Burb Rocking
Monday, March 03, 2008
  Chapter Four: Tir-na Nog'th

CHAPTER FOUR

A strange gleaming thing, a vast cloud suffused with light, trailing streamers of glowing vapor, a silvered edifice, a web woven of moonbeams and the night, Tir-na Nog’th shimmers, suspended in the sky between nightfall and daybreak, between the mountain and the moon.

I had visited the city in the sky in the events leading up to the conclusion of the war with Chaos. On that occasion, it had simply been a maneuver calculated to buy some recovery time, though it had earned me troubling visions and one very eerie and mind-bending experience. But now, now I have come to this place on an entirely different sort of errand. Before, I had entered Tir-na Nog’th confidently and without any special expectations, secure in my skepticism regarding its usefulness. On this night it is different, I must confess; I am nervous and no longer so skeptical...

And now Random has added his fears and troubles to mine. Whatever the truth behind them, it is certain my life is about to take a new and very different direction. And ― contrary to some early guesses I'd begun making ― not due to the King of Chaos, after all, but due to his enemies. Enemies who, it has since become clear, are now definitely mine, as well. This universe of ours never tires of the strategic deployment of irony, and I intend to register a complaint about it with Dworkin if I should ever see him again.

Already approaching the top of the stair, I take the final necessary steps, passing through the Great Arch into the spectral alter ego of the immortal city, drifting like a glittering iceberg on high, wrapped in pale fog, all mist and moonshine...bright, brighter than the full moon ever is, but here the moon is not the same old moon ― strong as any searchlight, as a lighthouse beacon... Like a beacon, yes, warning one away from something, guiding one toward something, directing those sailing the night down strange channels through waters uncharted...

On the other side of the arch, I move toward a waist-high wall for a glimpse of the world below, rest my hand on its cool surface. Only for a moment, I promise myself...

Amber just below is a necklace of light hung on the mountain's seaward face...Miles and miles away to the south stands the Lighthouse of Cabra, my metaphor in material form, a lonely light amid the dark sea...Jopin, old friend, I owe you much and haven’t even given you the game of chess I promised, because you were right about us: we are, with one or two notable exceptions, rotten bastards, we princes of Amber...Further up the coast glows the drowned twin of the stair I've just ascended, beyond it the curving, sparkling outline of Rebma, the city beneath the sea, where Moire is queen...Moire, forgive me if you can, but somehow I had known it was time to go, and it seems my dreams had known even if I had not...

It was only a little while ago that the three of us had stood just below the three stone steps which adorn Kolvir’s summit, staring up at the bright city in the sky.

Random had put his hand on my shoulder.

“You sure about this, Corwin? I don’t trust that place. Never have.”

“A little late now, to turn back, don't you think?” Fiona had asked from where she’d stood on the other side of Random. “Besides, I believe his instincts to be right in this matter. The sky-city often offers important, albeit murky, clues. I don't think he has much choice at this point.”

“No,” I had replied, staring at the third step, the place where Grayswandir had been born from moonlight and blue fire according to old family lore. To set foot on the shining fourth step, which, along with the rest of the wavering stairway into the sky, had come into being just a short time before ― to set foot on that step is to be borne upward into the place where dreams and desires take on shape and substance, where signs and omens are everywhere and where the realities of the waking world are hard to find.

“No. You’re right, Fi. The dreams which have been plaguing me need a remedy. I came home looking for a witch, a wizard or a wishing-well. And it looks like it's going to be the wishing-well.”

“Witch.” Fiona had repeated the word slowly, as though trying out the sound it. “I’ve always favored ‘sorceress.’ The other recalls blue skin, bad teeth, warts, and crooked noses. And I do try to keep up my looks.”

I’d frowned then, for the stair was still before me, I hadn’t moved, and they were cracking jokes.

“A seer, a sorceress and a séance?” Random had tried.

“Well, if I hadn't made up my mind before, you witty conversationalists have convinced me. I’m going.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I’d seen Random wink at Fiona, but had already been on my way. To enter Tir-na Nog’th is to leave behind one's normal experience of time. Merely taking half a dozen steps sends you far up the stair which is the sister to that leading up to Amber on Kolvir and to the other which goes down to Rebma in the sea. A footfall here, another there, maybe just two or three more, that’s all, and you are far along before you know it, a sixth of the way up, then a quarter of the way, all in a few blinks of an eye, in some reversal of Zeno’s paradox, a paradox unraveled by the moon and the trickery of time.

Time...Time to move on...through day-bright shafts of silver, past shadows which change shape with every breath, themselves seeming to breathe...up the wide way I go, torches atop roadside pillars blazing, blinding...pale faces peer from windows, but none see me, since in the city of ghosts it is the living who are invisible...past folk on benches and balconies I move, unseen...As though I'm dreaming, as though I’m dreaming about it right now, the day I’ve just come through replays in my head...

In the library, Random had waited me out as I had unloaded the burden of my too vivid, too real dreams.

“You’ve said these dreams intrude into the waking world?” Fiona had asked.

“That's right.”

“You’ve also said they reach into the present. Can you be clearer? Reach into the present from where? From far away, or from near at hand? From the past, or from the future?”

“All of the above.” Over her shoulder sunlight had shone through a window, and for the millionth time I’d marvelled at how crazy it all sounded, even to me. “Places I’ve never been to, places I know well, near and far. I’ve encountered family members who ― as far as I know ― don't exist yet, children, even grandchildren, unborn. And I’ve met the deceased, those long dead and those who’ve passed only recently.”

Random had been more than merely respectful, but had actually seemed to be paying attention. And had asked:

“Feel like giving out any names?”

“Siblings from Amber’s earliest days, whom I imagine few if any of us have ever met. Oisen, Isolde...”

“The crazy bitch who killed herself?”

“The same.”

“Anyone else?” Fiona had prompted.

“A gentleman I don’t know, whom I've dubbed ‘The Old Man of the Sea.’ Old green-bearded fellow, generally pissed off.”

“What’s his beef?” Random had wanted to know.

“No idea. But he keeps harping on how I’m out of time...”

Waking dreams had brought me to the phantom city where dreams walk the streets, people the halls and take their ease in the gardens, to Tir-na Nog’th, to the colorless aurora stretched between Amber and the stars. Where Grayswandir’s power is not to separate bodies from souls, where instead the blade can briefly restore the disembodied spirits lost in the night...

A gate beside the avenue opens onto a garden path on my left. For whatever reason, it has caught my eye and, knowing the peculiar logic of this place, I understand I should go through it. And so I do. A private garden belonging to one of Amber’s nobles, separating the avenue from the mansion beyond. And the private garden is the setting for a private party, complete with silent silver folk circulating about, silent musicians playing inaudible music, pretty people sipping drinks, lovers mouthing sweet nothings that I cannot hear, friends soundlessly laughing at each other’s jokes. Drawn up the path toward the wealthy residence presiding over the garden, I pass through the gathering of ghosts. There is someone standing beneath a peach tree, staring up at the stars. I know her, but cannot recall when, where, how. Still, she is why I am here, so I do what I must do, drawing Grayswandir. The tracery on the blade catches the moonlight as I touch its point to the ground at our feet.

Her cheeks color, her hair, still bright, becomes some shade between red and blonde, dark eyes widening as she sees me, full lips forming a smile.

“Cordy!” she says, intoning the name in a manner most charming, enriched by an unmistakable accent. For she is French and, I now know, a piece of a nigh-forgotten past. Paris it had been, of course, and I had been Cordell Fenneval then, back when Corwin had been an unremembered dream.

“Jacky,” I reply, smiling through my sadness, for Jacqueline has been dust for over two hundred years.

Not losing her own smile, her hand flies to her mouth in a pantomime of horror.

“But here you are no longer Cordy. In this place you are Corwin and you are a prince, oui?”

Noting the mischievious gleam in her eyes, I recall better and better how she had drawn me to her so long ago in France after the Revolution. A charmful armful, sure, but she had been more than that. She had been excellent company, had had a lively wit and had always known how to have fun.

Oui, Jackie. Call me what you like, whatever.”

“Whatever, Cordy,” says she, winking.

I laugh, but can see she is now regarding something behind me. Or someone. So I turn my head to see.

“That sister of yours, she does not like me too much.”

“No,” I say, raising up my sword and sheathing it again quickly.

Coming down from the mansion is my sister, who, like sweet Jacqueline, no longer walks beneath the sun, a true ghost. I leave quickly and do not look back.

Emerging back onto the avenue, I shake my head to clear it. After what Random had later told me, after learning the reason he'd wanted me back in Amber, I want visions speaking to matters more closely connected to the present, if not the future. Visitations from the past, painful or pleasurable, need not apply.

Soon I will be far from Amber, from Rebma, from Tir-na Nog’th. A storm is coming and I am leaving to meet it.

Without even knowing how I’ve gotten here, I have reached the palace grounds, skirting the edge of the south garden. And so I cannot help but smile as I put it behind me, pass among the ghosts, lengthening my stride. As on that other occasion, the palace is pulling me toward it, into it. Through the kitchens then, into and across the dining hall, but now I pause, feeling the stirring of contact.

Someone is trying to reach me through my Trump, so I open my mind, knowing it will be either one or the other...

“Corwin.”

It is Fiona.

“Right here.”

“Where is ‘here’?”

“The palace. The kitchens. Must go!”

There are stairs before me. I need no prompting. Down I go, with a growing notion of where I'm heading, but with no idea of what I’m heading into. Down, down, down into profound darkness, an absolute blackness, edged in broken lines of silver, as though I’ve entered one of Escher’s black-and-white woodcuts, a crazy stairway where dimensions are uncertain, time merging with space...

As has happened before when I’ve gone down the spiral stair, I feel I’m descending into the coils of something alive, a strand of DNA, a narrowing brainstem, the unguessable geometry of the subconscious...

Blazing white torches pass me by, nowhere near the number I would pass on the real stair in Amber, but the pace is much like that experienced on the stairway into the sky, accelerated, brief.

Will I need the key? I wonder, as I reach the cavern at the bottom and draw Grayswandir, seeing it glow here as it never does anywhere else, lighting my way. The pale guard does not see me at first, but turns, glimpsing something out of the corner of his eye. Too late! For I am gone, moving quickly toward the tunnel. I reach it and break into a jog, only too aware of the allegorical owner of the scythe and hourglass who is gaining on me...

Seventh passage on the left, and suddenly I am there. And, no, I will not need the key, for the massive metal-bound door is open. Someone is already here.

Stepping past the door, I see a lantern burning brightly on the floor just inside. About one hundred and fifty yards long, the luminosity of the Pattern quivers throughout this space, seeming part of the chamber’s black floor, seeming to ripple as it moves in and out of focus, silver like everything else here in the city in the sky.

And there at the corner where it begins stands someone about to walk the Pattern.

What is he holding?

No time! Move now or all is lost! screams an urgency within me as I charge toward him.

Whoever he is, he hesitates, considering the object he holds between his thumb and forefinger, chain dangling from it. Lucky for me, as now I am running, crossing the polished black surface of the floor...and I know what he holds before I even see it, know because I’ve been here before...

I have only one shot at this ― extending the tip of Grayswandir, slipping it under the chain, flicking the blade upward ― his now-gray-green eyes widening as the gem is torn from his grasp, his hair shading over to light brown, his tunic turning white and gold, cloak warming to gold, trousers darkening to brown and gold, the words like the gem ripped from him, “My sword!”

The gem ― a diamond? a pearl? ― hangs from Grayswandir’s upraised blade as I brush past him to stamp my left foot down upon the beginning of the Pattern. Snap, crackle, but no pop as an electric current rushes through me. White flecks of fire shoot up around my boots as I move into the first curve. The current increases as the resistance does, as I push forward. Here we go again. How many times must I struggle to thread myself through the eye of this infernal needle?

A dozen paces, perhaps more, then with a burst of effort my right toe, slowly descending, touches the glowing line, fading, brightening, and I’m through the First Veil. I notice again my contact with Fiona, never really broken.

“Can you hear me, Corwin? It won’t be much longer till sunrise.”

“Understood!” I manage, giving most of myself to the task before me. Thoughts intrude all the same. What will happen if the city dissolves around me, my passage through the Pattern not yet complete? It is death to depart the Pattern before reaching its terminus, but if the Pattern departs you? No idea, and I don’t want to find out. My left foot slides forward, me working my way still deeper into the coils, toward the center of the spiderweb, into a world of mixed metaphors...

My hair is lifted by the current flowing through me...I am one of the aluminum spheres of a Van de Graaff generator, but the going is a little easier. A half dozen steps, one or two more, and I emerge from an arc into a straight line. It begins, the next barrier, the Second Veil, a sharp 90-degree turn, another and another, a curve somewhere up ahead, and it is as if I push against some invisible other whose strength matches mine. My bones rattle within me, great silver flashes leap about my boots, boil like a fountain all the way up to my waist, and I'm moving through clear molasses, through chilled liquid glass. Here I am locked in an unending battle with that invisible opponent, here I've always been and always will be, my will pitted against the Pattern, the Pattern fighting against me...but it is a good fight and one where no quarter can be given or accepted, a fight to the death...

Through! Grayswandir is dripping pale fires as I turn, the white gem glowing as it swings on the end of its chain. And now I see him, the ghost, only a few paces behind me, a ghost chasing a ghost, for he cannot see me, but his brow is determined and his blade is drawn. And a shiver runs through me as I belatedly grasp the meaning of the words, “My sword!” For it is my sword he holds, a double-edged bastard sword engraved with the distinctive whorls and angles of the Pattern, sparks falling from it as he emerges from the First Veil.

At the sight, I am assailed by a kind of retroactive déja vu. Years ago, the positions had been reversed: I had been the hunter and brother Brand the hunted as we had moved through the inexorable labyrinth of the primal Pattern in the one place where Shadow does not exist. Now, caught within the Pattern in the city which is not even a Shadow of a Shadow, but something else, some funhouse mirror of Shadow and desire, of dream and doom, two men, each a phantom to the other, race toward an insubstantial goal-post and an unknowable goal. And so, with all my might, I flee...

A straightening course, and then a tricky filigree after that, but all a relief after having come through the Second Veil. I have a good lead on my pursuer now and summon all my will to move forward more quickly. In spite of this effort, or perhaps because of it, out of nowhere more memories from the day overtake me...

“Sleepwalking?” Fiona had asked, frowning.

“Yes,” I had answered with a little too much emphasis, frustrated. And then, in a more measured tone, had gone on, “Yes. Sleepwalking. What if one of the blood, offspring of the Unicorn, should go sleepwalking? Might not he or she walk in Shadow while yet asleep?”

“What a wild idea!” Random had exclaimed, sitting up to pour himself another coffee, then asking, “Anyone else?”

Caught up in the momentum of the conversation, we had shaken our heads.

“But you say you never go anywhere. Instead, things happen around you while you sleep. What you're describing more closely resembles what might occur if a son or daughter of Chaos were to ‘sleepwalk.’ Calling things to yourself out of Shadow, even out of the Abyss itself.”

Knotting my brow, I had answered her dubiously, “Yes, and that might be true for Brand, or for Dworkin, and probably for Dad. But I’ve never undergone that initiation. Those tiger-things from Chaos, for instance. If Brand were to summon something like that ― and I’m not so sure he could have ― they would show up where he was, right? Not a mile or more away in Garnath. That just doesn’t add up.”

“No,” Fiona had agreed, “it doesn’t. But I believe it’s the right idea. When Dad reinscribed the Pattern, his execution may not have been perfect. Something fundamental may have been altered.”

“Yeah, I was wondering about that myself,” Random had said in between sips.

“Well,” I had admitted, “I wasn’t. You do raise an interesting point, though...”

Like a wave the memory washes over me, and like a wave it passes. I am now entering the Grand Curve. Again, I can dimly sense Fiona’s presence. The channel is open, but I’m not answering. Here in the Grand Curve I am unmade, then made and unmade again, bound in a continuous transformation as I am re-created in the image of the Pattern.

Coming out of the Grand Curve, I am ready and prepared, as Brand had been, because I have not forgotten that fight in the midst of that other Pattern.

Grayswandir, or at least the anti-Grayswandir of Tir-na Nog’th, swings in my direction. Its wielder, though, swings blindly, guessing where I am and fortunately guessing wrong. I lean a little as, uncomfortably near, the blade slices the air. Just for an instant, he seems to see me, and then our movements carry us out of proximity. We go back to being specters.

Three curves lie before me, and I cannot remember ever having exerted my will against them more strongly. Then a straight stretch, a series of short alternating arcs. Like the moonlight in Tir-na Nog’th, I feel myself dimming and brightening, fading and returning. Disoriented somewhat, I press on through the ten turns ahead, the sensation of wavering in and out showing no sign of relenting as large white sparks fly through the air, bounce off my chest, still rising. There is a line before me, but I cannot really see it, either for the white fire all about me or the sweat (tears?) in my eyes. My legs feel bound in blocks of ice, though they burn as from fire, for this is the Final Veil. My will, iota by iota, layer by layer, is slowly built into something monolithic. Either Mohammed shall move, or it will be the mountain, and afterward I can never really tell which is which.

A short arc ahead, and three steps beyond that, but nothing exists any longer except white fire and a stripped-down version of myself, the kernel of ego about which the identity of Corwin over centuries has gradually been constructed. This core, this will to be and little else, is all I am now as I inch forward, strangely calm, time itself having been blotted out and erased from my consciousness. Three steps, the second indistinguishible from the first, the third indistinguishible from the other two. I only realize the occurance of the third step belatedly, after the fact, when I am standing in the blackness beyond, the Pattern behind me, already seeming an impossibility which could never have been. Have I truly just walked the Pattern again? I breathe, feel the sweat, and know peace. Shakily, I breathe again and, still shaking, look back, seeking he who hunts me.

No need to look far. He is far closer to me than I would have guessed. Or liked.

From my blade I pluck the chain, then sheathe my sword. The jewel in my hand shines like a star. I look upon it.

As my instincts have told me, as the mixed-up rules which govern Tir-na Nog’th have already made clear, it is indeed a pale white gleaming sister to the Jewel of Judgment.

Looking up from the stone, I see the other, he who must also be a son of Oberon. The sword he holds seems to sizzle like a magnesium flare, emitting a shower of opalescent pyrotechnics, and there is no question that it too is somehow Grayswandir, that it too is as real ― and as lethal ― as the blade hanging at my side. And he is nearly through the Final Veil. Time! I need time! I cannot be lost in contemplation of the infinities within this gem when he arrives, or when the city vanishes.

“Corwin! The sun is rising! You must come to us now!”

Curses on my lips, I take one last look around me.

There! Someone entering the chamber, lifting the lantern. She calls to that other bearer of Grayswandir and he seems to hear her, though I cannot. My heart thuds in my chest. Yes, she is beautiful, regal, but that is not what wrenches my gut, what tears at my soul.

I know her, remember her from before I had become Corwin the man, when I'd barely been Corwin the prince. I know her...

“Corwin!”

The chamber fades out, fades back in. I glimpse the first rays of the sun.

Together they reach out to me. But I am captivated by the one standing on the other side of the chamber. The power of the Pattern fills me, ready to answer my whim. But there is no need to think, to decide, to call upon that power, for it answers something deeper than my will and I am back by the door, she but a foot away. With my hand, the hand which holds the jewel, I reach out to touch her cheek. Color flows into her. Her hair is still black, but her eyes are the green of some sky at the onset of dusk, blue as the sea when the storm comes ― aquamarine perhaps, chatoyant, changeable as air, water, or light. Those eyes see me and she is amazed, though not frightened.

"Oberon? Is this another of your tricks?"

She is smiling, as am I. But her smile falters and I see the fear there only just in time, dropping to the floor as Grayswandir’s double completes a deadly arc through the brightening air behind me. My nemesis stands over me as Tir-na Nog’th fades a final time, like the dream it is...I fall...

The waves far below rush up toward me...I am lost...

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