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«Witch Wraith»

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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 ...

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