The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  The man looked him in the eye and nodded wordlessly. The Knight steered him back across the camp to where the Lady waited. The bearded Gypsy reached into his pocket, produced a key, released the lock, and stood back.

  “You should not be angry at us,” he said quietly.

  The Knight pulled free the clamp from the Lady’s leg and brought her to her feet. She reached down to rub her ankle, then turned and strode out of the camp for the trees.

  “Wine and entertainment come at a price,” the Gypsy declared. “You owe us.”

  The Knight turned. “Be grateful I do not kill you.”

  The Gypsy put his fingers to his lips and whistled, a shrill, piercing sound. Instantly the camp was awake, and there were armed men all about. They held daggers and short swords and axes, the metal blades gleaming wetly in the damp air. They took in the situation at a single glance and edged toward the Knight.

  “Do not be foolish,” the Knight warned, placing his back to the nearest wagon.

  “It is you who have been foolish, I think,” the bearded Gypsy replied.

  They came at the Knight in a swarm, but he scattered the rush with a huge sweep of his blade. His chain mail protected him from the dirks thrown at his chest, and he turned and moved swiftly past the wagons for the woods. Where was his heavy armor? he wondered suddenly. Where were his plates and greaves and helmet? He sensed them somewhere close at hand once more, but still they would not come to him. This was twice now that he had been forced to stand and fight without them. He had never had to do so before. His armor had always been there when he needed it. Why didn’t he have it now?

  Again the Gypsies rushed him, and this time he was forced to defend himself. He cut two of them down and wounded a third, taking no injury himself. He could hear the Gargoyle calling. When he glanced back, he saw the Lady standing at the edge of the trees, watching him.

  Rage at the stupidity of the River Gypsies washed through him. He braced himself for another rush.

  It never came. A familiar, wicked green light lifted off the river in a towering curtain and began to advance on the camp. The Gypsies turned at its coming and screamed in recognition. The Haze swept out of the mist and dark, a terrible hissing rain that ate away the landscape. The Knight turned and ran for the woods, taking advantage of the Gypsies’ terror and confusion. He gained the trees as the Haze reached the camp. It ate its way through the wagons and animals and people so quickly that they disappeared in seconds. Even the screams lingered only an instant. No one seemed able to escape.

  It was over in moments. The Haze advanced until the camp was devoured and then it drew back. As with the town, it retreated across the scorched, barren earth and disappeared from view. As with the town, nothing of the River Gypsies remained behind.

  The ravaged ground steamed in the early dawn light. The Knight stared out from the trees in shock. The Lady stood at one elbow, the Gargoyle at the other. No one spoke. The Knight was wondering how this had happened, how it was that the Haze had come again, how it could be that it took only the camp and left them alone. What had brought it? What had kept it from destroying them as well? Something in all of this was not right. There was a surreal aspect to everything that had happened—in their discovery of that nameless town, in their encounter with the River Gypsies, in the coming of the Haze. There was an unmistakable skewing of reality that lacked identity, but not form. Ignorant of its source, he was nevertheless aware that it existed.

  An unpleasant suspicion began to form at the back of his mind, one so terrible that he could not give it voice. He buried it away deep inside himself in despair and disbelief.

  “What monstrous thing is this,” the Lady whispered, stepping forward to stare out across the river. “Does it track us like dogs at hunt?”

  “It does,” the Gargoyle growled softly. “I can sense its hunger.”

  The Knight could sense it, too. And while he would not say so, while he could not bring himself to speak the words, he thought that its hunger had not yet been sated.

  Costs You Nothing

  They must have seemed an odd sight, Abernathy thought as they approached the gates of Rhyndweir, castle fortress of Kallendbor, the most powerful of the Lords of the Greensward. A tall, scrawny, gangly man with a bird on his shoulder, a smallish, wiry beast that looked a little like a crazed monkey, and a dog with human hands and wearing reading glasses—Horris Kew, Biggar, Bunion, and himself. Up the roadway through the town surrounding the fortress they trudged, carrying before them (well, Bunion carrying, actually) the banner of the current and still absent King of Landover. Their horses trailed on a line behind them, grateful no doubt to be rid of riders who didn’t much care for the beasts anyway. The mule with the chests of mind’s eye crystals plodded along with them. The day was hot and humid, the air still, and the prospect of a bath and a cold drink was foremost in everyone’s mind.

  Townspeople gathered to watch them come, standing in the shade of doorways and awnings, nudging one another and whispering. Perhaps they knew, Abernathy thought. Perhaps by now, everybody knew.

  They had departed Sterling Silver three days earlier, a delegation of King’s emissaries dispatched for the particular purpose of distributing mind’s eye crystals to the people of the Greensward, both high-born and low. The decision to allow the crystals to be shared had been reached with some reservations, but reached nevertheless. Questor Thews was growing desperate in his efforts to cover for the missing King. It was getting harder and harder to invent excuses to explain why the King refused to see anyone personally, delegating all meetings to his chief advisor. A diversion of some sort was needed to keep the more persistent questioners at bay. If nothing else, perhaps the crystals could provide this. Take them out, spread them around, let them amuse for a time, and hope the novelty wouldn’t wear off too fast.

  Questor, of course, could not go himself. So Abernathy, despite his objection to the idea, was the logical choice to go in his place. Someone had to represent the King besides Horris Kew and his bird. Someone had to keep an eye on Horris and maybe the bird as well. So Abernathy was pressed into service, and Bunion was sent along for protection and support. An escort of soldiers was offered as well, but no one wanted them, including Abernathy, who preferred to keep matters simple and straightforward. Visit the Lords of the Greensward with an escort and you called immediate attention to yourself. That was a bad idea, Abernathy had decided, and therefore the escort was unnecessary.

  Besides, this was a time of peace. What sort of trouble would they run into with the King’s banner paraded before them?

  So off they had gone, marching out of the castle gates and heading northeast through the forests and across the hills to the grasslands of the Greensward. Everyone they met along the way was offered one of the crystals. Most accepted them gladly, entranced by what they could do. One or two, more curmudgeonly than their fellows, wouldn’t even consider such nonsense. There were a great many farms and small communities between Sterling Silver and the castles of the Lords of the Greensward, so hundreds of crystals were distributed. Word began to spread, and before long there were people waiting for them on the road. More crystals were passed out, and more people went away happy. So far, so good.

  Abernathy had to give credit to Horris Kew. The conjurer made certain that each person given a crystal knew that it was a gift from the King and that he was acting solely as the King’s representative. There was no attempt to take credit for anything, no hint of self-promotion. It was very unlike the Horris Kew Abernathy remembered, and it made him suspicious all over again.

  But the faithful Court Scribe was compromised on the matter. As much as he distrusted Horris Kew and his schemes, including this one, he was desperately attached to his own, personal crystal. When he could admit it to himself, which was less and less often, he worried that his attraction bordered on addiction. He seemed to have been snared from the first moment he had looked into the crystal’s wonderous depths. What had he been shown, not once, but ea
ch time he looked? Himself, restored to who and what he had once been, a man with a man’s features, the dog body in which he was trapped forever gone. It was his deepest, fondest wish in life, the dream he lived to fulfill, and when he gazed into the faceted light of his mind’s eye crystal, it all came to pass. He could stay there and watch himself for as long as he chose—an increasingly longer period of time each day. He could not only see but feel himself as a man; he could remember what it had been like before Questor Thews invoked his unfortunate incantation and consigned him to his present fate.

  It was a wickedly pleasurable pastime, and Abernathy could not get enough of it. It was not as good as being himself again, as looking as he once had, but it was as close as he was likely to get. It was immensely satisfying. And he owed it all to Horris Kew.

  Even now, as he approached the towering gates of Rhyndweir and thought gratefully of the bath and cold ale that would be waiting, he was thinking as well of his crystal and the prospect of time alone in his room to look into its depths once more.

  The gates opened to receive them, and they marched through and past the handful of guards standing watch. A single minor court official waited to receive them and guide them on. No trumpeted greeting, no turning out of the garrison, no personal attendance by Kallendbor as there would have been for the King, Abernathy thought. Minimal respect was accorded to envoys, and less-than-minimal interest. Kallendbor had never liked Holiday, but he was growing more open in his disdain. Memories of Holiday’s triumphs and accomplishments were growing dim, it seemed. Holiday had faced down Kallendbor on several occasions and done what the Lords of the Greensward had been unable to do—defeat the Iron Mark, disperse the demons back to Abaddon, and unite the kingdom under a single rule. He had defeated every opponent sent against him and overcome every obstacle. All this had been accepted by Kallendbor, if never appreciated. Now, perhaps, even acceptance was in question.

  Kallendbor met them at the palace doors, resplendent in crimson robes and jewels, accompanied by his advisors and current favorites. He was a tall, well-built man with hair and beard so red they shone almost gold in the sunlight. His hands and forearms were callused and marked with battle scars. He stood waiting for them to approach, arrogant head held erect, giving the impression that he was looking down on them, that he was lending them his time and attention out of the generosity of his heart. His attitude did not bother Abernathy; the scribe was well used to it. Nevertheless, he did not appreciate the deliberate insolence.

  “Lord Kallendbor,” Abernathy greeted, foremost of the three as they came up to him, and inclined his head slightly.

  “Scribe,” the other replied with an even slighter bow.

  “Awk! Mighty Lord! Mighty Lord!” Biggar squawked.

  Kallendbor blinked. “What’s this we have here? A trained bird? Well, now. Is this gift for me, perhaps?” He was suddenly beaming. “Of course it is! Very well chosen, Abernathy.”

  Now here was an opportunity that Abernathy would have given almost anything for—a chance to get rid of Biggar. Abernathy had not liked the bird from day one and the bird had not liked him—and each knew how the other felt. There was something about Biggar that bothered Abernathy more than he could say. He couldn’t define what it was exactly, but it was most certainly there. He had not wanted the bird on this trip; he had argued against it vehemently. But Horris Kew insisted that the bird must accompany them, and in the end—in large part because the mind’s eye crystals were the conjurer’s offering and the entire reason for the journey—the bird went.

  Abernathy opened his mouth to speak, to tell Kallendbor that, yes, indeed, the bird was all his. He was too slow.

  “My Lord, forgive me for letting this poor creature distract you from our purpose in coming to see you,” Horris Kew interjected quickly. “The bird, alas, is not a gift. He is my companion, my sole treasure in this world from my old life and the people who meant so much to me, who gave me all that I have and made me what I am. You understand, I am sure.” He was speaking very quickly. “The bird, truth be told, is an unpleasant sort, given to fits of temper and biting. You would not be happy with him.”

  As if to emphasize the point, Biggar reached over and pecked hard at Horris Kew’s ear. “Ow! There, you see!” Horris took a swipe at Biggar, who flew off a few yards before settling back down on the other’s shoulder, alert for further attempts.

  “Why am I not offered this bird if I wish it?” Kallendbor demanded, his face darkening. “Are you saying I cannot have this bird if it pleases me?”

  Abernathy was thinking that this was the end of the crystal distribution program, that they might all just as well turn around and go home right now—except for Biggar, who, it appeared, was destined to stay.

  “My Lord, the bird is yours if you wish him,” Horris Kew declared at once. Biggar squawked anew. “But you should know that he speaks very little, and what he said just now—’Mighty Lord’—is a phrase he learned from the King. In other words, the King taught him to say that about himself.”

  Abernathy stared. There was a very long silence. Kallendbor flushed and straightened further, looking as if he might explode. Then slowly the dangerous color drained away.

  “Never mind, I don’t wish him after all,” he said disdainfully. “If he is mine to take, that is enough. Let Holiday keep him.” He took a steadying breath. “Now, then. Since we have dispensed with the matter of this bird, what is it you wish?”

  “My Lord,” Horris Kew said, jumping in again before Abernathy could speak, “you were right in your assumption. We do bring you a gift, something far more intriguing and useful than a bird. It is called a mind’s eye crystal.”

  Kallendbor was interested once more. “Let me see it.”

  This time Abernathy was quicker. “We would be happy to show it to you, my Lord, perhaps inside where it is cooler and we can be shown to the quarters that I am sure you have arranged for us as envoys of the King.”

  Kallendbor smiled, not a pleasant sight. “Of course, you must be exhausted. Riding is hard for you, I expect. Come this way.”

  Abernathy did not miss the intended snub, but he ignored it and the little company followed Kallendbor and his retinue inside to the great hall. Glasses of ale drawn from casks kept cooled in the deep waters of the Bairn and the Cosselburn, the rivers bracketing Rhyndweir, were brought and arrangements were begun for rooms and baths. Kallendbor took them over to an area before a series of doors that opened onto a training field and seated them in a circle of chairs. Most of his retinue was left standing, gathered at their master’s shoulder.

  “Now, then, what of this gift?” Kallendbor asked anew.

  “It is this, my Lord,” Horris Kew declared, and produced from his clothing one of the mind’s eye crystals.

  Kallendbor accepted the crystal and studied it with a frown. “It doesn’t look to be precious. What is its worth? Wait!” He leaned forward, looking now at Abernathy. He pointed at Horris Kew. “Who is this?”

  “His name is Horris Kew,” the scribe answered, resisting the urge to add more. “He is at present in service to the King. He is the discoverer of these crystals.”

  “These crystals?” Kallendbor turned back to Horris Kew. “There are more than one? How many are there?”

  “Thousands,” the conjurer replied, smiling. “But each is special. Hold it before you, my Lord, so that it catches the light and then look into it.”

  Kallendbor studied him suspiciously for a moment, then did as he was bidden. He held the crystal out to catch a streamer of sunlight, then bent down to peer into its depths. He remained that way until the crystal seemed to ignite with white fire, then gasped and jerked back sharply, but kept his eyes fixed. Suddenly he was open mouthed, bending close once more, a bright gleam in his eyes. “No, is it so?” he muttered. “Is it possible?”

  Then he snatched the crystal from view, shutting off its light and whatever the light had shown him. “All of you, out!” he demanded to those peering over his shoul
der expectantly. “Now!”

  They disappeared with surprising quickness, and when they were gone Kallendbor looked again at Horris Kew. “What are these?” he hissed. “What power do they command?”

  Horris seemed confused. “Why, they … they offer visions of many things, my Lord—visions peculiar to each holder. They are a diversion, nothing more.”

  Kallendbor shook his head. “Yes, but … do they show the future, perhaps? Tell me that.”

  “Well, yes, perhaps,” Horris Kew went along, no fool he. “To some, of course, not to everyone.”

  And suddenly Abernathy found himself wondering if perhaps it was so. Horris himself did not seem to know the truth of the matter, but what if Kallendbor’s guess was right? Did that mean that the visions shown might come to pass? Did it mean that Abernathy might be seeing himself not as he had been but as he would be again?

  “The future,” Kallendbor whispered, lost in thought. “Yes, it might be so.”

  Whatever he had seen had certainly pleased him, Abernathy thought, barely interested in what that might be, too caught up in considering his own use of the crystal. His chest constricted with the emotions that gathered at the prospect that he might become a man again. If it could only be true!

  “How many of these do you have?” Kallendbor demanded suddenly.

  Horris Kew swallowed, not sure where this was leading. “As I said, thousands, my Lord.”

  “Thousands. How much do they cost?”

  “Nothing, my Lord. They are free.”

  Kallendbor seemed to choke on something. “Have you given many out yet?”

  “Yes, my Lord, many. It is our purpose in coming to the Greensward—to give these crystals to the people so that they may be amused by what they see in them when their daily work is done. Of course, for you, my Lord,” he added quickly, not missing an opportunity when he saw one, “they perhaps offer something more.”

  “Yes, something more.” Kallendbor thought. “I have an idea. Allow me to distribute those crystals intended for the other Lords of the Greensward. I shall pass them about in the King’s name, of course. That would save you visiting each stronghold and leave you free to visit the common people.”

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