Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks


  He stared at her, so in love with her in that instant that he could scarcely believe it. She was so much a part of him. It had happened almost without his realizing it, a gradual strengthening of ties, a binding of feelings and emotions, a joining of their lives. He recognized the truth of it and marveled in his recognition that such a thing could be.

  “Willow, I…”

  “No, Ben.”She put a finger to his lips, and her beautiful, flawless face lifted to kiss his own. “It is decided.”

  Ben kissed her back and held her. He guessed it was.

  He decided that they would depart at once.

  He had Questor use the magic to outfit them both in jogging suits and Nikes, giving Willow a sweatband to hold back her long hair and sunglasses to help mask her startling eyes. There was nothing he could do about her green complexion; he wouldn't risk allowing Questor to try anything with magic. They would simply have to make something up if there were questions. He had the wizard conjure up some folding money so he could pay whatever expenses he might incur while trying to find Abernathy. He hoped there wouldn't be any, of course. He hoped he would find his missing scribe and the medallion right off the bat. But he doubted that he would be that lucky. He hadn't been very lucky so far in trying to straighten out this mess.

  Questor did a superior job of suiting them up in the sweats and running shoes, right down to the appropriate logos. He did yeoman work on the money as well; it felt like the real thing. It was fortunate, Ben thought, that he had shown the wizard some samples on earlier occasions. He gave the money a hasty glance and shoved it down into his pocket.

  “And, Questor, you'd better spell Willow to speak English when we get there,”he added.

  Willow came over to stand next to him, her slim arms wrapping about his waist to hold him. He wanted to ask her once more if she was still certain about going with him, but he didn't. Such a question was pointless now.

  “Ready, Questor,”he announced. He glanced doubtfully at the gloom and damp that surrounded them, a gray and misty haze. He looked down through the wash to the grasslands beyond, to the hills and forests. He wished he could see it all in a better light, in sunshine, in bright color. He wanted to remember it all. He was afraid he would never see it again.

  Questor Thews moved the others behind him, back against the trunk of the hickory. The kobolds were grinning fiercely, the gnomes whining as if they were about to be strung up again. Questor shoved back the sleeves of his robes and lifted his hands.

  “Be careful,”Ben said quietly, his arms tightening about Willow.

  The wizard nodded. “Good luck to you, High Lord.”

  He began the incantation, the magic words spilling out in a steady stream of meaningless rhetoric. Then came the gestures, the appearance of the silver dust, and the coming of the light. Rain and gloom faded, taking with them the kobolds and the gnomes, then Questor Thews as well. Ben and Willow were alone, holding each other close.

  “I love you, Ben,”he heard the sylph say.

  Then everything disappeared in a flash of light, and they closed their eyes tight against its brilliance.

  They drifted for a time, a long, slow drifting that lacked direction or focus, the sort of drifting one sometimes experiences when sleep grows into gradual wakening. Then the light grew less intense, the drifting stopped, and the world about them grew distinct again.

  They were standing on a street corner in a city, the air filled with the sounds of cars and people. Willow clung to Ben, burying her face in his shoulder, clearly frightened. Ben looked quickly about, shaken himself by the sudden rush of noise.

  Good heavens, it was hot! It was as if it were the middle of summer instead of fall! But that couldn't be…

  “Holy mackerel!” he breathed.

  He knew exactly where he was. He would have known whatever the circumstances of his being there.

  He was right in the middle of the Las Vegas strip.

  Questor Thews stared thoughtfully at the empty space that had been occupied by Ben Holiday and Willow only seconds before, then rubbed his hands together in satisfaction and said, “Well, I believe they are safely on their way.”

  Bunion and Parsnip came forward, peered at the emptiness, and hissed their agreement. Their teeth showed and their yellow eyes blinked like signal lamps.

  “Great High Lord,”whimpered Fillip from somewhere in the shadows behind them.

  “Mighty High Lord,”whimpered Sot.

  “Come, come! The High Lord is safe and sound,”Questor assured them, wondering briefly if he had remembered correctly all the words and gestures to the part of the incantation having to do with the place to which he had sent them. Yes, he was certain that he had. Reasonably certain, at any rate.

  “Got to concentrate on dealing with matters here,”he announced, mostly to himself. “Hmmmmmm. Let me see.”

  He straightened himself beneath his robes, tugged on his beard, and peered out into the gloom. It was still raining heavily, the drops spattering into ever-widening puddles and streams that interlocked across the whole of the landscape as far as he could see. Clouds hung low against the horizon, and the day seemed to be growing darker. The haze of mist that had shrouded the valley since dawn was thickening.

  Questor frowned. It would be a perfectly reasonable decision to return to Sterling Silver here and now and forget about chasing after that confounded demon.

  On the other hand, there was nothing waiting at Sterling Silver that wouldn't keep a few days more—and he had promised the High Lord that he would do his best to retrieve the bottle. Although he didn't care to dwell on it, he knew he was at least partially responsible for the bottle being in Landover in the first place; therefore, he should do his best to set matters right again—especially since the High Lord had placed such great trust in him.

  “I think, perhaps, that we should continue our hunt,”he declared. “Bunion? Parsnip? Shall we keep after the Darkling a little while longer?”

  The kobolds glanced at each other and hissed their approval.

  “Excellent!” Questor turned to the G'home Gnomes. “I should be less charitable with you than was the High Lord, Fillip and Sot, if the choice were mine. Still, all was forgiven, so you are free to go.”

  Fillip and Sot stopped whimpering and shivering long enough to glance about at the gray, empty landscape and then at each other. Their eyes were wide and frightened.

  “Good and kind Questor Thews!” said Fillip.

  “Wondrous wizard!” declared Sot.

  “We will stay with you!”

  “We will give you our help!”

  “Please let us stay?”

  “Please?”

  Questor Thews looked down at them with undisguised suspicion. The gnomes were asking to stay only because they were afraid of being left alone come nightfall with the Darkling still on the loose. He hesitated, then shrugged. Well, after all, what could you expect of G'home Gnomes?

  “Just be sure you stay out of the way if we come across the trolls and that bottle,”he admonished sternly.

  The gnomes could not agree quickly enough, falling all over each other in their efforts to assure him that such would be the case. Questor had to smile in spite of himself. He was quite certain they were telling the truth on this occasion.

  So they struck out north through the weather, Bunion sweeping the land ahead in an effort to pick up some true sign of the trolls’ passing, Questor and the others trailing after at a slower pace. Questor rode his old gray, letting Parsnip and the gnomes follow afoot, with Parsnip leading Jurisdiction, Willow's mount, and the pack animals. The rain continued to fall steadily, its gray haze mingling with the mist to wrap the land in ribbons of shadow. Daylight faded as nightfall approached, and still there was no sign of the trolls.

  Bunion returned at sunset, and the company made camp within a gathering of rain-drenched Cyprus along a river whose swollen waters churned by in sluggish, monotonous cadence. It was relatively dry beneath the great, hanging limbs,
and Questor was able to produce a small, cheerful fire by using his magic. Parsnip cooked a delightful dinner which was quickly consumed. Then, buoyed by his earlier success, Questor employed the magic once more to produce blankets and pillows. He would have done better to let well enough alone, but he decided to try one last incan tation, a spell that would have produced an enclosed, heated, waterproof shelter complete with bath. The effort failed abysmally. One of the trees actually toppled over on the spot, allowing the rain to douse the fire and leaving the entire company exposed to the weather. They were forced to move their camp farther back within the remaining trees, salvaging what they could of the now-dampened blankets and pillows, and that was that.

  Questor apologized profusely, but the damage was nevertheless done and couldn't be undone. It was most embarrassing. While the others slept, Questor Thews lay awake within his blankets and thought long and hard about the vicissitudes of a wizard's life. Teaching oneself reliable use of the magic was not an easy task, he lamented. Nevertheless, he must do so. After all, he stood now in the shoes of the High Lord and he was responsible for the well-being of all Landover.

  Daybreak brought more rain. The dawn was iron gray and thick with mist stirred by sluggish winds and a mix of cool air and warm earth. The little company ate breakfast and struck out once more across the grasslands of the Greensward. Bunion roamed ahead, still searching for some sign of the trolls, while the rest followed at a slower pace. Everyone was soaked through and thoroughly discomforted. Questor thought briefly to dry them off with the magic, then decided against it. He had resolved during the night not to employ the magic again except when he could be certain of its results or in time of desperate need. He would conserve himself; he would focus his concentration on specific and limited conjuring. That way, he felt, he would be at his best.

  Midday came and went. They were well into the grasslands by now, far north and east of Sterling Silver, deep in the country of the Lords of the Greensward. Plowed fields decorated the landscape in checkerboard fashion, most of the crops taken from them now, the earth black and hard looking. Farm buildings and cottages were scattered about, brightened by gardens and hedgerows blooming with flowers of all colors and shapes, rainbow streaks across the rain-swept, gray land.

  Questor's eyes surveyed the misted countryside. Less than a dozen miles distant was Rhyndweir, the fortress castle of Kallendbor, the most powerful of the Lords of the Greensward. The wizard permitted himself a small sigh of expectation. Tonight, he promised himself, they would sleep beneath a dry roof, in dry beds, with steaming baths to remove all memory of the damp and the chill.

  It was nearing midafternoon when Bunion abruptly appeared from out of the haze, his hard, dark body glistening with die wet. He approached at something very close to a run—unusual for him—and spoke hurriedly to Questor, his breath hissing from between his sharp teeth, his eyes narrowed and furtive.

  The wizard caught his breath. Bunion had found the trolls—but not as any of them had imagined.

  The company pressed at a quicker pace, Questor saying nothing to the others yet, still stunned by what Bunion had told him. They passed across a series of fields and a small, quick-flowing stream into a stretch of timber.

  The trolls lay in a clearing, amid a close gathering of pine, dead to a man. They were sprawled on the rain-drenched earth in grotesque positions, throats cut, bodies stabbed, tangled together in an orgy of death. The G'home Gnomes took one look and shrank back behind the pack animals, whining in fear. Even Parsnip shied away. Questor went forward with Bunion because it was expected. Bunion whispered again what he had whispered earlier. This tragedy had not been caused by some third party. The trolls had evidently set upon themselves. They had killed one another.

  Questor listened patiently and said nothing, but he knew what had happened. He had seen the Darkling's work be fore. The chill of the day worked into him more deeply. He was suddenly very frightened.

  Bunion pointed ahead into the gloom. One of the trolls had escaped the massacre. One had survived, wounded, and staggered ahead into the woods. That one had taken the bottle.

  “Oh, dear,”Questor Thews murmured.

  The wounded troll was heading directly for Rhyndweir.

  “Abernathy!”

  The scribe lifted his head from the straw matting on which he lay to peer into the near-blackness beyond. “Elizabeth?”

  She appeared out of the shadows of an alcove set into the far wall, slipping through a break in the stone that he could have sworn hadn't been there a moment before. She crossed the dungeon passageway on tiptoe and put her face up against the bars of his cage. Abernathy, unable to stand erect in the small enclosure, crawled over on all fours to greet her. He could just make out the roundish face with its scattering of nose freckles.

  “Sorry I couldn't come sooner,”she whispered, glancing left and right cautiously. “I couldn't chance trying. I couldn't let my dad or Michel know I cared about what happened to you or they might have been suspicious. I think Michel already is.”

  Abernathy nodded, grateful that she had come at all. “How did you get in here, Elizabeth?”

  “Through a secret passage!” She grinned. “Right there!” She pointed behind her to the break in the wall, a seam of light still faintly visible against the black. “I found it months ago when I was exploring. I doubt anyone else even knows that it's there. It leads all up and down the south wall.”She hesitated. “I didn't know how to get to you at first. I didn't even know where you'd be. I just found out this afternoon.”

  “This afternoon? Is it night, then?” Abernathy asked. He had lost all track of time.

  “Yep. Almost bedtime, so I have to hurry. Here, I brought you something to eat.”

  He saw then that she was carrying a paper bag. She reached into it and produced several sandwiches, some raw vegetables, fresh fruit, a bag of potato chips, and a small container of cold milk.

  “Elizabeth!” he breathed gratefully.

  She passed the items through, and he tucked them into the straw to hide them—all but the first sandwich, which he began to devour hungrily. He hadn't been given anything to eat but stale dog food and a little water in almost three days now, the time that he had been imprisoned there. He had been shut away in the bowels of Graum Wythe, ignored except for periodic visits from his uncommunicative jailers, who either came to make certain he was still there or to give him his rations. He hadn't seen sunlight the entire time. He hadn't seen Michel Ard Rhi, either.

  “How are you, Abernathy?” Elizabeth asked as he ate. “Are you all right? They didn't hurt you, did they?”

  He shook his head and continued to chew. Ham and cheese—one of his favorites.

  “I talked to my father about you a little bit,”she ventured after a moment. Then she added hastily, “I didn't tell him about you and me, though. I just told him that I had found you wandering about and Michel didn't seem to like you and I was worried about you. I told him I thought it was wrong. He agreed, but he said he couldn't do anything. He said I knew better than to get involved with strays in the first place, that I knew how Michel was. I said sometimes you had to get involved.”

  She hunched down thoughtfully. “I know you aren't being given any food. I found out from one of the guards, a sort of friend.”She bit her lip. “Why is Michel doing this to you, Abernathy? Why is he being so mean? Does he still hate you so much?”

  Abernathy stopped chewing, swallowed, and lowered what remained of the sandwich. He couldn't have eaten it at all if he hadn't been so hungry. His cage smelled of sick animals and excrement, and the walls were dark with mold.

  “It's simple, really—he wants something from me.”He decided it couldn't hurt to tell her the truth now. “He wants this medallion I am wearing. But he cannot take it from me. I have to give it to him. So he has locked me away down here until I agree to give it up.”He brushed some straw from his muzzle with one paw. “But the medallion isn't his; it isn't even mine. It was just loaned to me, and I
have to return it to its owner.”

  He thought, for the first time in quite a while now, about the High Lord and the problems he faced in Landover without the medallion to protect him. Then he sighed and began eating again.

  Elizabeth looked at him a moment, then nodded slowly. “I talked to Nita Coles about you today. We're friends again, see. She explained ail about Tommy Samuelson and said she was sorry. Anyway, I told her about you, ‘cause we tell each other everything. But we keep it all secret. Most of the time, anyway. This was a sworn, double-locked finger secret, so neither of us can tell anyone or we'll have seven years bad luck and Tad Russell for a husband for life! She says you can't be real, of course, but I told her you were and that you needed us to help. So she said she would think about it, and I said I'd think about it, too.”

  She paused. “We've got to get you out of here, Abernathy.”

  Abernathy pushed the last of the sandwich into his mouth and shook his head vehemently. “No, no, Elizabeth, it's gotten much too dangerous for you to try to help me anymore. If Michel finds out…”

  “I know, I know,”she interrupted. “But I can't keep sneaking food down to you like this. Michel is going to figure out that you're not starving or anything, that someone's feeding you. And how will you get out of here if I don't help you?”

  Abernathy sighed. “I'll find a way,”he insisted stubbornly.

  “No, you won't,”Elizabeth declared, just as stubborn. “You'll just be down here in this cage forever!”

 
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