The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks


  He fixed the counterman with his gaze and signaled for three mugs. The counterman nodded and hastened away to the casks.

  The moment passed, eyes shifted away again, and conversation resumed. The room was filled with a mix of men and women, all poorly dressed, all with the harsh, worn look of people who scraped out an existence without luck or skill or the help of others. They might have been anything from farmers to trappers to miners; the Knight could not tell. That they worked with their hands was certain; that they plied some specific trade less so. They were of varying ages, and they sat together in such a fashion that it was impossible to judge who was with whom. Relationships seemed not to matter, as if perhaps they were still forming, as if they were not yet even considered. Now and again people rose and changed tables, but never as couples or in groups. It was as if each man and woman lived a solitary existence and identified only as a singular part of the whole community.

  There were no children. There were no signs of any children, no babies, no hint that anyone not grown lived within the town. Not even a sweeping boy worked the floors or mopped the counter.

  The counterman crossed the room with the mugs of ale and set them down before the Knight. He glanced at the Knight’s weapons and rubbed his hands nervously. “Where do you come from?” he asked as the Knight fished in his pocket for coins he was not even sure he possessed. The Knight finally produced a single piece of gold.

  The Knight passed the gold piece over. “We are lost,” he answered. “Where are we?”

  The counterman tested the gold piece with his teeth. “In the Labyrinth, of course. Right at its heart, in fact.”

  The counterman was looking at the Lady now, interested. The Lady looked back and right through him.

  “Does this town have a name?” the Knight pressed.

  The counterman shrugged. “No name. We have no need for one. Did you come from the north?”

  The Knight hesitated. “I’m not sure.”

  The counterman lowered his voice conspiratorially and leaned down a bit, his attention on the Knight now. “Did you see anything strange in the woods?”

  “Strange?”

  “Yes.” The man wet his lips. He seemed reluctant to use a name, as if speaking it might somehow bring what he inquired after through the tavern door.

  “We saw nothing,” the Knight said.

  The counterman studied him a moment as if to make certain he was not lying, then nodded, relief in his face, and walked away.

  The Lady leaned forward, and her voice was cool and measured, “What is he talking about?”

  The Knight shook his head. He did not know. They sat in silence and drank the ale from the glasses, listening to the conversations around them. There was talk of work, but in a general way. There was mention of the weather and the seasons and the absence of this and that, but it was all vague and indistinguishable. No one spoke of anything specific or made mention of the particulars of their lives. There was something odd about the conversations, about their tone, about the inflection of the voices speaking. It was quite some time before the Knight was able to figure out that woven into the exchanges was a sense of anticipation, of uneasy expectation, of waiting for something unspoken to happen.

  An old man edged by the table and stopped. “Come a long ways, have you?” He slurred his words, his speech thick from the ale he had consumed.

  “Yes,” the Knight replied, looking up. “And you?”

  “Oh, no, I don’t go nowhere. This is my home, this town. Always and forever. I been here, oh, years and years.” He grinned, toothless. “Can’t go nowhere else, once you’re here.”

  The Knight felt something turn cold in the pit of his stomach. “What do you mean? You can leave if you choose, can’t you?”

  The old man cackled. “That what you think? That you can leave? You must be new, son. This is the Labyrinth. You can’t leave here. Can’t no one leave here ever!”

  “If you can come in, you can go out!” the Lady snapped suddenly, anger flaring in her voice.

  “You just try it!” the old man replied, still laughing. “Been lots who have before, but they always come back. This is where they have to stay once they’re here. You, too. You, too.”

  He tottered away, mumbling to himself. The Knight signaled the counterman for three fresh mugs, trying to think his way clear of the tangle of the old man’s words. No way out, the Labyrinth a trap that no one could escape—he listened to the whisper of the words in his mind.

  “Anything to eat?” the counterman asked, coming up with the glasses of ale. “You got some credit yet from that gold piece.”

  “Can you draw us a map?” the Knight asked perfunctorily.

  The counterman gave them his patented shrug. “A map to where? Maps all lead to the same place, eventually. Right back here.”

  “I need a map that will show us a way out of the Labyrinth.”

  The counterman smiled. “So does everyone else here. Trouble is, no one can find it. Some—like that old fellow—been trying for years. He can’t get out, though. None of us can. We try, but we always end up coming back here.”

  The Knight stared at him in stunned silence.

  “It’s all right, really,” the other continued quickly, worried by the look that appeared on the Knight’s face. “You get used to it. We don’t have too many worries. Just the …” He shook his head.

  “The what? What are you talking about?” the Lady demanded.

  The counterman took a slow breath. When he spoke again, the words were barely a whisper. “The Haze.”

  The Knight glanced quickly at his companions. Neither spoke. He turned back to the counterman. “We don’t know what that is.”

  The counterman was suddenly sweating, as if the temperature in the room had just risen to a midday heat. “Best if you never do!” he hissed. “There’s stories. It lives in the woods. It comes out when you least expect it and devours everything! Eats it right up, and when it’s done there’s nothing left!” His mouth tightened. “I’ve never seen it myself. No one here has. But we hear it sometimes. More so recently, like maybe it’s looking us over. They say a monster always precedes its coming—a thing out of myth and legend, a beast out of the old world.”

  He shook his head. “I’ve said enough. It’s bad luck to even talk about it. It doesn’t come often. But when it does …”

  He shook his head again, then wheeled about and walked hurriedly away. The Knight stared after him, then turned back to his companions. “Do you know of this?” he asked quietly.

  “I have heard rumors,” the Gargoyle offered, his voice a disembodied growl from within the shadows of his hooded cloak. “An ancient legend, thousands of years old. Men see the Haze as divine retribution for their sins.”

  “What rubbish!” the Lady sneered. “Would you give credence to the superstitions of these common people? Is this how you would identify with them?”

  The Gargoyle said nothing, keeping his gaze fixed on the Knight. The Knight drank his ale and tried to think. No one knew of a way out of the Labyrinth. Whatever direction you went, they claimed, you ended up back at this nameless town. Was this belief commonly accepted by these people or was there at least one among them who knew differently? The Knight had not spoken with anyone beyond the counterman and the oldster. Perhaps he should try.

  “Stay here,” he ordered.

  He rose, glass in hand, and walked to the counter. He was aware for the first time of the notice being taken of his weapons and light armor, for none of the townsfolk wore either. He began asking questions of those men gathered at the bar. Had any of them ever been outside the Labyrinth? Did any of them know of a way out? Was there anyone who might know? The men shook their heads and looked away.

  “River Gypsies might,” one said. “They been everywhere there is to be. ’Course, you got to find them first.”

  There was a burst of shared laughter, a private joke. The Knight glanced back at the table where he had left the Lady and the Gargoyle
and froze. Two men had moved over and were taking seats, one on either side of the Lady. She had pulled her cloak tight around her body and was staring straight ahead while they talked and smiled at her. The Gargoyle was shrinking farther back into the shadows.

  The Knight moved away from the counter and began to cross the room. He was too slow. One of the men touched the Lady, and she wheeled on him, nails raking at his face. He surged to his feet with a yowl and stumbled back into the Gargoyle. The concealing cloak fell away, revealing the Gargoyle, and the other man lurched to his feet screaming. Instantly, the room was bedlam. Men and women shrieked in terror and loathing as the Gargoyle tried to cover himself. Weapons flashed into view, long-handled hunting knives and daggers of varying shapes. Fighting to keep his balance in the surging melee, the Knight bulled his way past those separating him from his charges. Mugs crashed to the floor and lamps went out. Men rushed for the doors.

  “Look what you’ve done!” the counterman shouted wildly, pointing at the Knight. “You’ve brought a monster into our town! You’ve doomed us! Damn you forever!”

  The Knight reached the table, snatched up the Lady, and threw her over his shoulder. He had his broadsword free, and he swung about to level it between himself and those threatening. The Gargoyle crouched behind him, his ineffectual wings beating frantically, his breath hissing through his sharp teeth. The Knight swung the broadsword downward with all his might and splintered the table before him. Men fell back quickly as he made his way toward the door, the Lady kicking and screaming over his shoulder, the Gargoyle hunching close against his back for protection. One man tried to rush him from behind, but the Gargoyle’s claws laid his arm open to the bone.

  Then they were through the door and back out into the night. The screams and shouts followed after them, but the street had cleared as the people fled to the protection of their homes. The Knight moved quickly through the town, his eyes readjusting to the gloom. Nothing to do but to try to find the way on their own. He cursed their misfortune and the ignorance of the townsfolk.

  At the base of the hollow’s slope, he set the Lady on her feet, keeping hold of her wrist to make certain she did not try to flee.

  “Let me go!” she snarled, pulling back against him. “How dare you touch me!” She spit at him. “I hate you! I will see you cut apart while you are still alive for this!”

  He ignored her, heading for the darkness of the trees, ascending the slope toward the concealment of the forest beyond. Behind, the lights of the town burned weakly from the windows of the buildings, and the shadows of the people milled about in their glow. The Knight spared them only a glance, his attention focused on the line of the trees ahead. Pursuit was not improbable.

  They had reached the edge of the forest when the Gargoyle wheeled about and went into a guarded crouch. “Something comes!” he warned, his voice thin and breathless.

  In the same instant, new screams of terror rose from the townsfolk. The Knight and the Lady turned to look. A towering wall of wicked green light had appeared within the trees on the far side of the hollow. It flickered like fire and hissed like acid, eating away at the silent dark. It moved steadily forward, and as it came it seemed to change appearance, taking on the look of a heavy rain, a rush of shadows and light that tore mercilessly at everything in its path.

  The screams of the people below heightened. “The Haze! The Haze! It’s here! Run! Oh, run!”

  But there appeared to be nowhere to run and no time left in which to do it. The greenish rain came out of the trees and descended the slope toward the town. The world disappeared in its wake. Not a tree, not a shrub, not a hint of life remained. All were consumed. The Haze reached the town and began to tear at the buildings. One by one, they were drawn into its strange curtain. The townsfolk went, too, shrieking in frenzy, unable to escape. The Haze claimed them as they fled, and they did not come out. Even their screams were swallowed.

  On the ridge of the hollow, the Knight tensed as the last building and inhabitant of the nameless town disappeared and the Haze came on. But suddenly, without reason, the Haze began to draw back. In a matter of seconds, it had reversed itself—a storm front that had suddenly shifted, its thunderheads turned by an unexpected head wind. Slowly, deliberately, it climbed back up the slope of the hollow, melted into the trees, and vanished.

  The Knight, the Lady, and the Gargoyle stared down into the empty hollow. The town they had fled was gone—every building, every person, every beast, every trace that any of it had ever been. Bare earth alone remained, steaming like scalded flesh. The Haze had burned it bare.

  The Knight looked over at the Gargoyle. The Haze was more than legend, it seemed. But what had brought it from the woods this night? Was it in fact preceded by a monster as the counterman had warned? Was that monster the Gargoyle? Was there some link between the two, a terrible pact to devour life and ravage the earth that lived upon it? The Gargoyle was, after all, a monster come out of the most ancient of times. The Knight pondered the possibilities. The Lady was looking at the beast as well, and there was a hint of fear in her cold eyes. Staring off into the dark, the Gargoyle did not return their looks.

  The Knight turned away. All those people gone, he thought. All. He could see them vanish anew in his mind. He could hear them screaming still. The sound was horrific, but familiar. He had heard such screams before. He had heard them all his life. They were the screams of the men he had fought and killed in battle. They were the screams of his victims. The screams were captured in his memory like trapped souls in a net, and he would carry them with him forever.

  He wondered then, in the terrible aftermath of the destruction he had witnessed, if the burden of these newest screams was his to bear as well.

  River Gypsies

  They walked all that night, too nervous to sleep. They did not speak of what had happened, but each knew that the others were thinking of it. The endless forest closed about them again, a vast impenetrable canopy of leafy boughs and misty skies. The Labyrinth stretched on once more, and after a time it seemed as if the town and her people might never have been at all.

  When it was morning and the darkness lightened to gray, they found a clearing and slept for a time. The Knight rested in the half doze that he had long since mastered for when there was need, a sort of trance in which some small part of him, some singular instinct, remained awake and alert against danger. He might have dreamed, but he was haunted by the screams of all those he had seen die and by his inability to rid himself of them. They were the shades of the dead, all that remained of what had once been human. They lived on in him, as if they had attached themselves and would not release until death came to him as well.

  When he did not doze, he lay thinking on the Gargoyle, wondering still what part the creature had played in what had happened to the town. He was bothered anew by the fact that he could not remember how the Gargoyle had come to be with him, why it was that they were traveling together. He could remember nothing of the beast beyond knowing that he should be there. Where had the Gargoyle come from? What reason had he to be with the Knight and the Lady in the Labyrinth? The Gargoyle might belong here, the Knight kept thinking. He had known first of the common belief that the Labyrinth was a maze without an exit. He had said first what the townsfolk had said later. The Gargoyle had known of the Haze. There was so much that the Knight did not know that the Gargoyle did. It was troublesome. The Knight did not fear the creature, but was wary of his purpose. There seemed a fundamental honor and fairness to the beast, but try as he might the Knight could not bring himself to trust him.

  On waking, they went on. They traveled now because they had little choice. If they did not go on, they would be admitting defeat. The Knight would not allow that. He could sense his control of things slipping away, his self-assurance and certainty of purpose slowly eroding. Little by little he was coming to see how fragile was his place in the scheme of things. Here, he was a pawn of circumstances he could not fathom or control. There was nothing reco
gnizable in the Labyrinth, and what he remembered of life before was a shadowy play of figures against a too-vague and distant backdrop. Try as he might to concentrate and remember, nothing of his former life would come into focus for him. It was as if he had been born here, and only the presence of the Lady—and perhaps the Gargoyle—reassured him that there was something that had gone before.

  The Lady talked to him this day, almost as if she were compelled. She did not converse as a friend or intimate, merely as his charge and companion on the road. She questioned him repeatedly about who he was and why he was there. She questioned him about what he remembered of his life before. She wanted to know why he had taken her and for whom. He avoided her questions, turning each aside as deftly as he could manage. He avoided them because he could not answer them. He had no answers to give. She pressed him until she grew weary, and then she fell silent once more.

  “You toy with me,” she said, the sadness and despair come back into her voice, replacing the otherwise-always-present anger. “You play games with me because I am your prisoner.”

  He shook his head, gazing off into the mist. “I would not do that to you.”

  “Then tell me something of yourself,” she begged, just managing to keep her voice level and controlled. “Give me something as reassurance that you do not lie.”

  He walked without speaking for a moment, then lowered his head. “I do not like it that things must be this way. I wish they could be otherwise. I am sorry for taking you, whatever the purpose, whatever the cause. If there is a way to do so later, I will make it up to you.”

  He thought she would laugh outright at the suggestion. He thought she would simply scorn him. She surprised him by doing neither. Instead, she simply nodded without speaking and walked on.

  It was midafternoon when they reached the river. It appeared as the town had appeared, coming into view as they crested a rise and the trees broke apart. The river was broad and slow, and it ran in either direction across their path for as far as the eye could see. On the far bank, the forests of the Labyrinth resumed, stretching away forever. Overhead, the skies remained shrouded and empty.

 
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