The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

  “I know, I know,” Horris sighed.

  “All right, then. Why don’t we go somewhere else? Somewhere less … threatening. Why don’t we? Maybe it would listen to a suggestion that we go somewhere else. Maybe it would at least consider sending us through, even if it still wanted to stay. After all, what does it need us for?”

  Horris fixed him with a hard stare. “Where would we go, Biggar? Back to where we came from, where the faithful are waiting to tear us apart? You took care of that option quite nicely.”

  “It wasn’t me, Horris. I already told you that. It was Skat Mandu! Or whoever.” Biggar hopped one rest closer. “You want to know where we can go? There are lots of choices. I’ve read about a few. How about that place with the yellow brick road and the emerald city and all those little people running around, the Munchies or whatever?”

  Horris looked at him and sighed. “Biggar, that wasn’t a real place. That was in a book.”

  Biggar tried frowning and failed. “No, it wasn’t. It was real.”

  “No, Biggar. You’ve short-circuited again. That was Oz. Oz isn’t a real place. It’s a make-believe place.”

  “With the wizard and all? With the witches and the flying monkeys? That wasn’t a story. That was real.”

  “It was a story, Biggar! A story!”

  “All right, Horris, all right! It was a story!” The bird clacked his beak emphatically. He thought a minute. “Okay. How about going to the place with the little people with the furry feet?”

  Horris turned red. “What’s the use!” he hissed furiously. He strode past Biggar without looking at him, headed for the trees. “Let’s just report back and get this over with!”

  He moved away again, disappearing back into the forest, leaving the Heart behind. After a moment, Biggar followed. They passed out of the sunlight to where it was dark and cool, even at midday, and shadows draped their intricate patterns like spider’s webs across the woodland. They traveled without speaking, Horris striding on determinedly, Biggar hopping from limb to limb, now flying ahead, now winging his way back. Locked in a brown study, Horris pointedly ignored him.

  Less than a mile from the Heart, where the light was all but screened away by the interlocking branches of the trees overhead, they descended a steep slope to a dense thicket of brush backed up against a rocky overhang. Easing their way past the brush, they came to a massive flat stone into which symbols had been carved on both sides and across the top. Horris stared at the stone, sighed his weariest sigh, reached up, and touched various symbols in quick succession. He stepped back quickly as the door opened, stone grating on stone. Biggar landed on his shoulder again and together they watched the black opening of the cave beyond come into focus.

  Rather reluctantly, they entered. The stone door grated shut behind them.

  There was light in the cave to guide them back into its farthest reaches, a sort of dim phosphorescence that seemed wedded to the rock. It gleamed like silver ore in scattered patches and random streaks, breaking up the gloom sufficiently to allow a relatively safe passage through. It was hot within the cave, an unpleasant sort of warmth that suffused the skin and left it damp and itchy. There was a distinctive smell in the air, too. Horris and Biggar recognized it immediately and knew where it came from.

  They reached the deepest part of the cave in moments, the part where the light was brightest, the heat hottest, and the stench rawest. The cave widened and rose some twenty feet at this point, and a scattering of stalactites jutted down from the ceiling like a medieval spear trap. The chamber was empty save for a rickety wooden bed set to one side and an equally rickety wooden table on which a metal washbasin sat. The bed was unmade and the basin unemptied.

  Next to the wash basin sat the Tangle Box.

  From the deepest corner of the cave came a stirring. “Did you do as you were told?” a voice hissed menacingly.

  Horris tried to hold his breath as he spoke so as not to inhale any more of the smell than he had to. “Yes. Just as we were told.”

  “What was the response?”

  “He said he would think it over. But the wizard and the scribe are going to try to convince him not to let me stay.”

  The speaker laughed. It shifted in the gloom, a lifting of its body, a straightening of its limbs. Really, it was hard to tell what was happening, which was very disconcerting. Horris thought back again to when he had laid eyes on it for the first time, realizing suddenly that he was already unsure of what it was he had seen. The thing that was Skat Mandu had a way of showing only part of itself, a flicker of body or limb or head (never face), a hint of color or shape. What you were left with, ultimately, was a sense of something rather than a definite image. What you were left with, inevitably, was unpleasant and harsh and repulsive.

  “Do I frighten you?” the voice asked softly. In the smoky gloom something gleamed a wicked green.

  Horris suddenly regretted coming back, thinking that perhaps Biggar had been right after all. What sort of madness was this that they had embraced in releasing the monster? It had been imprisoned in the Tangle Box, and it had tricked them into freeing it, using Biggar as channeler, Horris as conjurer, both as instruments for picking the locks that held it chained. Horris Kew understood in the most secret part of his heart that nothing he had done in creating Skat Mandu had ever really been his idea—it had all come from the thing in the Tangle Box, the thing that had been locked within the fairy mists, dispatched into exile just as they had been, and consigned to oblivion except for a fate that had brought Horris and Biggar to its unwitting rescue.

  “What are we doing here?” Biggar piped up suddenly, a frightened stiffness in his reedy voice.

  “What I tell you to do,” the voice hissed.

  Skat Mandu came out of the gloom, rising up like a cloud of smoke that had somehow coalesced into a vaguely familiar but not yet complete form. Its smell drove Horris and Biggar back a step in response, and its laugh was low and satisfied. It rippled like fetid water as it shifted about, and they could hear the hiss of its breathing in the sudden silence. It was huge and fat and dominant, and it had the feel of something ancient and terrible.

  “I am called the Gorse,” the monster whispered suddenly. “I was of the people who live within the fairy mists, one of their own until I was trapped and confined centuries ago, imprisoned in the Tangle Box for all time. I was a sorcerer of great power, and I will be so again. You will help me.”

  Horris Kew cleared his throat. “I don’t see what we can do.”

  The Gorse laughed. “I will be your eyes, Horris Kew. I see you better than you see yourself. You are angry at losing what you had in that other world, but what you want most lies here. You are frightened at what has been done to you, but the courage you lack can be supplied by me. Yes, I manipulated you. Yes, you were my cat’s paw. You will be again, you and the bird both. This is the way of things, Horris. The people of the fairy mists bound me within the Tangle Box with spells that could not be undone from within, but only from without. Someone had to speak them, and I chose you. I whispered the incantations in your mind. I guided your conjuring steps. One by one you spoke the spells of Skat Mandu. One by one you turned the keys to the locks that held me bound. When I was ready to come out, I made the bird confess that Skat Mandu was a charade so that you would be forced to flee. But your escape could only be managed by setting me free. But do not despair. It was as it should be, as it was meant to be. Fate has bound us one to the other.”

  Horris wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that, but on the other hand he was intrigued in spite of himself with the possibility that there might be something in this for him. “You have a plan for us?” he asked cautiously.

  “A very attractive plan,” the Gorse whispered. “I know of your history, the both of you. You, Horris, were exiled for your vision of what conjuring should be. The bird was exiled for being more than his creator had expected.”

  Oddly enough, Horris and Biggar found themselves in immediate agreement wi
th this assessment (although Biggar didn’t much care for constantly being referred to as “the bird”).

  “You were embarrassments and nuisances to those who pretended friendship toward you but in truth feared you and were jealous of you. Such is the nature of the creatures against whom we stand.” The Gorse eased back ponderously into the gloom, smoke, and shadow along the rock. The movement produced a sort of scraping sound, like a knife trimming fish scales. It should not have been possible with something that appeared to be so insubstantial. “Wouldn’t you like to gain a measure of revenge on these fools?” the Gorse demanded.

  Horris and Biggar would have liked nothing better, of course. But their uneasiness with the Gorse remained undiminished for all the reassuring words. They didn’t like this creature, didn’t like the sight or smell of it, didn’t even like the idea of it, and they were still of a mind that they had been better off back where they had come from. Still, they were not foolish enough to say so. Instead, they simply waited to hear more.

  The darkening atmosphere of the cave seemed to tighten down like a coffin lid as the Gorse suddenly expanded into the shadows, stealing the light. “For myself, I will secure dominion over the fairy mists from which I was sent and over those who dwelt free within them while I was imprisoned. I will have them for my slaves until I tire of them, and then I will see them closed away in such blackness that they will scream endlessly for death’s release.”

  Horris Kew swallowed the lump in his throat and forgot about any attempt at backing farther away. On his shoulder, Biggar’s claws tightened until they hurt.

  “To you,” the Gorse hissed softly, “I will give Landover—all of it, the whole of it, the country and her people, to do with as you choose.”

  The silence that filled the cave was immense. Horris found suddenly that he could not think straight. Landover? What would he do with Landover? He tried to speak and could not. He tried to swallow and could not do that either. He was dry and parched from toes to nose, and all of his conjuring life was a dim recollection that seemed as ephemeral as smoke.

  “You want to give us Landover?” Biggar squeaked suddenly, as if he hadn’t heard right.

  The Gorse’s laugh was rough and chilling. “Something even Skat Mandu could not have done for you in your exiled life, isn’t that so? But to earn this gift you must do as I tell you. Exactly as I tell you. Do you understand?”

  Horris Kew nodded. Biggar nodded along with him.

  “Say it!” the Gorse hissed sharply.

  “Yes!” they both gasped, feeling invisible fingers close about their throats. The fingers clenched and held for an impossibly long moment before they released. Horris and Biggar choked and gasped for air in the ensuing silence.

  The Gorse drew back, its stench so overpowering that for a moment it seemed there was no air left to breathe. Horris Kew was down on his knees in the cave’s near blackness, sick to his stomach, so frightened by the monster that he could think of nothing but doing whatever was required to keep from feeling worse. Biggar’s white crest was standing on end, the sharp bird eyes were squeezed shut, and he was shaking all over.

  “There are enemies who might threaten us,” the Gorse whispered, its voice like the scratching of coarse sandpaper on wood. “We must remove them from our path if we are to proceed. You will help me in this.”

  Horris nodded without speaking, not trusting what the words might be. He wished he had learned to keep his conjuring mouth shut a whole lot earlier.

  “You will write three letters, Horris Kew,” the monster hissed. “You will write them now.” The gloom it occupied shifted, and its eyes (or so they seemed) found Biggar. “And when he is finished, you will deliver them.”

  Night descended over Sterling Silver, the sun dropping below the horizon and changing the sky to deep crimson and violet, the colors streaking first the patterned clouds west, then the land itself. The shadows lengthened, darkening ever deeper, reflecting off the polished surface of the castle and the waters that guarded it, disappearing at last into a twilight lit by the eight moons in one of the rare phases of the year in which all were visible at once in the night sky.

  With Willow on his arm, Ben Holiday climbed the stairs to their bedchamber, smiling now and again at what he was feeling, still caught up by the news of their baby. A baby! He couldn’t seem to say it often enough. It produced a giddy feeling in him, one that made him feel wonderful and foolish both at once. Everyone in the castle knew about the baby by now. Even Abernathy, normally not given to displays of emotion of any kind, had given Willow a huge hug on learning the good news. Questor had immediately begun making plans for the child’s upbringing and education that stretched well into the next decade. No one seemed the least bit surprised that there should be a baby, as if having this child here and now was very much in the ordinary course of events.

  Ben shook his head. Would there be a boy or a girl? Would there be both? Did Willow know which? Should he ask her? He wished he knew what to do besides tell her over and over again how happy he was.

  They reached a landing that opened out onto a rampart, and Willow pulled him out into the starlit night. They walked to the battlement and stared out across the darkened land. They stood there in silence, holding hands, keeping close in the silence.

  “I have to go away for a little while,” Willow said quietly. It was so unexpected that for a moment he wasn’t certain he had heard right. She did not look at him, but her hand tightened in warning over his. “Let me finish before you say anything. I must tell my mother about this child. She must know so that she can dance for me. Remember how I told you once that our life together was foretold in the entwining of the flowers that formed the bed of my conception? It was on the night when I saw you for the first time at the Irrylyn. I knew at once that there would never be anyone else for me. That was the foretelling brought about by my mother’s dance.”

  She looked at him now, her eyes huge and depthless.

  “The once-fairy see something of the future in the present, reading what will be in what now is. It is an art peculiar to each of us, Ben, and for my mother the future is often told in her dance. It was so when I went to see her in my search for the black unicorn. It will be so again now.”

  She seemed to have finished. “Her dance will tell us something about our child’s future?” he asked in surprise.

  Willow nodded slowly, her gaze fixing him, her flawless features carved in starlight. “Not us, Ben. Me. She will tell only me. She will dance only for me, not for someone who is not of her people. Please don’t be angry, but I must go alone.”

  He smiled awkwardly. “I can come most of the way, though. At least as far as the old pines.”

  She shook her head. “No. Try to understand. This must be my journey, not yours. It is a journey as much into myself as into the River Country, and it belongs only to me. I make it as mother of our child and as child of the once-fairy. There will be other journeys that belong to both of us, journeys on which you will be able to go. But this one belongs to me.”

  She saw the doubt in his eyes and hesitated. “I know this is difficult to understand. It touches on what I tried to tell you earlier. Carrying a child to term and giving birth on Landover is not the same as in your world. There are differences that run to the magic that sustains the land, that gives life to us all but particularly to the once-fairy. We commune with Landover as a people who have spent all our lives caring for and healing her. It is our heritage and bond.”

  Ben nodded, but felt something drop away inside him. “I don’t see why I can’t go with you.”

  He saw her throat constrict, and there were tears in her eyes. “I know. I have tried to find a way to tell you, to explain it to you. I think that I will have to ask simply that you trust me.”

  “I do trust you. Always. But this is hard to understand.”

  And more. It was worrisome. He had not felt comfortable being separated from her since their journey back to Earth to recover Abernathy and the mis
sing medallion, when she had almost died. He had relived all the nightmares of Annie’s death, of the death of their unborn child, and of the severing of some part of himself that had come about as a result of their dying. Each time there was a separation from Willow, however necessary, however brief, the fear returned. It was no different now. If anything, the feeling was stronger because the reasons for their separation were so difficult to grasp.

  “How soon must you go?” he asked, still struggling to come to grips with the idea. All of his earlier happiness seemed to have leaked away.

  “Tomorrow,” she said. “At sunrise.”

  His desperation doubled. “Well, at least take Bunion with you. Take someone for protection!”

  “Ben.” She held both of his hands in her own and moved so close to him that he could see himself reflected in her eyes. “No one will go with me. I will go alone. You needn’t worry. I will be safe. I don’t need looking after. You know that. The once-fairy have their own means of protection within Landover, and I will be in the homeland of my people.”

  He shook his head angrily. “I just don’t see how you can be sure of that! And I still don’t see why you have to go alone!”

  In spite of his efforts to keep calm, his voice had risen and taken on an angry edge. He stepped away from her, trying to distance himself from what he was feeling. But she would not release his hands.

  “This child is important to us,” she said softly.

  “I know that!”

  “Shhhh. The Earth Mother told us of its importance, do you remember?”

  He took a deep breath. “I do.”

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