Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks


  “She's been badly frightened,”Willow said softly, to no one in particular.

  Whitsell started to get up, then sat back again. “Why should I tell you anything?” he muttered. “How do I know what you want?”

  Miles was drumming his fingers on his knee impatiently. “What we want is a little cooperation, Mr. Whitsell.”

  They stared at each other for a moment. “You from the police?” Whitsell asked finally. “Some special branch, maybe? Is that what this is all about?” He seemed to think better of the question almost before he had finished asking it. “What am I thinking here? Police don't use girls with green hair, for Pete's sake!”

  “No, we're not police.”Ben stood up suddenly and walked about for a minute. How much should he tell this man? Whitsell had his eyes fixed on Willow again, watching the little dog nuzzle into the girl as she continued to pet it.

  Ben made his decision. “Was the dog's name Aber nathy?”

  He stopped walking and looked directly at Whitsell. The other man blinked in surprise. “Yeah, it was,”he said. “How did you know that?”

  Ben came back and sat down again. “My name is Ben. This is Miles and Willow.”He pointed to the other two. “Abernathy is our friend, Mr. Whitsell. That's how we know. He's our friend, and we've come to take him home.”

  There was a long moment of silence as they studied each other wordlessly, and then Davis Whitsell nodded. “I believe you. Don't know why, exactly, but I do. I just wish I could help you.”He sighed. “But the dog's… but Aber-nathy's gone.”

  “Did you sell him, Mr. Whitsell?” Miles asked.

  “No, hell, no!” the other snapped angrily. “I never planned anything like that! I was just gonna make a few bucks off that interview with the Eye, then send him to Virginia, the way he wanted. Wasn't no harm gonna come to him. But it was the chance I'd waited for all my life, don't you see, the chance to get a little recognition, get off the circuit, maybe, and…”

  He had leaned forward in the chair, but now he trailed off, spent, and slumped back again. “It doesn't matter now, I guess. The point is, he's gone. Someone took him.”

  He took another long pull on his beer and put it down carefully on the table beside him, back into a glistening ring of condensation that the bottom of the can had formed earlier. “You're really who you say you are?” he asked. “You're really friends of Abernathy?”

  Ben nodded. “Are you?”

  “Yeah, though maybe you wouldn't know it from all that's happened.”

  “Why don't you tell us about it?”

  Whitsell did. He started at the beginning, telling them about how he had gone to Franklin Elementary to do his show, how the little girl Elizabeth—hell, he didn't even know her last name—had come up to him, asked his help. He told them about the dog, about Abernathy, coming to his door that night, a genuine talking dog walking upright like a man, saying the little girl sent him, that he needed to get back to Virginia for some reason or other, and that he couldn't use a phone because there wasn't any. Whitsell hadn't believed a word of it. But he had agreed to help anyway, hiding Abernathy out in his home, packing Alice off to her mother's, then trying to line up that interview with the Hollywood Eye so he could raise enough money to pay the cost of sending the dog to Virginia and maybe make a few bucks for himself in the bargain.

  “But I got fooled,”he admitted sourly. “I was tricked out of the house. When I got back, Abernathy was gone, and poor old Sophie was stuffed in the freezer, half froze!” His gaze shifted momentarily to Willow. “That's why she's so skittish, Miss. She's a very sensitive animal.”He looked back then at Ben. “I can't prove it, of course, but I know sure as I sit here that the same fellow that had your friend caged up in the first place found out about what I was doing and took him back again! Trouble is, I don't even know who he is. Not sure I want to, man like that.”

  Then he seemed to realize how that sounded and reddened. He shook his head. “Sorry. Fact is, I could find out about him from the school, find out the little girl's last name, where she lives. She'd know the man's name. Hell, I'll do it right now, mister, if you think it'll help that dog! I feel terrible about this whole business!”

  “Thanks anyway, but I think we already know the name of the man,”Ben said quietly. “I think we know where he is, too.”

  Whitsell hesitated, surprised.

  “Is there anything else you can tell us?”

  Whitsell frowned. “No, I guess not. You think you can do something to help the dog—uh, Abernathy?”

  Ben stood up without answering, and the others followed suit. Sophie jumped down from Willow's lap and nuzzled her legs through her dress. The hem lifted slightly, and Whitsell caught a brief glimpse of silky emerald hair on the back of the sylph's slender ankle.

  “Thanks for your help, Mr. Whitsell,”Miles was saying.

  “Look, you want me to go with you, maybe help out?” the other offered suddenly, surprising them. “This seems like pretty dangerous stuff, but I want to do my part…”

  “No, I don't think so,”Ben said. They moved toward the door.

  Davis Whitsell followed. “I'd be worried about that little girl, too, if I were you,”he added. Sophie had returned to his side now, and he picked her up. “She might have been found out.”

  “We'll look into it. She'll be all right.”Ben was already thinking about what to do next.

  Whitsell saw them to the door and outside. The late afternoon sun was sinking rapidly below the horizon, the dusk turning the light silver. Shadows from shade trees and utility poles dappled and ribbed the neighborhood houses. A man with an insurance sign pasted on the side of his car was just pulling into a driveway down the block, the crunch of his tires on the gravel sharp in the stillness.

  “I'm sorry about all this,”Davis Whitsell told them. He hesitated, then reached out to shake hands with the men, as if needing some small reassurance that they believed him. “Look, I don't know who you are or where you're from or what all this is about. But I do know this much. I never wanted anything bad to happen to Abernathy. Tell him that, will you? The little girl, too.”

  Ben nodded. “I'll tell them, Mr. Whitsell.”

  He was hoping as he said it that he would have the chance.

  In the country of Landover, the wizard Questor Thews was hoping much the same thing. He was not, however, optimistic.

  Following their escape from the castle fortress of Rhyndweir, Questor, the kobolds Bunion and Parsnip, and the G'home Gnomes Fillip and Sot had journeyed south and east once more to the sanctuary of Sterling Silver. Questor and the kobolds had gone home because there really didn't seem to be any alternative now that the trail of the missing bottle had come to an end. Questor still hadn't been able to fathom who might have stolen the bottle from Kallendbor; until he could figure that out, he really hadn't any idea where he ought to start looking again. Besides, affairs of state had been left alone for several days now and needed looking after in the High Lord's absence.

  The G'home Gnomes tagged along because they were still too frightened after their ordeal with the band of trolls to do anything else.

  A message from the Lord Kallendbor in the form of a threat of immediate reprisal for the imagined theft of the bottle almost beat Questor back to the castle, but the wizard was undaunted. Kallendbor was hardly likely to challenge the power of the High Lord—unless, of course, he was to discover that Holiday was missing, heaven forbid!—however irritated he was about losing the bottle. Questor penned off a strongly worded reply on realm stationery repeating once again that he was in no way responsible for the theft of the bottle, nor were any of those in his company, and that any hostile response would be dealt with severely. He stamped it with the High Lord's seal and dispatched it. Enough was enough.

  During the next twenty-four hours, he met with a delegation of other Lords from the Greensward to address their grievances, including Strehan's concerning the destruction of his tower by Kallendbor, advised the newly formed judicial counc
il on establishment of courts to enforce the King's Rule, studied irrigation charts that would enable farmers to cultivate portions of the arid eastern expanses of the valley, and heard ambassadors and others from all parts of the realm. He did this as representative of and advisor to the High Lord, assuring all that the King would give immediate attention to their concerns. No one questioned his word. Everyone still assumed that Holiday was somewhere in the valley, and Questor was not about to suggest otherwise. Everything went smoothly, and that first day expired without incident.

  The first signs of trouble appeared with the next. Reports began to drift in of disturbances from all corners of the valley, a random scattering of raindrops that quickly grew into a downpour. Crag Trolls were suddenly, unex-plainably skirmishing, not only with G'home Gnomes, but also with outlying residents of the Greensward, with ko-bolds and sprites, and even with each other. The lake country claimed it was being inundated with fouled water from the Greensward and infested by plant-eating rats. The Greensward complained that it was under siege from a flurry of small dragons that were burning crops and livestock alike. Fairy folk and humans were setting on one another as if fighting were a newly discovered form of recreation. As fast as Questor read one report, two more came in. He went to bed that night exhausted.

  The third day was even worse. The reports had accumulated overnight, and on waking he was deluged. Everyone seemed to be at odds with everyone else. No one knew exactly why. There was hostility at every turn. No one knew what was causing it. Dissatisfaction quickly grew into a demand for action. Where was the High Lord? Why wasn't he dealing with this mess personally?

  Questor Thews began to smell a rat. He had already begun to suspect that the Darkling was somehow behind all this sudden unrest, and now he was beginning to suspect that the demon was serving the interests of someone whose primary concern was getting back at Ben Holiday. It seemed obvious to the wizard that the one clear purpose of all these unrelated incidents was to focus everyone's anger on the High Lord. Excluding Kallendbor, who had already lost the bottle once and was unlikely to have gotten it back again so fast, the two who most wanted revenge on Holiday were the dragon Strabo and the witch Nightshade.

  Questor considered the two.

  Strabo was hardly likely to bother himself with magic where Holiday was concerned; he was more apt simply to try to flatten him.

  Nightshade was another matter.

  Questor left messengers and ambassadors alike to cool their heels in the reception rooms and ascended Sterling Silver's high tower to where the Landsview was kept. He stepped onto the platform, fastened his hands on the polished railing, and willed himself out into the valley. Castle walls and towers disappeared, and Questor Thews was flying through space, swept away by the magic. He took himself directly across the valley to the Deep Fell and down within. Safe, because he was only seeing what was there and was not himself present, the wizard began to search for the witch. He didn't find her. He took himself out of the hollows and crisscrossed the valley, end to end. He still didn't find her.

  He returned to Sterling Silver, went back down to the various reception rooms, addressed another spate of grievances, went back up to the Lands view, and went out again. He repeated this procedure four additional times that day, growing increasingly frustrated and concerned as the valley's problems mounted, the outcry for an appearance by the High Lord grew, and his own efforts went unrewarded. He began to wonder if he was mistaken.

  Finally, on his fifth trip out, he found the witch. He discovered her at the far north corner of the hollows, almost into the lower peaks of the Melchor, situated where her view of the valley was unobstructed.

  She was holding the missing bottle, and the Darkling was rubbing its small, twisted, bristling dark form lovingly along one thin, white hand.

  Questor returned to Sterling Silver, dismissed everyone for the day, and sat down to try to figure out what to do.

  He couldn't escape the fact that this whole mess was his fault. He was the one who had insisted on trying the magic that would have changed Abernathy back into a man. He was the one who had persuaded the High Lord to give his precious medallion to the dog so that it might act as a catalyst. He was the one who had then permitted the magic to go awry. He cringed at that admission. He was the one who had dispatched the poor scribe into Holiday's old world and brought the bottle and the Darkling into his. He was the one who had allowed the bottle to sit unattended so that it might be stolen by the G'home Gnomes, the troll thieves, Kallendbor, and in the end some final unknown so that now it was in the hands of Nightshade.

  He sat alone in the shadows and silence of his private chambers and faced truths he would have preferred to leave alone. He was a poor wizard at best; he might as well admit it. Sometimes he could control the magic—what little he had learned—but, more often than not, it seemed to control him. He had enjoyed a few successes, but suffered many failures. He was an apprentice of an art that defied his staunchest efforts to master it. Perhaps he was not meant to be a wizard. Perhaps he should simply accept the fact of it.

  He rubbed his chin and screwed up his owlish face in distaste. Never! He would sooner be a toad!

  He stood up, paced about the darkened chamber for a time, and sat down again. There was no point in bemoaning his life's condition. True wizard or no, he was going to have to do something about Nightshade. The problem, of course, was that he didn't know what. He could go down into the Deep Fell and confront the witch, demand the bottle back, and threaten her with his magic. Unfortunately, that would likely be the end of him. He was no match for Nightshade in her own domain, especially with the bottle and its demon in her service. She would gobble him up like a sweetmeat.

  He saw again in his mind the witch and the Darkling at the hollows rim, a match if ever there was one, darkest evil and her favorite child.

  He clasped his hands before him, frowning so hard the ends of his mouth almost disappeared below his chin. The Paladin was the only one who could master the witch—but the Paladin would only appear if the High Lord summoned him, and the High Lord was trapped in his old world until he could find the missing Abernathy, regain his medallion, and get back again.

  Questor Thews gave a great sigh of disgust. It had all gotten so complicated!

  “Well!” he snapped, coming abruptly to his feet. “We shall have to uncomplicate things!”

  Brave words, he thought darkly. Uncomplicating things meant finding Holiday, Abernathy, and the medallion and getting all three safely back into Landover to deal with Nightshade and the Darkling. He hadn't the magic to do that. He'd told Holiday as much when he had sent him back.

  There was another way, however.

  A rather unlikely way.

  He was chilled suddenly at the thought of what he had to do. He wrapped his gray robes with their bright-colored silk patches close about him for momentary warmth, then released them again to tug restlessly at his ear. Well, either he was Court Wizard or he wasn't! Better learn the truth of matters right here and now!

  “No point in waiting, either,”he whispered.

  Determined, he went out the door and down the hall to find Bunion. He would leave tonight.

  “I'm telling you, it won't work,”Miles Bennett insisted. “I don't know why I let you talk me into these things, Doc.”

  Ben Holiday leaned forward wearily. “You keep saying that. Why don't you try being more positive about things.”

  “I am being positive! I'm positive it won't work!”

  Ben sighed, leaned back again, and stretched his legs out comfortably in front of him. “It'll work,”he said.

  They were speeding through the countryside north of Woodinville on 522 in a black stretch limousine, Miles driving, Ben sitting alone in the back seat. Miles wore a chauffeur's cap and coat at least one size too small, which was unfortunate because the whole scenario would have played better if the driver had been as immaculately dressed as his passenger. But there hadn't been time to shop for Miles—and even if
there had, they probably wouldn't have been able to find a clothing store with chauffeur uniforms for rent or sale in any case—so they'd had to settle for what the original driver was wearing. Ben looked considerably better. There'd been time to shop for him. He wore a five hundred dollar three-piece dark blue suit with just a hint of pinstriping, a pale blue silk shirt, and a deep mauve silk tie with a scattering of blues and lavenders woven in. A matching scarf was tucked neatly into his breast pocket. He glanced surreptitiously at himself in the rearview mirror. Just your average millionaire businessman, he thought—with just a touch of the wheeler-dealer in evidence. Sitting in his stretch limo with his chauffeur and his fine clothes, he looked every bit the successful entrepreneur.

  Which was the way he was supposed to look, of course.

  “What if he's seen your picture somewhere?” Miles asked suddenly. “What if he recognizes who you really are?”

  “Then I'm in big trouble,”Ben admitted. “But he won't. He's had no reason to track down a picture of me. Meeks always handled the Landover sales by himself. Michel Ard Rhi was content to collect the money and let matters take care of themselves. He had his own interests to look after.”

  “Like running guns and overthrowing foreign governments.”Miles shook his head. “This plan is too risky, Doc.”

  Ben stared out into the darkness. “True. But it's the only plan we've got.”

  He watched the dark shapes of the trees on either side of the highway rush past and disappear like frozen giants, the land sullen and empty, the night skies overcast and impenetrable. It was always smart to have a plan, he told himself. Too bad it couldn't always be a good one.

  They had left Davis Whitsell knowing that Abernathy was again in the hands of Michel Ard Rhi. It didn't matter that Whitsell hadn't seen Abernathy's abductors. They were as certain as the trainer that it had been Michel Ard Rhi who had taken him. Abernathy was imprisoned some-where in Ard Rhi's castle fortress, and it was up to them to rescue him—quickly. There was no telling what Ard Rhi would do to the dog now. There was no telling what he would do to that little girl either, once he found her out. He might even use the little girl as a weapon against the dog. Abernathy still had the medallion; Whitsell had mentioned seeing it. They had to assume that Ard Rhi knew about the medallion and was trying to get it back. If not, he would have done away with Abernathy long ago. He couldn't take the medallion by force, of course, but he could put an awful lot of pressure on the dog to persuade him to part with it willingly. The little girl would provide just the sort of pressure Ard Rhi would be apt to use.

 
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