. He looked down at himself, at his real self, his restored self, and thought for a moment what it would mean to be a dog again. He pictured himself anew as the shaggy-haired, clumsy, laughable creature he had been. He imagined himself trapped inside that alien body, struggling to keep his dignity, fighting every single day of his life to convince those surrounding him that he was as human as they were. How could anyone expect him to make such a sacrifice? This was the trade-off for returning to Landover? But he knew it was more than that. It was the trade-off for being alive. Had the mysterious magic not intervened, he would be dead. Nightshade would have put an end to him. To the both of them. And Questor Thews was undoubtedly right, as much as it pained him to admit it. His transformation from a dog back into a man had had a purpose, and the only purpose that made any sense was the one the wizard had revealed after studying the book of magic.

  So he could stay or he could go. The choice was his. Questor would not attempt to persuade him either way. The wizard had to live with his own demons in this matter. It was being left to Abernathy to decide. If he rejected the transformation, he was stuck here. Good and bad in that, he supposed. It didn’t need detailing. Of course, High Lord Ben Holiday was stuck as well; there would be no help from this end. On the other hand, if he allowed Questor to invoke the magic, he would presumably return in time to help the High Lord. But would he, in fact? Was there some real purpose to be served in going back, or would matters run their course whether he returned or not? If only he knew. It was one thing if by returning he would help save the High Lord and his family from Rydall and Nightshade. It was another if his return would make no difference at all.

  He glanced toward the house. Mrs. Ambaum was looking out the window at them, sipping contentedly at her tea. Retribution by nightfall, she was thinking. Still no sign of Elizabeth. Beyond, where the road curved past the front yard and disappeared over a rise, the sunlight was a hazy curtain through the trees.

  He walked back to Questor Thews and stopped in front of him, eyes fixed on the worn old face. “I really don’t think I can do this,” he said quietly.

  The wizard nodded, face scrunched into a mass of wrinkles. “I don’t blame you.”

  Abernathy held out his hands and looked at them. He shook his head. “Do you even remember the magic you used to change me that first time?”

/>   Questor did not look up but nodded that he did.

  “After so many years. Isn’t that something?” Abernathy looked down at himself. He hadn’t been changed back all that long, and already he was comfortable with himself in his old skin. “I like myself as I am,” he whispered.

  Elizabeth appeared in the doorway. “Breakfast!”

  Neither moved. Then Questor waved. “We’ll be there directly!” he called. He looked at Abernathy. “I am truly sorry.”

  Abernathy smiled ruefully. “Of course you are.”

  “I would give anything not to have to tell you this, anything not to have it so.” He bit at his lip.

  “If it isn’t so, for the sake of argument,” Abernathy mused, “I will be trapped here not as a man but as a dog.”

  Questor Thews nodded, holding his gaze this time.

  “But it is so. You’re sure. As sure as you can be, aren’t you?”

  The wizard nodded once more, didn’t speak.

  “I have to make up my mind about this right away, don’t I?” Abernathy pressed on reluctantly. “If we are to be of any use to the High Lord and Mistaya, we have to get back quickly. There isn’t time to give this a lot of thought.”

  “No, I’m afraid there isn’t.”

  “Why don’t you argue the matter with me, then?”

  “Argue with you?”

  “Convince me, one way or the other. You choose a side. Argue both ways if you like. But give me some issues I can debate. Give me something to dispute. Give me a voice besides my own to listen to!”

  “I have already explained—”

  “Stop explaining!” Abernathy was suddenly livid. “Stop being rational! Stop being passive! Stop standing around waiting for me to make this decision all by myself!”

  “But it is your decision to make, Abernathy—not mine. You know that.”

 
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