Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks

  Rydall stood watching, his visor still lowered. “He does not seem afraid,” he offered petulantly.

  Nightshade laughed. “No, not yet. His anger shields him for the moment. He still doubts that we really have his daughter. He will need to make certain of that before fear can take hold. Then my creatures will come for him, one after the other, and the fear will build. He will begin to imagine all sorts of things coming to pass, none of them good. He will search for us and fail to find even the smallest trace. He will despair of hope. Then, I promise, the fear will have him.”

  “He has the sylph for support, don’t forget.”

  There was a flash of anger in Nightshade’s red eyes. “Do not mock me, King Rydall, who never was Rydall or King. You serve at my pleasure; do not forget that.”

  The other stood motionless before her and said nothing, a wall of iron. But she could sense his hesitation and was satisfied. “He has her for now, yes,” she admitted. “But in the end I’ll see her stripped from him as well. In the end he will be left alone.”

  Rydall shifted impatiently. “I would feel better about this if I knew the whole of your plan. What if something goes wrong?”

  She straightened so that she seemed to grow before his eyes. “Nothing will go wrong. I have planned too carefully for that. As for knowing what I intend, it is better for now that I keep some things to myself. You know as much as you need to know.” She gave him a coldly appraising look. “I’ll send you back now. Tend to your affairs and await my summons.”

  Rydall looked away, his armor creaking. “I could have killed him on the bridge and the matter would have been finished then and there. You should have let me.”

  “And spoil what I have worked and planned for these two years past?” Nightshade was incredulous. “I think not. Besides, I am not so sure you are his better. You have never given proof of it.”

  He started to object, a grunt of anger rising from his throat, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Stay silent. You will do as I say. Holiday’s demise is to be left to me. Your part in this is settled. I want no dispute. You are not trying to dispute me, are you?”

  There was a long silence from the other. “No,” he replied finally.

  “Good. If you want Holiday dead, and I know you do, then leave it to me to arrange. Now go.”

  She wove her hands through the air before her, and Rydall disappeared in a rising column of mist. She waited until she was sure he had been dispatched back to where he had come from. She neither liked nor trusted him, but he was useful in this matter and would do as a cat’s-paw until she was finished. Until Holiday was dead.

  She closed her eyes in pleasure as she envisioned the play-King’s final moments. She had pictured it over and over again in her mind, shaping it, honing it, polishing it until it was perfect. She could see every detail of it. She could see him breathing for the final time, see the look in his eyes as he realized what had been done to him, hear the despair in his voice as he tried to cry out.

  Oh, it would happen. It most definitely would. For now, however, there were other matters that needed her attention.

  She brought up her hands one final time. A rush of dark mist engulfed her, and she was gone.

  Ben Holiday was already thinking furiously as he walked back across the causeway and reentered Sterling Silver. Willow had come down from the battlements and was waiting for him. She rushed up, and he held her close in an effort to still the trembling inside them both.

  “We’ll get her back,” he whispered, feeling her fists tighten against his back. “I promise.”

  Then he turned to Bunion, who was trailing behind. “Leave for the lake country right away,” he ordered the kobold. “Tell the River Master that his granddaughter has been kidnapped by Rydall of Marnhull and ask for his help in searching for her. Tell him any assistance he chooses to give will be greatly appreciated. Be sure he understands that she was traveling to his country for safekeeping when she was taken. Keep an eye out for any sign of what might have happened on your journey down. And Bunion,” he added, “be careful yourself. Don’t take any chances. I’ve already lost Questor and Abernathy. I don’t want to lose you as well.”

  The kobold grinned and showed his teeth. It wasn’t likely that anything would happen to a creature that could dispatch a cave wight or a bog wump without breaking a sweat, but Ben was spooked by how easily Rydall had overcome those he had sent to protect Mistaya. If that was what had really happened, of course. He still wasn’t sure, but he had to assume the worst. Bunion’s visit to the River Master was necessary.

  Bunion turned and was gone so swiftly that Ben had to remind himself why he had dispatched his royal messenger in the first place. Kobolds were the fastest creatures alive. A trip to the lake country would take a kobold barely a day. They were strange beings, their bodies all gnarled and bristly, their legs bowed and their arms crooked, their faces monkeylike, and their teeth as numerous and sharp as an alligator’s, an amalgam of bizarre and diverse features. But kobolds had served the Kings of Landover for many years, and they were loyal and tough. Ben knew he could depend on Bunion.

  He started across the entry court, Willow at his side. “I’m going up to use the Landsview. Maybe I can find some trace of Misty. Will you cancel all my appointments for the day? I’ll be down as soon as I can.”

  He climbed to the castle’s highest tower and boarded the Landsview, the magical instrument that allowed its user to travel from one end of Landover to the other without leaving Sterling Silver. He invoked the magic, rose out of the tower as if actually flying, and in his mind’s eye scanned the whole of the countryside without finding his daughter or his friends or any indication of what had happened to them. He made a quick visit to Elderew, the home of the River Master, but there was nothing to show that the once-fairy were aware that anything had happened.

  He went from there to the eastern borders, searching the fringes of the fairy mists from the Fire Springs south, but there was no sign of Rydall or Mistaya or anything that would have led him to either. He looked for Strabo, but the dragon was not to be found. Probably sleeping in one of the fire pits it called home. He moved on to the Melchor north and finally to the Deep Fell, whose hollows were the one place he could not enter from the Landsview. Nightshade’s magic would not permit it. He paused momentarily, thinking that those he searched for could easily be hidden there and he would never know. But it was reaching to imagine that Nightshade was involved in any of this. As much as she hated him, she hated outsiders more. She would never conspire with anyone who intended to invade Landover. Besides, no one had even seen her in months. Ben moved on.

  He spent the whole of the morning searching the countryside for Mistaya and his friends and found not a single trace of any of them. It was as if they had disappeared off the face of the earth. When he finally came back into the chamber and stepped down off the lectern, he was exhausted. Use of the Landsview’s magic had worn him out, and he had nothing to show for it. He was discouraged and frightened. He went down to his bedchamber and fell asleep.

  When he woke, Willow was seated next to him, anxious for any news. But he had none to give her. They spent the remainder of the day going over the agenda of meetings and appointments for the week and ended up canceling most. Some had to be kept because there were obligations that could not wait. But it was a desultory effort at best, and Ben could think of little besides his missing daughter and friends. He did not know what to do next. It seemed there was nothing he could do other than wait on Rydall’s challengers. Three days he had been given. Then the first would appear. He did not speak of it with Willow, but he could see in her eyes and hear in her voice that she was thinking of it, too. A battle to the death seven times over if he was to survive. A use seven times of the Paladin’s armored body and battle skills. A giving over of himself seven times to the life and memories of a being whose only purpose was to destroy the King’s enemies. It was a thoroughly terrifying prospect.

  They slept
poorly that night, waking often to hold each other, lying close in the silence and thinking of what the days ahead promised. Ben had never felt so empty. It seemed on reflection that he had betrayed Mistaya by sending her away, that he should have kept her close beside him. Perhaps that way he could have protected her better from Rydall. He did not say so to Willow, of course. It was easy to engage in second-guessing now, when it was too late to matter, when things were over and done. There was nothing to be gained by rehashing the “what ifs” of the situation. All that remained was to try to find some way to make things right again. But how was he to do that? What was left to try?

  By noon of the following day Bunion was back. He had met with the River Master. Mistaya and the others had never reached Elderew. No one among the once-fairy had any idea what had happened to them. There was no sign they had ever passed that way.

  Ben Holiday and Willow exchanged a long, helpless look and tried to hide their despair.


  Mistaya woke to find herself shrouded in hazy light and deep silence. She lay upon the ground, still wrapped in her blanket but far from the place where she had fallen asleep. She knew that instinctively. She knew as well that she had slept for a long time. She was still drowsy, her limbs were stiff, her eyes were blurry, and her entire body was filled with the sort of heaviness that comes only after a deep sleep. Something had happened to her. Something unexpected.

  She rose to a sitting position and looked around. She was alone. There was no sign of Questor, Abernathy, or the King’s Guards. There was no trace of Haltwhistle. The animals were gone, and her baggage and carriage were missing. She was not surprised. She had been taken away from all that while she slept. She did not think she was even in the lake country anymore. The look of things was all wrong. She glanced skyward. There was no sky to be seen. There were trees all about, but they were ancient and webbed with vines and moss. The light was gray and thick with mist. It smelled and tasted of damp earth and decay. Strangely enough, it seemed familiar.

  She stood up and brushed herself off. She was not afraid. She should have been, she supposed, but she was not. At least not yet. There was a strangeness to things that she could not explain, but she had not been harmed in any way. She wondered what had happened to her friends, but she was not yet ready to conclude that she was in any danger.

  She peered about carefully, turning a full circle to spy out anything that might be spied, and discovered nothing but the old-growth trees and the misty silence.

  When she had completed her circle, she found herself face to face with a tall, regal woman.

  “Welcome, Mistaya,” the woman said, smiling. A cold smile.

  “Where am I?” Mistaya asked, thinking as she did, I know this woman. I know her. But how?

  “You are in the Deep Fell,” the woman answered, calm and still against the half-light. She was cloaked in black. Her hair was black with a single white streak down the middle. Her skin was alabaster white. Her eyes …

  “You remember me, don’t you?” the woman said, making it more a statement of fact than a question.

  “Yes,” Mistaya answered, certain now that she did, yet unable to remember why. This was the Deep Fell, the woman had said, and only one person lived in the Deep Fell. “You are Nightshade.”

  “I am,” Nightshade answered, pleased. The eyes, silver before, turned suddenly red.

  “You are the bird, the crow,” the girl said suddenly. “From the picnic. You were watching me.”

  Nightshade’s smile broadened. “I was. And you were watching me, weren’t you? Your memory is excellent.”

  Mistaya looked about uncertainly. “What am I doing here? Did you bring me?”

  The witch nodded. “I did. You were asleep when your camp was attacked by those in service to King Rydall of Marnhull, the man who came recently to your father’s castle. Do you remember him?”

  Mistaya nodded.

  “The attack was sudden and unexpected. It was made in an effort to kidnap you. If you were in Rydall’s power, then he might force your father to do as he seeks—to relinquish the crown of Landover and go into exile. Your parents thought Rydall would not know of your journey to the lake country and your grandfather, but he is more dangerous than they suspected. It was fortunate that I was keeping an eye out for you, that I was concerned for your safety. I was able to spirit you away before you were taken. I brought you here, to the Deep Fell, to be with me.”

  Mistaya said nothing, but her eyes gave her away.

  “You do not believe me, do you?” Nightshade said.

  Mistaya’s lips compressed into a tight line. “My father would not want me here,” she said quietly.

  “Because we are not Mends and he does not trust me,” the witch acknowledged with a shrug. “That is true. But the fact of the matter is that he knows you are here and can do what he chooses with the information.”

  Mistaya frowned. “He knows?”

  “Of course. I have already sent word. Secretly, of course, so that Rydall will not know. I was forced to act swiftly when the attack came, so I could not leave word with your friends. I think they are well, but I could not stay to make certain. Questor Thews seemed to be holding his own, and I suspect that with you gone, the attack would have been withdrawn rather quickly. After all, there was no point in continuing it.”

  “Because I was with you.”

  “Exactly. But Rydall does not know that. He thinks you are returned to Sterling Silver or gone on to Elderew to be with your grandfather. Neither place is safe, of course. He will be looking for you there. He will not think to look for you here. You are better off with me until this matter is resolved. Your father will agree with that once he thinks it through.”

  Mistaya shuffled her feet, thinking hard. None of this seemed right to her. “How do you know about Rydall? Why have you been watching me?”

  “I am interested in you, Mistaya,” Nightshade answered slowly. “I know things about you that even you do not know. I wanted to tell them to you, but I wasn’t sure how to do so. I was following you, waiting for a chance. I know how your father and mother feel about me. We have not always been on good terms. At times we have fought. But we share a common interest in you.” She paused. “Do you know, Mistaya, that you were born in the Deep Fell?”

  Mistaya’s brow furrowed. “I was?”

  “Your mother didn’t tell you, did she? I thought not.” Nightshade moved to one side. She seemed unconcerned with everything as she gazed off into the trees. “Did she tell you that you can do magic?”

  Mistaya’s mouth dropped. Interest flickered in her emerald eyes. “I can? Real magic?”

  “Of course. Every witch can do magic.” Nightshade glanced over, and her red eyes glittered. “You knew you were a witch, didn’t you?”

  Mistaya took a very deep breath before answering. “No, I didn’t. Are you lying to me?”

  Nightshade gave no answer. Instead, she gestured vaguely at the air before her, and a table and two chairs appeared. The table was covered with a scarlet cloth and laden with fruit, nuts, bread, cheese, and cider. “Sit down,” said the witch. “We shall have something to eat while we talk.”

  Mistaya hesitated, but hunger won out over reticence, and she took the chair opposite Nightshade. Still cautious, she tried a nut and then a slice of cheese. Both tasted wonderful, so she went on to the rest of the foodstuffs and a cup of the cider. Nightshade sat opposite her and chewed absently on a slice of bread.

  “I will tell you something, Mistaya,” she said. “I brought you here because the opportunity presented itself, and I was afraid it would not come again. It was chance, of course. If I had waited for you to come on your own or for your parents to send you—if I had been bold enough to make the request, for there would have been no offer from them—you probably would not have come at all. I do not begrudge that. I understand the way of things. I am not well thought of in many quarters and by many people. I am sure you have heard bad things about me.”

>   Mistaya glanced up from her eating, a flicker of concern in her green eyes. But there was no threat in the witch’s voice and none mirrored on her face.

  “You needn’t be afraid of me,” Nightshade assured her. “You are here to be kept safe, not to be harmed. You are free to leave whenever you wish. But I would like you to hear me out first. Will you agree to that?”

  Mistaya thought it over, chewing on a handful of nuts, then nodded.

  “Good. You are perceptive. I meant what I said about you being safer here than with your family.” Nightshade made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “Rydall is an outsider, a pretender to the throne, a conqueror of lesser lands who would add Landover to his holdings. Whatever differences your father and I have shared, we agree on one thing. Landover should not be ruled by Rydall. I am a witch, Mistaya, and witches know things that others do not. They hear of them first and comprehend them more fully. Rydall was known to me the moment he crossed out of the mists with his black-cloaked companion. His wizard, I discovered. A very powerful being, one who is, perhaps, as powerful as me. I knew of them and shadowed them on their visit to your home. I heard their demands. I knew what they would do. When they came for you, I was waiting.”

  She looked off into the trees again, contemplative. “But I had other reasons for intervening at the time I chose. I wanted to bring you here. I wanted you to spend time with me in the Deep Fell. The chance would not come again, I felt. So I was anxious to take advantage of it. I think it is important that you hear the truth about yourself—important to you and to me.”

  “To you?” Mistaya looked doubtful.

  “Yes, Mistaya.” Nightshade’s hands caressed each other like small white mice. “I am the Witch of the Deep Fell, the only witch in all of Landover, and I have waited a long time for there to be another. I want to reveal what I know. I want to talk with someone who shares my passion for magic. You are that person.”

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