The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks


  But she could not stop. She was too deep in the throes of its pleasure, of its wonder, to cease moving. The dreams it induced were too compelling to give up. She had done what he had warned her against and trapped herself, and now she could not get free. It was the fairies’ plan for her, she saw—that she should dance and keep dancing and never leave. Here is where her child would be born, here in the fairy mists, and when it was born it would belong to them. They would both belong to the fairies for all time.

  Why? Why did they wish it so? She had no answer.

  Her thoughts scattered, and for a moment she was in danger of slipping back into her dreams. But she kept her eyes on Dirk as she spun across the clearing, watching him watching her, desperately trying to think what to do. Dance forever. She would never stop. But she must. She must! She would not let this happen to her, she told herself. She would find a way to break free.

  Ben. If Ben were there, he would help her. Ben, who she could always rely upon to stand with her, who had pledged himself to her forever. Ben, the strength that sustained her when all else failed. He would always come. Always.

  But how could he come this time?

  Ben!

  Had she called out loud to him? She couldn’t be sure. She felt Dirk beginning to slip away. She could barely see him through the haze of her dance, through the magic that ensnared her.

  Ben!

  And for just an instant, he was there—a glimpse of his face, of his eyes come out of time and distance. He was there, still a long way off, but within reach.

  Suddenly she saw a chance for escape. She would use the fairy magic to her own advantage, turn it to her own use. It had been set to trap her and she had allowed it to do so, but there was still a way out. The dance was a dream, and the dream could be altered if she was strong enough. She was not completely lost, not yet. Not if she didn’t wish it. Not if she didn’t forget.

  She closed her eyes and in the sweep of her dance called out to Ben Holiday. She could imagine him as she could imagine everything else. That was the magic of the fairy world. Banish her fear, and she would be able to control her vision, to make it her own, to affect its direction. That was the lesson Ben had once learned. It was the one Dirk had cautioned her to. Use the magic to free yourself. Use the dance to escape.

  Ben! She called to him, her voice strong and steady.

  And then something wondrous and completely unexpected happened.

  The Knight lay sleeping in the Labyrinth, stretched full-length upon the ground within the cover of a grove of hardwood that canopied overhead like a tent. The Lady lay pressed against him, curled to his body, her head resting on his shoulder, her arm draped across his chest. She was smiling, the hardness that so often marked her features absent this night. Mist and gloom hung all about, shrouding the world and those who stalked it, but for the moment at least the Knight and the Lady had left it behind.

  The Gargoyle sat hunched down within his cloak a few feet away and watched them uneasily. It did not feel right to him. He could not explain it, but there was a lie in what was happening. That was unmistakable. These two were enemies and this new alliance lacked wisdom and reason. Their impetuousness would catch up to them, he believed. Perhaps it would destroy them.

  His misshapen features wrinkled in distaste, and he looked purposefully away.

  * * *

  As he slept, the Knight began to dream. At first the dream lacked focus, a blurring of sound and movement as he was carried across time and space toward some unknown destination. He was at peace, and so he did not resist the pulling that bore him on. Then he began to hear voices—no, a single voice—calling out a name. He could hear it repeating, over and over. He recognized the voice, but could not place it. The name seemed familiar, too.

  Ben.

  He listened to the sounds as he traveled, knowing he was closing on them, that he was being drawn, that he was called deliberately.

  Ben.

  Then he was jolted as if by a massive hand and found himself earthbound once more and upright. The voice was distinct now and quite close. It was a woman, and she called with need. She was someone he knew, someone to whom he was bound, and she called for his protection.

  The Knight went to her at once, drawing forth the great broadsword as he pushed through the trees of a forest that loomed about him. It was the Labyrinth and yet it was not. He could not explain it, but while the two were separate they were also somehow joined. All of the elements were the same. He brought the broadsword before him, prepared to do battle. He lacked his heavy armor still, cloaked only in chain mail, in his leather clothing, in his belt and boots and gloves. He gave it less than a passing thought. He felt no fear of what waited for him. The certainty he felt for his cause overwhelmed any doubts. He was meant to give aid to those to whom he was pledged, and the woman who called was foremost of these.

  He reached a clearing, the light where it widened to the skies a vague brightness in the smoky haze. Figures scattered at his coming, small creatures that were thin and angular, all sharp edges and bits of moss and stick. They fell back from him as if he bore a plague, hissing and muttering like cornered rats. He went through them without slowing to the clearing’s center and stopped.

  The woman who danced through the shadows and half light spun into his arms and held him as if he were a line to safety from a raging sea. Naked, she shivered as if chilled to the bone, and her face and body pressed up against him.

  “Ben,” she whispered. “You came.”

  The Knight held her close in an effort to still her shaking, and as he did so recognition flooded through him.

  “Willow!” he whispered back fiercely.

  He knew then. The deception that had shackled him fell away at her touch, at the sound of her voice, at the sight of her face. Though he dreamed, in some way the dream was real. He had been called to her in sleep, but they were joined as surely as if awake and together in the flesh. She clung to him, whispering his name, telling him things he could not understand. They were within the fairy mists. She was imprisoned by the fairies in a dance and could not break free. Their child was to be kept from them, kept here forever. But all was reality if you could imagine it, and so she had imagined him coming to save her in a desperate effort to break free. And come he had, but not as she had believed he would. He was really there. How had this happened? How had he breached the fairy mists?

  All about the fairies swarmed like maddened bees, hissing and darting through the gloom, enraged. He saw Edgewood Dirk sitting close by, watching in his cat way. Edgewood Dirk? What was he doing here?

  Ah, but more important, what had been done to the Knight of the Labyrinth, who knew himself now to be Ben Holiday? Memories flooded through him, the spell of forgetfulness broken. He had been snatched away from the Heart by magic and imprisoned in a rune-carved box. It was the last thing he remembered had happened before his waking in the Labyrinth. Except that Horris Kew had been standing there, had set the box down, had stepped away just before Ben fell into it, tumbling down with …

  His heart stopped.

  With Nightshade and Strabo.

  With the Lady and the Gargoyle.

  The truth stunned him so that for a moment he could not breathe or move. He held onto Willow as if their positions had been reversed and now she was the lifeline that kept him from being swept away. She sensed his shock and looked up at him quickly, and her hands came up to hold his face.

  “Ben,” she whispered anew. “Please. It’s all right.”

  With a massive effort he shrugged off his immobility. There was a tearing at the corners of his vision. The dream that bound them was fragmenting, coming to a close, the magic expending itself. Willow could feel it as well. With the ending of the dance, the dream could not sustain itself. She moved to dress, ignoring the small sounds of fury that emanated from the mists, come back to herself once more and determined that she would not be tricked again. Clothed, she bent to the earth across which she had danced and scooped a han
dful of the soil into the pouch she carried.

  Ben watched her without understanding. He started toward her, then found he could not move. He looked down at himself and saw to his horror that he was fading away.

  “Willow!” he cried out in warning.

  She rose at once and hurried toward him. But he was already losing shape and definition, returning to his dream, to his sleep, to the prison that still held him. He heard her call out to him, saw her reach for him, watched her try to hold him back. But she could not. The magic that had joined them from the fairy mists of two worlds was breaking up.

  “Willow!” he cried out again, desperate now, unable to slow his going. “I’ll find you somehow! I promise! I’ll come for you!”

  “Ben!” he heard her call to him one final time, and then he was lifting away, transparent in the mists, a bit of air and wind borne back across the gap that separated them in waking, back into the sleep from which he had come.

  Alone once more in the silent clearing, Willow stared skyward at the roiling gloom. Ben was gone. The magic of her vision had been strong enough to bring him, but not to hold him. He had set her free of the dance, but could not stay to help her further. She felt a renewed desperation settle through her and fought back against her tears. But there was no time for grief, for anything but her child, and she used her anger as armor and wheeled on Edgewood Dirk.

  “I want to go home,” she said quietly, deliberately. “Right now.”

  The prism cat blinked. “Then go, Queen of Landover.”

  “You will not stop me?”

  “Not I.”

  “Nor the fairies that ring this clearing?”

  Dirk yawned. “They have lost interest in playing this particular game. Interesting, don’t you think, how they failed to challenge Holiday?”

  She considered. It was interesting. Why had they let him go? And her. What was it that stopped them from interfering?

  “What path do I take, Dirk?” she asked him.

  Edgewood Dirk rose and stretched. “Any path will do. All lead to where you are meant to go. Your instincts will guide you. As I said earlier, you are stronger than you think.”

  She did not respond to him, too angry with what had been done to her to accept compliments. He had helped her in his own peculiar way, whether by accident or on purpose she still wasn’t certain, but the prism cat was no friend in either case. The fairy mists and the creatures who lived within them, Dirk included, were anathema. She wanted gone from them all.

  “You are not coming with me?” she questioned.

  “No,” he answered. “You have no further need of me. Your quest is finished.”

  So it was. She had the soils she had been sent to gather, the soils of the three worlds to which her child’s blood could be traced. If the Earth Mother spoke the truth, the birth of her child could take place now. There was nothing more for her to do, nothing else required. She could go home.

  Folding her cloak about her, clutching her pouch of soils close against her body, she turned and began to walk. She did as she was told and followed her instincts. Surprisingly, they seemed quite clear. They took her in a straight line through the trees.

  They took her deep into the mists until she disappeared.

  Wakening

  Ben Holiday awoke with a start. His eyes snapped open, and he stared straight ahead through the predawn gloom into the trees of the Labyrinth. He did not move; he could not make himself. He was frozen in place as surely as if he had been encased in ice. Questions raced through his mind, one after the other, whispers and dark teasing. Had he dreamed of his meeting with Willow or had it actually taken place? Was it truth or a wild concoction of his imagination? How much of anything that had happened to him that he could remember was real?

  The Lady lay pressed up against him, still sleeping. The Gargoyle sat hunched down at the edge of the trees several yards away, head bowed. Ben blinked. Nightshade? Strabo?

  He closed his eyes and kept them shut for a moment, thinking. Something had happened to reveal the truth—that much was certain. He was not the Knight; he was Ben Holiday. The Knight was some personification of his real identity. It was so with the Lady and the Gargoyle as well. They had been changed by the Labyrinth and its magic, or by the magic that had sent them here, or by some foul deception they did not yet understand. They had been given identities that mirrored some part of who they were but concealed the rest. They appeared significantly different than they were. Strabo had been changed most; he was not even a dragon anymore. Nightshade was recognizable, yet she was different, too, in a way he could not quite explain. Neither had the use of their magic. Neither possessed the strength and power that was theirs in Landover.

  He opened his eyes again. Mist hung amid the trunks and limbs of the trees. It carpeted the grasses on which he lay. The Labyrinth was a vast, endless mirage their vision could not see through.

  What had been done to them?

  Horris Kew. The conjurer had something to do with this, though in truth it was hard to believe he possessed power enough to imprison them in this otherworld. But he had been there watching. He had provided the box into which they had been lured, in which they were now trapped. Ben repeated the words. Trapped in a box. How, he wondered abruptly, had that been done? Horris Kew. He breathed slowly, carefully, trying to think. Did knowing Horris Kew was involved help in any way? Where were they? Oh, yes, the Labyrinth, but where was that?

  His mind sideslipped. Willow. He had gone to her. He had not dreamed it—or if he had, there had been a large piece of reality in the dream. All was possible if you went into the fairy mists, where reality was fluid and anything could be brought to pass. Magic had brought him to her, magic born of her dance and of her imaginings. She had called him to her because she could not break free. Was she free now? Had he helped her escape before the dream had ended? What was she doing in the fairy mists in the first place?

  There were no answers for his questions, only more questions. He could not allow too many. Too many would strangle him. Only one thing mattered now—that he break free of the Labyrinth and find her. There must be a way. Magic had been used to conceal the truth about who he was, and there was a reason for that. Somewhere in that concealing there was something that would help him, that would help them all.

  He looked back at them again, at their silent, sleeping forms.

  Once they knew, of course. Once they were told.

  He eased himself away from Nightshade, thinking of what had passed between them as the Knight and the Lady, recognizing the damage they had inadvertently done to themselves. He remembered how she had kissed him. He remembered her touch. His eyes closed in dismay. How could he tell her that it was all a lie? How could he tell her that she was not his charge as he had believed, that the magic of their prison had misled them, had tricked them into thinking that their relationship was something other than what it really was and caused them to …

  He could not finish the thought. Only one thing mattered. There was now and had always been only Willow.

  He climbed to his feet, not yet ready to do so. He walked away from her, moving toward the trees, trying to assemble the fragments of what he knew into some recognizable whole. He thought of how he had been made to appear, a Knight with no past and no future, a nameless warrior, a champion for a master with no name and of a cause without identity. His worst nightmare. His worst …

  Fear.

  He saw it then, the truth that had been hidden from them all this time. They were in the fairy mists, too!

  The Gargoyle was next to him suddenly, a dark shadow moving out of the haze. Gnarled hands balanced his disjointed body as he leaned forward. “What is it?” he asked, seeing Ben’s face.

  Ben looked at him, trying to see past the ugliness, past the mask the magic had created. He could not. “I know what has been done to us,” he said. “I know where we came from. I know who we are.”

  The Gargoyle’s face twisted and froze, his eyes glittering like candl
es. “Tell me.”

  Ben shook his head. He motioned to the Lady. “We must wake her, too.”

  They walked to her, and Ben reached down and touched her arm. She awoke at once, flawless, cold features softened by sleep, a smile upon her face. “I dreamed of you,” she began.

  He placed a warning finger to her lips. “No, say nothing. Don’t speak. Sit up and listen to me. I have something to tell you.” He moved back from her, letting her rise. “Listen carefully. I know who we are.”

  She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head quickly. “I don’t want to know.” There was fear in her voice, recognition that something was about to be stolen away. “What difference does it make to us here?”

  He kept his voice calm, even. “By knowing who we are and where we come from, we give ourselves a chance to escape. Our only chance, I think.”

  “How is it that you know and we do not?” she snapped at him, angry now, defensive.

  “I was given a dream,” he told her. “In the dream I discovered what had happened to us. We have been trapped in this place by magic. We were sent here from another world, our world. Magic was used to make us forget who we are, to make us seem different. We were sent here to wander about forever, I think—to spend what was left of our lives futilely attempting to find a way out. But there is no way out of here except by using magic. You were right—magic alone can save us. But first we have to understand how that magic works. To do that, we have to understand ourselves, who we are, where we came from, what it is we do.”

  “No,” she said quietly and shook her head back and forth. “Don’t say anything else.”

  “I am not the Knight,” he said, pressing quickly ahead, anxious to get this over with. “I am Ben Holiday, King of Landover.”

 
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