Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks

  They hurried away through the shadows and midday heat, off to the rescue. Gnats swarmed around them, drawn by their sweat, stirred by their passing. Questor brushed the gnats away, preoccupied with his thoughts. A horse would have been a welcome sight just about now, but then Abernathy wanted nothing to do with horses, so maybe going on foot was for the best. They crossed a stream and passed through a glade dappled crimson and yellow with wildflowers. Finches darted from cover and sailed off into the blue. Abernathy was breathing hard, but Questor did not let up on the pace. He was in some pain himself. He pushed his old bones harder, ignoring his aching joints. He forced himself to walk more quickly. He gathered up his robes and clambered down slopes and along pathways through the tall grasses and past the thorny scrub.

  “Questor Thews, slow down!” he heard Abernathy gasp, for the scribe was trailing steadily farther behind by now.

  The wizard never considered it for a moment.

  Ahead, the mist and gloom of the Deep Fell were already in view.

  Holiday Heart

  Mistaya was sitting with Nightshade on a grassy rise at the south edge of the Deep Fell when her father and mother rode into view. Bunion preceded them, edging out of the midday heat like a spider emerging from its hole, crouched down warily against the sun-scorched earth. King’s Guards flanked and trailed them, armed with lances and swords, all metal and flash in the brightness. The company slowed as they saw her, reining in the horses, easing to a halt. Mistaya could see the tension etched on her father’s face, could see the movement of his eyes as they swept the empty stretch of grasslands separating him from his daughter and came to rest finally on Rydall.

  Marnhull’s King sat atop his black charger a short distance to her right, concealed in his black armor and cloak, his visor pulled down, motionless in the shadows of a broad-limbed chestnut. He had been waiting there when Nightshade and Mistaya had climbed to the rim of the hollow. He had done nothing to acknowledge them. He had failed to move or speak a word since. He did nothing now. He was as still as stone, facing directly back toward Landover’s King.

  Nightshade rose, and Mistaya stood up with her. Ben Holiday’s eyes flicked back to his daughter instantly. Mistaya wanted to run to him, to call out, to do or say something, anything, but Nightshade had forbidden it. Let me speak first, she had warned. The negotiations between Rydall and your father are in a very delicate state. We must be careful not to disrupt them in any way. Mistaya understood. She did not want to do anything to endanger her father. She just wanted to go home. She had been thinking about it since she had returned to the Deep Fell after meeting Poggwydd. She had grown steadily more anxious since, excited but a little afraid as well at the prospect of seeing her parents again after so many weeks. Now she felt a surge of emotion rise inside her chest, tightening her throat, bringing tears to her eyes. She had not realized how much she missed them, she guessed. She had not known how badly she would want to go home.

  “High Lord!” Nightshade called out suddenly. “Your daughter is here with me, safe and well. She is ready to return home. I have gained King Rydall’s promise that she may do so. He has agreed to withdraw from Landover. There will be no more threats, no further attacks. You need only promise that you will seek no retribution against him for anything that has happened.”

  Mistaya waited expectantly. There was a long silence, as if her father did not know how to answer, as if what he was hearing was entirely unexpected. She saw him look at her mother and her mother speak softly in response. Bunion moved restlessly between them, teeth gleaming, eyes fixed on the witch.

  “What about Questor Thews and Abernathy?” Ben Holiday shouted back.

  “They will be returned as well!” Nightshade answered.

  Abernathy and Questor? Mistaya glanced up at the witch questioningly. What were they talking about? Had something happened to the wizard and the scribe? Weren’t they safely back in Sterling Silver? Wasn’t that what she had been told?

  Nightshade smiled down, her face distant and shrouded within the hood of her black robe. Nothing to worry about, the smile said. Do not concern yourself.

  “I will seek no retribution if everyone is well,” she heard her father agree, but she did not miss the troubled tone of his voice. She looked back across the space that separated them, an empty, burned-out stretch of grassland fronting the shadowy depression of the hollow. Her father seemed a long way off.

  Nightshade put a slender white hand on her shoulder. “You must go to your father now, Mistaya,” she advised. “When I tell you to do so, walk out to meet him. Do not deviate from your path in any way. Go directly to him. No one else. Do you understand?”

  Mistaya was aware suddenly that something was happening she did not understand, something hidden and possibly dangerous. She could sense it in Nightshade’s words, in the same way she could sense so much about the witch. She hesitated, wondering what she should do. But there was nothing she could do, she knew. Nothing but agree. She nodded silently.

  “High Lord!” Nightshade called out once more. “Your daughter is coming to you! Dismount and walk out to meet her. Come alone! That is the agreement I have made.”

  Again Mistaya could see her father hesitate, thinking it over. He was not sure of this, she could tell. There was something bothering him, something he could not seem to reconcile. She thought perhaps she should try to reassure him, then realized that she wasn’t sure of things herself, that she was troubled as well. Her green eyes shifted to find Rydall. Marnhull’s King hadn’t moved. She looked quickly to Nightshade. The witch was still and expressionless.

  Her father dismounted slowly and began to walk forward. Bunion started to go with him, but he sent the kobold back with a wave of his hand.

  “Go now!” Nightshade whispered quickly in her ear. “Give him a special hug from me!”

  Mistaya moved forward reluctantly, still pondering her confusion, still wondering what was wrong. She shuffled through the dry grasses with small steps, watching her father advance, watching him draw steadily closer. She glanced back at Nightshade, but the witch did not respond, a tall and dark etching against the hollow’s steamy mist. Mistaya brushed at her hair where it fell across her face, and her green eyes flicked right and left. Her father came on, steady and watchful. She saw a worried, uncertain smile form on his lips. She could see his eyes clearly. There was relief mirrored there—as if he had not expected to see her again. A rush of confusion swept through her. Why was he looking at her so?

  Suddenly she wanted to do as Nightshade had urged. She wanted to hug her father as tightly as she could, to hold him close, to feel the strong press of his body against her own. She wanted him to take her in his arms and give her shelter and reassurance. She needed to tell him how much she had missed him. She needed to be reassured of his love for her.

  The day was still and hot, and the breeze that brushed her face was as dry as fly wings. “Father,” she breathed softly, and hurried forward.

  Then a sudden, desperate shout rose out of the silence. “High Lord! Mistaya! Wait!”

  Questor Thews broke from the trees to her left, stumbling out of the shadows and into the sunlight. Disheveled and unkempt, robes trailing in tatters where the bright sashes had come loose and the seams had ripped, he raced toward them with his arms waving, his white hair and beard flying, and his eyes as wild and frightened as those of a creature pursued by hunters. Mistaya and her father both whirled in surprise, watching the ragtag figure come hurtling toward them. From out of the trees behind him, some thirty yards back, Abernathy appeared, huffing and panting and trying futilely to keep up.

  Then Mistaya heard Nightshade’s gasp of fury. The witch had gone into a crouch, looking like a cat poised to spring, arms extended as if to ward off something terrible. Her eyes locked on Mistaya’s, as red as blood. “Go to your father!” she shrieked in rage.

  Mistaya started forward in response, barely aware of what she was doing. But Questor Thews was still coming, running doggedly onward thr
ough the heat and dust, arms and legs pinwheeling wildly. Again, Mistaya stopped, transfixed.

  “Mistaya, don’t!” Questor Thews cried out. “It’s a trap!”

  Suddenly everyone was trying to reach her: her mother surging forward atop her mount with the King’s Guards in close pursuit and Bunion racing ahead, Nightshade lifting her arms and spreading her dark robes like some great bird of prey, Rydall fighting to bring his rearing, panic-stricken black horse under control, Abernathy tumbling head over heels through the dry grasses as he lost his footing, and her father breaking into a sudden sprint.

  But it was Questor Thews who reached her first, careening wildly across the last bit of space that separated them, snatching her up as if she were a rag doll, and crushing her to his breast.

  “Mistaya!” he whispered in relief.

  Then wicked green light flared between them, spraying outward from the pendant like shattered glass. Questor Thews grunted in shock, and the blood drained from his face. His grip on Mistaya weakened, and he dropped to his knees, barely able to cling to her.

  “Questor!” she shrieked in horror.

  She drew back as she realized where the light was coming from and peered quickly down. The thorns on the rose stem had grown impossibly long and jutted from the old man’s chest like spikes. There was blood seeping from the wounds. Questor was shaking, and his fingers had tightened into claws. He was gasping for breath. Mistaya yanked the thorns from his body, tore off the pendant, and flung it away. Questor’s eyes fixed on her without seeing, and he slumped to the ground and lay still.

  “Questor!” Mistaya gasped. “Questor, get up! Please!”

  Questor Thews did not move. He had quit breathing.

  Mistaya leapt to her feet, sobbing with rage and despair. “Nightshade!” she screamed. “Do something!”

  Her father came up quickly and reached for her, but she pushed him away. She rushed to where the pendant lay, looked down at it, then squinted out across the scorched flat. “Nightshade!”

  The witch stood frozen in place, her pale, smooth face empty of expression but her eyes filled with terrible fury. Her arms swept downward, casting off the magic they had gathered.

  “You gave me that pendant!” Mistaya screamed. “You made this happen!”

  Nightshade’s hand swept the air before her. “I am not responsible for this! Questor Thews shouldn’t have interfered! He was a fool!”

  “I trusted you!” Mistaya shrieked.

  Now her mother was there as well, dismounting and hurrying over as King’s Guards reined to a halt behind them, weapons drawn, and Bunion hissed at Nightshade in warning. “Mistaya, look at me,” Willow ordered.

  But Mistaya waved her away, picked up the pendant by its chain, and held it out accusingly toward Nightshade. “You intended this for my father, didn’t you? You meant this for him!”

  “I did not mean—”

  “Don’t lie to me anymore!”

  “Yes!” The witch shrieked. “Yes, I meant it for him! The poison was meant to take his life, not that old fool’s!”

  Mistaya was shaking with fury. Her small body was as taut as a spear’s wooden shaft, all straight and set to fly. Her hands were clenched into fists, and her face was streaked with tears. “I hate you!” she screamed.

  She threw down the pendant. Her small hands came up, and fire lanced out of them, shattering it where it lay on the ground, turning the metal to dust. Ben and Willow shrank back in spite of themselves, startled at the power Mistaya possessed.

  Abernathy finally reached them, panting heavily, tongue hanging out. He bent hurriedly over Questor Thews, dog’s ear to the old man’s chest. “There isn’t any heartbeat!” he whispered.

  Mistaya was stalking toward Nightshade now, all determination and iron will. “You’re going to help him or else!” she hissed. “Do you hear me, Nightshade?”

  The witch took a step back, then straightened. “Do not presume to threaten me, you little fool! I am still your mistress and your better!”

  “You were never anything but a liar and a sneak!” the little girl snapped. “You tricked me! You used me! What else have you made me do? What of those monsters I helped you make? The earth giant and the metal man and the others? To what use did you put them?”

  “They were sent to kill your father,” she heard her mother say from behind her. “Ask her to deny it.”

  “Rydall!” Nightshade wheeled on Marnhull’s King. “You wanted your chance at Holiday! Well, here it is! Kill him!”

  Rydall was still struggling with his charger, barely managing to keep the frightened animal under control. At Nightshade’s words, he twisted about to face her, menace radiating from his black-armored body. For a moment it seemed he might attack her instead. Then he reached for his sword, shouted in challenge, spurred his charger forward, and came at Holiday. But Bunion was quicker. The kobold rushed at Marnhull’s King, teeth bared, a small black blur in the heat, and threw himself into the horse’s face. The animal shied, reared, bucked, and threw Rydall from his saddle. Rydall’s right foot caught in the stirrup as he fell. Burdened by the weight of his armor, he could not break free. He tumbled to the earth beneath the rearing, stamping horse and was hammered by the iron-shod hooves. The horse bolted, dragging his helpless rider across the flats. Bits and pieces of armor broke free, and blood stained the ground. King’s Guards spurred forward to catch the terrified horse, but by the time they had reined him in, Rydall of Marnhull was a ruined, battered husk.

  Mistaya continued to advance on Nightshade. “No!” the witch shrieked, clearly shaken. “We are even now! A life for a life! Rydall goes back to where he came from, and you and I do the same, little girl!”

  But Mistaya did not slow. Her father and mother were hurrying after her, both of them grim-faced. Bunion came skittering like quicksilver through the brown grasses. King’s Guards spread out all about them. Ben Holiday had the medallion out, and he held it up to the light in one hand. A streak of fear crossed Nightshade’s face. She crouched to meet these threats, a feral look on her face, bits of green fire rising off her fingers. Instantly Mistaya pointed at her, crying out. Magic lanced from the little girl’s hands and knocked Nightshade flying. The witch gasped in shock and tumbled backward. Then she scrambled up in rage.

  “No! You cannot touch me! You have no right!” She whirled on Mistaya. Her pale face was contorted and ugly. Her self-control was shattered. “I will show you what magic can really do, little witch! I will send you back where you belong!”

  Her hands came up, wicked green flames swirling at her fingertips. Mistaya locked her arms before her in self-defense.

  Then, suddenly, Haltwhistle was there, materializing at the edge of the Deep Fell. Frost rose off his hackles and turned into ribbons of steam. Nightshade became aware of him an instant too late. She turned, but the mud puppy’s magic lanced out and knocked her legs from beneath her. Flailing wildly, her conjuring out of control, she collapsed in a heap. Down came her magic, falling about her like rain.

  Nightshade was engulfed. The strange mix surrounded and consumed her in the blink of an eye. She had time for a single quick scream, and then she was gone.

  For a moment afterward no one moved. They stood rooted in place, half expecting the Witch of the Deep Fell to reappear. But she did not, and then Haltwhistle came up to Mistaya where she stood transfixed before the smoldering bit of earth where the witch had stood. The mud puppy looked up at the little girl with soulful eyes and slowly wagged his tail. Mistaya broke into tears.

  Her father came up, knelt, and put his hands on her slender shoulders, bracing her and looking into her eyes. “It’s all right, Mistaya,” he told her. “It’s all right.” And then he drew her close and held her against him.

  Willow took her then, holding her as well, rocking her, telling her that it was over now, that she was safe. As she did so, Ben rose and walked to where Rydall lay sprawled in a crumpled heap on a patch of barren ground within a ring of King’s Guards. He dropped
to one knee beside the fallen King, lifted the black visor, and peered down at the face inside. Blood-filled eyes blinked up at him from beneath a shock of red hair.

  Ben Holiday shook his head bleakly. “Kallendbor,” he whispered.

  The Lord of the Greensward coughed weakly. Blood streaked his face and beard and leaked in a steady stream from his mouth. “I should … have killed you that first day … on the drawbridge. I … should never have listened to … the witch.”

  He drew one last breath, sighed, and went still. His eyes stared sightlessly into space. Ben closed the visor once more. Kallendbor had never been able to accept the way things had worked out, it seemed. Only Ben’s death would have satisfied him. He must have been desperate indeed to have allied himself with Nightshade. Now Ben knew how the robot had managed to get so close to them at Rhyndweir without being detected. Now he knew how the witch had been able to use her magic to make him think he had lost the medallion. Kallendbor had arranged it all. Nightshade must have told him Ben was coming, and he had laid his trap for Landover’s King and waited for him to die. Now the Lord of Rhyndweir himself lay dead, and there would probably never be any real understanding of the madness that had allowed it to happen.

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