The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  “If so,” the Knight said quietly, “then the Lady is also right when she says we shall not escape.”

  But the Gargoyle shook his head. “It only means that since magic brought us in, magic must take us out. It means we must look for our escape in a different way.”

  The Knight stared off again. What other way was there? he wondered. He could not think of any. They lacked magic themselves; to sustain them they had only the weapons he carried and their wits. That didn’t seem enough.

  They followed the river again that day, and nothing changed. The river rolled on, the forest stretched away, and the mist and gray permeated everything. The Labyrinth’s sameness was growing almost unbearable. The Knight found himself imagining that the ground they were covering now was the same ground they had covered before. He found himself catching sight of landmarks he recognized and geography he knew. It was impossible, of course. They had gone on the same way without once turning back, so there was no chance that they could be repeating their steps. Still, the feeling persisted, and it began to wear at the Knight’s resolve.

  They camped at a bend in the river where the forest came almost to the water’s edge and they could settle themselves back within its shelter. They did so because the Knight wanted the Gargoyle to be able to sleep with them and not have to go off by himself. The creature was scarred already by his hideous appearance, and it seemed cruel that he should be compelled to hide himself away from them each night. They were companions on this journey and had only themselves for support. They must do what they could to keep the bond between them strong. Even the Lady had quit baiting the Gargoyle, had ceased referring to him in derogatory terms, and had begun to speak to him in a civil tone now and again. It was a start, the Knight believed.

  His thoughtfulness was rewarded when the Gargoyle did not go off into the dark, but curled up only a few feet off, in the shadow of an old shade tree. For this night, at least, he would sleep with them.

  Rough hands brought them awake, pulling them from their sleep as if they were logs from a woodpile. The Knight came to his feet with a bound, staring about wildly. How had they managed to get so close without his hearing them? The Lady was pressed against him, and he could hear the harsh sound of her breathing. The Gargoyle was hunched down a few feet off, yellow eyes gleaming in the faint new light.

  There were monsters all about them, ringing their camp and closing off any avenue of escape. There were at least a dozen huge, gnarly brutes, standing upright on two legs, but bent over in a half crouch as if they might be just as comfortable going down on all fours. They were vaguely manlike in appearance—two legs, two arms, a torso, hands and feet, and a head—but their bodies were knotted and muscled grotesquely and covered with some sort of rough hide. Their faces were almost featureless, but their eyes and snouts gleamed wetly as they peered at their three captives.

  One of them spoke, his mouth splitting wide to reveal huge fangs. He gibbered at them, a mixture of snorts and grunts. He gestured vaguely, first at them, then at the river, and finally at the forest.

  “They want to know where we come from,” the Lady said.

  The Knight stared at her in surprise. “Do you understand them?”

  She nodded. “I do. I can’t explain it. I’ve never seen them before. I don’t speak their language. I am not even able to put words to all of the sounds. But the meaning is clear. I can decipher it. Here, let me see if I can make them understand me.”

  She made a few deft motions with her fingers and hands. The creature who had spoken grunted some more. Then he looked about at his fellows and shook his head.

  “They want to know what we are doing here. They say we don’t belong, that we are intruders.” The Lady had stepped away again from the Knight, her composure recovered. “They don’t like the look of us.”

  “What sort of things are they?” the Gargoyle growled, his own teeth showing.

  There was another exchange. “They call themselves Gristlies,” the Lady reported. Her face tightened. “They say that they are going to eat us.”

  “Eat us?” The Knight could not believe he had heard right.

  “They say we are humans and humans are to be eaten. I can’t make all of it out. It has something to do with custom.”

  “They had better keep away from me,” the Gargoyle hissed. His muscles bunched into iron cords, and his claws came out. He was on the verge of doing something that would doom them all.

  The Gristlies had engaged in a new discussion, all of them grunting loudly and gesturing. There was apparently some sort of disagreement. The Knight made a quick appraisal of the beasts. All of them were huge, and any two more than a match for him in a contest of strength. He felt the weight of his broadsword on his back. The sword would give them a better chance, but still there were too many to stand against. He had to find a way to even the odds.

  The Gargoyle had been thinking the same thing. “We will have to make a run for it,” he rasped.

  “Stay where you are.” The Lady’s voice was cool and calm. “They are arguing over what is to be done with us. They are very primitive and superstitious. Something about us bothers several among them. Let me try to determine what it is.”

  The argument continued, sharper now. Fangs bared, claws unsheathed, two of the Gristlies began growling at each other. They were ferocious-looking creatures, and the Knight began to suspect that they were much quicker and stronger than he had first believed.

  “We have to get out of this circle,” he said quietly, and his hand stole back toward the handle of his sword.

  In that instant, the two combative Gristlies attacked each other, tearing and ripping and shrieking horribly. Their fellows fell back before the onslaught, and the circle about the Knight and his companions collapsed. Instantly the Gargoyle bolted for the river. The Knight followed, pulling the Lady after him. To their surprise, the Gristlies did not give chase. The Knight looked back over his shoulder as he ran, but no one was there. From the shadow of the trees came the sounds of the battle between the two who had argued. Improbable as it seemed, the captives no longer appeared to matter.

  They had reached the river’s edge and were looking for a way to cross over when the Gristlies reappeared. It was immediately apparent why they had been in no hurry. They bounded from the trees like cats, covering ground so fast that they were upon the three in seconds. There were only seven now, but they looked formidable in the dim light, massive bodies uncoiling, claws and teeth gleaming like knives.

  “Draw your sword!” the Lady cried in warning, and, when he was too slow to act, seized the weapon in her own hands and tried to draw it free.

  “Don’t!” he snapped, breaking her grip and thrusting her away.

  She held her ground furiously. The Gristlies slowed and began circling. “Listen to me!” she snapped. “Your sword does more than you think! Remember the townsfolk? Remember the Gypsies? It was when you drew your sword and did battle that the Haze appeared!”

  He stared at her in disbelief. “No! There is no connection!”

  “There must be!” she hissed. “We have seen the Haze no other time. And when it comes, it never comes for us, only for those who threaten us! The two must be joined in some way! The Sword and the Haze, both weapons that eliminate our enemies! Think!”

  She was breathing hard, and her pale face was bright with perspiration. The Gargoyle had moved close to them, keeping his sharp eyes fixed on the circling Gristlies.

  “She may be right,” he said quietly. “Take heed of her.”

  The Knight shook his head stubbornly. “No!” he said again, thinking, How could that be, how could it possibly …?

  And suddenly he knew. The truth appeared like a beast come out of hiding, monstrous and terrible. He should have recognized it earlier; he should have seen it for what it was. He had suspected a link between the Haze and themselves, known there was a tie he could not fathom. He had thought all this time that the Haze hunted after them, a stalker awaiting its chance to
strike. He had been wrong.

  The Haze did not track after them; it traveled with them.

  Because it belonged to him.

  The Haze was his missing armor.

  He went cold to the bone. His armor had not been there when he awoke in the Labyrinth, and yet he had sensed it close at hand. His armor had always been like that, hidden, awaiting its summons. It came on command and wrapped itself about him so that he could do battle against his enemies. That was how it worked.

  But here, in the mists of the Labyrinth, its form had been altered. Magic had subverted it, had poisoned it, had made it over into a thing that was unrecognizable. His armor had become the Haze. It must be so. Why else would the Haze come to their rescue each time they were threatened and then retreat back into the mists? What other explanation was there?

  He could not breathe, the cold so deep inside him that he was paralyzed. It was true, as he had feared, that he was responsible for the deaths of all those people, that he had destroyed the townsfolk and the River Gypsies, that he had killed them all in his warrior’s guise without even realizing what he was doing.

  He stood there, stunned by the impact of his recognition. “No,” he whispered in despair.

  He felt the Lady’s hands on his shoulders, bracing him, trying to give him strength. The Gristlies were edging closer, emboldened by his indecision, by his inability to act.

  “Do something!” the Lady cried.

  The Gargoyle made a quick feint at the Gristlies, but the foremost only snarled in challenge and held its ground.

  “I have no magic!” the Lady wailed in despair, shaking the Knight violently.

  He shook her off then, come back to himself, recognizing their danger. The Lady was powerless. The Gargoyle was overmatched. They needed him if they were to survive. But if he drew his broadsword the Haze would come, destroying these creatures as it had destroyed the townsfolk and the River Gypsies—and he could not bear that.

  But what other weapon did he possess?

  In desperation, almost without thinking about what he was doing, he reached into his tunic and pulled out the medallion with its graven image of a knight riding out of a castle at sunrise. He yanked it free and held it forth before him, as if it were a talisman. What he hoped it would do, he did not know. He knew only that it was all he possessed from his former life, and that it had the same feel of strangeness and remoteness as his armor.

  The effect of its appearance on the Gristlies was astonishing. They cringed away from it instantly, some dropping to their knees, some shielding their eyes, all shrinking from it as if it were anathema to them. Whining, weeping, shivering with fear and awe, they began to withdraw. The Knight lifted the medallion higher and took a step toward them. They broke and ran then, bolting for the trees as if pursued by demons, all the fight taken out of them, anxious only to put as much distance between themselves and the medallion as they could manage. They bounded away on all fours and were gone.

  Why? the Knight wondered in amazement.

  In the silence that followed, his breathing was audible. His hands lowered to his sides, and he lifted his face to the mists.

  The Lady went to the Knight and stood so that her face was directly before his. He did not see her; he was staring straight ahead at nothing, his eyes dangerously fixed and empty.

  “What did you do?” she asked quietly.

  He did not answer.

  “You saved us. Nothing else matters.”

  He made no response.

  “Listen to me,” she told him. “Forget about the people of that town, and forget the Gypsies. What happened to them was not your fault. You could not have known. You did what you had to do. If you had acted otherwise, we would be dead or imprisoned.”

  The Gargoyle hunched down at her elbow, his cloak pulled about him, his face hidden away. “He does not hear you.”

  The Lady nodded. Her voice hardened. “Would you abandon us now? Would you give up on yourself because of this? You have killed men all your life as a King’s Champion. It is the essence of who you are. Can you deny this? Look at me.”

  His eyes did not move. There were tears in them.

  She reached out and slapped him hard three times, each slap a sharp crack in the silence. “Look at me!” she hissed.

  He did then, the life coming back into his eyes as they turned to meet hers. She waited until she was certain he saw her. “You did what you should have done. Accept that sometimes the consequences are harsh and unforeseen. Accept that you cannot always allow for every result. There is nothing wrong in this.”

  “Everything,” he whispered.

  “They threatened us!” she snapped. “They might have killed us! Is it wrong that we killed them first? Is your guilt such that you would give them their lives at the cost of ours? Have you lost all reason? Where is your great strength? I would not have you for my keeper if it is gone! I would not be taken by such a man! Give me my freedom if you are so compromised!”

  He shook his head. “I acted out of instinct, but I should have used judgment. There is no excuse.”

  “You are pathetic!” she sneered. “Why do I waste my time with you? I owe you nothing! I am trapped in this world because of you, and I don’t even know why that is so! You have stolen away my life; you have stripped me of my magic! Now you would deny us the protection of your own small measure as well! Don’t use it, you would say, because it might cause harm! You would pity those who try to destroy us because we must destroy them first!”

  His lips tightened. “I pity anything that must die at my hands.”

  “Then you are nothing! You are less than nothing! Look about you and tell me what you see! This is a world of mist and madness, Sir Knight! Could it be that you have failed to notice? It will destroy us quickly enough if we underestimate its dangers or show weakness in the face of its considerable strengths! Stand on your hind legs, or you are just another dog!”

  “You know nothing of me!”

  “I know enough! I know you have lost your nerve! I know you are no longer able to lead us!” Her face was as cold and hard as ice. “I am stronger now than you. I can make my own way! Stay on your knees, if you must! Stay here and wallow in your pity! I want nothing more to do with you!”

  She started to rise, shoving past the Gargoyle. The Knight reached out, grasped her arm, and pulled her back down before him. “No!” he shouted. “You will not leave!”

  The Lady swung at him with her fist, but he blocked the blow. She swung again, but he caught her wrist. She looked into his face and found it hard-edged and taut. The weakness was gone from his eyes.

  “When you leave,” he hissed at her, “you will leave with me!”

  She stared at him without speaking. Then her free hand came up slowly and touched his cheek. She felt him flinch, and she smiled. She let her fingers trail down to his neck and drop away.

  Then she leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth.

  Handful of Dust

  Abernathy stopped halfway down the stairs leading from his bedroom to the great hall of Rhyndweir and listened in dismay. At the foot of the stairs, Kallendbor was screaming at Horris Kew. At the gates of the fortress, the people of the Greensward were trying to break through. Across the countryside, there was chaos.

  It was not a happy time.

  From the start Abernathy had known that something would go wrong with Horris Kew and the great mind’s eye crystal giveaway. He had known it as surely as he had known his own name. It was so predictable that it could have been written in stone. Horris Kew had been involved in a lot of schemes over the years, had come up with a whole bushel full of ideas for quick fixes and cure-alls, and not a one of them had ever worked. It was the same story every time. Things would start out in promising fashion and then somewhere along the way go haywire. No matter what the circumstances, the result was always the same. Somehow, some way, Horris Kew invariably lost control of the events he had set in motion.

  In this instance, however, knowing
it was so was not enough to save Abernathy. Knowing didn’t do you any good if you didn’t also believe. In truth, Abernathy needed to believe the exact opposite, because once he accepted that nothing had changed with Horris Kew and his schemes, even twenty years later, he had to acknowledge that the mind’s eye crystals weren’t what they seemed, and he couldn’t possibly bring himself to do that. Abernathy was in the throes of serious denial. His own wondrous crystal had captivated him totally. Its visions had enslaved him. He was a prisoner of the prospect of being forever able to recapture glimpses of his former self and to live with the hope that what he was seeing might be a promise of what one day would be again. The visions were his private ecstasy, his own secret personal escape from the hard truths of life. Abernathy had always been a pragmatic sort, but he was helpless before this particular lure. The more he called the visions up, the more entranced he became by them. His addiction progressed from mild to severe. It wasn’t just that he found pleasure in the visions; it was that they offered him the only escape that meant anything.

  So he ignored his suspicions, his innate distrust, and his common sense, and he accompanied Horris Kew and his hateful bird down the path to chaos.

  Hard evidence of where things were going surfaced quickly enough. The little company had progressed from Kallendbor and Rhyndweir to the other parts of the Greensward and to other people who had learned of the mind’s eye crystals and were waiting to see if what they had heard was true. Crowds gathered at every crossroads and hamlet, and crystals were passed out by the handfuls. When Horris Kew failed to visit the remaining Lords—in deference to Kallendbor’s false promise to deliver their crystals himself—the Lords quickly came to him. Where were their crystals? Was there to be none for them? Were they to be deprived of a treasure given so freely to common folk? Fearing personal harm and silently cursing Kallendbor for his duplicitous nature, the conjurer quickly gave them what they wanted. It became clear to Abernathy that Kallendbor hadn’t taken those extra crystals to sell them. He had taken them to be certain that if his own was lost or stolen or broken, he would still have others. His greed was pointless, though. There were more than enough crystals to go around. The supply appeared inexhaustible. No matter how many were given out, the number remaining never seemed to diminish. Abernathy noted this phenomenon, but as with everything else connected with the great crystal giveaway, he blithely ignored it.

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