Burb Rocking
Sunday, March 09, 2008
  Chapter Five: Grove of the Unicorn

CHAPTER FIVE

…hands reached out to me, took hold…I was found.

“Sorry, Random,” I said, getting up off of him and reaching down to help him up. Then I picked up the Trump depicting me from where it had fallen to the ground, handed it back to him. “And, by the way…thanks.”

Next to us, Fiona had gotten back to her feet, and was brushing dirt and grit from her green cloak and lavender skirt. I found her, “You’re welcome,” somewhat lacking in sincerity.

Random punched me lightly on the shoulder.

“You’re lucky you’re needed on a mission for the crown. You always wait too long up there.”

I grunted and went to sit down on the middle step, leaning back on the one above with my elbows, legs stretched out before me. I was bushed.

“Everyone stays in Tir-na Nog’th till the spell is broken by the sun,” reminded Fiona, coming over to sit beside me. “That is the nature of the place. The play does not end till the curtain comes down, the dream does not end till you wake. And your dream was not ready to end, was it, Corwin?”

Too tired to talk for the moment, I just shook my head.

“And it has not ended yet. Has it?”

Her gaze now rested on the silver chain swinging from my left hand.

Random moved to join us, placing one foot on the topmost stair, resting his forearm on his knee.

“We saw a lot of what happened up there, Corwin,” he reported. “But it got kind of intense and confusing at the end.”

“For me, too,” I acknowledged.

“One of these days you’re going to have to tell me how you do it.”

“Do what?”

“Pull stuff out of Tir-na Nog’th. No one else ever does.”

I thought about that. He was right about the limitations of the sky-city. Nothing you brought with you could stay there, nothing from the city could leave. In a way, the place was very much like a movie, but three-dimensional and highly interactive. A theme park built just for you. As the audience, you were important, but not a full participant. Yet I had broken through the so-called fourth wall ― twice. The first time, that breakdown between spectator and spectacle had somehow been engineered by my father, Oberon. On this occasion, however, I could not say how it had been managed. Random had raised a very valid, and clearly important, point.

“The answer is obvious,” Fiona noted. “And readily visible right now at Corwin’s side: Grayswandir.”

“Funny thing about that, though. I’ve glimpsed dream versions of myself up there before. Not once has a Corwin ghost used his copy of Grayswandir as I do. Yet that guy I met up there pulled it off somehow. Damned peculiar.”

Still, she was undeniably correct ― Grayswandir had made the entire crazy episode possible, even if I didn’t fully understand how.

“Do you know him?” Random asked.

“No, but I recognized him. Back during my return to Amber, I swiped a deck of Tarots from the library. In fact, I was thinking about that event just yesterday, right before you entered the library. How I’d stolen the deck from the display case, shortly thereafter to be discovered by Eric. At which point we fought an inconclusive duel. Which was only inconclusive because the guards were coming for me ― so I trumped off to Bleys. You know the story. I was thinking about that deck because of something Vialle had said. It had been a complete deck, containing Trumps for all our family members, including those long deceased.”

“The same deck you threw to Bleys during your assault on Kolvir?”

I nodded, “Yes.”

“Ever get those cards back?”

“Bleys has them still, as far as I know.”

Fiona had been staring at a point on the crest of Kolvir, apparently only half-listening to us while her mind dwelt on something else. Now her eyes sought mine as she asked, “What can you recall about your opponent? As you were consumed by your effort to essay the Pattern, we only received brief fragmentary impressions of his face and appearance. I believe he had brown hair?”

The rim of the sun, just coming into view where I’d been on high as Tir-na Nog’th had lost its substance, was now visible from Kolvir’s summit as it expanded above the edge of the sea. As its soft radiance warmed us, I glanced up to see the remnants of Tir-na Nog’th, so akin to the morning-mist, dissipated with that mist. One instant, a tower or two could be made out along with a portion of the Great Arch ― the next instant they were gone. As the city melted away, my memory of the night spent there was also fading fast, as though the two were linked ― as perhaps they were.

Fighting to hold onto what I could, I answered slowly, “No, not exactly. I only got a good look at him twice. Both times our contact was intentionally as brief as possible ― on my part, at least. Still, I would say his hair was rather light, tinged with red or blond. Light brown, possibly auburn. His eyes were a sort of hazel-green color.”

“Well, that will have to do for two quick looks. What of his clothing? I believe I saw a white shirt, but as it was Tir-na Nog’th that observation may not be worth much.”

“I would also have to go with the white shirt,” Random seconded.

“Which is what I saw. Only ―”

“Only he seemed to like gold,” Random finished. “His cloak.”

“That is what I remember also. His trousers, though ―”

“Brown,” Fiona declared decisively. “We can safely eliminate Osric and Finndo then. They favored other colors and don’t fit the physical description. This is someone from before they came along. Dad was never very forthcoming about the early days, but I do know he had a wife before Cymnea, not merely a mistress. And there may have been more than one.”

“You’re saying this was an heir, not a bastard?” Random suggested. “Not that it matters a whole lot to a dead guy.”

“There is only one answer. The obvious answer. The brother I took this from,” I said, holding the milky diamond up before my eyes, “can only be the first owner of Grayswandir. All we have is a fragment of legend, but we know he was a military genius, the Benedict of his time, his achievements and sacrifice so great that Amber’s greatest river is named for him. He took on an overwhelming foe and somehow prevailed, though that effort cost him his life.”

“Oisen,” Random said quietly, nodding.

Fiona stretched her hand out toward me, so I dropped the pendant into her palm. She turned the gem over once, examining it from all angles, holding it up to the sunlight. A shifting band of muted colors played over her fine features.

“Too bad you were unable to finish what you began.” She caught my gaze. “Or did you?”

“No, I hadn’t the time. But, based on my understanding, I may now be partly attuned to it, having walked it through the Pattern. Brand was able to affect weather and nervous systems without being fully attuned. By that logic, I am now weather-master in Tir-na Nog’th. Bully for me.”

“Keep it with you,” Fiona advised. “This is the message the sky-city sent you. Keep it, for you may have need of it.”

She stood, leaned over me, and lowered the chain over my head, so that the jewel rested on my chest.

Accepting the gesture without comment, I stood up, stretched, let out a yawn.

On his way over to the horses, Random called over his shoulder, “So what did this little outing do for your dreams? Nothing. Let’s get going.”

I made to follow him, but Fiona stood in my way, put her hand on my chest.

“Wait. You’ve said nothing about the rest of your vision. That part at the end, after you’d completed the Pattern. What happened then?”

“What’s to tell?” I said, pushing past her on my way to the horses, suddenly irritated, though I could not say why.

Random, already mounted, shook Firedrake’s reins and slowly headed off to the right, onto the southern trail. Without meeting her eyes, I helped Fiona mount her elegant white horse, then put my foot in Drum’s stirrup, swinging up into the saddle. For no reason I could fathom, my eyes burned.

She brought her horse abreast of mine.

“Who was she?”

I knew she could see the emotions I was fighting to control. With an effort, I mastered them, embarrassed by my own unexpected vulnerability. For her part, Fiona either didn’t notice my internal struggle, or didn’t care. Her gaze did not waver as she waited for my response.

“She was Faiella, my mother. She died when I was so young…I thought I’d forgotten her. Never really knew her at all, didn’t even think I remembered what she looked like. But that woman I saw up there ― I don’t know how I know it, but she was Faiella.”

I shook my head and looked away.

“Don’t know why meeting her up there affected me the way it did. The power of the dream perhaps, of Tir-na Nog’th’s spell. Maybe it was the glimpse I had of Deirdre. When we were little, with our mother dead and Dad not very involved in our upbringing, it had been the two of us against the world…”

Looking back at Fiona, sitting motionless on her horse, quiet and attentive, by her pensive expression seeming to withhold judgment, I gave a small nod.

“Yes, maybe that’s what it was. Seeing Deirdre again hit me kind of hard. Maybe we can never finish grieving for those closest to us. And maybe seeing our mother, after ― as perhaps you saw ― having just fled my vision of Deirdre, maybe that was too much for me. I don’t know.”

There was a wan smile on her face as she reached over to briefly put her hand on my arm.

Then, leaning back and taking her horse’s reins in her hands, she said, “There may also be something else. She was part of your vision of Oisen. This suggests she was present in the court earlier than anyone would have guessed, possibly even before Dad took up with Cymnea.”

Fiona’s horse was now in front of mine, and Drum and I fell in behind her.

“There is also another possibility,” I noted. “That Cymnea was already queen at this point, her unknown predecessor displaced. If Oisen, and any siblings he might have had, were still around then, there could have been a lot of tension and bad feelings circulating. Now my mother enters the picture and catches Dad’s eye.”

Ahead of me, I saw Fiona nod in response.

“The situation could have gotten very uncomfortable, very quickly," she agreed. “Faiella would have had to move carefully to avoid open reprisals from Cymnea, her sons and their allies. She could well have been in danger of losing her life.”

“Then we must take it almost as a given that she did all she could to keep her relationship with Dad a secret. Since, as you say, to do otherwise would be to take her life in her hands. And she would have needed allies of her own.”

We caught up to Random, who had been waiting for us on the other side of the crest. Seeing us, he got Firedrake moving again.

“What kept you? Did I miss something?”

“We’ve been reviewing the dramatic conclusion to Corwin’s vision,” Fiona explained, “and uncovering old court intrigue. Corwin believes the woman who entered the chamber just before sunrise was none other than Faiella.”

Random let out a low whistle.

“Talk about a blast from the past.”

I said, “As you might imagine, it gets better.”

“It does indeed,” Fiona concurred, and then elaborated, “It’s possible Oisen and Faiella were secretly allied against a common foe.”

“Celibacy?”

I took his wisecrack merely for the joke he meant it to be, but almost immediately thought better of discounting it as such. It was a bit twisted, but who knew how far some might go to preserve their hold on power, or their lives? Such things certainly were not unheard of, but I preferred the less lurid interpretation at the moment: a simple alliance of convenience.

“Cymnea,” Fiona answered, unfazed. “If Oisen was alive when she was queen, her sons Osric and Finndo would have seen him as an obstacle standing between them and the throne.”

I heard Random’s, “And then Faiella takes them completely out of the running when Dad dissolves his marriage to Cymnea,” just as we topped a small rise and caught sight of the morning sun burnishing the slopes of Kolvir, brightening the shifting surface of the sea. To the south stretched the Vale of Garnath. Some of the valley, I had heard, had been given over to viniculture since the war. Some of this change was visible from here, regular patches of cleared land concentrated about the River Oisen.

“I’ve never heard Benedict discuss that era,” I said, regarding the valley, “Ever. But I wonder what Oisen’s role might have been ― if he had one ― in the ultimate demise of Benedict’s brothers?”

“And if he had any help,” Random added.

“You mean if there were any other princes alive at that time besides Benedict, Osric, Finndo and himself?”

“Or princesses. Not all the players would have to be big hero types with swords,” Random pointed out.

“True.”

We wended our way further down the mountain in silence for a time, each of us thinking his or her own thoughts, paying attention to the tricky parts of the trail.

After awhile, Fiona said, “There were at least two.”

“Princes?” I asked.

I saw her shake her head.

“No, princesses.”

“Must have turned up on the wrong side,” Random concluded. “Wonder who took them out?”

“I would say, ‘Not Benedict,’ and I am saying that. But I will also add that it was Benedict who slew the hellmaid Lintra,” I said, recalling that other time I had brought a piece of Tir-na Nog'th back with me.

“Here’s a thought,” said Random, ducking beneath a low branch, for we had now descended into the forested portion of Kolvir. “With Faiella the new queen and Eric the new prince ―”

“Bastard prince,” I interjected.

“Okay, bastard prince. The point is new princes are being born to the new queen. So maybe Oisen started out as an ally of your mother, but later joined with his former enemies, Osric and Finndo. And the two princesses. Benedict, we know, remained loyal to the throne. So he and Dad took them all on. Wiped the slate clean, with the obvious exceptions of Benedict and Eric.”

“No, I don’t buy it. They named a river after him. And, when we hear about rebel princes being sent to their deaths, only Osric and Finndo get mentioned.”

“Yeah, but we don’t really know any of the details. To justify casting Benedict’s brothers as the villains, Oisen was needed as the hero. No problem. Dad names a river after him to make sure no one forgets the official story. Done.”

I chuckled, thinking: And maybe this is why the Unicorn knew Random had to be Amber’s next king.

Our sister laughed, too, and offered no comment.

We had wound our way far enough around Kolvir that we were entering the Grove of the Unicorn. We were at the limit of the southwest slope, at the place where it levels off a final time before dropping in a steady descent into Garnath. The Vale lay to the east, and the glade itself held a small pool and a stream which fell off the ledge into the valley below.

Fiona dismounted.

“Would one of you be willing to lead my horse back?” she asked. “If you don’t mind, I’ll go back to Amber on a Trump. It’s been a long night ― and morning.”

Random nodded his assent, and I said, “Okay.”

The air around her began to shimmer as she held the Trump before her, as she became like the card herself, just an image. The light where she had been broke into many colors as the image faded. She was gone.

Random said, “So what do you think?”

“I think the horses need a drink,” I replied, getting down from Drum, and leading Fiona’s horse and mine over to the spring. “I know I do.”

I knelt by the pool’s edge to drink from the cold pure water.

Random did the same, allowing Firedrake to take a good long drink. Random brought the water up in his hands for a few gulps, then filled his canteen. Then he stood, turned and faced me.

“All set?”

I was tethering the horses to a tree, so I finished securing the reins before turning to my brother, the King of Amber.

“Now?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“What about the horses?”

“Gérard’s on it. Are you ready?”

I scooped up one more palmful of water from the spring, splashing it on my face, letting it run down my neck. Feeling refreshed, I told him, “Whenever you are.”

Random produced a Trump I’d never seen before, held it where we could look upon it together.

“Look familiar?”

“Yes.”

“Your son drew two of these. One for me and another for Bleys. You know the place.”

And I did know it. Puffy pink fog, a tricolor sky composed of streaks of red, yellow and green. Off to the right loomed the overarching presence of an enormous ancient tree. An oak, I judged, maybe an ash. Hard to tell, given the unusual lighting and lack of sharp detail. The tree stood on the slope of a rugged and otherwise lifeless valley.

The image wavered a little, went away, came back. When it came back, though, it returned in three dimensions. All we had to do was reach out to it, walk toward it.

We did.

Copyright © 2008 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved

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