The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  Willow caught his eye and smiled at him, and he was instantly in love with her all over again, as if it were the first time. As if they were meeting in the midnight waters of the Irrylyn and she was telling him how they were meant for each other.

  “You might lend a hand, wizard,” Abernathy snapped at Questor Thews, interrupting Ben’s thoughts, obviously peeved that the other was doing none of the work in setting out the lunch.

  “Hmmm?” Questor looked up from a strange purple and yellow wildflower, oblivious. The wizard always looked as if he were oblivious, whether in fact he was or not.

  “Lend a hand!” Abernathy repeated sharply. “Those who don’t do the work don’t eat the food—isn’t that how the fable goes?”

  “Well, no need to get huffy about it!” Questor Thews abandoned his study for the more pressing need of appeasing his friend. “Here, that’s not the way to do that! Let me show you.”

  They went back and forth for a few more moments, then Willow intervened, and they settled down. Ben shook his head. How many years now had they been going at each other like that? Ever since the wizard had changed the scribe into a dog? Even before? Ben wasn’t sure, in part because he was the newcomer to the group and the history wasn’t entirely clear even now and in part because time had lost meaning for him since his arrival from Earth. Assuming a separateness of Landover from Earth, he amended, an assumption that was perhaps more theoretical than factual. How, after all, did you define a boundary that was marked not by geographical landmarks or proper surveys but by fairy mists? How did you differentiate between soils that could be crossed in a single step, but not without words or talismans of magic? Landover was here and Earth there, pointing right and left, but that didn’t begin to explain the distance between them.

  Ben Holiday had come into Landover when his hopes and dreams for a life in his old world had dried to dust, and reason had given way to desperation. Purchase a magic kingdom and find a new life, the ad in Rosen’s Christmas catalogue had promised. Make yourself King of a land where the stories of childhood are real. The idea was unbelievable and at the same time irresistible. It called for a supreme act of faith, and Ben had heeded that call in the manner of a drowning man reaching for a lifeline. He had made the purchase and crossed into the unknown. He had come to a place that couldn’t possibly exist and had found that it did. Landover had been everything and nothing like what he had expected. It had challenged him as he had not thought anything could. But ultimately it had given him what he needed: a new beginning, a new chance, a new life. It had captured his imagination. It had transformed him completely.

  It continued to baffle him, though. He was still trying to understand its nuances. Like this business of time’s passage. It was different here from his old world; he knew that from having crossed back and forth on more than one occasion and finding seasons out of synch. He knew it, too, from the effect it had on him—or the lack thereof. Something was different in the way he aged over here. It was not a progressive process, a steady rate of change, minute by minute, hour by hour, and so forth. It was difficult to believe, but sometimes he did not age at all. He had only suspected that before, but he was certain of it now. This was a deduction arrived at not from observing his own rate of growth, which was not easily measured because he lacked objectivity and distance.

  No, it was from observing Mistaya.

  He looked over for her. She stood in front of a massive old white oak, staring upward into its branches, her gaze intense. His brow furrowed as he watched her. If there was one word he would use to describe his daughter, that was probably it. “Intense.” She approached everything with the single-mindedness of a hawk in search of prey. No lapses in concentration or distractions were allowed. When she focused on something, she gave it her complete attention. Her memory was prodigious and perhaps required that she study a thing until it was hers. It was strange behavior in a small child. But then, Mistaya herself was strange.

  There was the question of her age. It was from this, from his study of her rate of growth, that Ben was able to see more clearly that his suspicions about himself were not unfounded. Mistaya had been born two years ago, measured by the passing of Landover’s seasons, the same four seasons that Earth saw in a year’s time. That should have made her two years old. But it didn’t. Because she wasn’t anywhere close to two years old. She seemed almost ten. She had been two years old when she was two monthheld. She was growing quite literally by leaps and bounds. In only months she grew years. And she didn’t do it in a logically progressive fashion, either. For a time she would not grow at all—at least, not noticeably. Then, she would age months or even an entire year overnight. She would grow physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, in every measurable way. Not altogether or even at the same rate, but on a general scale one characteristic would eventually catch up with the others. She seemed to mature mentally first; yes, he was convinced of that much. She had been talking, after all, when she was three. That was months, not years. Talking as if she were maybe eight or nine. Now, at two years or ten years or whatever standard of reference you cared to use, she was talking as if she were twenty-five.

  Mistaya. The name had been Willow’s choice. Ben had liked it right from the first. Mistaya. Misty Holiday. He thought it a nice play on words. It suggested sweetness and nostalgia and pleasant memories. It fit the way she had looked when he had first seen her. He had just escaped from the Tangle Box; she and her mother had escaped from the Deep Fell, where Mistaya had been born. Willow would not talk about the birthing at first, but then, they had both harbored secrets that needed revealing if they were to stay true to each other, and in the end they had both confessed. He had told her of Nightshade as the Lady; she had told him of Mistaya. It had been difficult but healing. Willow had dealt better with Ben’s truth than he had with hers. Mistaya might have been anything, given the nature of her birth. Born of a tree as a seedling, nourished by soils from Earth, Landover, and the fairy mists, come into being in the dank, misty deadness of the Deep Fell, Mistaya was an amalgam of worlds, magics, and bloods. But there she was that first time he had seen her, lying in the makeshift coverings, a perfect, beautiful baby girl. Dazzling green eyes that cut to your soul, clear pink skin, honey-blond hair, and features that were an instantly recognizable mix of Ben’s and Willow’s own.

  Ben had thought from the first that it was all too good to be true. He began to discover soon enough that he was right.

  He watched Mistaya shoot through infancy in a matter of several months. He watched her take her first steps and learn to swim in the same week. She began talking and running at the same time. She mastered reading and elementary math before she was a year old. By then his mind was reeling at the prospect of being parent to a phenomenally advanced child, a genius the like of which no one in his old world had ever seen. But even that didn’t turn out the way he had expected. She matured, but never as rapidly in any one direction as he anticipated. She would advance to a certain point and then simply stop growing. For instance, after she mastered rudimentary math, she lost interest entirely in the subject. She learned to read and write but never did anything more with either. She seemed to delight in hopping from one new thing to the next, and there was never any rational explanation for why she progressed as far as she did and no further.

  She evidenced no interest in childish pursuits, not once, not from day one. Playing with dolls or toys, throwing and catching a ball, and jumping rope were for other children. Mistaya wanted to know how things worked, why they happened, and what they meant. Nature fascinated her. She took long walks, much longer than Ben would have thought physically possible for a child so young, all the time studying everything around her, asking questions about this and that, storing everything away in the drawers and closets of her mind. Once, when she was very young, only a few months old and just learning to talk, he found her with a rag doll. He thought for just an instant that she might be playing with it, but then she looked at him and asked in that serio
us voice and with those intense eyes why the maker of the doll had chosen a particular stitching to secure its limbs.

  That was Mistaya. Right to the point and dead serious. She called him “Father” when she addressed him. Never “Dad” or “Daddy” or some such. “Father.” Or “Mother.” Polite but formal. The questions she asked were serious, important ones in her mind, and she did not treat them lightly. Ben learned not to do so, either. When once he laughed at something she had said that struck him funny, she gave him a look that suggested that he ought to grow up. It wasn’t that she couldn’t laugh or find humor in her life; it was that she was very particular about what she found funny and what not. Abernathy made her laugh frequently. She teased him unmercifully, always quite serious as if not intending to put him on at all, then breaking into a sudden grin just as he caught on to what was happening. He bore this with surprisingly good humor. When she was very small, she used to ride him about and tug on his ears. She was not mean about it, only playful. Abernathy would not have tolerated this from another living soul. With Mistaya, he actually seemed to enjoy it.

  For the most part, however, she found grown-ups dull and restrictive. She did not appreciate their efforts to govern and protect her. She did not respond well to the word “no” or to the limitations that her parents and advisors placed on her. Abernathy was her tutor, but he confessed in private that his prize student was frequently bored by her lessons. Bunion was her protector, but after she learned to walk he was hard pressed to keep her in sight much of the time. She loved and was affectionate toward Ben and Willow, though in that strange, reserved way she cultivated. At the same time she clearly thought them mired in conventions and attitudes that had no place in her life. She had a way of looking at them when they were offering an explanation that suggested quite clearly that they didn’t understand the first thing about her, because if they did, they wouldn’t be wasting their time.

  Adults were a necessary evil in her young life, she seemed to believe, and the sooner she was fully grown, the better. That might explain why she had aged ten years in two, Ben often thought. It might explain why, almost from the time she began to talk, she addressed all adults in an adult manner, using complete sentences and proper grammar. She could pick up a speech pattern and memorize it in a single sitting. Now, when Ben conversed with her, it was like carrying on a conversation with himself. She spoke to him in exactly the same way he spoke to her. He quickly abandoned any attempt at addressing her as he might a normal child or—God forbid—talking down to her as if she might not otherwise pay attention. If you talked down to Mistaya, she talked down to you right back. With his daughter there was a serious question as to who was the adult and who the child.

  The one exception to all this child and adult business was Questor Thews. The relationship she shared with the wizard was entirely different from the ones she shared with other adults, her parents included. With Questor, Mistaya seemed quite content to be a child. She did not talk to him as she did to Ben, for instance. She listened carefully to everything he said, paid close attention to everything he did, and in general seemed content with the idea that he was in some way her superior. They shared the kind of relationship granddaughters and grandfathers sometimes share. Ben thought it was mostly the wizard’s magic that bound the two. Mistaya was fascinated by it even when it didn’t work the way in which Questor intended, which was all too frequently. Questor was always showing her some little bit of sorcery, trying out something new, experimenting with this and that. He was careful not to try anything dangerous when Mistaya was around: Even so, she would follow him about or sit with him for hours on the chance that he might give her a little glimpse of the power he possessed.

  At first Ben worried. Mistaya’s interest in magic seemed very akin to a child’s early fascination with fire, and he did not want her to get burned. But she did not ask to try out spells or runes, did not beg to know how a bit of magic worked, and she listened respectfully and uncomplainingly to Questor’s admonitions concerning the dangers of unskilled practice. It was as if she had no need to try. She simply found Questor an amazing curiosity, something to study but not emulate. It was odd, but it was no stranger than anything else about Mistaya. Certainly her affinity for magic was consistent with her background, a child born of magic, with an ancestry of magic, with magic in her blood.

  So what would come of all this? Ben wondered. Time passed, and he found himself waiting for the other shoe to drop. Mistaya was not the child he had envisioned when Willow had told him that he was going to be a father. She was nothing like any child he had ever encountered. She was very much an enigma. He loved her, found her intriguing and wondrous, and could not imagine life without her. She redefined for him the terms “child” and “parent” and made him rethink daily the direction his life was taking.

  But she frightened him as well—not for who and what she was at present, but for what she might someday be. Her future was a vast, uncharted journey over which he feared he might have absolutely no control. What could he do to make certain that her passage went smoothly?

  Willow did not seem bothered by any of this. But then, Willow took the same approach to child rearing that she did to everything else. Life presented you with choices to make, opportunities to take, and obstacles to overcome, and it presented them to you when it was good and ready and not one moment before. There was no sense in worrying about something over which you had no control. Each day with Mistaya was a challenge to be dealt with and a joy to be savored. Willow gave what she could to her daughter and took what was offered in return, and she was grateful. She would tell Ben over and over that Mistaya was special, a child of different worlds and different races, of fairies and humans, of Kings and wielders of magic. Fate had marked her. She would do something wondrous in time. They must give her the opportunity to do so. They must let her grow as she chose.

  Yes, all very well and good, Ben thought ruefully. But it was more easily said than done.

  He watched his daughter as she stood staring up into the branches of that great oak and wondered what more he should be doing. He felt inadequate to the task of raising her. He felt overwhelmed by who and what she was.

  “Ben, it is time to eat,” Willow announced, her voice a gentle interruption. “Call Mistaya.”

  He pushed himself to his feet, brushing the troubling thoughts from his mind. “Misty!” he called. She did not look at him, her gaze fixed on the tree. “Mistaya!”

  Nothing. She was a statue.

  Questor Thews came up beside him. “Lost in her own little world again, it seems, High Lord.” He gave Ben a wink, then cupped his hands about his mouth. “Mistaya, come now!” he ordered, his reedy voice almost frail.

  She turned, hesitated a moment, then hurried over, her long, blond hair shimmering in the sunlight, her emerald eyes bright and eager. She gave Questor Thews a brief smile as she darted past him.

  She barely seemed to see Ben.

  Nightshade watched the child move away from the oak to rejoin the others. She kept still within the concealing branches in case one among them should think to take a closer look. None did. They gathered about the food and drink, laughing and talking, heedless of what had just taken place. The girl was hers now, the seeds of her taking planted deep within, needing only to be nurtured in order that she be claimed. That time would come. Soon.

  Nightshade’s long-anticipated plan was set in motion. When it was complete, Ben Holiday would be destroyed.

  The crow with red eyes remembered—and the memories burned like fire.

  Two years had passed since Nightshade’s escape from the Tangle Box. Bitter at the betrayal worked upon her by the play-King, stung by her failure to avenge herself against his wife and child, she had waited patiently for her chance to strike. Holiday had carried her down into the Tangle Box, trapped her in the misty confines of the Labyrinth, stolen her identity, stripped her of her magic, broken down her defenses, and tricked her into giving herself to him. That neither of t
hem had known who he or she was, nor who the other was did not matter. That the magic of a powerful being had snared them both along with the dragon Strabo was of no concern. One way or the other, Holiday was responsible. Holiday had revealed her weakness. Holiday had caused her to feel for him what she had long ago sworn she would never feel for any man. That she had hated him always was even more galling. It made acceptance of what had happened impossible.

  She kept her rage white-hot and close to the surface. She burned with it, and the pain kept her focused and certain of what she must do. Perhaps she would have been satisfied if she had been given the child in the Deep Fell following its birthing. Perhaps it would have been enough if she had claimed it and destroyed its mother in the bargain, leaving Holiday with that legacy as punishment for his betrayal. But the fairies had intervened and kept her from interfering, and all this time she had been forced to live with what had been done to her.

  Until now. Now, when the child was old enough to be independent of humans and fairies alike, to discover truths that had not yet been revealed, and to be claimed by means other than force. Mistaya—she would be for Nightshade the balm the Witch of the Deep Fell so desperately needed to become whole again and at the same time the weapon she required to put an end to Ben Holiday.

  The crow with red eyes looked down on the gathering of family and friends and thought that this was the last happiness any of them would ever know.

  Then she lifted clear of the leaf-dappling shadows and winged her way home.

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