The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  Then the rumors started. There were only a few at first, but the number quickly grew. People were starting to balk at doing their work. Farmers were letting their lands lie fallow and their stock go untended in the fields. Fences broke and barns collapsed, and repairs went unmade. Shopkeepers and merchants were opening and closing when they felt like it and showing little interest in selling their goods. Some were simply letting their wares be stolen, some were giving their merchandise away. Road and construction crews were failing to show up for their jobs. Building had come to a halt. The courts were down to half-day sessions and sometimes less than that. Justice was being dispensed in a cavalier and disinterested manner. Couriers with important dispatches were arriving days late. The dispatches themselves were being written in haphazard fashion by scribes. Home life was no better than the workplace. Husbands and wives were ignoring each other and their children. House-cleaning was being left for someone else, and unwashed dishes and cookware were piling up. No one had clean clothes. Dogs and cats were going hungry.

  The cause of this mass neglect was no secret. Everyone was spending every free moment gazing into their newly acquired mind’s eye crystals.

  It was astonishing how quickly things began to fall apart once the obsession with the crystals set in. One failure led to another, one moment of disregard to the next, and pretty soon it was like toppling a line of dominoes. Work could wait, the reasoning went; after all, there was always tomorrow. Besides, work was boring. Work was hard. Gazing into the crystals was infinitely more interesting and enjoyable. It was amazing how quickly time passed when you peered into their depths. Why, entire days seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye!

  So it went. And the loss of one day led to the loss of the next. Everyone quit doing everything, and soon no one was doing anything except sitting around staring into the crystals. Abernathy knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, where the truth of things still flickered with a candle’s dim glow, that what was happening to the people of Landover was also happening to him. But he could not accept it. He could not give up his use of the crystal, not even for a single second. Not today—maybe tomorrow. Anyway, things weren’t really so bad, were they?

  They were, of course. And they quickly got worse. Abernathy was the first to discover how bad they would get. One morning, two weeks out of Rhyndweir, he awakened, reached into his pocket, pulled out his crystal, summoned up his favorite vision, and watched the gem turn to dust in the palm of his hand. He stared at it in disbelief, then in shock, and finally in despair. He waited for it to come back together again, but it stayed a pile of dust. He carried it to Horris Kew, desperate to have it restored. But Horris didn’t have a clue about what was happening. Maybe it was a bad crystal, he suggested. He would give Abernathy another.

  But when he opened the chests to get one, they found both empty. Not a crystal remained, although Abernathy was certain there had been crystals the day before or at least the day before that—no one was quite sure. Had they somehow given them all away without realizing it? Where had all the crystals gone?

  They were far out on the eastern border of the Greensward by now, having visited most of that land and some parts of the Melchor, and they quickly turned for home. Maybe more crystals could be found on their return, Abernathy suggested hopefully, trying the very best he could not to sound too anxious, conscious of Horris and that stupid bird hanging on his every word. Maybe so, Horris agreed. Yes, quite possibly so. But he didn’t sound like he believed it.

  As Abernathy, Bunion, Horris, and the bird journeyed back, new rumors began to crop up. Crystals everywhere were turning to dust. People were furious. What was happening? What were they supposed to do without their visions? Lethargy gave way to violence. Neighbors turned on one another, looking to beg, borrow, or steal crystals to replace the ones they had lost. But no one had any to give. Everyone was in the same terrible position, deprived of what had been seen initially as a diversion but had evolved all too rapidly into a necessity of life. The people milled about and bumped up against each other for a few days in anger and despair, searching for crystals. Then they did what people always do when they get frustrated enough—they turned on the government. In this case, they turned on the Lords of the Greensward. Hadn’t they authorized and facilitated the dispensing of the crystals in the first place? Surely they must be able to get more.

  With single-minded resolve, the people marched on the castle fortresses of their Lords, determined to seek redress for their perceived wrongs.

  Abernathy should have seen then where things were headed, but he was still so traumatized over the loss of his own crystal that he could not think of anything else. He trudged along despondently, trying to imagine what life would be like if there were no more crystals and the visions were really gone for good. It was a prospect too awful to contemplate. He was barely aware of the others and what they were doing. When Horris and his bird began whispering anxiously at each other and casting uneasy glances over their shoulders, he failed to pay attention. When the black-cloaked stranger joined them—absent one moment, there the next—he didn’t see. Even when Bunion reappeared from one of his frequent scouting patrols and hissed in warning that there was something wrong with the stranger, Abernathy only just heard him. He was beyond such concerns, consumed by private grief, on the edge of slipping away completely.

  They arrived at Rhyndweir and found matters in such turmoil that they almost bypassed the castle completely. But they were without supplies by now and anxious to discover if Kallendbor still had his own crystal supply intact. They had heard nothing to suggest otherwise, and indeed by the time they worked their way past the crowds jammed up against the gates and gained the interior of the fortress they discovered that, yes, things were apparently just fine. Kallendbor met them with self-absorbed indifference, provided a brief greeting, and then immediately disappeared again. His crystals were fine, it seemed. Why they remained unaffected when all the others were turning to dust was a mystery, but it was a mystery they thought it wise not to pursue. The plan was to spend the night, replenish supplies, and leave at first light for Sterling Silver. No lingering about, they decided. None of them wanted to be there if anything went wrong with Kallendbor’s crystals.

  Abernathy retired to his room and stayed there. He wasn’t hungry, so he didn’t go down for dinner. He wanted to spend as little time with Kallendbor as he had to. Bunion disappeared almost immediately after they arrived, and Abernathy neither knew nor cared where the kobold had gone. Bunion had escaped the trap of the crystals and their visions. Like most kobolds, he was disinterested in and mistrustful of magic and had refused the offer of one early on. Leaving Horris and Abernathy to manage the great crystal giveaway, Bunion had spent his time scouring the countryside in search of the missing Ben Holiday. He had found nothing so far, but he refused to give up looking. Sooner or later, he was convinced, he would find some trace of the missing King.

  So Abernathy was alone when night set in and the mob at the gates began to light huge watch fires before the castle, fueling them with the thatched roofs and wooden walls of the closest of the city’s shops and market stalls. As the fires rose and the heat built, the mood of the people began to grow uglier and uglier. Soon they were throwing things against the gates and over the parapets. Shouts turned mean and threatening. Something had to be done, they cried, and it had to be done right now! Where were their crystals? They wanted their crystals back! The castle guards hunkered down and waited out the storm, their own mood a bit uncertain. Many among them had lost crystals as well and were sympathetic to the crowd’s demands. Many had friends and relatives out there yelling up at them. There were some who were leaning toward opening the gates. The only thing that kept them from doing so was a threadbare sense of duty, an ingrained force of habit, and a healthy fear of Kallendbor. It was not clear how long such barriers would keep them in check.

  Kallendbor seemed oblivious to the problem. There had been no sign of him since they arrived, and Ab
ernathy had been just as grateful. But when the sound of the mob without began to undergo an ominous change, he found himself wondering what the Lord of the manor house was planning on doing about it. Boiling oil would be a likely choice, if temperament dictated Kallendbor’s reaction. But maybe Kallendbor was ensconced in his private chambers, curled up alone with his wondrous crystal, gazing into its depths, absorbed in what he found there, in the kind of visions that Abernathy himself had once enjoyed …

  Abernathy squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. It was too much, really. He was suddenly furious at the prospect of Kallendbor and his mind’s eye crystals. It wasn’t enough that he enjoyed the use of one; he was hoarding several dozen! Shouldn’t he be willing to share one or two with his guests, especially emissaries from the King himself? Shouldn’t custom and good manners dictate it? Shouldn’t a complaint be lodged and a demand be made?

  Abernathy went out of his room in a huff, driven by an itch in his soul, compelled by a need he could barely comprehend.

  So it was that he was halfway down the stairs when he heard the sound of Kallendbor and Horris Kew arguing over the din of the crowds outside the castle walls.

  “They’re gone, charlatan!” Kallendbor was screaming in fury, his voice echoing up the stairwell from the great hall below. “Every last one of them, gone! Turned to dust! What do you know of this?”

  “My Lord, I don’t—”

  “You listen to me, you idiot!” Kallendbor wasn’t interested in explanations. “You are responsible for this! I hold you responsible! You had better find a way to restore them right now, right this instant, or I will inflict such pain on your body that you will beg me to put you out of your misery! You and your bird both!”

  Abernathy caught his breath. So Kallendbor’s crystals had turned to dust as well! He felt both satisfaction and disappointment. Steeling himself, he crept slowly down the stairs, one cautious step at a time.

  “Well?” Kallendbor’s patience had the life span of a moth caught in a candle’s flame.

  “My Lord, please, I shall do what I can …”

  “You shall do what I tell you!” Kallendbor screamed, and there was the sound of shaking, of teeth rattling together, and of Biggar squawking and flying off in a rush.

  Abernathy gained a bend in the stairs that allowed him to look down on what was happening below. Kallendbor was holding Horris Kew off the floor by his supplicant’s robes and shaking him as hard as he could. The unfortunate conjurer was whipping back and forth in the big man’s grasp like a rag doll, his feet kicking wildly, his head snapping on his skinny neck. Biggar circled overhead, crying out in dismay, swooping here and there, looking decidedly undecided about what to do.

  “Give—me—back—my—crystals!” Kallendbor spit out the demand like a curse, giving Horris Kew a punctuating shake with each word uttered.

  “Put him down,” a voice said from the shadows.

  Kallendbor turned, startled. “What? Who speaks?”

  “Put him down,” the voice repeated. “He isn’t to blame for any of this.”

  Kallendbor threw Horris Kew to the floor, where the conjurer lay twitching and gasping for breath. The Lord of the Greensward wheeled toward the voice. His hand dropped to his broadsword, the weapon he always carried. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”

  A black-cloaked figure detached from the wall to one side, materializing out of nowhere. It glided into view rather than walked, all darkness and smooth motion. Abernathy shrank back instinctively. It was the stranger who had joined them on the road. How did he come to be here? Had he entered the fortress with them? Abernathy could not remember him doing so.

  “Who are you?” Kallendbor asked sharply, but the edge had disappeared from his voice and been replaced by a hint of uncertainty.

  “A friend,” the stranger answered. He stopped moving a dozen feet away. Although Abernathy tried, he could not see the man’s face. “You can shake Horris Kew until his bones come out of his skin, but that won’t get your crystals back. Horris Kew doesn’t have them to give.”

  Kallendbor stiffened. “How do you know this?”

  “I know a good many things,” the stranger said. His voice had an odd hissing quality to it, as if the vocal cords had once suffered some severe injury. “I know that Horris Kew and his companions are dupes in this matter, that they do only what they were instructed to do, and that they have no more crystals to give you. I know as well that they did not realize that the crystals they were giving you would turn to dust after only a short period of use. You have been cheated, my Lord. You have been tricked.”

  Kallendbor’s hand tightened on his sword. “Who is responsible for this? If you know so much, tell me that!”

  The stranger was motionless, enigmatic, impenetrable in the face of the other’s rage. “Take your hand away from your weapon. You cannot hurt me.”

  There was a long moment of silence. Horris Kew inched carefully away from Kallendbor, crawling on his hands and knees. Biggar sat on the edge of the stair banister as if carved from stone. Abernathy held his breath.

  Kallendbor’s big hand dropped away. “Who are you?” he repeated once more, confused.

  The stranger ignored the question. “Think a moment,” he said softly. “Who sent you these crystals? Who sent the conjurer and his bird? Who sent the scribe and the runner? Who do they serve?”

  Kallendbor went rigid. “Holiday!” he hissed.

  Oh, oh, Abernathy thought.

  The stranger laughed, a curiously grating sound. “Do you see now? How better to weaken your position, my Lord, than to make you seem a fool? You have been a thorn in the King’s side from the beginning, and he would have you removed for good. When the crystals turn to dust, the people turn on you. You are their Lord and therefore must answer for their misery. The plan works well, don’t you think?”

  Kallendbor could not seem to manage an answer. He was choking on whatever he was trying to say.

  “There are more crystals to be had,” the stranger was saying, his voice gone smooth and persuasive. Abernathy was leaning forward to hear every word now. Who was this lying troublemaker? “There is an entire chamber full of them at Sterling Silver, hidden away for a time when they are needed. I have seen these crystals myself; there are thousands and thousands of them. Shouldn’t they be yours?”

  For just a moment Abernathy was persuaded. All he could see was a shimmering pile of the precious crystals, hoarded away like gold, selfishly kept from those who needed them. But in the next instant he saw the argument for the lie it was, knowing that Ben Holiday would never do anything like that, remembering in fact that the crystals had come from Horris Kew and not until after the King had disappeared.

  He wondered suddenly and for the first time if the two events were connected somehow.

  “There is a simple solution for your problem,” the stranger was saying. He had walked over to Horris Kew and pulled him to his feet again, seemingly without effort. “Tell your people the truth of the matter. Tell them that the crystals are being kept secretly at Sterling Silver by the King. Tell them to march on his castle and demand that he give them up! Call together all the Lords of the Greensward. Have them gather their armies and their subjects and march them down to the King’s doorstep. He cannot refuse all of you. He cannot withstand you even if he tries.”

  Kallendbor was nodding, persuaded. “I have had enough of Holiday—enough of his interference!”

  “Perhaps,” the stranger whispered thoughtfully, “it is time for a new King. Perhaps it is time for a man who would be more responsive to those like yourself, a man who would not behave so intractably toward his betters.”

  Abernathy almost barked. He was not proud of the reaction, but it was an honest one. He swallowed the sound in a muffled gasp.

  “There are those who appreciate the proper uses of power.” The stranger’s voice was low and compelling. He made a brief, encompassing gesture toward Horris Kew. “There are those who understand the nature of loya
lty, who comprehend the realities of its implementation. In other words, Lord Kallendbor, there are those who would serve any master who paid the right price.”

  Horris Kew was staring at the stranger, openmouthed. There was another long moment of silence.

  Then Kallendbor nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps so. Yes, why not? If he would agree to certain terms, of course. Yes. Why not make another King?” Then he shook his head abruptly. “But there is still Holiday to contend with. It is one thing to demand the release of the crystals and another altogether to remove him from the throne. He commands the services of the Paladin, and none can stand against him.”

  “Ah, but what if Holiday were to simply vanish?” the stranger asked in response. He paused meaningfully. “What if he already has?”

  Abernathy felt his heart drop. So there it was—the truth at last. Ben Holiday’s disappearance was indeed tied to Horris Kew and his mind’s eye crystals, and all of it was tied to this mysterious stranger. Something terrible was going on, something that Abernathy still didn’t fully comprehend, but the stranger was most definitely behind it.

  What was he going to do?

  He exhaled softly. He didn’t know, but whatever it was he would have to get out of here to do it.

  He began to back carefully up the stairs.

  Not carefully enough, however. His boot scraped on the stone as he turned. It was a small noise, but one pair of ears was sharp enough to hear it.

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