Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks


  She saw the hopelessness in their eyes as she finished and waited for them to react. Questor Thews was already trying furtively to gather back his scattered magic in a spell of protection, his gnarled fingers working in the shadow of his skinny body. She smiled at the futility of his effort.

  None of them saw Haltwhistle edge out of the forest shadows to stand just within the clearing far to one side, splayed feet padding gingerly, sad eyes watchful.

  “What do you intend to do to us?” Abernathy demanded, risking a quick glance over his shoulder at Mistaya. He was wondering why she did not wake up.

  “Yes, Nightshade, what?” Questor Thews pressed. He was trying to give them more time so that he could complete the forming of his spell, not realizing that he was already far too late. “Would you turn us into rocks as well?”

  Nightshade smiled. “No, wizard, I would not bother with anything so prosaic where you are concerned. Nor you, scribe. You have been a constant source of irritation to me, but you have interfered for the last time. Your lives end here. No one will ever see either of you again.”

  There was a moment in which time froze, the witch’s words drifting away on the crackle of the fire. Then Questor Thews’s hands came up, magic flaring in a wide arc before him. Abernathy turned swiftly toward Mistaya and reached down in an attempt to snatch her up. Nightshade laughed. Her arms extended, green fire exploded from her fingertips, and her magic rushed forward in a surge of energy and dark intent to engulf her victims.

  As all this was happening, Haltwhistle’s head drooped, his body slumped, the hackles on the back of his neck rose, and something akin to a mix of moonlight and frost rose off his cringing form and rocketed across the clearing. An instant before Nightshade’s magic struck Questor Thews and Abernathy, smashing the wizard’s flimsy shield to smithereens, the moon/frost reached them first.

  Then the witch fire consumed them, and they were gone in an instant’s time. Nothing remained but smoke and the stench of something charred and ruined.

  Nightshade wheeled about. What was it she had seen? That odd glow come out of nowhere? Her eyes swept the clearing quickly, then reached into the woods beyond. Nothing. She narrowed her gaze. There had been something, hadn’t there? She lifted her hands and sent witch light deep into the trees, seeking out any living thing concealed there. Small rodents, insects, and a handful of ground birds scattered before her power. But there was nothing else.

  She turned back finally, vaguely dissatisfied. The clearing was empty of everyone save herself and the girl. The King’s Guards had been turned to stones. The wizard and the dog were gone, never to be seen again. Everything had happened as she had intended. She was free to continue with her plans.

  Still …

  She brushed aside her misgivings in annoyance, walked over to the sleeping girl, and stared down at her. So much to be done with you, little one, she thought in satisfaction. So many lessons to be taught, so many secrets to be revealed, so many tricks to be played. Can you hear what I am thinking?

  The girl stirred within her blankets, dreaming.

  Yes, sleep on, the Witch of the Deep Fell urged silently. Tomorrow your new life begins.

  She bent down then and lifted the girl into the cradle of her arms. Light, like a feather quilt, she was. Nightshade stared down at her new child and smiled.

  Then she turned the air about them to icy mist. A moment later the clearing was deserted.

  Challenge

  Exactly three days after his first appearance Rydall of Marnhull returned to Sterling Silver. This time Ben Holiday was waiting.

  Ben never doubted that Rydall would come to make good on his promise. The only unanswered question was, What form of coercion would Marnhull’s King employ to persuade Ben to accede to his ludicrous demands? Awake before sunrise, Ben had thought to take a run in an effort to clear his mind. A carryover from his boxing days, he still trained regularly, a regimen of running, weights, and workouts on the light and heavy bags. Sometimes he boxed with members of the King’s Guards, but there was no one sufficiently skilled at the sport to give him much competition. Or maybe they thought it better for him to think as much. So mostly he trained alone. This morning he prepared to run, then lost interest. Instead, he climbed atop the battlements with Willow and Bunion to watch for the sunrise and Rydall.

  The night had been chilly, and when the darkness began to ease to the west and the east to brighten, he found that during the night a low fog had moved out of the trees and down into the meadow fronting the castle. It lay across the damp grasses in a thick gray smudge that ran from the woods all the way to the waters of the lake. When the sun broke against the eastern horizon in a silvery splash, the fog inched back from the water’s edge where the causeway bridged to the castle, and there was Rydall. He sat atop his charger, all armored and bristling with weapons, his silent black-cloaked companion hunched atop his own dark steed, the two of them looking just as before, just as if they had never left.

  Ben stared down from the castle walls without speaking, waiting them out. The gauntlet cast down by Rydall three days earlier still lay in the center of the causeway. Ben had ordered it removed, but no one had been able to comply with his demand. It was as if the gauntlet had been nailed to the bridge. No one could lift it; no one could budge it, for that matter—not even Questor Thews. Some form of magic held it in place, and nothing short of tearing up the bridge was going to get it out of there. Ben was not that desperate, so the gauntlet had stayed where it was.

  It lay there now, gleaming faintly with the damp, a reminder of what Marnhull’s King had promised.

  “Holiday!” Rydall called out sharply. No use of “King” or “High Lord” this time. No pretense of respect. “Have you given further thought to my demand?”

  “My answer is the same!” Ben shouted back. He felt Willow move in close beside him. “You knew it would be!”

  Rydall’s horse stamped impatiently. Rydall’s hand lifted in a dismissive gesture. “Then I must ask you to change it. Rather, I must insist. You no longer have a choice. Things have changed since we last spoke. I have your daughter.”

  There was a long silence. Willow’s hands fastened tightly on Ben’s arm, and he heard her sharp intake of breath. Ben’s throat constricted in response to the words. I have your daughter. But Mistaya was safe. She was two days gone into the lake country with her grandfather, safely beyond Rydall’s reach.

  Wasn’t she?

  “I told you I would find a way to convince you to listen to me,” Rydall continued, breaking the momentary silence. “I think now that you must. Your daughter is important to you, I assume.”

  Ben was trembling with rage. “This is another of your games, Rydall! I have had just about all of you I can stand!”

  The dismissive gesture came again. “That remains to be seen. I don’t expect you to take my word for what I tell you, in any case. Not you, Holiday. You are the sort of man who demands proof even when the truth is staring him in the face. Very well, then.”

  He whistled, and a pair of horses appeared from out of the blanket of low-lying fog. Ben felt his heart sink as they came closer. One was Lightfoot, and the other Owl. There was no mistaking their markings. They came past Rydall and started across the bridge.

  “Send someone down and have them bring you what they find tied to the pony’s saddle,” Rydall called up once more.

  Ben looked over at Bunion. The kobold raced away instantly, a dark blur against the castle stone. Unable to speak, burning with anger, Ben stood with Willow pressed close against him. A moment later Bunion was back. There was no expression on his strange, wizened face. He handed Ben a necklace and a scarf. Ben studied them closely and, sick at heart, handed them to Willow. They belonged to Mistaya. She had been wearing them when she had left for the lake country.

  “Oh, Ben,” Willow whispered softly.

  “Where are Questor Thews and Abernathy?” Ben shouted down to Rydall. “Where are the men of their escort?”

&
nbsp; “Safely tucked away,” Rydall answered. “Are you ready to hear my demands now, High Lord of Landover?”

  Ben choked back the emotions that threatened to steal away his good sense. He put his arm around Willow as much to steady himself as to steady her. He was still not willing to accept what he was being told. It was not conceivable that Rydall could have taken Mistaya so easily. How had he managed it? How could he have overcome her escort? Questor Thews and Abernathy would have died before giving her up.

  “Rydall!” he called down suddenly, shocking himself with the strength he found in his voice. “I will not surrender Landover’s throne or her people for any reason. I will not be blackmailed. You seem comfortable with preying on small children, and that makes me doubt your claims of conquest with armies numbering in the thousands. I think you are a coward.”

  Rydall laughed. “Brave words for a man in your position. But I do not begrudge them. Nor, in fact, do I expect you to hand over the throne now any more than I did before. I took your daughter not to blackmail you into accepting my demands but to persuade you to hear me out. You would not do so before. You must now. Listen well, then. You can ill afford not to, I think.”

  Rydall pointed to the gauntlet. “The challenge I offer is not the one you have anticipated. As I said, I do not expect you to hand over your throne. I made the demand because, of course, I must. A King must always try what is easiest first. It is in the nature of conquest. Sometimes an opponent will accede. I did not think you would be one who would, but it was necessary to find out. Now we are past that, past game playing, past negotiation, and are face to face with reality. I have your daughter and your friends. You have my kingdom. One of us must give something up. Which of us is it to be?”

  Rydall brought his horse forward onto the edge of the causeway. “I think it must be you, King of Landover, but I am willing to settle the matter in an honorable way. A challenge, then, as I have said. The challenge is this. I will send seven champions to face you. Each will come at a time of my choosing. Each will be of a different form. All will come to kill you. If you prevent them from doing so, if you are able to kill them first, all seven of them, then I will free your daughter and friends and abandon my claim to Landover. But if any of them succeeds, then your kingdom will be forfeit and your family will be sent into exile for all time. Do you accept? If you do, walk out upon the causeway and pick up my gauntlet.”

  Ben stared down at the other in disbelief. “He’s crazy,” he whispered to Willow, who nodded wordlessly.

  “You have a champion of your own to defend you,” Rydall continued. “Everyone knows of the Paladin, the King’s knight-errant and protector. You shall have some form of defense against the creatures I send.” Creatures now, Ben thought. Not champions. “I understand that no one has ever defeated the Paladin. That means you have a more than reasonable chance of winning, doesn’t it? Do you accept?”

  Still Ben did not respond, his mind racing as he considered the proposal. It was ridiculous, but it was the only chance he had to get Mistaya back. It gave him time to find out where she was and perhaps rescue her. And Questor Thews, Abernathy, and his soldiers. But the bargain itself was insane! His life measured against Rydall’s seven killers? If he accepted this challenge, if he went down on the causeway and picked up that gauntlet, he would be bound as surely as by his most sacred oath. There were witnesses to this—members of his castle staff, King’s Guards and retainers—and Landover’s laws would not allow him to forsake his word once it was given. He might kill Rydall and be relieved of it, but the options offered were extreme and narrowly drawn.

  “If you do not accept,” Rydall shouted out suddenly, “I shall have your daughter and your friends tied to horses and set before my armies as we sweep into your kingdom. They shall die first, before any of my men. I would regret this, but it would be necessary if I were to ask my men to give up their lives as the price of your stubbornness. I told you once before, I prefer to gain your kingdom without bloodshed. You might prefer the same—if for different reasons. My challenge gives you that chance. Do you accept?”

  Ben was thinking now that if he did, he must also accept the fact that he would be required to become the Paladin in order to stay alive—not once or twice but seven times. It was his worst fear. He struggled constantly with what giving himself over to his alter ego meant. Each time it became increasingly more difficult to keep from losing his own identity. Becoming the Paladin meant complete submersion into the other’s being. Each time it was a little harder coming back out of the armored shell, out of the memories, out of the life that was his champion’s. If he accepted Rydall’s challenge, he would be facing the prospect not only of being killed in combat but of being transformed forever into his darker half.

  “High Lord, do you accept?” Rydall demanded again. “No, do not!” Willow exclaimed suddenly, seizing his arm. “There is more to this than what you are being told! There is something hidden behind Rydall’s words! I can sense it, Ben!” She moved in front of him. There were tears in her eyes. Her voice was so quiet, he could barely hear her speak. “Even if we must lose Mistaya, do not accept.”

  What it must have cost her to say this, Ben could not begin to guess. She was fiercely protective of Mistaya. She would do anything to keep her safe. But she was giving him a chance to save himself anyway. She loved him that much.

  He folded her into his arms and held her close. “I have to try,” he told her softly. “If I don’t, how will I live with myself afterward?”

  He kissed her, then turned away. Beckoning Bunion to follow, he crossed the parapets to the stairway leading down. “Wait for me here,” he called back to Willow.

  He went down the stairway thinking of what he must do once he picked up the gauntlet. His options were few. He must find Mistaya, Questor, Abernathy, and his Guards and set them free. That was first. Then he must persuade Rydall to withdraw his challenge and his threat to Landover. Or, if he was unable to do that, kill him. The alternative was to face Rydall’s seven challengers and hope that he killed them before they killed him. Or was he required to kill them? Perhaps he could simply defeat them. But Rydall had not made it seem as if that were an option. “Creatures” Rydall had called them the second time. Ben found himself wondering what sort of creatures they would be.

  He crossed the courtyard to the main gates, Bunion a step behind, the kobold’s teeth clenched in a frightening grimace. It was clear what he was thinking. “Let them be, Bunion,” Ben cautioned softly. “We need Mistaya and the others back first.”

  The kobold grunted something in response, and Ben hoped it was the answer he was seeking.

  He walked through the main gates and out onto the causeway. The day was brightening, the sky clear and blue, the last of the fog dissipating on the meadow fronting the castle’s lake. Rydall and his silent companion sat atop their horses and waited. Ben moved out onto the causeway, alert for any treachery, his anger growing with every step he took. Perhaps Bunion had the right idea. How hard would it be to summon the Paladin and put an end to Rydall once and for all? Easy enough if he chose to do it, he thought. But where would that leave Mistaya?

  He wondered suddenly if this was all an elaborate trick, if the horses, the necklace, and the scarf were lures to bring him out into the open. He wondered if Rydall really did have Mistaya and her escort as his prisoners. He surmised that it could all be a clever lie.

  But he knew in his heart it wasn’t.

  He reached the far end of the causeway and stopped. The riders stared down at him from atop their chargers. Wordlessly Ben reached down for the gauntlet. It came away from the bridge easily, as if nothing more than force of will had held it in place those three days past. Ben straightened and looked directly at Rydall. Marnhull’s King was much bigger than he had first thought, a man of surprising size and undoubted strength. His black-cloaked companion, on the other hand, seemed smaller. The faces of both were carefully hidden beneath helmet and hood, respectively.

  Be
n flung the gauntlet back at Rydall. The big man caught it easily and waved it in mock salute.

  “Do not mistake this for anything but what it is, Rydall,” Ben said quietly. “And know this. If anything happens to Mistaya or Questor Thews or Abernathy or one of my Guards, I will hunt you down even if I am required to descend into the fires of Abaddon!”

  Rydall bent forward. “You will never have to search that far for me, Holiday. Nor think for one moment that I would be afraid of you if you did.” He tightened his reins and swung his horse about. “Three days, High Lord of Landover. The first of my creatures comes for you then. If I were you, I would start thinking about how to stay alive.”

  He kicked his mount sharply, and the warhorse leapt away. Once again his black-cloaked companion lingered. Ben could feel eyes studying him from within the hood’s deep shadows, as if trying to discover something. Fear, perhaps? Ben held his ground, staring back determinedly. Then Bunion was beside him, hissing furiously at the rider, all teeth and claws as he advanced.

  The second rider wheeled away then and galloped after Rydall across the meadow. Ben stood with his kobold protector and watched until they had disappeared into the trees.

  Safely back within the forest shadows where even the new light had not yet penetrated, the riders reined to a halt and dismounted. Nightshade threw off the cloak that had concealed her and, discarding the cramped and hunched form she had assumed as her disguise, restored her body to its normal shape. Her hands lifted then to form a brief spell of invisibility, protection against the unlikely event that someone would stumble across them. When the spell was in place, she used her magic a second time to change the horses back into tiny green and black striped lizards that quickly skittered up her arm and into the folds of her robes.

 
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