Chapter Four: Nest of Crows
“So you have come back to lose another game of chess?”
He said it rather loudly, and winked as he said it.
A short old man, bent over by Time like a tree in the wind, he still wore a gray beard that hung down to his chest and had a hide dark as the sea that had toughened it. And he didn’t even try to hide the bottle of whisky he’d been drinking.
He was also still somewhat hard of hearing, which was at least partly responsible for the unnecessarily raised voice. Again, though, there was that bottle of whisky.
We had arrived late at night. Or pretty early in the morning. Either way, it was dark. I had led the way from the quay over the rocks and up the curving stair cut into the island’s native stone, turning my head frequently to check on those following me. They had been understandably stunned by the whole thing. By the sudden and inexplicable transition from where we’d been to where we were now. By what had been happening as we had left Manhattan behind. The tower had been shaking with the force of explosions, with the force of the impact with a large, fast-moving object sent winging across the sky.
I wasn’t sure if they had witnessed what I had, if they’d felt the explosions, having already passed through the Trump. But they had heard them, possibly even felt their heat.
Before taking a single step, I had said this much to reassure them: “You are safe. You are in a place where peace and justice reign. Further, you are under my protection. As for everything that has just happened, all will be explained. Finally, any who wish to go home will be taken back in due course. Again, you are safe and all is well.
“Now follow me.”
To the man now standing before me, I said, “Beware. I have brought a couple of chess masters with me. My advice? Ask them to go easy on you, hint you’re not much used to the game and that your play may be impaired a bit due to advanced years. Lull them into a false sense of security. And then crush them.”
He laughed and said, “Come in, come in! From the look of all of you, you could stand some of my galley fare. I only hope I have enough beer, bread and gravy.”
As he waved us inside, he added with another wink, “And I believe I have some leftover lobster and chowder.”
“Then lead on, MacDuff,” I assented happily, remembering the breakfast in the Wild Blue Restaurant that I would never have, very aware of how famished I was. “We are all yours.”
So we dogged his steps up to what I judged to be the fifth floor of the Lighthouse of Cabra. It had once been a room packed with the keeper’s junk, just like the lower floors, but several years ago I’d fixed it up for him, turning it into a kind of chart room, and it hadn’t changed much.
Nor had he. His name was Jopin, one of those Amberites who had been part of Amber’s history long before I’d been born. And he had once been kind enough to shelter me — a traitor and escaped prisoner at the time — for a season. Though I’d helped out around the place, tending the light, fixing up a few of the rooms (like this one), I had never properly repaid him for his hospitality. As it was a debt whose magnitude he would probably never guess, I doubted I ever would.
The others, at Jopin’s behest, seated themselves on old barrels and crates. But I took little notice of what they did, still greatly troubled by what had propelled us from the shadow Earth to the margins of Amber, still processing the event, seeking to gain an understanding of it consistent with my understanding of other things.
I have seen politics and what has been called ‘politics by other means’ — that is, war — and all the lies and betrayals made possible by such twisted games. Obliterated towns, battlefields made from charred farmland later sown with rotting corpses, still more corpses dumped by the hundreds and even thousands into pits like so many broken bottles and bags of garbage deposited for landfill, torture chambers for liberating ‘the truth’ from death’s-head grimaces drawn taut by agony and renunciation of all hope with last drops of sweat and blood, women of defeated peoples stumbling through the ruins of their homes after systematic rape by soldiers following orders, mouths of an entire deliberately starved nation stained with the grass they ate before dying, lies printed in newspapers and history books rationalizing evil in the name of God and country, concentration camps, lynchings, people chanting slogans of hate while murdering truth and beauty in book-fed bonfires. Save for a very timely (and brief) stint in the Bastille, I had never been on the scene of something as profound with anything like the proximity I had just experienced. What it had been, and what it implied, still numbed my brain.
Jopin, meanwhile, disappeared and then reappeared with the food he had promised, bringing out a dented old cookpot, a platter and a stack of bowls. As his guests began to tentatively dig into the chowder and grub he had provided, he left and returned again with a pitcher of beer that he set aside as he poured from the bottle into cups he pulled from a cabinet. Though he’d given them a quick wipe from a cloth, I blew dust from mine before any liquid touched the glass, and noticed others doing likewise, shaking their goblets and knocking loose debris on the edge of the table where we sat. The man went months at a time without seeing a soul and was unused to company.
“First a drink,” our host had said while fetching the items we now held, and now, done pouring, he completed the sentence with, “To waking up another day and finding ourselves above ground.”
It was good whisky, smooth, and sent a wave of warmth from my throat, through my chest and into my belly. Off to my right, I heard Bill’s appreciative sigh, so apparently I was not alone in this opinion.
“Now,” Jopin announced, once everyone had quaffed at least a portion of what had been dispensed, “we have an hour before midnight comes and I must go up to check on the lantern. Do you think you can tell me before the last hour of the day passes what brings you to Amber at such a dark and dangerous time?”
Torn between my desire for my lobster sandwich and the need to answer the question, diversionary tactics struck me as in order, so I said, “That one may be a little complicated. Why don’t we start with introductions, and let each in his turn tell his piece of the story? Jopin, these are friends of mine from the shadow Earth. My friends, this is Jopin, keeper of the Lighthouse of Cabra. Feel free to introduce yourselves.”
As I bit into my sandwich, I saw Bill grin. Though he might have been onto my game, it didn’t stop him from going first. Turning to his right, he extended his hand toward our benefactor, who reached over to accept it.
“Very nice to meet you, Jopin,” Bill began. “My name is Bill Roth, and I practice law in the state of New York. Corwin and I go back many years and were meeting for breakfast this morning. Morning where we were...”
His voice trailed off, so Jopin tried to help him out.
“That place you call New York, it is part of this Earth from whence you came?”
“Yes,” Bill got out, seeming confused or distressed.
Jopin glanced up at the rafters, thoughtful, then looked down again.
“Sailed out that way twice or thrice, each time with one of Corwin’s brothers,” the keeper said, pausing to shake his head. “Big oceans, wide and deep, but too near to the old Chaos, if you ask me. Had bad luck each time I was there. Last time was under Caine’s command, a place called Lisbon. Terrible earthquake hit and we were lucky to get out with most of our cargo.”
Bill still looked troubled and, recalling his jest of a heart-attack from earlier, I leaned forward to pour myself some beer, turning my head toward him as I did.
“Bill,” I asked softly, “You okay?”
“I think I am,” he answered, “but just tell me something, will you?”
“What language are we speaking?”
Jopin smiled, while I chuckled.
“A minute ago,” Bill explained, seeming relieved that we appeared unperturbed by the question and now bent on making himself better understood, “I thought I heard you say Earth, but when I thought back on it, in my memory it sounded like Terra. When you said Cabra, I heard an Irish brogue. And when Jopin spoke, I may have heard three or four languages, but I understood them all. And when I listened to myself, it was the Queen’s English I heard last year in ‘As You Like It.’”
“Thari,” I said, smiling. “You’re hearing Thari. And speaking it.”
“Not sure I can give you a satisfying explanation. Thari is the lingua franca
of Shadow in just the way French once was in the Old World. It also shares a common feature with Latin and Sanskrit, in that it is a mother tongue. The
mother tongue, actually, source of all languages. But that is only part of the answer. I believe when the Pattern is used to move beings from one shadow to another, to a certain degree it somehow adjusts the minds of the travelers to their new conditions. Honestly, though, I don’t really know.”
Bill took a moment to absorb those facts before smiling faintly and saying, “Weird, but it almost makes sense.”
“‘Almost’ is good enough in horseshoes.”
“And in something else,” Bill said, giving my grin back to me. “Or so I hear, anyway. At my age, I am no longer a qualified expert.”
“I’m not too sure about that other one, so I am sticking with horseshoes.”
“Maybe it’s my turn now,” said the man on my left. “You can call me Maio.”
“The Men in Black,” I said, deciding to play a card I had been holding onto and watching for a reaction, “call you Raffy Quaoar Ma’iio.”
“They got me dead to rights. My older, windier name. People like the shorter, easier one. Hey, you’re not the only dude with more than one name. I was kind of an activist in southern California back in the day. The guys in the suits don’t like activists. Are we gonna talk about the bad mojo that went down today? Or about ancient history?”
“Ancient history works for me,” I decided. “Why don’t we start with SSFL?”
Jopin touched Maio’s empty cup and asked, “Some beer to wet your whistle first?”
Instead of giving a yes or no answer, or some nonverbal response, Maio, the musician, surprised Jopin and Bill (and even me, a little) with something else:
“Wine for the high and mighty lord
and all his wealthy kin.
Whisky for the merry merchant
staying over at the inn.
Beer for the sweating sailor
following the feckless wind.
All three served at the table
on the green at the world’s end
to all who ever loved the sea
and called Old Man Lir his friend
Into the momentary silence left in the wake of Maio’s impromptu a cappella
number, stone-faced, the man then supplied the more condensed response of, “Beer me.”
Jopin’s eyes were still wide as he poured from the pitcher into Maio’s glass.
“Friend of Old Man Lir, are you?” Jopin asked. “You know, I believe I may have seen your people braving the open sea in big canoes using sails and outriggers. The first sailors, some say. It’s been ages since I heard that rhyme.”
“My people,” Maio said, smiling a little, “were once sailors, hundreds of centuries before I came along. My home on the world we left was a place called Kayenta, out in the ass end of nowhere. But the Tongva and the Chumash both made me their brother, two tribes who still remember crossing the great round ocean from the Dream Country now lost. They ride that ocean even today in their ti’at
canoes. The first sailors, as you say, who do not forget the sea is a god, who can be an enemy. Or a friend.”
“SSFL, Maio,” I prompted.
Maio nodded, sipped, then said, “The story I just was telling. Which I will tell to you now. I was living in Topanga, a hop and a skip from Malibu and Santa Monica. Always have loved water, I guess. The gods know Arizona could use a little more of it. The ocean really turned me on. Surfing, sailing, scuba. Have a real rapport with dolphins, and got pulled into the Navy Marine Mammal Program. Dolphin training. A dolphin is just as smart as a man — maybe smarter, since they know better how to have fun. That was at Point Mugu, in the beginning. I had been part of a project for coding sensitive military communications before that, so I was already someone the military felt comfortable with; they didn’t care too much if I was a hippy or not.
“But I was still a hippy. And Native American. So, many years later I pop up on their radar again. Military intelligence guys nervous I might spill something. Local government, police, FBI, unhappy I wanna help save the Place Where We Are In The Sun, Kuruvungna Springs. Holy to the Tongva, but The Man doesn’t care. On University High School grounds. We saved the springs, though. Povuu’nga? Another story. The friggin’ Place of Creation, and on top of that a burial ground. Today it is surrounded by Cal State, Long Beach. They were gonna put a strip mall over it. They have been stalled so far.
“Now we get to SSFL—”
“—For those of us who don’t know,” I interrupted, “SSFL?”
“Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Up in the hills, looking out over Simi Valley. Was a flunky there. Worked on nuclear reactors for outer space. Contaminated the hell out of the place. Don’t drink the water, my friend. Painted Cave’s petroglyphs are there, sacred to both the Chumash and the Tongva. We have to get permission to visit our own holy site. We’ve been petitioning for freer access.”
“And that’s what’s got the Men in Black tracking you?”
“You are one very interesting fellow, Raffy Quaoar Ma’iio. I can’t say I blame them.”
I took a long drink of Jopin’s beer.
“Then it is my turn. It is simple, and it is not. Simply, we all met at one of the greatest towers standing on the shadow Earth. Bill and I were catching up for the first time in decades. Maio came to see me there, apparently to find out what was going on after a day of back-to-back strange events. My son Merlin suspected a major world event was brewing, and he was right. We barely escaped the tower as it came under violent attack. Escape came in the form of a Trump prepared by my son. The Trump was for this lighthouse, and I admit that surprises me, as I was not aware he had ever come here in the past. That, nevertheless, is the story of our coming to Amber.”
Jopin got up, clearing some of the bowls and setting them on a shelf meant for books, elbowing some books aside to do so. Then he returned, sat down, took out his pipe, filled it and lit it.
“I thought you had a lantern that needed checking,” I observed.
Jopin nodded with an, “I do, I do,” and then pointed with his pipestem at the person seated somewhat behind and off to Maio’s left. “But we have not yet heard from the young lass.”
I had almost forgotten about her. So much had happened, and there had been so much to think about. And, truthfully, I had been rather focused on consuming my meal. As Maio’s position between the young woman and myself mostly blocked her from view, she had remained almost entirely out of my thoughts.
Now she stood up.
Curvy, blonde, young, attractive, she seemed very familiar. And she smiled straight at me as she said, “A pleasure to meet you, Jopin. My name is Renée Ma’iio, and I cover shifts as a hostess at an Irish pub in Manhattan, where musicians are encouraged to play their guitars. Or their harps.”
And then I knew her, of course.
Mine is the power of one who walks among shadows. In Amber, paradoxically, birthplace and source of that power, the power itself becomes increasingly meaningless. It becomes progressively harder — and eventually impossible — to work with the stuff of Shadow as one approaches Kolvir and the immortal city. At the same time, as one encounters the sights, sounds and smells of Amber, one also encounters others, quite often not of blood royal, who can in their own fashion play with Shadow and bend reality to their will.
Cabra’s lighthouse-keeper was such a one, in centuries past commanding vessels in Amber’s navy, then later a captain of merchant ships, navigating by strange stars through Shadow to coasts waiting under other skies. When he daydreamed at night as he fed the lantern and kept the gears turning, he surely revisited the exotic places of his past which existed nowhere near Amber, found within the nearer proximity of his own head...many perhaps no longer known to anyone in Amber besides himself.
Until only a decade or so ago, Amber time, no one had known one could walk in Shadow within sight of Kolvir. Most still did not know this; I was only aware of it because my father Oberon had given me the knowledge just before he had died. Nor is it all that easy to do, but I now know changes may be begun even this close to the city. Theoretically, therefore, I could have found a possibility that could become a probability and then a reality, our reality, in which the Butterfly
(Jopin’s sailboat) would find her way through wave, wind and weather from Amber back to Cabra, though no pilot helmed her. But Jopin had wanted to bring us as far as Rebma himself, to go for a sail.
It was only a day-trip, but it still would leave Jopin rather short on sleep for his next night-watch. So I had tried to talk him out of coming along by pointing out how his political neutrality with respect to events in Amber might be lost.
“If you’re seen bringing us to shore—”
“—but I won’t be,” Jopin had returned, “as we shall be bringing the dinghy along. You will row the rest of the way to the shore, and the Butterfly
will only be a distant sail.”
“There are these devices you may have heard of,” I had reminded him, “called spyglasses.”
“Corwin, Prince of Amber, has never sailed under another’s colors, never flown a false flag?”
He was insistent, so we had worked out a compromise.
She was a pretty thing, close to thirty feet of catamaran. Painted black, as befitted the old pirates who sailed her; namely, Jopin, Maio and myself. Maio’s daughter stretched herself out up by the bow, leaning back on her elbows, seeming to enjoy the wind and salty spray of the waves washing between Cabra and Faiella-bionin. Bill hung back by the stern, occasionally taking the tiller for the old keeper as he dug bottles of brew out of the ice-chest that he then brought out to Maio and myself as we tied off lines and trimmed sail for the bottle-bearing captain who best knew our course.
Jopin’s suggestion that we fit out the Butterfly
, disguise her and even paint over her name for a single day’s sailing had seemed over-elaborate to me. So, just as dawn came, Jopin had extinguished the lantern and roused me from my nap. I had then gone down the steps and picked my way over to the eastern edge of the island, where I had faced the sea. And then had begun my walk around little Cabra, the mood and character of sea and sky altering as I had slowly made my way among the rocks and surf. On my first time around, my clothing had shifted seam by seam and shade by shade until it resembled my signature attire — black cloak, dark trousers, black boots buckled and embossed with silver, silver gloves, silver belt and jacket, silver clasp in the shape of a rose. Upon my second return to the quay below the steps on the western shore, I had taken a quick detour down to the waterside, reassuring myself something new — something silver — lay on the seat of the rowboat. A subtle version of shadow-walking it had been, and with my third circuit of the island, the Crow’s Nest
had come into view. When she had drawn near enough to the island, I had jumped into the keeper’s rowboat, buckled on the silver-leafed scabbard waiting there with its silver blade, and rowed out to the wayward vessel that had come free of her moorings somewhere in Shadow to find her way, uncrewed, to where I had called her from Cabra.
Accepting a cool bottle of ale from my old friend, I thanked him again for everything he had done and was doing.
“No need to thank me,” he said, waving his hand as though to brush any unnecessary gratitude aside, “I am doing what I want to do. It has been decades since I have sailed with any of you, and this is only a small adventure. But a little adventure now and then is a good reminder to continue getting out of bed in the morning. Or,” he added, eyes twinkling, “in the afternoon.”
His “any of you” apparently referred to my family, toward whom, as I understood it, he felt a certain ambivalence. Whatever his feelings about the family’s power-struggles, though, he seemed fond of our explorations of Shadow which had been carried out on the high seas.
“From what you hinted earlier, it sounds like we may all be getting our recommended daily allowances of adventure while in Amber. Perhaps you could shed some light now on what you meant by our coming here at a ‘dark and dangerous time’?”
Jopin glanced back at Bill, who was squinting and holding the tiller steady, then sat down beside me. Maio was nearby, keeping his balance easily as the boat lifted and dropped amidst the swells, every so often loosening or shortening a line, adjusting length and tension to suit shifts in the wind (though a gifted story-teller, Maio’s claim of kinship with the sea had not in this case been exaggerated). All was ship shape; we could be easy for a bit.
He took a pull from his own bottle and stared straight ahead, possibly at Kolvir, possibly at other things.
“Every so often, a boat will come by, bringing my supplies or bringing a pilot with questions about the local waters and about Amber. We unload the provisions and I get my news of the world if it is the first, or I give out whatever I last heard if it is the second. My news is always old news. I only know things are not good in Amber. Shortages, mysterious attacks, crimes. Prince Caine has even returned to help. Trouble in Amber, so I hear.”
“Trouble in Amber? What about the King? How has Random been handling the problem?”
Jopin turned toward me, a half-smile on his lips.
“That is what I had thought you might tell me! Last I heard, you had returned to the palace. You and your brother Julian. Princess Fiona and the King had both been away, but came back when you did. There was much gossip about it, but I would rather give my ear to a fish-story about a mermaid and a drowning sailor than heed gossip.”
“Gossip is unreliable stuff, true. Still, a truth can sometimes be hidden among a dozen lies. Do you recall any of what you heard?”
The lighthouse-keeper twisted around, shading his eyes against the sun, apparently checking on Bill. Relaxing again, he took another sip of ale.
“More gossip than you could shake a stick at, mostly about you. You are cursed, fearful types were saying, and bad tidings would follow you. Others said change in Amber is heralded by you and restless King Random would soon step down from the throne. You defeated Chaos when it assaulted Kolvir and now, talk among the soldiery had it, you wanted Random to destroy Chaos once and for all. The more romantic sorts were certain you would at last marry Queen Moire and become King of Rebma. Things like that.”
I smiled grimly.
“It seems only the first rumor was true. I see what you mean now. After hearing that, I would also prefer to hear the story about the sailor and the mermaid.”
Jopin patted me on the shoulder, smiling a kindly smile, got to his feet, and said, “A good tale, and a true one. The lucky sailor gets to live, and the mermaid also gets lucky.”
I laughed and watched him continue past me to pass Maio his ale before ambling back toward Bill to resume his duties at the tiller. Our heading bent north-northeast as we bore back out toward deeper waters, where we caught more wind. Recognizing where Jopin was taking us, I made my way forward to where Maio’s daughter reclined and sat down beside her. She regarded me through her sunglasses, one eyebrow raised.
“So the amateur guitar-player is finally going to explain everything?”
“You left out amateur harpist,” I noted, “And, as you may recall, I’m not much of a singer either. Explaining is probably my stronger suit.”
“How are you at sharing?”
Her gaze had alighted on the bottle I held, so I passed it to her and she tipped it back for a sip. The sun shone through her wavy blonde strands and the bottle as she drank, rendering both luminous and translucent, while the wind playfully tugged at her hair and blouse. It was a moment of air and light worthy of a photograph or even of something impressionistic done in paint. She turned toward me, and the moment was lost, leaving me sad that of all things beautiful only Amber seems proof against time.
“And you were about to explain?”
“Now may not be the best time for explaining,” I suggested, yet, taking the plunge anyway, went on, “but in the language of physics, since Einstein it has been known that space and time can be bent, even twisted, by matter and energy. Since Everett and Wheeler, it has been known that there may be more than one space-time, many more. And since the earliest experiments probing the wave-particle duality of light, it has been known that the observer affects the observed. Reality is not a discrete phenomenon, but participatory, non-linear, fractal and emergent. The mind helps shape the reality the mind perceives. And yesterday you directly experienced the power of the mind to focus sufficient energy to open a wormhole from one space-time to another. Though I do not fully grasp all the principles involved, I can tell you this much: My family has an inherited ability to act as conduits, conductors, for the kind of energy required to move from one world to another. And this world we are in right now is my home, Amber, the well-spring of that energy.”
a pretty good explanation,” she conceded. “You could have mentioned Riemann, Bohr, Schrodinger, Thorne, Hawking, string theory, the TV show Sliders
and a lot of other stuff and lost your audience. So what else are you good at?”
“I—How in the world do you know all that?”
Openly grinning, she removed the sunglasses.
“Student, Columbia University. Boyfriend taking physics classes who talks a lot. Dad gets Scientific American
. Watch TV.”
She took another sip, then handed me back the bottle.
“Not too bitter. I don’t like bitter. But it’s not a blonde ale either. Reminds me of Old Speckled Hen.”
“How is it you’re not in some kind of shock right now? Not dazed or disoriented?”
“My father’s Raffy Maio. I grew up with UFOs and Carlos Castañeda’s books about the Yaqui sorcerer. Is that why you came up here to see me? To rescue me from shock?”
“No, I actually came up here to let you know if you peer — carefully — over the side, you may glimpse the tops of the towers of Rebma, the city beneath the sea. Jopin is taking us into those waters.”
I got up then and went back to the stern to join Jopin and Bill, passing Maio on the way.
Maio stopped chuckling long enough to say, “My daughter,” while shaking his head.
“Doesn’t look much like you.”
“Takes after her mom. Strawberry blonde when she was little, swear to God.”
We passed over Rebma. Strange lights and shadowy shapes could be seen, but nothing more. Sometimes, when conditions were right, one could actually make out avenues and buildings far below, but on this occasion it was not to be.
Jopin kept the Crow’s Nest
in the area longer than was strictly necessary, scanning the waters more keenly than anyone else before sighing and heading us toward shore. Beyond the shining River Oisen and the orchards and cultivated acres of Garnath loomed the heaven-defying peaks of the mountains fencing the valley and the city of Amber from the ancient Forest of Arden and the interior of the continent. Those great sentinels which had guarded Amber for as long as any could remember grew larger, stood taller, and came nearer as our sails bore us westward.
The old sailor knew what he was about, and brought the sailboat close to shore at a point within sight of the cairn that stood there before dropping anchor. It was a bit crowded in the rowboat we put into the waves slapping against the sides of our stolen ship, but I took the oars myself and rowed till its hull scraped on the pink and sable sands. Then I jumped out, and Jopin got into the water with me. Together, we hauled the craft onto the beach, and helped our passengers disembark.
While the others stood on the beach and turned to look in wonderment about them, Cabra’s lighthouse-keeper climbed back into the little boat and I helped push him off the sand. Before I could let go of the gunwale, he leaned over for a word.
Gesturing with his eyes toward the mountains and the final mountain, upon whose eastern slopes the green and gold spires gleamed and marble arches, towers, walls and edifices glowed, streets sparkling in the midday sun, Jopin told me, “They may not want to leave.”
It was true. Amber was more than merely a kind of magnet, drawing things from shadow worlds near and far toward herself to become part of her rich, bright weave and the unerring complexity of her marvelous and impeccable design. She held a special appeal for living things, most especially people. Mysterious, endlessly enticing, fraught with innumerable questions calling for elusive answers inviting still more questions, the beauty was only the beginning of the spell cast upon those lucky enough to glimpse it. Her allure was not so difficult to understand and almost impossible to resist. Life was generous and good in the city on the mountain, and in her forest, and in her valley, and in her airs and waters. Even a unicorn would find the place fascinating, while the eyes of those there were distracted by a myriad other wondrous things.
“Then something will be figured out. Maybe they can be trained as backup lighthouse-keepers. As doubtless you know, Oberon always thought you could use an extra hand out there.”
Jopin grinned and held out his hand. Relaxing my hold on the gunwale, I clasped his hand in mine.
“A great sacrifice he made,” the keeper opined. “Your father was a good king. And not all his sons are fit to be food for the fishes.”
Taking that for the compliment I knew he meant it to be, I went with, “We all have feet of clay. And when a man meets his maker each of us stands equally naked before the flame of truth. Thanks for everything, my friend, and may you keep the other flame, the one atop that old tower of yours, burning another century or more.”
“Met the maker long ago,” Jopin admitted, letting go my hand. “And you have met him, too. Have no worries on that score, Corwin. Fare thee well.”
He unshipped the oars, and I turned to make my way out of the surf up onto the beach, wondering if anything remained of the camp I had made a few years back by the edge of the wood of Garnath, where the demons of my dreams had come to let me know some nightmares will not keep to our sleep, but walk in the waking world far more freely than most of us would like.
The seagulls wheeled, dove and flapped about us, whether welcoming or protesting our trek inland it was hard to tell. If pressed, though, I would have to say their shrieks signified a protest, as our passage disrupted their activities while providing them none of the food or refuse (food again) they were accustomed to scavenging from travelers. The only nightmare they could see abroad in the land this day was the appalling lack of litter our party left behind. Their angry cries were their principal means for registering their feelings of outrage, as most of their droppings missed our rather small group.
And it might even be possible the voluble seabirds were still upset over the domestication of the once-wild Vale of Garnath. Though I rather doubted that, as the newly tamed valley was a haven for human beings, along with, of course, all their byproducts. Including the edible ones. No, these airborne residents were similar to their earthbound counterparts in at least this respect: their main objection to a major improvement to their lifestyle was that there wasn’t enough of it.
As I pondered the parallels between humans and seagulls, I couldn’t avoid the question that kept coming at me like a boxer fighting for his title: Could the birds be blamed for their ingratitude?
More than once I have wondered if Dad and I had been wrong, after all.
Oberon had sacrificed himself, surrendering his life on the Pattern in order to save it. Yet the Pattern he had given everything to preserve couldn’t really be restored. At least, not completely. That was the point Bleys had made that night when (years ago, now?) my brother and I had stayed up late in his ambassadorial residence in the Courts of Chaos. That night when Bleys had echoed Fiona’s suspicion that Oberon’s repairs to Dworkin’s original design amounted to the introduction of fresh material.
Dworkin’s manuscript, augmented by Oberon’s seamless edits, his mindful and creative connecting of older dots, had made the Pattern whole once more. But those fixes, as careful as those retouches and interpolations might be, nevertheless could only be considered corrections to a once-flawless blueprint. Meaning the Pattern we had now was and was not the one we had fought to save. Even the most faithful restoration or reproduction of a painting is unavoidably an act of translation. Dad had to have known this, of course. He had spent his entire rather long life being whatever he needed to be, most often being the active counterpart to the more passive and contemplative persona of Dworkin, and by his final act of reinscribing the Pattern had effectively become Dworkin. So he had to have known the reconstituted Pattern would be close to the original without actually being
the original. Yet he had gone ahead, anyway, and done the best that could be done to repair reality, Amber and the Pattern.
But had he made a mistake? Had I
made a mistake?
I had wanted and struggled for the same outcome, risked my life for it, crossed, on horseback and then on foot, the incomprehensible distance from Amber to Chaos for it, had watched my beloved Deirdre die for it.
Now, as I walked with others who had never seen the original Garnath through that altered valley, as I took in the vineyards, dirt roads, crop fields, farmhouses, gardens, and stone walls holding back quiet woods, I wondered whether what we’d done had really worked, been truly worthwhile, and, at the end of it all, had been the right thing to do.
Since Oberon had given his life so we would not have to give up the Pattern, or Amber, or all of Shadow which lay beyond and our power over it — since Oberon’s sacrifice to keep all as it was, I wondered how much might actually have been changed. Not merely in spite of his sacrifice, but because of it.
And those were my thoughts as we came upon the farmer at the place where our road crossed another before running on into the forest at the foot of the mountains. The farmer and his wagon had just come down the north branch of the other road and he had then turned his draft horse onto the dirt track we were following.
He slowed his wagon as we came within speaking distance of one another.
The driver of the wagon was a lean fellow in a simple brown tunic and blue trousers, bald as the day he had been born and wearing a straw hat to keep the sun off his hairless pate and leathery face.
“Hail, travelers,” said the farmer, bringing the wagon to a halt, tipping his hat in a friendly fashion. “What news from Rebma?”
“None,” I answered, “for we have not come from there. What, may I ask, made you think that we did?”
“You’ve no horses,” he stated drily, “and are walking west on Faiella-bionin Road, from the direction of the Stairway to Rebma. You cannot have come far. Also, by your clothes, you aren’t very likely farm folk. Still, you must hail from somewhere, if not from this valley or from Rebma.”
“Difficult to argue with your logic, so I won’t. We are far from our home of Mirata, and only as of today reached your shores. We can report the water of Mirata’s renowned well is as fresh and plentiful as ever, and instruments are still crafted and played in the City of Music. But we have heard nothing of Rebma. What news can you give us about these parts?”
His eyes moved as he ran his gaze over us a few times.
“Harbor is to the north. Just came from there myself. If you came hither from neither Rebma nor the harbor, I can only wonder as to the size of the albatross who carried you.”
Maio, standing just to my left, irrepressible as ever, spoke up then.
“‘Albatross’? Try ‘boat.’ No albatrosses. The craziest bird activity the four of us have seen is right behind you.”
The farmer turned his head to see what lay in the direction Maio was pointing.
I looked, too. So did Bill and Renée.
“Your scarecrow’s not working,” Maio added.
There was a manlike form hanging from a tree at the crossroads behind the farmer. It was covered in crows. There was something horribly wrong about the way it hung there. Which, unfortunately, I recognized.
“That’s not a scarecrow; something wicked that way hangs,” I said, turning back to the farmer to ask, “What’s the trouble around here?”
The farmer shook his horse’s reins.
“Have no idea where any of you are from,” were his parting words, “but this is my advice for wherever it is you are going.”
Pointing toward Amber as he began to drive his wagon past us, he called down, “Keep your wits about you. And keep as far away as you can from anyone on the Black List. These days, disloyalty can be contagious and” — he paused to jerk his head back toward the man dangling from the gallows tree — “fatal, as you can see. May the luck of the Unicorn protect you.”
His wagon then rattled and jounced down the road we had just walked, kicking up dust as it went. Before going on, we stayed a few moments, watching farmer, horse and wagon shrink into the distance, each of us alone with unspoken thoughts.
We passed the gallows tree at the intersection quickly. I did not look up at what hung from it, but, as I was in the lead, I have no idea if the others chose to do otherwise or not.
When we reached the open field between the harbor road and the treeline, I dropped Merlin’s purple backpack to the ground, crouched beside it and opened it up. Grayswandir’s hilt and the upper end of its scabbard still protruded from the pack, and I noticed the scarf had come loose from the hilt and haft of the blade, exposing its unique workmanship.
As I carefully wrapped the sword’s silken disguise about it again, Maio let the satchel given to him by Jopin fall into the grass and knelt beside me.
“That was more than a general warning. He didn’t buy your story.”
“Nothing he said indicated that,” I said, remaining focused on my task.
Bill came close to stand near us and, overhearing Maio, asked, “Why do you think he doubted Corwin, Mr. Maio?”
“Because he recognized him.”
I finished the job and removed an item from the pack, briefly meeting Maio’s gaze, but saying nothing.
“His cover got blown; that’s why we have stopped.”
“What cover?” Bill wondered, seeking clues in Maio’s expression, and then in mine as I stood back up.
Maio looked pointedly at Grayswandir.
“That bad-ass sword of his, silver and carved up with all those funky shapes and designs. It’s like Superman’s ‘S,’ a total trademark.”
Maio pulled his canteen out, tipped it back for a sip of water, wiped his mouth and screwed the cap back on.
He let the question hang there as he stood, too, absently putting the canteen away as he watched me for a response.
I took the item I held, shook it out, and pulled it over my shoulders: Merlin’s cloak.
Maio snapped his fingers, and pointed at the cloak.
I took a quick look around, seeing that Renée had moved closer to the trees for a better look at where we were going. And I also saw some people in the distance on the same stretch of road the farmer had used to come down from the harbor.
While Bill thoughtfully wiped his glasses, putting them back on after a moment to do as I had just done and survey the scene, the old shaman, Raffy Maio, continued undeterred.
“You know who’s on that Black List.”
“In times of trouble and lists of suspicious persons,” I answered, adjusting the cloak, “everyone is on the list, whether his name officially appears there or not. All are guilty till proven innocent.”
Bill had been studying the harbor road to the north, but turned back toward me, frowning and sounding somewhat incredulous as he asked me, “Are you saying Amber is a police state?”
“All modern nation-states are. It is only a matter of degree.”
“So Amber is not an ideal kingdom?”
“On the contrary,” I demurred, “it is in every sense the archetypal kingdom. A king in the end is a glorified general, his position sanctioned by ritual and tradition, and all kingdoms are therefore under military rule. Kings are dictators who wear special jewelry, that’s all. Kings can be generous and just, or the opposite. As for what conditions are like in Amber these days, we will see.”
They turned their heads in a vain effort to discern the city, now hidden from us by Kolvir’s southwestern slopes. My glance flicked in that direction, too.
I had not actually expected to see Amber from this vantage, but I had not been able to avoid looking toward her as I thought of her all the same.
Erin walked back over to us while Bill decided to follow Maio’s example, refreshing himself with a drink of water, and I pulled the pack on again.
“Ideally,” I announced, since we were all together as a group once more, “this is where I say, ‘Welcome to Sherwood!’ After which, we are soon seated at a banquet, drinking wine and enjoying roast venison, surrounded by faithful friends and allies. There are reasons, however, why this cannot be.”
“One of them is people are being hung by the neck until dead?” Maio suggested.
“And forests are more picnicky than banquety?” Renée threw in.
“You neglected to submit all the forms legally changing your name to ‘Robin Hood’?” Bill tried, and then, seeing the dubious expressions on father and daughter, explained, “Corwin’s not known for obsessing over legal details.”
“True,” I admitted. “All true. I am allergic to legal wrangling and paperwork. Wilderness areas are more suited to picnics. And the ratio of allies to those who want my blood is less than favorable at this time.
“There are, however, three things I can say that may put this in a better light. One: the low fan-mail-to-hate-mail rating has been weathered in the past. Two: Jopin saw to it we are well-provisioned. Three: You are about to enter Arden, which is the forest Sherwood always wanted to grow up to be.”
They looked toward the forest — primeval, vast, a green cloak adorning the unchallenged authority of the mountains above, its surface gently rippling like the flag of Amber in a soft breeze — and then back toward me.
“There is also a fourth thing: I am still a Prince of Amber and can bring you to places of greater safety than this, if such is your wish. Or you can return along this road back to the beach, descend from the cairn there down the steps leading under the waves to Rebma in the sea, where you will be protected. So, what say you?”
The vote was unanimous, and we continued on.
Moving into the shadows of the trees, which themselves stood in the shadow of the mountains, we seemed to put more than the valley and the sea behind us, for, while it might be afternoon in Garnath, under the leafy giants over whose roots we trod the first footsteps of the evening to come had already fallen. It was as though we had set foot within a nigh-infinite cathedral erected for gods or titans, the intricately woven ceiling, wide gravity-indifferent pillars, ever-changing light stained green and gold by windows assembled from millions of living oval, crescent and diamond panes, enchanted and ageless, a sanctuary for immortals. Oak, hawthorn, lime, elm, silver birch, maple and other species rose from the black earth with a size and majesty to be envied by California’s redwoods. A city could rest comfortably among those mighty boughs, virtually invisible from the forest floor if wrought cunningly enough, and the one charged with patrolling these woods, my brother Julian, had more than once hinted this might be so. There were small forts scattered throughout, as was well known, but Julian’s personal stronghold remained a mystery to all but Julian. And Oberon. Oberon had known, of course. The story in Amber was that Julian’s refuge consisted only of his impervious armor and the saddle from which he looked down upon the royal forest from the back of his great steed Morgenstern.
As for me, Amber’s official story could quell neither my curiosity nor my imagination. I still glanced upward now and then, seeking boardwalks, stairs and structures among the highest branches.
Amber will always have her secrets.
While it is a good idea to, as a general principle, remain quiet and alert upon entering a strange forest, good ideas, general principles and common sense had little to do with how quiet our group had become. A sober silence in this instance prevailed because all conversation had ceased as awe had descended upon the three who with their own eyes were seeing for the first time the Forest of Arden.
And though the place had been my back yard for most of my life, I could no more help staring about me than the newcomers walking with me. It was only after deeply inhaling the sweet, sharp, vigorous fragrance of the place a few times myself that I noticed the others doing the same.
As I smiled and breathed and looked, I wondered how long it would be till someone asked me why we were walking northwest through the forest rather than taking the direct route up the harbor road toward Amber.
“Hey,” someone said, “why are we walking northwest through the forest rather than taking the direct route up the harbor road toward Amber?”
It was Maio.
“Because Arden is a forest of possibilities, an untamed wilderness extending beyond Amber into Shadow.”
“So we’re not going to Amber?”
“Not through Garnath. Not unless you want to go on foot.”
We were walking four abreast, more or less, and from my right I heard Bill ask, “There’s transportation out here?”
“Good,” Bill said, his breathing heavy and audible as we made our way along the upward slope of the road, “I’m not sure I would survive the walk.”
“Why not use your Stargate
That question was Maio’s. He had lived an interesting life, and had obviously learned to adapt quickly to new circumstances, no matter how bizarre. I liked that.
“Why not use my Trumps? We are too close to Amber, and there are some around here who are able to tell who is using those cards, and how. And, as we have already heard now from Jopin and our friend in the wagon, something is rotten in the state of Amber. So we will get the lay of the land and enter the city while attracting as little notice as possible.”
“But not on foot?” Bill checked.
“Not on foot.”
They were uniformed, and their colors were black and green.
It was only a little while later, as we walked at a slowed pace (deliberate on my part, now that I was fully aware how hard our travels were hitting Bill), when they appeared. I had just begun, in fact, to gradually shift things around me — even little details like flowers, moss and stones are not so easy to change so close to the city — in order to move our corner of Arden in the direction of a glen or paddock or hitching post, whichever would occur more readily, where we would find horses.
It had been Renée who had noticed something, gotten her father to stop, turn and look. And then we were all turning to see.
We saw a number of armed men in black and green uniforms. And from the way they picked up their pace as they rounded the last bend behind us and came into view, we knew we had caught their interest.
“Should we hide?”
That from Bill, and I shook my head.
“We have been spotted. Attempting to elude them will only make us appear more like persons of interest.”
“So what do we do?” Renée wanted to know.
But the troops slowed down, causing our waiting to become drawn out. Then they halted and closed ranks.
They were under attack.
By now, it was darker than it had been when we had first made our way into Arden. The forest had dimmed considerably. Beyond the trees, the world was no doubt experiencing late afternoon and a westering sun, but the forest was in the process of welcoming twilight. So who it was exactly who was attacking was something none of us were able to make out. There were whistling sounds, however, and it seemed the soldiers were reacting to missiles of some kind.
Without exchanging a word, the four of us reached a simultaneous decision to get moving again. We began jogging.
As soon as we had lost sight of those behind us, I gestured to the others to move off the road. We pushed through underbrush and in five minutes struck a deer-path. Seeing was difficult now, but no one mentioned the lantern stowed with other gear Maio was carrying. After about fifteen minutes following the path, though, I said, “Stop,” and stayed still.
A feeling had come over me, and there were even goosebumps. The others became very still and silent; perhaps they felt it, too.
“Why do you stop now?” a rough voice asked from somewhere out in the darkness. “There is not much farther to go.”
“Who are you?” I asked. “What do you want with us?”
“Just stay on the trail and keep moving.”
I took a slow step forward, then another, my senses hyper-alert. And casually moved my hand toward the pack on my back.
“Leave that,” the voice instructed sharply. “Don’t you know you are surrounded? Just keep moving, and stay on the path.”
I lowered my hand and kept moving past trees in a forest whose darkness was rapidly becoming impenetrable. Something loomed ahead, something big. Its outline faintly visible through the contrast of its absolute blackness against the lesser darkness to either side, I determined it to be one of Arden’s oldest and largest denizens, probably an oak. The path seemed to lead straight to it.
Moving slowly so as not to bang into the tree or trip on its roots, I stepped closer and closer until it became obvious I had actually stepped inside the tree. The ground felt different beneath my feet, pitch blackness closed in about me on all sides, and the air took on a musky, resinous scent. Behind, I heard the others follow me into the enclosed space.
A soft blue glow began to occur somewhere above.
“Halt and wait,” the voice said again.
More of the blue light, from more sources. Before me, a stair curved and climbed against the wall, a closed trap-door at the base of it. Turning, I saw the wide-eyed faces of my friends behind me. And behind them were half a dozen or more figures, no more than four or five feet tall, sporting patchwork cloaks of brown and green with hoods that hid their faces, all holding bows. Long daggers hung from their leather belts. There was no longer an opening behind the little men; it appeared whatever door we had come through was now closed and we were sealed inside the tree.
“Leave your baggage on the floor. Then go up.”
Though I was looking straight at our captors, I could not determine which of them had spoken.
We complied silently, setting our belongings on the ground.
For whatever reason, I felt completely calm as I went up the narrow stair, my companions close behind.
The room above the ground floor was empty, noticeably smaller at a diameter of only fifteen feet, its ceiling ringed with holes. There was a ladder, which we used to get to the trap-door above. The wall-climbing stair resumed at the landing there, walled on both sides, so that the level it wound about was inaccessible to us. It ended at a door, which stood open. We crossed a spacious study lined with shelves full of books and scrolls, a desk and chair beneath a map or diagram, and a conventional ironwork spiral stair coiling upward in the room’s center. Panels of translucent glass or quartz were set within the walls, blue light shining through from behind them. A fireplace, cabinets, two tables, chairs, pots and pans took up space in the room waiting for us above the spiral stair. Yes, a fireplace. The room, clearly a kitchen, was decorated with fanciful depictions of mushrooms, lilies, butterflies and small peasant folk. A lamp stood on each of the tables, producing a cheery glow, like firelight, though neither emitted any smoke.
Though there were steps cut into a portion of the wall of the room we found above the kitchen, leading to levels above, I knew we had reached the end of our climb. This room was hung with tapestries offering scenes of Amber and places nowhere near the realm, one even recalling an event in the Courts of Chaos beneath that distinctive split sky. A lamp enclosing something like a wedge of luminous topaz shone from a table, beside which a woman in a mahogany chair was softly playing a dulcimer. She was facing the canopied bed on the other side.
In that bed, a violet blanket pulled up under his long beard, an old man lay in shadow, largely obscured by the curtains hanging about him. He lay very still, either in death or a deep sleep.
The woman stopped playing as we entered. Turning toward us, she set the instrument down beside the lamp, stood. She was tall, slender, and older, her brown hair lightened by strands of gray, her eyes hazel. Over her red-brown dress she wore a yellow cloak.
Open puzzlement drew her brows together as she peered in our direction. She came toward me till she stood only a foot away.
“You are not the true owner of that cloak,” she said to me, looking me up and down.
“Perhaps not technically. At the risk of stating the obvious, however, possession is nine tenths of the law.”
“Yet you look like him. You could be his father.”
“Before we start talking about child support, I am letting you know I will be holding out for a paternity test.”
In a surprisingly tender gesture, she reached up to touch her hand to my cheek, then brushed a lock of hair aside from my forehead, studying the features of my face the while.
“Even if it were not so,” she said quietly, “there can be no doubt you are a son of Oberon; you resemble him so strongly.”
I reached up to grasp her hand where it floated near my face, and lowered it.
“You knew him? You knew my father Oberon?”
Nodding her head, she answered, “Yes, I knew him well.”
“Then I should know you. You see, I knew him pretty well, too. Who are you? How did you know him?”
“I,” she said, drawing herself up a little straighter and taller, smiling, “am Queen Cymnea of Amber.”
My mouth opened, but all my words had fled. I began to let go of her hand, but now she held onto mine.
“Now you must tell me who you are,” she declared. “Which son of Oberon do I see before me?”
“I will answer,” I said after a moment, finding my voice again, though still unable to fully accept what she had just claimed, “but first I must know who is lying in that bed behind you.”
Smile fading but not gone, she turned her head to look over her shoulder toward the man lying there. She tugged on my hand, urging me, and I slowly followed her to the old man’s bedside.
“You should know him well enough,” she said as, together, we stared down at the bed’s occupant, “but, if you cannot, I will speak his name for you. He is the Master of the Line, last heir of the House of Barimen, twice-born and beloved of the Unicorn.”
I knew, but, as my mind still needed time to understand, was unready to say anything.
She watched my face, her eyes on mine, and knew that I knew. Then she looked away, back toward the man on the bed.
“Yes,” she said, “though he is gone now, his power still hangs about him and fills this room. Here lies the one Oberon loved most.” She squeezed my hand a bit tighter, and went on. “Here lies Dworkin.”
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