The Tangle Box by Terry Brooks


  So what should he do?

  He went to sleep finally without having made a decision. He thought about the letter all the next day, mulling it over between meetings and conferences, during meals and while reading documents, and as he ran the perimeter of the castle in the late afternoon hours before dinner, keeping up his training habits even now, Bunion as always his silent, invisible protector.

  He retired to bed that third night following Willow’s departure with the matter still unresolved.

  But by morning he had made his decision. He knew he must go. He must take whatever risk was involved on the chance that the letter and warning were real. Besides, he convinced himself, the risk wasn’t all that great. The Heart was only several hours away on horseback. He would take a mounted patrol of King’s Guards for protection. He would not tell anyone until just before he was ready to leave. That would keep Questor and Abernathy and the kobolds out of the matter. He would leave the Guards safely back from the Heart, go in alone to check things out, meet with Strabo if the dragon was there, and still be back before dawn. Easy enough, and it would satisfy his need to do something besides stand around wondering what he should do!

  There was a deciding factor in all this, although he would not let himself dwell on it. No matter the danger he might actually face in any situation, he was protected always by the Paladin. The King’s Champion was the single most powerful being in the realm, and it existed for the sole purpose of seeing that the King was kept safe. It could be summoned at a moment’s notice, its appearance requiring nothing more than Ben’s grasping the medallion he wore always about his neck, the medallion with the graven image of a knight riding out of Sterling Silver at sunrise. Grasp that medallion, call for the Paladin, and the knight of ghosts and shadows would be there instantly.

  The problem with the Paladin, of course, was that the King’s armored champion was in truth the King himself. Or another side of the King. Or, more accurately, another side of whoever was King at any given moment. In this case it meant that the Paladin was really another side of Ben, a dark, destructive side born out of some well of being that he would rather not acknowledge even existed. But it did, and it hovered somewhere at the edges of his consciousness, waiting. Ben had struggled with the knowledge of what this meant ever since he had discovered the truth about the Paladin. The Paladin was a killing machine that had served in the ranks of the Kings of Landover since the beginning, a creation of the fairy folk to give protection to the ruler they had installed to keep the gates to the fairy world safe. The Paladin had fought in every battle visited on Landover’s many and diverse rulers, championing all causes, standing fast against all enemies. It had been challenged time and again. It had never lost. It died only when the King died. It was reborn when a new King was crowned. It was a timeless, eternal being that lived only to fight and fought only to kill.

  And it was a part of Ben Holiday, an integral part of who and what he was, not merely by virtue of the office he held and the responsibility he had accepted, but because there existed in every living creature the potential for deliberate, controlled destruction. Ben had discovered early on that the Paladin’s infusion into his being, their joining as one, was due as much to the darkness of his human side as to any conjuring of fairy magic. He was the Paladin in great part because the Paladin was in truth another side of him, a side that until he had become King of Landover he had kept carefully closed away.

  So he could rely on the Paladin to come to his rescue if required, though he was loath to call the dark warrior out again unless the need was great indeed. Summoning it was a last resort, he constantly told himself, but it was something he could do if he must. It was something he no longer believed, as once he had, that he would never do again.

  He went through the fourth day in deliberate fashion, standing just outside himself most of the time, watching as Ben Holiday went through the motions of being King. He felt so peculiar about what he was doing, keeping the knowledge of the coming night’s plans carefully tucked away, that he was surprised no one noticed. Questor Thews and Abernathy seemed to find him normal and did not question if something was wrong. No one did. He fulfilled his day’s duties, ate his dinner, retired to his room, and sat down to wait.

  When it was nearly dark, the twilight easing quickly toward night, he went downstairs to the stables, ordered Jurisdiction, his favorite mount, a big bay gelding, saddled, called for a guard of six men, and rode out. He did so quietly and without advising anyone, and he was able to slip away without being noticed. Patrols came and went from Sterling Silver all the time; one more riding out at dusk attracted no particular attention. Even Bunion would probably be resting by now, anticipating a sunrise run with Ben. It was a typical summer night, lazy and warm, and there was that sense of all being right with the world and sleep being just a yawn and a deep, slow breath away. As Ben and his guard rode over the causeway, Sterling Silver was a shimmer of polished starlight against the hazy darkness, a reflection that lingered as they climbed into the forested hills west, then faded as the trees closed about.

  They traveled swiftly, Ben pushing the pace, anxious to reach the Heart before midnight, navigating by the stars and his own sense of time’s passage. He had learned to live without clocks and watches since coming into Landover, and he could now tell time in the old way—by a reading of the heavens, by the length and position of shadows on the ground, and by the feel of the air and the condensation that gathered on the grasses. His senses were stronger in this world, he discovered, perhaps because he was forced to rely on them more. He wore black clothing and boots and black chain mail devised by Questor Thews out of magic and iron to be lightweight but very strong. He wore the precious medallion of the Kings of Landover and a long knife. A broadsword was strapped to his back because the King was expected to travel armed on night sorties and patrols. Riding gloves protected his hands, and a dark scarf was wrapped about his throat to ward off the dust.

  There was no wind as yet, no air movement of any sort, and the night was thick and sultry. Insects buzzed about his head when he slowed, so he kept the pace at a quick trot or canter when the way was clear enough to do so. The new moon left the land bereft of much of its nighttime light—in Landover, the new moon was a combination of some of its eight moons dropping below the horizon and some entering their dark phases (Ben never had figured out exactly how it worked, only when it occurred, which was about every other month). What light there was came from the stars which gleamed all across the cloudless sky, a maze of brilliant pinpricks that seemed to have been placed there for no better reason than to inspire dreaming in those who gazed up at them. Ben did so when the trees cleared enough to allow, but his thoughts this night were occupied mostly with the meeting that lay ahead.

  Time passed swiftly, and it was still almost an hour short of midnight when the riders closed on the Heart. Ben brought the patrol up while they were still some distance away, had the Guards stand down, and ordered them to wait for him there. He rode on until he was within several hundred yards of his destination, then dismounted from Jurisdiction, left the horse to graze unfettered, and walked on alone.

  The woods were dark and empty-feeling as he passed through them, and although he listened for familiar sounds in the blanketing silence he heard nothing. The smells of the forest were pungent and intoxicating, causing his thoughts to drift to other times and places, to events that had once seemed momentous and now were only memories of building blocks used in the construction of his life. He walked easily and without concern for his safety; oddly enough, he did not feel threatened. Perhaps it was the sense of peacefulness that the summer night instilled within him. Perhaps it was the presence of the medallion, a constant reminder of the power bequeathed him as King. Perhaps it was simply that nothing actually did threaten. Whatever the case, he traveled on toward the Heart as if undertaking no more than a nighttime stroll in his gardens, one that would end with sleep and a waking into the new day.

  He reached the Hear
t shortly before midnight, entering from the trees and standing momentarily at the edge of the rows of white velvet rests and kneeling pads, facing toward the white oak dais with its polished silver stanchions and limp pennants. The clearing was silent and seemingly empty. Nothing moved; there was not the whisper of a wind in the stillness. Memories of all that had transpired here came and went. Ben looked about a moment longer, then walked down an aisle between the benches and rests toward the dais.

  A breath of wind brushed his cheek and was gone. Careful.

  He was almost to the stage when the dark figure materialized from out of nowhere to his right, lifting, it seemed, from the very earth. He stopped, a chill racing down his spine, a lurch in the pit of his stomach. The dark figure was robed and bathed in shadow, the light behind it unrevealing.

  “Play-King,” a familiar voice greeted.

  Nightshade!

  Ben froze, on guard now for the first time. Why was Nightshade here? The Witch of the Deep Fell was no friend of his, and if she was present there was reason to believe that the meeting was a trap after all.

  She came forward a few steps, tall and imperious, the light catching her features now, etching out the lean, cold, flawless face, the raven black hair with its single streak of white, the narrow shoulders and long, thin arms. “Why did you send for me?” she hissed at him, her voice cold and angry. “What is all this about a threat of magic to my home?”

  Ben stared, speechless. Send for her? What was she talking about? He was here because Strabo had sent for him! What sort of game was she playing?

  “I didn’t …” he began.

  “You annoy …” she started.

  And then a shadow fell over them both, and the sky was filled with Strabo’s dark bulk as the dragon settled gingerly down at the edge of the dais, serpent body coiling up, wings folding in. Steam rose from his black-as-pitch, fire-slicked, scaled body, and the stench of him filled the air. Even Nightshade drew back in repulsion as he swung his horned and fearsome head from one of them to the other.

  “What is this?” he growled, the sound a deep, unpleasant rumble, the grating of stone against the earth. His huge, implacable bulk was outlined against the forest. “Why is Holiday here, Witch?” he demanded ominously. “What does he have to do with your note?”

  “My note?” Nightshade’s voice was a rasp of disbelief. “I sent you no note! I came in answer to the play-King’s missive!”

  “Foolish old crone,” the dragon purred, a big cat contemplating dinner. “You waste my time with your idiotic denials. The note was yours, the words all too clearly your own. If you have some treasure you wish to trade, then offer it up and be done with it.”

  Nightshade’s face was livid with fury. “Treasure?”

  Ben saw what was happening then, recognized the truth of what had been done to them, and knew instinctively that it was already too late to escape. Separate notes sent to each, seemingly from one another, actually from someone else entirely, meant to lure them to this spot—the bait for a trap. Why? The word screamed at him as he started forward, catching sight suddenly of someone who had appeared just long enough to set something down, a tall, gawky figure, vaguely familiar, backing away from a box that sat open at the edge of the dais, smoke or mist or whatever already lifting from its interior, the box unfamiliar but the figure someone he knew …

  Horris Kew!

  What in the name of sanity was going on?

  “Wait!” he managed to yell, pointing at the scarecrow figure. Strabo’s scaled head whipped around, the fire leaking from his maw as he hissed in warning. Nightshade’s arms came up threateningly, the magic forming streaks of wicked green light on her fingertips. There was a sudden crackling in the air. Ben’s hand went instinctively to the medallion, and he called forth the Paladin to his rescue.

  All too late. Light flared suddenly from all about, thrusting from the blackness on every side, born of some origin earlier fixed and triggered now as the jaws of the trap set to ensnare them closed tightly about. They were hammered forward toward each other and the box, all three of them, King, witch, and dragon, and there was not a moment’s time to react. The light caught and carried them across the velvet benches and rests, across the distance separating them from one another, and locked them in a knot of magic that bound them up with ferocious purpose. Then mist and gloom closed about, rising to receive them as if they were an expected offering. Abruptly they began to fall into a deep, impenetrable void. The void opened beneath them, growing in size as they neared it (or were they shrinking?), a vast, empty sinkhole that sucked them inexorably downward.

  But there was something more. All were experiencing an odd sense of loss, as if some essential part of who and what they were was being stripped away in layers. And there surfaced within each a demon, a nameless, formless, terrible beast they had kept sealed away, but was now suddenly, inexplicably set free. All three howled in fury and despair.

  Where did Horris Kew get such power? was Ben’s last, desperate thought.

  Then down he tumbled with the dragon and the witch, voiceless and powerless, to disappear into the interior of the Tangle Box.

  When they were gone, the Gorse lifted out of the gloom at the edge of the trees behind the dais and hissed coldly at Horris Kew, “Pick up the box.”

  Horris was shaking so badly he could not make himself move. He stood with his hands clenched tightly and his size-sixteens rooted in place. He was stunned by the magnitude of what he had just witnessed—Holiday, Nightshade, and Strabo picked up like rag dolls by the magic and hurtled down into the murky depths of the Tangle Box. Such power! Yes, the Gorse had taken great pains to set the underpinnings of its implementation, to cast the nets of sorcery, to speak the spells that would lie waiting for the three. Or rather, to have Horris do all this, for the Gorse still seemed unable to act on its own. Horris had glimpsed the depth of the creature’s power even then, sharp twinges and stabs that pricked his psyche, but even so he could not have imagined that all these little conjurings could be brought together to form such a singularly devastating magic.

  To one side, the Gorse hissed purposefully.

  “The box, Horris!” Biggar whispered in his ear, an urgent plea from his perch on the conjurer’s shoulder.

  Horris started out of his shock, then hurriedly stumbled forward onto the dais. He stared down at the swirling, misty surface of the Tangle Box. There was nothing to be seen. The box was closed once more.

  Horris stepped back, sweating, breathing hard. He exhaled slowly. It had worked just as the Gorse had promised. The Gorse told them the notes would attract the three, their greatest potential enemies, the only ones in Landover who could offer any real threat. It told them the notes were spellbound so that their readers would find them impossible to resist, even should their reason and good sense caution otherwise. It told them the conjurings and magics and symbols of power cast and set about the Heart would ensnare the unsuspecting trio so swiftly that none would escape. It told them finally that the Tangle Box was a prison from which they would never escape.

  But Horris couldn’t help asking again anyway. “What if they get out?”

  The Gorse laughed, a low, humorless sound in the darkness. “They will never get out. They won’t even know enough to want to get out. I’ve taken steps to see to that. By now, they are hopeless prisoners. They don’t know who they are. They don’t know where they are. They are lost to the mists.”

  Biggar ruffled his feathers. “Serves them right,” he croaked dismissively.

  “Pick up the box,” the Gorse ordered once more.

  Horris was quicker to respond this time. He snatched up the carved wooden container obediently, being careful nevertheless to hold it away from him. “What do we do now?”

  The Gorse was already moving. “We take the box back to the cave, and we wait.” The voice was smooth and self-satisfied. “After the King’s absence has caused sufficient panic, you and the bird will pay another visit to your friends at Sterling S
ilver.”

  The Gorse eased through the gloom like smoke. “Only this time you will take them a little surprise.”

  Labyrinth

  The Knight woke startled and alert, lifting off the ground as if jerked erect by invisible wires. He had been dreaming, and while the dream itself was already forgotten, the impression it had made on him lingered. His breathing was quick and his heartbeat rapid, and it seemed as if he had run a long way in his sleep. He felt a damp heat on his body beneath his clothing and along his hairline. He felt poised on the edge of something about to happen.

  His eyes shifted anxiously through the gloom. He was in a forest of huge, dark trees that rose like columns to hold up the sky. Except there was no sky to be seen, only the mist that roiled overhead, blotting out everything, even the highest branches. The darkness of the forest was a twilight that was as much a part of day as night, as much of morning as evening. It was not real, and yet the Knight recognized instinctively that it was the only reality of this place in which he found himself.

  Where was he?

  He did not know. He could not remember.

  There were others. Where were they?

  He came to his feet swiftly, aware of the weight of the broadsword slung across his back, of the knife at his waist, of the chain mail that warded his chest and back. He was dressed all in black, his clothing loose-fitting and leather-bound, with boots, belt, and gloves. His armor was somewhere close, though he couldn’t see it. It was close, he knew, because he could sense its presence, and his armor always came to him when he needed it.

  Although he didn’t know why.

  A medallion hung against his chest beneath his tunic. He lifted it free and stared at it. It was an image of himself riding out of a castle at sunrise. It was familiar to him, and yet it was as if he were seeing it for the first time. What did it mean?

 
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