The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks


  Horris Kew felt a sudden lurch in the pit of his stomach. Maybe Biggar was right. He could still see Holiday and the witch and the dragon being sucked down into the Tangle Box. He could still see them fighting to get free before disappearing into the mists. When he had picked up the box, it seemed as if he could feel them batting around inside like trapped moths. He wondered what the Gorse had done with the Tangle Box after Horris had carried it back to the cave. He wondered if there was room inside for any more prisoners.

  Horris swallowed hard. “Don’t worry, the Gorse needs us all right,” he insisted, but he didn’t sound so sure now.

  “Why?” Biggar snapped.

  “Why?”

  “Don’t repeat me, Horris. I’ve warned you about that. Yes, why? Better ask yourself another question while you’re at it. If it plans to give us all of Landover, what does it plan to give itself? And don’t tell me it’s doing this as a philanthropical undertaking. Don’t tell me it doesn’t want anything for itself. This plan is leading up to something, and so far it’s not telling us what!”

  “Okay! Okay!” Horris was on the defensive now. “Maybe there is something more than what we’re being told. Sure, why not? Say, I’ve got an idea! Why don’t you ask it, Biggar? If you’re so worried, why don’t you just ask it?”

  “For the same reason you don’t, Horris! I don’t fancy getting dispatched like Holiday and the others!”

  “But it’s okay for me to chance it, is that it?”

  “While it needs you, it is! Think with your brain, Horris! It won’t do anything to you while it needs you! It’s afterwards that you have to start worrying!”

  Horris stamped furiously. Dusty streaks of sweat ran down his narrow, pointed face. “That hardly helps us now, out here on the road, almost to the gates of the King’s castle, does it?” he yelled angrily. “Got any other useful suggestions?”

  Biggar ruffled his feathers anew, his dark eyes flat and hard. “Matter of fact, I do. This whole plan depends on whether or not the magic it gave us works. If it doesn’t, the wizard and the dog are going to have us thrown into the darkest dungeon they can find. Holiday was our only ally when we were here before, and he’s long gone. No one is going to be in a very good mood with him missing. So what if the magic doesn’t work, Horris?”

  Horris Kew glowered menacingly. “I’m getting tired of this, Biggar. In fact, I’m getting tired of you.”

  Biggar looked unimpressed. “I say we try one out and see if it works before we walk into the lion’s den.”

  The glower deepened. “The Gorse told us not to do that, remember? It warned us explicitly.”

  “So what?” the bird pressed. “The Gorse isn’t the one taking all the risks.”

  “It said that whatever we did, we were not to use them! It was pretty emphatic, as I recall!” Horris was shouting. “Suppose it isn’t kidding, Biggar? Suppose—just suppose now—that it knows what it’s talking about! After all, whose magic is it, you idiot?”

  Biggar spit—not easy for a bird. “You are foolish beyond anything I could have imagined, Horris Kew. You are incredibly stupid. And myopic to boot. And, even for a human, exceedingly gutless!”

  Horris charged him then, his temper frayed past its limits, his anger exploding through him. Roaring like an enraged lion, he came at Biggar with every intent of tearing him wing from wing. But Biggar was a bird, and birds can escape humans every time simply by flying off, which is what Biggar did now, a casual, lazy lifting into the air so that he circled just out of reach of the leaping, grasping, would-be conjurer. What Horris did succeed in doing was frightening the pack mule within an inch of its life so that it bolted back into the forest to disappear in a cloud of dust with a mighty, terrified bray.

  “Oh, drat it, drat it, drat, drat, drat!” Horris mumbled, among other less printable things, when he finally calmed down enough to realize what he had done.

  It took him, even with Biggar’s help, an hour to round up the mule and the precious chests it carried. Exhausted, sullen, and bereft for the moment of any other plan, the conjurer and the bird continued their journey.

  It was nearing sunset when they finally arrived at the gates of Sterling Silver.

  Questor Thews was at his wit’s end. Three days had passed since Ben Holiday had disappeared and there was still no sign of him. The escort that had accompanied the High Lord to the Heart had ridden directly back to the castle after losing him, and Questor had been able to dispatch a search party immediately. Those sent had scoured the area surrounding the Heart and then the whole of the countryside beyond. There wasn’t a trace of the High Lord. Jurisdiction was found grazing where Holiday had apparently left him and that was it. There was evidence of a disturbance at the Heart—some frayed banners, some scorched seats and rests, a little dirt kicked up—but nothing that you could put a name to and nothing that could help explain what had happened to Holiday. Questor had gone out himself to take a look. He could feel the presence of used magic in the air, but there was so much magic concentrated there anyway that it was impossible to decipher what these odd traces meant.

  In any case, Ben Holiday was nowhere to be found. Questor Thews had moved quickly to keep that fact a secret, ordering the guards of the escort and the search party not to speak of the matter to anyone. That was like sticking your finger in a leaking dike, however, as Abernathy was quick to point out. News of this sort could not be kept secret for long. Someone was bound to talk, and once word got out that the High Lord was really and truly gone, there would be trouble for sure. If the River Master didn’t start it, the Lords of the Greensward surely would—especially Kallendbor of Rhyndweir, the most powerful of the Lords and an implacable enemy of Ben Holiday’s. Kallendbor, more than any of Landover’s nobles and leaders, had resented the loss of power that Holiday’s coronation had cost him. On the surface, he acknowledged Holiday’s sovereignty and obeyed his commands. Inside, he simmered like something kept cooking too long. There were others as well who would welcome news of Ben Holiday’s removal, whatever the circumstances, and Questor knew he had to do something to put the rumors to rest at once.

  He came up with a rather ingenious plan, one he shared only with Abernathy and the kobolds, keeping the number who knew the truth to a manageable four. What he did was to have Abernathy call off the search and announce that the High Lord had returned safely. To convince those quartered at the castle that the announcement was valid and not a further rumor, he used magic to create an image of Ben Holiday passing along the castle ramparts at midday where he could be clearly seen by those below. He even had him wave. He repeated his creation several times, making sure that there were plenty of witnesses. Sure enough, the word got passed along gossip-quick.

  In the meantime, Questor used every spare minute available (which wasn’t nearly enough) employing the quick travel magic of the Landsview to scour the countryside in search of Holiday. His efforts yielded nothing. There was no sign of the High Lord.

  Of course, life at Sterling Silver went on, Holiday or no, and it was important that what needed to be done got done, and that it got done as if Holiday were doing it. This was a whole lot tougher to accomplish than the conjuring up of an image or two. Since Holiday wasn’t there to see any of a large number of representatives and officials who had come from every quarter of Landover, Questor Thews and Abernathy were forced to see them for him and to pretend that they had been requested to do so. Some of those visiting had traveled great distances to see the High Lord. Some had been summoned. None among them was much pleased at being put off. Questor resorted to increasingly desperate efforts to quell any suspicions. He forged the High Lord’s name on orders. He passed out gifts. He issued awards and citations of merit. He even tried using his magic to throw the High Lord’s voice from behind a curtain. This effort produced a woman’s voice and caused those listening to stare at each other incredulously—who was this woman back there with the High Lord?—and Questor was forced to salvage the situation by claiming it was a
serving girl who had mistaken Holiday for an intruder. Some of his magic still needed work.

  There was also the matter of Willow’s absence, which the High Lord had failed to explain before disappearing himself, so that now not just one person was missing, but two. But since Holiday hadn’t seemed unduly concerned about Willow going off, Questor decided he needn’t worry either, at least not just now. Really, the only reason for finding her—since he had no particular reason to worry if she was safe—was to tell her about the High Lord’s disappearance. Questor decided he didn’t need that additional complication in his life. If Holiday hadn’t been found by the time the sylph returned, Questor would break the news to her then. There was, after all, only so much he could do.

  Which, at the moment, wasn’t nearly enough. Trying to split his time between the requirements of his duties and the demands of his machinations was beginning to take its toll. He was hardly in the mood then to hear the news that Abernathy carried on appearing at the door to his work chamber just before sunset of that third day.

  “Horris Kew and his bird are back,” the Court Scribe announced with something less than enthusiasm.

  Questor looked up from the stack of paperwork visited on him in the High Lord’s absence and groaned. “Again? What does that wastrel want now?”

  Abernathy stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. Even for a dog, he looked put upon. “He wishes to speak with the High Lord—what else? Isn’t that everyone’s reason for being alive these days? And do not bother telling me to send him away. Although I would love to do so, I cannot. He is cloaked in supplicant’s robes; I have to admit him.”

  Questor pressed his fingers to his forehead, massaging the temples. “Did he say what he wants, by any chance?”

  “He said it was important, nothing more. He did not mention his exile, if that is what you are asking.”

  “To tell you the truth, I don’t know what I’m asking! I barely know what I’m doing!” The wizard looked as if he were trying to tear at his beard. “You know, Abernathy, I am very fond of the High Lord. Very. I recruited him myself, if you recall. I saw something special in him, and I was not mistaken. He was the King we had all been looking for, the King Landover needed to become whole again.”

  He came to his feet. “But, really, I wish he would stop disappearing so often! How many times has he done this now? I don’t know how he can be so inconsiderate of us. Going off in the middle of the night, just riding out without a word, leaving us to try to cover for him until he comes back. I must tell you, I find it exceedingly aggravating!”

  Abernathy looked away and cleared his throat. “Well, in all fairness, Questor Thews, some of those disappearances were not the High Lord’s fault. I am quite certain he would have preferred that they had never happened.”

  “Yes, yes, I know. My brother and all. The black unicorn.” Questor brushed the explanation aside. “Still, a King has responsibilities, and they should not be taken lightly. A King should consult with his advisors on these things. That’s what advisors are …”

  He stopped abruptly. “You don’t think he’s been kidnapped, do you? Wouldn’t there have been a ransom demand by now? Unless Nightshade has him. She wouldn’t bother with a ransom demand. She would simply eliminate him! But why wouldn’t the Paladin protect him against her? Why wouldn’t the Paladin come to his rescue—”

  “Questor Thews.” Abernathy tried to interrupt.

  “—whatever sort of danger he was in? What sort of protector leaves his master—”

  “Wizard!” the dog snapped irritably.

  Questor jumped. “What? What is it?”

  “Stop carrying on so, for goodness’ sake! What is the point of it? We have no idea what has become of the High Lord, but it certainly does not help him if we lose our heads. We have to remain calm. We have to carry on as if he were still here and in the meantime hope he shows up.” Abernathy took a deep breath. “Have you found anything in the Landsview?”

  Questor, duly chastened, shook his head. “No, nothing.”

  “Perhaps you should send Bunion to look about. A kobold can cover more ground than any twenty search parties and make no disturbance doing it. Bunion can track anyone. Perhaps you should let him try to track Holiday.”

  “Yes.” Questor nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, perhaps so.”

  “In the meantime,” Abernathy continued, resisting the urge to scratch at something low down on his body with his hind leg, “what about Horris Kew?”

  Questor pressed at his temples again, as if reminded of a headache he had momentarily forgotten. “Oh, dear. Him. Well, he can’t see the High Lord, of course. Confound it, why does he have to see anyone?”

  “He doesn’t,” Abernathy answered, “but if I read the depth of his determination correctly, he will keep trying until he does. I do not think he will simply go away.”

  Questor sighed. “No, I don’t suppose he will.” He paused thoughtfully. “Abernathy, do you think I look anything like that man?”

  Abernathy stared. “What an odd question.”

  “Well, it bothers me that I might. I mean, we are both in the conjuring business, aren’t we? And sometimes they say that all conjurers look alike. You’ve heard that, haven’t you? Besides, we’re both rather tall and slight of build and at times awkward, and we both have rather prominent noses and … well, sharp features …”

  Abernathy held up one paw deliberately. “You look as much like Horris Kew as I look like his bird. Please, no more of this. Just decide if we see them tonight or not. I suggest we do not put it off.”

  Questor nodded. “No, I agree. Let’s get it over with.”

  They went out of the room, down the hall, and descended two flights of stairs to where visitors were kept waiting until they could be received. They made a strange pair, the white-haired, gangly wizard with his colorful patched robes and the dog with his shaggy coat and fastidious dress. Questor grumbled the whole way, griping about this, bemoaning that, keeping such an edge on things that at last Abernathy was forced to ask him in rather rude fashion to be quiet. Two old friends whose shared history made them inseparable in spite of themselves, they could track each other’s life steps as if the paths were already laid out before them.

  “You know, Abernathy,” the wizard confided, as they reached the ground floor of the castle and prepared to turn into the front hall. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think Horris Kew had something to do with Holiday’s disappearance. It’s just the sort of thing he would precipitate with his unbalanced magic, conjuring up trouble here and there, all willy-nilly. But he doesn’t have that kind of power!” He thought it over. “He doesn’t have enough brains either.”

  Abernathy sniffed. “It doesn’t take brains to be dangerous.”

  They walked down the front hall to the anteroom where Horris Kew and his bird would be waiting and stepped inside.

  Horris rose from the bench on which he had been sitting. The bird was perched on the back of the bench, sharp-eyed and sleek. Next to them on the floor rested two iron-bound wooden trunks.

  “Questor Thews and Abernathy!” Horris Kew exclaimed with what seemed excessive delight. “Good evening to you! Thank you for coming to see me so quickly. I am deeply appreciative.”

  “Horris, let’s skip past the pleasantries, shall we? What are you doing back here? As I recall, you were told to come back when the High Lord sent for you. Has he done so without my knowledge?”

  The conjurer smiled sheepishly. “No, regrettably, he has not. I continue to live in hope and expectation.” He brightened. “That is not why I have come, Questor. I am here for another reason entirely. I have some very exciting news to share.” He paused and glanced past them hopefully. “I don’t suppose that the High Lord is about?”

  Questor grimaced. “Not at the moment. What is this news you bring, Horris? Nothing dealing with farm animals, I trust.”

  “No, no,” the other answered quickly. “I remember my promise and I will not break it. No c
onjuring. No, this is something else entirely.” Again he paused. “May I confide it to you, to the two of you, as Court Wizard and Scribe, since the High Lord is otherwise occupied?”

  Questor said something in response, but Abernathy was looking at the bird. Was he losing his mind or had he heard the bird snicker? He glared at the myna, but the myna simply ruffled its feathers indifferently and looked away.

  “Well, then,” Horris Kew declared, and cleared his throat officiously. “There are times, more than a few I might add, when stress from work and the burden of our obligations wears us down and we find we need some sort of amusement or diversion to relax us. I am sure you will agree that this is true. I speak now not just of the high-born, but of the common man, the workers in the fields and factories, in the markets and shops of our farms and cities. I speak of every man and woman, of every boy and girl all struggling to make their lives a better and more productive—”

  “Get to the point, Horris,” Questor interrupted wearily. “It has been a long day.”

  Horris paused, smiled, and shrugged. “Indeed. A diversion, then. A way of removing stress from our lives for a few hours. I believe I have found something that will provide that relief.”

  “Very commendable,” Abernathy snapped. “But someone already made that discovery quite a long time ago. They are called games. Sometimes they are played in groups, sometimes by a single individual. There are all forms of them. Have you discovered a new game? Is that what you are here about?”

  Horris Kew laughed politely, though he seemed to be doing so through clenched teeth. “Oh, no, this is not about games. This is something else entirely.” He paused, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “A mind’s eye crystal!” he whispered hoarsely.

  “A what?” Questor Thews demanded, his brow furrowing.

  “A mind’s eye crystal,” the other repeated carefully. “Do you know of it?”

  Questor did not, but he did not want to admit to being ignorant of anything to Horris Kew. “A little something, perhaps.” He pursed his lips. “But tell me about it anyway.”

 
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