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Terry Brooks

Witch Wraith

One

Railing Ohmsford stood alone at the bow of the Quickening and looked out at the starlit darkness. They were anchored for the night, the airship nestled in a copse of fir and hemlock, the sway of the ship in the soft breezes barely noticeable. It was well after midnight, and he should have been sleeping with the others. But sleep did not come easily these days, and when it did come it was haunted and left him racked with a deep sense of unease. Better to stay awake where he could try to do something to control his thoughts, as dark as they were. Better to face his demons standing up, prepared to fight them off and hold them at bay.

He could not banish them, of course. He could not send them back to the empty places where they sometimes went to hide, although increasingly less so these days.

Not that it mattered. He knew their faces. He knew their names.

Fear: that he might not be able to find Grianne Ohmsford and bring her back to face the Straken Lord because she was dead. Or because she was alive but could not be persuaded to leave the sanctuary in which she had placed herself, unwilling to risk a confrontation of the sort he was proposing. Or simply because she was Grianne and she had never been predictable.

Doubt: that he was doing the right thing in making this journey into the back of beyond because of a hope that had so little chance of succeeding. He should have been seeking his brother in the Forbidding, hunting for him there and bringing him out again in spite of the odds. Time was running out with every passing hour, and his brother was alone and had no one to help him and no way of knowing if help would ever come. Redden depended on him, and it must seem to his brother as if Railing had abandoned him.

Shame: that he was deceiving his companions on this quest, that he was keeping information from them that might dissuade them from continuing. The King of the Silver River had warned him that nothing would happen as he imagined, that there would be results he had not foreseen. The Faerie creature had told him he should turn back and travel instead into the Forbidding—the one place he knew he could never enter, so great was his terror at the prospect.

He felt himself to be a coward and a deceiver. He was consumed by his doubts and his shame, and it was growing increasingly harder not to reveal this to the others. He tried to keep it hidden, masked by his false words and acts, but it was eating at him. Destroying him.

He was crying again, silently and all at once, tears leaking from his eyes and despair filling his heart.

He left the vessel’s bow and walked back toward the stern, moving quietly, trying not to disturb the sleepers. Some were on deck, wrapped in blankets; some were below, rolled into hammocks. All slept save two of the Rover crew, who kept watch fore and aft. He saw the one at the stern and turned aside before he reached the man to take up a position near the starboard railing. Small creaks sounded as ropes and lines pulled taut and released again, and snores rose out of the shadows. He liked this quiet time, this confluence of shadows and sleep. Everything was at peace.

He wished he could be as well.

It had only been two days now since they had set out from the Rainbow Lake, even though it felt more like twenty. They had debated among themselves that morning, on waking, as to the best route for their journey. The Charnals were unknown country to all but Skint. Even Farshawn and his Rovers had not come this way before. Railing and Mirai had traveled the Borderlands while conveying spare parts and salvage to customers, but had not gone farther north.

Railing favored coming up from the Rainbow Lake, following the corridor that snaked between the Wolfsktaag and the Dragon’s Teeth to the Upper Anar, and then continuing on through Jannisson Pass east of the Skull Kingdom and its dangers and straight along the western edge of the Charnals to the Northland city of Anatcherae—much the same route his grandfather Penderrin had taken while searching for the tanequil all those years ago. From Anatcherae, once resupplied, they could continue on to their destination.

But Skint had thought differently.

What they needed most, he declared, was a guide, someone who was familiar with the Charnals and could help them find the ruins of Stridegate, where it was said the tanequil might be found. There were few who could do that, and he was not one. In point of fact, he knew of only one man who could help them with this, one whose loyalty and knowledge they could depend upon. And even he would need persuading.

His name was Challa Nand, and he made his home in the Eastland town of Rampling Steep. But finding him would require that the company fly Quickening east of the Charnals and through the Upper Anar. It would necessitate abandoning the western approach to Stridegate and finding one that came in from the east. Challa could show them, if they were able to persuade him to their cause.

Railing knew he could rely on the ring given to him by the King of the Silver River to show them the way, but using it would mean either telling them about his meeting with the Faerie creature or lying about where he had gotten the ring. The ring could always be a backup if the need arose; the better choice was to keep it a secret for now.

So he agreed to Skint’s proposal, and the others went along, all of them keenly aware that they were in unfamiliar territory and needed to reduce the risks they would encounter.

Now here they were, on their way to Rampling Steep, anchored at the northern edge of Darklin Reach not far from where the Rabb River branched east into the Upper Anar. If he listened closely, Railing could hear the murmur of the river’s waters as they churned their way out of the mountains on their journey west to the plains and from there to the Mermidon. It was a distance of hundreds of miles, and it made him wonder if anyone had ever followed the river all the way from end to end. He supposed Gnome or Dwarf trappers and traders might have done so at some point, but he doubted that any had ever made a record of it.

“What are you doing?”

Mirai Leah was standing next to him. He hadn’t heard her come up, hadn’t realized she was there. He shrugged. “Can’t sleep.”

“Standing out here isn’t going to help. You need to get some rest. Are you all right?”

He gave her a quick glance. Her hair was rumpled, and she was yawning. “You look like the one who ought to be sleeping.”

“I would be if I weren’t worried about you. What’s bothering you, Railing?”

He could have given her a whole raft of answers, starting with how he felt about her and what it would mean to him if he caused her harm. But all he said was, “Nothing. I just couldn’t sleep.”

She draped an arm over his shoulders. Her touch made him shiver. “How long have we known each other?”

“Seems like forever. Since we were pretty small, anyway. I still remember when your parents brought you for your first visit. They came to see Mother. I didn’t like you then. You were kind of bossy.”

“Not much has changed. I’m still kind of bossy. So when I ask you what’s bothering you, it’s because I know something is. So what’s up?”

He brushed his red hair back and faced her. “Leaving Redden is eating at me. I can’t stand it that I’m not going after him.”

“Then why aren’t you?”

“Because I think this is the better choice.”

“Because you believe Grianne Ohmsford is alive and will come to Redden’s aid?” She studied him a moment. “We’ve already discussed this, and I don’t think that’s what’s troubling you at all. I think there’s something else, something you are keeping to yourself. Redden’s not here to confide in, so maybe you ought to try telling me.”

Here was his opportunity. She had called him out on what she clearly recognized, and he could unburden himself by telling her about his meeting with the King of the Silver River. He could admit what he was doing, how he was manipulating them. But that was something he would never do. He didn’t want her judging him. He wanted her to love him unconditionally and fully. He always had.

He fingered the ring, tucked deep in his pant pocket. “I need to go back to sleep. I’m sorry I woke you.” He started to walk away, and then he stopped and turned around. “I want you to know that I’m doing the best I can. If anything happens to Redden because of me, I don’t think I could stand it. I need you to believe that. I need you to support me and to …”

He trailed off. He couldn’t make himself speak the words: Love me. “Good night.”

“I will always support you, Railing,” she called after him.

Without looking back, he gave her a wave and disappeared back down the hatchway into the hold of the airship.

He had thought he might sleep then, weary and heartsick. But after a short, unsettling nap he was awake again, wide-eyed and restless. Moreover, there was a tugging sensation that brought him out of his blanket and back up the ladder to the deck, where he stood peering out from the ship’s railing and over the darkened countryside.

Something was out there. Something he must find.

He couldn’t explain how he knew this, but the feeling was so compelling that he did not stop to question it. He needed to find out what it was. Ignoring it for even another moment was impossible.

He walked over to the sentry at the bow and told him he was going for a walk, ...