The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  Didn’t it mean, Horris wondered, that the same spell—the spell that the Gorse was so careful to avoid using himself—might work both ways?

  The more he considered the possibility, the more sense it made. The fairies, having built the Tangle Box, would have employed a special, customized magic to trap the Gorse within, a magic that it could never use to effect its own escape. And it would not be a magic that would trap away others—like Holiday, Nightshade, and Strabo—so that, to subvert the purpose of the box, something different would be required to ensnare them. And perhaps, in the bargain, to protect the Gorse from being recaptured. Hence the carefully conceived net of magic the Gorse had employed.

  Sure, it was a stretch. But Horris Kew was desperate and his conjurer’s opportunistic mind was grasping at straws because that was all that was left him.

  They should listen to him, he believed. Holiday, Abernathy, Questor Thews, all of them. They should try his suggestion out. What harm could it do at this point? But he might as well be asking to be made King. No one was going to try any idea he suggested.

  Thunder rolled once more, a long, booming peal that shook the ground on which he stood. In the meadow’s center, Kallendbor had ridden back to his army and Holiday was turning toward the Gorse and the demons. The Mark had moved to the forefront of his horde and was beginning a slow advance. The dragon had lifted itself into a crouch and was venting steam through its nostrils as the fire built in its belly. Horris glanced over his shoulder. Questor Thews was almost ashore. Abernathy had turned to meet the wizard, his back momentarily to Horris.

  Biggar had always accused him of indecision. He hated to think that the bird had been right.

  Horris Kew swallowed, his throat dry. Now or never, wasn’t it? He glanced again at Holiday. Landover’s King had removed the medallion of his office from within his dark tunic and was holding it up to the light.

  Do it!

  Horris yanked the Tangle Box out from under Abernathy’s arm, then lowered his shoulder and knocked the astonished scribe backward into the lake. Then he ran as fast as his long legs could carry him toward the Gorse. He was thinking he had gone mad, he was a fool, he had just made the worst mistake of his life. Shouts rose up as he was sighted. Angry cries assailed him from every side. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the dragon’s black-horned head swing quickly about, and he envisioned himself encased in fire. A moment more, he thought. One moment more.

  The Gorse had not moved. It was watching him come, thinking he was bringing the Tangle Box back again, an unwitting pawn to the end. The demons shifted like shadows in the enfolding black of the storm. Weapons glinted darkly. Horris Kew tried not to think about them. His gangly body was shaking, and his scarecrow limbs were flying out all over the place. He was sweating and gasping from the strain of his flight. He had never been so terrified.

  He heard Questor Thews shout his name. A bolt of ragged fire zipped past his ear. He dropped to one knee in a panic and set the Tangle Box on the ground before him. He looked across the meadow at the Gorse, and he could see in its terrible eyes that it recognized the truth at last. The monster’s black cloak billowed as it charged toward him in rage.

  Quickly, Horris began to chant.

  “Rashun, oblight, surena! Larin, kestel …”

  Ben Holiday stood frozen in place, the medallion still clutched in his hand, momentarily forgotten. He had not seen Horris Kew until just a moment ago. Questor Thews was pulling Abernathy from the lake, both of them shouting angrily and gesturing. Strabo was uncoiling his huge, dark length, spreading his wings, and preparing to lift off. Fire leaked from between his jagged teeth.

  All of them too late to intercede, Ben thought in frustration and despair.

  Mist blossomed in a dark cloud from the Tangle Box, the lid disappeared, and the tunnel back down into the Labyrinth opened anew. Wicked green light shot forth to mingle with the red glare of the sun and the dark of the approaching storm. Thunder boomed, and a scattering of raindrops began to fall. The meadow had gone suddenly still, the clamor of the opposing armies disappearing into a hush of expectancy.

  Out from the Tangle Box appeared a swarm of shadows, misty forms that twisted and writhed in the strange mix of light, dark specters set free. They rose in a cluster and then shot across the meadow toward the demons. The Gorse cried out, a terrible wail of despair. Webs of protective magic spun from its hands, encircling its black form to ward off its attackers. The shadows went right through the webs, seized the Gorse, and dragged it into the open. The Gorse thrashed and tore futilely. It spit like a cat. It fought with every ounce of strength and every weapon of magic it possessed. But the shadows were relentless. They hauled the renegade fairy back across the meadow to the box. They wrapped it about with their cloaking forms and pulled it down.

  Down into the prison it thought it had escaped forever.

  Down into the frightening darkness of the fairy mists.

  They disappeared inside, the shadows and the Gorse, and the lid to the Tangle Box closed for good.

  The wind broke loose across the meadow in a howl. Airborne, Strabo passed over the box and Horris Kew like death’s shadow, but then flew on to descend instead upon the demons of Abaddon, breathing its fire into their midst. Dozens disintegrated. The rest, bereft of the promised protection of the Gorse and its magic, had no interest in a fight. Led by their Mark, they turned back toward the bluff out of which they had come, back into the rent in the air that had given them passage into Landover, and descended down again into their netherworld home. In seconds, the last of them had gone, and the space they had briefly occupied in the world of light stood empty.

  Strabo swung back toward the army of the Greensward, hissing in triumph and challenge.

  Standing at the center of the meadow still, the rain falling into his face in sheets, the wind ripping at his frozen body, Ben Holiday exhaled slowly and slipped the medallion of the Kings of Landover back inside his tunic.

  Green Eyes

  Willow came awake in the faint, gray dawn light, the dampness of the Deep Fell seeping through her naked body. She was lying on the ground, curled into a ball, the baby resting in the crook of her arm. At first she wasn’t aware of it. She blinked against the sleep that still clouded her mind, trying to remember where she was. Then she felt the baby move and looked down at it.

  Her child.

  She studied it for a long time, and tears came to her eyes.

  She remembered everything then—coming out of the fairy mists into the Deep Fell, transforming into her other self, forming the pod, drifting into sleep. She cradled the child to her, giving it what warmth she could, lending it the small shelter of her body.

  Then she rose, slipped back into her clothes, and wrapped the baby in her cloak. It was sleeping still, not yet hungry enough to wake, not disturbed by its surroundings as Willow was. The Deep Fell had not been her choice for where the baby should be born, and she did not intend to remain there any longer than necessary. Mist rolled through the branches of the jungle trees and snaked down along the trunks. Silence blanketed everything. Nothing moved. It was a dead world, and only the witch who had made it so belonged here.

  Willow began to walk, moving toward the light—east, where the sun rose over Landover. She must get clear quickly, before she was discovered. She was weak still from giving birth, but mostly she was fearful. She was not so frightened for herself as she was for her child, the measure of her life with Ben, the culmination of their bonding. She peeked down at it again through the folds of the cloak, making certain she had seen it right on waking, that nothing had changed. The tears came anew. There was a tightness in her throat. She wanted to find and be with Ben, to make certain he was all right, and to let him see their child.

  She walked for what seemed a long time, but probably was not. Her body ached in strange ways—a dull, empty pain in her loins, a constriction in her chest, a soreness that laced the muscles of her arms and legs. She did not know how much to attribute to the
birth and how much to sleeping naked in the chill of the Fell. Movement helped ease the pain in her arms and chest, loosening muscles that were cramped and tight. The pain within her loins persisted. She ignored it. She could not be too far from the wall of the hollow, she told herself. If she just kept moving, she would get free.

  She came out of a stretch of old growth laced with mist and gloom, entered a clearing, and stopped. Nightshade stood before her, wrapped in her black cloak, drawn up as straight and immutable as a stone statue, her red eyes gleaming.

  “What are you doing here, sylph?” she demanded softly.

  Willow’s heart sank. Having been forced to give birth to her child in this forbidding place, she had wanted only to escape without encountering the witch, and it seemed she was to be denied even this.

  She managed to keep the fear from her voice as she answered. “I entered through the fairy mists and by mistake. I want no trouble. I want only to depart.”

  Nightshade seemed surprised. “Through the fairy mists? Have you been imprisoned, too? But, no. You were elsewhere in his dream, weren’t you?” She stopped talking, collecting herself. “Why would you come out here? Why would you come out at all, for that matter? The fairies release no one from the mists.”

  Willow gave a moment’s thought to lying, but decided against it. The witch would know, her magic strong enough here in her lair to detect another’s deception.

  “The fairies were forced to release me when the High Lord came to me in his dreams and set me free of their magic. They released me from the mists. They did not tell me where I would come out. Perhaps they sent me here as punishment.”

  Nightshade’s gaze lowered to the bundle she cradled in her arms. “What is that you carry?”

  Willow’s arms tightened about the baby. “My child by the High Lord, newly born.”

  Nightshade took a quick, harsh breath. “The play-King’s child? Here?” She laughed. “Fortune does indeed play strange games with us. Why do you carry the child about so? Did you carry it into the mists as well?” She stopped abruptly. “Wait, I have heard nothing of this child. I have not been gone that long from Landover. I should know of this. Newly born, you say? Born where, then?”

  “Here,” Willow answered softly.

  Nightshade’s face twisted into something grotesque. “Born here, in my home? Holiday’s child? While I was locked in the fairy mists with him, trapped in that cursed box? Trapped with him, girl—did you know? Together for weeks, drained of memory, made over into creatures we did not even recognize. He came to you in a dream? Yes, he told me so. It was the dream that released him from his ignorance, that led him to divulge the truth about both of us.”

  Her voice was a hiss. “Have you seen him since his return?” She smiled at Willow’s reaction. “Ah, you didn’t know he was back, then, did you? Back from his other life, a life with me, little sylph, in which I was his charge and he my protector. Do you know what happened between us while you were carrying his child?”

  She paused, her eyes gleaming with expectation. “He bed me as if I were his—”

  “No!” Willow’s voice was as hard as iron, the single word a forbidding that cut short the witch as surely as a cord about the throat.

  “He was mine!” the witch of the Deep Fell screamed. “He belonged to me! I should have had him forever if not for his dream of you! I lost everything, everything but who I am, the power of my magic, the strength of my will! Those I have regained! Holiday owes me! He has stripped me of my pride and my dignity, and he has incurred a debt to me that he must pay!”

  She was white with rage. “The child,” she whispered, “will satisfy that debt nicely.”

  Willow went cold. She was shaking, her throat dry, her heart stopped. “You cannot have my child,” she said.

  A smile played across Nightshade’s lips. “Cannot? What a silly word for you to use, little sylph. Besides, the child was born in my domain, here in the Deep Fell, so it belongs to me by right of law. My law.”

  “No law condones the taking of a child from its mother. You have no right to make such a claim.”

  “I have every right. I am mistress of the Deep Fell and ruler over all found here. The child was born on my soil. You are a trespasser and a foolish girl. Do not think you can deny me.”

  Willow held her ground. “If you try to take my child, you will have to kill me. Are you prepared to do that?”

  Nightshade shook her head slowly. “I need not kill you. There are easier ways when you have the use of magic. And worse fates for you than death if you defy me.”

  “The High Lord will come after you if you steal his child!” Willow snapped. “He will hunt you to the ends of the earth!”

  “Silly little sylph,” the witch purred softly. “The High Lord will never know you were even here.”

  Willow froze. Nightshade was right. There was no one who knew she was in the Deep Fell, no one who knew she had returned from the fairy mists. If she was to disappear, who could trace her footsteps? If her child was to vanish, who could say it had ever existed? The fairies, perhaps, but would they do so?

  What was she to do?

  “Someone will discover and reveal the truth, Nightshade,” she insisted desperately. “You cannot keep such a thing a secret forever! Not even you can do that!”

  The witch gave a slow, disdainful shrug. “Perhaps not. But I can keep it a secret long enough. Holiday’s life is finite. In the end, I will be here when he is gone.”

  Willow nodded slowly, understanding flooding through her. “Which is why you want his child, isn’t it? So that he will leave nothing of himself behind when he is dead. You would make the child yours and wipe away all trace of him in doing so. You hate him that much, don’t you?”

  Nightshade’s thin mouth tightened. “More. Much, much more.”

  “But the child is innocent,” Willow cried. “Why should the baby be made a pawn in this struggle? Why should it suffer for your rage?”

  “The child will fare well. I will see to it.”

  “It isn’t yours!”

  “I grow tired of arguing, sylph. Give the child to me and perhaps I will let you go. Make another child, if you wish. You have the means.”

  Willow shook her head slowly. “I will never give up my baby, Nightshade. Not to you, not to anyone. Stand aside for me. Let me pass.”

  Nightshade smiled darkly. “I think not,” she said.

  She was starting forward, arms lifting within her black robes, intent on taking the child by force, when a familiar voice spoke.

  “Do as she asks, Nightshade. Let her pass.”

  The witch stopped, as still as death. Willow looked around quickly, seeing nothing but the trees and misty gloom.

  Then Edgewood Dirk stepped into view from one side, easing sinuously through the heavy brush, silver coat immaculate, black tail twitching slightly. He jumped up on the remains of a fallen tree and blinked sleepily.

  “Let her pass,” he repeated softly.

  Nightshade stiffened. “Edgewood Dirk. Who gave you permission to come into the Deep Fell? Who gave you the right?”

  “Cats need no permission or grant of right,” Dirk replied. “Really, you should know better. Cats go where they wish—always have.”

  Nightshade was livid. “Get out of here!”

  Dirk yawned and stretched. “Shortly. But first you must let the Queen pass.”

  “I will not give up …!”

  “Save your breath, Witch of the Deep Fell.” A hint of weary disdain crept into the cat’s voice. “The Queen and her baby will pass into Landover. The fairies have decided, and there is nothing more to say about it. If you are unhappy with their decision, why don’t you take it up with them?”

  Nightshade shot a withering look at Willow, then turned to face the cat. “The fairies cannot tell me what to do!”

  “Of course they can,” Edgewood Dirk said reasonably. “I have just done so for them. Stop fussing about this. The matter is settled. Now step aside.”
  “The child is mine!”

  Dirk gave one paw a short, swift lick and straightened. “Nightshade,” he addressed her softly. “Would you challenge me?”

  There was a long pause as witch and prism cat faced each other in the half light of the Deep Fell. “Because if you would,” Dirk continued, “you must surely know that even if I fail, another will be sent to take my place, and another, and so forth. Fairies are very stubborn creatures. You, of all people, should know.”

  Nightshade did not move. When she spoke, there was astonishment in her voice. “Why are they doing this? Why do they care so about his child?”

  Edgewood Dirk blinked. “That,” he purred softly, “is a good question.” He rose, stretched, and sat back down again. “I grow anxious for my morning nap. I have given this matter enough of my time. Let the Queen and the child pass. Now.”

  Nightshade shook her head slowly, a denial of something she could not articulate. For an instant Willow was certain that she intended to lash out at Dirk, that she would fight the prism cat with every ounce of strength and every bit of magic she possessed.

  But instead she turned to Willow and said softly, “I will never forgive this. Never. Tell the play-King.”

  Then she disappeared into the gloom, a wraith simply fading away into the shadows. The baby woke, stirring in its mother’s arms, blinking sleepily. Willow glanced down into the cloak’s deep folds. She cooed softly to her child. When she looked up again, Edgewood Dirk was gone as well. Had he been with her all the way? The fairies had sent him once again, it appeared, although with the prism cat you could never be entirely certain. He had saved her life in any case. Or more to the point, saved her child. Why? Nightshade’s question, still unanswered. What was it about this child that mattered so to everyone?

  Cradling the baby in her arms, she began to walk on once again.

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