The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  Horris stared at the bird for a moment, then he shook his head in disbelief. “You’ve gone round the bend, Biggar. You really have. Threaten the Gorse? What does it care if we have the box or not? We don’t even know how to use it!”

  “We know the words,” the bird whispered. “We know the spell. What if we were to say it again?”

  There was a long, terrible silence. Horris wished he had never opened the box in the first place, never spoken the words that released the Gorse, never returned to Landover at all. He wished he had taken up some other less-stressful profession, like leatherworking or weaving. He was suddenly and inescapably fed up with magic in all its forms.

  “Come on, Horris, let’s go!” Biggar urged. “Don’t just sit there. Get up!”

  Biggar couldn’t see it, of course. Perhaps it was due to the fact that even with enhanced intelligence there was still only a bird’s brain inside that tiny feathered cranium trying to sort it all out. Or maybe he simply didn’t want to see.

  “If we do this,” Horris Kew began softly, “if we decide to challenge the Gorse, if we actually go back to the cave and steal the Tangle Box …”

  He couldn’t finish. He couldn’t bring himself to speak the words. He slumped back against the tree, his bony frame collapsing in on itself like a deflated balloon.

  Biggar hopped back and forth between the other’s boot and the tree trunk, hissing like a snake. “You coward! You worm-body! You ridiculous excuse for a wizard! All talk and no action wimp-head! How I ever let myself become involved with the likes of you is more than I can comprehend!”

  Something moved behind the tree trunk, barely noticeable, a silent bit of shadow and nothing more, but neither of them saw it.

  “Biggar, Biggar, you are not thinking …”

  “I am thinking! I am the only one who’s thinking!” Biggar puffed up to twice his size, turning himself into a ferocious black porcupine. “Go on, then! Lie there like a rag doll, a collection of sackcloth sewn up with sawdust brains! Go on!”

  Horris Kew closed his eyes and put his hands over his face.

  “I’ll not spend another moment with such a coward!” raged Biggar. “Not one, single, further, disgusting—”

  A grimy hand reached up from behind the log on which he perched, clamped itself over his beak and neck, and dragged him from sight.

  After a moment, Horris Kew opened his eyes again and peered about. No Biggar. Just like that, he was gone. Horris sat forward, puzzled. A single black feather lay rocking on the log.

  “Biggar?” he called tentatively.

  There was no answer.

  The hour approached midnight.

  Abernathy sat quietly at the edge of the woods and watched the last of the revelers nod off, leaving a sprinkling of fires and the distant, vague shapes of Kallendbor’s sentries. The darkness deepened all about. Sterling Silver was a vague bulk against the horizon, almost entirely empty of light. Overhead, the sky was clear and bright with several moons and thousands of stars. It was warm and pleasant and under other circumstances might have assured everyone a good night’s sleep.

  As it was, Abernathy did not dare even think about sleep, worried sick already over the length of time that had passed since Fillip and Sot had left his side in search of Horris Kew. There had been no outcry, so he didn’t think they had been spied, but he was uncomfortable with having them gone this long nevertheless. There were too many ways for that pair to get into trouble, too many missteps they could take before they realized their mistake. He wished he had gone with them. He chided himself for trusting them to go alone.

  He had just about made up his mind to go look for them, to slip down into the camp and steal a concealing cloak and search them out, when they abruptly reappeared. They popped up out of the shadows almost in front of him, causing him to start in spite of himself.

  “Where have you been?” he asked, irritated.

  The G’home Gnomes smiled, showing all their teeth. They looked exceptionally pleased with themselves.

  “Look what we have,” said Fillip.

  “Come, take a look,” said Sot.

  Abernathy tried to look, for he could see that they did indeed have something—something that appeared to be moving—but they brushed past him without slowing.

  “No, no, not here,” Fillip said quickly.

  “In the dark, away from the camp,” Sot said.

  So they trekked back into the woods, well away from the meadow and its campers, until there was no one anywhere about but themselves. At this point Fillip and Sot turned back to Abernathy once more, and the former proudly held out his hands.

  “Here!” he announced.

  Abernathy stared. It was the bird, the myna or whatever it was, the one that belonged to Horris Kew. It was clutched firmly in the Gnome’s grimy hands, its neck grasped none too gently, its beak clamped shut so that it could not cry out. Its wings fluttered weakly, but it appeared to have spent itself thoroughly.

  Abernathy sighed in despair. “I told you just to look, just to find the bird’s owner and come back to me. I did not tell you to take the bird! What good is the bird to us!”

  “Much good,” insisted Sot, undeterred. He prodded Fillip eagerly. “Show him.”

  Fillip dropped his fingers below Biggar’s beak and gave a small shake. “Speak, bird.”

  The bird did not speak. It hung there limply, pitifully. It looked half-dead. Abernathy felt a throbbing in his temples and sighed.

  Fillip glowered. He bent down close to the bird’s face. “Speak, stupid bird, or I will wring your neck and eat you,” he said, and he tightened his clawed fingers meaningfully.

  “All right, all right!” the bird snapped, coming suddenly alive. Abernathy jerked back in surprise. The bird’s head twisted wildly. “I’m talking, okay? What do you want me to say?”

  Fillip held the bird out proudly. “See?”

  Abernathy bent down for a closer look. “Well, well,” he said softly. “You talk a lot better than you pretend, don’t you?”

  “Better than you, furball,” Biggar sneered. “Tell these mole people to let go of me right now or it will be the worse for you.”

  Abernathy reached out and poked the bird. “What is your name again? Biggar? Well, Biggar, guess what?” There was unmistakable satisfaction in his voice. “It took awhile, but I remember you now. It was a long time ago, wasn’t it? You belonged to the old King’s wizard, to Questor Thews’s brother. One day, you were simply reported missing. What happened? Were you dispatched to Ben Holiday’s old world—just like Horris Kew? No, never mind about that. It hardly matters now. Just tell me what you know about the High Lord’s disappearance, hmm? And don’t leave anything out.”

  Biggar closed his beak with a sharp clack. But it was too late for stonewalling. Fillip and Sot had overheard most of his conversation with Horris Kew and dutifully repeated it now to Abernathy. They got their facts confused a few times and failed to interpret all the words properly, but it was clear enough for the scribe to figure out what had happened. The Gorse was some sort of monster. It was using Horris Kew and Kallendbor. The mind’s eye crystals were its cat’s paw against the throne. Most important, Ben Holiday’s disappearance had come about through use of a powerful spell that would somehow have to be reversed. That meant finding the Gorse’s cave and the Tangle Box hidden within it.

  Abernathy turned his attention back to Biggar. The bird had said nothing since his first outburst, withdrawing into silence for the entirety of the time that Fillip and Sot had revealed his secrets. Now he glanced quickly up at Abernathy as the scribe bent down close to look at him.

  “Polly want a cracker?” Abernathy coaxed maliciously.

  Biggar, despite being firmly held, snapped at his nose.

  Abernathy smiled and showed all of his teeth. “You listen to me, you worthless bag of feathers. You are going to lead us to this cave—tonight. When we get there, you are going to take us inside. You are going to show us this Tangle Box, and you are go
ing to teach us the words of the spell. Do you understand me?”

  Biggar’s bright eyes fixed on him. “I’m not doing anything. They’ll find me missing and come looking for me. The Gorse, particularly. Wait until you see what it’ll do to you!”

  “Whatever it does,” Abernathy replied pointedly, “you will not be around to see it happen.” There was a long, meaningful silence. “The fact of the matter is,” he continued, “if you do not show me where that cave is right now, I am going to give you to my friends and tell them to do whatever they like with you as long as they assure me that I will never, ever see you again.”

  He kept his gaze and his voice steady. “Because I am very angry about being tricked. I am even more angry about what you have done to the High Lord. I want him back, safe and sound, and I expect you to help me if you have any hope at all of living out the night. Has that penetrated your little bird brain?”

  There was another long silence. “Say something quick,” Abernathy urged.

  Biggar’s voice came out a croak. “The cave is west, beyond the Heart.” Then he recovered. “But it won’t do you any good.”

  Abernathy smiled and gave the bird another look at his teeth. “We’ll see about that,” he promised.

  Biggar’s Last Stand

  While Fillip kept tight hold of Biggar, Sot was dispatched to find horses for the journey west, the word find being understood to be a euphemism for the word steal by all concerned. Beggars could not afford to be choosers, and the G’home Gnomes were thieves by nature and habit and would readily interpret find as steal in any event. The hard part of all this was not in reconciling moral principles but in accepting that horses must be used. Neither Abernathy nor the Gnomes had any particular love for horses, and in truth horses didn’t much care for them either. It was one of those inbred hostilities that could not be overcome by either reason or circumstance. But the distance involved required at least a good day by foot and only four hours by horseback. Since time was running out for Questor Thews and Sterling Silver—dawn, after all, would find Kallendbor and the black-cloaked stranger working hard to discover ways to shorten the siege—necessity ruled and horses would have to be tolerated.

  If only barely.

  Sot was back in record time, leading two haltered and blanketed horses, one a bay, the other a sorrel, that he had quite obviously removed from a picket line. He had not thought to acquire either saddles or bridles, which complicated matters. The horses were already shying and snorting with distaste at the small, ragged, dirt-encrusted rodent who led them. In lieu of saddles, Abernathy decided to leave the blankets in place, trimming them with Sot’s hunting knife so that they did not hang below the horses’ flanks and securing them as best he could with a makeshift girth strap woven out of the pieces trimmed. It was a sad-looking job, but there was no help for it.

  They mounted up then, Abernathy aboard the sorrel, which was the more rambunctious of the pair, and Fillip and Sot atop the bay. Fillip held the halter rope and Sot the bird. The horses were dancing and huffing by now, beginning to realize what was in store for them and being none too happy about it. Abernathy had them walk the horses at first, anxious to get as far away from the encampment as possible in case they chose to bolt. This was accomplished with a minimum of fuss. When they were several miles off and well up into the hill country west, Abernathy kicked his mount in the flanks gently and they were off.

  At a dead run. Both horses leapt away as if on command and tore through the trees and over the hills like creatures possessed. Abernathy tried to rein his sorrel in, but the horse was having none of it. Free of the constraints of bit and reins, it simply took command. Abernathy gave up trying to do anything but hang on. Behind him, he could hear the Gnomes howling in despair. If they were thrown, they might lose the bird. If they lost the bird, they were finished. He gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to shout back useless advice.

  Eventually the horses wore themselves out, slowed to a trot, and finally a walk. All three riders were still aboard and in possession of their faculties, although they felt as if their bones had been rearranged. They had come a very long way in a very short time, as it turned out, and before they knew it they were at the Heart and passing west. Abernathy called back from time to time for directions from Biggar, and the bird grudgingly supplied what was required. The moons shifted languidly along the horizon and overhead across the sky as night eased toward morning. The countryside changed its look as the trees thickened and the forests grew more dense. Soon they were forced to proceed at a careful walk in a woods that offered no trail and allowed no misstep.

  It was little more than an hour later when they reached the cave. They dismounted at the top of a steep rise, tied the horses to a tree, and maneuvered their way down the slope to a tangled thicket below. The descent went slowly, as all were stiff and sore from the ride. The Gnomes complained loudly and incessantly, and Abernathy gave thought to gagging them. At the base of the slope, they turned back through a gathering of brush and found themselves up against a huge, flat stone into which intricate symbols had been carved. Abernathy could neither read nor understand the symbols.

  “What do we do now?” he demanded of Biggar.

  The bird was looking somewhat the worse for wear, having been held tightly by the legs during the entire ride, often upside-down as Sot struggled to keep his seat atop the bay. Feathers were sticking out everywhere, and dust coated the once-sleek black body.

  “I don’t know that I should tell you another thing,” he snapped in reply. “When are you going to let me go!”

  “When I see the High Lord safe and sound again!” Abernathy was in no mood for argument.

  Biggar spit disdainfully. “That won’t happen. Not if I help you get into the cave, not if I show you the box, and not if you speak the spell. It won’t happen because you’re not a wizard or a conjurer or anyone else capable of summoning magic.”

  “This from a bird,” Abernathy replied testily. “Just get us inside, Biggar. Let me worry about the rest.”

  The bird sniffed. “Very well. Have it your way. Touch these symbols in the order I direct.” And he proceeded to repeat the procedure for opening the cavern door as he had memorized it from watching Horris Kew.

  A moment later, the stone swung back, grating against its rock seating, yawning into a black hole streaked dimly with a silver phosphorescence. The little company stood staring uncertainly into the uninviting gloom.

  “Well?” Biggar sneered. “Are you going to stand out here all day or are you going in? Let’s get this over with.”

  “How far back does this cave run?” Abernathy asked.

  “To its end!” the bird snapped. “Sheesh!”

  Abernathy ignored him. He didn’t like caves any better than he liked tunnels, but he couldn’t risk sending the G’home Gnomes in alone. No telling what might happen. On the other hand, he wasn’t anxious to walk into a trap.

  “I will go first,” Fillip volunteered, providing a solution to the problem.

  “I will go second,” Sot offered.

  “We don’t mind tunnels and caves.”

  “We like the dark.”

  That was fine with Abernathy. He was content to bring up the rear. The better to keep an eye on everyone. Besides, if there were any traps the Gnomes would have a far better chance of spotting them than he would. Too bad his nose worked better than his eyes, but such was his lot and there was no point in bemoaning it.

  “All right,” he agreed. “But be careful.”

  “Do not worry about us,” Fillip advised cheerfully.

  “Not for a minute,” Sot added.

  Fair enough, Abernathy allowed. Not that he was inclined to do so in any case. “Just keep a tight grip on the bird,” he ordered.

  They stepped cautiously through the door, easing their way out of night’s darkness and into the cavern’s. The phosphorescence gleamed in dull streaks along the corridor walls ahead, like candlelight seen through a rain-streaked window. They p
aused in the entry, casting about. The air within was surprisingly warm. The silence was immense.

  A sudden, terrible thought struck Abernathy. What if the Gorse had come here ahead of them for some reason and was waiting? The idea was so frightening that for a moment he could not move. It occurred to him suddenly that he was in way over his head. He had no weapons, no magic, and no fighting skills with which to protect himself. The Gnomes were worthless in a fight; all they would do was burrow to safety. This whole enterprise was fraught with danger and riddled with the possibility of failure. What had he been thinking in undertaking it in the first place?

  Then the momentary fear passed, and he was able to calm himself. He had done what he must do, what was necessary and right, and that was enough to justify any risk. High Lord Ben Holiday depended on him. He did not know how exactly, but he knew that in some way it was true. He reminded himself anew how he had aided and abetted the Gorse and Horris Kew in their efforts to subvert the people of Landover and undermine the throne. He reminded himself of the debt that he must pay for his foolishness.

  “Well, then, let’s proceed,” he announced bravely.

  The Gnomes, who had been watching him work his way through his hesitancy, eased through the doorway. Abernathy took a deep breath and followed.

  Instantly, the door grated shut behind them.

  Abernathy jumped, the Gnomes yelped, and for an instant there was complete pandemonium. Abernathy threw himself instinctively against the door to force it open again. Both Gnomes raced to help and ran into each other for their trouble. As they collided, Biggar pecked as hard as he could on the hand grasping him, and Sot let go.

  Biggar broke free instantly, flew up into the air, and in the blink of an eye streaked away into the cave.

  Within the Labyrinth, Ben Holiday worked his way slowly through the mist, the talisman of the medallion held carefully before him. Strabo and Nightshade trailed, silent wraiths following his lead. They had all been transformed inwardly since the revelation of their identity, but outwardly each was crippled in appearance and capability and bore the weight of their imprisonment like chains. There was the sense now that they walked their last mile, that if they failed to get free this time they would be trapped forever. There was within them a growing desperation.

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