Chapter One: Kolvir
The cell in the Courts of Chaos where I was drowned was constructed from a million mistakes. Not the first time the bars around me have been made of something stronger than my own will.
The sleepy currents shift to unseen pressures far above. On them drift golden fish, green and red billows of algae, weedy rootless plants, and glowing gelatinous see-through things. So little changes here in the vasty deep, I can no longer tell if I dream while awake or merely dream of waking.
And if I dream, is it a good dream or a bad dream?
Nothing is easy.
Loyalty is hard. Love is hard. Some things cost more than money.
It was no nightmare that woke me this time, but big ugly reality.
I sat up suddenly, listened, waited. Just below my little camp a stretch of shell-strewn beach ended at a cairn washed by the surf. From shore to horizon, the sea was an empty expanse. Then it came again. A scream in the night.
The screams had come from within the Valley of Garnath. A glance at the sky showed me the moon was on her way back to bed, and that the sun would soon rise. I buckled on my sword Grayswandir, kicked sand onto my dying campfire, saddled Drum and mounted up, envying the moon.
I rode into the wood, slowly. About me the trees gathered, crowding me more closely as I progressed. For perhaps fifteen minutes I continued in this wise, with no third scream to guide me, just following the path.
Something, some sixth sense, alerted me that I was very near, if not in, a place where someone had recently died. I have learned to trust this sense, which I believe is cultivated by a frequent exposure to violent death.
It was at about this time that I heard the softest of sounds behind me. I halted Drum, took Grayswandir into my hand, turned round in my saddle.
A giant Siamese cat, tiger-sized, glared at me with two balefully bright all-yellow eyes.
A shudder went through me. I knew this thing, had met its like before. It was a thing from my past, from my nightmares. No less unsettling for having traversed the long country of sleep to stand before me now, solid, real. I had some fear of it.
“I give you greetings, Opener,” it said in a voice I did not like. “I have crossed many worlds to savor the sight of our favorite prince of Amber.”
“Anything more will cost you,” I responded, and wheeled Drum around to face it.
“I have not come alone,” it said, and leaped.
I twisted as Drum reared wildly, bringing Grayswandir up and around in a bright flash. The second cat, springing from a tree behind me, impaled itself on my blade. Its body crashed into mine, knocking me from Drum’s back onto the ground.
My left arm got mauled, and ribs raked with claws, but I managed to land free of the thrashing form. I got to my feet, picked up a nearby rock and smashed the creature’s skull with it, yanked out Grayswandir, turned.
The first cat had leaped for Drum, not me. I sprang forward and sliced open the side of the creature as it made another leap for my horse. It fell snarling to the ground, wound aflame. I hacked its side again and jumped back, knowing what was coming.
The burning cat regarded me as flames spread over it.
“We will be back,” it said.
I stepped forward then and split its skull open with my blade. Both cats were utterly consumed by the fires of their own bodies.
When I examined Drum, I found that the ceremonial chest-piece of sea-shell barding had done its job better than I’d have expected. The gashes on Drum’s front were superficial. I washed out the wounds with whiskey and bound them with long strips of cloth torn from my cloak. My wounds were worse, and received similar treatment. That done, I remounted Drum and returned to my camp.
I changed my shirt, drew on a spare cloak, stowed blankets and other gear, all now mostly dried by the fire and breeze. Then I rode Drum back into Garnath. There was no way I’d be able to sleep after what I’d just seen and fought.
Garnath: burned by sheet after sheet of lightning hurled against Bleys and myself when we had laid seige to our brother Eric in Amber, blasted by the Black Road, restored by my father’s sacrifice upon the Pattern. It was and was not the wood I remembered.
Drum obligingly turned north onto the trails that lead to Kolvir, eldest, mightiest and farthest-flung peak of a range of mountains, home to things old, powerful and hard-to-reach. Emulating my horse in their fashion, Dawn’s rose-pink steeds mounted the rim of the sea, shook their glowing manes. The cool morning, full of rich moist odors of earth and vegetation, soon found Drum carrying me up the steep southern face of Kolvir.
The trees that rose up from the black earth were towers of shining green graced with the lightest hint of gold. Their size and majesty distinguished them from their counterparts in the Valley of Garnath. I took a deep breath of the invigorating fragrance brought me by the breeze. I was in the Forest of Arden.
Golden sunlight lay on the eastern flanks of the great trunks. The awesome veils of leaves did their dance to the music of morning. A reddish brown fox standing on the edge of the trail stared straight into my eyes. Then he discretely retreated back into the foliage.
Not much later the trail split. Something in me laughed and said, "Why not?" I guided Drum to the left. As I departed the main southern trail and wound my way up toward the back of Kolvir, I got up above the green flowing cloak of Arden. The way twisted through windy passes and across slopes of bare stone. The deep brilliant blue of Amber’s sky more and more became my world.
Eventually, I reached the declivity notched into the mountain’s backside. A low ivy-clad building stood within it. Two tough gnarly trees stood by it in soil brought from some lower altitude, for nothing green flourished naturally this far above the timber line. There were also a few shrubs.
I slid off Drum’s back, tethered him to one of the trees, taking my place on one of the two benches in front.
For this was my tomb.
There was a casket inside, too, empty. I knew it was empty because the last time I’d been this way I’d opened it up to make sure.
I brought out my pipe almost by reflex, then put it away. The dark leaf in my tobacco pouch could hardly be of use to me after its sojourn in Rebma. So I dumped it out and leaned back to think.
The sun stood high in that blue, blue sky. The clouds were thin and few, the air fresh and clean. These things made it very hard for me to believe what had happened a few hours ago had happened.
The only other time I had encountered such creatures I had been on my way to Avalon. I had met them many times since then in dark dreams on which I prefer not to dwell, but never had I seen their like again in the waking world. Never would I have expected to meet them so close to Amber.
The line between reality and dream had been broken more than once lately. My dreams had acquired a sense of depth and fullness normally denied me. Grayswandir came free of its sheath while I slept. I woke and, like an amateur sleep-walker, found myself holding an imaginary card.
I had assumed the problem had to do mainly with myself, and based my thinking on that assumption. Now it appeared I might have been wrong, in which case I had some rethinking ahead of me. For two of the denizens of Chaos to have made it into the Vale of Garnath was something that greatly disturbed me.
My need to leave Rebma and come to Amber had been strictly personal till now. I had been in no great hurry, which was why I had not bothered to trump straight to the palace, as I could have done. I had wanted a liesurely and pleasant journey through the land I loved, indulging myself in nostalgia and anonymity. There was no desire in me to attract either attention or concern; I had wanted simply to have some time to myself to think and relax.
The relaxing part had not turned out so well. Maybe I’d do better with the thinking.
My original intent had been to enter Amber and locate either my grandfather Dworkin or my sister Fiona. Either of them could give me the counsel I felt I needed. In any event, I felt sure they would tell me to go ahead with what I meant to do next: spend the night in Tir-na Nog’th.
My plan was essentially unchanged. Except now I felt I would have to trouble Julian, Benedict, or even Random, with the news of what I’d found in Garnath. Which meant I’d probably end up discussing my dreams, which meant my fantasy of quietly entering Amber for a discrete visit to the sky-city had been shot to hell.
The wall of my tomb was cool against my back, as I reviewed the facts. At this elevation, the air was crisp and cool even at the height of day. Below my feet, the rock was like a stair leading away from my quiet and unpretentious throne, the sky and barren nooks of stone my nowhere-kingdom. I was comfortable, and my sleep had been interrupted by two accursed cats. It was so nice to rest, to rest...I dozed, and I dreamed.
A large man with the head of a goat stared back at me across space and time. We were in a tower. We both wore mail and we both bore swords. I resolved not to do battle with him, however. Instead, I reached down into the Jewel of Judgment, which burned with a red glow against my breast. He didn’t know it, but soon he’d be a statue unable to parry my blade.
But he did know. And somehow he, too, reached into the Jewel I wore.
So I hurled my blade at him.
He parried Grayswandir, and it clattered to the floor. Seeing me unarmed, the Jewel neutralized by his influence, he advanced.
And I knew I had him.
For, glancing down once more at the Jewel, now pulsing like a living heart, I saw that it had become silvery white and glittered palely. The Goat hesitated, seeing it.
Grayswandir no longer lay useless on the flags. I felt a blaze of triumph in me, as I ―
There was a sudden unexpected jolt. I felt a presence, opened my eyes.
I was alone.
Lingering there on the surface of my fading dream, however, lay the sensation of Trump contact. Had someone been trying to reach me, or was this just another side-effect of my crazy dreams? Sparing my blade a passing glance, I tried to recall precisely how it had been propped against the side of my tomb. Pointless, if I allowed for the possibility that my own mind and memory might no longer be trusted.
“Guess I picked the wrong day to quit smoking,” I muttered as I got to my feet.
Drum was hungry and thirsty, and so was I. Digging into the provisions, I addressed our needs. While doing this, I also removed my horse’s bandages to take a look at the wounds. Already looking much better, though I applied new bandages to the two most serious cuts. Drum seemed satisfied with the sea kelp, yarrow and cod liver oil mix he received, though my fish sandwich left something to be desired. Then I packed everything away, buckled on my sword and mounted up. In short order, we had worked our way up to the crest of Kolvir and were heading down the other side toward the city.
The sun reddened the west and stretched the shadows of the mountains out toward the glittering sea. The going became easier, and Drum responded willingly when I urged a faster pace. The tops of Amber’s tallest towers, glimpsed intermittently in the distance earlier on, were now always in view.
There was the sound of hoofbeats approaching. I brought Drum to a halt, to listen. More than one horse ― several, in fact. This was Amber, post-succession. Therefore, of course, there was nothing to fear. I loosened my blade all the same.
There was a bend not far ahead, a little more than a quarter mile down the mountainside. Half a dozen horsemen rounded it, in no special hurry it seemed, barely moving at a trot, a sensible pace given the terrain. The horses were all impressive beasts, at least a hand or more higher at the shoulder than most steeds to be found in Shadow. But one was larger and more worthy of admiration than the rest, nearly one-and-a-half times the size of any normal horse, silky gray, with hooves that flashed as they moved ― the magnificent Morgenstern. Sitting astride that amazing animal, three or four of his Storm Hounds following close behind, was the tall proud figure of a black-haired man in white armor: my brother Julian.
My hand dropped from Grayswandir’s hilt as I relaxed and shook the reins to get us moving again. Julian raised his hand in greeting, and I did the same. At the same time, he and his group slowed their horses to a walk. We met half-way from the turn ahead.
Julian waved to his rangers, who saluted us and rode past back up the way I had come.
“Returning to their patrols. I must say I had expected to run into you sooner.”
“I don’t understand.”
As we continued down the trail, which was quickly becoming very steep and rugged again, Julian drew forth his pack of Trumps.
“Not taking any calls?”
“That was you?”
He shook his head.
“I only know that Random informed me you were not answering your Trump. Seeing as I was on my way back to Arden, he asked if I wouldn’t mind keeping an eye out for you.”
As we came round the bend, the view that opened up came between me and my response. Far below spread a sea so deep in color that it could well have been what the blind poet had been thinking ― and, very likely, drinking ― when he had sung of the Wanderer’s wine-dark way. The sun had fired much of it into molten, flowing gold. Already, I thought I discerned stars in the gloaming at the ocean’s outer edge, though for all I knew their appearance could have been nothing more than the result of imperfect vision combined with an imperfect mind. Celestial perfection yielding to earthly imperfection? Some data are more easily gleaned if embedded in noise ― certainly not a first instance of such paradoxes. There is, after all, Amber herself....
“Did you and Drum have a rough journey?” Julian inquired, his glance traveling over the cuts and bandages.
“There was an incident, but there will be plenty of time to talk about that later. Now you say Random’s been trying to reach me about something, but you haven't yet said what it is. So what’s this all about, Julian?”
The keen blue gaze of Arden’s master met mine, one eyebrow raised.
“You don’t know?”
He shrugged, returning his attention to the trail before us.
“Then I don’t either. I have been speculating, however.”
“And what have you come up with?”
“Nothing much, brother. Something important, I warrant, else neither of us would be here. I would already be back in the forest and about my business. And you, I imagine, would be wherever you’ve been. Rebma, I presume?”
We were now below the tree-line, among sturdy oaks and pines anchored to Kolvir’s slopes. The Storm Hounds, those big tough canines who were about as much like normal dogs as our Unicorn was like a horse, had caught some scent. They looked eagerly to my brother, awaiting a signal. After staring off into the trees for a few moments, he gave it, and they were off.
“They can use a little run. They were expecting to be heading directly into the wild, but now I’ve turned them back around, dashing their hopes. And the way things are going, it seems the night will find me back in my bedchamber at the palace and these hounds curled up in some stall at the stables.”
Compassion? We were making good progress down the narrow switchback trail, more and more of Amber coming into view as we moved, but instead of Amber my mind dwelled on the brother beside me. Yes, of course, compassion. And it was strange it had lain so well hidden for so many centuries. Yet it had. He was my brother, all right, but ― of all of us ― he was also possibly the most remote. He it was, after all, who preferred the company of trees, hounds and horses to that of other men, especially his family. There were his rangers, naturally, but, though well-coordinated with one another, they often patrolled in small groups, in pairs, or alone. It might be, when it came to anti-social inclinations, that he had at least one rival: our brother Benedict. Hundreds of years ― make that a thousand ― devoted to perfecting the best ways to destroy, or at least to damage and defeat, millions of men might not make for the best ice-breaker at parties. That said, such oversimplifications had caused me to miss things in the past. Benedict was not solely a slaughterer of men; he was also a diligent gardener and a sentimental great-grandfather. And Julian? He did not merely regard his well-trained animals as pieces of his arsenal, tools to be used as dictated by circumstances. He loved them. And loved the forest that held them, just as I did.
“So now it is your turn,” Julian was saying. “After years away from home, what suddenly prompts your return?”
“It was time.” Then, as he deserved better, I added, “I’ve been away for too long. Things have been happening. Signs, omens, recollections. It’s time to check in. I really have no idea what everyone’s been up to since....”
I let the sentence trail off. Since the death of our father, the end of an era, the losses of two brothers and a sister, a cataclysmic war and a struggle for all of existence?
Julian glanced up at the branches overhead.
“Everyone has done as you’ve done, it seems. All gone back to their old lives. As if there never was a war with Chaos, as if many things that happened...hadn’t.”
Though this did not come as a complete surprise, it still left me with questions. So I asked, “Flora?”
“She visits on special occasions. Otherwise, she resides where she did of old. Though now I understand she also oversees imports from your Shadow Earth.”
“And Caine? Bleys, Fiona?”
“I see Caine from time to time. He and Random have grown closer. Random relies on him for news of what goes on beyond Amber, from here to the distant reaches of Shadow. Bleys? He is himself often at the Courts, where he functions as our ambassador there. As for Fiona, I don’t know. She keeps to herself. Nothing terribly interesting has been going on, as I hear things.”
“What about Random? How sits the ancient crown on that youthful brow?”
Julian allowed himself a small smile, which quickly faded.
“Heavily. You put it correctly. The throne, crown and sceptre are very old; he is not. The office has aged him.”
This I already knew, but Julian’s words troubled me all the same. How was our youngest brother holding up after the first few years of his kingship? I’d know soon enough, but now I felt the beginnings of worry. I hoped he was okay, and I hoped my showing up wouldn't add to his troubles.
Julian slowed Morgenstern, pausing to wind his hunting-horn, two short blasts. The distant baying of his hounds answered him. Satisfied, he allowed Morgenstern to resume his pace.
“Gérard, though, I’m guessing is the same old Gérard? Working with ships’ captains, looking to Amber’s trade?”
“Yes, much as you describe. Unchanged, with a single exception. As with Caine, he and Random trust each other as they never did before. Random often consults with him before taking major decisions.”
“Really? That is interesting. Even unexpected. I wonder why the change? I’d have thought he’d rely on Dworkin for key advice, as Dad once did. Dworkin.... What is Amber’s favorite crazy old artist up to these days, anyway?”
If Julian gave an answer, I never heard it. We had been descending the trail toward the city gate for some time. Now we passed through it, and all I could do was look around me.
Amber. I cannot flatter thee with words, first and most perfect of all the cities that have ever been or ever will be, heart of the realm from which all other places take their shapes.
If you have never seen my city, then I can only tantalize you with hints of her elegance, her beauty. If you have seen her, then her name itself should be enough to summon memories of the immortal glory, of the terraced city that slopes down to the cliffs that hold back the sea, of the flowers, red and gold, which deck the thoroughfares, of the marble buildings, of the towers, gold and green, fragile and high, of the temples and the fountains...of Amber.
The dwellings of many nobles lie within Amber, and we passed by some of them on our way to that palace beyond and above the rest. Julian nodded, and occasionally waved, to the passers-by, who recognized him, Arden's lord and protector, far more easily than me, the prodigal prince. I'd been gone for centuries, gone though never quite forgotten, coming back only three times since ― the first time to be immediately thrown into a dungeon, the second to take Amber with guns from Avalon, the third to assist with the Amber Accords. The public did not know me, save as a faceless name, and now I was only a nameless face.
A little red-haired girl leaned out of an octagonal window, shouting, “Corwin!”
Glancing up at she who had hailed me, I smiled, waved, went on. Perhaps my face was better known than I had thought.
As we rode up the wide sparkling way, my awareness of my fame ― or would that be notoriety? ― grew in proportion to the escort we acquired. Shopkeepers, students, children, traders from distant Shadows, even a few nobles ― they came out for a look at the back-from-the-dead (close enough) son of Oberon. Some even walked with us as we made our way toward the palace.
So I would not enter Amber quietly, after all.
The folk about us seemed happy. And why not? The Black Road was gone, the war was over, the idiotic succession struggle finished, and peace reigned in the House of Amber. It is true that the health of a people depends to some extent upon the health of its rulers. Our family had been infected with the viruses of greed, wrath, envy and pride (to name just a few of the seven deadly ones), but now it had finally healed.
The people of Amber had the usual reasons to be happy, too. Amber is rich with many things, not least among them the wealth and wisdom of a thousand thousand Shadows with whom we hold trade. Amberites, I like to think, are well-read and well-fed. Fairly free, too, as the government ― Oberon and his heirs ― has rightly never oppressed them overmuch or seen them as any threat.
The crowd had thinned somewhat. What was left of it was met and turned back by the Royal Guard at the palace gate, while we passed through. Grooms came to take our horses, and I dismounted, turning Drum over to their care. Julian, however, remained mounted.
“Here we part company, Corwin. Morgenstern is mine to see to, and mine alone. And I will see those hounds of mine fed. When that’s done, I may repair to the library. Like as not, though, I’ll be to bed. So I shall see you in the morning.”
This seemed strange to me, given the apparent urgency of whatever was happening.
“What of our meeting with Random?”
“Did I not tell you? The lapse is mine, then. He is off on some business. What it is, I have no idea. But I do not believe he is even in the palace at this time. It is doubtful he will see either of us tonight, however, even if he is. As I said, something of a serious nature has occurred, or is imminent.”
“Oh. Well, then, I guess this is it for today. All right. Good-night, Julian.”
Regarding me from the back of his legendary beast, his intense gaze never left mine.
“You will join me for breakfast? In the south garden?”
“You bring the food, I’ll bring the appetite.”
“Till morning then. Good-night, Corwin.”
The grooms led Drum away, and Julian went with them. A moment later, something changed in the air, made itself felt in the hairs on the back of my neck. A sound? I turned to see the guards step back from the gate. Then I saw the gray shapes, their steely coats ― almost gunmetal blue. Through the gate raced the Storm Hounds. Courtiers, servants, nobles and guards alike gave way before them as they ran at breakneck speed up the path to the stables.
Ruefully shaking my head, I headed up the wide marble steps to the main hall.
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Labels: Beginning, Julian