Witches' Brew by Terry Brooks

  Mistaya had stopped eating. She was staring at Nightshade, entranced. “I thought I might have magic,” she said quietly, hesitantly, thinking of the Earth Mother. “Sometimes I could almost feel it. But I wasn’t sure.”

  “You are unschooled in its use, untrained in its calling, and the truth of its existence has been kept from you. But the magic is yours,” Nightshade said. “It has always been yours.”

  “Why wasn’t I told?” Mistaya was still not convinced, but she was beginning to explore the possibilities. “Why did my parents and even Questor tell me that use of the magic—of any magic—was dangerous? Are you saying they lied to me?”

  Nightshade shook her head. “Of course not. They would never do that. They simply kept from you what they felt you were not yet ready to know. In time they would have told you everything. I think they were mistaken in keeping it from you for as long as they did, of course. But now there are other reasons to tell you, ones that have nothing to do with a difference of opinion between your parents and me, ones that have everything to do with the coming of Rydall and the danger he poses to your father.”

  “What danger?” Mistaya asked at once. “Tell me.”

  But Nightshade shook her head and held up one slim hand. “Patience, Mistaya. Let me tell you things in my own way. You can make up your mind when I am finished.”

  She rose again, and Mistaya rose with her. Nightshade gestured briefly, and the table with its food and drink disappeared. The clearing in which they stood was empty again, save for them. Nightshade smiled at Mistaya. The same cold smile. But it seemed more comforting to the girl this time, more acceptable. She found herself smiling back almost without being aware of it.

  “We shall be friends, you and I,” the witch said, arching one eyebrow toward the beginning of the white streak in her black hair. “We shall tell each other all our secrets. Come with me.”

  She moved across the clearing and into the woods without looking back. Mistaya followed, curious now, anxious to hear more of what the other would tell her. She was no longer thinking of the circumstances that had brought her to the Deep Fell. She was not even thinking of her parents or Questor Thews or Abernathy. She was thinking instead of her magic, the magic she had always known she possessed, the magic she had so desperately coveted. Now, at last, it was going to be revealed to her. She could sense it in the tall woman’s words.

  When they had gone a short distance into the trees, back where the haze was thick enough to cut and the light was drawn thin, Nightshade stopped and turned to face the girl.

  “You are not easily frightened, are you, Mistaya?” she asked. Mistaya shook her head. “You do not find the use of magic a cause for tears and huddling under covers as some children do when a storm comes with its lightning and thunder?”

  Mistaya shook her head again, this time looking absolutely defiant. “I am not frightened of anything!” she said bravely, and almost meant it.

  Nightshade nodded, eyes silver and serene once more. “I brought you here to the Deep Fell because you are a witch. A witch,” she repeated emphatically, “like me. You were born in the Deep Fell, born of soil which has been consecrated time and again by my magic, born of a heritage of fairy blood, born into a world in which the strong and the certain are blessed with the use of power. You are something of an enigma to your parents because of this. An enigma. Do you know the word?”

  Mistaya nodded. “A mystery.”

  “Yes, a mystery. Because there is not another like you in all of Landover. You have abilities they do not even suspect. You have magic that only I can comprehend. I can teach you to harness your power and use it well. No one else can do for you what I can. Not your parents. Not Questor Thews. Not anyone. None of them share in being what we are—witches—and so none of them can give you what you need. Yes, use of the magic can be very dangerous indeed. There is no secret in that. But the danger comes in not understanding what it is the magic can do and in making certain that you always know how to control it. Do you see?”

  Mistaya nodded once more, eager now, excited by the implicit promise of the other’s words.

  “Good. Here, then.” Nightshade bent down and plucked a wildflower with its buds still unopened. She held it up before Mistaya. Then she lifted one finger and caressed a tiny bud. The bud shuddered and blossomed into a crimson flower. “See? Magic brought it to life. Now you try.”

  She handed the stalk with its multiple buds and single open flower to Mistaya, who took it tentatively and held it before her as if it were made of glass.

  “Concentrate on one bud,” the Witch of the Deep Fell said. “Concentrate on how it will look as it opens into a flower. Bring the feeling of its coming to life deep within your body, deep down where there is only darkness and the pictures we form in our imaginations. Concentrate on the flower you would make and then reach up slowly and touch the bud.”

  Mistaya did as she was told, focusing every ounce of energy on a mental picture of the bud opening into a flower. She reached up and touched the bud gently, hesitantly.

  The bud opened halfway and stopped.

  “Very good, Mistaya,” Nightshade offered, taking the stalk from her hand and casting it aside. “Was that so hard?”

  Mistaya shook her head quickly. Her mouth was dry, and her heart was pounding. She had actually performed magic. She had felt the bud respond to her touch, had watched it shudder slightly, just as it had for Nightshade. But there had been more. There had been a ripple of something smooth and silvery deep down inside her that caressed like a cat and left her warm and anxious for more.

  Nightshade’s slender hand brushed her own. Mistaya did not mind the touch. It seemed familiar and therefore comfortable. “Try this,” the witch said.

  She reached down and picked up a black and orange striped caterpillar. The caterpillar rolled into a ball in the palm of her hand, then unrolled again after a moment and began to inch its way to safety. The witch reached down and touched the caterpillar, and it was turned instantly to gold.

  “Now you change it back again,” she instructed, holding out her open palm with the caterpillar to Mistaya. “Concentrate. Picture in your mind what it is you intend to do. Reach down inside yourself for the feeling of it happening.”

  Mistaya wet her lips, then compressed them. She focused as hard as she could on the caterpillar, envisioning it alive, seeing it turn from metal to organic matter. She saw it in her mind, then felt it in her heart. She reached down and touched the caterpillar.

  The caterpillar turned orange and black once more and began to crawl away.

  “I did it!” she breathed excitedly. “Did you see? I did it! I used magic!”

  She forgot everything in that instant: her doubts, her questions, her parents, and her friends. Nightshade brushed the caterpillar away and bent down quickly in front of the girl, her eyes as sharp as cut glass.

  “Now you understand, Mistaya. Now you see the truth of what you can do. But that was nothing, that little bit of magic you just performed. That was only the beginning of what you can accomplish. But you must listen to what I tell you. You must study the lessons I give you. You must practice what I show you. You must work very hard. Are you willing to do that?”

  Mistaya nodded eagerly, blond hair shimmering with the jungle damp, eyes as bright as a cat’s in a cave. “Yes, I am. But …” She stopped then, catching herself as she remembered anew the circumstances of her being in the Deep Fell. “My father …”

  “Your father knows you are here and will come for you if he feels you should not stay,” Nightshade answered smoothly, quickly. “The question you must answer is whether or not you wish to stay. The choice is really yours now. But before you make that choice, there is something else you must know. Remember I told you there was another reason for your being here with me, for being told of your potential, for exploring your magic?”

  She waited expectantly. Mistaya hesitated, then nodded. “I remember. You said you would tell me later.”

; Nightshade smiled. “Close enough. In my own time and way, I said. So listen carefully now. Rydall of Marnhull has come to your father again since your leaving. He has told your father that he will use the magic of his wizard to destroy him. Questor Thews will try to protect your father, but he lacks sufficient power to do so. Rydall’s wizard is much more powerful.”

  She raised one slender finger and touched Mistaya gently on the tip of her nose. Like a snake’s kiss. “But you have the potential, Mistaya, to be even more powerful. You have the magic, still latent but undeniably contained within you, to defeat Rydall and his wizard and save your father. I sense that power, and it is for this reason that I thought it right to bring you here and prepare you for your destiny. For you will be a witch of no small consequence, and a King’s daughter as well, and your mastery of your heritage as both will determine the course of your life.”

  Mistaya stared openmouthed. “I will be able to save my father? My magic will be that strong?”

  “As strong as any you could possibly imagine.” The witch paused, smiling anew, suddenly intense. “Didn’t the Earth Mother tell you any of this?”

  “Yes, she …” Mistaya hesitated, thinking all at once that she should not reveal everything to someone who already knew so much. Her meeting with the Earth Mother, after all, was supposed to be a secret. “She told me something of my heritage but left me to discover for myself the nature of any magic I possessed or for my parents to tell me of it when they were ready.”

  She wondered suddenly about Haltwhistle. Where was the mud puppy? Had he, too, been left behind in the attack when Nightshade had brought her to the Deep Fell? She wanted to ask the witch, but once more something kept her from speaking. Nightshade had not mentioned Haltwhistle when she spoke of the others. Perhaps she did not know of the mud puppy.

  “The Earth Mother is your friend, as she was your mother’s,” Nightshade continued. “A good friend, I expect, isn’t she?” Mistaya nodded. “She brought you to her just before the attack. I was watching. Did she warn you it was coming?”

  “No,” Mistaya answered, again thinking, Why doesn’t she know this?

  “What was it that she wanted with you, then?” the other softly asked. “Tell me.”

  Mistaya shrugged, a reflex pure and simple. She was outwardly calm, inwardly cold. Something was happening here that she didn’t understand. She managed a small smile. “She warned me that there would be danger ahead and that I must be wary of it. She said I would need to keep my wits about me.”

  She waited, the smile frozen on her face as the witch stared deep into her eyes. She doesn’t believe me! she was thinking, and wondered all at once why that mattered and what it was that frightened her so.

  Then Nightshade’s eyes lowered, and she rose. Her slim white hands came to rest on Mistaya’s small shoulders. “Do you want to stay with me in the Deep Fell, Mistaya? Do you want to study magic with me?”

  Mistaya was soothed by the touch, encouraged by the words, and reassured as swiftly as she had been made to doubt. “How long would I stay?” she asked tentatively, still thinking of her father.

  “As long as you wish. You may leave at any time. But,” the witch said, and bent down again, her face close, “once you leave to go back to your home, you leave for good. That is the way of things. Once you begin your training, you must remain until it is completed or give it up entirely.”

  “But if my father comes for me, then what?”

  “Then we will speak with him, and a decision will be reached,” the other answered. “But Mistaya, you must understand this. Magic is a fragile vessel, one that carries great power but can shatter like glass. It cannot be left untended once it is brought out into the open. So if we are to begin your lessons, you must agree to see them through to their completion. Can you do that?”

  Mistaya thought of the way the bud had flowered and the caterpillar had come to life. She thought of the feeling of the magic simmering inside her, smooth and silky. Her misgivings about her circumstances in coming to the Deep Fell seemed inconsequential compared to that.

  “I can,” she answered firmly.

  “So you agree to stay?”

  Mistaya nodded, a child’s determined affirmation. “I do.”

  Nightshade smiled down at her benevolently. “Then we shall begin at once. Come with me.” She turned away and started back toward the clearing. “Now, there are rules to be heeded, Mistaya,” she said as they walked through the haze. “You must listen to me and do as I say. You must never use your magic without me. You must use your magic in the ways I tell you even when you do not understand what it is that I am trying to teach. And—”

  She glanced back to make certain Mistaya’s eyes found her own. “You must never leave the Deep Fell without me.” She let the words sink in. “Because Rydall will be looking for you, and I would never forgive myself if you were to fall into his hands through my carelessness. So we shall stay close to each other while you remain in my charge. Never leave the hollow. Do you understand?”

  Mistaya nodded. She did.

  The witch turned away, and although Mistaya could not see, there was a satisfied smile on her smooth, cold face. There was triumph in her red-tinged eyes.

  They spent all that day working on Nightshade’s lessons. Some were incomprehensible to Mistaya, just as the witch had warned. Some were exercises that lacked any discernible purpose. Some were charged with power that Mistaya could feel flowing out of her like the pulse through her body when she ran. Some were so gentle and serene that they lacked any feeling at all and were only words or small gestures on the air.

  When the day ended, Mistaya was left with mixed feelings about what she had accomplished. On the one hand, she had felt and seen the magic that lay buried within her, a strange, ephemeral creature that stirred to life and flashed brief glimpses of its visage as she sought to lure it from its den. On the other hand, the ways in which it appeared and was used were enigmatic and unrevealing. Nightshade seemed satisfied, but Mistaya was left confused.

  Once, for instance, they had worked at creating a monster. The monster had been one of Mistaya’s own choosing, the girl urged on in her creativity by her new mentor, encouraged to make her creature as invulnerable as she could imagine it. Nightshade had been particularly pleased with her efforts there. She had said it was very good. She had said they would try another tomorrow.

  Monsters? Mistaya did not understand, but then, she had been told she would not at times, hadn’t she?

  Rolled up in the blanket by the fire that the witch had allowed her for warmth—Nightshade herself seemed to need no nurturing of that sort—she stared out into the darkness of the Deep Fell, out into the silent gloom, and wondered if she was doing the right thing. Discovering the magic she possessed was exciting, but there was a forbidden quality to its study that she could not ignore. Would her father really approve? He must, if he did not come for her. But then, perhaps he did not know what it was that she was doing with Nightshade. If he did and wanted her to stop, what would she do? She wasn’t sure. It was true that she was safer here than in places where Rydall would know to look for her. It was also true that it was much more interesting here. Nightshade was fascinating, filled with strange knowledge, possessed of exotic lore. Although she was clearly the teacher, she treated Mistaya as an equal in their studies, and Mistaya liked that. She coveted the respect she was accorded here, something that had been denied her at home.

  She would stay awhile, she decided. Long enough to see what would happen. She could always leave, after all. Nightshade had said so. She could leave whenever she wished if she was willing to pay the penalty of losing her instruction.

  Yes, she would stay on a bit longer.

  She thought again of Haltwhistle. He would always be with her, the Earth Mother had promised. Was that so? He did not require food or drink or looking after. Mistaya needed only to say his name at least once each day to keep him close.

  Her hand came up to her mouth. She had not
done that. She had not said his name even once. She had not thought to do so.

  She opened her mouth and stopped. Nightshade did not know of the mud puppy. What would she say? Would she send Haltwhistle away? And Mistaya as well?

  Mistaya’s mouth tightened. Well, it didn’t make any difference if the mud puppy wasn’t there. She might as well find out before she worried about any of the rest of it.

  “Haltwhistle,” she said softly, almost inaudibly.

  Instantly the mud puppy was next to her, staring down at her from out of the darkness with those great, soulful eyes. Elated, she started to reach for him and stopped. You must never touch a mud puppy, the Earth Mother had warned. Never.

  “Hey, boy,” she whispered, smiling. Haltwhistle thumped his odd tail in response.

  “Did you call, Mistaya?” Nightshade said from out of the darkness in front of her, and Mistaya’s head jerked up sharply. Abruptly, the Witch of the Deep Fell appeared, bending over her. “Did you say something?”

  Mistaya blinked and looked down for Haltwhistle. The mud puppy had disappeared. “No, nothing. I must have been talking in my sleep.”

  “Good night, then,” the witch said, and slipped away again.

  “Good night,” Mistaya said.

  She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She looked again for Haltwhistle. The mud puppy appeared anew, materializing out of the night. She watched him for a moment, smiling. Then she closed her eyes and was asleep.


  The instant Nightshade’s witch fire enveloped them, Landover disappeared and time stopped. Soft, gauzy light cocooned Abernathy, and he lost sight of Questor Thews completely. He drifted, suspended in the light, wrapped in silence and consumed by a numbness that emptied him of all feeling. He did not know what was happening to him. He supposed that he was dead and that this was what dying felt like, but he wasn’t sure. He tried to move and couldn’t. He tried to see beyond the white brightness surrounding him and couldn’t do that, either. He could barely manage to form a coherent thought. He didn’t even know if he was breathing.

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