The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks


  It had thought about nothing else for centuries. Once it had been a fairy creature of great power, a being whose magic was formidable and feared. It had used that magic in ways that so enraged and disgusted its kin within the fairy mists, the world to which all fairy creatures belonged, that they banded together, seized it when it thought itself invulnerable, and imprisoned it. They cast it down into the mists of the Tangle Box, a device they had constructed from their own magic and from which nothing could escape. Locks were placed upon the box from without where the Gorse could not reach them.

  Entombing it thus was meant to wear it down, to destroy its will, to make it forget everything it had known before its confinement and in the end to reduce it to dust. The effort had failed. It had remained trapped a very long time but it had not forgotten and its hatred of those responsible had grown.

  It had grown very large indeed.

  The Gorse moved easily through the night. It required little time to reach its destination and was in no hurry. It had waited until Horris Kew and the bird were sleeping, not wanting them to discover what it was about, needing them to continue to believe it was their friend. It was not, of course. The man and the bird were pawns, and the Gorse was using them accordingly. If they wanted to believe otherwise, if they chose to do so because they were greedy and foolish, that was as it should be. It was the natural order of things. They were mortal creatures and, so, much less than the Gorse. They were expendable.

  It crested a rise and found itself at the edge of the Heart. It paused to send out feelers of sight and sound, taste and smell, and discovered nothing amiss, nothing threatening. It looked out across the rows of white velvet seats and rests, past the burnished dais and its standards, past the encirclement of Bonnie Blues. It savored the presence of the magic that rose out of the earth, here at the wellspring of all the land’s life. The power of that magic was enormous, but the Gorse was not yet ready to tamper with it. It would serve a different purpose this night. A greater magic could be used to mask the conjuring of a lesser. It would do so now.

  The Gorse gathered itself and sent forth the summons it had prepared. Lines of fire that neither burned nor smoked lanced down into the earth and disappeared. The response was immediate, a harsh, grating rumble, the groan of a great stone wall giving way. After a moment, the rumble faded, and the silence returned.

  The Gorse waited.

  Then the air before it ripped apart as if formed of fabric, first tearing and then splitting wide. Thunder boomed from within the rent, deep and ominous. A hole opened in the night, and out of that hole rose the clang and scrape of armored riders and the hiss and shriek of their mounts. The sounds heightened to a frightening pitch as the riders gathered speed. A fierce wind whipped across the Heart, tearing at the flags atop their standards and screaming into the trees beyond.

  The Gorse held its ground.

  With a rush of wind and sound, those it had summoned materialized from out of the warp in time and space. They were formed of armored plates and spikes, bristling with weapons, riding on nightmare creatures that had no recognizable name. There were five of them, massive dark creatures that steamed despite the humid night air and whose breath hissed and rasped through the visors of their helmets. They were lean and shadowy, like dark-hued ghosts, and the reek of their bodies was terrible.

  The demons of Abaddon had arrived.

  Foremost was the one who was designated as the Mark, their chosen leader, a huge, angular monster with serpents carved into its armor and the severed heads of its enemies hung about its neck. It beckoned to the others, and they fanned out to either side, weapons held ready. As one, they advanced on the Gorse.

  The Gorse let them come. When they were close enough to spit on, it disappeared before their eyes in a flash of green light, reappeared as one of them, disappeared a second time, and reappeared finally as a pair of snake’s eyes. It stole into their armor and licked at them lovingly, showing them they were kindred spirits. It conjured images of the horrors it had once performed on its own people and let the demons savor its evil.

  When they were satisfied that it was one of them, that it was as powerful as they, and that it had summoned them for a reason, the Gorse hissed softly to prick their ears for his words and said, “What if I were to prepare a way for you to come into Landover safely?”

  He paused, hearing them growl expectantly. This was too easy. “What if Landover and her people were to be given over to you for good?”

  Too easy indeed.

  Vision

  After parting from the Earth Mother, Willow walked on through the forest for a time toward Elderew, lost in thought. The day was bright and sunny, filled with the smell of summer wildflowers and green grasses, and the forest was noisy and crowded with birdsong. It was beautiful and warm and comforting beneath the canopy of the great hardwoods, but Willow was oblivious to all of it. She walked through unaware, lost somewhere deep within herself, pondering over and over again the Earth Mother’s message about her baby.

  The words haunted her. She must gather soils from this world, from Ben’s world, and from the fairy mists. She must mix them together and take root in them in order for her child to be safely born. She did not know how long she had to do this. She did not know when the child would be born. She did not know where. She could not ask another to gather the soils for her; she must do so herself. Ben could not go with her. He could not help her. No one could.

  Well, almost no one. There would be the guide chosen by the fairies to direct her on the last two legs of her journey. But who would they send?

  She felt cold inside despite the day’s warmth. She had almost died in Ben’s world on her one and only visit, so her memories were not fond ones. The fairy mists were even worse for being an unknown; she was terrified of what might happen to her there. A once-fairy was even more vulnerable to their treachery than a human. The mists could so bewilder you, so erode your reason and strength, and so change you from who and what you were that you would end up completely lost to yourself. The mists brought out the dark fears you kept hidden deep inside yourself, giving them substance, giving them sufficient power to destroy you. Life within the mists was ethereal, a creation of the mind and the imagination. It was magical and ever-changing. Reality was what you created it to be, a bog that could swallow you up without a trace.

  Willow’s fear of the fairy world was the heritage bequeathed to her by her ancestors, those who had been fairies once, those who had come out of the mists. Not all of her ancestors had left, of course; some had remained behind, content with their immortality. Some yet lived and were fairies still. At times she could hear their voices in her sleep, in her dreams, calling out to her, urging her to come back to their way of life. It had been hundreds of years since the once-fairy had departed the mists, but the whispered call to return never ceased.

  It was a fact of life for her as it was for all of the once-fairy. Except that now she would be going back in spite of the warnings against doing so, the cautions that were carefully handed down from parents to children by all of the once-fairy. You can never go back. You can never return. But she would be doing so. She would be risking her sanity and her life for the sake of her child. Her needs versus the needs of her baby—it was a conflict that threatened to tear her apart.

  She walked on, debating, arguing with herself. The forest began to change perceptibly, the trees rising higher, the look of the land altering subtly, and she saw that she was drawing near to Elderew. She did not intend to enter the city. Her father was there, and she did not want to see him. He was the River Master, leader of the once-fairy and Lord of the lake country. They had never shared a close relationship and had grown farther apart when she had defied his wishes and gone to Ben Holiday when Ben had first come into Landover. She had known she was meant for Ben and he for her, that they would share a life, and she had decided that whatever the consequences she would find a way to be with him. It had not helped that he had succeeded as King when others who cr
aved power over Landover, her father included, had hoped he would not. It had not helped that she had made her life with him, a human, and left her own people. The relationship was further strained by the closeness she shared with her mother. The River Master was still in love with Willow’s mother, the only woman he had coveted and been unable to possess. He had fathered Willow on the single night they lay together, and then Willow’s mother, a wood nymph so wild that she could not live anywhere but in the deepest forest, had returned to her old life. The River Master had searched her out repeatedly and had even tried to trap her on one or two occasions, but all his efforts had failed. Willow’s mother would not come back to him. That she appeared now and again to Willow and danced for her in the fairy way, sharing emotions and dreams that transcended words, was almost more than the River Master could bear. He had many wives and many more children. He should have been content. He was not. Willow thought that without her mother beside him he never would be.

  She eased down a corridor of great white oak and shagbark hickory leading to the silver ribbon of a tributary that fed into the Irrylyn, making her way toward the old pines where her mother would come to her at nightfall. She thought of her old life, her life before Ben, here in the lake country, as a child of the River Master. She had been alone most of the time and had never felt loved. She had kept herself strong with her unshakable belief of what would one day be, the prospect of Ben and her life with him, the promise made to her by the Earth Mother when she was still a small child, the dream that nurtured and sustained her. The realization of that dream had been a long time coming, she thought, but any amount of time would have been worth the wait.

  She reached the stream, followed it to a shallows, and crossed. She felt the eyes on her for the first time then and stopped. They were bold and steady. She turned toward them, and they were gone. A once-fairy, like herself, probably in service to her father. She should have known she could not come into the lake country unseen. She should have known that her father would not allow it.

  She sighed. Now that he knew she was there, he would insist on speaking with her. She might as well wait where she was.

  She turned back to the stream and stooped to drink from a rapids. The water was clean and tasted good. She looked at herself in the ripple of brightness as it passed, a small and slender woman who looked to be barely more than a girl, eyes large and expressive, hair thick and flowing from her head but as thin and fine as gossamer where it ran down the backs of her forearms and calves, all of her colored in various shades of green. She was this image reflected by the waters of the stream, but she was also at regular intervals transformed into the tree for which she was named, a consequence of her genetic makeup and now the cause for this journey she had been sent upon. She thought for a moment about how different things would have been if she had been given other blood, if she had been born of other parents. But a moment of such thinking was enough. She might as well ponder what would have happened if she had been born human.

  She rose, and the River Master stood before her. He was tall and lean, his skin an almost silver cast, grainy and shimmering, his hair black and thick about the nape of his neck and forearms. His forest clothing was loose-fitting, nondescript, and belted at the waist. He wore a slim silver diadem on his head, the mark of his office. The features of his face were sharp and small, his nose almost nonexistent, his mouth a tight line that allowed no expression.

  “Even for you, that was quick,” she greeted him.

  “I had to be quick,” he replied, “since my daughter apparently did not intend to visit me.”

  His voice was deep and even. He was alone, but she knew his retainers were close by, concealed back in the trees, staying just within hearing so that they could respond quickly if called.

  “You are correct,” she said. “I did not.”

  Her honesty gave him pause. “Bold words for a child to speak to her father. Are you too good for me now that you are the wife of the High Lord?” A hint of anger crept into his voice. “Have you forgotten who you were and where you came from? Have you forgotten your roots, Willow?”

  She did not miss the snide reference. “I have forgotten nothing. Rather, I have remembered all too well. I do not feel welcome here, Father. I think that seeing me is not altogether pleasant for you.”

  He stared at her momentarily and then nodded. “Because of your mother, you believe? Because of how I feel about her? Perhaps so, Willow. But I have learned to put those feelings aside. I find I must. Have you come to see her, then?”

  “Yes.”

  “About the child you are expecting?”

  She smiled in spite of herself. She should have known. The River Master had spies everywhere, and there had been no attempt to keep the news of her baby a secret. “Yes,” she answered.

  “Your child by Holiday, an heir to the throne.” Her father’s stone face was expressionless, but his voice gave something of what he was feeling away. “You must be pleased, Willow.”

  “And you are not,” she declared softly.

  “The child is not once-fairy and therefore not one of us. The child is half-human. I would wish it otherwise.”

  She shook her head. “You see everything in terms of your own interests, Father. The child is Ben Holiday’s and therefore another obstacle in your efforts to gain control of the throne of Landover. You can’t just outwait him now. You must deal with his child as well. Isn’t that what you mean?”

  The River Master came forward to stand directly before her. “I will not argue with you. I am disappointed that you did not intend to tell me of the birth of my grandchild. You would tell your mother, but you would let me find out another way.”

  “It wasn’t so difficult for you, was it?” she asked. “Not with all your spies to tell you.”

  There was a hard silence as they faced each other, sylph and sprite, daughter and father, separated by distances that could never be measured.

  The River Master looked away. The sun glinted off his silver skin as he stared out into the shadows of the great forest trees. “This is my homeland. These are my people. It is important for me to remember them first in all things. You have forgotten what that means. We do not see things the same way, Willow. We never have. I was never close enough to you to find a way to do so. Some of that is my fault. You were ruined for me by your mother’s refusal to live with me. I could not look at you without seeing her.”

  He shrugged, a slow, deliberate movement, a relegation to the past of what was now beyond his grasp. “Yet I loved you, child. I love you still.” He looked back at her. “You do not believe that, do you? You do not accept it.”

  She felt something stir weakly inside, a memory of when she had wanted nothing more. “If you love me,” she said carefully, “then give me your word that you will protect my child always.”

  He looked long and hard at her, as if seeing someone else. Then he placed one hand on his breast. She was surprised to see how gnarled it had become. The River Master was aging. “Given,” he said. “To the extent that I can do so, my grandchild shall be kept safe.” He paused. “But it was not necessary to ask for my word on that.”

  Willow held his gaze. “I think perhaps it was.”

  The River Master’s hand dropped away. “You are too harsh toward me. But I understand.” He glanced skyward. “Do you go now to your mother or will you come with me into the city, to my home? Your mother,” he hurried on, “will not come until night.”

  Willow hesitated, and for a moment thought she might accept his invitation, for she sensed it was extended in kindness and not duplicitously. Then she shook her head. “No, I will go on,” she said. “I have … a need to be alone before I see her.”

  Her father nodded, as if he had expected her answer. “Do you think she …?” he began, and then stopped, unable to continue. Willow waited. He looked away and then back again. “Do you think she would dance for me as well?”

  Willow experienced a sudden sadness for her father. It had
been difficult for him to ask that. “No, I do not think so. She will not even appear if you come with me.”

  He nodded again, expecting this answer as well. She reached out then and took hold of his hand. “But I will ask her if she will dance for you another time.”

  His hand tightened around hers. They stood joined that way for a moment longer, and then the River Master spoke again. “I will tell you something, Willow. Whether you believe me or not is your choice. But my dreams are certain and my vision is true, and of all the once-fairy I am the most powerful and the closest to the old ways. So heed me. Even before I was informed of the birth, I knew of the child. I have dreamed of it before. The dreams show me this. The path of your life is marked by the coming of this child. You must find ways to be strong in the face of the changes it will bring—you and the High Lord both.”

  Willow swallowed her sudden fear. “Have you seen my child’s face? Have you seen anything that you can tell me?”

  The River Master shook his head slowly. “No, Willow. My dreams of the child are too large for the specifics you would know. My dreams are shadows and light upon a life path and nothing more. If you would know specifics, speak with the Earth Mother. Perhaps her vision is clearer than mine.”

  Willow nodded. He would not have known she had already spoken to the elemental. The Earth Mother would not have allowed it. “I will do as you suggest. Thank you.”

  She released his hand and stepped back. Then she started off into the forest. “You will not try to follow me?” She looked back guardedly.

 
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