The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  They walked down to the river’s edge and stopped, looking first across, then upstream, then downstream. There was no sign of life. The water was cloudy and smooth where rapids and rifts did not churn it to foam amid rocky outcroppings. No debris floated in it, nor did fish jump to mar the glassy surface.

  “If there is a river, there must be a town somewhere along it,” the Lady said hopefully.

  “But does the town lie within the Labyrinth or beyond?” the Knight queried. He looked at her. “We shall follow it and see. Which way shall we go?”

  Again, she surprised him. “You decide. You are the one who leads us.”

  He took them downstream. The riverbank was broad and grassy and easily traversed. The trees of the forest ended some hundred yards back at most points, and the way was clear and open for travelers. As gray daylight waned toward nightfall, the mist moved out of the trees and settled down across the river and its banks. It crept to their boot tops and then to their knees. By darkness, it was waist-high and they could no longer see where the bank ended and the river began.

  The Knight had just decided to move back into the trees for the night when they heard the singing. They stopped as one, listening. The sound came from just a little farther ahead, around a bend not two hundred yards away. The Knight took them back to the fringe of the trees so that they would escape a fall into the river, and they continued from there. When they reached the bend and rounded it, they saw light from several fires. The singing came from there. They moved toward the fires, peering intently through the gloom. As they neared, a handful of painted wagons came into view. There were mules tethered nearby, and tents of bright cloth that had been tied to poles and the ends of the wagons and made fast by rope stays. The singers were more than a dozen in number, men and women both, all dressed in colorful garb with many sashes, cloaks, and headbands, all gathered about the fires as they sang.

  The Knight and his companions approached and were seen, but the singing continued as if their appearance did not matter. The Gargoyle was hanging back, wrapped in his cloak for concealment, but one of the singers rose and beckoned them all forward, making certain that the beast was included. They came up slowly, cautious by nature and circumstance, even in these seemingly friendly surroundings.

  “Welcome to our camp,” the one who had encouraged them to join in greeted. “Will you sing with us? Sing for your supper, perhaps?”

  The man was heavy and round and had great, gnarled hands. His hair and beard were thick and black. He wore several gold earrings and a chain with a locket. A brace of daggers were tucked in a sash at his ample waist, and another protruded from the top of his boot.

  “Who are you?” the Knight asked.

  “Ah, ah—no names, my friend,” the other said. “Names are for enemies we would avoid, not for friends we would make. Will you sit with us?”

  “River Gypsies,” the Gargoyle said, come to a full stop, and the Knight looked quickly at him.

  The big man laughed. “That’s us! Well, look at you, my friend. A Gargoyle! Not many of your kind left in the world, and none have been seen in my lifetime, I think, within the Labyrinth. So, now. Don’t be shy, don’t lurk about at the edges of the light. You are all welcome. Come sit with us and sing. Come share the fire.”

  He shepherded them forward to join the others. Space was made, drinks were brought, and the singing went on. Smiles passed from face to face as songs were begun and finished. One man played a stringed instrument of some sort. One played a flute. The Knight and his companions listened to the songs, but did not join in. They drank the wine they were offered, but only a little at first. They looked about at the assemblage and wondered how they had gotten there.

  “Have you come far?” the big man asked of the Knight after a time, leaning close to be heard.

  “Five days’ walk,” the Knight answered. “We cannot seem to find our way out.”

  “A common enough problem here,” the other replied, nodding.

  “Do you know a way?” the Knight pressed.

  The other began to clap along with a song. “Perhaps. Perhaps.”

  The singing went on for a long time. The Knight began to grow sleepy. The Lady had drunk more than he had and was already stretched out upon the grass, eyes closed. The Gargoyle sat hunched down within his cloak, featureless in his hood’s shadows. Some of the Gypsies had begun to dance, leaping and spinning in the firelight. The women had fixed bells to their fingers, and the silvery tinkle lifted above the singing. The men trailed scarves that were crimson and gold. Wine was drunk freely. There had been mention of food earlier, the Knight thought, but none had appeared.

  “Is this not the way life should be lived?” the big man asked suddenly, leaning over once more. He was flushed and smiling. “Give no thought to tomorrow until it comes. Do not worry about that over which you have no control. Sing and dance. Drink and laugh. Leave your troubles for another time.”

  The Knight shook his head. “Troubles have a way of catching up with you.”

  The other laughed. “Such a pessimist! Look at you! You neither sing nor dance! You drink so little! How can you enjoy yourself? You must give life a chance!”

  “Is there a way out of the Labyrinth?” the Knight asked again.

  The Gypsy shook his head merrily, climbed to his feet, and shrugged. “Not this night, I think. Tomorrow, maybe.” And off he went, dancing lightly for all his size across the firelight.

  The Knight drained away the last of his wine and looked over for his companions. The Lady was still sleeping soundly. The Gargoyle had disappeared. The Knight cast about for him in vain, even beyond the firelight. He was gone.

  The Knight tried to rise and found he could not. His legs would not work, and his body felt encased in iron. He struggled against a weight that seemed to chain him down, managing to come almost all the way up before falling back. The River Gypsies danced and sang about him, oblivious. Colors and shapes spun past him as he turned toward the darkness. Something was wrong. Some trick had been played.

  He was still wondering what was amiss as he toppled over into blackness.

  When he came awake, he was alone. The River Gypsies were gone—the men, the women, the wagons, the mules, everything. All that remained were the ashes of the fires, still smoldering faintly in the hazy dawn. The Knight was stretched full length upon the grassy earth. He rolled over weakly and came to his knees. His head throbbed from the wine, and his muscles were cramped from his sleep. To his left, the river flowed past, smooth, soundless, and undisturbed. To his right, the forest was a dark curtain filled with mist.

  The Knight rose to his feet and waited for the dizziness to pass.

  The Lady was gone as well.

  He felt his breath quicken and his chest constrict with anger and disbelief. Where had she gone? He cast about through the early morning gloom for some sign of her, but there was none. She had disappeared.

  He was still in the process of regaining his bearings when the Gargoyle emerged from the trees and came toward him. The Knight realized suddenly that his weapons were missing as well, all of them. He was defenseless.

  “Sleep well?” the Gargoyle queried as he reached the Knight, the sarcasm in his voice unmistakable.

  “Where are my weapons?” the Knight demanded angrily. “What has become of the Lady?”

  The Gargoyle hunched down before him, dark-featured. “The River Gypsies have them both. They took them while you were sleeping.”

  “Took them?” The Knight was stunned. “You mean they stole them?”

  The Gargoyle laughed softly. “The Gypsies do not look at it like that. To them, the weapons and the woman are our payment for last night’s pleasures. Fair is fair, they think. They relieved you of what you do not need.”

  The Knight glowered. “And you did nothing to stop them?”

  The Gargoyle shrugged. “Why should I? What difference does it make to me what happens to the Lady or your weapons? I care for neither. In truth, you are better off
without them. There is no need for weapons within the Labyrinth—only wits and patience. The Lady was a millstone about both our necks, an annoyance that no sane man should have to bear.”

  “That was not your decision to make!”

  “Nor did I make it.” The Gargoyle was unruffled, his ugly face lifting slightly into the light, his yellow eyes calm. “I let events take their own course and nothing more.”

  “You could have warned me!”

  “You could have warned yourself if you had been thinking straight. There is no mystery to Gypsies of any kind—they are the same the world over and always have been. They live by their own rules, and if you choose to drink and sing with them you accept that this is so. Consider it a lesson, Sir Knight, and let it pass.”

  The Knight forced down his rage. Fear lurked just beneath, the feeling that he was losing control and could do nothing to stop it. The Lady and his weapons were gone, and he had been powerless to prevent it. Why hadn’t he seen better what might happen? Why hadn’t he taken the precautions he knew were necessary?

  He breathed in deeply and looked up and down the river. “Which way did they go?” The Gargoyle did not respond, and the Knight turned on him quickly. “Do not give me reason to mistrust you further!” he snapped.

  The Gargoyle held his angry gaze. “I have given you no reason ever.”

  “Haven’t you?” The Knight squared himself. “When I woke in the Labyrinth, you were already there. You knew where we were; you called the Labyrinth by name. You said that there was no way out, before anyone else had even mentioned it. When we reached that town and we were told of the Haze, you knew the story. The counterman identified you as a monster that preceded its coming. Last night, when we came upon the River Gypsies, you knew who they were when the Lady and I did not. You seem to know a great deal about a place which you do not claim to come from. I cannot help but wonder what cause you serve in all of this.”

  The Gargoyle stared at the Knight, and for a long moment he said nothing. “You have cause to be suspicious, I suppose,” he replied finally, reluctantly. “I would be suspicious as well, were I you. It must seem as if I am duplicitous. But I am not. What I know comes from living for a very long time and having been to a great many places. I have acquired knowledge for which I can no longer name the source. I remember things that I heard about or discovered centuries ago. I am very old. Once, as the River Gypsy said, there were many of my kind. Now there is only me in all the world.”

  He paused, as if reflecting. “This place and those who live here and the things that happen within are familiar to me, known from another time, one for which my memory has long since been erased. I sense, as well, some of what will be. I know this place; I recognize it. I anticipate some events. But I am not from here, and I am not sure I have ever visited before.” The Gargoyle scowled. “It bothers me that this is so. My memory is quite fragmented, and I confess that nothing of my previous life is clear to me anymore. Save,” he added darkly, “that I am no longer who or what I was.”

  The Knight nodded slowly. He sensed truth in the Gargoyle’s words. “Nor am I. The past seems long ago and far away.”

  “But there are associations that trigger memories, as with the River Gypsies last night,” the Gargoyle said. “I knew them without ever having met them. I knew what they were about. I could have told you, it is true. I did not. I wanted them to take the Lady. I wanted her gone.” His gaze was direct. “I am not ashamed.”

  “I must get her back from them,” the Knight said.

  “Why? What reason is there to do so?” The Gargoyle seemed genuinely interested.

  The Knight was silent. His hands clenched as he struggled to speak. “Because it is what I was given to do before I came here. It is the only certainty I possess. Without her, I am lost. She is all that keeps me going. She is the reason for my being. I exist because of her. Do you see?”

  The Gargoyle thought for a moment and then nodded. “I think I do. You have no cause beyond taking her to your master, no cause that you can remember. But do you remember anything even of that, Sir Knight?”

  The Knight shook his head. “This place seems to have stolen my past.”

  “And mine.” The Gargoyle’s voice was bitter. “I wish my life back again. I wish my memories restored.”

  “Did you see which way they went?” the Knight repeated.

  “You are better off without her,” the Gargoyle replied. There was no response from the Knight, no change in his expression. The Gargoyle sighed. “Upstream, back the way we came.” He shook his head wearily. “I will go with you.”

  They set out at once, moving through the long grasses of the riverbank, following the earth-colored ribbon into the misty gray. They found tracks almost immediately, and it wouldn’t have been hard for the Knight to have discovered for himself which way the River Gypsies had gone. It made him suspicious anew of the Gargoyle’s place in the scheme of things; after all, the Gargoyle might have told him simply to serve his own purpose. But that was harsh thinking, and the Knight was not comfortable with it. He believed the Gargoyle to be a fundamentally honorable creature. He did not sense lies in what he had been told. They had both come into this world from some other, and their destiny here, along with that of the Lady, was of a single piece.

  They pushed on through the day, moving steadily ahead in the wake of the wagon tracks, pausing infrequently to rest themselves, intent on completing their chase by sunset. The river broadened after a time, growing so large that the far bank was little more than a dark line against the clouded skies. The Knight was growing depressed by the constant grayness, by the absence of any sunlight, by the oppressive lowering of the sky toward the earth. He missed people and animals and the presence of other life. He had enjoyed those once, he knew. Mostly, he felt the loss of his identity beyond the vagueness of his present existence. It was not enough to sense who and what you were; memories were needed as well, clear pictures of the life you had lived and the things you had done while you lived it. He had almost none of those—fewer, it seemed, than the Gargoyle. He was cast adrift in a limbo, and the emptiness he felt was beginning to breed madness.

  It was after sunset when they came upon the River Gypsies again. They were fortunate to see the firelight well before they were close enough to be seen themselves. The Gypsies were encamped on the riverbank once more, and the sound of their singing rose into the twilight stillness with careless disregard. The Knight and the Gargoyle moved back within the trees and edged along within the protective fringe until they were close enough to see what was happening. There were no surprises. The River Gypsies sat about their fires drinking wine, letting the night close in about them. The Lady sat with them. She did not appear to be restrained in any way. She held a cup in one hand and sipped at it. Her face was cold and empty, but she did not appear afraid.

  “Perhaps she wants to be with them,” the Gargoyle whispered. “Perhaps she is freer with them than she was with you.”

  The Knight ignored him. “I need my sword back.”

  The Gargoyle shook his head reprovingly. “You are of a single mind, aren’t you? No deviation in your life.” His laugh was deep and soft. “We are both cast in a mold that can never be changed.”

  He rose abruptly. “Wait here for me.”

  He disappeared into the trees. The Knight waited, watching the camp. Darkness deepened until everything beyond the glow of the firelight disappeared. The drinking and singing went on, uninterrupted, unabated. All other sounds and movements disappeared behind the gaiety, submerged as deadwood in a river’s flow. Time passed, and the Knight grew anxious.

  Then the Gargoyle was there beside him again, holding out the broadsword, sharpened teeth gleaming along the edges of a smile. The Knight accepted the sword, balanced it in his hand to study its condition, then slipped it back into the sheath he wore across his back.

  “Now we will ask them to give the Lady back,” he said, rising.

  “Wait.” The Gargoyle’s cl
awed hand restrained him. “Why ask when there is no need? Wait until early morning, then slip down and take her while they sleep. It might be the easier way.”

  The Knight thought it over a minute and nodded. “We will wait.”

  They sat together in silence within the concealment of the forest trees. The River Gypsies began to dance, and the merriment went on. It did not end until the night was mostly gone and the fires burned away. Then the men and women rolled themselves into their blankets and were still. The Lady slept with them. She had not moved from the place she had been sitting; she had merely eased herself down onto the grass. Mist edged in about the wagons and animals, no longer kept at bay by the heat of the flames, and soon it covered the sleepers.

  The Knight and the Gargoyle rose then and slipped from the trees. They made their way in silence through the long grasses toward the camp. They searched for a sentry and found none. When they reached the wagons, they paused again, listening. There was only the sound of the Gypsies sleeping and the distant rustle of the river against her banks. They edged along the wagons until they were close to where the Lady lay. Then the Knight went forward alone.

  He found her, knelt close, and placed his hand over her mouth. She came awake at once, looking up at him with cool, appraising eyes that were free of any fear. He started to help her up, then saw the chain that ran from a clamp fastened about her ankle to a wagon wheel.

  The Knight stood, fury racing through him. He’d had enough. He walked through the sleepers heedlessly until he found the one who had spoken so enticingly to him of leaving one’s cares for another day. He reached down, fastened his fingers in the man’s tunic, and hauled him to his feet.

  “I will cut you end to end if she is not freed at once,” he hissed.

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