The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks


  “I don’t get it,” Ben admitted. “What was all this supposed to accomplish? It sounds like he might have had good intentions.”

  “Good intentions?” Questor Thews was livid. “I hardly think so! These were schemes of extortion! The cows and chickens and cats and plants were levers with which to pry loose the purse strings of those with money! Horris Kew never cared a thing about anyone but himself! Ten minutes after one scheme collapsed, he was already hatching a new one! Excuse the choice of words.”

  “But, Questor, this was more than twenty years ago, you said.” Ben was trying hard not to laugh.

  “There, you see?” Questor snapped irritably, the other’s facial contortions not escaping his notice. “Horris Kew always seems harmless enough, just a bit of an annoyance. No one takes him seriously. Even my brother ignored him until that last bit with the demons, and then Meeks wanted him gone, too. Seems the unexpected appearance of the demons interfered with one of his own schemes, and my brother could tolerate almost anything but that.”

  Meeks—Questor Thews’s brother, the Court Wizard before him, the man who had tricked Ben into coming into Landover and thereafter become his worst enemy. Gone, but hardly forgotten. He would surely not suffer a man like Horris Kew to cross up his plans.

  “Anyway,” Questor finished, “my brother persuaded the old King to banish Horris, so Horris was banished, and that was that.”

  “Uh-huh.” Ben rubbed his chin. “Banished to where?”

  Questor looked decidedly uncomfortable. “To your world, High Lord,” he admitted reluctantly.

  “To Earth? For the last twenty years?” Ben tried to remember reading anything about someone named Horris Kew.

  “A favorite dumping ground for rejects and annoyances, I’m afraid. Not much you can do with magic where there’s so little belief in its existence, you know.”

  Abernathy nodded solemnly. They stood staring at Ben, apparently out of steam, waiting for a response. Ben looked at Willow, who was eating now and refused to look back, and he remembered that he had wanted to tell his friends about the baby. He guessed that would have to wait.

  “Well, why don’t we hear what he has to say,” Ben suggested, rather curious about someone who could upset even the normally unflappable Abernathy. “Maybe he’s changed.”

  Questor went from crimson to flaming scarlet. “Changed? When cows fly!” He stopped, apparently thinking that where Horris was concerned perhaps that wasn’t qualification enough. “Never, High Lord!” he amended, just to make things perfectly clear. “Don’t see him. Don’t let him set one foot into this castle. I would have sent the guard to greet him on the road if I had known he was coming. I still cannot believe he had the gall to return!” He paused, suddenly perplexed. “In fact, how did he return?”

  “Doesn’t matter. He is a supplicant,” Ben pointed out patiently. “I can’t be sending supplicants away without even speaking to them. What sort of precedent would that set? I have to at least speak to him. What can it hurt?”

  “You don’t know, High Lord,” Abernathy said ominously.

  “You really don’t,” Questor agreed.

  “Get rid of him right now.”

  “Don’t let him within a mile of you.”

  Ben pursed his lips. He had never heard his advisors so adamant about anything. He did not see how a simple conversation could cause problems for him, but he was not inclined to dismiss their warning out of hand.

  “Do you believe that your magic is a match for his?” he asked Questor after a moment.

  Questor drew himself up. “More than a match. But he is a very slippery character.”

  Ben nodded. “Well, I can’t just send him away. Why don’t we all see him together. That way you can warn me if he tries anything. How about it?”

  Abernathy sat down without a word. Questor stiffened even further, but finally nodded his agreement. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he declared curtly, and signaled to a retainer standing at the far end of the hall.

  They sat in silence then, waiting. Ben reached for Willow’s hand and squeezed it gently. She smiled back at him. At the far end of the room, Parsnip appeared from out of the kitchen, gave a brief greeting to the silent assemblage, and disappeared back in again. Ben was thinking that he would like to dispose quickly of Horris Kew and get on with his day. He was thinking about the meetings he had scheduled and the work that needed doing. He had believed once that no one worked harder than a trial lawyer, but he had since discovered that Kings did. There were constant decisions required, plans to consider, and problems by the score to resolve. So much depended on him. So many people were affected by his actions. He liked the challenge, but was continually daunted by the amount of responsibility. Sometimes he thought about the circumstances that had brought him to this place in his life and wondered that such a thing could happen. It was proof that anything was possible. He would measure where he was from where he had been and be amazed. He would measure, and he would tell himself once again that however severe the pressures and demands he would never exchange his present life for his past.

  “You could still change your mind about this, High Lord,” Questor advised quietly, not quite ready to let the argument die.

  But Ben was still thinking about his life, applied the comment accordingly, and found the wizard’s assessment wrong. He was a man who had rediscovered himself by daring to take a chance that others would not have, and changing his mind now was not a reasonable option. He was going to be a father, he thought with renewed amazement. What would that be like for a man who had passed his fortieth year with no children? What would it be like for a man who’d had no sense of family for so long? He wanted a child, but he had to admit that he didn’t know if he was ready for one.

  There was a clomping of boots at the far end of the room, and a man entered. He was tall and gangly and strange-looking. He had arms and legs that were akimbo, and a nose, ears, and Adam’s apple that stuck out like they were parts attached to a Mister Potato Head. He was dressed in gray supplicant’s robes that looked like they had seen service last as floor mats in a stable. His feet were dusty and bare, his hands were clasped before him beseechingly, and his body was stooped. He came forward at something approaching a weary shuffle, his head bobbing. A bird with black feathers and a white crest sat on his shoulder, bright eyes searching.

  “High Lord,” Horris Kew greeted, and dropped to his knees. “Thank you for agreeing to see me.”

  Ben rose, thinking to himself that this fellow was the most harmless-looking threat he had ever seen. “Stand up,” he ordered. “Let’s hear what you have to say for yourself. Your press has been pretty bad up to now.”

  Horris rose, a pained look on his field-plow face. He had a rather bad tic in one eye that gave him the look of a man flinching from an imagined blow. “I confess everything, High Lord. I have done all that I am accused of doing. Whatever Questor Thews and Abernathy have told you, I admit. I don’t propose to argue any of it. I just want to ask forgiveness.”

  Questor snorted. “What are you up to, Horris Kew? You’re up to something.”

  “Awk! Biggar is better!” the bird squawked.

  “That bird looks familiar,” Abernathy declared, squinting darkly at Biggar.

  “Just a common myna, my companion on the road.” The tic in Horris Kew’s eye twitched double-time.

  Abernathy frowned. “I suppose you’ve trained him to attack dogs?”

  “Awwwkk! Fleas! Fleas!” the bird cried.

  Ben came around the table to put himself between Abernathy and the bird. “Aren’t you supposed to be in exile, Horris? What brings you back?”

  “High Lord, I simply want another chance.” A truly penitent look settled across Horris Kew’s angular face. “I have had twenty years to repent, to consider my mistakes, to think about my misconduct. I was lucky I escaped Landover alive, as Questor Thews can tell you. But now I wish to come back to my home and start over again. Is this possible?”

&n
bsp; Ben studied him. “I don’t know.”

  “Don’t do it, High Lord,” Questor cautioned at once.

  “Don’t even think about it, High Lord,” Abernathy added.

  “Awk! Hooray for Horris, Hooray for Horris!” the bird declared.

  “Thank you, Biggar.” Horris patted the bird affectionately and returned his gaze to Ben. “I have a plan, should you decide to let me return, High Lord. I ask nothing of you or anyone but to be left alone. I shall live out my life as a hermit, a bother to no one. But should the need arise, I stand ready to serve in any capacity required. I have some little knowledge of magic that may someday be of use. I offer it for when you think it appropriate. You can depend on me to come if called.”

  “I believe that it was your use of magic that got you in trouble the last time,” Ben admonished softly.

  “Yes, yes, too true. But I will not involve myself in the affairs of the country or her people unless I am asked,” Horris said. Tic, tic went the bad eye. “Should I violate this covenant, you may restore the ban immediately.”

  “No,” Questor Thews said.

  “No,” Abernathy echoed.

  Ben tried to keep from smiling. He should probably be taking this more seriously than he was, he thought, but it was hard to get too excited over someone who looked like this fellow and whose worst offense was making chickens fly and cows rebel against farmers.

  “Awk! Pretty lady,” the bird whistled suddenly.

  Willow smiled and glanced at Ben. He remembered the child.

  “I will think about it and give you an answer in several days,” Ben announced, ignoring the groans from Questor and Abernathy. “You can come back then.”

  “Happily, High Lord,” Horris Kew responded, bowing deeply. “Thank you, thank you. I am indebted.”

  He backed quickly from the room and was escorted away. Ben wondered what kind of bird Biggar was. He wondered how many words the bird could say.

  “Well, that was a monumentally foolish decision!” Questor Thews snapped in disgust. “If I am permitted to say so, High Lord!”

  “You are,” Ben replied, since it was already said.

  “There’s something familiar about that bird,” Abernathy muttered.

  “Just because a man looks harmless doesn’t mean he really is,” Questor went on. “In Horris Kew’s case, appearances are not just deceiving, they are an outright lie!”

  Ben was already tired of the subject, and he held up his hands imploringly. “Gentlemen!” he admonished. He was hoping for looks of chagrin but had to settle for hostile silence. He sighed. You couldn’t have it your way all the time, he supposed. That was why most matters required compromise. “We’ll discuss this later, all right?”

  Willow rose to stand beside him, and he smiled as she looped her arm through his. “Parsnip!” he yelled, and when his cook appeared to stand with his wizard, scribe, and messenger, he asked, “How would you feel about our adding another member to our family?”

  “As long as it’s not Horris Kew,” Questor Thews muttered and looked not the least chagrined for saying it.

  Gorse

  Horris Kew departed Sterling Silver like a fugitive in the night, hastening away as swiftly as propriety and pride would allow, casting nervous glances left and right with every step he took. He hunched along with purposeful, ground-eating strides, his tall, gawky frame rolling and swaying with the movement, a strange figure in this strangest of lands. The tic he had mysteriously developed caused the corner of his eye to jump like a trapped cricket. Biggar rode his shoulder, an omen of doom.

  “I really dislike that dog,” the bird muttered, ruffling his feathers in a show of distaste.

  Horris Kew’s lips tightened. “Shut up about the dog.”

  “He almost recognized me. Did you see? He’ll remember, sooner or later, mark my words.”

  “Consider them marked.” They passed across the bridge that connected the island to the mainland and set out toward the forests west. “What’s the difference if he does? Meeks is dead and gone.”

  Biggar had belonged to the wizard in the old days. It was Meeks who had performed the magic that enhanced Biggar’s intelligence, hopeful of using the bird as a spy against his enemies. But Biggar had been as obnoxious and outspoken then as he was now, and Meeks had quickly grown tired of him. When Horris Kew had been exiled to earth by the old King, Meeks had sent the troublesome bird along for the ride.

  Biggar hunched down into a black featherball. “If the dog connects me with Meeks, Horris, you can kiss our chances of ever getting back inside those castle walls good-bye.”

  Horris tried to look unconcerned. “You’re worrying about nothing.”

  “I don’t care. I don’t like the way the dog looked at me. In fact, I don’t like any of this.”

  Horris didn’t say so, but he wasn’t sure he liked any of it either. Nothing had gone the way he had expected from the moment he had mouthed “rashun, oblight, surena, whatever” and that thing had come out of the Tangle Box. He shivered just thinking about it, picturing how it had looked when he had turned around on hearing its greeting, thinking of it waiting for them now. It was loathsome beyond description. It was the foulest being he had ever encountered.

  And now it had taken charge of his life, ordering him about like a common servant, telling him where to go and what to do. It was his worst nightmare come to life, and Horris Kew didn’t think for a moment that he had better try to cross it.

  “Why do you think it sent us to see the King?” Biggar asked suddenly, as if reading his mind. They passed up the hillside and into a meadow fronting the edges of the forest trees.

  Horris exhaled wearily. “How would I know? It told me to go make this pitch to Holiday, so I did. It said to do it, so I did it. You think I was going to argue?”

  Biggar didn’t have anything to say to that, which was just as well since Horris Kew’s temper was already on edge from the events of the past twenty-four hours. This was all Biggar’s fault anyway, he was thinking. The channeling scheme, the concoction of Skat Mandu (Skat Mandu, what a joke!), the releasing of that thing, and the return to Landover. Horris didn’t know what game it was they were playing, but he knew it was a dangerous one, coming back to the very last place in the universe they should have come, a place where they were anything but welcome. Except, of course, that the old King was dead and this new one, Holiday, at least seemed willing to consider his petition. No matter. What were they doing here? Sure, this was his homeland and all, but it was not a place that held fond memories. It was a place in which he had been born (luck of the draw, that), had grown up, had gotten himself in considerable trouble, been declared persona non grata, and left under duress. He had been perfectly happy in his new world, in the land of milk and honey and believers of Skat Mandu ready to pay him money for a wisp of smoke and a shimmer of light. He had been well settled, content with himself, his surroundings, and his prospects.

  Now what did he have? Nothing. And it was all Biggar’s fault.

  Except, of course, it really wasn’t. It was as much his fault as Biggar’s, and that made him even madder.

  What was going to happen to him now? What did good old Skat Mandu have planned?

  “I really don’t like that dog,” Biggar repeated, and finally lapsed into silence.

  They journeyed on through the morning, and as midday passed they reached the Heart. The Heart was sacred ground, the wellspring of Landover’s magic and the touchstone of her life. It was here that all of Landover’s Kings, including Ben Holiday, had been crowned. It appeared as a clearing amid a forest of giant broad-leaved trees, its perimeter encircled by Bonnie Blues, its floor a mix of green, gold, and crimson grasses. A dais stood centermost, formed of gleaming white oak timbers and anchored by polished silver stanchions in which massive white candles had been set. Standards ringed the dais, and from their tips flew the flags of the Kings of Landover in a sea of bright colors. Holiday’s was newest, a set of balanced scales held forth against
a field of green, a nod back to his years as a lawyer in the old life. All about the dais and across the remainder of the clearing were rows of white velvet kneeling pads and rests.

  All of it was clean and perfectly kept, as if in anticipation of the next coronation.

  Horris Kew entered the Heart and looked around solemnly. A country’s history winked back at him from every polished timber and post. “Take off your hat, Biggar,” he intoned. “We’re in church.”

  Biggar looked about doubtfully, sharp eyes gleaming. “Who in the world takes care of this place?”

  Horris stared at him and sighed. “What a philistine you are.”

  Biggar flew off his shoulder and settled down on one of the velvet rests. “So now you’re resorting to name calling, are you, Horris? That’s really pathetic.”

  And very deliberately he relieved himself on the white cushion.

  Horris went rigid for a moment, and then his lanky frame uncoiled as if part serpent and his long limbs worked this way and that, like sticks pinned to a rag doll. “I’ve had about all I’m going to take from you, Biggar. How would you like me to wring your worthless neck?”

  “How would you like me to peck out your eyes, Horris?”

  “You imbecilic jackdaw!”

  “You moronic baboon!”

  They glared at each other, Horris with his fingers hooked into claws, Biggar with his feathers ruffled and spread. The rage swept through them, then dissipated, evaporating like water on stone in the midday sun. The tension eased from their bodies and was replaced by wonder and a vague sense of uneasiness over the spontaneity of their embarrassing behavior.

  “That thing is responsible for this foolishness,” Horris announced quietly. “Good old Skat Mandu.”

  “He’s not what I expected, I admit,” Biggar declared solemnly.

  “He’s not even a he. He’s an it.”

  “A maggot.”

  “A serpent.”

  Biggar closed his eyes. “Horris,” he said, a note of wistfulness creeping into his bird voice. “What are we doing here? Wait, don’t say anything until you’ve heard me out. I know how we got here. I understand the mechanics. We let that thing out of the Tangle Box where it was locked away in that patch of fairy mist, and it used the fairy mist to open a door into Landover. I got that part. But what are we doing here? Really, what? Just think about it a moment. This is a dangerous place for us.”

 
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