The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks

“Then accept that our needs must give way to those of the child,” she whispered. “Even though it hurts, even though the reasons are not clear, even though we might wish it otherwise.” She paused. “I do not want this any more than you do. Do you believe that?”

  He was caught off guard. It had not occurred to him that she was not a willing party to this decision. “Yes, I believe it,” he told her finally.

  “I would have you come if it were possible. I would never leave your side for a moment if it were possible. But it is not. It is not in the nature of life that we can be together in all things.”

  She waited for him to speak. He stared at her wordlessly for a long time, thinking. Then he said, “I guess that’s true.”

  “It will be all right,” she told him.

  She put her arms around him and held him close against her. He lowered his face into her emerald hair and found himself aching already from having her gone. His fear was a black cloud that scudded about in the corners of his heart. He realized anew how different they really were, a human and a sylph, and how much there was about her that he still didn’t know.

  “It will be all right,” she repeated.

  He did not argue, because he knew there was no point in doing so. But he could not help wondering if he shouldn’t try.


  Willow’s journey from Sterling Silver was a relatively uneventful one. She departed under cover of darkness, slipping from the castle unseen and unheard. The guards of the night watch might have sensed her in some dim, quickly forgotten way, but the once-fairy retained enough of the old ways that she could disappear as surely as shadow into light. Willow went down a back staircase, through the castle’s deserted halls, along the darkened walls of several inner courts, and out through the central portcullis, which was always kept raised in time of peace to welcome late travelers and supplicants to a sure and friendly shelter. Forgoing use of the lake skimmer, she instead crossed the bridge that spanned the castle moat, a bridge built by Ben when the monarchy was restored and travelers began to come again to the land’s seat of power. She waited until the brightest of the moons were shadowed by clouds and the guards were turned away, speaking of things far removed from duties assigned, and in the blink of an eye she was gone.

  She did not wake Ben on leaving. She stood looking down at him in the darkness for a time, watching him sleep, thinking how much she loved him. She did not want any more harsh words to pass between them. It was better that she left now. He loved her, but he was the product of a world that did not accept the existence of fairy creatures, and he was still learning to believe in them himself. That was why she had not told him everything. That was why she couldn’t.

  She walked for the remainder of that night and all through the next day, winding her way along lesser-traveled paths, not hurrying or attempting speed, keeping herself unseen. She passed farmers in the field, plowing and laying in their second-season crop, harvesting the first. She watched peddlers and traders come and go between the communities of man south and east. There were travelers come from the once-fairy country and from the western hills where trappers and hunters roamed. There were families in wagons with possessions stacked high and tied down en route to new homes. Everywhere, there was activity, the bustle and energy of the warm seasons facilitating the plans made when it was cold. It made her smile. She followed the rolling flow of the forested hills, a small bit of movement in a vast sea of green that undulated like waves against the horizon when the breezes blew out of the west as they did at midsummer. She ate and drank from the Bonnie Blues, Landover’s most plentiful source of food and drink, and she sang softly to herself when there were only birds and small animals to hear.

  She pondered as well. She weighed the wisdom of what she had done, knowing the consternation it would cause Ben, appreciative of the worry it would engender. But hers was a cause born of primal necessity, and there was no room for debate over what was required. She must have this baby in the way that nature dictated, and the pattern of birth had been established generations ago in a time when humans did not even exist. The birthing of fairy people was complex beyond that of humans in any case, peculiar in each instance to the physical characteristics of the creature involved, different for each depending on the genetics that had spawned them. She might have discussed it with Ben earlier, when the immediacy of their child’s birth was removed and the requisite time for acceptance was still available. But she had not and there was no time now, and she knew him well enough to recognize that his reaction to what she would tell him was as likely to be damaging as helpful. Though Landover’s King, he remained a man from another world in many ways still, and he struggled constantly to accept what he viewed as strange and unusual. It was especially hard where she was concerned because he loved her and was committed to her and wanted so to be comfortable with who and what she was. She knew that, and she did what she could to make easier the transition he was still experiencing.

  In the end it had been the Earth Mother’s dream that had decided her. It had not been so much a dream as a vision and not so much a vision as a sense of being. Fairy creatures spoke to each other in that way, coming often in sleep to give counsel and warning, speaking out of distant places, traveling on the back of swift winds to reach the listener, a whisper in stillness, a brightening in the dark. Willow sometimes spoke with her mother that way, her mother a wood nymph so wild that nothing could reach her if she did not wish it, a creature that not even the once-fairy could trace. Willow had slipped away from her old life as she made her new one with Ben, but now and again the old would intrude in some small fashion, and the Earth Mother’s coming had been the latest reoccurrence.

  The Earth Mother was an elemental, the most powerful in Landover, a creature of great magic. She was as old as the land itself and embodied its spirit. Some believed that she was the creator of the land, but Willow thought her too fundamental in her ethics and too mired in her work to be anything so lofty. Nevertheless, she was a creature to be harkened to. Ben and Willow had both gone to her during their search for the black unicorn, and she had told them then that they were important to her and would share a child that was special. There had been no explanation then or since, and after a time both had ceased to think on the matter. Willow had heard nothing from the Earth Mother in all this time.

  Yet now she was summoned, unexpectedly, abruptly, out of dreams. The Earth Mother had come to her twice, calling her back to the River Country, to Elderew, to the once-fairy country where the elemental most frequently surfaced. The calling was urgent and unarguable and so had decided Willow to leave Ben without attempting a full explanation. More than the words themselves, it was the Earth Mother’s tone that had compelled the sylph to put aside deliberation and act at once.

  She camped that night on the shores of the Irrylyn, close by the cove where she had first encountered Ben and known in the fairy way that he was for her and she for him. She ate despite having little appetite, for her child required her strength. Then she stripped away her clothing and stepped into the Irrylyn’s waters. The lake was warm and soothing and drew her into its embrace. She floated in the silence of the night, the skies overhead clear and filled with the light of colored moons and silver stars, and she let her memories of Ben envelop her. She could still feel the rush of excitement his appearance had triggered within her. She could still feel the certainty of her love. They had been chosen for each other, and until death they would be together. She had caught a glimpse of their future, for the once-fairy were so blessed (or cursed), and she had known then their lives would be changed irrevocably.

  It had proven to be so. Ben had given up his old life, compelled to stay within Landover, decided by many things but by none more certain than his love for her. He had stayed as King and become a leader of strength and vision, and while he was tormented at times by what being King required of him, he had carried out his responsibilities faithfully. Most thought him fair and effective. Only a few still harbored doubts, and mo
st of those were potential rivals for the power of the Kingdom’s magic. Her father was one, the leader of the once-fairy, and a wielder of considerable magic himself. The River Master would have preferred a Kingdom in which he alone controlled the magic, but he was no fool and he recognized the benefits that Ben Holiday provided as King—a stabilizing force, a well-reasoned juggler of diverse interests, and a decisive leader—and while he mistrusted Ben on occasion as an outworlder, he respected him always as a man.

  Willow, as the River Master’s daughter, had lived an unsettled life in the lake country, the child of a union that had lasted but a single night, a constant reminder to the water sprite of the woman he had loved and been unable to hold. For Willow had been born of a hurried coupling and then left behind by her mother for her father to raise, her mother too wild to stay bound to anyone, even a child. Her father had done what was required and nothing more; he had many children and liked most better than her. Ben’s coming had opened the door to the life she had long known was waiting for her, and she had been quick to step through. He had questioned at first that they were meant to be together or even that he loved her, but Willow had never doubted, the prophecy of their joining immutable and fixed. Eventually what was promised at the moment of her birth had come to pass, and now there was to be a child.

  She rose from the waters of the Irrylyn and stood upon its shore, her smooth green skin shedding water and drying in the cooling night air. She had not been entirely honest with Ben. She would let her mother dance for her, but then move quickly on. She would not see her father at all. She did not expect their help in the birth of this child. She might have wished it could be otherwise, but she knew there was little they could offer. She had returned to the lake country to see the Earth Mother. It was the Earth Mother alone who could provide useful insight, she sensed—for that was what the dream had whispered in summoning her. So she would go there and listen, and then she would have her child alone.

  She slept long and well that night, her sleep undisturbed by dreams, and when she woke she found the mud puppy looking at her.

  “Hello, little one,” she greeted softly, lifting to her knees.

  The mud puppy regarded her with great, soulful eyes. It was short and long and with a vaguely beaverlike face, and it had great floppy ears and a lizard’s tail. It was splayfooted with broad, webbed feet, and its body was colored in various shades of brown as if streaked by dirt. Mud puppies were rare in Landover, being something of a fairy creature, and they were reputedly imbued with magic of their own, though Willow had never seen evidence of it. She recognized this one from her early years. Its name was Haltwhistle, and it served the Earth Mother.

  “Good old Haltwhistle,” she murmured, smiling, and the mud puppy swung its tail to and fro.

  She would have petted it, but the Earth Mother had warned her long ago that you should never touch a mud puppy. No explanation for this piece of advice had been offered, but Willow had learned to trust the Earth Mother. She had known the elemental since she was a little girl growing up in the lake country. The Earth Mother had come to her first when she was still quite small, rising from the ground one day while she was playing, an unexpected apparition that was more intriguing than frightening. The Earth Mother had come to her, she was told, because she was special. The Earth Mother would teach her things that no one else knew, and they would be friends always. Willow accepted this as a child does, a bit wide-eyed, but not disbelieving because when you are a child all things are possible. She found the Earth Mother strange and wondrous, a spirit creature rather than a human or once-fairy, but their friendship seemed natural and welcome. She was one of many children in the home of the River Master and not one to whom much attention was paid or of whom much was expected. Willow was lonely, and the Earth Mother helped fill the void that the absence of her real mother had created. As she grew, the Earth Mother counseled her, coming to her less often as she became more sure of herself and her time filled with other things. She had seen nothing of the Earth Mother after Ben’s coming save when she went in search of the black unicorn.

  But now she was summoned, and Haltwhistle had been sent to guide her to where the Earth Mother waited.

  She rose, washed, ate a little, and, with the mud puppy leading, set out anew. The day was warm and sun-filled, and the forests of the lake country smelled of grasses and wildflowers. As they walked, lake and river waters sparkled like gemstones through breaks in the trees and cranes and herons swooped across the surfaces in flashes of white. They traveled on through the morning and by midday were nearing Elderew. Haltwhistle turned east then, away from the city of the River Master and his people, and entered a stretch of forest thick with old-growth trees. Vines and mosses clung to the barked surfaces in brilliant green strips and patches. Insects skittered here and there, bright-colored birds darted through the canopies overhead, and small, furry-faced animals appeared like apparitions and were gone in the blink of an eye. Dust moats floated in streamers of sunlight, lazy and inconsequential.

  On nearing the Earth Mother’s refuge, Willow found herself wondering as she did from time to time at the elemental’s interest in her. Happy for the companionship and special attention, she had never thought to ask when she was a child. When she had grown, she had accepted the Earth Mother’s assurances that destiny had provided an important fate for her, and she had never pressed the matter further. Elementals frequently possessed the ability to read the future, and so Willow never doubted that the Earth Mother could see things yet to come, things hidden from her. Nevertheless, it was disconcerting to know that someone besides yourself knew what was fated for you and would not reveal the specifics. She had thought to ask of her future on more than one occasion, but she could never quite bring herself to do so. Perhaps it was her awe of the Earth Mother’s history as the keeper of the lands. Perhaps there was a small part of her that did not want to know her future in any event.

  But now, with the impending birth of her child, she thought that she must know, and she determined that this time her reverence for the Earth Mother would not prevent her asking.

  Haltwhistle took her on through the thickening forests, back from the sunlit clearings into the deep shadows, and finally to where the silence was complete and unbroken by the sound of any life. The mud puppy stopped finally at the edge of a broad, empty clearing filmed with pond waters collected from streams all about, a still, black, mirrored surface that reflected the old-growth canopy that sheltered everything.

  The mud puppy lingered for a soulful look back and then disappeared into the trees. Willow waited in the silence.

  After a moment the pond stirred and the Earth Mother rose from the waters, her form taking shape out of the slick mud, lifting to stand within the shadowed silence.

  “Welcome, Willow,” she greeted. “Are you well, child?”

  “I am fine, Earth Mother,” Willow answered. “And you?”

  “Unchanging. The land is stable and healed since the coming of Ben Holiday. It makes my work much easier.” She gestured vaguely with her hand, and the light flickered dimly from the damp. “Does your life with him go well and the love between you continue?”

  “Of course, Earth Mother.”

  “It gives me great pleasure to hear you say so. Now you will share a child, and it is for that reason that I have summoned you. There are things you must know, and I would not tell them to you through dreams. Have you come alone, then? And without the King?”

  “I thought it better.” Willow’s gaze slid away momentarily. “He does not accept easily what he finds strange.”

  “You have not told him about your birthing? About the cycles of life and the periods of growth and the ways of the once-fairy?”

  Willow sighed. “I cannot seem to find a way to do so. I had planned to tell him, but when your dream came, I thought it best to wait.”

  The Earth Mother nodded. “Perhaps you are right.” Her face was young and vibrant, a constant surprise when one considered that she had
been alive since the creation of the land. “You will tell him when you think it best. For now, we must concentrate on the birthing. You know it nears?”

  “I can feel it, Earth Mother. The child stirs inside me already, anxious to be born. It will happen soon.” She hesitated. “It is not like that with humans. Ben expects our child to grow within me for months in the manner of the women of his world. He has not said so, but I can read it in his looks. He thinks the child, since it is his, will be like him. But it will not. I can sense it already, and I do not know how to tell him.” She was surprised to find herself suddenly on the verge of tears. “What if he will not accept this child? What if he finds it loathsome?”

  The Earth Mother’s smile was filled with kindness. “No, Willow, that will not happen. This child belongs to you both and was conceived of the love you bear for each other. His commitment to you, and now to the child, is complete. He will not find the child loathsome. Nor shall it be so. It shall be beautiful.”

  Willow’s eyes brightened. “Is this promised, Earth Mother? Can you see it in my future?”

  The Earth Mother passed her hands before Willow’s face, and the question fell away, forgotten. “We will speak now of what you must do to prepare for your child’s birth, Willow. Conditions will not be entirely as you anticipate. Your child will not be born while you are in your human form. It will be born during your cycle of transformation into spirit form.”

  “As my namesake,” Willow said. “I have sensed this might be so. It was one of the reasons for my worry about telling Ben. I did not think he could conceive of such a thing.”

  “Do not trouble yourself further about Ben Holiday, child. What must concern you now are the conditions required for your birthing. Listen carefully. When you take root to give life to your child, it must be in a mix of soils from three worlds. The soils must come from Landover, from Earth, and from within the fairy mists. The soils reflect the child’s heritage, a mix of bloods. This child is a product of each world, born of the union of a human and a once-fairy. It does not happen often. It is a rare and special occurrence.”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]