Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks


  Abernathy went cold. “I have told you…”

  “Your tunic. Open your tunic.”

  Abernathy gave it up. Slowly he unclasped the tunic front. Michel leaned forward as the silver medallion came into view. “So,”he said, his voice a slow hiss. “It was the medallion.”

  He got up and walked out from behind the desk, coming to a stop directly in front of Abernathy. He was still smiling, a smile without warmth. “Where is my bottle?” he asked softly.

  Abernathy held his ground, fighting down the urge to step back. “What bottle are you talking about, Michel?”

  “The bottle in the case, Abernathy—where is it? You know where it is and you're going to tell me. I don't believe for a moment that you just happened to appear in my castle. I don't believe that this is all just the result of errant magic. What sort of fool do you think I am? The medallion brought you here from Landover. You came to Graum Wythe to steal the bottle, and that's what you've done. It only remains for me to discover where you have hidden it.”He paused thoughtfully. “Maybe it's in Elizabeth's room. Is that where it is, Abernathy? Is Elizabeth your accomplice in all this?”

  Abernathy tried to keep any trace of fear for Elizabeth from his voice. “The little girl? She just happened to stumble on me, and I had to pretend with her for a bit. If you want, search her room, Michel.”He tried to sound disinterested.

  Michel watched him like a hawk. He leaned forward a bit. “Do you know what I am going to do with you?”

  Abernathy stiffened slightly. “I am sure you will tell me,”he replied.

  “I am going to put you in a cage, Abernathy. I am going to put you in a cage just as I would with any stray animal. You'll be given dog food and water and a pad to sleep on. And that is where you will stay, Abernathy.”The smile was gone completely now. “Until you tell me where the bottle is. And…” He paused. “Until you take off the medallion and give it to me.”

  He bent closer still, his breath strong in Abernathy's nostrils. “I know the law of the medallion. I cannot take it from you; you must give it to me. It must be given freely, or the magic is useless. You will do that, Abernathy. You will give me the medallion of your own choice. I grow tired of this world. I think perhaps I might return to Lan-dover for a time. I think I might like being King now.”

  He stared into Abernathy's eyes for a moment, searching for the fear concealed there, found it, and stepped back again in satisfaction. “If you don't give me the bottle and the medallion, Abernathy, you will be left in that cage until you rot.”He paused. “And that could take a very long time.”

  Abernathy didn't say a word. He simply stood there, paralyzed.

  “Guard!” Michel Ard Rhi called. The men without reappeared. “Take him down to the cellar and put him in a cage. Give him water and dog food twice a day and nothing else. Don't let anyone near him.”

  Abernathy was dragged roughly through the door. Behind him, he heard Michel call out in a singsong, taunting voice, “You should never have come here, Abernathy!”

  Abernathy was inclined to agree.

  Fillip and Sot fled north with the bottle, intent on putting as much distance between themselves and the High Lord as was possible. They had escaped in the first place because the Darkling had transported them from the site of battle to a point some miles north, enveloping them in a shroud of smoke and brightly colored lights and whisking them off with all the ease that true magic allows. They had no idea what had become of the High Lord and his companions and they frankly didn't want to know. They didn't even want to think about it.

  They ended up thinking about it anyway, of course. All the while they fled north, they thought about it, even without speaking to each other about it, even without acknowledging by covert glances or gestures what they were doing. They couldn't help it. They had committed the most unpardonable, treasonable act imaginable—they had defied their beloved High Lord. Worse, they had actually attacked him! Not directly, of course, since it was the Darkling who had done the attacking, but it was all at their behest and that was the same thing as if they had struck the blows. They couldn't imagine why they had done such a thing. They couldn't conceive of how they had allowed it to happen. They had never even dreamed of challenging the wishes of the High Lord before. Such a thing was unthinkable!

  Nevertheless, it had happened, and there was no turning back from it now. They were fleeing because they didn't know what else to do. They knew the High Lord would come after them. He would be furious at what they had done and he would hunt them down and punish them. Their only hope, they sensed, was in flight and, eventually, in hiding.

  But where to run and where to hide?

  They hadn't resolved the dilemma by the time nightfall and exhaustion made further flight impossible, and they were forced to stop. They wormed their way down into an abandoned badger nest and lay there in the dark listening to the pounding of their hearts and the whisper of their consciences. The bottle was open before them, the Darkling perched on its rim, playing with a pair of frantic moths it had captured and secured with long strands of gossamer webbing. Moon and stars were hidden behind a bank of low-hanging clouds, and night sounds were strangely muted and distant.

  Fillip and Sot held hands and waited for the fear to go away. It refused to budge.

  “I wish we were home!” Sot whined over and over to Fillip, and Fillip nodded each time without speaking.

  They huddled close, too frightened even to think of eating, though they were hungry, or sleeping, though they were tired. They could do nothing but crouch there and think on the misfortune that had befallen them. They watched the Darkling cavort about the bottle, flying the moths like tiny kites, turning them this way and that as the mood struck. They watched, but it was different from what it had been the night before. They no longer found the demon or the bottle so wonderful a treasure.

  “I think we did a terrible thing,”ventured Fillip finally, his voice a cautious, frightened whisper.

  Sot looked at him. “I think so, too.”

  “I think we made a very bad mistake,”Fillip went on.

  “I think so, too,”said Sot again.

  “I think we should never have taken the bottle,”finished Fillip.

  Sot just nodded this time.

  They glanced over at the Darkling, who had stopped playing with the moths and was looking intently at them.

  “It might not be too late to give the bottle back to the High Lord,”suggested Fillip tentatively.

  “No, it might not,”agreed Sot.

  The Darkling's eyes flared bright red in the dark, blinked once, and fixed on them.

  “The High Lord might forgive us if we return the bottle,”said Fillip.

  “The High Lord might be grateful,”said Sot.

  “We could explain that we did not understand what we were doing,”said Fillip.

  “We could tell him how sorry we were,”said Sot.

  They were both sniffling a bit, wiping at their eyes and noses. The Darkling pointed once at the moths and turned them to bits of blue fire that flared and were gone.

  “I do not want the High Lord to hate us,”said Fillip softly.

  “Nor I,”said Sot.

  “He is our friend,”said Fillip,

  “Our friend,”echoed Sot.

  The Darkling spun suddenly about the lip of the bottle, throwing bits of colored light all about the darkness, the light sparking and exploding in brilliant streamers. Strange images formed and faded and formed again. The G'home Gnomes watched, intrigued anew. The demon laughed and danced, and there were jewels raining down about them as flying moths crystalized and tumbled from flight.

  “The bottle is so pretty,”said Fillip in awe.

  “The magic is so wondrous,”sighed Sot.

  “Perhaps we could keep the bottle just a bit longer,”ventured Fillip.

  “Perhaps for just a day or two,”agreed Sot.

  “What could it hurt?”

  “What harm could there be?”

&nb
sp; “Perhaps…”

  “Maybe…”

  They began and stopped talking at the same moment, turning suddenly to each other, seeing the red glare of the demon's bright eyes reflected in their own and recoiling from it. They tightened their clasped hands and blinked with dazed incomprehension.

  “I'm frightened,”said Sot, tears in his eyes.

  Fillip's voice was a wary hiss. “I don't like the bottle anymore,”he said. “I don't like how it makes me feel!”

  Sot nodded voicelessly. The Darkling was watching them, the lights and colors and images gone back into the night. The demon hunched down on the lip of the bottle and its red eyes were slits.

  “Let's put it back in the bottle,”suggested Fillip quietly.

  “Let's,”agreed Sot.

  The demon curled down into a ball and spit suddenly.

  “Go away!” said Fillip bravely, making shooing motions with one hand.

  “Yes, go away!” echoed Sot.

  The demon hissed sharply. “Where would you have me go, masters?” it asked, a bit of a whine in its voice.

  “Back into the bottle!” answered Fillip.

  “Yes, into the bottle!” agreed Sot.

  The demon studied them a moment longer, and then the strange spiderlike body skittered back into the bottle and was gone. Fillip and Sot reached up as one, grabbed the bottle almost frantically, and jammed the stopper back into place.

  Their hands were shaking.

  After a moment, they set the bottle back down again, just in front of them, hidden in leaves and twigs at the forefront of their little den. They watched it silently for a time, and then their eyes began to droop, and sleep began to steal through them.

  “Tomorrow we will return the bottle to the High Lord,”murmured Fillip.

  “Give it back to the High Lord,”yawned Sot.

  They were asleep in moments, reassured that all would be well. Soon, their snores grew steady and their breathing deep.

  Immediately, a dull red glare began to emanate from the bottle.

  Sot dreamed of brightly shining jewels. He dreamed that they were falling all about him like raindrops, shimmering as they tumbled down from clouds of rainbow-lined fleece and skies of depthless blue. He sat upon a hill of fragrant grasses and wildflowers and watched them gather all about him in mounds. Sunshine shone from somewhere, warming him, and there was a sense of endless peace.

  Beside him sat the bottle—his precious, wondrous bottle. It was the bottle and the Darkling locked within that made the jewels fall.

  “Set me free, little master!” the Darkling pleaded suddenly, a small, frightened voice. “Please, master!”

  Sot stirred within his dream, and he knew somehow that if he did as the demon had asked that the jewels that fell about him would increase in number and beauty beyond anything he could imagine. He knew that if he obeyed, the demon would give him precious things beyond all comprehension.

  It all seemed so easy and right.

  He reached over, still asleep, still in his dream, it seemed, and he pulled the stopper free…

  It was raining when Fillip and Sot came awake again, the skies leaden and clouded over. The rain fell in great, heavy drops that splattered noisily as they struck the earth. Puddles and streams were already forming, mirrors of silver and trickles of gray. It was barely dawn, and everything in the haze of damp and new light was a shimmer of vague images and phantoms.

  Coarse, gnarled hands wrenched Fillip and Sot from their slumber and dragged them roughly to their feet. The G'home Gnomes stood shivering with the cold, their weak eyes blinking in bewilderment. Bulky, dark shapes encircled them, a ring of grotesque shadows that lacked clear definition. Fillip and Sot squirmed and wriggled, trying to break free, but the hands held them fast.

  One of the shapes detached itself from the ring. It bent close, a body consisting of heavy limbs, bent spine, and matted, dark hair, with a face that was almost featureless under a covering of skin like rough hide.

  “Good morning, little gnomes,”the troll greeted in his rough, guttural language.

  Fillip and Sot shrank back, and trolls all about them laughed with delight.

  “Can't you talk?” the speaker asked, feigning sadness.

  “Let us go!” pleaded the gnomes in unison.

  “But we just found you!” the other said, aggrieved now. “Must you run off so quickly? Have you somewhere to go?” A meaningful pause. “Might you be running from someone, perhaps?”

  Fillip and Sot both shook their heads vigorously.

  “From someone looking for this?” the troll asked slyly.

  He held forth one massive hand. In that hand was their precious bottle, unstoppered once more, the Darkling dancing along its rim, withered child's hands clapping merrily.

  “The bottle is ours!” cried Fillip angrily.

  “Give it back to us!” wailed Sot.

  “Give it back?” the troll said in disbelief. “A thing as wonderful as this? Oh, I think not!”

  Fillip and Sot kicked and fought like trapped animals, but the trolls holding them just tightened their grip. The speaker was bigger than the others and obviously in charge. He reached out suddenly with his free hand and thumped them hard on their heads to quiet them down. The force of the blows knocked them to their knees.

  “It appears to me that you've been thieving again,”the troll continued thoughtfully. “Stealing what doesn't belong to you.”The gnomes managed to shake their heads once more in denial, but the troll ignored them. “I think this bottle cannot belong to you. I think it must belong to someone else, and whoever that someone is, he has clearly suffered a great misfortune because of you.”He brightened. “Still, another's misfortune need not necessarily be passed on. One man's loss is another man's gain, as the old saying goes. We cannot be certain whom the bottle formerly belonged to. So it seems best that it now belong to me!”

  Fillip and Sot looked at each other. These trolls were scavengers, common thieves! They looked quickly to the Darkling where it danced along the neck of their precious bottle.

  “Don't let them do this!” pleaded Fillip desperately.

  “Make them give you back to us!” begged Sot.

  “Stop them, stop them!” they cried together.

  The demon did handstands and backflips and watched them through slitted eyes that glittered redly in the haze. A bit of multicolored fire spurted to life at the end of the fingers of one hand, and it blew the fire toward them in a shower of sparks that flared, died, and turned to ashes that caused them to choke and cough and go silent again.

  The troll who held the bottle looked down at the Darkling. “Do you belong to these gnomes, tiny fellow?” he asked solicitously.

  The Darkling went still. “No, master. I belong only to the holder of the bottle. I belong only to you!”

  “No, no!” wailed Fillip and Sot. “You belong to us!”

  The other trolls laughed with glee, the sound as chill as the rain that fell all about them.

  The speaker bent close. “Nothing belongs to a G'home Gnome, foolish ones! Nothing ever has and nothing ever will! You haven't learned how to keep your possessions safe! How do you think we found you? Who do you think brought us here? Why, gnomes, it was this very creature you now call upon for help! It showered the skies with its brightly colored fire! It asked that we take it from you! It asked that it not be left your prisoner!”

  The G'home Gnomes stared wordlessly, their last shred of hope gone. The Darkling—their friend, their maker of wondrous magic—had deliberately betrayed them. It had given them over to their worst enemies.

  “Ho, hum,”the speaker said with a yawn. “Time to dispose of you, I think.”

  The other trolls growled their assent and stamped their feet impatiently. They were growing bored with this game. Fillip and Sot struggled anew.

  “What shall we do with them?” the speaker mused. He glanced about at the others. “Cut their throats and spike their heads? Pull off their fingers and toes? B
ury them alive?”

  Roars of approval sounded from all about, and the G'home Gnomes cringed down into small puddles of despair.

  The troll leader shook his head. “No, no, I think we can do better than that!” He looked down at the cavorting demon. “Little fellow, what do you say should be done with these gnomes?”

  The Darkling danced and balanced on fingers and toes, a wicked spiderlike shape clinging to the bottle's slick surface. ‘They might make good feeding for the animals of the forest,”it teased.

  “Ah!” the troll leader exclaimed. The others joined in a chorus of raucous approval, and the early morning stillness was filled with the sound.

  So it was that Fillip and Sot were thrown to the ground, bound hand and foot with cord, hoisted feet first from a line slung over a low branch of a nearby hickory, and left to dangle with their down-turned heads some four feet above the ground.

  “Not so close as to drown you in a rain wash and not so far as to prevent the scavengers from reaching you,”the speaker advised as the trolls turned away north. “Farewell, little gnomes. Keep your chins up!”

  The pack laughed and shoved playfully at one another as they departed. The Darkling sat upon the speaker's broad shoulder and looked back, eyes a blood-red glitter of satisfaction.

  In moments, Fillip and Sot were left alone, hanging upside down from the hickory. They swayed gently in the wind and rain and cried.

  It was raining and blowing on Ben Holiday as well as he began his day some twenty miles south of where the G'home Gnomes had been strung up by their heels. He unwrapped himself from the warmth of Willow and his sleeping gear and shivered with the early morning chill as he dressed. They were encamped within a sheltering stand of giant fir that sat back against a rocky bluff, but the damp seemed to penetrate even there. The kobolds were already up and moving about, Bunion making ready to begin scouting ahead for the fleeing gnomes. Questor staggered about sleepily, attempted to make breakfast with his magic, and succeeded in producing five live chickens that flapped about madly and a cow that scattered Parsnip's cooking gear. Within minutes, wizard and kobold were yelling at each other irritably, and Ben was wishing he were back at Sterling Silver in the comfort and seclusion of his own bedchamber.

 
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