The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  None was more acutely aware of it than Ben, who carried in his hands their only hope. The medallion did not speak to him; it did not give off light or provide direction. He walked like a blind man, seeing nothing of the trail he needed, knowing only that the medallion had taken him through the fairy mists before and must somehow do so again if they were to survive. For survival was the issue here, though the word went unspoken. If they remained within the mists, they would eventually go mad. Madness was a certainty they could see as clearly as their desperation, a pall as inexorable as the Haze arising when they were threatened. But unlike the Haze, it came not to protect but to destroy them. It did so gradually, an eroding of confidence, hope, and will. It worked against them as surely as a sickness against health, wearing them down so that in the end death was all that remained.

  But it would not have them yet, Ben whispered in his mind. Finding Willow again, even in his dream, even for that briefest of moments, finding her and knowing that she depended on him, that she waited for him somewhere beyond the entangling mists of the Labyrinth, she and their unborn child, was enough to strengthen his determination to live. He would find a way out. The medallion would give them their escape. It must.

  “I see no change in anything.” Nightshade’s cold voice drifted up from behind.

  In truth, she was right. They seemed to be making no progress, though they had been walking for hours. Shouldn’t they have been clear by now if the medallion was working? How long must it take? Ben peered ahead through the gloom, trying to see some difference in the texture and viscidity of the mist. He did not slow, thinking that if he did they might stop, and if they stopped they were lost. Movement gave hope, movement of any sort.

  “There is a lessening of the dampness,” Strabo said suddenly.

  Ben glanced down. He was right. The ground on which they walked was firmer than it had been at any time since they had come into the mists. Perhaps this was a sign. He took it as one and picked up the pace. Ahead, the trees seemed less dense. Was this possible? Hope blossomed within him. He grew flushed with its brightness. The trees were giving way, opening into a clearing, the clearing opening in turn into a passageway, a hollowed-out tunnel through massive old growth that ran on into a distant dark …

  “Yes,” he whispered aloud.

  For it was a recognizable trail they approached now, one familiar to all who had passed through the fairy mists into Landover. They hastened toward it eagerly, even Nightshade brightening perceptibly at the welcome sight. They entered the tunneled gloom in a knot, hurrying down the forest trail. It was the link they had sought, the way back from where they had come. There were no fairies here, no sounds, no movement, no hint of life of any sort save the trees and the brush and the fog that shrouded them. They were still within the fairy mists of the Labyrinth. Yet somewhere close, somewhere just ahead, the door leading out awaited.

  But suddenly the gloom closed tightly about before them, turning as dark as ink, becoming a wall that rose and stretched away without end. They slowed as they came up to it, baffled that it should be there. They stopped as they found it would not allow them to go farther, touching its surface and finding it as hard and immovable as stone. They walked its perimeter in either direction for a distance and then retraced their steps. The wall offered no doorway leading through. It allowed no passage out.

  “What is this madness?” Nightshade hissed in fury.

  Ben shook his head. The medallion would neither part the mists nor show them a way around. This wall, whatever it was, was impervious to the magic. How could that be? If the fairy mists imprisoned them, then the medallion should be able to take them through. The medallion gave passage through all of the mists.

  Then suddenly he recognized what it was that he was seeing. This black wall was not formed of the fairy mists. It was the confinement of the Tangle Box itself, a different form of magic than the mists, a final barrier against escape. And the lock for this door, he feared, did not lie within their prison. It lay instead without.

  He stepped back in frustration and despair. He had been able to pass from the mists of the Tangle Box in his dream, but he could not do so while awake.

  “What are we supposed to do now?” Strabo asked quietly, hunched down at his elbow, anger seeping into his voice.

  Ben Holiday did not have an answer.

  It took Biggar only moments to reach the back of the cavern, the chamber where the Gorse had concealed the Tangle Box. Biggar swooped down to where the box sat on a rock shelf far back in the shadows, landing on an outcropping just above. Now what? He had given no thought to anything but escape up until this point, and now that he had achieved his goal he wasn’t sure what to do next. There was only one way out of the cave and that was back the way he had come. There were runes carved in the rock above the door, different than those that opened the door from without, but he knew the required sequence. All that was needed was to lure the dog and the ferrets away long enough to let him trigger the release.

  He could hear them coming already, the scratching of their claws on the rock, the whine of their voices.

  “Here, birdie, birdie,” one of them called.

  Biggar sneered. Birdie, birdie, indeed.

  He waited patiently in the near dark until they came into view. They materialized out of the gloom like hairy pigs, sniffing and snuffling their way about the cavern floor. How pathetic! It was the ferrets or whatever they were, creeping about, earthbound imbeciles who had about as much chance of catching him as they did of mastering physics.

  “Come here, birdie,” one of them repeated patiently.

  “Here, stupid bird,” the other snapped.

  Must be the one he pecked, Biggar thought. He would have smiled if his beak had allowed it. He hoped he had hurt the wretched little monster plenty. He hoped the beast developed gangrene and dropped dead. Precious little concern he’d shown for Biggar, after all. Carrying him slung down on that horse! Beating Biggar’s head against his leg as he tried to keep his seat! Well, they’d soon see what messing around with him would get them!

  He lifted off his perch and flew back across the chamber. They saw him instantly, eyes sharper than he would have thought, and leapt to catch him as he whizzed past. Hopeless, of course. He was twenty feet off the floor and twice as quick as they were. He was past them and speeding for the entrance while they were still clutching at air. Maybe the dog had come hunting, too. Maybe.

  But he hadn’t. The dog was stationed directly in front of the stone barrier, waiting. Biggar banked hurriedly, narrowly avoiding the dog’s outstretched hands and bared teeth. The dog was smarter than the ferrets. He wasn’t about to let Biggar escape so easily.

  “Come back here, you little …”

  The dog’s shouted epithets died away into echoes that bounced off the rock as Biggar flew back toward the main chamber. So it was a standoff. They were all trapped in the cave. Biggar’s mind raced. The trick now was to lure the dog away from the stone slab, to bring him back into the cavern just long enough for Biggar to slip past and trigger the lock. Once he was outside the cave, they would never catch him. Then the Gorse could deal with them. He wondered suddenly if there was any chance that the Gorse would come back to the cave that night. Perhaps Horris would go to it with the tale of Biggar’s disappearance. Perhaps. But that was giving Horris more credit for brains than he deserved. These days, Horris was too stupid to figure out how to tie his shoes. Since the Gorse had been released, Horris was scared and confused and generally useless. Biggar was thinking that maybe it was time for a new partner. What did he need Horris for anyway? He was the real brains of the pair. Always had been.

  He lifted toward the ceiling as he approached the back chamber, but even so he just narrowly avoided Sot as the Gnome leaped down from a rocky promontory he had gained high up on the wall to one side. The Gnome plummeted past him, hands grasping, and dropped to the cavern floor. Biggar listened to him hit, a dull thud, then heard him groan and start to mutter. Good.
  “Nice try, rodent-face,” he called out gleefully, and then he ducked as the other ferret threw something past his head. A metal pan or plate, some piece of cookware that Horris had carried in. He squawked angrily and rose up as far as he could go. Time for evasive action.

  All sorts of things started flying at him now as the Gnomes attacked in earnest, trying to bring him down. They threw everything they could lift, yelling at him all the while, calling him “stupid bird” and worse, growing angrier by the moment. That suited Biggar just fine. Anger caused mistakes, and he was counting on one from them. They had not seen the Tangle Box yet, and he made a point of staying away from it. Wheeling, diving, soaring out of reach, he teased and taunted them unmercifully, calling them names back, daring them to catch him. Total idiots that they were, they just kept yelling and leaping about and trying to hit him with stuff. Fat chance.

  On the other hand, he was growing a tad weary with all this dodging about, and he still didn’t have a plan for getting the dog away from the door. He needed a distraction that would bring the dog running, something the dog couldn’t ignore. He wondered suddenly what would happen if he spoke the words to the spell that had imprisoned Holiday and the others. Nothing good, he decided and discarded the idea quickly. That box was too dangerous. Besides, suppose it released its prisoners? Better to leave it where it was for now. He scanned the cavern again for another avenue of escape, hoping that maybe he had missed an air shaft or fissure. But there was nothing to be seen.

  Below, the G’home Gnomes began pulling blankets off Horris Kew’s makeshift bed and tying them together to form a net. Come now, Biggar smirked. He flew at them while they worked, distracting them, taunting them further. He could see the gleam of their yellow eyes as they ducked and hissed up at him. They were really angry, the both of them. Served them right. They completed their net, the whole of it riddled with escape holes—Idiots!—and began trying to maneuver him into a corner where he could be trapped.

  “Fatheads! Toads! Stupid groundhogs!” he called down to them, easily evading their pathetic efforts.

  He swooped down and picked up some of the lighter implements that had been thrown at him, carried them aloft, and dropped them on the Gnomes’ heads. The Gnomes screeched and howled. Maybe that would bring the dog, Biggar thought hopefully. But the dog still didn’t come. Not enough noise, maybe. Biggar tried again with something slightly heavier, a wooden ladle. He dropped it squarely on Fillip’s head, and the Gnome lost his balance on the perch he had gained some ten feet up and fell headfirst to the floor. It must have hurt terribly, but the Gnome was back on his feet at once. Heads of iron, Biggar thought. No brains to encumber their thick skulls.

  The game continued for a time, the Gnomes swinging their net at Biggar, Biggar avoiding the snare and calling out names. No one could gain an advantage. Biggar called the dog names as well, but there was no response. He darted back down the tunnel to where the dog kept watch, trying to draw it after him with insults and nosedives, but the dog stayed put.

  It was Biggar who lost patience first. He could not bear that these halfwits had kept him trapped for so long, could not stand the idea of being stymied by idiots. He decided to try something to break the stalemate. He streaked back into the far chamber, past the leaping, grasping Gnomes, and across the room to the Tangle Box. Enough of caution. The one thing that would bring the dog was the box—especially if he thought something dreadful was going to happen to it. Biggar would accommodate him, then.

  He teased the ferret creatures back toward the entry, giving them just enough hope that they might catch hold of him to keep them coming, then swooped back across the chamber to the Tangle Box. He landed squarely on top of the container, dug his claws into the crevices where the symbols of power had been carved, secured his grip, and lifted off. It was not easy doing so. The box was heavy and cumbersome. He watched the Gnomes race toward him, yelling more wildly as they realized what he was doing. They were incoherent, however, not yet yelling “Tangle Box” or some such, so the dog still didn’t come. Clacking his beak with the effort, Biggar rose into the gloom, the box secured in his claws. His wings flapped madly to keep him aloft. His pinions strained. Below, the ferrets were leaping wildly for him.

  He struggled and flapped his way into the highest reaches of the chamber, the Tangle Box bobbing in his grasp. His plan was to carry it about for a few more moments and then drop it. One act or the other was bound to bring the dog.

  “Stupid bird, come down!” one Gnome howled.

  “Why don’t you come up?” he snarled back.

  “You’ll be sorry for this!” the other shouted.

  “Care to see what will happen if I let go of this?” he teased, letting the box jiggle wildly. “I don’t think I can hold on much longer.”

  They shrieked like banshees at that, racing about below him like scampering mice routed out of their nest. He was really enjoying this. He angled from one side of the chamber to the other, drawing them after, a pair of ridiculous, hopeless pawns.

  But still the dog didn’t come.

  He lost patience for the last time. Fine, if this was how they wanted to play it, fine! He was all worn out anyway. He banked away from them to the highest point in the chamber and released the Tangle Box.

  Unfortunately, one of his claws caught quite firmly in a seam as he did so.

  Down went the Tangle Box, plummeting to the cavern floor, and down went a hapless Biggar with it. The bird struggled wildly to break free, scratching and scraping at the weight about its foot, but it was held fast. Up rushed the stone floor. Biggar shrieked and closed his eyes.

  The expected did not come to pass, however. There was no skull-smashing stop on the stone, no splatter of box and bird. At the last possible moment Sot threw himself across the floor and caught both in the cradle of his gnarly, hairy arms.

  Biggar had just enough time to open his eyes before a grimy hand closed tightly about his unfortunate neck.

  “Got you now, stupid bird,” the Gnome whispered.

  Abernathy stood at the cavern entrance and listened as the tumult in the inner chambers died into sudden and unexpected silence. He waited for it to resume, but it did not. The silence lengthened and deepened. Clearly something had happened, but what? He could not leave his post to find out. He knew that Biggar would slip past him and escape if he did. The bird had been trying to lure him away for the past hour, waiting for his chance. Abernathy had sent Fillip and Sot in after the troublesome creature, thinking as he did that they were best suited for the task in any event. He did not know how they would ever manage to catch the bird, but there was little choice other than to allow them to try. The extent of their efforts had been evident from the sounds of their struggle, a continuous, relentless cacophony that suggested all manner of unpleasant happenings.

  And now everything was still.

  “Fillip?” he called tentatively. “Sot?”

  No answer. He waited anxiously. What should he do?

  Then finally a pair of dim, but familiar shapes appeared out of the phosphorescence-streaked gloom, bearing between them an intricately carved wooden box. Abernathy’s heart leapt with expectation,

  “You found it!” he exclaimed, restraining the urge to dance a bit.

  The Gnomes trundled toward him, looking somewhat the worse for wear.

  “Stupid bird tried to drop it,” Fillip said grimly.

  “Tried to smash it,” Sot embellished.

  “Hurt the High Lord,” Fillip said.

  “Maybe kill the High Lord,” Sot said.

  They stroked the wooden surface of the Tangle Box lovingly and then passed it carefully over to the dog.

  “Stupid bird won’t do that again,” Fillip said.

  “Not ever,” Sot said.

  And spit out a well-chewed black feather.

  Dead Reckoning

  The sunrise over Sterling Silver was a blood-red stain on the eastern horizon that promised bad weather for the day ahead. Questo
r Thews was back on the ramparts of the castle, looking down over the waking encampment of Kallendbor’s professional army and the ragtag collection of villagers and farmers that had preceded it in the quest for the phantom collection of mind’s eye crystals. Night’s darkness was receding reluctantly west, edged back by the crimson dawn, and the light washed over the huddled forms of the besiegers like blood.

  Hardly an auspicious omen, the wizard thought.

  He had been up most of the night scouring the countryside with the Landsview in search of Ben Holiday. He had traveled the length and breadth of Landover, north to south, east to west, and found no trace of the High Lord. He was tired and discouraged from his efforts and frankly at his wit’s end. What was he supposed to do now? The castle was under siege, two-thirds of the population were in open revolt, and he had been left alone to deal with all of it. Not even Abernathy was to be found, a new and unwelcome source of irritation. Willow hadn’t returned yet either. If people kept disappearing, the monarchy would soon run out of responsible leaders and collapse like a deflated balloon.

  Bunion moved out of the shadows and stood beside him, looking down at the congregation stirring on the meadow. For once, the kobold didn’t offer his toothy smile. Questor sighed, reached down, and patted the gnarled little fellow reassuringly on the shoulder. Bunion was exhausted and discouraged, too. It seemed as if they all had run out of options and must now simply wait to see what would happen.

  They didn’t have to wait long. As the sun began to rise and the camp to stir, the black-cloaked stranger appeared out of the forest gloom and made his way toward the far end of the meadow where heavy thickets fronted the face of a bluff. No one was camped in this space, the ground rough and uneven, the brush studded with thorns and itchweed, the light veiled, and the shadows thick. Questor watched the stranger move away from the besiegers. No one went with him. No one even seemed to notice he was there. He did not move furtively, but with a purpose that defied intervention from any quarter. Questor glanced back across the broad stretch of the meadow. There was no sign of Horris Kew or his bird or even of Kallendbor.

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