The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  “Awk! Someone’s there!” Biggar rasped out in warning.

  They all wheeled toward the stairs. “Find him!” the stranger hissed at once.

  Abernathy bolted, deciding that it would not be a good idea for him to be captured at this juncture. He remained upright on two legs for the first couple of steps, then gave it up and went down on all fours. Speed took precedence over dignity, and after all a considerable part of him was dog. He raced up the stairs and down the hall for his room, not knowing where else to go. He could hear the flapping of wings behind him and the pounding of boots farther back. All chance of slipping away quietly in the dead of night was gone. What was he going to do? If they found him they would throw him into the darkest hole in the castle keep. If he was lucky, that was. Otherwise, they would just eliminate him on the spot.

  He reached his room and raced inside, slamming the door shut behind him and throwing the bolt. The room was shadowed and dark, the candles not yet lit. He stood gasping for breath with his back to the door and listened to the beating of wings as Biggar flew past, shrieking, “Up here! He’s hiding here!”

  Stupid bird talks a lot better than he lets on, Abernathy thought darkly, and found himself staring through the gloom at a pair of yellow eyes that stared back.

  “Arf!” he barked, unable to stop himself this time. He flattened back against the door, frozen in place. He was trapped now on both sides. He groped through his clothing for a weapon, but he didn’t have one, so he bared his teeth instead. The yellow eyes blinked curiously, and a familiar face came into view.

  “Bunion!” Abernathy gasped in relief, for it was indeed the kobold. “Am I glad to see you!”

  Bunion chittered something in response, but Abernathy wasn’t listening. “We have to get out of here, Bunion. Kallendbor and Horris Kew and that stranger caught me listening in on them. They want Holiday off the throne! They have done something to him already, I think. I will tell you all about it later if you can just get us out!”

  Bunion jumped down off the window ledge where he had been perched, sped across the room to the door, threw it open, and made a diving grab for Biggar, who was trying to fly inside. Biggar shrieked and swooped aside, but Bunion came away with a handful of black feathers. The bird flew off, crying out in pain and indignation. Bunion beckoned hurriedly to Abernathy, and the scribe followed him out the door. Kallendbor and Horris Kew were just rounding the head of the stairs. There was no sign of the stranger.

  Bunion and Abernathy fled in the opposite direction, both of them down on all fours. Like whipped curs, Abernathy thought as he ran.

  They went down a back stairs and along a lower hall and into a small storage room. There was a hidden passageway behind a section of the wall, and in seconds they were groping their way through the dark—or at least Abernathy was, since he lacked Bunion’s extraordinary eyes. It took them a long time, but when the passageway ended they were outside the castle walls once more.

  From there, they made their way back through the mostly sleeping town and out into the countryside. As they traveled, Abernathy remembered anew the loss of his crystal. It made him cry, and he hid his tears from Bunion. But the pain faded after a while, lessened considerably by the knowledge that the recapturing of his past had been the gift of a false prophet. Horris Kew had used him, and that hurt far more than the loss of his visions. As unpleasant as it was to admit, his self-indulgence had allowed a travesty to take place, and now perhaps Ben Holiday was paying the price for it. Certainly he must do what he could to salvage the situation, and that meant getting word to Questor Thews as quickly as possible. It would be hard to face the wizard after what had happened. It would be hard to tell him the truth. Questor had not taken one of the crystals, after all. He was too stubborn and proud to accept anything from Horris Kew, Abernathy guessed—and right in being so, as it turned out. Yes, facing him would be terribly hard. But it was necessary. Perhaps there was still a way to put things right.

  They slept that night in an old barn some miles south and west of Rhyndweir. The straw they used for bedding was rife with fleas and smelled of manure, but Abernathy reasoned that it was minimal penance to pay for his gross stupidity and a small price for his freedom. As he lay squirming and shifting in the dark, listening to Bunion breathe easily next to him, Landover’s Court Scribe promised himself that one day soon there would be a reckoning for all this, and that when that day came he would make certain that Horris Kew, his bird, and that black-cloaked stranger got what was coming to them.

  Dream Dance

  Night waned toward morning, a slow, dull ebbing of sound and motion, and the streets of Greenwich Village grew empty and still. A few cars and trucks crawled by, aimless and solitary, and people still meandered the walks, but that was all. The traffic lights blinked through their sequence of green, yellow, and red with steady precision, and their colors glared off the concrete where a light rain had left its gritty sheen. In the doorways and alleys there were homeless sleeping, ragged lumps of clothing, shadows hunched down against the gloom. The rank smell of garbage wafted on the air, mingling with the steam and mist that rose out of the sewer and subway grates and off the newly washed streets. Somewhere out in the harbor, a fog horn blew.

  Willow walked in silence with Edgewood Dirk, feeling trapped and alone. She should not have felt that way. Her confidence should have been higher, her expectations greater. Two-thirds of her journey to gather the soils of three worlds for the birth of her child was complete. Only one leg remained. But it was the one she dreaded most. For as much as she disliked and abhorred Ben’s world with its sprawling cities that ate away at the land and its almost compulsive disregard for the sanctity of life, it was the fairy mists that frightened her most.

  It was a difficult fear to reconcile. It grew out of the history of her people and their deliberate distancing from the mists, their choice to accept the burdens and responsibilities of reality over fantasy, their decision to embrace mortality. It grew out of the stories of what happened to mortals who ventured into the fairy mists, of the madness that claimed them because they could not adjust to the dictates of a world where everything was imagined and nothing fixed. It grew as well out of the Earth Mother’s warning to beware the motives of the fairy people in offering their help, for in all things they kept their real purposes hidden, secret from those like her.

  She glanced at Edgewood Dirk and wondered what secrets the prism cat kept from her. How much of what he did was for reasons known only to him? Was there duplicity in his accompanying her to this world and the next? She could ask him, but she knew he would not answer. Neither the part of him that was fairy nor the part that was cat would let him tell. He was an enigma by nature, and he would not give up his identity as such.

  So she walked and tried not to think too hard about what would happen next. They left the main streets and maneuvered their way down alleys clogged with garbage bins, debris, and rusting vehicles. They passed out of street light into misty gloom, the way forward marked faintly by faraway lamps, a dimly reflected glow on the building walls. Mist and steam mingled in the close corridor, shrouding the passageway, cloaking the night. Willow shivered with its touch and wished she could see the sun again.

  Then they were at a gap in the buildings where the haze was so thick she could see nothing of what lay beyond. Dirk slowed and turned, and she knew instantly that all her choices were gone.

  “Are you ready, my lady?” he asked deferentially, unusual for Dirk, and she was instantly afraid all over again.

  “Yes,” she replied, and could not tell afterward if she had spoken the word.

  “Stay close to me,” he advised, and started to turn.

  “Dirk,” she called quickly. He glanced back, hesitating. “Is this a trap?”

  The prism cat blinked. “Not of my making,” he said. “I cannot speak for what you might intend. Humans are known well for stumbling into traps of their own making. Perhaps this will happen to you.”

  She nodded, f
olding her arms about herself for warmth. “I am trusting you in this. I am afraid for myself and my child.”

  “Trust not the cat,” Dirk philosophized, “without a glove.”

  “I trust you because I must, glove or no. If you deceive me, I am lost.”

  “You are lost only if you allow it to happen. You are lost only if you quit thinking.” The cat regarded her steadily. “You are stronger than you think, Willow. Do you believe that?”

  She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

  A veil of mist blew between them, and for a moment the cat disappeared. When he was back again, his eyes were still fixed on her. “I told Holiday once that people should listen more closely to what cats would tell them, that they have many useful lessons to teach. I told him it was a failing common to most humans—that they did not listen as closely as they should. I tell you the same thing now.”

  “I have listened well,” she said. “But I am not sure I have understood.”

  Dirk cocked his head. “Sometimes understanding has to wait a bit on events. So. Are you ready?”

  She came forward a step. “Do not leave me, Dirk. Whatever happens, do not. Will you promise me that?”

  Edgewood Dirk shook his head. “Cats do not make promises. Are you ready or not?”

  Willow straightened. “I depend on you.” The cat stayed silent. “Yes,” she said then. “I am ready.”

  They moved into the narrow passageway and the mists that clogged it and were immediately swallowed up. Willow kept her eyes lowered to where Dirk walked before her, vaguely visible in the haze. The mists were dark at first, and then lightened perceptibly. The walls of the buildings fell away, and the smells of the city disappeared. In the blink of an eye, everything about them changed. They were in a forest now, a world of great old trees with canopied limbs that hid the skies, of thick brush and tall ferns, and of smells of an ancient, forgotten time. The air was thick with must and rot and with a misty gloom that shrouded everything, turning the forest to shadows and half light. There was a suggestion of movement, but nothing could be certain where everything was so dim.

  Dirk walked steadily on, and Willow followed. She glanced back once, but there was nothing left of the city. She had come out of that world and into this. She was within the fairy mists, and it would all be new again.

  She heard the voices first, vague whisperings and mutterings in the gloom. She strained to understand the words and could not. The voices rose and fell, but remained indistinct. Dirk walked on.

  She saw their faces next, strange and curious features lifting from the shadows, sharp-featured and angular with hair of moss and corn-silk brows, eyes as penetrating as knife blades when they fixed on her, and bodies so thin and light-seeming as to be all but ethereal. The fairy folk darted and slowed, came and went, flashes of life in the shifting gloom. Dirk walked on.

  They arrived at a clearing ringed by trees, fog, and deeper gloom, and Dirk walked to its center and stopped. Willow followed, turning as she did to find the fairy people all about, faces and bodies pressed up against the haze as if against glass.

  The voices whispered to her, anxious, persuasive.

  Welcome, Queen of Landover

  Welcome, once-fairy, to the land of your ancestors

  Be at peace and stay with us awhile

  See what you might have here with the child you bear …

  And she was walking suddenly in a field of bright red flowers, the like of which she had never seen. She carried a baby in her arms, the child wrapped carefully in a white blanket, protected from the bright light. The smells of the field were wondrous and rich, and the sunlight warm and reassuring. She felt impossibly light and happy and filled with hope, and below where she walked the entire world spread away before her, all of its cities and towns and hamlets, all of its people, the whole of its life. The child moved in her arms. She reached down to pull back the blanket so that she could peek at its face. The baby peeked back. It looked just like her. It was perfect.

  “Oh!” she gasped, and she began to cry with joy.

  She was back in the clearing then, back within the fairy mists, staring out into the gloom.

  The voices whispered once more.

  It will be so, if you wish it

  Make your happiness what you would, Queen of Landover. You have the right. You have the means

  Keep safe within the mists, safe with your child, safe with us, and it shall be as you were shown

  She shook her head, confused. “Safe?”

  Stay with us, once-fairy

  Be again as your kind once were

  Stay, if you would have your vision come true …

  She understood then, saw the price that she was being asked to pay for the assurance that her child would be as the vision had shown. But it was not really so, for they would both end up living in an imaginary world and the vision would be nothing more than what they created in their minds. And she would lose Ben. There had been no mention of Ben, of course, because he was not to be included in this promised land, an outsider, an other-worlder who could never belong to the fairy life.

  She looked down at Dirk, but the prism cat was paying no attention to her. It sat turned slightly away, washing its face carefully, lick, lick, scrub, scrub. The indifference it showed was studied and deliberate.

  She looked back at the sea of faces in the mist. “I cannot stay here. My place is in Landover. You must know that. The choice was made for me a long time ago. I cannot come back here. I do not wish to.”

  A grave error, Queen of Landover.

  Your choice affects the child as well. What of the child?

  The voices had changed in tone, turning edgy. She swallowed back her fear of what that might mean. “When my child is old enough to decide, it shall make its own decision.”

  There was a general murmuring, and it did not sound supportive. It whispered of dissatisfaction and thinly veiled anger. It whispered of bad intent.

  She held herself stiffly. “Will you give me the soil my child needs?” she asked.

  The whispers died into stillness. Then a voice answered.

  Of course. You were promised this soil in coming. It is yours to take. But to take it, it must first be made your own

  Fairy earth cannot pass out of the mists until it has been celebrated and embraced by its taker

  Willow glanced again at Dirk. No response. The cat was still washing as if nothing else in all the world could be quite so important.

  “What must I do?” she asked of the faces.

  What is in your blood, sylph child. Dance as your wood nymph mother has taught you to dance. Dance across the earth on which you stand. When you have done so, it will be your own, and you may take it with you and depart these mists

  Willow stood transfixed. Dance? There was something hidden here. She could feel it; she was certain of it. But she could not fathom what it was.

  Dance, Queen of Landover, if you would have the soil for your child

  Dance, if you would complete your journey and give birth

  Dance, Willow of the once-fairy

  Dance …

  So she did. She began slowly, a few cautious steps to see what would happen, a few small movements to test if all was well. Her clothes felt heavy and cumbersome, but she was not persuaded to take them off as she might have done otherwise, anxious to stay ready to flee if something should go wrong. Nothing did. She danced a bit further, increased the number of her steps, the complexity of her movements. Her fear and caution eased a bit in the face of her joy at doing something she loved so much. The faces of the fairies seemed to recede into the mist, sharp eyes and thin noses, stringy hair and sticklike limbs, bits of light and movement gone back into the gloom. One minute they were there, and the next they were gone. She was alone.

  Except for Dirk, who had moved away from her and was watching carefully. He sat as if carved from stone.

  She danced faster, caught up suddenly in the flow of the steps, in the rhythm of the movement
s, in the joy that swelled and surged inside. It seemed to her as if she could dance more quickly, more lightly, more precisely here in the fairy mists than in the real world. All of her efforts were rewarded with success beyond anything she had ever known. Her joy increased as she performed ever more complicated movements, spinning and twirling, leaping and twisting, as light as air, as swift as the wind. She danced, and she could tell that she was suddenly far better than her mother had ever been, that she had mastered in seconds that which her mother had worked for all her life.

  She shed her clothes now, her inhibitions forgotten, her promise of caution and restraint abandoned. In seconds, she was naked.

  Across the clearing she flew, alone in her flight through mist and half light, oblivious to all else. Yes, the dance was everything she had ever wanted it to be! Yes, it would give her things she had never thought possible! She rose and fell, rose again, and sped on. Colors appeared before her eyes, rainbow-bright and as fresh as flowers in a vast, limitless garden, all carefully arranged and fragrant beyond belief. She was flying over them, soaring in the manner of a bird, as free as air. There were other birds with her, all brightly colored and singing wonderfully, sweeping about her, showing her the way. She lifted from the garden into the sky, rising toward the sun, toward the heavens. Her dance carried her, bore her on, gave her wings.

  She was dreaming anything she wished, any possibility, any hope. It was all there, and it all belonged to her. She danced, and all else was forgotten. She no longer remembered where she was or why she had come. She no longer remembered Ben or her child. The dance was everything. The dance was all;

  From the mists surrounding the clearing, the fairies watched and smiled among themselves, unseen.

  Willow might have been lost then, caught up forever in her dance, had Dirk not sneezed. There seemed to be no reason for it; it just happened. It was a small sound, but it was enough to draw her back from the precipice. For just a second she caught a glimpse of the prism cat somewhere at the corner of her vision and remembered. She saw him looking at her, his steady, impenetrable gaze an open accusation. What was it he had told her? She had asked him of traps, and he had warned her that humans mostly stumbled into those of their own making. Yes, like this one. This dance.

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