Burb Rocking
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
  Chapter Eight: Avalon

CHAPTER EIGHT


My cloak flapped about me, the leaves skipping about my feet and across the grass, the scent of early autumn sharp, pungent.  From over my shoulder the westering sun cast heavy, honey-gold on the manor and the hillside.  The windows were shuttered, and no smoke rose from the chimneys.

I was standing purposely in the open, out on the lawn where I could be seen.  There was no movement in or about the place that I could detect, and I eventually got tired of waiting.  So I walked up the slope to the door, which was naturally locked.

Not really a problem, though.  From the roof of the porch I was able to access a window and force it open.  Once inside, I made my way downstairs, noting the musty condition of the halls and rooms, unlocked the door and went back out.

At the end of the front walk, I paused to take in the view.  Shading my eyes against the sun, I could see the nearby farms spread over the folds of the land.  Now that the day was ending, the workers were coming in from the fields.  The river off to the left lazily drew its wide shining length below the farmlands down to where it cut through the bright towers and steep roofs of the town before yielding to the sea.  And running alongside that river, train tracks.  Where the tracks and the river met the shore, a forest of masts stood by the boardwalk and its shops.  That some of those clippers, barques and caravels were captained by men of Amber and had crossed the seas of Shadow to make port in this place, this was nothing new.  That the train running along those tracks had done so, on the other hand, was new indeed.

Shaking my head, I began walking down the hill.  My horse was tethered to a tree at the bottom, eating grass.  Holding his reins, we walked half-way up the hill together, where I found a stall for him in the stables and saw to it that he had sufficient hay and water.

Continuing up the hill, I went back indoors, opening the shutters to air the place out and let in some light.  Since it was getting on in the afternoon, I lit a lamp or two.  Then I swept the halls on the first and second floors (the top floor with its gables and peaked roof being too much like an attic, from my point of view, and not worth the trouble).  With a couple of towels and a bucket of water drawn from the pump, I wiped down furniture and surfaces in the dining hall, library and kitchen.  When all was done, I threw the towels in the sink, yawned and stretched.  The place was in decent shape again, and it was time to relax and enjoy what little was left of the day.

I found a glass and made an inspection of the sideboard, which I was gratified to find well-stocked.  Pouring a whisky, I went out to the porch.  There I unpacked the harp, then made myself comfortable in a chair brought out from the kitchen.  Looking out across the garden in back, I strummed the strings idly, pausing in between to sip the whisky.  Strummed and sipped.

When the last taste of whisky emptied the glass, I set the tumbler down beside the harp and went for a stroll through the garden.

The sun was setting now, and I noticed the garden had been tended fairly recently.  But there was a weed or two here and there, which I stopped to pull up.  Payment for the whisky, if you like.

The train had brought us through Shadow all the way to a depot by a river I recognized.  The silver towers, the sights and smells, the accents of the locals, and a dozen smaller details, all confirmed for me that we were indeed in Avalon.  Once my realm, but no more, and for a long time the home of he who was the most formidable of all my relatives.

Within the hour we had found a decent inn, where I had left Erin, Maio and our gnome companion — what to do with him I had not yet determined, though he continued to act as though still on his assignment to look after us.  Making sure they had sufficient walking-around money, I had left them among the vendors and the shops.

There was a hedge at the end of the footpath, and I threw the weeds over it.  Filling my pipe and lighting it, I stood there, staring off into the wood.  The path ran on, and if I followed it through the trees, there was a falls a few hundred paces farther on where the wheel of a small mill turned.  There were also memories.  I stayed where I was, and drew on the pipe.

Dworkin had taken my form after I had escaped his dream.  And then he had changed form again, becoming the image of my son Merlin.

And there it was:  the uneasiness that had been growing in my mind.

And here I was, some several yards away from where Merlin had been conceived.  It had been a rather crazy, intense period of my life, but at least I had known what I was doing.  I’d had a goal.

Now, by contrast, I had absolutely no idea of what was going on, or of what I was doing.  Goal?  There was still the mystery of Merlin and Martin to be solved.  There was the interference with Amber’s trade, the piracy and harassment of her shipping.  There was the neutralization of Random and his removal from power.  There was whatever the conflict was that was running through the Courts.  Very likely most of it was connected, but it was also all a confusing mess.  The challenge was to disentangle it enough to prioritize and determine which problem to tackle first.

The shadows were long now.  The sun was going down.

Returning to the porch, I picked up the harp and glass, bringing them inside.  Merlin’s backpack was sitting where I had left it in the hallway, and I scooped it up on my way to the library.  Leaving the stuff on the desk, I retrieved the bottle from the sideboard, refilled my glass and set the bottle down beside everything else.

The cool air from outside had freshened the place somewhat, but the coming night-time chill was already making its presence felt.  So I went around closing most of the windows I had earlier opened.  Back in the library, where I had one of the lamps going, I removed my scabbard, leaning Grayswandir against the brass stand holding the fireplace tools.  Tinder and kindling I pulled from the basket for the hearth.  In a little while I had a fire going and was able to add a few logs from the rack.  The flames went down for a bit, but soon the logs were hissing, popping and throwing off heat.  The fire added some cheer to the room, and made it warm enough that I was able to leave a window partly open.

Taking one of the candlesticks down from the mantelpiece and lighting it, I brought it over to the desk and set it down.  Then, after emptying the contents of the pack onto the blotter on the desk, I finally sat, sipped, and contemplated the items before me.

Tonight, I would figure it out.

The creak I heard was likely a tree branch outside the window.  Caution born of too much exposure to death and violence nevertheless prompted me to get up from the chair.

A shadow fell across the floor by the doorway.

The desk was in my way.  I’d have to sidle around it in order to cross over to the fireplace.  I eyed the letter-opener on the desk, wondering if it was better than nothing, deciding it was, and picked it up with my left hand.

I took a step to the right.

A figure stood in the doorway, brandishing in the left hand the parenthesis of a weapon.

Then one of us said something.

“Fetch your blade.  I will wait.”

Thoughtfully putting down the letter-opener and rounding the desk, I approached the fireplace.  My gaze never left the doorway.  When I stood beside Grayswandir, I did not immediately pick it up.

“Don’t like what I’ve done with the garden?  I was thinking of planting some old man’s beard or virgin’s bower — you could use more climbing plants.”

He didn’t move, didn’t speak.

“All right,” I went on, sighing.  “Then may I at least ask why?  I presumed the old offer of hospitality was still standing.  I’ve done no more than remove a few weeds from the garden and a few ounces of whisky from the bottle.”

“You will have your answer soon enough,” the shadow said, and advanced toward me.

Grasping the scabbard with my left hand, Grayswandir came free in my right like a flash of moonlight.

Though shadowed, his silhouette was unmistakable.  The jutting jaw, the hair long and straight, nearly falling to the broad shoulders surmounting an otherwise tall, lean frame.  The firelight glinted in his eyes and upon the sword with which he saluted me.

Returning the salute slowly, I brought my blade into a guard position.

“Benedict,” I tried, moving a little to my left, away from the fireplace and closer to the desk, “as a favor to a brother, at least tell me why my blood is being spilt.”

But he was done talking.  Stepping from the shadows and into the room, deliberate and unhurried, his hazel eyes swept past me and over Merlin’s things on the desk.

And then he was close, a variation of a katana out before him.  I saw the head-cut coming in time to deflect it with an overhead parry.  The edge of his blade skipped into space, two inches from my shoulder.  In the next instant, the tip of the katana whipped down toward my wrist.  Wrenching the returning arc of Grayswandir into line to parry, I kept my hand and aimed a riposte at his chest.  His counter-parry answered my attack only too well, forcing me back a step.

We were fighting across the desk now.

He had been my instructor in the sword and in all weapons, which was probably the only reason I could anticipate him at all.  I knew many of his moves.  The only problem was, he had taught me most of mine.

He was still missing his right arm.  The mechanical prosthesis I had borrowed from Tir-na Nog’th was history, of course, having evaporated ages ago in a duel with a ghost.  But I saw now that he’d replaced the lost silver appendage with a device of steel.  The fingers of this one did not flex or grip in an unnerving imitation of living flesh as had the one of old, but he managed all the same to use it expertly when needed for added balance and control of the orange-gleaming edge that just then was sweeping down toward my belly.  My parry was fast, desperate, for such an obvious line of attack could only be his second intention.  Sure enough, his attack twisted upward so quickly that again I nearly lost my hand at the wrist.  I think he smiled slightly as my attempt to envelop his blade failed, but managed to throw off the strategy he’d been working on.

The movements of his blade, so fast as to sometimes be nearly invisible, seemed to me almost relaxed, even playful, fast as they were.  Our swords danced in the air over the desk, yet nothing on the desk itself was disturbed, not even the candle when Benedict’s blade bit through its flame.  Attack, parry, riposte, the rhythm of this encounter familiar, taking me back to times we had fenced in the courtyard.  As though my brother were providing yet another lesson, forcing me to resort to every skill he had taught me.

The pace picked up, and then there was the cut that came at my eye.  But I’d had my parry and riposte ready, so that my whirling cut brought Grayswandir toward his neck.  As this attack was beaten aside, Benedict took a step back, raising his blade once more in salute.

“Enough.”

Keeping my blade in guard position, I said, “Excuse me?”

A small smile touched his lips as he nodded toward me.

“You may put away your blade,” he said, lowering his.  “We are done.”

“Then what the hell have we been doing for the last five minutes?  Kabuki theater?”

“You were identifying yourself.  You are Corwin.”

The tension in the room dissipating, I finally lowered Grayswandir.

“I already knew that, and I kind of thought you did, too.”

Sheathing his sword, he jerked his chin toward the fireplace.

“We shall sit before the fire, where we can have our talk.”

As I came out from behind the desk, I watched him leave without another word, heard the clinking of glass in another room.  “Puzzled” was not a strong enough word to describe my state of mind as I returned Grayswandir to its scabbard.  But when he returned with a bottle and two wine glasses, I was sitting by the fire finishing the drink I’d poured earlier, caught up in the mild buzz of my scattered thoughts and the whisky.

A table with a board and chess pieces stood between the two chairs by the fire.  With his arm of steel, my brother pushed a few of the pieces aside to make space for the glasses and the bottle.  Before he did this, however, I noted that he hung his scabbard on the doorknob, with the nether end resting on the floor.  Mine was back where it had been before his arrival, set against the stand and keeping company with the tongs and pokers.

“You could have just said hello,” I pointed out as he poured the wine.

“No,” he said, sitting and taking up his glass, “I could not.  But we can talk of shadow doubles and shapechangers later if there is a need.  Now what of you?  What has brought you here?  Where have you been and what have you been doing since last we saw each other?”

“Ah,” I said, glancing at him and then away, quietly picking up the glass he had poured me, then, seeking some sort of touchstone, contemplating Grayswandir off to my right.  “Well, that is quite a long story.”

“I have time.”

The clock on the mantel chimed the quarter hour, as if on cue.  Clearing my throat, I considered things.  The last time we had seen each other we had been on good terms.  We had been in more accord than we had been in ages, actually.  And yet...the lines were very clear in Benedict’s world, and one did not want to be on the wrong side of them.

“Well, I am not back here for gunpowder, I can tell you that much.”

Again, the small smile.  A happier version of Benedict might have laughed, but the Benedict sitting there by the fire with me was the version one usually got.  To be fair, since the time I did come for gunpowder had ended with Benedict trying to process me like a cuisinart and him lying unconscious by the side of a road, perhaps he could be forgiven for finding a limited degree of humor in my remark.

“No, nothing at all like that,” I went on.  “In fact, a train brought me through Shadow to your doorstep.  Truly, I had no idea it would bring me here.  But when I saw where I was, I decided to visit.”

“So you have come here alone, then?”

Something about how he put the question made me wary.  I drank a little from the glass to give myself a moment to weigh things, and decided upon honesty.

“No, but that’s a later portion of my story.  I can tell it from there, if you like, working backward.”

“I would prefer to hear your tale from the beginning.  When last we spoke, it was in Amber.  The peace treaty with Chaos had been signed.  Bleys, Fiona and myself were escorting the visiting dignitaries back to the Courts.  You recall that day, I trust?”

“I do,” I acknowledged.

“Begin there.”

“All right,” I said, slightly annoyed by his peremptory tone.

This felt a bit more like standing before a judge on his bench than sitting beside a brother at the fire.  But I resolved to keep my emotions in check and do my best to give him what he wanted.  He was too important and powerful a figure to alienate for no reason.  I was imposing upon his hospitality, and — most of all — I had little to hide.

“I admit I haven’t thought of that day in a long time.  But not an easy day to forget.  A rather beautiful slice of early autumn, not unlike today.  Yes, I remember.  You were sharing some details of the occupation of the Courts in response to a question of mine.  You indicated my participation would be welcome.”

Benedict used the toe of his boot to better position a log within the flames.

“Caine could have served in your stead.  He is capable.  But hated by all in the Courts, regardless of faction.  Alternatively, you, Corwin, are respected there.  Your resourcefulness against Chaos in Lorraine and then in Amber made an impression.  You could have been an asset.”

I tasted the wine.

“And I would have been happy to have lent a hand,” I answered, quelling the guilt and defensiveness his statement had triggered.  “Proud to, actually.  I like to think, though, that you understood my reasons for declining.”

Nodding, he prompted, “Please continue.”

Staring into the red liquid, losing myself in the hypnosis of the ripples, the past rolled back like surf on the sand.

“Yes.  We said our good-byes.  Yours was one of many.  It was a day of good-byes.  In some cases, I think the parties knew we might never meet again.  For my part, there was a growing urgency, a restlessness churning somewhere.  Half-formed but insistent, born mostly of curiosity and concern, of the need to return to the Pattern I had drawn.

“But first I took Merlin on a tour of the city and the harbor.  He surprised me by preferring the harbor.  We met Gérard there for a late lunch.  Or an early dinner.  It was getting toward sunset.  We had walked down, but used Merlin’s trump for Martin to get back.  Martin joined us for the rest of our time together, which was not long.  We descended directly to the dungeons and the tunnels.  Merlin was eager to take the Pattern, and I was anxious to get going, as well.”

“And this concluded your visit?”

Sparing Benedict a quick glance, I lifted the glass for another taste.  The wine of Avalon — how long it had been.  For a moment, I lost myself, savoring.

Then, “More or less,” I answered.  “To illustrate how it was done, I walked the Pattern first, and waited while Merlin emulated my progress.  Martin held the lantern aloft, our only audience.  Merlin eventually reached me, shaken, but smiling.  There, at the center of the Great Pattern, we said our good-byes.  Then he went off looking for his worlds, and I went to find mine.”

“And,” Benedict asked out of the dimness, watching the flames dance, “did you?”

Raising the glass, I peered through it at the fire.  Was this at all like what Brand had seen when he had pierced the shadow veils with his mind?  The effect reminded me of the Chaos storm that had pursued me as I had carried out my father’s last command.

“The Pattern could not take me there,” I confessed.  “Maybe because the place I sought was not within its scope.  But I’ve been wondering about that.”

“Explain what you mean.”

“Our grandfather emerged from the Courts to create our Pattern somewhere in the void, yet it still touches Chaos.  My design, which was able to transport me to a place near the Courts, should therefore also touch our reality.  And yet, when Dworkin embarked upon his effort, Shadow as we know it did not yet exist.  Conditions differed substantially on both occasions.  And then, of course, there is also the obvious:  the problem may lie within myself.”

Benedict merely sat there, motionless, silent, thinking his own thoughts, making his own guesses, evaluating my statements for their intrinsic truthfulness and information value.  Of what he privately thought, he would naturally say nothing.  At least, not until I was done.  Meanwhile, the flames licked the logs, the fire providing a pleasant white noise, and the golden clock on the mantel above the hearth audibly and reliably ticked away the seconds.

“In any event,” I resumed, “my search was a failure.  After a time, I realized I was no longer searching, but instead avoiding a return to either Amber or Chaos.  At one point, I passed through here on my way to Lorraine.  From there, I set sail for old ports of call, among them the harbors of the shadow of my exile.  And so I came at last to Faiella-bionin and to Rebma.

“For a year or two, I was as happy as I’m ever likely to be.  But the restlessness was still there.  At first, I took this to be an echo of my earlier drive to locate my Pattern.  Then the dreams, visions and visitations began, intermittently and then unrelentingly.  And they directed me toward Tir-na Nog’th with a persistence that wore down my resolve to remain out of sight, out of mind.  So, with some reluctance, I made my way back to Amber.”

Draining the rest of my glass, I set it down, shifted in my chair.  I was feeling the warmth of the grain and the grape, the distancing from life’s troubles catalyzed by chemistry.  The fire needed another log, but I remained as I was, still, seeing with my inner eye, walking through memory, mesmerized by the light and the heat.

Benedict quaffed what was left of his, as well, refilled both glasses, raising his toward me.  With mine, I saluted him in return — far preferable to the earlier salutes with our blades — drank, and set the glass back upon the table.

“When was it last you ate?” Benedict asked.

“Hours ago, in town.  That place with the wide porch that overlooks the wharf.  Fresh salmon, thick bread, dark ale.  How did you know I was hungry?”

“Your stomach spoke for you.  Wait here.”

And he was gone.  Stirring myself, I threw more wood on the fire, jabbed and leveraged the burning pieces till the jumble seemed steady, sat back down. Daydreaming, I lost myself in old thoughts and feelings, soothed by the flames rushing upwards, snapping downward, striking higher again, a rising and falling somehow reminiscent of the slower pulse of the ocean, a reminder of the flux that is life, predictable ebb and random flow.

When he returned with a platter of breads, slabs of venison, hunks of cheese, and knives, I wasted little time.  He watched as I assembled a towering sandwich, which I promptly devoured.  Then I made another, which I ate more slowly, while he made one of his own.

“You came provisioned,” I noted between mouthfuls.

“Always.”

We sat there awhile, chewing on the conversation and our sandwiches, saying nothing.

When I finished my second sandwich, Benedict stopped eating his long enough to say, “That is not the end of your story.  Word of your appearance in Amber reached me.  You spent but a single night in the palace before departing for parts unknown.  You left abruptly.  And I assume propelled by some urgency.”

“No, you’re right, of course,” I conceded.  “Random and Fiona went with me that evening up Kolvir.  You can guess where I spent the night.  My adventure in the sky-city had some things in common with that other occasion when I fought your ghost.  The apparition I tangled with this time was of a historical figure, from whom I took this.”

Reaching within my shirt, I withdrew the diamond and pulled its chain over my head.  Pooling both the chain and stone in my palm, I held it out for him to examine.  He glanced down at it, then at me, but did not reach out to touch it.

“It resembles the Jewel of Judgment.”

“In many ways,” I agreed, slipping it back over my head, “and I am attuned to it.  There was not much time to experiment with it, however.  Random immediately tasked me with flying his experimental aircraft through Shadow to the Courts.  It seems obvious now that this was merely one part of a larger program he was implementing.  A program which apparently includes the train that brought me here.”

Benedict naturally knew all about the train, but showed no interest in using the pause in my story-telling to share any of what he knew with me.   He had finished his sandwich, and sat now with elbows on his knees, hands clasped, looking straight ahead.

“Piloting his flying machine,” he said, bringing his chin to rest pensively on his knuckles, “was the only objective assigned to you?”

A sour laugh escaped me.

“No, it was more than a flight test.  One purpose, clearly, was to intimidate Chaos.  The real mission, though, was for me to check in with Bleys, and then arrange for a one-on-one with Swayvill.”

“A meeting with the High King of Chaos?  To what end?”

“I never did get the chance to find out.  My top priority, though, would have been to learn whatever he might be able to tell me regarding the disappearances of Merlin and Martin.”

“And Bleys?” Benedict asked, getting up to fetch a poker.  “Had he nothing to say to you?”

Sighing, I picked up the glass again.

“Not much.  The two of them had been helping Swayvill against his enemies and had gotten in over their heads.  Bleys shared some interesting speculations about the Pattern and the structure of the Courts.  We later went out to do some recon, where I was challenged to ritual combat by some kind of weretiger.  This cut short my fact-finding.  My opponent turned out to be the lieutenant of Swayvill’s enemy Zirlar.”

“Ojin?” he asked, nudging coals with the poker.

“Yes, and the duel did not go well.”

“Yet you both still live.”

Now that was interesting.  His familiarity with most of the big players in the Courts derived from his duties there after the war, and was unsurprising.  His assertion regarding Ojin’s continued existence, though, suggested he had access to up-to-date information.  In other words, he had a source at the Courts.  With Bleys out of the picture, I had to wonder who it might be, and I had absolutely no idea.  With an inward shrug, I tabled the matter for later review.

“That’s right.  He was technically the victor, but Zirlar decided I should be kept alive long enough to see Bleys and Merlin given to the abyss.  And then I could be killed.  He was countermanded by his ally, King Raum, however, and I was imprisoned.”

“Temporarily,” Benedict said, amending my statement as he returned the poker to the stand.

“Yes, temporarily,” I assented.  “What was done with Bleys and Merlin, I have no idea.  A lot of time passed, but I ultimately escaped into Shadow, where I tracked down Merlin.  Or, rather, someone whom I believed to be Merlin.  Recently, though, I have come to doubt this.  Nevertheless, it was with his help that I returned to Amber.”

Benedict nodded thoughtfully.

“You believe you met an imposter.”

“Yes.  The cumulative effect of many small details.  These did not begin to hit me until I stood below Kolvir watching our navy trade cannon-fire with enemy ships in sight of the harbor.  I began noticing many odd things, such as trolleys and the new train station.  Political parties and a police force operating in and around the immortal city.  And, before I left, a vampire.   So:  strange goings-on.  Leading me to ask myself certain questions.

“My stay was necessarily brief.  As you may or may not have heard, Gérard attempted to arrest me so that I might stand before a court presided over by Caine.  I declined, and came here instead.  And there you have it, my story since we last saw each other.”

Having finished his drink, Benedict poured himself another.

As he lifted the glass, he said, “But you have not told me everything.”

This seemed like a good time for me to lift my glass, as well, and I brought it to my lips for a taste and a moment to consider my response.  For, of course, information better left unmentioned (from my perspective) had prudently been edited from the account I had just given, in particular the events occurring between the duel and my incarceration.  That is, the entire business at the foot of Ygg.  Where the witches had demonstrated knowledge of the operation of the diamond and the peculiarities of my Pattern.  Where the two kings had abused Bleys, Merlin and myself.  And where I had been compelled to bring three lost brothers back from wherever they had been exiled.

Also omitted from my story were the identities of my traveling companions, which seemed of little moment and yet might lead to avoidable questions.  My desire was to keep from any mention of what had transpired in Arden.  To start with, I was not at all sure how Benedict would react to my encountering his mother, exiled and long presumed dead.  Beyond that, there was the matter of Dworkin sequestered in Cymnea’s hidden residence in the forest.  Not knowing all the reasons for the need to keep Dworkin out of view, I did not feel qualified to challenge that call.  More than that, past experience had taught me a healthy respect for Dworkin’s role.  I could point to no one who knew more of what was really going on.  Fiona, Bleys and Brand had studied under him and developed into a credible threat to Amber.  Yet only Brand had taken things to the point where the threat had become real.  And Dworkin had been locked away by Oberon when it had become clear just how powerful his knowledge could be.

There could be no denying that the timing of various recent events seemed suspiciously beyond coincidence.  Dworkin having fallen comatose, cared for and kept hidden by Cymnea, being but one example.  Who was behind it all?  As the gangsters say, quoting wisdom at least as old as Rome, look to see who benefits.  The most obvious beneficiary of recent developments was Amber’s current Regent, Caine.  It was difficult to believe he was not involved at some level.  Yet there was the widest possible spectrum of upheaval, spanning the breadth of existence all the way from Amber to the Courts of Chaos, threatening stability everywhere.  Caine was indeed clever and subtle, but capable of a project so elaborate, of such unparalleled scope?  Unlikely.  Possible, yes, but only once most alternatives could be ruled out.  While I could only scratch at the surface of what those alternatives might be, I had a feeling Dworkin would know.  And not only would he be aware of the viable scenarios and the players involved in their execution, he would probably have a pretty good idea of who or what represented the agency behind these machinations.

Ultimately, there was the security of Amber and her attendant shadows to consider.  The Pattern and Dworkin were inextricably linked.  If something should happen to Dworkin, to harm him — as, apparently, something already had — then the Pattern, Amber, and Shadow would also suffer.  I would, therefore, not be revealing Dworkin’s whereabouts to anyone — not even to Benedict — without  good reason.

So I drank the wine, thought those things, and lowered my glass.

“Well, no, naturally not,” I admitted.  “It’s a long enough story, as it is.  I’ve streamlined where I could.  I could go on at greater length about Bleys’ speculations regarding the Pattern.  Or on how I came to doubt I’d actually encountered Merlin.  And there’s the heartwarming conversation I had with Caine.  I could expand on any number of points, but maybe you could tell me what you’re after?”

“You crossed Shadow by train.  What did you see?”

Inwardly, I sighed, and some tension went out of me.  I wondered if he noticed.

“Ah,” I said, trying the wine again.  “That.”

Indeed.  Yet another thing beyond my ken.  How Benedict knew of this, I could not then be sure.  But I could guess.  The train ran to Avalon, after all, and many others had seen what we had seen.

Shadowstorms have occurred before, certainly.  Still, uncommon.  The Chaos storm which had swept through all of existence might be regarded as a sort of shadowstorm, though this would be akin to likening a tsunami to a wave in a bathtub.  A shadowstorm had things in common with that great upwelling of Chaos, but was localized, operating at a much smaller scale.

Passing through Shadow by train was in some ways like navigating across the oceans shared by shadows, yet also different.  From a moving train, it was like watching the fading sunset change the landscape — colors, shapes and light-values seamlessly shifting, morphing into new arrangements which could be mistaken for a change in perspective, something one could rationalize and attribute to one’s own motion through the scene.  This brand of mind-trickery is, of course, precisely the mechanism in operation during a hellride, enabled by the power of imagination.  Much like cloud-busting, one need only project one’s personal imagined conceits upon the shifting, the morphing, the change, in order to take charge of it, to move toward the picture, the place, the manifestation of one’s desire.  What, then, when these things occur independently, without the apparent intervention and intention of anyone else?  When they just, all of themselves, happen?

The distant treeline defining the other side of wide fields suddenly surges like a wave coming up the shore, trunks and branches looming, clouds drop into the sky, expanding like ripples on a pond, dirt and vegetation push in from either side of a road, erasing the road as if it had never been, curvilinear porcelain architectures and leafy arcologies rise up from the fields, and the mountains beyond the forests melt away, an ocean pours in from the horizon and in just minutes you feel its spray....  Terrifying to the uninitiated, to witness the physical world so pliable, fluid, unstable.  Yet even those who travel the shadows are thrown when the changes not only are uncoordinated, but overlap.  When the forest rushes into the city and catches fire, while the waves of the sea rise to break upon the buildings, as a stampeding herd of elephants charge out of the trees to struggle against drowning, distant mountains pushing up against the sky to send glaciers at highway speeds toward the sea into which they thunder and crash, a bombardment of blazing missiles or meteors raining down from a roiling sky, strange biomechanical flying things swinging out from the fiery forest to skim the waves like monstrous dragonflies....  Too much happening in the same place at the same time.  The confusion of realities colliding, even seen from a distance, could strike fear into the heart of a traveler of Shadow who is merely passing through.  Even when a driver sits behind the wheel of his car, he does not necessarily feel safe from the force-five tornado moving toward him from less than a mile away.

It had taken some doing on my part to reassure my companions that we were all perfectly safe from the shadowstorm which had erupted on the horizon, then widened and moved toward us as our train had sped along.  The truth was, though, that we hadn’t been safe at all.  Only our diminutive guide or guard, the gnome assigned to us by Cymnea, had seemed unperturbed.

The storm had drawn closer, and then closer still, till we could see that the needle-like stone spires pushing up out of the prairie were, in fact, windowed towers, overlooking a battle between dinosaurs charging from the west headlong into a line of fast, light-armored war-machines advancing from the east as the slope of a vast pyramid grew toward the stars just beyond them, weird green jello-like mounds sprouting everywhere, quivering and moving through the conflict.  Up in the sky an enormous moon loomed, its cratered face growing larger and more distinct as it moved closer.  The ground tore open, lava gushing forth, consuming numbers of the jello-mounds in loud explosions of black steam.  The needle-towers tipped and tottered as the ground began to slowly swirl like tea stirred in a cup, while the shifting melée of machine, mound, and dinosaur vied with the collapsing sky — all of it seeming tilted on a tabletop toward the train, sliding closer.

Out of instinct and out of fear, I had pulled forth the diamond, closed my hand about it, setting my will against the storm, taking hold of the stuff of Shadow with my mind....

“The shadowstorm,” I said.  “Yes, it was bad.  Came dangerously close, too.  We survived, however, as you can see.  May I ask how you heard about it?”

“Avalon is under my protection,” Benedict replied.  “Nothing occurs in or near Avalon of which I am unaware.  I know your friends are staying at the Bywater.  I know you bought a horse and rode out this way.  I know a shadowstorm threatened the train and yet was somehow diverted from the tracks.  I know many things.”

Turning his head, his gaze met mine.

Message sent, and message received.  Swirling the wine in my glass, I raised it for yet another taste, lowered the now-empty glass and set it on the table.

“You have guessed correctly,” I told him.  “It was me.”

“This was not an ability I was aware you possessed.”

With the fingers of my left hand, I touched the diamond.

“Not sure it would be correct to call it an ability.  More accurate to describe it as a function of this.”

“Which you say you took from a ghost in Tir-na Nog’th.”

“That’s right.”

“Whose ghost was it?”

“Ah, well,” I coughed.  “Before we get into events in the sky-city, I would like to turn your attention to something of more immediate importance.”

Here I got up, strode over to the desk, gestured toward the things on top of it.

“These are all from Merlin’s pack.  Or, rather, from the pack carried by his doppelgänger.”

Benedict leaned forward, set his glass beside mine, stood, walked over to stand beside me.  With his index finger, he prodded one of the objects.

“Merlin has accompanied Martin on visits here in the past.  He usually has on a cloak of some shade of purple.  I am certain I have seen him in this one.”

“You are?”

He flipped the edge of the cloak over.  Several rectangles of fabric were revealed, in checkerboard pattern, sewn into the lining.  Each represented a panel, perhaps telling some unguessed story — people, places — each woven from shimmering thread.

“I am.”

“What about the other things?”

Benedict prodded an oval, crytalline item.

“I have seen Merlin peer through this object.  I know not why, nor what he saw.”

He picked up a ring, held it out in front of him a moment, turning it, before placing it on the cloak.

“A serpent biting its tail — a symbol of Chaos.  More than that, I cannot say.”

“But,” I said, picking it up, examining it in my turn, “nevertheless something recognized by those dwelling in the Courts.  Could be useful.”

I replaced the ring, pointed at the ivory tube, cut in places with oval slots.

“A flute?”

“Mayhap,” said Benedict, picking it up, “but there is something inside.”

He shook it, and a rolled up piece of parchment slid part way out.  Meeting my gaze, he extended the thing toward me.

I pulled it free, a tightly wound scroll, tied with a ribbon.  Untying the ribbon, I unrolled it, scanned it.  And remembered it.  Tying it back up, I reached for the tube Benedict held, slipped the scroll back within its container.

“This scroll has something to do with Dworkin.  I know that much, but that’s all I know,” I told him, and laid the ivory tube beside the ring.

Returning my attention to the crystal, I picked it up, turning it so the light struck it from different angles.

“Could be an eyepiece,” I hazarded, holding it to my eye, seeing the suit of armor on the other side of the fireplace suddenly magnified, a kaleidoscopic effect around the edges, then turning it upon the painting by the door with the same result.  “Yes, that’s what it is.”

So saying, I passed it to Benedict, who tried the same experiment, then weighed it in his palm, and finally turned it every which way in his fingertips.

“The surface is etched with markings of some kind.”

“Really?  No marks or scratches are visible when looking through it.”

He returned the lens.  Taking it in both hands, I applied pressure to different points on the surface.  And it changed.  It flexed, like a plastic bottle squeezed too hard, or like a dent popped out of a fender.  From convex to concave, from clear to reflective on one side.  Pointing it toward the fireplace, it directed a faint beam of concentrated yellow light.  Running my fingers over the thing a few times, I tried to visualize the curves and angles inscribed on its otherwise smooth surface.

“The only things I can think of are cuneiform and Braille, except...”

“Yes?”

“Except it feels more like some emblem or design.  A logo, perhaps.  Signature of the manufacturer?”

Placing the lens on the cloak with the ring and the scroll, I turned away, resuming my seat by the fire.  Benedict joined me.  He brought out his pipe, and I did the same.  We smoked a minute or two, thinking, watching the flickering light.

After a time, Benedict asked, “Where did you encounter this Merlin double?”

“After my escape from the Courts, I made my way to the old shadow of my exile.  And there I found him.  Or he found me.  I’m still not sure about that part.”

“Why do you believe this was not Merlin?”

This had actually only become clear to me when Dworkin, talking in his unwakeable sleep, had implied I had never met Merlin.  But, again, my instincts strongly ran in the direction that it would be better to have Benedict impressed with how insightful I could be than with how trusting I could be.

Easy enough to report something Dworkin “had once said” had led to that conclusion, without giving away how very recently it actually was when he had said it.  Dworkin’s opinion would lend credibility to my claim.  But Benedict might be inclined to ask for verifiable details as to when, where, and how the topic had come up.  And in his present sharp-eyed, hyper-alert state, I had a feeling my creative storytelling gifts might not be enough to stop him from pressing until he had the truth.

Was it worth the risk?  In the current climate there was more solidarity than in times past, less mistrust.  On the one hand, by trespassing into Benedict’s realm, I had become his guest, owing him something in return for his welcome.  That is, information.  Further, as a master strategist and Amber’s most capable defender, I wanted him to have as much knowledge as I could spare.  More than that, I hoped to trade it for whatever he might know.

On the other hand...

On the other hand, knowledge is power.  So he could not have everything.

“He was overly mysterious, remaining close-mouthed about his activities.  Yet his depth of knowledge about Amber and Shadow was impressive, on a par with Fiona’s.  I fully intended to have answers from him as soon as there was time, but there never was.  Later, however, when things had settled, it seemed to me his behavior was not entirely consistent with the Merlin I remembered.”

“Yet he was carrying Merlin’s possessions.”

“So it seems.  Though I can’t say why, I can guess who.  I believe it was a shapeshifter, an agent of Chaos.”

“How do you know this?”

Puffing on my pipe, I saw again the scene below Ygg’s branches.  The two witches, Keridwen and Dana, had seemed strangely detached from much of what had transpired there, though very interested in the diamond and the exiles it had helped me to retrieve.  Their patrons, if that was the right word for the relationship, had had a more obvious agenda.  These were King Zirlar and King Raum, Swayvill’s dedicated foes.  And it had been in an underwater cell in Raum’s territory — wherever that was — that I had been held in durance vile.  Had I been tracked after my escape?  But, then, if Merlin’s double had followed me from the Courts, why had he delivered me from the burning tower on the shadow Earth?  While there was much I had yet to understand, the involvement of Chaos still struck me as the most likely solution to the mystery.  As to why, I could hardly begin to speculate.

“I believe Merlin was their captive, and likely still is.  It is possible that his pack was given to one of their number to complete the disguise.”

“To what end?”

“I’m not sure.  I would say to gain my trust, in order to use me somehow in the advancement of some over-arching scheme.  What might be the objective of such a scheme?  To pit Caine and I against one another?  To foster rumors and further unsettle an Amber already plagued by police and paranoia?  Done and done.  Some third thing not yet guessed.  Very likely.  But it was not so this imposter could destroy me, since he gave me escape when death came calling.”

“You were attacked?”

“A military assault.  We were in a tower.  There were explosions, deaths.  We were lucky to get away.”

“‘We.’  You and your friends in town?”

“Correct.”

“Narl, too?”

“Who?”

“The gnome.”

“So that’s his name,” I said, smiling.  “He doesn’t talk much to us.  Or at all, really.  No, he wasn’t there.  He’s new.”

“Yet none of this explains why you are here.”

“Well, in a way it does,” I countered.  “The abrupt departure from my old shadow brought us to Amber.  With Caine determined to put me on trial, it seemed like a good idea to leave quickly.  So we took the train.  While I admit I did not expect it to bring me here, I’m glad it did.  And how does that happen, by the way?”

Benedict looked up at the smoke curling above him.

“As you must know by now, all modernization was by Random’s decree.  He was no longer willing to rely primarily on seaways through Shadow.  And with good reason.  Nor did he want Trumps for key places such as Avalon to be readily available.  He called these Royal Trumps, reserved for use by himself and those designated by him.  I supported him in this also.  There are too many who can use them.”

“It all adds up,” I said, nodding.  “It’s almost as if Random saw all this coming — the pirate attacks on Amber’s shipping, the moves against Swayvill and himself, the instability in the Courts and in Shadow.  Something is going on, something very big.  But what?  What do you know that I don’t know?”

He removed his pipe, stared at it.

“Our forces of occupation were withdrawn years ago.  Not long after, trouble began brewing in Chaos.  There were disturbances far afield.  Shadowstorms are now commonplace.  After you left on your assignment, Random walked Tir-na Nog’th and has not been seen since.  If there is indeed a single entity or group behind these events, then we are contending with a power not seen since the creation of Amber.”

To hear such a pronouncement, and from Benedict of all people, set me back.  There was a lot I felt like saying just then, but I kept it to four words.

“We need a plan.”

Clearing his throat, Benedict said, “First there is something I must ask you.  And something I must show you.”

“All right.”

He got up from his chair, walked over to the mirror on the other side of the suit of armor, hanging on the wall opposite the windows.  Setting aside my pipe, I got to my feet and walked over to where he stood before the glass.

“Who did you take the diamond from in Tir-na Nog’th?”

“Oisen,” I said softly.

His face betrayed no emotion.  Had he already known?

“Now,” my brother said, “look in the mirror.”

I did as he bade me, seeking some out-of-place detail.  Was it something in the room, best revealed in a reflection?  Perhaps a faint message written on the mirror itself?  Yet nothing out of the ordinary was visible.  What was I missing?

And then I saw.

“So it is with all of us, Corwin,” Benedict said from beside me, as I stared.

 “We have all begun to age,” he continued, as I took in the new lines around the eyes, the handful of gray hairs.  “We are getting old.”




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