Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks

  “Reconsider? Why, Questor Thews? Because you say so?”

  “Because the magic of the bottle is too dangerous!”

  Kallendbor laughed. “Magic doesn't frighten me!”

  “Would you challenge the High Lord on this?” Questor was angry now.

  The big man's face went hard. “The High Lord isn't here, Questor Thews. Only you.”

  “As his representative!”

  “In my home!” Kallendbor was livid. “Let the matter rest!”

  Questor nodded slowly. He recognized now what was reflected in Kallendbor's eyes. It was an almost desperate need. For what, he wondered? What was it that he wanted the bottle to give him?

  He cleared his throat. “There is no reason for us to argue, my Lord,”he said soothingly. ‘Tell me—to what use will you put the magic?”

  But the big man shook his head. “Not tonight, Questor Thews. Time enough to talk about it tomorrow.”He clapped his hands and a scattering of servants appeared. “A hot bath, some dry clothes, and a good meal for our guests,”he instructed. “Then to bed.”

  Questor bowed reluctantly, turned to go, then hesitated. “I still think…”

  “And I think,”Kallendbor interrupted pointedly, “that you should rest now, Questor Thews.”

  He stood there, armor glinting in the firelight, eyes flat and hard. Questor saw there was nothing more to be accomplished at this meeting. He must bide his time.

  “Very well, my Lord,”he said finally. “Good night to you.”

  He bowed and departed the room with the kobolds and gnomes in tow.

  Later that night, when his companions were sleeping and the castle was at rest, Questor Thews went back. He slipped down the empty corridors, hiding himself with small touches of magic from the few guards he encountered, moving on cat's feet through the stillness. His purpose was rather vague, even in his own mind. He supposed he needed to satisfy himself about Kallendbor and the bottle—that matters were as Rhyndweir's Lord had declared them to be and not as Questor feared.

  He reached the great hall without being seen, bypassed its entrance and the sentries standing watch in favor of a connecting anteroom, eased the anteroom door open, then closed it softly behind him. He stood there in the darkness for a moment, letting his eyes adjust. He knew this castle as he knew all the castles of Landover. This one, like most of the others, was a maze of connecting halls and rooms, some known, some secret. He'd learned much that he wasn't necessarily intended to learn while carrying messages in the service of the old King.

  When his sight grew sharp enough to permit it, he moved across the room to a shadowed nook, touched a wooden peg in the wall, and pushed gently on the panel it secured. The panel swung back, giving him a clear view of what lay beyond.

  Kallendbor sat in a great chair facing the hearth, the bottle with its painted clowns resting loosely in his lap. His face was flushed and his smile an odd grimace. The Darkling skittered about the room, going first to this, then to that, eyes as bright as the flames blazing in the hearth, but infinitely more wicked. Questor found he could not stare into those eyes comfortably for more than an instant.

  Kallendbor called, and the Darkling scampered up his arm and rubbed itself against him like a cat. “Master, great master, such strength as I feel in you!” it purred.

  Kallendbor laughed, then said to it, “Leave me, creature! Go play!”

  The Darkling dropped down again, skittered across the stone floor to the open hearth, and leaped into the fire. Dancing about, the creature played with the flames as if they were cool water.

  “Black thing!” Kallendbor hissed. Questor saw him raise an ale mug rather unsteadily, the contents splashing down his front. Kallendbor was drunk.

  Questor Thews thought seriously then of stealing the bottle and its loathsome inhabitant from the Lord of Rhyndweir and ending this nonsense once and for all. There would be little risk to himself. He could simply wait until the man tired of his game and returned the bottle to its hiding place, then nip the treasure for himself, collect the Kobolds and the G'home Gnomes, and disappear.

  It was a most tempting thought.

  But he decided against it. First, everyone who had stolen the bottle had come to a bad end. Second, Questor had never been a thief and did not relish the thought of starting now. Finally, Kallendbor had said he would return the bottle after he finished with it and he deserved the benefit of the doubt. He had always been—despite his other obvious failings—a man of his word.

  Reluctantly, Questor set the thought aside.

  He risked a final look into the room. Kallendbor sat slumped in his chair, staring at the hearth. Within its flames, the Darkling was laughing and dancing gleefully.

  Questor let the wall panel swing shut again, shook his grizzled head doubtfully, and departed for his room.

  Dawn brought an end to the rains, with skies swept clear of clouds and gloom and colored once more a vast, depthless blue. Sunshine flooded the valley, and even the dark, cata-combed recesses of Rhyndweir seemed bright and new.

  Questor and his companions were awakened at first light by a knock on their bedchamber door and a message from Kallendbor. They were to dress and join him for breakfast, the young page announced. After that, they would be going for a ride.

  The G'home Gnomes had long since had enough of Kallendbor and begged Questor to be allowed to stay in their rooms where they could draw the window coverings closed again and snuggle safely in the darkness. Questor shrugged and agreed, inwardly relieved that he would not have to contend with their constant whining while dealing with the problem of how to get the bottle back from Kal-lendbor before he caused any mischief with it. He assigned Parsnip to keep watch over them and arranged for breakfast to be delivered to their rooms. Then, with Bunion in tow, he hurried out to join Rhyndweir's Lord.

  Breakfast was almost completed, however, before Kal-lendbor appeared, armored head to foot and bristling with weapons. In one gloved hand he carried a sack containing an object that was almost certainly the bottle. He greeted Questor perfunctorily and beckoned him to follow.

  They went down to the main courtyard. Several hundred knights in full battle dress waited with their mounts. Kal-lendbor called for his own horse, saw to it that Questor was provided with his gray, mounted, and wheeled the knights into formation. Questor had to hurry to keep up. The gates opened, the portcullis rose with a screech of metal, and out the column rode.

  Questor Thews was brought to the forefront to ride directly beside Kallendbor. Bunion raced off on his own, on foot as always, anxious to keep himself clear of the dust and noise of the horsemen. Questor looked once or twice to find him, but the kobold was as invisible as air. The wizard quickly gave up searching and directed his efforts instead to the task of discovering what Kallendbor was up to.

  The Lord of Rhyndweir appeared to have no intention of disclosing that information, all but ignoring Questor as he led his men down the rutted roadway through the town. People appeared in the doors and windows of the shops and cottages, and a few halfhearted calls and whistles trailed after. No one in the town had any idea what Kallendbor was about, or cared much, for that matter. They wanted to be kept safe—that was all that really mattered to them. Kallendbor had never been a popular ruler—just a strong one. Twenty Lords ruled the Greensward, but Kallendbor was the most powerful and his people knew it. He was the one Lord to whom the others all deferred. He was the Lord no one dared challenge.

  Until now, it seemed.

  “I am betrayed, Questor Thews!” Kallendbor was suddenly telling him. I am beset at every turn in a way I would never have believed possible! Betrayed, mind you, not by my enemies, but by my fellow Lords! Stosyth, Harrandye, Wilse! Lords I thought I could trust—Lords who, at least, were too cowed to act if I did not approve!” Kallendbor's face was scarlet. “But Strehan is the one who surprised and disappointed me most, Questor Thews—Strehan, the closest of them all to me! Like an ungrateful child who bites its father's tending hand!”

  He spit into the dirt as they rode, the column winding down across the bridge and out into the grasslands. Leather battle harnesses creaked, metal fastenings clanked, horses snorted and nickered, and men called out. Questor tried to picture the tall, shambling, dour Strehan as a child of any sort, ungrateful or otherwise; and found the task beyond him.

  “They have built this…this tower, Questor Thews!” Kallendbor snapped in fury. “The four of them! Built it at the falls of the Syr, at the juncture of my lands! They tell me it is an outpost, nothing more. They apparently take me for a fool! It stands taller than the walls of Rhyndweir, and its battlements shadow the whole of my eastern borders! If they should choose, they could close off the river itself and dam up the waters that feed my fields! This tower offends me, wizard! It hurts me in ways I would not have thought I could be hurt!”

  He bent close as they rode. “I would have destroyed it the moment I discovered it but for the fact that the combined armies of these four dogs guard it as one! I have not the strength to break them without so decimating my own armies as to leave me weakened and vulnerable to all! So I have been forced to endure this… this aberration!”

  He jerked upright again, eyes bits of ice. “But no more!”

  Questor saw it all instantly. “My Lord, the magic of the bottle is too dangerous…”

  “Dangerous!” Kallendbor cut him short with a vicious chop of one hand. “Nothing is more dangerous than this tower! Nothing! It must be destroyed! If the magic can serve my needs, then I will chance whatever danger it poses and gladly!”

  He wheeled ahead, and Questor was left with a mouthful of dust and a feeling of helplessness in the face of what was surely to come.

  They rode northeast toward the Melchor through the remainder of the morning until at last, as the midday approached, the falls of the Syr came into view. There was the tower, a massive, stone-block fortress situated on the bluff at the edge of the falls where they spilled down into valley. It was indeed a monstrous thing, all black and bristling with battlements and repelling devices. Armed men stalked its parapets, and riders patrolled its causeways. Trumpets and shouts sounded at die approach of Kallend-bor's knights, and the tower stirred to life as if a sluggish giant.

  The Lord of Rhyndweir signaled for a halt, and the column pulled up at the river's edge some several hundred yards beyond the base of the bluff and the fortress tower. Kallendbor sat looking at the tower for a moment, then called forward one of his knights.

  “Tell those in the tower that they have until midday to leave,”he instructed. “Say to them, at midday the tower will be destroyed. Now, go.”

  The knight rode off and Kallendbor had the column stand down. They waited. Questor considered once again saying something to Kallendbor about the danger of using the bottle's magic, but decided against it. It was pointless to argue the matter further; Kallendbor's mind was made up. The wiser course of action was to allow Rhyndweir's Lord to have his way for the moment, but to get the bottle back from him immediately after this business was finished. Questor Thews was not happy with the prospect, but it seemed to him that he had no other reasonable choice.

  He stood next to his gray, his tall frame stooped beneath his patchwork robes as he stared off into the distance and thought suddenly of the High Lord and of Abernathy. Thinking of them distressed him further. He certainly had not done much to help either of them in this matter so far, he thought dismally.

  The messenger returned. The men in the tower would not be leaving, he reported. They had simply laughed at the ultimatum. They had suggested that Kallendbor leave instead. Kallendbor grinned like a wolf when he heard the messenger's report, fixed his gaze on the tower, and did not look away again as he awaited the arrival of midday.

  When it came, Rhyndweir's Lord grunted in satisfaction, climbed back aboard his mount, and said, “Come with me, Questor Thews.”

  Together, they rode forward along the river's edge for about a hundred yards, then stopped and dismounted. Kallendbor stood so that the horses blocked what he was doing from his waiting men. Then he brought out the sack from a saddle pouch and produced the brightly painted bottle.

  “Now, we shall see,”he whispered softly, cradling his treasure.

  He pulled free the stopper and out climbed the Darkling, squinting its reddened eyes against the sunlight. “Master!” it hissed softly, stroking its hands along Kallendbor's gloved fingers. “What is it you wish?”

  Kallendbor pointed. “Destroy that tower!” He paused, glancing briefly at Questor. “If your magic is strong enough, that is!” he added in challenge.

  “Master, my magic is as strong as your life!” The demon spit the words out with a curl of its lip.

  It climbed down from the bottle and skittered off across the ground, over the river's waters as if they wefe nothing more than a walkway, and out into the plains directly below the bluff where the fortress stood. There it stopped. It did nothing for a moment, gazing upward. Then it seemed to jump and whirl, to dance about in a sudden profusion of colored light, and a monstrous horn appeared out of nowhere. The demon darted away to a point another hundred yards along the base of the bluff, and a second horn appeared. It darted away again, and a third appeared.

  The demon stood back then and pointed, and the horns began to sound—a long, deep, mournful howl like the wailing of some great wind through an empty canyon.

  “See!” Kallendbor whispered in delight.

  The wailing was causing the whole of the land about them to quake, but nowhere more so than atop the bluff where the offending tower sat. The tower shuddered as if it were a stricken beast. Cracks began to appear along its seams, and stone blocks began to loosen. Kallendbor and Questor Thews braced. The sound of the horns rose, and now the horses were stamping and rearing, and Kallendbor had to seize the reins of both and hold them fast to keep them from fleeing.

  “Demon spawn!” the Lord of Rhyndweir cried with a howl.

  The horns reached a new pitch, and the land split apart all about them in deep cracks and crevices. The bluff was shattered, and the tower was turned into an avalanche of crumbling rock. Men screamed from within. The walls exploded into rubble in an instant's time, and the whole of the tower collapsed. Down it tumbled to the plains and the river's waters and was gone.

  Then the horns disappeared, and the sound of their wailing faded into silence. The land was still again, empty save for the awestruck men of Rhyndweir and the cloud of dust and silt that rose above the rubble of the shattered tower.

  The Darkling skittered back across the river and bounded up once more onto the lip of the bottle, its grin wicked and sharp. “Done, master!” it hissed. “Done at your command!”

  Kallendbor's face was alive with excitement. “Yes, demon! Such power!”

  “Your power!” the Darkling soothed. “Yours only, master!”

  Questor Thews did not care one bit for the look that crossed Kallendbor's face when he heard that. “Kallend-bor…” he started to say.

  But the big man waved him into silence. “Back into the bottle, little one,”he commanded.

  The Darkling slipped obediently from view, and Kal-lendbor replaced the stopper.

  “Remember your promise,”Questor tried again, stepping forward to claim the bottle.

  But Kallendbor snatched it away. “Yes, yes, Questor Thews!” he snapped. “But only when I am finished! Only then. I may have… other uses yet.”

  Without waiting for the wizard's response, he mounted his horse and rode quickly away. Questor Thews stood there, staring after him. He turned back one final time to gaze up at the empty space where only moments earlier the tower had stood. All those men dead, he thought suddenly. And Kallendbor barely gave them a thought.

  He shook his head worriedly and pulled himself back up on his frightened gray.

  He knew already that Kallendbor was never going to return the bottle to him. He was going to have to take it back.

  He returned to Rhyndweir lost in thought, the day sl
ipping into evening almost before he knew it. He ate dinner in his room with the gnomes and Parsnip. Kallendbor left him there willingly, making no effort to insist on his presence in the dining hall. Kallendbor did not attend himself. There were clearly other matters of more pressing concern for the Lord of Rhyndweir.

  Questor was halfway through his meal when he realized that Bunion had failed to return. He had no idea what had become of the little kobold. No one had seen anything of him since early morning.

  When dinner was finished, Questor took a walk to clear his thoughts, found that they were too murky to do so, and returned to his bedchamber to sleep. He went to bed still wondering what had become of Bunion.

  It was after midnight when the bedchamber door burst open and Kallendbor stalked through. “Where is it, Questor Thews?” he shouted in fiiry.

  Questor looked up from his pillow, sleepy-eyed, and tried to figure out what was happening. Parsnip was already between him and the Lord of Rhyndweir, hissing in warning, teeth gleaming brightly. The G'home Gnomes were cowering under the bed. Torchlight cast a harsh glare from the hallway beyond and there were armed men milling about uncertainly.

  Kallendbor loomed over him, an angry giant. “You will return it to me at once, old man!”

  Questor rose, indignant now. “I haven't the faintest idea what you…”

  “The bottle, Questor Thews—what have you done with the bottle?”

  “The bottle?”

  “It is missing, wizard!” Kallendbor was livid. “Stolen from a room locked all around and guarded at every entrance! No ordinary man could have accomplished that! It would have required someone who could enter and leave without being seen—someone like yourself!”

  Bunion! thought Questor instantly. A kobold could go where others could not and not be seen doing it! Bunion must have…

  Kallendbor reached for Questor, and only the sight of Parsnip's bared teeth kept him from seizing the wizard's thin neck. “Give it to me, Questor Thews, or I'll have you…!”

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