Chapter Ten: The Well
In my youth, in better days long past, I’d visited these mountains and this valley with my brother Brand. I knew the Bandarnath Temple and the well, whose fame ran out from this place to the ends of the Shirai, to Keshwar where the river finally surrendered itself to the sea, to the holy city of Anrakan off in the mountains at the river’s headwaters. There was a time when kings and conquerors would not go into battle without first entering the temple to implore the favor of the Old Ones, the earliest generation of the gods of this land. The kingdoms to either side of the Shirai, however, had not gone to war in an age, and no ruler had visited the temple in centuries.
A drink from the well was supposed to confer a blessing. All I knew, though, standing there in heat that made the air flinch, was that I was thirsty. So I started up the path through the temple grove. Many things were turning in my head, so I didn’t hurry.
I was free.
But I was not where I had hoped to be. How had this happened? Perhaps, considering where I’d been held, the unpredictable forces of Chaos were responsible? There was also, I realized, the remote possibility of an Amberite performing some sort of operation on the Trumps. But it would have to be truly global, so all Trumps everywhere, even mine in my cell, were affected.
The chances of such a thing occurring at all, and occurring whilst I was testing out one of my homemade jobs, would normally be rather low. But if Chaos and Amber were now openly at war, almost anything could be happening.
Or I had simply screwed up, somehow focused on the wrong Trump. Entirely possible, given my oddball setup for getting them to work.
The temple grove behind me, I had come abreast of the terraced vegetable garden, and could see the way ahead more clearly.
There was a woman sitting by the well. I hadn’t noticed her before because her robes, like the well, were white.
Intrigued, I shifted my meanderings toward the back of my mind.
A few minutes of hiking at a renewed pace brought me within the circle of trees. Turning, I looked down toward the temple, which stood at the west end of town, overlooking a deep and sweeping valley. Clouds left soft blemishes on the green and yellow slopes below, grays which were almost blue. Probably a trick of the sudden widening of the sky there. Dust-choked roads ran through it, carrying merchants, farmers, travelers, and their carts, wagons and carriages, many following the banks of the gleaming Shirai. A view I had not seen in several hundred years, and it was good to see it again.
“A drink, traveler?”
She was seated in a chair draped in fine cloth of dark purple dye. The screen of a parasol painted with gods and heroes striving within the wheel of time stood over her. As she sat in the shade, it seemed logical the parasol offered protection from debris falling from the trees rather than an excess of sun. Either way, it was a nice decoration.
“A drink would be good, yes.”
“You have alms?”
“In days of old, a simple task performed on behalf of the temple was known to suffice. But that was all on the honor system. Back then, no one waited at the well.”
She lifted the brim of her thin silk hat — thin as gauze, so that I could see through it a little. And slowly looked me up and down. Blue eyes, red hair that made no secret of its treasure of silver, laid out in streaks found near the temples. Though she smiled, her gaze was strangely intense and searching.
“That was a very long time ago.”
Gesturing over my shoulder with my eyes and a slight turn of my head, I assented to that.
“Longer than I’d have guessed. The view’s changed.”
Her look suggested the question. So I answered it:
“The Sadar Gate no longer guards against the valley.”
She seemed to accept that.
“A long time,” she agreed. “What brought you here on that other occasion?”
“More of a ‘who.’ My brother liked to paint when he entered one of his bad spells, and this region was one of his favorite subjects.”
“You came to test its beauty against his paintings?”
“No, I came for his own protection. I was worried about him. But was glad I came. Yours is a pleasant and peaceful land.”
“You loved this brother, who perhaps no longer walks in this world?”
I realized I had spoken of Brand in the past tense.
“Sometimes. You know how brothers can be.”
“And now something else brings you here. And you wish to drink once more from the sacred well, though you have no alms.”
I glanced down at myself. My uncombed beard fell to my chest, and the hair hanging down to my shoulders was in no better shape. I was barefoot, but as the excess of my water ration had been invested in my art project, little had been left over for cleaning purposes. The truth was that I was filthy. If anything, I imagined I resembled a beggar or a prophet.
So why would a sweet old lady insist I pay for a drink of water?
I gave myself another look. The trousers were of good weave and my light jacket suggested that — once, perhaps — I might have enjoyed a better life. Did she think me some nobleman in disguise, wandering the land as one of its poor, learning how it went with the people? An old story, and a rather trite one. But not unheard-of. If such was her thought, however, wouldn’t she prefer the good opinion of someone in power?
Not necessarily. She might consider honoring temple rules and divine law to be of such great importance as to override all other considerations.
Whatever, I was here to play the beggar, and the beggar I would be.
“Is it still possible, as it was in days of old, to earn a drink with basic labor?”
“It is easier than that,” she answered, keeping her eyes on mine. “A simple kiss will do.”
“A kiss. On the mouth,” was her matter-of-fact response.
An unusual request, though certainly fair. I’d formally kissed baronesses at a few of Dad’s state functions, many of them much older than the woman before me. Yet…a strange request all the same. Still, what the hell? If she wanted a kiss from a hairy old beggar, I supposed I could oblige.
Before I could make answer, she added, “You are a very handsome young man, you know.”
“Really? Because I haven’t checked, but I may have fleas.”
“Very well, then. Your name, a kiss, and the water is yours.”
“You need my name?”
“You come here skulking and shame-faced, then you are unworthy of the well’s blessings. What does your soul tell you? Are you brave and good? Or too proud, or perhaps ashamed, to reveal yourself to the gods of the temple, the well and the grove? Can you tell me your name?”
“Well, I’m not too sure about the ‘good.’ Or the brave part either, come to think of it.”
“But you will give me your name?”
She was watching me closely.
It was silly of me to object. Who knew of Prince Corwin of Amber in this outback of Shadow? What could be the harm? There was trade with Amber, however, through the port of Keshwar, so the possibility existed that a few of our wretched crew were known here (though it was most likely that the best of our number, Gérard, was the only prince of Amber known in these parts — he dealt with captains from Shadows far and wide). Otherwise, though, her arguments were reasonable.
“I might lie. We beggars are known for our lies.”
“You won’t. So I can expect to hear a name?”
She got to her feet, very slowly. And something happened.
This lady was older than I — at least older than I looked. And there was a power in her. No wonder she did not care if I came from high or low. The low-born could not do anything to her, of course, but, then, I didn’t think the high-born could either.
She held out her hand to me, as though we might embark upon a pavane. Very formal, and confident.
There was something of the air of enchantment here. I sensed it strongly now. Three times she had demanded my name, weaving the charm. And I had granted her the right to require it of me. Her power was real enough.
But she was trying to use it on a prince of Amber. I was out of her league.
Her boldness and her imminent failure both made me smile as I took her hand and bestowed a gentle kiss on her dry lips.
And, prepared as I was, she still surprised me. There was more to her than I’d guessed. A moment passed while my surprise registered, and she pressed her mouth — not so dry, after all — firmly against mine, with the sort of passion a lady might show a lover.
Just as I was about to draw back, she pulled away, her smile having much in common with cats who do terrible things to canaries.
There, I caught it. An accent she’d nearly lost. I could almost place it.
“After the drink, I’ll tell you.”
She inclined her head in response and moved over to the well.
“You don’t need to do that. I’ll be happy to haul up the water.”
“I will do it.”
She did, and I realized she was strong, stronger than any old lady I could recall. And perhaps not as old as I had thought. That well probably went over one hundred feet down. Yet the rope flew through her hands. In no time, the bucket rested beside the well. From within her robe, she produced a simple stone cup, filled it, and offered it to me.
I reached for it, but she shook her head.
“This is the temple’s cup. It cannot leave me.”
“And you’d like my name?”
I wanted to lie to her, but I had just witnessed her feat of strength. More was surely going on than was meeting the eye. So I hedged.
“You were somewhat interested in my earlier visit here. And I freely gave up a lot of information about myself. I’m attempting to travel anonymously at this time — some bad people are after me. So how about this? Will you settle for my brother’s name instead?”
She didn’t hesitate.
“His name was Brand.”
And she nodded, as if she’d known it all along. Then she stepped close and held the cup to my lips.
Greedily, I drank.
She gave me two more cupfuls of the well’s sacred water.
It had not been all that long since I’d consumed some of my water ration, but what came from that cup was cold, sweet, pure. Surpassed only, as far as I knew, by that found in the Grove of the Unicorn.
She put away the cup, took my hand in hers, began leading me back down the path.
“Where are we going?”
“You are hungry.”
Once she said it, I knew that I was. Famished, actually. For real food, not prison fare.
“The High Priestess of Bandarnath will give you a meal and help set you on your way.”
The woman in the white robe glanced up at me as she drew me along.
“I am the High Priestess of Bandarnath.”
And that is how, after more than five hundred years, I came again to the well at Mirata.
And she was as good as her word. She led me up to the porch on the second floor and left me sitting by a table, staring off into space. It was a moment before I really saw the gift she’d given me. Because I was still seeing the first floor temple interior through which we’d just passed.
It had been a corridor bisecting other corridors down which we’d walked. No doors, and everything speaking of unstinting opulence. Every bit of the walls and ceilings were intricately carved (of wood, I assumed), and overlaid with ivory and gold. The floor an elaborate mosaic I had not tried to unravel. Lamps and braziers burned everywhere, again causing me to wonder if the interior were truly carved of wood — if so, then the temple was an inferno which hadn’t gotten around to igniting just yet.
I’d waited till we’d left the flickering, glittering space, so as not to disturb the priestesses, acolytes, worshippers and others moving through their rituals, quietly seeking a better understanding of the wisdom of their gods. As we had ascended toward the upper deck, though, I’d asked my question.
“My memory is hardly reliable, but wasn’t this place once consecrated to the Bright God, the Lord of the Stone?”
“It still is.”
“Were there priestesses here then? I can’t recall any.”
“The temple was destroyed, the priests killed. Our order rebuilt it. We are the living female energy to the god's transcendent male energy.”
“Ah, I see.”
Which explained the upgrade from the simpler and more airy temple space I’d remembered — “This Temple Under New Management.”
The gift she’d arranged for me was a slightly altered version of the prospect across the valley I’d been afforded from the well. Then the food started coming, and I was distracted again. Vegetables, beans and grains prepared in a variety of ways, most of them spicy and hot, all of them good. That no meat touched the table didn’t surprise me too much; it was not their way, these folk who valued all life. When I’d demolished the main courses, out came the desserts of fruit, which I doggedly wiped out. All presented very prettily, I might add, but I showed none of the foodstuffs a trace of mercy. The meal tested my appetite just the same, and I lost track of the courses they served, slowing only when I realized they’d truly filled me up.
In short, they fêted me like, well, like a prince.
I was sad, though again, not surprised, when wine, beer, or any other head-spinning stuff failed to put in an appearance.
So I enjoyed the tea.
And I noticed things. Like the golden girl with the long dark hair and long dark eyes, who could not keep the look of consternation out of those eyes as she took away the party-sized bowl of noodles and vegetables which I’d emptied. And the beautiful girl with dark gleaming skin, who used both hands to carry away the wide fruit basket I’d lightened, mouthing an “Oh” as she rounded the table. And the gray-eyed elven lass who brought out the after-dinner tea — and a small pot of honey — who, seeing the astonished girl heading back to the stairs with the empty fruit basket, allowed a corner of her mouth to quirk upward.
“Plenty of diversity in this region,” I observed. “Rarely have I seen its like, save in my own land.”
“History has already happened here,” she acknowledged, setting down her cup with a jiggle, looking down at the rippling surface, watching (I supposed) the tea leaves dance. “Every way imaginable to kill and torture each other has been used here in the service of all manner of societies, religions and governments. From one side of the continent to the other. And once the rulers and warlords had exhausted all the possibilities, they would go back to the beginning and start the whole business over again. Diversity has been a curse to us, though it was through our many peoples and their many ways that we finally found a remedy. And peace.”
“So what was the cure?”
“The Harp of Harmony. The Cup of Contentment. The Sacred Song. The Light of Love. The Dance of Duality. The Grace of the Grail. The Lyre of Lir —”
“Crap,” I said, and watched her patiently steeple her fingers, letting them rest against her lips. Her eyebrows lifted a little, inquiringly. That I suspected her to be holding back a smile made me burn a little, but I checked my natural responses right there. Because I’d belatedly remembered my manners.
“I shouldn’t have said that. Please allow me to apologize.”
“Why?” she asked, seeming surprised.
“Because they’re your beliefs.”
“And you were about to state yours,” she said. “I wish you would.”
“Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Well, why does this system of beliefs require so many aliases? If a belief system with that many names wrote me a check for my soul, I’d expect to have some trouble cashing it.”
Then she really caught fire. When it came to verbal sparring, she held her own just fine. And it quickly became obvious that she enjoyed people who disagreed with her. She let me know that not only did the continent contain every race, and a hundred or more kingdoms, but that there were also thousands, even millions, of gods. She claimed the multiplicity of religions was one of the reasons for the many names for their underlying truth.
“With that many gods hanging around,” I said, “it stands to reason there’s a fair chance of bumping into one or two on your way to the bathroom. Must happen all the time.”
Her eyes widening appreciatively, her expression very serious, she agreed, “It is sometimes necessary to ‘hold it’ all day, due to the line. And getting mirror time can be a real problem.”
“Then I won’t shave,” I announced. “And I’ll stop eating and drinking. Problem solved.”
She burst out laughing then, so that I couldn’t help a chuckle myself.
The conversation wound its way through all manner of topics — music, something this old city was known for in particular, renowned as it was for its manufacture of musical instruments, and art, astronomy and cartography — before she introduced a certain subject. And the whole time, though both of us were having fun, it was a conversation between two people without names. She seemed to enjoy calling me “Brand’s brother,” while I had little choice but to call her “High Priestess.”
“Brand’s brother, where will you go when you leave here?”
“Back whence I came, High Priestess.”
“And where is that?”
“That is a very strange answer.”
“Well, perhaps I can help you. Do you require provisions of any kind?”
“Name them for me.”
“Art supplies and a small room in which to work.”
“That answer is stranger than the other.”
“I will help you, if you will do something for me in exchange.”
“And what would that be?”
“Allow me to watch. And to help you, if I can.”
“Your answer is as strange as mine, I think. But, yes, I won’t mind either a spectator or a critic, or both.”
“Then we are agreed, brother of Brand?”
“We are agreed, Priestess who is Most High.”
That got me an odd look, so I pointed to her teacup.
“I was just beginning to wonder if the acolytes were having a little fun, maybe, spiking the tea with something. No? Well, of course not. Just a joke. No offense taken, I hope? I’m still getting my art supplies?”
She kept her sense of humor, and I got my art supplies.
My studio consisted of a small shed, open on one side, roofed with cloth stretched over the two crosspieces overhead, with just enough room for me and my stuff. It was situated only a few yards away from the well, from which vantage she liked to watch the valley, the traffic going into and out of Mirata, and, of course, the approach of those who desired the blessings of the well.
When no one was around, she would watch me work. And offered small doses of praise, tempered by simple constructive suggestions. Never more than one suggestion at a time. Her advice being remarkably insightful on the whole, I found myself implementing most of her ideas, always with good results.
Also, because we were alone with each other for long stretches, she gave me her name.
“‘Claire’ is what those who know me well call me. You may call me ‘Claire.’”
“That name belongs in Mirata about as much as I do. But I already had you pegged as an expatriate from somewhere else. As for me, I’m known to some as ‘Corey.’ You can call me that, if you like.”
“What makes you want to go back to jail, Corey?”
“An attack of conscience. I don’t feel I’ve finished paying my debt to society, you see.”
Thinking I heard a chuckle, I turned my head away from my canvas (where a half-decent study of the valley was taking shape) to glimpse the expression on her face.
She was serious and serene, her hands folded neatly in her lap.
Perhaps I’d imagined the chuckle. I returned to the canvas.
“How noble of you,” she remarked. “You know, our kalsha
” — the golden tree-topper that completed the temple's spire — “is not fixed very securely. The next big storm will knock it down, and beggars and thieves less honest than you will try to make off with it. You could repay some of your debt to society by better securing it to the tower.”
“How will that help society?”
“Stealing from a temple is a serious crime. You will be helping other unfortunates avoid a lot of trouble. And, as society paid for that kalsha
, you will be sparing society needless additional expense.”
“You are very wise, High Priestess.”
“Another benefit,” she continued. “Sir Corey will be furthering his spiritual development, which may also be good for society.”
“Or at least not as harmful as the alternative,” I tried.
“It is as though you are reading my mind.”
That time I was able to turn quickly enough to catch her grin.
It turned out she liked to draw, paint, make things. She showed me a woodcut she’d done of the well years ago, and I was impressed. As I’d already surmised, she had obviously had another life in some other place before coming to Mirata, the City of Music. She never spoke of it, though, and I never asked. I was grateful for what she was willing to share of that other time and place — namely, her expertise in art.
So I got better. Much more quickly than I’d have done on my own, of that I was sure. Still, nowhere near quick enough. Though I was burning with impatience, with the urgency to come to Amber’s aid, I remained convinced that this was what I needed to do. The old Corwin had miscalculated in the past, and paid a terrible price, without any benefit accruing to Amber. I was not about to charge into the middle of things without being ready. And I wasn’t ready.
But I was aching with curiosity. How were things going at home? To find out, I’d only have to hellride out to the Forest of Arden, see how close I could get. Easy enough, as so many mistakes are. If the place were embroiled in full-scale war, I could very quickly find myself at the mercy of whatever was happening there. And then what? Without a set of Trumps, or some other special advantage, I could lose my freedom and much else besides.
So instead I chose to spend a few weeks in the company of an attractive older woman, whose humor and intelligence delighted me, while I practiced drawing and painting. In the mornings I rose and put myself through some basic physical exercises. Checking with the acolytes of the temple, I would inquire after any chores that I could take on. (And I did fix the kalsha
— a wedge, rope, some crosspieces and a few rocks did the trick.) They trusted me enough to send me into Mirata to purchase oil for the lamps, spices they were unable to grow on the premises, ingredients for their medicines, paper, and other sundries.
A couple of times, I yielded to the temptation to take a detour off into Shadow, where various temple necessities happened to be readily available (because I willed them to be, of course), returning to the temple with the items and the unspent funds, which I suggested be put back into the till. This earned me a few strange looks. Word naturally got back to the High Priestess — Claire — who never troubled to mention it to me.
Though she did help me with my painting, my skill in drawing showed more promise. As soon as I felt ready, I attempted my first Trump, an Eiffel Tower. Didn’t work, of course.
Seeing my frustration, she asked, “What is wrong?”
“I’m trying to create a special effect, but it’s not working.”
“A special effect?”
“Yes, an image hidden within the drawing, which I’m trying to keep in the background. But there’s a problem.”
“What is the problem?”
“I need to give the hidden image added depth, greater dimensionality. Yet if I draw too much attention to that image, it threatens to overwhelm the actual subject.”
“That is a difficult problem.”
“Yes, I’m at a loss.”
So I did. I tried for a stretch of trail in Arden. It was easy to hide the Pattern in the sea of leaves. She showed me how to stagger the image, so that it was echoed in more than one place, found in more than one line.
I set the drawing down on a page in the artist's notebook/sketchpad I was developing.
And this time, when I felt for the place on the other side of the image, something was there.
Arden waited for me, and I knew how to make Trumps.
I wanted a Trump for Rebma, and Claire showed me how to use the waves. My Trump for the Eiffel Tower offered places for the Pattern in the steel beams, in the delineation of city skyline, in the shadings of the sky itself.
Each subject offered a different challenge; you had to be creative about it each time.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it was easy. There were definitely a few tricks to it. For one, when it came to working the Pattern into an image, the best approach for me was a bit like automatic writing, or Ouija. It worked better if I relaxed and let things flow. Also, I found it helped if I had a representation of the Pattern to one side or the other of the space where I was working, even on both sides. Its presence at the periphery of my vision seemed to make things go better. Don't know if that was some conditioning left over from my time in my cell, the place Airu had called Valtuya. But it worked.
I couldn’t yet produce genuine Trumps, pasteboards imbued with the power of the Pattern. Mine were several times larger, and laid out on stiff sheets in my sketchpad. Not as easy to carry, or to use and then put away, as one of Dworkin's decks. None of that mattered, of course, so long as they worked.
So, slowly, carefully, I labored to produce the Trumps I thought I needed.
And then I was ready.
“I’m ready,” I told her.
“To go back to your jail?”
“That’s right. Your help has been invaluable to me. Thank you for everything.”
“Thank you for the donation you left with the temple this morning. May I ask where you came into possession of such a fortune in jewels? And how?”
“By honest means, rest assured. The temple need not worry about tainted wealth. I’m an amateur geologist; there’s a place by a waterfall I know of, off in the mountains. That’s where I went yesterday.”
A small lie. I had gone away the day before, but to a sleeping volcano in another Shadow where corundum in the rough could be chipped from exposed rock, and also could be found in the stream running down its slopes. There had even been a waterfall close by. A jeweler in Mirata had cut the stones for me, keeping a few for himself as payment.
“It is the largest gift we've received in the living memory of the temple.”
“And still less than you and the temple deserve. I’ve rarely been so well looked after, or so at peace. And the art instruction you've given has been priceless.”
“Stay one more night,” she said unexpectedly.
“If I have helped you,” said she, gentle yet insistent, “then stay one more night.”
I owed her too much, and so did not refuse. That night I fell asleep on my pallet as I had dozens of times. This time, though, I woke sometime after midnight, restless, and went to stand outside my hut. The moon shone bright and strong on the mountainside and made the valley glow. Tigers sometimes prowled here, so I waited. But I heard no tiger. After awhile, I went back inside.
Someone was there.
She was stretched out on the place where I slept. A daughter of the temple? A girl from the town? It wasn’t like I hadn’t had offers. Nevertheless, I had worked hard to cultivate the persona of a monk. So I was still rather surprised.
She sat up as I came closer, leaning back on her elbows. Even in the dark, I could see her smile. Slowly, she reached out toward me, and I leaned closer to her as she did. She placed a finger on my lips and sat all the way up, putting her other hand around my neck. The heady scents of flowers, herbs, and other things made a forest of her hair and a country of her skin, lighting up my senses, sparking my brain. Her face moved toward mine.
The touch of her lips made me think I might be dreaming.
“Corwin,” she breathed, and a part of me wondered that she knew my name. But I was already on the bed with her, and she was already drawing me closer.
I answered so softly that she might not have heard the word: “Yes.”
“Love me,” she whispered back.
Her hands were sliding beneath my clothing. Her skin was cool where it touched mine. She kissed my ear, ran fingers through my hair. Cool skin, and I had goosebumps, a thrilling skein woven wherever she touched.
And I caressed her, covered her with kisses of my own. The world went away as I held her, breathed her, tasted her.
When I woke the next morning, she was gone, my only company the questions she had left behind. Slowly, I dressed and got my things together. Stepping outside my hut, I took a look around.
The High Priestess had taken her place beside the well by this time as she always did. Seeing me, she looked up and smiled. With my sketchpad in one hand and pack in the other, I descended toward the well.
There was so much unspoken, and so little of it which I was prepared to say. Though I hadn't meant to let her get so close, in that moment I understood just how important to me she had become. So I simply said, “You never told me why.”
“The kiss?” she asked, her smile widening.
“We could start there.”
She turned her gaze up toward the leaves above her, then looked down toward the temple before she made her reply.
“As High Priestess, one of the roles I play is that of teacher. The kiss was both a lesson and a test. It was really no different from my helping you with your drawing. If you gained by it, then you learned something.”
“I will never be a real artist,” I confessed, while turning her words over for their full meanings, “but, thanks to you, I can see into my own mind better. And show what I see. You have been an excellent teacher.”
“I did have another student once,” she let me know, thoughtfully regarding me once more.
“Then I feel I’ve benefitted from the teaching practice he — or she — provided. I suppose you’ll always have another vocation available to you, if you should ever tire of temple life.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “That part of my life is over. It was nice revisiting it again with you, but Mirata is where I belong, at its temple. And now I will share with you a secret, if you would like to hear it.”
“I’m all ears,” I said, as I folded away the sketchpad, stowing it in the backpack I’d purchased with my new funds. I had also picked up some new clothes, not to mention a pair of boots. Ready for travel. It was another day hot enough to make the air shimmy and shake. My gaze wandered westward beyond the Temple of Bandarnath. The valley below beckoned, and I was eager to be on my way.
“I enjoy meeting those who come to the well,” she began. “Different things bring people here, and some come from distant lands, very far from here. Other worlds, I hear. There is a land called Avalon, very, very far away, and very hard to find, hidden somewhere in the Western Sea. Beyond it, they say, is a place even farther off, where our boldest sailors sometimes go…”
“You know it? It is not a myth?”
“No myth,” I answered, straightening and hoisting the pack onto my shoulder. “I’ve been there. The city on the Mountain that Faces the Dawn truly surpasses description. But I will try. The streets sparkle, as though embedded with chips of diamond. Much of the city is of white stone, like your well here. The towers, green and gold, soar upward like shafts of light. The palace rises up from the mountainside, a dream of pale marble born from the mind of a madman or a genius. And there are those who say he is both. A stair cut into the mountain's eastern face wends back and forth across it in a journey that takes those yet-uncounted steps on a breathless descent from the city to the sea. Mountains rear behind that jewel, the mountain of light, in a long march to the southwest, clothed in the most magnificent wood that has ever been, the Forest of Arden. To the south the Vale of Garnath opens, divided by the great river Oisen, which runs down swift and strong from Jones Falls. And somewhere between Garnath and the summit of the mountain called Kolvir, cradled upon a ledge on the western slopes, it is said there is a place called the Grove of the Unicorn. A nook tucked into the mountainside that is supposed to eclipse the beauty of the palace gardens, whose splendor is a fable in many worlds.”
“A madman and a genius,” she whispered, staring across the valley as I had done just moments before, but seeming not to see it as her mind wandered down old paths. “There is always one, sometimes more than one, in every land. Before your first visit to Mirata, I knew such a one. He taught me my craft as an artist, and was truly a master.”
Before my first visit? Briefly, I hung on those words, wondering if she knew what they really meant. I hadn’t noticed any funny ears on her, but perhaps she was one of those half-elven folk, many of whom could be found in these parts. Like Amberites, they were very long-lived.
I took a step toward her, knelt, extended my hand.
“Fair lady, Claire, High Priestess, I thank you, verily from the depths of my heart, for all you have done, which is more than you can know.”
She slowly put out her hand, which I took, lifting it to my lips for a kiss.
“He was called Dworkin,” she said. “Perhaps you have heard of him?”
“Even in my land, we know that name,” I answered, releasing her hand.
“You never asked me the name of my other student.”
“I think we both know what his name was,” I said, rising. “And now I must be going. Farewell.”
And I walked down the path toward the temple without looking back.
Now that I was finally on my way, there was no rush. I made my way down into the valley, walking the dusty road with others bound for the Shirai. Inside of three hours, I was on the river's banks, stripping for a swim. When I emerged, refreshed, I dried off, dressed, and found a place off the tow-path, where the last trees leaned over the water.
There I took out the sketchpad, flipped it open to the proper page, and concentrated on the image there.
It took only a few moments, and then the place was real enough to touch. So I turned the picture away, reached for the fully realized actuality.
And I was back in my cell. I returned the pad to my pack.
The thunder bucket was gone. No one was here, but someone had been, and therefore knew of my escape. I was pleased no new tenant had been forced to take up residence. Slowly, I turned to examine the wall. My engravings were untouched, which was all I really cared about.
So now I would try it again. The chaotic landscape, littered with smoke and fire, the tower crouching on the hill, the swarm of flying rocks.
There was no peculiar jolt on this occasion, no unpremeditated headlong plunge into Shadow. Ready for anything, I took the fateful step. Right away, the fumes burning my nostrils let me know I had gotten it right this time. I saw I was standing in a ruined heap of cables, struts, torn pieces of wing. Much of the crashed vehicle's red paint had been worn away. The twisted bits of metal and fiberglass were singed and scorched. The ground was hot; I was suddenly grateful I hadn’t gotten through on my first try. I’d have been barefoot.
Looking up, I could see billows of smoke, swirls of gas, jets of flame. Then, lowering my gaze, I spied the tower. There was something sinister about that place, the way it overlooked this infernal region. It loomed too close for my comfort, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to travel out to it.
But no. Half an hour of searching, first within the pile of wreckage itself, and then on the steaming ground around it, turned up what I was after. It was on the side of the broken sailplane facing away from the tower, half buried in sand, one corner visible. It was while I was scuffing up the soil around the grave of Random’s flying machine that I kicked it loose.
I had what I had come for, so I slipped it into my pocket. And took out the sketchpad again (concerned a little, I’ll confess, that a stray bit of ash or ember might alight upon it at any moment).
The drawing of the limbo I had only just left felt cold to my touch, a dramatic and exaggerated sensation given my current environs.
Time to go.
Leaving the realm of Brand’s tower behind, I let the hand holding the sketchpad fall to my side, and was once more within the cell which could no longer hold me.
This time I would depart through another door. I’d dismissed its value before as a refuge, as a base from which to rebuild ruined plans, as a strong suit in the current game. Things had changed, though, and I now knew a different game was being played. Old skills were called for and new players needed to be brought in. I had made up my mind early on during my stay in Mirata what to do if I ever found myself in Valtuya again. So no time was wasted wondering what to do now.
My mind took hold of the image on the wall, and then it took hold of me. The cell fell away as that other place and I moved toward one another. Then the engraving was gone, superceded by the reality — trumped by it, some might say. I took stock of my new surroundings.
People. In a rush on their way from a million anywheres to a thousand somewheres. I stood on a sidewalk, pedestrians pushing past, some giving me looks, others seeming unaware of me except as another obstacle. The human traffic competed with that of the cars, cabs, trucks and buses — noisy, pungent, frenetic. Exhaust fumes fell upon me, fell back, intermittently mingling with the aromas of pretzels, hot dogs, pizza. Along with the food, street sellers hocked clothes, gadgets, tchotchkes, music, magazines, postcards, brochures, books. Every door opened onto a shop, a restaurant, a bank, a hotel, even a church. The very air was charged with vitality, a transformative energy, the feeling of something on its way to becoming something else. Yet the buildings, tall and small, new and old, metal and glass, stone and concrete, modern and Gothic, effortlessly embraced centuries, surrounding all the relentless motion and change with a kind of timelessness. Witnesses, those buildings, monumental and discrete, to hundreds of years fluttering past like leaves in the late summer breeze.
The sign above the shop next to me had three words on it, and they made me smile: Bagel, Deli, Salad.
I had done it, I had gotten to Gotham.
As for Mirata, there were questions in my mind, questions needing answers. One day soon, I would have to go back, learn the truth about Claire and her connection to Dworkin and Brand, and perhaps other things. Was there something besides the scenery that had drawn Brand there in days gone by? It now seemed likely there had been. If so, I would have to find out what it was. Too much of Brand’s story remained unknown.
The mystery girl who had come to me last night was still very much on my mind. Just a chance encounter, an adventurous girl from town? Or was there something more? Perhaps Claire could provide answers here, too. Something told me she knew what had happened, might even have set it up.
Yes, I would be paying the well at Mirata another visit.
But other matters would have to come first. Bleys I would have to rescue, and I was now certain that I could do it. With Bleys at my side, we would get the lay of the land, spy on Amber, spy on the Courts, learn what was really going on.
And we would rescue Merlin. I would make sure of that.
Finally, there was the still-unsolved puzzle of my dreams. The future they had seemed to represent had entered the present. Whatever process was at work, it had moved into a new phase. And that process, as I had feared, did indeed somehow tie in to the disaster which had befallen Chaos, which now threatened Amber. The Arena of Doom had made that obvious enough.
A host of challenges and unknowns lay before me, but I was filled with confidence. I had done much, and there was much left to do. But I felt good.
I was alive, healthy, in good spirits and standing in the heart of the Big Apple. And in that moment it struck me that Sinatra had gotten it right. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
I started walking up Fifth Avenue toward the Empire State Building, whistling as I went.
END OF BOOK ONE
Copyright © 2008 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB) All rights reserved
Labels: Brand, End
Chapter Nine: The Pit
The fishbowl became my new home.
When consciousness returned, that’s where I was, lying on the squishy pallet where I had lain when “dead.” Each day a basket of food and drink was lowered through a cylindrical shaft down into my cell. Day-Glo fish swam beyond the encircling transparent wall.
No one came to call, to interrogate, to torture.
Solitary confinement in a place where time was almost meaningless. All the same, I marked each delivery of a meal on one of the white ribs running up the sides of the jug-shaped chamber.
When I wasn’t pondering various unworkable schemes for escape, I thought of Merlin, and of Bleys. Had they really been tossed into the abyss? Raum was more rational than Zirlar. As royals of Amber, my kin could be useful as bargaining chips. And if my ability to employ Trumps could advance the plans of Amber’s enemies, the same could be said for my son and my brother. Finally, as former agents of the crown, they held information which could be used by the other side.
I was heartened by my own continued existence. If “the bottom of the sea” euphemistically referred to my confinement in a bottle-shaped aquarium, then perhaps “hurl them into the abyss” could be taken at something other than face value. That thought was my rock and I clung to it like the drowning shipwreck victim that it almost seemed I was.
Despair came at me from several directions, but my guard was up. I lived. There would be no despair. Bleys possessed knowledge and resources beyond my own, and had survived worse situations in the past. If I lived, then my guess was that he did, too. A certain amount of denial is probably necessary in most grasps for hope, and I was well aware of the possibility that I was only kidding myself. Still, I hoped Bleys lived and chose to believe it all the same.
As for Merlin, this was his turf. Having been raised in the Courts, he obviously could access native lore beyond the ken of either Bleys or myself. His connections in this place, besides conferring hidden advantages, might also provide unlooked-for allies. In point of fact, if I were placing odds on any of the three of us living through this mess, I’d be giving myself the lowest score. Merlin’s chances were at least as good as Bleys’, and better than mine.
We were far from out of commission. This surely was check, but not yet mate. There was indeed room for hope, hope that was something other than self-deception. Room for hope, if not optimism. When Eric had me immured in the dungeons beneath Amber, I had been deprived of my eyes. Yet I had escaped and lived to tell the tale. I would escape to tell this one.
Down, but not yet out.
Still, despair was not so easily turned aside. Days went by, then weeks, then months. Eventually, I raged against Martin. This was all his fault. Somehow, he had messed up, gotten Merlin and himself in over their heads, so that Random had sent me after them. Had I not come to the Courts as a result, there would never have been talk of people inhabiting abysses or sea-bottoms.
I burned with the urge to confront him with his crimes, teach him a proper lesson. So strongly that I eyed the wall of my prison, wondered how deep underwater I was, how easily that wall could be broken. Escape, track him down, make him understand the enormity of the disaster he had precipitated, the harm he’d done his cousin Merlin, his uncle Bleys, me, and Amber herself. I believe I actually saw red, wallowing in my wrath.
Sometime later, after the anger had burned down and something like rationality returned, I forced myself to recognize the youth and inexperience of my nephew and my son. They were going to make mistakes; it was unavoidable.
So I blamed Random.
But that, too, passed. And, when I had no one left to accuse, I blamed myself.
I had not made an effort to be a part of my son’s life. Instead, I had given him the barest minimum of myself, told him the story of how I had come to his homeland, how before that I had simply come home (really not so simple), how I had come to be his father. And kept my promise to see him walk the Pattern. Then, as if fulfillment of that promise relieved me of all my duties as a parent, I had taken the first opportunity to go as far from Amber and Chaos as I could get, losing myself among the Shadows. My rationale had been my search for the Pattern I had drawn. But now I knew that quest for what it had truly been: my excuse. For, somehow, I had known all along that my Pattern was not part of the web of worlds stretched between the two known poles of existence. It lay somewhere else. Bleys and Fiona had said as much, and in the core of my being I had known they were right.
So why had I fled the home and family I’d fought so hard to save? The pain of losing Deirdre and my father? The awesome scope of Brand’s treachery? The rejection by a certain Princess of Chaos?
All of that, I decided. And more. Just as it had seemed I would take my place in a ready-made family of my own, the mother of my son had declared her hatred for me. And that son had turned out to be a being who, while resembling me on the surface, was in truth very different, almost alien, raised in a realm I still only barely comprehended.
And even if all of that had not been there, further complicating the picture, even a normal family — whatever that was — would have been complicated enough. The truth was, though I might have done a little growing up during the succession intrigues, I still had some left to do. I just hadn’t been ready. Those responsibilities had scared me, and I’d chickened out. I’d run, and now I was ashamed. And not just ashamed. Guilty. For now it was clear that others would pay for my unwillingness to face responsibilities which were mine, and mine alone.
If I ever got out, I resolved to do things differently. If Merlin still lived, I’d find him, get to know him better, make myself available. And I’d cease avoiding Amber. Though I had sworn my loyalty to Random along with everyone else that day on the verge of the abyss, I had not rendered service as they had.
As for the rest, with so much time to think, sooner or later every connection suffered a review. Dara was the mother of my only son. Perhaps I had given up on her too easily, avoiding a serious commitment for all the reasons I was now finally willing to acknowledge. She had made it easy, by rejecting me first. The only way to know if there could be anything there would be for me to make the first move, test the waters. If those waters were still posted “No Swimming, No Fishing,” then at least I’d know that, and know I’d tried.
And Moire…what to say? She’d seemed happy enough to call the troublesome prince her consort. But had I chosen to reside with her in the city beneath the sea for her sake, or for the sake of the city itself? There I had been able to be in Amber without any of the complications of actually being in Amber. Self-imposed exile in an underwater limbo? After hundreds of years of exile, exile was what I knew best. An existence which had frustrated me, but which had also become a part of me. Frustrating, but also — not so unexpectedly — freeing.
I’d lost my passion for living. Without it, there’d be no point in escape.
I laughed bitterly. I’d chosen the beautiful prison of Rebma, willingly placed myself in the power of its lovely warden. And now where was I? Underwater again, in a funny little jail, a genie trapped in a lamp. As there was no beautiful mistress of this latest incarnation of the Stony Lonesome, and the cell was considerably smaller, on the whole it would have to be said that I had traded down. Even if the essentials had hardly changed.
And now, of course, the new conditions, having worsened somewhat, came with their own costs. Things were happening outside my collapsed existence, but what things?
The three mystery men I’d brought into the game, how mysterious were they? They were almost certainly family-members, and obviously long-lost ones. I’d seen their faces before, but I knew even less about them than I did about Osric and Finndo. These three, therefore, had to be their elders, from the time of Oisen and Isolde, if not earlier. From Amber’s earliest days then. We’d been taught they were among the deceased, but, clearly, this was not so. The witches had known this, of course, and for reasons of their own had chosen to share this information with Swayvill’s foes.
But why now?
Because Swayvill’s war on Amber had failed, that was why. He was a defeated monarch. And therefore vulnerable. Now those who had quietly plotted his downfall for millennia at last saw their chance. And had chosen to act. I marveled at their patience.
But perhaps they hadn’t been as patient as all that. It would be naïve to assume this had been their first and only attempt.
The witches themselves were obviously the key to everything. They had known more about the new Pattern than I. Not just more than I knew, more than anyone knew, more than Bleys, more than Fiona. Possibly even more than Dworkin himself.
If the witches were the key to the other side’s power, Dworkin was ours. As soon as I managed to learn Merlin’s fate and, hopefully, find him alive somewhere, finding Dworkin would be my next order of business. Then I’d have to learn the story behind the witches and our three new relatives. And report any findings to Random.
The mission would still be completed. It would just end up taking a little longer than anticipated, that’s all.
Still leaving me with the problem of escape.
There were two ways out, as I saw it. One: Up through the chimney above. Two: Out through the broken wall into the waters outside. Assuming I was being held under Haylish, I would emerge in the midst of the city. From there I could make my way to the Street of the Beggars, masquerading as one (easy enough, one would hope, for a bedraggled escaped convict), learning what I could of the situation prevailing in Amber and the Courts.
What, for instance, was the cover story circulating about the disappearances of Yours Truly, the visiting prince, and Bleys, the resident ambassador? At some point, though, I’d have to make contact with Swayvill, work my way over to Thelbane, gain a private audience. From there we would have to unravel where Merlin and Bleys were being held, mount a rescue. If possible, I’d get in touch with Dworkin, secure his help. With my grandfather on board, locating the still-missing Martin should be less of a problem. Then back home to Random with solid results and, all going well, Swayvill’s opposition already dispatched.
But there was a distinct possibility of drowning if I literally broke out. The other option, using the rope by which the food basket was lowered, wasn’t much better since whoever passed me my meals would be at the other end, able to cut or release the rope any time he chose.
The matter required yet more thinking. So I looked out through the aquarium wall, watched the fish swim by.
The old green-bearded fellow had been paying me another dream visit, shouting to be heard above a roaring wind. It had seemed I could almost make out the words.
Suddenly awake, I sat up with a start and looked around. Still a lone fish in a bowl. The shifting light filtered through the waters and wall showed a round cell devoid of all but my sleeping mat and the thunder bucket against the other wall (the chamber pot that got hauled up the rope once a day).
The words had come to me in a loud whisper. A fragment of my dream?
“Lord Corwin! Are you awake?”
After a pause, I answered, “Yes.”
“Are you all right?”
“Things are going swimmingly down here. So to speak.”
A girlish giggle reached my ears. So I got up, moved to the center of my chamber, tilting my head to peer up the shaft. There was, far, far up, framed against a featureless field of green light, an outline of someone’s head and shoulders.
“I’m not supposed to be here. So I have to be careful and talk softly.”
“It’s great to finally talk with you.”
“Same here. I don’t get many visitors. In fact, you’re the first.”
“Aren’t you curious who I am and why I’m here?”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.”
“Delighted to make your acquaintance, Airu.”
“You have to escape,” she informed me.
“Now that you mention it, that’s not a bad idea. Easier said than done, however.”
“Bad things have been happening.”
“Somehow this news comes as no surprise.”
“Very bad things. King Swayvill no longer rules Chaos.”
“Who’s in charge then?”
“The lords of Chaos no longer heed Swayvill. They are calling for Zirlar to claim the Greenstone Throne.”
I’d actually been expecting something like this.
“How is Zirlar managing this coup d’état?”
“Many are unhappy with Amber’s victory. They blame Swayvill.”
“And support Zirlar?”
“He has promised victory over Amber.”
“What of Raum?”
“He doesn’t mind sitting backstage while Zirlar takes the bows and has flowers thrown at his feet?” I wondered, a little incredulous. “Zirlar gets the glory, not to mention the power? And what does Raum get out of it?”
“Raum has said many times that he has never wanted the throne. All of Chaos knows that.”
“Really? If Swayvill knows that, though, then why doesn’t he make common cause with Raum against Zirlar? And then reward Raum with the number two spot he now holds? Doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t know. But now that Swayvill’s reign is over, Chaos is mounting an attack against Amber.”
There it was.
They’d had months to prepare. I should have seen this coming, too. Still, I was curious how they were pulling it off.
“Without a road through Shadow?” I asked.
“I’ve got to escape.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you.”
“Can you help me?”
“Maybe. What will you do when you’re free?”
“Defend Amber, of course.”
“I knew that already,” she announced, her tone carrying what might have been a mild note of rebuke, annoyance at the very least. “What else will you do?”
“I don’t know. I had some ideas, but they may have just changed.”
“If I help you, you have to promise to help me.”
“Help you? How?”
“We’re prisoners, too. You have to help us get away.”
“And yet you walk free.”
“We are not free. We cannot leave this place, and none of us can walk between worlds as you do. They keep you down there because they think if they didn’t that you’d be able to leave and help Amber.”
“Well, I can’t help you unless you first help me.”
“Very well. After you help me escape, I will do what I can to help you and your friends get out of here. And, by the way, where are we?”
“Valtuya. So we have a deal?”
“We have a deal.”
“Good. Oh —!”
The head-and-shoulder outline above vanished. A minute later, the helmed head of one of my captors appeared in its place. Another minute passed before the rope snaked down. I tied the thunder bucket to it, then tugged the rope twice. The bucket slowly rose up the shaft, carrying with it my hopes and life’s inevitable consequences.
Airu’s visit had effected a change in my thinking. I couldn’t say exactly how, but she had reinspired me, helped me to focus on the problem.
With the right tools, I could gain the shaft. With the right tools, I could pierce the walls of my prison. The problem, obviously, was tools. Maybe Airu would show up tomorrow with what I needed. Maybe a month hence. Maybe never. With an endless sentence stretching before me and no guarantees, there was no time like right now for getting started.
So what did I have?
Fortunately, I’d only been relieved of the obvious items which might aid in a possible escape attempt. Grayswandir was gone, naturally, as well as my deck of Trumps. The jewel from Tir-na Nog’th — that which had been dubbed the Dreaming Diamond — had also been confiscated.
Still, I’d been allowed my clothing and most of what I’d had on my person, minus the dangerous and/or useful things. Cloak, light jacket, shirt, belt, trousers, gloves, boots.
Most valuable, of course, was the belt, silver and steel, like my sword and other fine cutlery. And the cloak offered an ample supply of sturdy cloth.
Classically, my escape would consist of cutting the cloak into a couple of long strips to be twisted into a serviceable rope. With said rope I’d ascend the shaft to freedom.
And I did consider this. The shaft, however, looked too long, fifty, sixty feet or more in length, only about five feet wide. Even using my belt as a grapnel, I had serious doubts about hurling it straight up through the center of the shaft all the way to the top.
The floor of my cell was of stone so closely joined that no mortar was visible between the blocks. And I suspected none had been used at all, that the blocks had either been cut perfectly or formed through some natural process, like that which had created the slabs on the seafloor near Bimini. Perhaps they appeared blocks on the surface, but were merely imprinted thus on one side and in actuality a single continuous sheet of rock? However that might be, from what I could make out of the shaft’s interior, which began about fifteen feet overhead, and of the ceiling itself, a similar process had wrought the rest of this dried up well. The place might have begun long ago as some sort of lava tube within a seamount, or as some similar natural feature, but had at least been modified to the extent that a wraparound band of glass had been created where I was, down at its bottom. And it was otherwise unfurnished, with the exception of the pallet on one side and the necessity of the bucket on the other.
Could the pallet be used to gain the shaft?
No, I decided, as it was shapeless and soft, devoid of any frame or rigidity, like a water mattress or beanbag.
But perhaps structure and rigidity could be provided by employing other available resources?
Again, no. My boots and belt would not suffice for a frame ten or more feet tall.
Then perhaps my only hope for escape was the intervention of an unexpected benefactor, as when I had been held in the dungeons of Amber? And I would be forced to wait things out until fate dealt me the wild card of a Dworkin or an equally powerful ally?
But there was no time for that. And I felt, ever since the visit of the mysterious Airu, that I was on the verge of some realization which would culminate in my freedom. But what else did I have for resources?
Dworkin wasn’t coming this time. So there was only one thing to do.
Parts of the cloak were sacrificed first.
The edge of my belt buckle, sharpened against the edge of a block of stone in the floor, was my cutting tool cum burin. At first, my left boot provided the basin into which some of my water ration was poured. When I had enough water put aside, I set to soaking strips of my cloak, which were then repeatedly squeezed and wrung out.
In my impatience, it wasn’t long before I also resorted to the right boot. So if I succeeded it would be as a barefoot escapee. Whatever, I eventually had useful quantities of the black sludge I wanted.
There would be at least two versions, I decided, and more if I could manage them.
My material resources were limited, so I’d have to take it slow. As for my mental resources, these also had their limits, so, for that reason too, it would be slow going.
I began by recalling the Pattern, the necessary starting point, since without it the rest of my efforts would be for nought. First, small attempts, little petroglyphs, each scribbled on an individual block of stone. A Pattern here, a Pattern there. My first renditions were messy and crude, as I grew accustomed to my materials and refined my recollections of the glowing symbol locked away in Amber’s basement. Each time I drew a better one, I rubbed out any less worthy versions, smudging the images.
It got so that I would wake up and scratch out an image of the Pattern. The Pattern began to appear in my dreams. And, when it came right down to it, it was the image I knew best, at the center of everything. So it was not long before I could draw it without much trouble.
Then I practiced laying down a square of black and scratching a Pattern into it. As I carefully and deliberately performed one experiment after another on alternate stone blocks, the floor under my mat (where I began my work so it could be covered up and hidden from view should anyone peer down to see how I was doing) acquired a checkerboard design. What would anyone make of it if I managed to depart? Corwin had lost his wits? Or merely decided to decorate?
When I felt I had sufficiently mastered the technique, I moved to the walls. The cell was about fifteen feet wide. If I worked at eye-level, I reckoned my work would not be clearly discernible to anyone above.
Small trials at first, just as before. Only now I was more ambitious. Simple renderings of simple subjects, invariably towers. They could have been towers anywhere, in the beginning. But I got better. As with the Pattern, I began with regular drawings, then moved on to my anti-contour engravings, as I thought of them, elaborated silhouettes carved into panels of dried black goop. There were many failures, as I tried to infuse my efforts with more character and identity.
All of those sprung from the line of Oberon, of the blood of Barimen, are, after all, artists. To walk in Shadow, to imagine and visualize other places well enough for them to have the necessary richness and depth, and what might be called self-consistency, cultivates the artist within. And not just visualize — taste, smell, feel. If not born to be creative in this way, sooner or later all members of my family become so. All part and parcel of the whole Pattern-mastery gig.
Time went by, well over a month. When I finally felt I was ready, I checked my remaining supply of boot-sludge and cloak. And hoped there would be enough.
Three rectangles of black went up at three different places on the glassy wall. Each was about three feet tall, two feet wide.
Within the first rectangle I strove with a subject well known to me: the Lighthouse of Cabra. What emerged was not Michelangelo, but it at least met with my satisfaction. Then I inscribed two different towers within the other rectangles, saving the most difficult for last. As always, this took time, but when at last the work was done all three met with my approval.
Then I labored to incorporate the Pattern into the three murals, as a light overlay. I worked long and hard at this.
With all my will, I felt for the power of the Pattern, but felt nothing. Either I was in a place where the Pattern had no power whatsoever, or my renderings were inadequate. My horrible feeling was that it was both.
For a time, I wept.
Then, the very next day, grimly, bitterly, I tried again.
Deciding my approach had been misguided, I smeared over my previous efforts and began with the Pattern this time. That was not so hard, as it had become second nature. The difficult part came when I tried again to execute the drawings. My efforts seemed doomed to failure, but I forced myself to press on.
My efforts failed.
Again, I wept.
Well, what now? I obviously could not do what Dworkin had done. What he had accomplished in minutes, I could not do, even with weeks, or months.
There was no escape.
Then I knew real despair.
Each time I woke my eyes stung with unshed tears, haunted by visions of towers and the Pattern, of Amber burning, of Merlin’s broken body lying in some ditch, of my brothers and sisters in torment and sentenced to an eternity of imprisonment. Several times, I considered suicide. The one change for the better was that the green-bearded fellow no longer troubled my sleep.
Each time that I considered suicide, I told myself there was still a chance that Airu would come.
But she didn’t come.
What had I done wrong? What secret of Dworkin’s art did I lack? Brand had known how to draw Trumps, even for people he had never met. Merlin had created Trumps, and done so without the benefit of Dworkin’s tutelage.
Sighing heavily, I got to my feet.
Though I might never discover the secret of drawing Trumps, I had all the time in the world to figure it out. Descended from the Unicorn, somewhere within me the power lay, waiting to be unlocked.
So I returned to drawing, erasing, drawing again. As I still preferred the notion of a contre-jour
engraving backlit by the diffused light of my aquatic surroundings, I stuck with that. Fish swimming into a drawing as I was trying to focus on some distant place, I decided, would be distracting. That part, at least, I felt I had right.
But I also decided to broaden my range, if only a little. So I practiced other towers, too. The Eiffel Tower came readily to mind, so I gave it a go. My Empire State Building? Honestly, not my best work, even though it had been done as a regular drawing rather than as an engraving. Once more, the Lighthouse of Cabra went up, and this time I tried to incorporate the Pattern into it as I went, a method pioneered in my homage to Eiffel. I was neither surprised nor disappointed when it didn’t respond to my will.
Every so often, I put up another big Pattern on the wall, as a divider between one subject and the next. And laughed morosely as I did, imagining the report of Corwin’s descent into madness as he covered his window space with Patterns and towers — doubtless an attempt to block out the unchanging underwater seascape.
Then one day I looked up to see that my sludge was very low and my wall was covered. Six virtually identical versions of the Pattern, six towers. Cabra, Eiffel, Empire State, Thelbane…
Still unhappy with King Kong’s favorite skyscraper, I took it down, opting to try it as an engraving this time. It was unlikely there would be more drawings after this, so my tribute to New York would be my last.
The thought made me sad. When I had begun my project, I had viewed it as a time-consuming chore. Somewhere along the way, though, those very qualities which had caused it to settle on me like a burden had made it a boon. Instead of waking to wonder what I was living for, for weeks I had woken to a plan and a purpose. There were times when I had been so absorbed by my endeavors that I had forgotten where I was, when I’d briefly become, in a sense, free.
So I determined to put forth a supreme effort, and a slow one. I would make this final sketch last as long as it could be made to last.
And it did. It took about three weeks.
Then it was done, and I set aside my belt buckle.
Over the next few days I contemplated all that had led me here: exile on Earth, taking Amber, drawing my own Pattern, losing some whom I’d loved, gaining a son and then losing him. To end as a kind of shadow of Dworkin, a Dworkin wannabe, a half-crazed (only half?) artist and a failed one at that.
Finally standing there in the center of the chamber, admiring my handiwork while also despairing of it, baffled by my inability to fuse the Pattern with an image, my weary gaze faltered, unfocused, saw double images. The subjects on the wall, so poorly held by my relaxed and overstrained eyes, seemed to float over each other and merge.
It was as if a door had opened. And, indeed, one had.
The Pattern to the left of the engraving of Thelbane seemed to drift till it hovered over the tower. As it did, the Pattern almost seemed to rise up from within Thelbane, overlaid as it now was upon the Pattern that had so painstakingly been woven into the representation of the tower. At the same time, the tower acquired a sudden sense of depth. Like wearing 3-D glasses at the movie theater.
And the image continued to move toward me, for the power of the Pattern had now begun to pull the place out of the image.
I was looking through a Trump!
Inexpressible joy burst within me. Tears ran down my cheeks while at the same time I laughed.
Turning in a slow circle, I tried the trick on each of my engravings, letting eyes go out of focus till the Pattern beside a tower image lay atop the Pattern residing within the image. And each time, after a few moments and much effort, I could feel the tug of the place beyond.
I had created six Trumps!
Overwhelmed by the prospect of imminent freedom, by the shock of such a success after having despaired of any success at all, I slid my sleeping mat into the center of the room. And then sat cross-legged upon it, staring at the wall which was no longer a wall. Now that the door — make that doors — stood open, I hesitated to go through.
My future waited on the other side of one of those doors.
But which one?
There were reasons why it made sense to make use of any one of the six Trumps. And also reasons why not to. An hour went by as I reviewed the pros and cons. And the more I thought it over, the more clear my choice became.
Very well, then.
I stretched out my legs, massaged the ankles and calves a little to take out the stiffness, got to my feet. And stood before the drawing.
Smears, squiggles and shadows telling of gases, veils and trails of smoke, torn bits of gray cloud, and confusing lighting effects left everything a muddle where the horizon should be, seeming to do away with the line between land and sky. In the middle distance, squatting on a jutting shelf of rock, stood a tower, wide, tall, and dark. Like the horizon, portions of the tower were obscured by founts and spurts of smoke and flame. A race-course of dark objects, adrift in the air over the fiery and pock-marked landscape, orbited about the tower — rocks, large and small, the bigger ones smudges showing less detail due to the greater velocity with which they moved. A few random edges and angles at the bottom of the engraving hinted at the jumble of wreckage in the foreground that was needed to complete the picture. Complicated, but crude — almost abstract — to me it most closely resembled some student's random doodle on the back of a notebook.
It was my masterpiece.
I lay my will upon the image, drew upon that force which at last I thought to feel in the image, which was also part of my own being, in my very blood.
Though I’d never been there, I’d briefly seen the place through a Trump — twice, actually — and through a piece of epic story-telling provided by Random. Viewed via Trump, I’d seen the interior of the tower, only glimpsing through a window the wild and sulphurous region surrounding it. Would such piecemeal information be enough? Even as I wondered this, the lines wandering through the unseen limits of the far background blurred, almost violently, and the lines defining the tower and the hill that held it up suddenly telescoped toward me, so that the tower was lost within the effect of abrupt magnification. A peculiar lurching sensation which I could not recall experiencing with a Trump before. But that tower stood at the limits of Shadow, and I stood in a place even stranger and more remote, so the unexpected was to be expected. The coldness was there and a place hovered before me, just out of reach. Placing my trust in the system of Trumps as I always had, I barely hesitated. And took a step toward freedom, feeling the warm breath of air waiting for me before my foot even touched the ground.
The soil underfoot was dusty and hot, the wind blowing across my body a parched and dirty thing. Slowly, I raised my eyes and beheld a white four-sided tower narrowing to a needle-nose extended by a golden antenna-like spire, soaring up from a wide open-air two-story structure, looking for all the world like some alchemist’s mixed-up notion of a rocket resting on a fairy-tale launch-pad. Off to the right, the slope of a hill rose at the temple’s back. An ancient well of white stone stood on the hillside, gleaming where the rays of the sun broke through its retinue of shade-trees.
The sun. It burned fiercely in the sky that seemed to go on forever beyond the frozen white peaks of far-off mountains into an infinitely unfolding universe of ever-deepening blue.
Striding across all intervening Shadows through the doorway of a Trump, as my foot had passed over a thousand or more worlds, bringing the rest of me behind it, something unprecedented had occurred.
I had misstepped.
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Labels: Dworkin Barimen, End