The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks


  The darkness deepened and the hours passed, and still they sat on the bench and waited. Willow was patient, and the wait did not disturb her. She understood now why Dirk had wanted her to have something to eat. She might have gone this long without food, but her child needed nourishment even if she did not. The cat understood this. She glanced down at him and wondered how much of his indifference was pretense.

  Soon they were alone except for the odd passerby. Midnight came and went, and the city showed no sign of shutting down for the night. The wares shops had closed, but the places where food and drink were served remained open. There were Still people on the streets, crowds of them, passing this way and that, calling out, laughing and shouting, on their way to or from somewhere. No one seemed interested in sleeping. No one seemed anxious to go home.

  Willow watched the people and the lights in the distance, trying to imagine what it must be like to live here. Stone and mortar and glass everywhere you looked, the buildings long lines of soldiers set at march, the roadways flat and endless, the visible earth reduced to small squares of worn green like this park—it was nightmarish. Nothing was real; everything was manufactured. The smell, taste, look, and feel of it assailed her at every turn and threatened to swallow her up like a tiny bit of light in a massive dark.

  Someone left the sidewalk across the way and approached—a familiar figure with long coat, boots, lank hair, and a ready smile. Willow stiffened.

  “Still here, I see,” Tony declared as he came up and stopped in front of her. “Tell me the truth, Willow. Do you have a place to sleep? I’ve been following you, and you don’t seem to be going anywhere.”

  She fixed him with her emerald eyes. “Go home, Tony.”

  “You don’t, do you?” he pressed. “I’ve come by a couple times now to see if you were still here, and sure enough, you were. You wouldn’t be out in the park this late if you had somewhere to go. Look, I’m worried about you. Would you like a place to crash?”

  She stared. “What?”

  “To sleep, for the night.” He held out his palms. “This isn’t some sort of come-on, I promise.”

  “Come-on?”

  “You told me you were married, right? So where’s your ring? I think you made all that up, but that’s okay. I just want you to know I’m not after your bod or anything. I like you, that’s all. I don’t want anything to happen to you. This is a dangerous city.”

  Dirk rose, stretched, and yawned. Without a word, he climbed down off the bench and began walking across the park. Willow glanced quickly at Tony, then got up and followed. Dirk crossed the park north to south, ambling contentedly, sniffing at this and that, seeming in no hurry, appearing to have no purpose in mind.

  “It can be dangerous out here,” Tony repeated, walking next to her, looking over. “Especially at night. You don’t know.”

  She shook her head. “I’ll be fine.”

  “I can’t just leave you out here like this,” he declared. “Look, I’ll keep you company, okay? And don’t tell me to go home. I won’t do it.”

  Dirk had moved to a spot at the far end of the park beneath an old shade tree tucked within a gathering of small vine maples where the earth was worn and so wrapped in shadows that almost no grass was growing. It was here that a mother had read on a blanket with her baby beside her until it was almost dark. Dirk sniffed about a bit, then sat back on his haunches and waited for Willow to come up.

  “Here,” was all he said.

  Willow nodded. She knelt and touched the earth, then drew her hand back quickly, her fairy senses pricked by what she found.

  “Much has happened in this place,” Edgewood Dirk said quietly. “Great ideas have been conceived and terrible plans laid out. Hopes and aspirations have been shared. Killings and maimings have been perpetrated on innocent and guilty alike. A baby was born here once. Animals have hidden here. Whispered promises have been given and love consummated.” He looked at her. “The soil is rich with memories. It is the wellspring and the epiphany of many lives.”

  Tony crowded close. “What are you talking about? Was that the cat who said all that? Well, of course it wasn’t the cat—I mean, how could it be, right? But it sure sounded like it was. What’s going on?”

  Willow ignored him and began to dig. She used the hunting knife she carried beneath her cloak, stirring up the earth, bringing buried soil to light so that she could have a thorough sampling. The lifeblood and memories of others to sustain her baby—were they intended as a balm, a preventative, or something else entirely? Would they heal or sear? She did not know. She knew only that they would make her child strong, that they would protect, that they would instill something of life’s truths as embodied in humankind.

  She finished digging and began scooping the soil into the same leather pouch that held the earth from the old pines. Tony was still talking, but she wasn’t paying attention to what he said. Dirk had wandered off in the direction of another cat.

  She filled the pouch halfway and laced it tightly closed again. She stood up then and faced Tony.

  “This is really weird,” he was saying. “Creeping about the park in the middle of the night and digging up bags of dirt? I mean, what’s the point? Look, are you a witch or something? Are you involved in some sort of …”

  He stopped abruptly and looked past her, alarm spreading over his face. She turned. A gang of boys stood behind her, watching. They seemed to have materialized out of nowhere, so quietly had they gathered. They were of varying ages and sizes, all dressed in black T-shirts and blue jeans. Some wore boots, some leather jackets. There was writing on the shirts and jackets, but she didn’t understand the words. One carried a baseball bat, one an iron bar. Several sported tattoos. They had hard, old faces, and their eyes were flat and mean.

  She looked instantly for Dirk, but the prism cat was nowhere to be seen.

  “What’s in the bag, Witch Hazel?” one said, smirking.

  “Hey, look, we don’t want any trouble …” Tony started to say, and the speaker stepped forward and hit him in the face. Tony dropped to his knees, his nose and mouth bloody.

  “I said, what’s in the bag?” the speaker asked again, and reached for Willow.

  She eluded his grasp effortlessly and moved over to stand in front of Tony. “Get away from me,” she warned.

  Several laughed. One of them said something about teaching her a lesson. There was muttered approval.

  Edgewood Dirk moved out from the shadows to one side. “I don’t think you should say anything else. I think you should leave.”

  The boys stared in disbelief. There was a raucous exchange and more laughter. A talking cat! They spread out guardedly, trapping Willow and Dirk against the trees. The one with the baseball bat started forward. “Hey, cat?” he called. “How about lunch?”

  In the next instant Dirk began to glow. The gang members hesitated, shielding their eyes. The glow brightened, and Dirk began to change form. His cat self disappeared and was replaced by something so terrifying that even Willow was repulsed. He became monstrous and huge, rising up like an apparition out of Abaddon, all teeth and claws. The circle of attackers collapsed. Most broke and ran, screaming at their fellows, cursing at Dirk. A handful froze, undecided, and lived to regret their indecision. Dirk hissed at them with such force that he knocked them off their feet and sent them tumbling back twenty feet to land bruised and dazed. When they were able to scramble up, they fled after the others.

  In seconds, the park was empty again.

  Dirk stopped shimmering and turned into a cat again. He gazed after the boys for a minute, then yawned. He began to wash himself.

  Willow helped Tony back to his feet. “Are you all right?” she asked him.

  He nodded, but there was blood smeared all across his face. “How did the cat …?” He couldn’t finish.

  “Go home, Tony,” she told him, brushing him off, straightening his coat about his shoulders. “Go on.”

  Tony stared at her. She did not like wh
at she saw in his eyes. Then he turned and stumbled away into the darkness. She watched after him until he reached the street and disappeared around the corner of a building. He did not look back. She did not think she would see him again.

  She turned wearily to Dirk. She felt sick, as if the terrible harshness of Ben’s world had found a way to burrow down inside her soul. “I don’t want to stay here any longer. Can we go now?”

  Dirk blinked, emerald eyes glinting. “It was necessary that you come,” he said to her.

  “Yes, but are we finished?”

  Dirk stood abruptly and moved off. “Such impatience. Very well. The fairy mists are this way.”

  She felt a chill pass up her spine. The fairy mists. But she would do what she must. For herself, for Ben, for their child. One last leg to her journey and she would be home again.

  Resolved, she set off into the night.

  Haze

  Three days into their journey through the Labyrinth, the Knight, the Lady, and the Gargoyle came upon a town.

  It was late afternoon, the light’s wane barely perceptible, a darkening of a gloom that they now knew never brightened beyond twilight. They had walked steadily through a changeless forest world until suddenly, unexpectedly, the town came into view as they crested a small rise. A cluster of ramshackle wooden buildings and worn dirty streets, it hunkered down in a hollow where the trees had been cleared away so that it looked as if the forest had swept around it like the waters of a river around an island. No roads led into it and none away. There were people; the Knight could see them moving on the streets. There were animals, though they were a shabby lot and had the look of creatures beaten down by life. Lights burned in a few of the windows, and as the three stared down more were lit. They gave off a weak and singularly desperate glow, as if they had fought their battle against the coming night too many times and were tired of the struggle.

  Overhead, where the trees opened to the skies, there was nothing to be seen of moon or stars, only an endless layer of impenetrable mist.

  “People,” the Gargoyle said, and there was both surprise and distaste in his voice.

  The Knight said nothing. He was thinking that he was weary of his trek through this dismal world where everything looked the same and nothing ever changed. The past three days had dragged away in a mind-numbing crawl, filled with silence and darkness and an implacable sense of hopelessness. Twice the Lady had tried to kill him, once with poison in his drink, once with a sharpened stick when she thought he was sleeping. Her efforts had been wasted, for he sensed everything she was about. She seemed to accept this. She went through the motions as if already resigned to her failure, as if the attempt must be made even when the conclusion was foregone. Yet he was damaged nevertheless. It was what he saw in her eyes that wore at him. He was a warrior and could withstand her physical attacks. But the looks of rage and loathing and sadness were less easily dealt with, and he was made sick at heart by their constancy.

  Of course, she hated the Gargoyle as well, but her hatred of him was inbred and impersonal and somehow more acceptable.

  “Why is there a town here?” he asked them quietly.

  For a moment, no one answered. Why, indeed? A town, come out of nowhere, materialized as if from a vision, having no purpose or excuse, existing in a vacuum. Where was the trade that would support it, since there were no roads? Where were the crops that would feed it, since there were no fields? Was this a town of hunters and trappers? If so, to where did they carry their goods and from where did their supplies come? The Knight in three days had seen almost no forest creatures, and what few he had seen had been small and furtive and somehow natural to the gloom, existing because and not in spite of it.

  “What difference why it is here?” the Lady demanded irritably. “It is here, and that is all that matters. We have a chance to find our way again. What purpose is there in questioning that?”

  The Gargoyle edged forward a step, stooped and hunched within his dark cloak, keeping as always to shadow. “I mistrust this,” he said. “There is something wrong here.”

  The Knight nodded. He felt it, too. Something was not right. Still, the town was here, and they could not simply pass it by. Someone living there must know of a way to leave the Labyrinth; someone must know of a way back out into the real world.

  “We will go down to see what we can learn. We will not stay beyond that.” The Knight looked over at the other two.

  “If they discover me, they will kill me,” the Gargoyle said.

  “Remain behind, then,” the Lady snapped, unmoved.

  “Ah, but I hunger for their words,” the Gargoyle murmured, as if ashamed. “That is the puzzle of me. I am loathed by those I would come to know.”

  “You would be them, you pathetic creature,” she sneered. “Admit it.”

  But the Gargoyle shook his head. “I would not be them. Oh, no, Lady—not for all the gold and silver in the world. They are such uncertain, indecisive beings, all wrapped up in the small measure of their lives. I, on the other hand, am certain, and have the gift of immortality. I am not burdened by the smallness of their existence.”

  “Nor do you have their beauty. Easy to belittle those whose lives are finite when death for you is so distant you barely need consider what it means.” The Lady fixed him with her cold eyes. “I have life beyond that of humans, Gargoyle, but I treasure beauty as well. I would not be ugly like you even if I could live forever.”

  “Your ugliness is within,” the Gargoyle whispered.

  “And yours, always and forever, is plainly stamped so that no one can mistake what you are!”

  The Knight moved to stand before the Lady, to draw her hard gaze away from the Gargoyle to himself. He shuddered as those cold eyes found his own and he saw the measure of himself mirrored there.

  “We will keep to ourselves and not speak if we do not have to. You and I, Lady, will seek the answers we need. He”—he nodded back toward the slouched, cloaked figure behind him—“will remain silent. But be forewarned that if you attempt trickery or betrayal, you will be silenced. Give me your word.”

  “I will give you nothing!” She sneered openly at him, drawing herself up haughtily.

  “I will leave you here with him then,” the Knight said softly. “I will be safer on my own down there.”

  The Lady paled at the suggestion, and the rage that emanated from her was palpable. “You cannot do that!” she hissed.

  “Then give me your word.”

  She trembled with frustration and despair. “Very well. You have it, Sir Knight. May it rise up within you and devour your soul!”

  The Knight turned away. He cautioned the Gargoyle to keep hidden within his cloak and stay back from the light. “Do not be drawn into conversation,” he warned. “Do not stray from my side.”

  They descended rapidly in the failing light, the town beginning to vanish already into the growing darkness, the buildings reduced to glimmers of light framed in windows like pictures hung against a black velvet curtain. They slipped through the cloaking gloom like wraiths come from the trees of the forest, following the line of the cradling slope downward. In minutes they had reached the hollow floor and the beginnings of the town. Their eyes adjusted to the shift in light, and they followed one of the short roadways that ran through the town’s center, a rutted, worn stretch of earth that began on one side of the clustered buildings and ended on the other. Men and women passed them in the gloom, but none spoke. The doors and windows of the houses and shops on either side were closed. Dogs and cats prowled the length of the building walls and scooted beneath the walkways where they had been elevated above the earth. Voices were muted and indistinguishable. The Knight listened with his heart as much as his ears, and he found no hint of solace, no measure of comfort. The town was a coffin waiting to be nailed shut.

  At the town’s center there was a tavern. Here the doors were blocked open, and the people came and went freely. There was the smell of smoke and freshly drawn ale, the
clink of glasses and the scrape of booted feet, and the raw heartiness of laughter born of momentary escape from the dreariness of life’s toil. The Knight moved toward the doorway, the Lady and the Gargoyle following. He took note of the cloudiness of the interior, a mix of smoke and poor lighting. Faces would not be easily distinguished here; privacy would be valued. He stepped up onto the porch that fronted the building and saw that while the tavern was crowded there were tables empty and seats to be had. They would be recognized as strangers, of course; it was unavoidable in a town so small. The trick would be to draw attention to himself and away from his charges.

  They entered amidst a swell of raucous laughter that appeared to have its origins at the serving bar where half-a-dozen workingmen were crowded elbow to elbow over their glasses facing in toward the counterman. The Knight moved through the tables to the very back of the room, drawing the other two with him, and they seated themselves wordlessly. The Gargoyle turned toward the shadows, circumspect and wary, but the Lady faced directly into the room, as bold as a spoken threat with her cloak flung open and her hood lowered. Eyes shifted toward her at once. Some were filled with hunger.

  The Knight seated himself, partially blocking her. It was too late to tell her to cover herself now. He must assume his stance as her protector and hope that was enough.

  There was a sudden lowering of voices as the room became aware of them, and all present paused to take their measure. The Lady’s strange eyes swept the room without settling anywhere, without acknowledging that there was anything worth seeing. The Knight was already regretting his decision to let her come with him; he would have been better off if she had stayed behind. But he had not wanted to let her out of his sight either; he could not chance losing her.

 
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