Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks

  They camped where the waters of the Anhalt emerged from the hill country on the long journey down out of the mountains west. They sat on a low bluff above the river, having crossed before sunset, and watched the fading light turn purple and pink. To the east herons and cranes flew low above the sluggish waters, fishing for dinner.

  “We’ll be there by tomorrow noon,” Ben declared after a long silence, anxious to engage an unusually quiet Willow in some form of conversation. “Then we’ll know.”

  The sylph’s voice was a soft, resigned sigh. “I already know. Nightshade has her. I can sense it. She wanted Mistaya from the very beginning, and she finally found a way to get her.”

  Her shoulder was touching Ben’s as they stared off into the approaching dark, but the distance between them was frightening. All day long she had been withdrawing, closing herself away. Now she was someplace where no one could reach her if she did not wish it. Ben had waited patiently for her to work out whatever was disturbing her, hoping it wasn’t him.

  He cleared his throat. “She probably thinks of Mistaya as her property. Mistaya is payment for the debt she thinks she is owed for what befell her in the Tangle Box.”

  Willow was silent for a moment. “If it was only a matter of debt or even a claim to property, she would have stolen Mistaya away and been done with it. She would have ransomed her back or killed her, intending to hurt us by doing so. Instead, she concocted this elaborate scheme involving Rydall of Marnhull and his monsters. Mistaya is the prize to be won or lost, but she is something more as well. I think Nightshade has another use for her.”

  Ben looked at her. “What use?”

  She shook her head. “I don’t know. Perhaps it has something to do with Mistaya’s magic. She was born in the Deep Fell, so perhaps they share something from that. Or maybe it is something darker. Perhaps she seeks to turn Mistaya’s thinking so that it mirrors her own.”

  “No, Mistaya would never let that happen.” Ben went cold all the way to his toes. “She is too strong.”

  “No one is stronger than Nightshade. Her hate drives her.”

  Ben went silent, a swell of horror rising inside at the prospect of Mistaya becoming like Nightshade. His good sense told him it could never happen. His emotions said otherwise. The two warred within him as he watched the shadows lengthen across the land, darkening the river and the hills.

  “She would do that to hurt us, wouldn’t she?” he said finally. “She would.” He took a deep breath. “But how does that explain the Rydall charade?”

  “Rydall gives her time to work on Mistaya. Rydall occupies us, keeps us at a distance and off balance. We don’t realize the truth of things until it is too late.”

  Her eyes were empty and lost when he looked into them. “You’ve been thinking on this all day, haven’t you?” he asked quietly. “That’s why you’re so far away from me.”

  She looked at him. Her smile was wan. “No, Ben. I have been preparing myself for tomorrow. There is a good chance I will lose Mistaya. Or you. Or even both. It isn’t easy to accept the possibility, but it is there nevertheless.”

  “You won’t lose either of us,” he promised, putting his arm about her, drawing her close, knowing even as he did that he had just made a promise he might not be able to keep.

  They slept poorly, made restless by anticipation of what lay ahead, of what they might find. They rose at sunrise, ate a quick breakfast, and were under way before the sun had fully crested the horizon in the mountains to the east. This day was steamy and suffocating as well, and they moved through it like swimmers on a sluggish tide. Bunion scouted ahead, keeping a wary eye out for any more of Rydall’s monsters. Two remained to be faced, and Nightshade might choose now to unleash them. If indeed the witch was Rydall. Some doubt remained in Ben’s mind, even if Willow was convinced. But by now he was doubting everything.

  Ahead, the land stretched away in a ragged carpet of burned-out grasses and patchwork forest green, the line between foothills and plains blurred by the heat. He listened to the sounds of leather and traces as the horses plodded ahead resolutely. What would he do when they reached the Deep Fell? Would he go down into the hollow? Would he send the Paladin? How would he confront the witch? How would he learn the truth about Mistaya?

  He glanced at Willow, riding beside him in silence. What he read in her face suggested that he had better find his answers soon.

  Nightshade knew of their coming long before they were in view. She had known of it almost from the moment they had left Sterling Silver and had kept careful watch over their progress. The confrontation she had envisioned from the beginning was fated at last to take place. Somehow Holiday had figured it out. She did not know how he had done it, but he clearly had. He was coming to the Deep Fell, and he would be doing that only if he knew the truth.

  The seeming inevitability of things did not escape her. The Ardsheal had failed her, just as all the other creatures she had sent had failed her. Under Rydall’s agreement she had two monsters left to send, but time had run out on that game and only one chance remained for her now. She had enjoyed playing with Holiday, seeing him struggle, watching him suffer as he fought one monster after another in an effort to survive long enough to rescue his beloved daughter. She had enjoyed breaking him down a little at a time, leaving him physically and emotionally drained by forces he did not even begin to understand. How could he know that it was Mistaya’s own magic working against him? How could he realize what that would do to him? It had been satisfying, but the greatest satisfaction of all was yet to come.

  The anticipation of it kept her anger and frustration in check, for although she would not admit it even to herself, she was disappointed that Holiday was still alive. Her expenditure of time and effort, of magic and power, could not be dismissed out of hand even with the argument that all was as expected. Nightshade hated to lose, hated to be denied anything, even where she could rationalize that it must necessarily be so. She wanted Holiday dead, and postponement of that result, whatever the justification, was difficult to bear.

  Still, she had made her plan and believed it to be foolproof. Mistaya was hers yet, her unwitting tool, and she would be put to the use intended before this business was done. It was better, perhaps, that it happen now, before any more time passed. Mistaya was growing unmanageable, increasingly reluctant to engage in the practice of magic that Nightshade decreed, suspicious of the role in which she had been cast. It was bad enough that she had refused to help create another monster after the robot had failed. It was unbearable that she should dare to leave the hollow. Yet Nightshade had persisted. One more time she had found a way to use Mistaya, joining the girl’s magic with her own to bring the Ardsheal back from the dead so that it could be sent against Holiday, but it had required great cunning and subterfuge on the witch’s part to conceal the truth of what she was about. It would be difficult to deceive Mistaya again.

  Yet she would be deceived, Nightshade promised herself. One final time.

  She let Mistaya do what she wished with her magic and her lessons on the first day of Holiday’s journey to the Deep Fell. She let her practice what she would, encouraging her, complimenting her, putting her at ease. Only one day remained, Mistaya was told. One—and then she would be going home. Nightshade prowled the hollow restlessly, barely able to concentrate on anything but the approach of the event she had schemed to bring about for two years. She wandered off into the mists, playing out the moment over and over in her mind, seeing it happen, anticipating the joy it would give her. Holiday dead. Holiday gone at last. It had become for her the sole reason for her life, the single purpose for which she existed. It had become for her as necessary as breathing.

  At night she went out in the form of a crow, flying over the land to where the play-King slept in the company of the sylph and his Guards. She would have lighted on his face and pecked out his eyes if she could have done so, so great was her hatred. But she knew better than to take chances after employing so much care. She wo
uld not cheat herself now of the end she had devised for him. She made certain of his distance from the Deep Fell, of the time she would need to prepare, and flew back again to wait.

  The following morning she waited until Mistaya had eaten her breakfast before approaching her. Darkly sleek and vaguely menacing, she swept up to the girl with a smile and a light touch of one slender white hand against her cheek.

  “Your father comes for you today,” she advised in her most compelling voice.

  Mistaya looked up expectantly.

  “He should arrive by midday. Are you anxious to see him?”

  “Yes,” the girl answered, and the undisguised anticipation in her voice set the witch’s teeth on edge.

  “He will take you back to Sterling Silver, back to your home. But you will not forget me, will you?”

  “No,” the girl said softly.

  “We have learned a lot together, you and I.” Nightshade looked off into the trees. Mistaya had withdrawn from her since coming back down into the Deep Fell. She had distanced herself as only children could, barely tolerant, clearly marking time. It was a bitter recognition for the witch. She had expected better. “There are still many secrets to learn, Mistaya,” she offered, trying to win back something of what she had lost. “I will teach them to you one day if you wish. I will show you everything. You need only ask.” She looked back at Mistaya, eyes liquid. “This can be your home, too. One day you may wish to come live here with me. You may decide that this is where you belong. We are very much alike. You must know that. We are different from others. We are witches, and we will always be each other’s greatest friend.”

  She almost meant it. There was enough truth behind the words to make it so. But fate had decreed long ago that it could never be. Her hatred of Holiday, so obsessive a presence, so monstrous and driving, had determined that it must be otherwise.

  Mistaya’s eyes dropped hesitantly. “I will come back to visit you. When it is safe to do so.”

  Nightshade’s smile was cool and fixed. “That time may come to pass sooner than you think. I have arranged for Rydall to withdraw his challenge to your father. He will be here when your father arrives. Once he is gone from Landover, there no longer need be any barriers between us. Your father and mother will agree, I am sure.”

  Mistaya’s brow wrinkled. “Rydall will withdraw? For good? He has given up completely?”

  “I have persuaded him it is best for all concerned.” Nightshade’s eyes narrowed. “Magic can accomplish anything. This is what I have tried to teach you.”

  Mistaya looked down at her clothes and brushed at them while she spoke. “I have learned a lot from you,” she whispered.

  “You were a good student,” Nightshade praised. “You have great talent. Do not forget that I first told you so, that I revealed to you what no one else would, that I helped you discover who you really are. No one else would have done that for you. Only me.”

  There was a moment of awkward silence. Nightshade could feel a shift in the balance of things. “I have something for you,” she said to the girl.

  Mistaya’s eyes lifted. Nightshade reached down into her robes and brought forth a silver chain and pendant. The pendant was carved in the shape of a rose, the petals carefully detailed, the stem and thorns intricately worked into the metal. She took the chain and pendant and placed them about Mistaya’s neck.

  “There,” she said, stepping back. “A gift to remember me by. So long as you wear it, you will never forget our time together.”

  Mistaya lifted the pendant from her breast and held it gently between her fingers. There was surprise and gratitude in her green eyes. Her child’s face shone. “It is beautiful, Nightshade. Thank you very much. I shall wear it always, I promise.”

  A handful of hours will be enough, the witch thought to herself, keeping her smile carefully in place. Long enough to meet your loving father and embrace him one final time. Long enough for the pendant’s hidden magic to cause the rose thorns to prick the play-King’s skin and for their deadly poison to seep into his body. You can do what you wish with my gift after that. After it has served its purpose.

  After you have served yours.

  Questor Thews came out of the light of his magic in a wash of dizziness that very nearly toppled him. He staggered momentarily as the brightness faded, trying to gain his balance. Then, finding his feet on solid ground once more, he steadied himself, blinked away the last of his discomfort, and took a quick measure of his surroundings. To his relief he discovered that he was back in Landover. A scattering of pale moons dotted the midday sky, visible through the heavy screen of tree limbs. Stalks of Bonnie Blue poked out of scrub and from between moss-covered trunks. Familiar smells reached out to him. There was no mistaking any of it. But despite being back in Landover, he was no longer in the lake country. The look of things was all wrong for that. He was somewhere else, somewhere farther north …

  “Jumping junipers, that is just about enough of that!” an irate Poggwydd snapped, grabbing a tight hold of Questor’s sleeve. The wizard jumped at the unexpected contact. “I don’t know what you did to get us back here, but I believe I’ll simply walk next time! Next time, did I say? Bite my tongue! Next time? Beat me with a switch if there’s ever a next time! Hah! Not likely! Not for this fellow!”

  Scrunching up his face as if to cause his features to disappear completely, he released Questor and wheeled away in a snit. “Good day to you, sir! Good day, good day!” Then he stopped dead in his tracks. “Gracious me and mercy on us all, what’s happened to him?”

  He was looking at Abernathy. Landover’s scribe sat on the ground next to an aging hickory, staring down at himself. He was a dog once more, a soft-coated Wheaten Terrier, shaggy and unkempt beneath his clothing, fur sticking out everywhere, ears perked, glasses perched awkwardly on his long nose. His liquid brown eyes seemed both startled and sad as he studied his human fingers, all that remained of his old body. Then he shrugged, looked up at Poggwydd, and sighed.

  “What seems to be the trouble, Poggwydd? Haven’t you ever seen a talking dog before?”

  Poggwydd’s wrinkled, furry face went through a series of bizarre contortions as he huffed and spit in an effort to speak. “Well, I … Well, of course, I … Humph! Mumble, mumble! Well, you certainly weren’t a dog earlier!”

  Abernathy climbed slowly to his feet and brushed himself off. “How much earlier do you mean?”

  “Just a little bit ago! Just before we were gobbled up by the wizard’s magic! You were a man, confound it!”

  Abernathy’s smile was rueful even for a dog. “That was just a disguise. This is the real me. Can’t you tell?” He sighed again, and his eyes locked on Questor. “Well, you were right, Questor Thews. Congratulations.”

  Questor gave a quick nod in reply. “Yes, it appears I was, thank you. I must say again that I wish it could be otherwise.”

  “We all wish things could be otherwise, but this is the real world, isn’t it? Or as real as it gets for us.” Abernathy looked around in puzzlement. “Where are we, anyway?”

  “I was just about to ask our friend,” the wizard replied, looking in turn to Poggwydd.

  The G’home Gnome seemed startled by the question. He glanced right and left momentarily as if to confirm his suspicions, then cleared his throat officiously. “We’re right back where we started, is where we are. Well, back where I started, anyway. This is where that little girl found me, minding my own business, not causing anyone the least amount of …” He trailed off quickly as he saw a dark look creep into Questor’s eye. “Ahem! What matters to you, I imagine, is that we’re just a mile or so from the Deep Fell.”

  “I don’t understand,” Abernathy ventured, coming over to stand next to them. “What are we doing here? Why aren’t we back in the lake country?”

  Questor Thews was rubbing his chin furiously, twisting his whiskers into rat’s tails while thinking the matter through. “We’re here, old friend, because Mistaya’s here—down in the Dee
p Fell with the witch. This is where Poggwydd saw her last. Nightshade took her back to the Deep Fell, and there’s no reason to think she isn’t still there. We’ve been brought here to save her, I believe.”

  “I don’t understand any of this!” the G’home Gnome declared abruptly. “But that’s fine, that’s just fine, because I don’t want to understand any of it! I just want to be on my way. So good-bye to the both of you and good luck!”

  Once more he started away, this time heading east, away from the witch’s lair.

  “Don’t you want to know what happens with Nightshade?” Questor Thews called after him.

  “I don’t want to know another thing about any of this!” The Gnome did not slow his pace. “I already know more than enough! Much more!” He scuffed at the dirt furiously, raising dust with his feet. “Do me a favor, please. If you find that little girl, give her my regards and tell her I never want to see her again. Nothing personal, but that’s the way it is.” His voice rose dangerously. “I hope she is a King’s daughter! I hope she becomes a Queen! I hope if she ever goes for another walk, she does it somewhere else! Good day!”

  He disappeared into the trees and was gone, a hunched ragtag figure leaving in his wake a scattering of rude gestures and indecipherable mumbles.

  Questor dismissed him instantly and turned to Abernathy, eyes intent. “You know what we have to do, don’t you?”

  Abernathy looked at him as he might a small child. “I know perfectly well. Probably better than you.”

  “Then we had better hurry. I have an uneasy feeling about things.”

  And he did, too. It was hard to describe but impossible to discount. The feeling had been with him in the High Lord’s old world: a need for haste, to get back into Landover as quickly as possible so that something could be done to prevent whatever it was that Nightshade intended. Now the feeling was even stronger, a growing certainty that the trap around Holiday and his family was about to close and that only he and Abernathy could prevent it. Perhaps it was a bit conceited and overdramatic to assume responsibility for so much, but Questor Thews needed to believe that there was a reason for Abernathy’s sacrifice, that there was a greater good being served. His magic might have cost Abernathy his human identity, but it had gotten them back into Landover, to where Mistaya had last been seen and was probably captive still, and that had to count for something. Nightshade had told them that Rydall was her creature, that she had set in motion a chain of events that would crush Holiday, and that Mistaya would be the instrument of his destruction. Somehow the witch was using the little girl to get at the High Lord. If they could reach her in time, perhaps they could still make a difference.

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