Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks


  Best of all, there was Questor Thews. She loved that old man the way a child does a special grandparent or a favorite aunt or uncle, the two of them mysteriously linked as if born into the world with a shared view of life. Questor never talked down to her. He never begrudged her a question or opinion. He listened when she talked and answered her right back. He was distracted, and he fumbled a bit when showing her his magic, but that seemed to make him all the more endearing. She sensed that Questor truly found her to be a wondrous person—a person, not a child—and that he believed she was capable of anything. Oh, he chided and corrected her now and then, but he did it in such a way that she was never offended; she was touched by his concern. He lacked her mother’s fierce love and her father’s iron determination and probably their sense of commitment to her as well, but he made up for it with his friendship, the kind you find only rarely in life.

  Mistaya was pleased to hear that Questor would be her guardian on her journey south. She was pleased to have Abernathy come along as well, but she was especially happy about Questor. The journey itself would be a delight. She had not been away from the castle since she was a baby, barely able to walk, and then only for day trips. Picnics and horseback rides didn’t count. This was an adventure, a journey to a place she had never been. Discoveries would be plentiful, and she would have Questor there to share them with her. It would be great fun.

  She had to admit, considering the matter further, that part of the attraction was the prospect of getting away from her parents. When her parents were around, she was always watched more closely and restricted more severely. Don’t do this. Don’t touch that. Stay close. Keep away. And the lessons they insisted on teaching her were interminable and mostly superfluous to what really mattered. It was when she was alone with Questor that she felt her horizons expand and the possibilities begin to open up. Much of her enthusiasm had to do with the wizard’s use of magic, which was a truly fascinating and important pursuit. Mistaya loved to watch what Questor could do with his spells and conjurings, even when he didn’t get them right. She thought that someday she could learn to use magic as he did. She was certain of it.

  Secretly she tried a spell or two, a conjuring here and there, and found she could almost make them work.

  She kept it to herself, of course. Everyone, Questor Thews included, told her that using magic was extremely dangerous. Everyone told her not to even think of trying. She promised faithfully each time the admonition was given but kept her options open.

  Magic, she knew, even if they didn’t, was an integral part of her life. Her mother had told her early on of her birthright. She was the child of a human and a once-fairy. She was the child of three worlds, birthed out of three soils. She had been born in a witch’s lair, the hollow they called the Deep Fell, the haven of Nightshade. All that was in her blood was laced with magic. That was why, unlike other children, she had grown to the age of ten in only two years. That was why she grew in spurts. How she grew was still something of a mystery to her, but she understood it better than her parents did. Her intelligence always grew first, and her emotions and body followed. She could neither predict nor govern the when and how of it, but she was aware of a definite progression.

  She also believed that being a child was not particularly desirable or important, that basically it was a necessary step toward becoming an adult, which was what she really wanted. Children were one rung up the ladder from house pets; they were cared for, fed regularly, frequently sent outside to play, and not allowed to do much of anything else. Adults could do whatever they chose if they were willing to accept the consequences. Mistaya had mastered an understanding of the dynamics of growing up right from the beginning, and she was anxious to get through the preliminaries and try out the real thing. She chafed and tugged at the restrictions placed on her both by her physiology and by her parents, unable to exert much control over either. A trip to the lake country and her grandfather came as a welcome respite.

  So she dutifully acknowledged her parents’ wishes in the matter, secretly rejoiced at her good fortune, and began making her plans. No time limit seemed to have been placed yet on this visit, which meant it might last for weeks. That was fine with Mistaya. All spring or even all summer in the lake country with the once-fairy was an exciting prospect. She liked her grandfather, although she had met him only once. He had come to the castle to see her when she had been very young, only a few months old. The River Master was a tall, spare-featured, stern man, a water sprite with silver skin and thick black hair that grew down the nape of his neck and forearms. He was tight-lipped and cool in his approach, as if disdaining to know her too well, as if suspicious about who and what she might be. She gave no quarter in their meeting. Disregarding his aloofness, she marched right up to him and said, “Hello, Grandfather. I am very pleased to meet you. We shall be good friends, I hope.”

  Boldness and candor did the trick. Her grandfather warmed to her immediately, impressed that so small a child could be so forthcoming, pleased that she should seek his friendship. He took her for a walk, talked with her at length, and ended up inviting her to come visit him. He remained only a day, then went away again. Her mother said that he did not like to sleep indoors and that castles in particular bothered him. She said he was a woods creature and seldom ventured far from his home. That he had come to see her at all was a great compliment. Mistaya, pleased, had asked when she could go visit him, but the request had been filed away and seemingly forgotten. She had not seen him since. It would be interesting to discover what he thought of her now.

  Following dinner she was kept busy packing for her trip and did not get a chance to ask either her mother or her father about the men at the gates. She slept restlessly that night and was awake before sunrise. With hugs and kisses from her parents to remind her of their devotion, she set out with her escort at first light: Questor Thews, Abernathy, and a dozen of the King’s Guards. She rode her favorite pony, Lightfoot, and watched the sun chase the shadows back across the meadows and hills and into the dark woods as the new day began. Six Guards rode in front of her, and six behind. Questor was at her side atop an old paint improbably called Owl. Abernathy, who detested horses, rode inside the carriage that bore her clothing and personal effects. A driver nudged the team that pulled the carriage along the grassy trail they followed south.

  Mistaya waited until Sterling Silver was safely out of sight, then eased Lightfoot close to Questor and asked, “Who was the man at the gates, Questor—the one Father didn’t want to see me?”

  Questor Thews snorted. “A troublemaker named Rydall. Claimed he was King of some country called Marnhull that none of us have ever heard about. Claimed it lies on the other side of the fairy mists, but we both know how unlikely that is.”

  “Is he the reason I’m being sent to see my grandfather?”

  “Yes.”

  “Why?”

  The wizard shrugged. “He might be more dangerous than he looks. He made some threats.”

  “What sort of threats?”

  The shaggy white brows knitted together fiercely. “Hard to say; they were rather vague. Rydall wants your father to hand over the crown and let him be King instead. Pure nonsense. But he suggested it might be safer to do as he asked. Your father is looking into it.”

  Mistaya was quiet for a moment, thinking. “Who was the other one, the one in the black robes?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “A magician?”

  Questor looked at her, surprise showing on his narrow face. “Yes, perhaps. There was magic there. Did you sense it, too?”

  She nodded. “I think I know one of them.”

  Surprise turned to astonishment. “You do? How could you?”

  She frowned. “I don’t know. I just felt it while standing there on the wall.” She paused. “I thought at first it was the big man, Rydall. But now I’m not sure. It might have been the other.” She shrugged, her interest in the matter fading. “Do you think we will see any bog wumps on th
e way, Questor?”

  They traveled steadily all day, stopping several times to rest the horses and once for lunch, and by sundown they had reached the south end of the Irrylyn. There they set up camp for the night. Mistaya went swimming in the warm waters of the lake, then fished with Abernathy and a couple of the King’s Guards for their dinner. They caught several dozen fish in almost no time, causing Mistaya to complain to the scribe that it was all too easy. While the Guards carried their catch back to the camp to clean and cook, the girl and the dog sat alone on the shores of the lake and looked out across the silver waters as the sun sank in a shimmer of red and pink behind the distant horizon.

  “Do you think Mother and Father are in danger, Abernathy?” she asked him when they were alone, her face and voice impossibly serious.

  Abernathy considered a moment, then shook his shaggy head. “No, Mistaya, I do not. And even if they are, it will not be the first time. When you are a King and Queen, there is always danger. When you wield power of any kind, for that matter, there is always danger. But your parents are very resourceful people and have survived a good many things. I would not worry for them if I were you.”

  She liked his answer and nodded agreeably. “All right, I won’t. Are you and Questor staying with me once we reach Elderew?”

  “Only for a day or so. Then we must go back. Your father will have need of us. We cannot be away for very long.”

  “No, of course not,” she agreed, rather pleased that she would be on her own. Her grandfather knew magic as well. She wondered what he could be persuaded to teach her. She wondered if he would let her experiment a bit.

  A shadowy form crept out of the trees to one side and melted into some bushes that ran along the edge of the lake. Mistaya and Abernathy were seated on a cluster of flat rocks elevated above the bushes and could see anything trying to approach. Neither missed the furtive movement.

  “Bog wump?” she asked in an excited whisper.

  Abernathy shook his head. “Some sort of wight. Neither very old nor very bright, judging from its lack of circumspection.”

  She nudged the scribe lightly. “Bark at him, will you, Abernathy? A good, loud bark?”

  “Mistaya …”

  “Please? I’ll not pull your ears for the rest of the trip.”

  The dog sighed. “Thank you so much.”

  “Will you?” she pressed. “Just once? I want to see it jump.”

  Abernathy’s jaws worked. “Humph.”

  Then he barked, a quick, sharp explosion that shattered the twilight silence. Below, the wight jumped straight out of the bushes in which it was hiding and streaked back into the forest as if launched from a catapult.

  Mistaya was in stitches. “That was wonderful! That was so funny! I love it when you do that, Abernathy! It just makes me laugh!”

  She gave him a big hug and pulled lightly on his ears. “You make me laugh, you old woolly.”

  “Humph,” Abernathy repeated. But he was clearly pleased nevertheless.

  The fish cooked up nicely, and dinner was delicious. The members of the little caravan ate together, and everything was quickly consumed. It was better than a picnic, Mistaya concluded. She stayed up late swapping stories with the King’s Guards despite Abernathy’s clear disapproval, and when she finally rolled into her blankets—refusing the down-filled pad brought along for her personal comfort (the King’s Guards, after all, didn’t use them)—she was asleep in moments.

  Without knowing why, she woke when it was still dark. Everyone around her was sound asleep, most of them, notably Questor Thews, emitting snores that sounded like rusty gates. She blinked, sat up, and looked about.

  A pair of eyes stared back at her from only a few feet away, reflecting bright yellow in the last of the dying firelight.

  Mistaya squinted, unafraid. The eyes belonged to a mud puppy. She had never seen one, but she knew what they looked like from the descriptions given by Abernathy in his endless lessons on Landover’s native species. She waited a moment for her vision to sharpen to make sure. The mud puppy waited with her. When she could see clearly, she found herself face to face with an odd creature possessed of a long body colored various shades of brown, short legs with webbed feet, a vaguely rodent sort of face, great floppy dog ears, and a lizard’s smooth, slender tail. Sure enough, a mud puppy, she thought.

  She pursed her lips and kissed at it. The mud puppy blinked.

  She remembered suddenly that mud puppies were supposed to be fairy creatures. They were rarely seen anywhere in Landover and almost never outside the lake country.

  “You are very cute,” she whispered.

  The mud puppy wagged its tail in response. It moved off a few paces, then turned back, waiting. Mistaya rose from her blankets. The mud puppy started off again. No mistaking what it wanted, the girl thought. What luck! An adventure already! She pulled on her boots and crept through the sleeping camp in pursuit of her new companion. The mud puppy made certain never to get too far ahead, deliberately leading her on.

  She remembered too late that there was a sentry on watch at either end of the camp, and she was on top of one before she could stop herself. But the sentry did not seem to see her. He was staring out into the night, oblivious. First the mud puppy and then Mistaya walked right past him.

  Magic! the girl thought, and was excited anew.

  The mud puppy took her away from the Irrylyn and into the surrounding woods. They walked quite a long way, navigating a maze of tightly packed trees and thickets, fording streams, descending ravines, and climbing hills. The night was warm and still, and the air was heavy with the smell of pine and jasmine. Crickets chirped, and small rodents scurried about in the brush. Mistaya studied everything, listened to everything, letting nothing escape her. She had no idea where she was going but was not worried about finding her way back. She was thinking that the mud puppy was taking her to someone, and she was hoping that it was a creature of magic.

  Finally they reached a clearing in which a broad swath of moonlight glimmered off a grassy stretch of marsh that marked the end of a stream’s downhill run from some distant spring. The water was choked with grasses and night-blooming lilies and was as smooth as glass. The mud puppy moved to within a few feet of its edge and sat down. Mistaya walked up beside him and waited.

  The wait was a short one. Almost immediately the waters of the marsh stirred, then parted as something beneath their surface began to lift into view. It was a woman formed all of mud, slick and smooth and dark as she took shape. She rose to tower over Mistaya, much larger than any woman the girl had ever seen, her lush form shimmering with dampness in the moonlight. She stood on the waters of the pond as if they were solid ground, and her eyes opened and found Mistaya’s own.

  “Hello, Mistaya,” she greeted in a soft, rich voice that whispered of damp earth and cool shadows.

  “Hello,” Mistaya replied.

  “I am the Earth Mother,” the woman said. “I am a friend of your mother. Has she told you of me?”

  Mistaya nodded. “You were her best friend when she was a little girl. You told her about my father before he came into Landover. You help take care of the land and the things that live on it. You can do magic.”

  The Earth Mother laughed softly. “Some little magic. Most of what I do is simply hard work. Do you like magic, then?”

  “Yes, very much. But I am not allowed to use it.”

  “Because it is dangerous for you.”

  “Yes.”

  “But you don’t believe that?”

  Mistaya hesitated. “It is not so much that I don’t believe it. It is more that I don’t see how I can learn to protect myself from its dangers if I never get to use it.”

  The eyes gleamed like silver pools. “A good answer. Ignorance does not protect; knowledge protects. Did you know, Mistaya, that I helped your mother prepare for your birth? I gave her the task of gathering the soils out of which you were born. I did that because I knew something about you that your mother did not
. I knew that magic would be a very important part of your life and that you could not protect yourself from its effects if its elements did not constitute a part of your body. You required earth from the fairy mists as well as from your father’s and mother’s lands.”

  “Am I a fairy creature?” Mistaya asked quickly.

  The Earth Mother shook her head. “You are not so easily defined, child,” she answered. “You are not simply one thing or the other but a mix of several. You are special. There is no one like you in all of Landover. What do you think of that?”

  Mistaya thought. “I suppose I shall have to get used to it.”

  “That will not be so easy to do,” the Earth Mother continued. “There will be obstacles for you to overcome at every turn. You may think that growing up has been difficult, but it will become more difficult still. There are hard lessons ahead for you. There are trials that may undo you if you are not careful. Experience is the necessary teacher for all children growing to adulthood, filled with revelations and discoveries, with disappointments and rewards, and with successes and failures. The trick is in finding a balance to it all and then surviving to turn knowledge into wisdom. This will be doubly hard for you, Mistaya, because yours will be the lessons and trials of three worlds, and you must be especially careful how you go.”

  “I am not afraid,” Mistaya said bravely.

  “I can tell this is so.”

  Mistaya frowned thoughtfully. “Earth Mother, can you see what lies ahead for me? Can you see the future?”

  The Earth Mother’s silver eyes closed and opened slowly like a cat’s. “Oh, child, I wish I could. How easy life would be. But I cannot. What I see are possibilities. The future may be this or that. Usually it may be a handful of things. I see glimpses of dark clouds and rainbows in the lives of those who inhabit my land, and sometimes I can forestall or alter what might be. The future is never fixed, Mistaya. For each of us it is an empty canvas on which we must paint our lives.”

 
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