Burb Rocking
Sunday, April 13, 2008
  Chapter Eight: The Tree

CHAPTER EIGHT

A rather battered-looking fellow lay immobile ten or twelve feet below me. Someone had been to the wars, and not all of him had come back. On further appraisal, he was not so much battered as he was deceased. His chest neither rose nor fell.

As for me, my senses had become warm, fuzzy things, and I found myself enjoying a wonderful sense of detachment, of peace.

Also, I seemed to be floating, flying. There was the sound of wind rushing past, though I felt not even the tickle of a breeze. Instead, a tingling electrical sensation was running through me.

The room in which the unfortunate chap lay was of a design similar to a bowl for a candle, or the interior of an enormous flower. Narrow white petals stretched beseechingly upward, pressed against a rippling backdrop, blue-green laced with red, violet and gold. The gentleman — failed patient, fallen warrior, forgotten guest? — appeared to be resting on something smooth and soft.

Someone entered the chamber at that moment. She carried a bowl and knelt beside the dead man.

Then I heard the voices, turned and saw an old man with a long green beard. He was saying something to me, but I could not hear it, for I was suddenly falling, falling again. As I’d fallen before.



Black. Always one of my favorite colors. I’d fallen into a blackness that was a vastness. I saw the blackness and knew that it was good. The boundaries of my being had expanded, fading into nothing as they did, were gone. It was all nothing, no thing, Nothing.

Peace.

Neither a here nor a there, not a this, not a that, no before, no after.

I’ve been many strange places, had many outlandish experiences, even achieved rarefied states of being. Yet, while seeming somehow vaguely familiar and very old, the empty peaceful void — while in no way a thing — was something new.

What is left when everything has fallen away?

I don’t know, but not knowing is itself a kind of knowledge.

Time might have passed, or no time at all. The vastness, the peace and the blackness — they went on and on, seeming to have no end.



And then there was light. And it, too, was good. Again there was the rushing of the wind. There were voices on that wind. They were saying my name.

He was there before me, a distant silhouette within concentric rings of golden light. And so was she who was my mother. Others were there, too, friends I’d known, lovers, sisters, brothers.

His shadowy presence came forward, coming into full focus as he loomed larger, and I could see the face of my father.

He said, “You were entrusted with the jewel.”

“My brother has it now,” I answered.

He seemed to incline his head, and I thought I heard the rumble of distant thunder.

“You will have need of it. Do not forget.”

“Everything’s so far away. I’ve already forgotten so much.”

“You will remember this.”

And she was standing beside him, her face as clear to me as it had ever been.

“My son, it has been a long time. A very long time,” she said.

“I saw you amidst shadows and moonlight in the city of dreams,” I told her. “My brother was with you.”

“Tell me.”

So I did. She listened to it all. Everything that had ever happened to me: from the earliest days of my childhood through Amber’s wars and fallen Avalon, my four hundred years of exile, my blinding and imprisonment, the war with Chaos, Dara, Merlin, Moire and Rebma, my dreams, my death.

My death.

I had died. Yet, somehow, some part of me persisted, continued, was not yet extinguished. Soul? Spirit? I’ve never been much for religion. None of the children of Oberon are. Yet here I was. And where was “here”?

Seeking past my parents for whatever lay within the light beyond, I focused my attention as far afield as I could. And thought to glimpse golden grass, wide meadows, a bright world where things gave off their own light. Music, gentle, soft, strangely stirring, reached me. Or was it music? I heard songbirds, the roar of an ocean, the sighing of wind in the boughs of trees, water running and falling over stones. Could the sounds of a world be so wonderful as to be indistinguishable from music?

And some of the people beyond — I could see them better now. Rein, Bill Roth, Jen D’Arbois. They had been still alive, as far as I knew, when I’d departed Amber.

I wanted to step forward, but something stopped me. Instead, my father leaned close, whispered something to me which I didn’t quite catch.

“I don’t understand.”

My father said, “When the time is right, you will. You’re going back.”

“I don’t want to go back.”

“You must,” my mother insisted, and she smiled. She smiled and reached toward me. “Good-bye, my son.”

“Good-bye, Mother. Good-bye, Father.”

The last things I saw were his face, and hers. She was still reaching toward me, reaching but not quite touching as I was drawn back, back from the light and once more into the endless dark.



Then I woke up.

Burning. And aching. With an effort I forced my eyes open. Blurry, but there were shapes and there was light. It seemed I was on my feet and being supported on either side. My left side was a fiery agony. There was a pounding in my head, which hung loose on my shoulders, chin resting on my chest. As I took a slow ragged breath, I flexed fingers, then tried to move my hands. Stiff, and bound behind me. Manacles. So I slightly shifted one foot, then the other. Extra weight hanging from my right ankle, which felt enough like a chain for me to assume that's what it was.

The bad news was that I was someone’s prisoner. The good news, of course, was that I wasn’t someone’s corpse. Yet.

From the sounds of shuffling feet, rustling clothing and murmuring voices nearby, I could tell I was in a large group of people. A breeze touched my hair, wistfully caressed my brow, went its way. That, plus the uneven and crunchy terrain under my feet, let me know I was outside. A feeling of expectancy lay heavy in the air.

The Coming Attractions must have already finished. The show was about to begin.

“This is the place?” asked a male voice, smooth but edged with controlled emotion, excited.

“Order and Chaos meet here,” answered a woman's voice. “This is the place.”

“Then,” rumbled another voice, deep, like rocks sliding together, “bring forth the traitors.”

Shouts, movement, someone being dragged forward, and moments later someone else brought up. While this went on, I remained as still as I could, letting my head continue to hang, my eyes slitted, staring at the rocky soil steeped in the rich pink-gold of a sunset. A big root wound up out of the ground, twisted toward where I was before disappearing into the ground again.

Another woman’s voice coming from the other side of me said, “He has a complete deck.”

“Where do you keep it?” asked the first male voice.

“Hidden in a safe place at the embassy,” came the reply in a voice I knew.

The sound of that reply jolted me. Bleys!

“He lies,” said the first woman.

“It will be on his person,” continued the second female voice. “Search him.”

There was a scuffle. Bleys was apparently putting up a resistance. The struggle was not brief. Finally, however, there was a cry of triumph.

The second female voice said, “And now the jewel.”

“It was seized when he was taken,” the cool and controlled male voice offered.

“Then where is it?” the very deep male voice demanded.

“With me,” said the first woman.

As I was noticing the similarity between the voices of the two women, I experienced a wrenching sensation, along with a curious tingling on the surface of my skin. I had goose-bumps.

“Wake him,” the deep-voiced male ordered.

“And throw the other traitor to the ground,” ordered the other.

Someone hit the ground hard, grunted, but said no word.

My head was seized, tipped back. My nostrils were pinched, my mouth forced open and drink poured into it. Whatever it was tasted of barley and was also spiked with something bitter. I gagged and coughed. Not my favorite beer, I decided.

Standing before me was a large gentleman, red-haired, pallor a pale shade of violet, accoutered in red armor embellished with bands of black iron and phosphorescent emeralds. Keeping his orange eyes focused on mine, he stretched his left hand out toward someone off to the side.

“Give it here,” he commanded.

I recognized the voice of the first speaker. And also thought to recognize him from somewhere.

A woman’s hand dropped something into his outstretched hand. It flashed, and I knew at once what it was.

“You know me?” the big corpse-colored fellow inquired, a cruel smile twisting across his face. “Or think you do? You do not, though you should. I am King Zirlar, of the House of Havgan. You murdered Borel, my brother.”

“In combat. Which he initiated.”

My voice sounded weak and hoarse to my ears.

He drew back his gauntleted right hand and struck me across the face. Hard. I tasted blood.

“Murdered!”

I waited silently. Something told me this wasn’t an argument I was in danger of winning.

Zirlar’s face, momentarily contorted with a disfiguring and unadulterated wrath, smoothed with another smile. That smile made me wonder if my death hung on its edges.

“Well, murderer, it seems you know me. Perhaps you also know this?”

He held up the diamond from Tir-na Nog’th.

“You know the Dreaming Diamond,” Zirlar noted with a nod. “But do you know its use?”

He hit me again.

“Answer me when I ask you a question, murderer.”

I spat blood. And possibly a tooth.

“No.”

He drew his hand back again. But someone stepped forward then and seized his arm.

“He doesn't. Or he would have brought it with him onto the Wheel.”

It was Coyote. I recognized the voice, but not its source. Today he looked a proper gent, human even, in yellow garments and a brown cloak, a red bandana tied about his neck. Except for the pointy, elfin, not-so-human ears. His brown face offered me an ironic smile, dark eyes flashing with amusement.

Angrily, Zirlar shook himself free of Coyote’s grip.

“But you will use it. Or some here will die.”

He stepped aside then. Revealing a slim dark-haired man lying on the ground, in chains. I knew him before he turned his head. The burgundy cloak was ragged, ripped and stained...with blood? The purple doublet was filthy, the light gray shirt, like the cloak, stained, wrinkled and torn. The face now turned toward my own was my son’s.

“Starting with him.”

Merlin lay at the base of a vast tree trunk. Involuntarily, I tipped my head farther back for a better view. The sight of the weighty boughs, the wide-spread canopy, and the sky and mountainside beyond confirmed what I'd already begun to suspect. We, captives and captors, stood at the midpoint in Shadow, the boundary earlier mentioned by the woman who had declared we were at the place where Order and Chaos run into each other. The big old tree, of course, was Ygg.

“Father,” Merlin whispered, “I'm sorry.”

Shaking my head, I told him, “We'll get through this,” adding with a whisper of my own, “somehow.” And took a look around me.

Amazons, possibly the same I had seen inside the Arena of Doom, stood all about us, but there were also some blue-skinned men adorned with shells and bone who carried swords with jagged edges. Two tall amazons and a couple of burly blue mermen stood on either side of Bleys off to my right. A similar guard stood about me, as well. Like me, he was chained, and blood ran down from a gash on his left cheek. Off to my left stood a very powerfully built merman in light armor of shell and baleen, who wore a circlet of pearls, gems and gold on his brow.

There were also two striking women. Apparently of the same tribe, each had pale eyes and skin. She with the torquoise hair I recognized right away as the tree-man's companion at the Arena. The other sported green tresses and might have passed for a resident of Rebma. Ojin stood close to the latter, while Coyote (no longer looking very much like a coyote at all) stood half-way between myself and the former.

“Don't look at them,” Zirlar commanded, stepping close to me again. “Look at me. And answer.”

I heard the stamping and blowing of horses somewhere behind me. The normalcy of the sound struck me strangely, a noise normally pleasant to my ears, but now it underscored a fundamental realization: I was no longer dreaming.

Hatred burned in Zirlar’s fierce gaze. His body was tense with barely repressed fury. In a moment — if no one intervened — he would kill either Merlin or me, or both of us; of this I was certain.

“All right,” I said, having no clue what the game was, but determined to play along. “What do you want me to do?”

The ghastly grin which next stretched itself across that face was far from reassuring.

“First, you will take the Dreaming Diamond and summon your Pattern.”

“To what purpose?”

“To use the power of your Pattern as I command.”

“Sounds easy enough. And then?”

“Then your task will be done.”

“Okay,” I said, wetting my lips, “now for my part of the bargain. On my side—”

“You are in no position to bargain.”

“Then we have no deal.”

“Then your son dies, your brother dies, and you die.”

“That will happen anyway.”

I was struck again. So hard that this time I was knocked to the ground.

A chorus of shouting voices rose up at once. There was a great deal of shuffling of feet.

Though my head was ringing like a bell, I willed it to rise so I could see what was going on.

Zirlar’s sword was drawn. The merman leader, Coyote and Ojin had jumped forward to restrain him. As I was lifted again to my feet, the merman leader, the one sporting the gem-studded diadem, stepped away from Zirlar in order to confront me.

“I am King Raum, by some called Raum-Nór, as it is in the old tongue.”

I recognized the deep voice.

“Do you know my House?”

“How many guesses do I get? Why don’t we start with the House of Imrys?” I hazarded, while beginning to guess other things as well.

He nodded.

“Your life belongs to me. Coyote stood against you on my behalf. As Ojin did for Zirlar.”

“That was hardly sporting. Why not come for me yourselves? You both look like you know which end of a sword to hold.”

The rumbling sound I heard next was so low that it took me a moment to recognize it for laughter.

“Would you have met us on the Wheel if we had?”

“Probably not.”

“Your life belongs to me,” Raum repeated, returning to his earlier point. “You no longer have the right to bargain, or any other right. I can demand of you anything I like.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “you can demand anything you like. And I can refuse any and all demands if I wish. And you can kill all of us, if that sounds like fun. And then what will you have?”

Raum lowered his eyelids by a millimeter, but said nothing.

“You want something from me. I haven’t said no. Will you hear my proposal?”

“Speak on.”

If I’d dared, I’d have breathed a sigh of relief. Without a rational party to deal with, it was obvious where this was all headed. Now, at least, I had a fighting chance.

“We live, of course. All three of us.”

The fish-man nodded slightly, but made no comment.

“And once I've done what you ask, you set us free. That’s it.”

Raum walked away, conferred quietly with Zirlar somewhere behind me and off to my right. They argued. I couldn't hear the words, but occasionally caught interjections from Ojin and Coyote.

While they argued, I studied the two mystery women. Neither seemed particularly interested in the debate, in me or in Merlin. Instead, they stood well apart from one another, but maintained careful eye contact with each other the entire time. What were their stakes in this enterprise, in which they seemed so strangely disinterested? How did they know so much about the principles involved? Who were they?

And where was Martin?

Still, in spite of several still-unanswered questions, I had located Merlin, rooted out Swayvill’s enemies and was about to learn more regarding their plans.

All in all, a rather successful mission.

Raum returned.

“Some of your terms are acceptable.”

“Good.”

“You may have your lives.”

“Also good.”

“And two of you may have your freedom. One remains as hostage.”

“Then me. Merlin likes to stay up late and play loud music. Bleys picks his nose. They’re both lousy house-guests.”

Raum smiled.

“Then we are agreed.”

“Just a couple more things, though.”

He lifted his chin a trifle, squinted at me.

“What is it exactly that I’m agreeing to? And how can the parties trust each other to hold up their respective sides of the arrangement?”

“You will swear a blood-oath,” answered Zirlar, striding forward.

Raum held up a webbed hand.

“We will all swear a blood-oath. Here on the roots of this tree.”

“And the job, which I assume is dirty, that you need me to do?”

“That will be made clear soon enough,” Zirlar said, and I didn’t like how he smiled as he said it.

“Make it clear now.”

“The witches will explain when the time comes.”

“The time has come. Let them explain it now.”

Zirlar’s hand was already on the hilt of his sword, but Raum bellowed, “Witches, approach!”

They did, and once they were standing before me, side by side, something became obvious. Except for the differences in hair color, they were nearly identical. They were twins.

The blue-haired gal I’d encountered earlier looked me up and down, sized me up, and offered her sister a side glance. She was apparently not impressed.

The green-haired woman was dressed — or underdressed — in a simple grass skirt bound with a belt of gold, while a yellow corded top, looking as if it had been twisted from several strands of rope, wound around her chest, leaving her midriff bare. Her attire, though it made me think of luaus and dancing by firelight, nevertheless seemed to suit her well and showed her to advantage. She stepped in front of me, hands on hips, shook back her long green hair, regarded me with haughty disdain.

“You know nothing of us or our powers, do you, Prince Corwin?”

“Not really, no. Of course, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of an introduction. So you have me at a disadvantage.”

“I am Dana. You have already met my sister Keridwen. And, though you know nothing of our powers, we know all about yours. You will use those powers to give us what we want.”

“And how will I do that?”

Keridwen stepped up beside her sister. She held up three Trumps.

“You will use the Dreaming Diamond to call up your Pattern. You will take these Trumps with you to the center of your Pattern and bring these three to us.”

“And that’s all?”

They glanced at each other, and laughed.

Turning back to me with an arch smile, Keridwen said, “Yes, and it will be more than enough.”

“So just how is the diamond able to do all this?”

“It is Tir-na Nog’th. It touches your memories and your dreams, and takes you where you could not otherwise go. It can find what was never truly lost, recall what was never truly forgotten.” Then, frowning, she regarded me with genuine puzzlement, and asked, “You carry Oisen’s great blade, and don’t know this?”

“A Storm Hound must have eaten the instruction manual. How is it that you know so much about it?”

“Enough!”

Zirlar motioned the witches back. They moved closer to the tree, to stand over Merlin, while Zirlar glowered at me.

“Are we agreed?”

I didn’t answer right away, instead wondering how much of this scenario had been anticipated. However one looked at it, I had walked straight into a trap. But there didn’t seem to be much else to do other than keep on walking, see where it all led.

“I will agree to remain as hostage, until released on my own recognizance, and to bring here the three shown on the Trumps, if it is in my power to do so. With the understanding that none will harm my son Merlin, my brother Bleys or myself. And that Merlin and Bleys shall be free to go their way unmolested once I have done this thing.”

“Then,” Raum growled, “let us swear the oaths.”

We joined the witches near Ygg’s great trunk, amid roots as thick around as my thigh. And we each swore, each in turn nicking his thumb as we did. Regular human blood dripped from my hand, while something like droplets of burning napalm fell from theirs. The bark sizzled, and a wisp of gray smoke curled upward while overhead the branches shivered.

Then I was unshackled, given the stone from Tir-na Nog’th and handed the three Trumps.

I was about to ask what they expected me to do, but I felt something happen almost as soon as the gem appeared. It was the same hackle-raising, butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation I’d noticed earlier, whispering across the pores of my skin, making something inside me wind and unwind.

I decided to ask anyway.

“Is there a ritual or something?”

Keridwen stepped close, took my hand, placed it on the diamond.

“It’s the same as using the Pattern, or a Trump. You remember the place where your Pattern stands? Stand close to the tree — here should do — use the jewel and think of that place.”

The touch of her hand on mine was like a mild jolt of electricity. Our eyes met; we’d both felt it. She looked away immediately.

“So now you know what to do. Bring the three back with you, or Zirlar will torture and kill your son.”

There was a certain hollow quality to those last words, and I wondered at the conviction, or lack thereof, which lay behind them. Whatever, there was no time to dwell on it.

I took one step toward Ygg, rested my hand on his bark, leaned on him. How long had I been out, I wondered? Days at least, maybe weeks. I’d been in a tough fight, gotten grievously wounded, nearly died, and seemingly been held in a peculiar bulb-shaped cell. Maybe I even did die, if any stock at all could be put in my weird dream or vision. And now I was being asked to walk a Pattern? It seemed only a few short days ago that I’d struggled through the one in Tir-na Nog’th and vowed never to undertake that ordeal again.

And, of course, if I hadn’t gone to Tir-na Nog’th in the first place, I wouldn’t be where I was now. All I’d wanted was some insight into my supercharged dreams. That, and some alone time in the land that was my home. Contrasting those notions with the present was enough to make me want to laugh or cry. To cry over the injustice, to laugh at the pathetic absurdity.

Adding to the absurdity was the sense of familiarity which had been sneaking up on me since I’d come to. My dreams again. Just as I had recognized the interior of the Arena of Doom back at the Courts, so now I recognized the unlikely assembly before Ygg: Me holding the bright jewel from the sky-city, hovering on the brink of something; the two kings of Chaos, one angry and agitated, one cool and calm; the kings’ forces, small in number, though well-armed; the pair of princely hostages; the twin witches, clinical, aloof. All suspended, as it were, between the mountain-peaks under the banded sky above and the lazily swirling pink fog below, between the emotions of foreboding and curiosity pervading the air.

The irony was far from lost on me. When I had first set out from Rebma, it had been with the hope of finding answers to the questions posed by my dreams. Later, learning of Random's troubles, I’d wondered if our problems were in any way linked. Once Random had assigned to me the investigation into the disappearances of our respective offspring I had entertained a new hope: Perhaps I could chase down the meaning, if not the mechanism, behind my dreams while I picked up clues leading to Merlin and Martin. Standing there beside Ygg in the presence of Merlin and our mortal enemies, suddenly aware I was reliving a prescient dream, I understood that my guess had been correct. Random's plight and mine were indeed somehow two sides of the same problem.

Unfortunately, now that the evidence was in, the proof by its very nature did me absolutely no good.

Well, the time had come to put certain dreams to the test. I held up the gem — what Zirlar and Keridwen called the Dreaming Diamond — and considered it as I would a Trump. A gateway, a kind of lens, a mandala. A telescope pointed toward a great beyond of unknown dimensions.

“Well,” I muttered, and took a deep breath, “Palomar or Parnassus, let’s see whatcha got.”

Staring into the diamond, seeking form in its milky interior, was like and unlike immersing myself in the Jewel of Judgment. Instead of being borne into a galaxy bathed in ruby light, the experience was closer to sinking into a white cloud. The cloud brightened as I penetrated its depths. A plunge into the heart of a star?

From somewhere very far away, I thought I caught Ygg’s voice, all low notes, whispering something. It sounded like, “Good luck, Corwin.”

The white light continued to brighten, somehow without threatening to become blinding, and also began to…thicken. The light actually began to exert pressure on me; reflexively, I pushed back. My resistance seemed to accelerate the process, so that I seemed mired in luminous gelatin, in just-poured glowing quick-dry concrete. As this was happening, however, the stuff around me fractured, broke like light passed through a rotating prism or wind-tossed waves. There was motion all around me, shining leaves whipped into the air and spun by a silent devil of wind. Silent? No, for sounds now began to reach me, and each of the myriad illuminated surfaces seemed a window into a different place. No details of any of these places could be discerned, but distant sounds reached me from them, along with glimpses of indistinct scapes — land? sea? cloud? city?

Recalling my purpose, I cast my mind back to the day which had ended Amber’s war with Chaos. I had climbed to a high place, and on a bare and windswept plateau had surrendered myself to that which lay within the Jewel. My life had seemed to pour out of me, becoming the stuff of the new Pattern emerging from my efforts. With each piece of myself that I had given up, I had gained something else. As life had gone out of me, life had also flowed into me, so that I had had the sensation of simultaneously being drained and sustained by the Jewel. There had been an inevitability to the entire affair, from beginning to end, so that my exhaustion after completing the task had been no more surprising than the burst of new life and energy which had then filled me. And there had been what could only be described as joy, a euphoria such as I’d never known before. Or since.

Till now.

Now again there was the upwelling of joy, the sense of timeless renewal. And I beheld my Pattern.

It lay embedded in one of the planes of light, now expanding, sweeping close, enveloping me. Looking up, my sky was a brilliant white expanse. Before me towered a great tree, but it was not Ygg. The scent of its white blossoms was carried to me by a breeze from the sea that I knew was there, somewhere beyond the trees.

My Pattern spread out from the foot of the tree, scion of Ygg, like a great, complicated root. Like the tree, charged with life and more, with mystical import, a thing and a symbol at the same time, transcendent though physically real.

I smiled for the sea-breeze, for the gently rocking branches, for the line of trees marking the beginning of the slope running down to the unseen waters. For now I understood the joy. I loved this place. And, crazy though it might sound, felt it loved me back. A concept as ridiculous as my smile, yet the smile wouldn’t go away. Even as I placed my foot on the beginning of my Pattern.

Memories of Amber, of Avalon, and many from the Shadow Earth which had slowly changed me — memories overtook me, so that I nearly forgot where I was, what I was doing, why I was there. Peculiar feelings of bilocation came over me in waves, as though I still stood at the Pattern’s starting-point watching myself slowly move through it. At times I felt that the part of myself outside the Pattern faced away from it, looked past its tree to Ygg and the enemies gathered beneath the stout branches and thousands of leaves. Then it seemed as I took one step after another on the Pattern that I was still in the spinning cloud of worlds, and in one of those worlds I still stood under Ygg lost in contemplation of the diamond from Tir-na Nog’th.

Then I was at the center of my Pattern.

From where I was, I could transport myself to any place in Shadow, even to Amber or Chaos. Yet this seemed almost trivial; there was so much more. But I was like a child riding a bike for the first time, paddling a canoe for the first time, sitting astride his first horse — whatever metaphor you like — on the cusp of learning how much more there was to know.

Was I still somehow visible to those assembled by Ygg? The sense that I was in more than one place, though not as strong as when walking my Pattern, still lingered. When I had attuned myself to the Jewel of Judgment, I had not physically gone anywhere. Had I truly departed the spot under Ygg, or was I still there?

The moment of truth had arrived. Naturally, I did not feel I could trust the enemies who had momentarily become my partners. The nobility of Chaos were known for their obsession with honor and tradition. It was precisely for this reason that I was known to some in the Courts as an ignoble bastard who had failed to follow all the rules while fighting to save kith, kin and kingdom, not to mention my own skin. Borel, on the other hand, had trusted that code with his very life, and in so doing had lost it. And now the stakes were as high as they could be, threatening to forever alter the entwined fates of Amber and Chaos.

It sure would be nice to have options.

I had been relieved of my own deck of Trumps, of course. So Random could not be contacted and warned, nor could Merlin or Bleys be rescued by that means. So why not use this Pattern to take myself straight to the palace, and there seek out Random? He possessed a Trump for Ygg. We could return to the tree backed up with reinforcements, turn the tables, save the day.

It was about then that I became aware of something that had been hanging in the background ever since I'd lost myself in the stone from Tir-na Nog'th, a presence like someone's shadow seen out of the corner of my eye. Make that presences. Two minds were focused on mine, quietly observing from a distance. It didn't take too big a leap to guess where the deck had come from that had supplied the Trump for Corwin. As for the two scrying on me, I'd have to go with either the two kings of Chaos or their witch accomplices, as either pair obviously possessed powers beyond the reach of most Chaos-dwellers.

So, if I deviated from the agreed-upon program, those who held Merlin and Bleys (and Martin, too, for all I knew, if he were being held separately at some other location) would instantly become aware of my actions.

Besides, oaths sworn on the blood of Amber possess a peculiar power. It didn’t feel like I really had much choice other than to adhere to my part of the bargain, anyway.

Very well, then.

I drew forth the first Trump.

A huge, strapping fellow in black armor and a blue cloak regarded me from green eyes set in a bony face maned with long reddish brown hair, a silver trumpet lifted to his lips. Rocky cliffs reared to his left, waves crashed on the beach to his right, seagulls wheeled above.

A connection.

Thumbing the next card out from behind the first, I took note of a lean gentleman wearing a confident smile, blue cap, green jacket, yellow shirt and leather leggings. Gray eyes, ash-blond hair, a curling mustache. Standing on a beach, the trees of a dense wood behind him, he juggled three jewel-hilted daggers.

There was a subtle shift in the image and the beginnings of contact.

Fanning out the third card, I encountered the final figure. The Trump bore a fierce and humorless leather-clad warrior, a cruel glint in his dark eyes, his craggy features weathered by the wind that lifted his dirty blond hair from his shoulders. That same wind billowed his black cloak behind him where he stood athwart a mountain pass. Both of his large hands rested on the hilt of the great two-handed sword thrust into the ground before him. The stance, the expression, the location, the sword — everything about the image announced this one was at war with the world.

The card stirred right away, as if almost unable to contain the energy of the man it portrayed.

They looked at me, and I at them.

Then I commanded the Pattern to return me to Ygg.



The connection with the three held. I reached for the first, and he moved toward me.

The auburn-haired man in black armor stepped forward to join our group, looking rather surprised. Until his gaze fell on Keridwen. Striding to where she stood by King Raum, he pulled her close for a kiss. Then he threw back his head and sent his laughter up toward the stippled sky.

Dana called him by name:

“Gorlan!”

I sought beyond the second Trump for the one on the other side.

And then the blond juggler somersaulted through the air like a circus acrobat. Seeing Dana, he danced over to her — actually danced, grinning the while — and lifted her off the ground before setting her back down, pulling her in for a passionate embrace.

“Lothar!” Keridwen laughed.

Overcoming my natural reluctance to strengthen the connection with the third, I moved my mind closer to his, which met mine without fear. Eagerly, he seized on the contact to come to me.

Now he moved into view. He took a single step, no more. With a slow turn of his head, he took in the face of each person there, one at a time, assessing us each in turn. No one spoke.

“I am Ferghus,” he said in a hoarse raspy voice, as though unused to speech.

Silence held us all for a moment. Then Zirlar approached Ferghus, and it was strange. The King did not seem comfortable in a lesser role, but some observer watching nearby might have mistaken the scene for an applicant seeking an audience with the weathered and leathered warrior-prince. Zirlar’s fiddle might be made of gold, for all anyone knew, but it was second to whatever Ferghus played.

“The House of Havgan remembers you, Ferghus, and remembers your brothers. I am King Zirlar. You stood with the Courts of Chaos against Amber thousands of years ago.”

Ferghus inclined his head, giving no other acknowledgement.

“Stand with us again. Together we will conquer.”

“And Oberon’s throne will be mine.”

It wasn’t a question.

From where he stood with the rest of us, Raum said, “So long as you are our ally, we will have no other king in Amber.”

“Then,” Ferghus said, “we will conquer Amber or die.”

And he smiled as he said those words.

Zirlar said, “Those were your words many centuries ago. This time we will not fail.” He turned to Ojin. “Give Merlin and Bleys eternal liberty and hurl them into the abyss.”

Ojin bowed.

“As you command, my Lord.”

Raum addressed his mermen.

“Give the prisoner back his chains. He shall endure the bottom of the sea forever.”

“So,” I said, swaying on my feet, feeling faint and struggling for the words, “the oath of a lord of Chaos is worth nothing.”

Quickly whirling on me, the light in his eyes dancing to a music of many emotions — anger, triumph, bitter irony — Zirlar answered, “The destruction of Amber is worth everything.”

Merlin and Bleys were dragged away.

Perhaps it was the wound in my side, or maybe it was the enormity of this betrayal. More likely it was both that made me fall to the ground then, striking my head on one of Ygg’s roots and mercifully finding unconsciousness.

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