The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  Well, the barn was back the way they had come, of course, but none of them wanted to hear that. They didn’t want to hear anything that didn’t involve the words “mind’s eye crystals” and that was the sad but inescapable fact of the matter.

  They certainly weren’t listening to anything Questor Thews or Abernathy had to tell them. When the first of them had arrived, quite early that morning, they had come onto the bridge that linked the island with the mainland. The portcullis had been lowered during the night, so they halted at the gates and shouted up for Ben Holiday to come down. Questor Thews had appeared on the ramparts and shouted back that the King was absent at the moment—what did they want? Mind’s eye crystals, they declared vehemently, one for each of them. Well, there weren’t any to be had, Questor had replied. They called him a liar and a few other names, and started making disparaging remarks about his lineage. Abernathy had appeared beside his friend, still feeling very responsible for the whole mess, and assured the people massed on the bridge—the number growing even as they argued—that Questor Thews was telling the truth, that there were no mind’s eye crystals inside the castle. That didn’t fly with anyone. The threats and name-calling continued. The mob grew larger.

  Finally Questor sent a squad of King’s soldiers out to move the people back off the bridge and to set up a picket line on the far side of the lake. Amid much pushing and shoving, the soldiers cleared the bridge, but no one turned about and started for home as the Court Wizard had hoped. Instead they held their ground just beyond the picket line and waited for something to happen. Nothing did, of course. Questor wasn’t entirely sure what they thought might. In any event, the number of people swelled into the thousands by midday, all crammed down off the high plains and surrounding hills onto the lower grasslands fronting the castle. The summer heat worsened on a day that was gloriously clear and cloudless, and tempers grew short.

  Then someone on one side of the picket line said something and someone on the other side said something else, and as quick as that the mob rushed the line, overpowered the soldiers, and threw them into the lake. Then they charged across the bridge for the castle gates.

  This might have been the start of real trouble except that Questor was still standing out on the battlements with Abernathy trying to decide what else he could do. When he saw the mob rush the castle, he pushed up the sleeves of his old gray robe and called on his magic. This was a precipitous act if ever there was one, since Questor’s conjuring never worked well when rushed (or even when it wasn’t, for that matter), but no one was really thinking too clearly by now. He meant to send a bolt of lightning flashing down into their midst, something to scatter them or to fling them into the waters of the lake. Instead, he sent down the equivalent of several gallons of oil—not the flaming kind, the plain old greasy kind—right into the foremost of those leading the charge. The oil splashed down across the wooden surface of the bridge and the entire leading edge of the mob went down in an oily tangle of arms and legs. Those following stumbled over their fellows while trying to slow themselves or break past, and they went down, too. In seconds, the entire bridge was awash in oil-slicked bodies.

  Questor Thews ordered the gates closed, and the castle was summarily sealed up. The mob dragged its collective self back off the bridge, cursing and threatening with every step. This isn’t finished by any means! You watch and see if it is, Questor Thews! Just wait until the Lords of the Greensward arrive! You’ll see what real trouble is then, all of you!

  True enough, Questor Thews had agreed silently, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. So here they were, some long hours later, the day edging toward night, waiting to see which would arrive first, Kallendbor or sunset.

  Sunset seemed a pretty good bet. The skies east were already darkening and the skies west turning gold. Several of the moons were out to the north, hanging low in the horizon, lifting gradually toward the stars. There was no sign of Kallendbor and the Lords of the Greensward—no shouts announcing their imminent arrival, no dust upon the approaching plains, no thud of horses’ hooves or clank of armor. It looked as if any further trouble was going to be delayed until morning.

  Abernathy hoped so. It had been difficult telling Questor Thews how he had been tricked by Horris Kew. It had been like pulling teeth to admit that he had been duped so thoroughly that he had aided and abetted the dissemination of the wretched mind’s eye crystals to the people of Landover, thereby permitting the present situation to come to pass. He was still struggling with the loss of his own crystal and the visions it had presented, and in the end he told that to Questor Thews as well. Might as well admit everything, he decided. What difference could it make now?

  As it happened, Questor had been extraordinarily understanding and supportive. Quite all right, he had said. Who could blame you? I would have done the same if it were me. He actually thanked Abernathy for putting aside personal feelings in favor of the greater well-being of the Kingdom of Landover and of the missing Ben Holiday in particular.

  “I was as much a fool as you,” he said solemnly, his wispy hair stuck out as if he were a porcupine taking a defensive stance. “I accepted Horris Kew’s word as gullibly as you. I did not question the worth of these crystals he presented to us. They seemed the perfect answer to our dilemma. To tell you the truth, I was on the verge of asking for one myself.”

  “But you did not,” Abernathy observed sadly. “I have no such excuse.”

  “Nonsense!” Questor shook his head vehemently. “I practically forced one on you when he asked for a trial. I could have tried it out myself, but I let you take the chance. Anyway, it was not too long ago that I stood in your shoes, old friend. I was the one who conjured the magic that sent you and the King’s medallion back to his old world. No, I can’t allow you a bit of the blame in this.”

  All of which made Abernathy feel not a minute’s worth better about what he had done. Still, Questor was trying to make him feel less guilty, and Abernathy appreciated it. What would make him feel a whole lot cheerier was finding out what had become of Ben Holiday. Questor had used the Landsview anew just that morning, Bunion had scoured the countryside close at hand once more, and neither had a thing to show for their efforts. Wherever Ben Holiday was, he was well hidden. Abernathy wanted to get his teeth on that black-cloaked stranger and bite down real hard on his ear or some such. He was ashamed that his animal side was coming to the fore in this matter, but he was desperate to redeem himself for the harm he had caused.

  “Uh-oh,” Questor Thews said suddenly, and put an end to the scribe’s contemplation. “Look over there.”

  Abernathy looked. A gang of men had emerged from the trees of the forest west bearing a huge log that had been fashioned into a battering ram. They lugged the log down the hillside and onto the grasslands. They bore it across the flats toward the lake. They were chanting and huffing as they came, and those thousands of their fellows gathered about cheered them on lustily.

  “They can’t be serious,” the wizard gasped.

  But they were, of course. They were dead serious. There were thirty or more, evenly split to either side of their makeshift ram, trotting slowly across the grasslands and up to the bridge. All about them, people had come to their feet and were thrusting their fists into the air.

  “You, there!” Questor Thews shouted, white hair flying. “Turn back right now! Drop that log!”

  No one could hear him; they were shouting too loud. They were practically screaming in anticipation. The gang of men and their ram turned onto the bridge and started across, picking up speed. A howl of determination burst from their lips.

  Questor Thews rolled up his sleeves once more atop the parapets. “We’ll see about this!” he muttered furiously.

  Abernathy stood frozen in place. What should he do? His ears twitched, and he let out a growl.

  The men on the bridge crossed in a final rush and slammed their battering ram into the castle gates. There was a monstrous thud and a splintering of wood. The
ram and the men carrying it bounced back a few feet and collapsed on the causeway. It seemed to Abernathy as if he could feel the force of the blow on the gates all the way atop the wall where he stood in his half crouch, hands clamped over his muzzle.

  “All right for you!” Questor Thews cried out, arms and robes flying. He looked ready to do something. He looked poised to strike. White light gathered at ends of his fingertips. Abernathy clenched his teeth. Something bad was about to happen.

  The men with the ram picked themselves up and charged once more, undaunted.

  Questor’s arms windmilled wildly. Too wildly. He was working so hard at whatever spell he was conjuring that he lost his balance. When he tried to regain it, he tripped on his robes. He stumbled forward dangerously close to the edge of the ramparts. Abernathy reached out hurriedly and grabbed him. As he did so, Questor’s magic released from his fingers and flew down into the mob. From the sound that emanated from the wizard’s lips, Abernathy could tell that something unexpected was about to happen.

  He was not wrong. The magic fell onto the bridge like silver rain, soft and gentle. Perhaps it was meant to be a bolt of lightning that would scatter the men with the ram. Perhaps it was supposed to be another dousing of oil. Neither happened. Instead the magic fell upon the causeway and disappeared into its wooden surface as if water into sand, and a moment later the bridge shuddered and arched as if a sleeping snake awakened. Down went the men with the ram a second time, only yards from their objective, cursing and screaming. The bridge heaved, throwing the men about like rag dolls. The ram flew up into the air and rolled off the bridge and into the moat. The men screamed and cursed some more. Questor and Abernathy hung onto each other and stared downward in disbelief. The bridge was writhing now. It detached from the castle and the far shore and began to twist back on itself. The few men still clinging to its surface abandoned their perch and dived for safety. Boards cracked and snapped apart. Iron nails popped. Bindings frayed and gave way. Up rose the bridge one final time, a serpent breaching from the deep, then it broke into a million pieces and collapsed into the lake and was gone.

  There was a long moment of stunned silence. The men who had carried the battering ram were pulling themselves back ashore with the help of friends and relatives. The rest of the ragtag mob was gathered on the shoreline, staring. The waters churned and roiled like a kettle set to boil.

  Questor looked at Abernathy and blinked. “Well, what do you know about that!” he said.

  Sunset arrived and there were no further incidents. The mob had apparently had enough for one day and now turned its attention to building cooking fires and scrounging for food. With the causeway destroyed, the last open link with the mainland was severed, and Sterling Silver was truly an island in the middle of a lake. No way to reach her now, it was clear, unless you wanted to swim. Most of those gathered couldn’t swim and in many cases distrusted water in general. Questor was inclined to congratulate himself on a well-executed bit of magic, but he refrained from doing so since the whole business had gone completely awry and Abernathy knew it.

  Abernathy, for his part, had gone back to wondering how ever in the world they were going to get out of this mess without Holiday.

  It was still light when, despite Questor’s and Abernathy’s fondest hopes and unspoken predictions, Kallendbor and a substantial army arrived to take up a position directly across from the castle gates. Peasants and common folk were shoved aside and room was made for the fighting men and their leader. Close by Kallendbor’s side was Horris Kew and his bird, the former shuffling about distractedly, the latter riding his shoulder like the proverbial omen of doom. Abernathy watched them bleakly. The cause of all of this, he thought darkly. Horris Kew and his bird. If he could just reach them. If he could just get his hands on them for five seconds. The image lingered.

  There was no sign of the black-cloaked stranger. Questor and Abernathy both searched for him without success. Maybe he had stayed behind, but neither of them believed so.

  Darkness fell, the sun disappeared, and the fires brightened against the night. Sentries took up positions on the banks of the lake, visibly placed so that those in the castle could see that a siege had been laid. Questor and Abernathy remained on the ramparts where they had stood all day and brooded.

  “Whatever are we going to do?” Abernathy muttered disconsolately.

  The camp milled about below, people jostling for room in the crowded meadow. The smell of meat cooking wafted up. Cups of ale were being passed about, and laughter grew loud and raucous.

  “A regular picnic, isn’t it?” Questor replied irritably. Then he started. “Abernathy, look there!”

  Abernathy looked. Kallendbor was standing at the edge of the lake with Horris Kew and the bird. Right next to him was the black-cloaked stranger, bold as you please. They stood apart from everyone else, staring out across the water at Sterling Silver.

  “Making plans for tomorrow, I’ll warrant,” the wizard said. He shook his head wearily. “Well, I’ve had enough of this. I’m going up to the Landsview to see if there is anything new to be learned of the King. I shall scour the countryside once more, and maybe this time something will reveal itself.” He made a dismissive gesture with his hands and started away. “Anything is better than watching those idiots.”

  He departed in a sweep of gray robes, leaving Abernathy to keep watch alone. Contemplating the unfairness of life and the stupidity of men become dogs and wondering anew what he could do to redeem himself, Abernathy continued standing there despite Questor’s assessment of the act as a waste of time. There seemed little he could accomplish so long as he was penned up in the castle. He thought vaguely about swimming the lake and sneaking up on Horris Kew and his bird, but that would only get him taken prisoner or worse.

  On the far bank, Kallendbor, Horris Kew, Biggar, and the stranger continued to huddle in the near dark, co-conspirators of the night.

  Abernathy was trying quite unsuccessfully to read their lips when a commotion from behind brought him sharply about. Two of the castle guards had appeared from out of the stairwell holding in their burly hands two small, grimy, struggling figures.

  “Great High Lord!” one moaned pitifully.

  “Mighty High Lord!” the other wailed.

  Well, there you are, Abernathy thought as the two were brought forward. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, somehow they always do. There was no mistaking these two—the stout, hairy, dirt-encrusted bodies; the bearded, ferretlike faces with pointed ears and wet noses; the peasant-reject clothes topped off with ridiculous leather skullcaps and tiny red feathers. They were as familiar and unwelcome as deep winter cold and sweltering summer heat, unavoidable visitations that came and went more frequently than the weather. They were G’home Gnomes, the most despised people in the entire kingdom of Landover, the lowest of the low, the final step down the evolutionary ladder. They were thieves and pilferers who lived hand-to-mouth and by the deliberate misfortune they brought to others. They were that variety of creature that scavenges what it consumes and thus cleans up what all others leave behind—except, of course, that G’home Gnomes also cleaned up much of that which was not intended to be left behind in the first place. They were particularly fond of pet cats, which was all right with Abernathy, and pet dogs, which was decidedly not.

  These two Gnomes, in particular, were a source of unending distress to the members of the court of Ben Holiday. Ever since they had appeared unexpectedly to pledge their fealty to the throne some three years earlier—a decidedly mixed blessing if ever there was one—they had been underfoot. Now here they were again, the same two troublemakers, back for another shot at making Abernathy’s life miserable.

  Fillip and Sot cringed when they saw him. They were still whining for Holiday, who at least would tolerate them. Abernathy had no such compunction.

  “Where is the High Lord?” Fillip asked immediately.

  “Yes, where is the King?” Sot echoed.

nd them messing about in the King’s bedchamber,” one of the guards advised, giving Fillip a good shake in an effort to still his struggling. The Gnome whimpered. “Thieving, I expect.”

  “Never, no never!” Fillip cried.

  “Never from the High Lord!” Sot cried.

  Abernathy felt a headache coming on. “Set them down,” he ordered with a sigh.

  The guards dropped them in a heap. The Gnomes fell to their knees, groveling pitifully.

  “Great Court Scribe!”

  “Mighty Court Scribe!”

  Abernathy rubbed his temples. “Oh, stop it!” He dismissed the guards and motioned the Gnomes to their feet. They rose hesitantly, glancing about with worried looks, thinking perhaps that some terrible fate was about to befall them, thinking perhaps of trying to escape.

  Abernathy studied them wearily. “What is it that you want?” he snapped.

  The G’home Gnomes exchanged a hurried glance.

  “To see the High Lord,” Fillip answered hesitantly.

  “To speak with the High Lord,” Sot agreed.

  They were terrible at lying, and Abernathy saw at once that they were being evasive. It had been a very long, disappointing day, and he had no time for this.

  “Eaten any stray animals lately?” he asked softly, leaning forward so that they could see the faint gleam of his teeth.

  “Oh, no, we would never …”

  “Only vegetables, I promise …”

  “Because every so often I have this craving for roast Gnome,” Abernathy interrupted pointedly. They went as still as stone. “Now give me the truth, or I shall not be responsible for what happens next!”

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