Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks


  But there wasn't much point in wishing for what he couldn't have, so he consumed a stalk of Bonnie Blue and a little water, mounted Jurisdiction and set off with the others in tow. Bunion quickly went on ahead, disappearing into the shadows and half-light like some aberrant wraith. The others rode after in a line, Ben leading, Willow and Questor following, Parsnip bringing up the rear on foot with the pack animals.

  They traveled in silence. It was cold, rainy, and dark, and no one felt much like talking. It was the kind of day that you wished on your enemies or, at the very worst, on yourself when you knew you were going to be comfortably settled indoors before a warm fire. It was not the kind of day in which you traveled. Ben sat atop Jurisdiction and wondered why things had to be like this. He was thoroughly discomforted within minutes of setting out. The rain gear kept the water off his body, but the damp and the chill permeated everything. His toes were numb through his boots, his fingers through his gloves. What good thoughts he might have started out with trickled away with the speed of the puddles and streams that passed underfoot.

  He began brooding about his life.

  Oh, sure, he liked his life well enough. He liked being King of Landover, High Lord of a fantasy realm in which mythical creatures were real and magic was a fact of existence. He liked the challenge of what he did, the diversity of its demands, the constant ebb and flow of the feelings it generated. He liked his friends, even at their worst. They were good and loyal, and they genuinely cared for one another and for him. He liked the world in which he had placed himself and would not have traded it back again for the world he had left, even in the darkest of times.

  What disturbed him was how little he felt like what he was supposed to be—a King.

  Jurisdiction snorted and shook his head lazily, and a shower of water flew into Ben's face. Ben brushed it away and kicked the horse reproachfully with his boots. Jurisdiction ignored him, plodding ahead at his own pace, blinking against the rain.

  Ben sighed. He just didn't feel as if he really was a King, he told himself gloomily, picking up his train of thought. He felt that he was just playing at it, that he was filling in for the real King, someone who had been called away unexpectedly, but who would return and prove infinitely more capable than he. It wasn't that he didn't try to do the job right; he did. It wasn't that he couldn't understand its demands; he could. It was more a question of not ever being quite in control. He seemed to spend all his time trying to extract himself from situations he should have avoided in the first place. After all, look at this latest mess —Abernathy dispatched to God-knew-where, his medallion gone the same way, and now the G'home Gnomes run off with the bottle. What sort of King allowed these things to happen? He could excuse matters by arguing that events beyond his control were responsible for everything that had happened, but wasn't it a bit ridiculous for him to try to blame everything on a sneeze?

  He sighed again. Well, it most certainly was. He had to accept whatever responsibility needed accepting; that was what Kings were for, after all. But the minute he did that, he was confronted once again with that nagging sense of inadequacy—that sense that he really didn't have a handle on things and never would.

  Willow saved him from further self-degradation by riding up next to him and offering a quick smile. “You seem so alone up here,”she said.

  “Alone with my thoughts.”He smiled back. “This day is depressing me.”

  “You mustn't let it,”she said. “You must keep its unpleasantness from you and make it serve your own needs. Think of how good the sunshine will feel after the rain has gone away. Think of how much better its warmth will seem.”

  He rocked back slightly in his saddle, stretching. “I know. I just wish some of that sunshine and warmth would hurry up and appear.”

  She looked away for a moment, then back again. “Are you worried about the gnomes and the bottle?”

  He nodded. “That, Abernathy, the medallion, and a dozen other things—mostly the fact that I don't feel like I'm doing much of a job as King. I can't seem to get it right, Willow. I just sort of muddle around, trying things out, trying to get out of trouble I shouldn't have gotten into in the first place.”

  “Did you think it would be different from this?” Her face was shadowed and distant beneath her riding hood.

  He shrugged. “I don't know what I thought. No, that's not so. I knew what it would be like—at least, I knew once I was here. That's not the problem. The problem is that things keep happening that I don't seem to have any control over. If I were a real King, an honest-to-God true King, that wouldn't be the case, would it? Wouldn't I be able to anticipate and prevent a few of these things from happening? Wouldn't I be better at this?”

  “Ben.”She said his name quietly and for a moment didn't say anything more, simply riding there next to him, looking over. Then she said, “How long do you think Questor Thews has been trying to get the magic right?”

  He stared at her. “What do you mean?”

  “I mean that you have been a King for a much shorter time than Questor has been a wizard. Should you expect so much of yourself when you see how hard it still is for him? The truths of what we undertake in our lives are never quickly mastered. No one is born with those truths; they must always be learned.”She reached over and touched him briefly on the cheek. “Besides, was there ever a time in your life when events you could neither anticipate nor control did not intrude on your plans and disrupt them? Why should it be different now?”

  He felt suddenly foolish. “It shouldn't, I suppose. And I shouldn't be moping about like this, I know. But it just seems that I'm not really what everyone thinks I am. I'm just… me.”

  She smiled again. “That is what we all are, Ben. But it doesn't stop others from expecting us to be more.”

  He smiled back. “People should be more considerate.”

  They rode on in silence, and he consigned his brooding to the back burner, concentrating instead on formulating a plan for getting the bottle back from Fillip and Sot. Morning passed steadily away, and it was nearing midday when Bunion reappeared from out of the mist.

  “He has found the gnomes, High Lord,”Questor advised hurriedly after a brief conference with the tracker. “It appears that they are in some sort of trouble!”

  They spurred their horses ahead and rode at a fast canter through the gloom, the rain and wind blowing into their faces as they sought to keep the elusive Bunion in sight. They passed along a ridge line and down a wash to a grassy hillock beyond. Bunion stopped them at its base and pointed.

  There, halfway up, suspended head downward from an aging hickory, were Fillip and Sot. The G'home Gnomes dangled in the wind like a pair of rather bizarre pods.

  “What the heck's going on here?” demanded Ben.

  He urged Jurisdiction forward, slowly, cautiously, the others following. When he was several dozen yards away, he dismounted and looked guardedly about.

  “Bunion says they are alone,”Questor offered over one shoulder, his owlish face poking out of his rain cloak's hood. “The bottle and the Darkling appear to be gone.”

  “Great High Lord!” called out Fillip weakly.

  “Mighty High Lord!” echoed Sot.

  They sounded as if they were just about all done in, their voices a faint gurgle of rainwater and exhaustion. They were sodden and muddied and presented the most pathetic spectacle Ben had ever witnessed.

  “I should just leave them there,”he muttered half to himself, thinking of the missing bottle.

  It was as if they had heard him. “Don't leave us, High Lord, please don't leave us!” they implored as one, whining like beaten pups.

  Ben was disgusted. He shook his head hopelessly, then looked at Bunion. “All right, Bunion. Cut them down.”

  The kobold skittered forward, climbed the hickory, and cut the ropes suspending the gnomes. Fillip and Sot dropped headfirst into the muck. Serves them right, Ben thought darkly.

  Willow hastened forward, rolled them out of the mud an
d water, and cut the bonds that secured their hands and feet. Gently, she helped them sit up, rubbing their wrists and ankles to help restore the circulation. The gnomes were crying like babies.

  “We are so sorry, Great High Lord,”whimpered Fillip.

  “We meant no harm, Mighty High Lord,”whimpered Sot.

  “It was the bottle—it was so beautiful.”

  “It was the creature—it could do wondrous magic things!”

  “But it heard us say we would return it.”

  “It made us free it in our sleep!”

  “Then it brought the trolls, High Lord!”

  “It used magic lights to guide them!”

  “And they captured us!”

  “And tied us like dogs!”

  “And hung…!”

  “And left…!”

  Ben put his hands up quickly. “Whoa, stop! I can't follow any of this! Just tell me what happened, all right—but slowly, please. Just tell me where the bottle is now!”

  The G'home Gnomes told him everything. They dissolved into tears of repentance numerous times, but they finally got through it. Ben listened patiently, glancing once or twice at Questor and Willow, wondering for what must have been the hundredth time in the past few days why these things always seemed to happen to him.

  When the gnomes were finished and lapsing once more into tears, Questor said something to Bunion, who moved away for a few moments and then returned. He spoke with the wizard, who turned to Ben.

  “The trolls left several hours ago, it seems. But it is unclear where they have gone. Their tracks appear to lead off in several different directions.”Questor paused uneasily. “Apparently, the Darkling knows we are following and is using its magic to confuse us.”

  Ben nodded. Hardly a surprise, he thought. Murphy's Law was kicking into high gear. He asked Willow to do what she could to help the shaken gnomes recover, then stood up and walked away to look out into the gloom and think.

  What to do?

  He felt a sudden resurgence of the insecurities that had plagued him earlier. Damn! He was just not getting anywhere! The longer he spent traipsing around the countryside in search of the bottle, the farther away it seemed to get! Not to mention Abernathy and the medallion, he reminded himself bitterly. God only knew what had happened to them by this time, sent into a world where animals were simply pets and magic medallions were scorned as tools of the devil. How long could they last before something happened to them, something for which he would have to hold himself forever accountable?

  He breathed the chill air to clear his thoughts and lifted his face to let the rain cool it. It was no use berating himself. It was pointless to stand there and wish that things were different, that he were more a King, or that he had a better sense of what to do about things. Just shove the insecurities and doubts back into their cubicles and keep them there, he admonished himself. Just decide what to do and do it!

  “High Lord?” Questor inquired anxiously from somewhere behind him.

  “In a minute,”Ben answered.

  He had already decided that he was going about matters in the wrong way, that he had reversed his priorities. It was more important that he retrieve Abernathy and his medallion than it was that he retrieve the stolen bottle. It was going to take time to track down that demon and force it back into the bottle, and Abernathy simply didn't have that kind of time. Besides, it was going to take either luck or magic to subdue the Darkling, and Ben didn't feel he could rely on the former. He needed his medallion back.

  So the problem then became, how did he get Abernathy and the medallion back without being able to switch the bottle for them?

  “Questor,”he called suddenly, turning to where the others huddled in a knot beneath the hickory. He saw that Willow had gotten Fillip and Sot back to their feet and had stopped their crying. She was talking to them in a low, quiet voice, her eyes straying momentarily to find him as she heard him call.

  Questor Thews shambled over quickly, tall form stooped against the wind, rainwater dripping off his hooked nose. “High Lord?”

  Ben looked at him critically. “Have you sufficient magic to send me back after Abernathy? Could you employ something of the same sort of magic you used on him to send me back to wherever he is now? Or do we have to have the medallion? Is the medallion the only way?”

  “High Lord…”

  “Is the medallion necessary, Questor? Yes or no.”

  Questor shook his head. “No. The medallion was needed only for the purpose of interacting with the magic to separate out the animal from the man in Abernathy. That was the difficult part of the incantation. Simply sending one somewhere is a relatively easy magic.”

  Ben grimaced. “Please don't say that. It always worries me when you say something involving the magic is easy. Just tell me that you can send me back after Abernathy, okay? Can you do that? No sneezing, no mistakes—just send me back in one piece, right to where he is?”

  The wizard hesitated. “High Lord, I do not think this a good…”

  “No editorials, Questor,”Ben interrupted quickly. “No arguments. Just answer the question.”

  Questor rubbed his rain-drenched beard, tugged his ear, and sighed. “The answer is yes, High Lord.”

  “Good. That's what I wanted to hear.”

  “But…”

  “But?”

  “But I can only send you there; I cannot bring you back again.”Questor shrugged helplessly. “That is all I have been able to learn of that particular magic. After all, if I knew more, I could simply bring Abernathy and the medallion back myself, couldn't I?”

  True enough, Ben thought dismally. Well, you take your chances in this world, just like you do in any other.

  “High Lord, I really wish you would think this…”

  Ben brought his finger up quickly and made a hushing sound. “Just give me a moment to consider this, Questor. Please?”

  He glanced away into the gloom once more. If he did this thing, it meant that he couldn't come back again unless he regained the medallion. He would have to stay in his old world, whatever happened, until he could locate it. This all presumed, of course, that Questor could get the magic right this time and actually send him where he was supposed to go and not to some other place and point in time.

  He looked back at the wizard, studying the owlish face. Questor Thews. Wizard at large. He would have to leave Questor in control of Land ver's affairs. That was a pretty scary proposition all by itself. He had allowed Questor to act in his place once before when he had been forced to return to his old world, but he had only been gone three days. He was likely to be gone much longer this time out. Maybe forever.

  On the other hand, who else could he trust to assume the duties of the throne? Not Kallendbor or any of the other Lords of the Greensward. Not the River Master and his lake country fairies. Certainly not Nightshade, the witch of the Deep Fell. Willow, perhaps? He thought about that a moment. Willow would defer to Questor, he decided. Besides, Questor's confidence in himself would be shattered if he were not named ruler in Ben's absence. The Court Wizard was supposed to be the second most powerful figure in the monarchical structure.

  Supposed to be. Those were the operative words, of course, Ben thought wryly. The truth of the matter might be something else altogether.

  Well, Questor Thews had been a friend to him when he had no others. Questor had stood by him when it seemed foolish for anyone to do so. Questor had done everything asked of him and more. Maybe it was time to repay his loyalty with a little trust.

  He brought his hands up to the narrow shoulders and gripped them firmly. “I've decided,”he said quietly. “I want you to do it, Questor. I want you to send me back.”

  He kept the other's gaze locked onto his own, waiting. Questor Thews hesitated once more, then nodded. “Yes, High Lord. If you wish.”

  Ben walked him back to where the others waited and gathered them about. Fillip and Sot started to sob again, but he quickly quieted them with assurances
that all was forgiven. Bunion and Parsnip hunched down against the trunk of the old hickory, their gnarled bodies glistening wetly. Willow stood apart, an uneasy look to her. She had seen something she didn't like in Ben's eyes.

  “1 have asked Questor to use the magic to send me after Abernathy,”Ben announced brusquely. “He has agreed to do so.”He avoided Willow's startled eyes. “I have to do what I can to help Abernathy and to regain possession of the medallion. When I have done that, I'll come back to you.”

  “Oh, Great High Lord!” cried Fillip dismally.

  “Mighty High Lord!” sobbed Sot.

  “We are so sorry, High Lord!”

  “Oh, yes, we are!”

  Ben patted them on the head. “Questor will assume the duties of the throne in my absence. I want you all to do your best to help him.”He paused and looked directly at his Court Wizard. “Questor, I want you to continue to try to find a way to get the Darkling back into the bottle. That little monster is too dangerous to be allowed to remain loose. See if Kallendbor or the River Master will agree to help you. But be careful.”

  Questor nodded wordlessly. The others continued to stare at him, waiting.

  “I guess that's all I have to say,”he finished.

  Willow came right up to him then, the determination in her face unmistakable. “I am going with you, Ben.”

  “Oh, no.”Ben shook his head quickly. “That would be much too dangerous. I could be trapped over there, Willow. I might never get back. If you were with me, you would be trapped there as well.”

  “Which is why I must go with you, Ben. I cannot risk that you might be separated from me forever. What happens to you happens to me as well. We are one person, Ben. It was foretold by the weaving of the flowers in the garden where I was conceived. Even the Earth Mother knows of it.”She took his hand in her own. “Do you remember her admonishment to you? Do you remember what she said?” She waited until he nodded yes. He had forgotten about the Earth Mother—that strange elemental who aided them in their search for the black unicorn. Willow's hand tightened suddenly. “You are to be my protector; that was what she said. But, Ben, I must be your protector as well. I must be because if I am not, then my love for you is meaningless. There is no argument that you can offer that will dissuade me. I am going with you.”

 
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