Courts of Chaos
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His eye went wide as he began to topple. Then his right hand shot forward and caught hold of Deirdre's hair. I was running by then, shouting, but I knew that I could not reach them in time.
Deirdre howled, a look of terror on her bloodstreaked face, and she reached out to me. . . .
Then Brand, Deirdre and the Jewel were over the edge and falling, vanished from sight, gone. . . .
I believe that I tried to throw myself after them, but Random caught hold of me. Finally, he had to hit me, and it all went away.
When I came around, I lay upon the stony earth farther back from the edge of that place where I had fallen. Someone had folded my cloak into a pillow for me. My first vision was of the turning sky, reminding me somehow of my dream of the wheel the day I had met Dara. I could feel the others about me, hear their voices, but I did not at first turn my head. I just lay there and regarded the mandala in the heavens and thought upon my loss. Deirdre . . . she had meant more to me than all the rest of the family put together. I cannot help it. That is how it was. How many times had I wished she were not my sister. Yet, I had reconciled myself to the realities of our situation. My feelings would never change, but . . . now she was gone, and this thought meant more to me than the impending destruction of the world.
Yet, I had to see what was happening now. With the Jewel gone, everything was over. Yet . . . I reached out, trying to feel its presence. Wherever it might be, but there was nothing. I began to rise then, to see how far the wave had advanced, but a sudden arm pushed me back.
It was Random's voice.
"You're beat. You look as if you have just crawled through hell. There is nothing you can do now. Take it easy."
"What difference does the state of my health make?" I replied. "In a little while, it will not matter."
I made to rise again, and this time the arm moved to support me.
"All right, then," he said. "Not that much worth seeing, though."
I suppose that he was right. The fighting appeared to be over except for a few isolated pockets of resistance by the enemy, and these were rapidly being enveloped, their combatants slain or captured, everyone moving in this direction, withdrawing before the advancing wave which had reached the far end of the field. Soon our height would be crowded with all of the survivors from both sides. I looked behind us. No new forces were approaching from the dark citadel. Could we retreat to that place when the wave finally reached us here? Then what? The abyss seemed the ultimate answer.
"Soon," I muttered, thinking of Deirdre.
"Soon . . ." Why not?
I watched the stormfront, flashing, masking, transforming. Yes, soon. With the Jewel gone along with Brand-
"Brand . . ." I said. "Who was it finally got him?"
"I claim that distinction," said a familiar voice which I could not place.
I turned my head and stared. The man in green was seated on a rock. His bow and quiver lay beside him on the around. He flashed an evil smile in my direction. It was Caine.
"I'll be damned," I said, rubbing my jaw. "A funny thing happened to me on the way to your funeral."
"Yes. I heard about it." He laughed.
"You ever kill yourself, Corwin?"
"Not recently. How'd you manage it?"
"Walked to the proper shadow," he said, "waylaid the Shadow of myself there. He provided the corpse." He shuddered. "An eerie feeling, that. Not one I'd care to repeat."
"But why?" I said. "Why fake your death and try to frame me for it?"
"I wanted to get to the root of the trouble in Amber," he said, "and destroy it. I thought it best to go underground for that. What better way than by convincing everyone that I was dead? I finally succeeded, too, as you saw."
"I'm sorry about Deirdre, though. But I had no choice. It was our last chance. I did not really think he would take her with him."
I looked away.
"I had no choice," he repeated. "I hope you can see that."
"But why did you try to make it look as if I had killed you?" I asked.
Just then Fiona approached with Bleys. I greeted them both and turned back to Caine for my answer. There were things I wanted to ask Bleys, too, but they could wait.
"Well?" I said.
"I wanted you out of the way," he said. "I still thought you might be behind the whole thing. You or Brand. I had it narrowed down that far. I thought it might even be the two of you in it together-especially with him struggling to bring you back."
"You have that wrong," said Bleys. "Brand was trying to keep him away. He had learned that his memory was returning and-"
"I gather," Caine replied, "but at the time it looked that way. So I wanted Corwin back in a dungeon while I searched for Brand. I lay low then and listened in on the Trumps to everything everyone said, hoping for a clue as to Brand's whereabouts."
"That's what Dad meant," I said.
"What?" Caine asked.
"He implied there was an eavesdropper on the Trumps."
"I do not see how he could have known. I had learned to be completely passive about it. I had taught myself to deal them all out and touch all of them lightly at the same time, waiting for a stirring. When it came, I would shift my attention to the speakers. Taking you one at a time, I even found I could sometimes get into your minds when you were not using the Trumps yourselves-if you were sufficiently distracted and I allowed myself no reaction."
"Yet he knew," I said.
"It is entirely possible. Likely, even," said Fiona, and Bleys nodded.
Random drew nearer.
"What did you mean when you asked about Corwin's side?" he inquired. "How could you even know about it unless-"
Caine merely nodded. I saw Benedict and Julian together in the distance, addressing their troops. At Caine's silent movement, I forgot them.
"You?" I croaked. "You stabbed me?"
"Have a drink, Corwin," Random said, passing me his flask. It was a dilute wine. I gulped it. My thirst was immense, but I stopped after several good swigs.
"Tell me about it," I said.
"All right. I owe you that," he said. "When I learned from Julian's mind that you had brought Brand back to Amber, I decided that an earlier guess had been correct-that you and Brand were in it together. That meant you both had to be destroyed. I used the Pattern to project myself into your chambers that night. There, I tried to kill you, but you moved too fast and you somehow managed to Trump out before I got a second chance."
"Well, damn your eyes," I said. "If you could touch our minds couldn't you have seen that I was not the man you were looking for?"
He shook his head.
"I could pick up only surface thoughts and reactions to your immediate environment. Not always that, even. And I had heard your curse, Corwin. And it was coming true. I could see it all around us. I felt that we would all be a lot safer with you and Brand both out of the way. I knew what he could do, from his actions back before your return. I could not get at him just then, though, because of Gerard. Then he began to grow stronger. I made one effort later, but it failed."
"When was that?" Random asked.
"That was the one Corwin got blamed for. I masked myself. In case he managed to get away as Corwin had, I did not want him knowing I was still around. I used the Pattern to project myself into his chambers and tried to finish him off. We were both hurt-there was a lot of blood around-but he managed to Trump away, too. Then I got in touch with Julian a while back and joined him for this battle, because Brand just had to show up here. I had some silver-tipped arrows made because I was more than half convinced that he was no longer like the rest of us. I wanted to kill him fast and do it from a distance. I practiced my archery and came looking for him. I finally found him. Now everyone tells me I was wrong about you, so I guess your arrow will go unused."
"Thanks a lot."
"I might even owe you an apology."
"That would be nice."
"On the other hand, I thought that I was right. I was doing it to save the rest-"
I never did get Caine's apology, because just then a trumpet blast seemed to shake the entire world-directionless, loud, prolonged. We cast about, seeking its source.
Caine stood and pointed.
"There!" he said.
My eyes followed his gesture. The curtain of the stormfront was broken off to the northwest, at the point where the black road emerged from it. There, a ghostly rider on a black horse had appeared and was winding his horn. It was a while before more of its notes reached us. Moments later, two more trumpeters-also pale, and mounted on black steeds-joined him. They raised their horns and added to the sound.
"What can it be?" Random asked.
"I think I know," Bleys said, and Fiona nodded.
"What, then?" I asked.
But they did not answer me. The horsemen were beginning to move again, passing along the black road, and more were emerging behind them.
The Courts Of Chaos
I watched. There was a great silence on the heights about me. All of the troops had halted and were regarding the procession. Even the prisoners from the Courts, hemmed by steel, turned their attention that way.
Led by the pale trumpeters came a mass of horsemen mounted on white steeds, bearing banners, some of which I did not recognize, behind a man-thing who bore the Unicorn standard of Amber. These were followed by more musicians, some of them playing upon instruments of a sort I had never seen before.
Behind the musicians marched horned man-shaped things in light armor, long columns of them, and every twentieth or so bore a great torch before him, reaching high above his head. A deep noise came to us then-slow, rhythmic, rolling beneath the notes of the trumpets and the sounds of the musicians-and I realized that the foot soldiers were singing. A great deal of time seemed to pass as this body advanced along that black way across the distant track below us, yet none of us stirred and none of us spoke. They passed, with the torches and the banners and the music and the singing, and they finally came to the edge of the abyss and continued over the near-invisible extension of that dark highway, their torches flaring against the blackness now, lighting their way. The music grew stronger, despite the distance, with more and more voices added to that chorus, as the guard continued to emerge from that flashing storm curtain. An occasional roll of thunder passed by, but this could not drown it; nor did the winds which assailed the torches extinguish any so far as I could see. The movement had a hypnotic effect. It seemed that I had been watching the procession for countless days, years perhaps, listening to the tune I now recognized.
Suddenly, a dragon sailed through the stormfront, and another, and another. Green and golden and black as old iron, I watched them soar on the winds, turning their heads to trail pennons of fire. The lightning flashed behind them and they were awesome and magnificent and of incalculable size. Beneath them came a small herd of white cattle, tossing their heads and blowing, beating the ground with their hoofs. Riders passed beside and among these, cracking long black whips.
Then came a procession of truly bestial troops from a shadow with which Amber sometimes has commerce-heavy, scaled, taloned-playing upon instruments like bagpipes, whose skirling notes came to us with vibrance and pathos.
These marched on, and there were more torch bearers and more troops with their colors-from shadows both distant and near. We watched them pass and wind their way into the far sky, like a migration of fireflies, their destination that black citadel called the Courts of Chaos.
There seemed no end to it. I had lost all track of time. But the stormfront, strangely, was not advancing as all this went on. I had even lost something of my sense of person, to be caught up in the procession which passed us. This, I knew, was an event which could never be repeated. Bright flying things darted above the columns and dark ones floated, higher.
There were ghostly drummers, beings of pure light and a flock of floating machines; I saw horsemen, clad all in black, mounted on a variety of beasts; a wyvern seemed to hang in the sky for a moment, like part of a fireworks display. And the sounds-of hoofbeats and footfalls, of singing and
skirling, of drumming and trumpeting-mounted to a mighty wave that washed over us. And on, on, on out over the bridge of darkness, wound the procession, its lights lining the great span for a vast distance now.
Then, as my eyes drifted back along those lines, another shape emerged from the glistening curtain. It was a cart draped all in black and drawn by a team of black horses. At each corner rose a staff which glowed with blue fire, and atop it rested what could only be a casket, draped with our Unicorn flag. The driver was a hunchback clad in purple and orange garments, and I knew even at that distance that it was Dworkin.
It is thus, then, I thought. I do not know why, but somehow it is fitting, fitting that it be the Old Country to which you travel now. There were many things that I might have said while you lived. Some of them I did say, but few of the right words were ever spoken. Now it is over, for you are dead. As dead as all of those who have gone before you into that place where the rest of us soon may follow. I am sorry. It was only after all these years, on your assuming another face and form, that I finally knew you, respected you, even came to like you-though you were a crochety old bastard in that form, too. Was the Ganelon self the real you all along, or was it only another form adopted for convenience's sake. Old Shapeshifter? I will never know, but I like to think that I finally saw you as you were, that I met someone I liked, someone I could trust, and that it was you. I wish that I might have known you even better, but I am grateful for this much. . . .
"Dad . . . ?" Julian said softly.
"He wanted to be taken beyond the Courts of Chaos and into the final darkness when his time came at last," Bleys said. "So Dworkin once told me. Beyond Chaos and Amber, to a place where none reigned."
"And so it is," Fiona said. "But is there order somewhere beyond that wall they come through? Or does the storm go on forever? If he succeeded, it is but a passing matter and we are in no danger. But if he did not . . ."
"It does not matter," I said, "whether or not he succeeded, because I did."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I believe that he failed," I said, "that he was destroyed before he could repair the old Pattern. When I saw this storm coming-actually, I experienced a part of it-I realized that I could not possibly make it here in time with the Jewel, which he had sent to me after his efforts. Brand had been trying to get it from me all along the way-to create a new Pattern, he said. Later, that gave me the idea. When I saw that all else was failing, I used the Jewel to create a new Pattern. It was the most difficult thing I ever did, but I succeeded. Things should hold together after this wave passes, whether we survive it or not. Brand stole the Jewel from me just as I completed it. When I recovered from his attack I was able to use the new Pattern to project me here. So there is still a Pattern, no matter what else happens."
"But Corwin," she said, "what if Dad succeeded?"
"I do not know."
"It is my understanding," Bleys said, "from things that Dworkin told me, that two distinct Patterns could not exist in the same universe. Those in Rebma and Tir-na Nog'th do not count, being but reflections of our own. . . ."
"What would happen?" I said.
"I think there would be a splitting off, the founding of a new existence-somewhere."
"Then what would its effect be upon our own?"
"Either total catastrophe or no effect whatsoever," Fiona said. "I can make a case for its going either way."
"Then we are right back Where we started," I said. "Either things are going to fall apart shortly or they are going to hold."
"So it would seem," Bleys said.
"It does not matter, if we are not going to be around after that wave gets to us," I said. "And it will."
I turned my attention back to the funeral cortege. More horsemen had emerged behind the wagon, followed by marching drummers. Then pennons and torches and a long line of foot soldiers. The singing still came to us, and far, far out over the abyss it seemed the procession might finally have reached that dark citadel.
. . . I hated you for so long, blamed you for so many things. Now it is over, and none of these feelings remain. Instead, you had even wanted me to be king, a job for which-I see now-I am not fitted. I see that I must have meant something to you after all. I will never tell the others. It is enough to know it myself. But I can never think of you in the same fashion again. Already your image blurs. I see Ganelon's face where yours should be. He was my companion. He risked his neck for me. He was you, but a different you-a you that I had not known. How many wives and enemies had you outlived? Were there many friends? I think not. But there were so many things about you of which we knew nothing. I never thought that I would see your passing. Ganelon-Father-old friend and enemy, I bid you farewell. You join Deirdre, whom I have loved. You have preserved your mystery. Rest in peace, if that be your will. I give you this withered rose I have borne through hell, casting it into the abyss. I leave you the rose and the twisted colors in the sky. I will miss you. . . .
Finally, the long line came to an end. The last marchers emerged from the curtain and moved away. The lightning still flared, the rain still poured and the thunder rumbled. No member of the procession that I could recall had seemed wet, however. I had been standing at the edge of the abyss, watching them pass. There was a hand on my arm. How long it had been there, I could not tell. Now that the passage was complete, I realized that the stormfront was advancing again.
The rotation of the sky seemed to be bringing more darkness upon us. There were voices off to my left. It seemed they had been talking for a long while, but I had not been hearing their words. I realized that I was shaking, that I ached all over, that I could barely stand.
"Come and lie down," Fiona said. "The family has shrunken enough for one day."
I let her lead me away from the edge.
"Would it really make any difference?" I asked. "How much longer do you think we have?"
"We do not have to stay here and wait for it," she said. "We will cross the dark bridge into the Courts. We have already broken their defense. The storm may not reach that far. It may be stopped here by the abyss. We ought to see Dad off, anyway."
"It would seem we have small choice but to be dutiful unto the end."
I eased myself down and sighed. If anything, I felt even weaker now.
"Your boots . . ." she said.
She pulled them off. My feet throbbed.
"I'll get you some rations."
I closed my eyes. I dozed. Too many images played within my head to make for a coherent dream. How long this lasted. I do not know, but an old reflex drew me to wakefulness at the sound of an approaching horse. Then a shadow passed over my eyelids.
I looked up and beheld a muffled rider, silent, still. I was regarded.
I looked back. No threatening gesture had been made, but there was a feeling of antipathy in that cold gaze.
"There lies the hero," said a soft voice.
I said nothing.
"I could slay you easily now."
I recognized the voice then, though I had no idea as to the reason behind the sentiment.
"I came upon Borel before he died," she said. "He told me how ignobly you had bested him."
I could not help it, I could not control it. A dry chuckle rose in my throat. Of all the stupid things to get upset about. I might have told her that Borel had been far better equipped and far fresher than I, and that he had come to me looking for a fight. I might have told her that I do not recognize rules when my life is at stake, or that I do not consider war a game. I could have said a great number of things, but if she did not know them already or did not choose to understand them, they would not have made a bit of difference. Besides, her feelings were already plain.
So I simply said one of the great trite truths: "There is generally more than one side to a story."
"I will settle for the one I have," she told me.
I thought about shrugging, but my shoulders were too sore.
"You have cost me two of the most important persons in my life," she said then.
"Oh?" I said. "I'm sorry, for you."
"You are not what I was led to believe. I had seen you as a truly noble figure-strong, yet understanding and sometimes gentle. Honorable . . ."
The storm, much closer now, was flaring at her back. I thought of something vulgar and said it. She let it pass as if she had not heard me.
"I am going now," she said, "back to my own people. You have won the day thus far-but that way lay Amber." She gestured toward the storm. I could only stare. Not at the raging elements. At her. "I doubt there is anything of my new allegiance left for me to renounce," she continued.
"What about Benedict?" I asked softly.
"Don't . . ." she said, and she turned away. There was a silence. Then, "I do not believe that we will ever meet again," she said, and her horse carried her off to my left, in the direction of the black road.
A cynic might have decided that she had simply chosen to toss in her lot with what she now saw as the winning side, as the Courts of Chaos would likely survive. I simply did not know. I could think only of what I had seen when she had gestured. The cowling had slipped away and I had gotten a glimpse of what she had become. It had not been a human face, there within the shadows. But I turned my head and watched until she was gone. With Deirdre, Brand and Dad gone, and now a parting with Dara on these terms, the world was much emptier-whatever was left of it.
I lay back and sighed. Why not just remain here when the others departed, wait for the storm to wash over me, and sleep . . . dissolve? I thought of Hugi. Had I digested his flight from life as well as his flesh? I was so tired that it seemed the easiest course. . . .
I had been dozing again, though only for a moment. Fiona was beside me once more, with rations and a flask. Someone was with her.
"I did not wish to interrupt your audience," she said. "So I waited."
"You heard?" I asked.
"No, but I can guess," she said, "since she is gone. Here."
I swallowed some wine, turned my attention to the meat, the bread. Despite my state of mind, they tasted good to me.
"We will be moving soon," Fiona said, casting a glance at the raging stormfront. "Can you ride?"
"I think so," I said.
I took another drink of the wine.
"But too much has happened, Fi," I told her. "I have gone numb emotionally. I broke out of a sanitarium on a shadow world. I have tricked people and I've killed people. I have calculated and I have fought. I won back my memory and I have been trying to straighten out my life. I have found my family, and found that I love it. I have been reconciled with Dad. I have fought for the kingdom. I have tried everything I know to hold things together. Now it appears that it has all come to nothing, and I have not enough spirit left to mourn further. I have gone numb. Forgive me."
She kissed me.
"We are not yet beaten. You will be yourself again," she said.
I shook my head.
"It is like the last chapter of Alice" I said. "If I shout, 'You are only a pack of cards!' I feel we will all fly into the air, a hand of painted pasteboards. I am not going with you. Leave me here. I am only the Joker, anyway."
"Right now, I am stronger than you are," she said. "You are coming."
"It is not fair," I said softly.
"Finish eating," she said. "There is still some time."
As I did, she went on, "Your son Merlin is waiting to see you. I would like to call him up here now."
"Not exactly. He was not a combatant. He just arrived a little while ago, asking to see you."
I nodded and she went away. I abandoned my rations and took another swig of wine. I had just become nervous. What do you say to a grown son you only recently learned existed? I wondered about his feelings toward me. I wondered whether he knew of Dara's decision. How should I act with him?
I watched him approach from a place where my relatives were clustered, far off to my left. I had wondered why they had left me by myself this way. The more visitors I received the more apparent it became. I wondered whether they were holding up the withdrawal because of me. The storm's moist winds were growing stronger. He was staring at me as he advanced, no special expression on that face so much like my own. I wondered how Dara felt now that her prophecy of the destruction seemed to have been fulfilled. I wondered how her relationship with the boy actually stood. I wondered . . . many things.
He leaned forward to clasp my hand.
"Father . . ." he said.
I looked into his eyes. I rose to my feet, still holding his hand.
"Do not get up."
"It is all right."
I clasped him to me, then released him.
"I am glad," I said.
Then: "Drink with me." I offered him the wine, partly to cover my lack of words.
He took it, drank some and passed it back.
"Your health," I said and took a sip myself.
"Sorry I cannot offer you a chair."
I lowered myself to the ground. He did the same.
"None of the others seemed to know exactly what you have been doing," he said, "except for Fiona, who said only that it had been very difficult."
"No matter," I said. "I am glad to have made it this far, if for no other reason than this. Tell me of yourself, son. What are you like? How has life treated you?"
He looked away.
"I have not lived long enough to have done too much," he said.
I was curious whether he possessed the shapeshifting ability, but restrained myself from asking at this point. No sense in looking for our differences when I had just met him.
"I have no idea what it was like," I said, "growing up in the Courts."
He smiled for the first time.
"And I have no idea what it would have been like anywhere else," he responded. "I was different enough to be left to myself a lot. I was taught the usual things a gentleman should know-magic, weapons, poisons, riding, dancing. I was told that I would one day rule in Amber. This is not true anymore, is it?"
"It does not seem too likely in the foreseeable future," I said.
"Good," he replied. "This is the one thing I did not want to do."
"What do you want to do?"
"I want to walk the Pattern in Amber as Mother did and gain power over Shadow, so that I might walk there and see strange sights and do different things. Do you think I might?"
I took another rip and I passed him the wine.
"It is quite possible," I said, "that Amber no longer exists. It all depends on whether your grandfather succeeded in something he attempted-and he is no longer around to tell us what happened. However, one way or the other, there is a Pattern. If we live through this demon storm, I promise you that I will find you a Pattern, instruct you and see you walking it."
"Thanks," he said. "Now will you tell me of your journey here?"
"Later," I told him. "What did they tell you of me?"
He looked away.
"I was taught to dislike many of the things about Amber," he finally said. Then, after a pause: "You, I was taught to respect, as my father. But I was reminded that you were of the party of the enemy."
Another pause. "I remember that time on patrol, when you had come to this place and I found you, after your fight with Kwan. My feelings were mixed. You had just slain someone I had known, yet-I had to admire the stance you took. I saw my face in your own. It was strange. I wanted to know you better."
The sky had rotated completely and the darkness was now above us, the colors passing over the Courts. The steady advance of the flashing stormfront was emphasized by this. I leaned forward and reached for my boots, began pulling them on. Soon it would be time to begin our retreat.
"We will have to continue our conversation on your home ground," I said. "It is about time to fly the storm."
He turned and considered the elements, then looked back out over the abyss.
"I can summon a filmy if you wish."
"One of those drifting bridges such as you rode on the day we met?"
"Yes," he answered. "They are most convenient. I-"
There had been a shout from the direction of my assembled relatives. Nothing threatening seemed to be about when I regarded them. So I got to my feet and took a few steps toward them. Merlin rising to follow me.
Then I saw her. A white form, pawing air it seemed, and rising out of the abyss. Her front hoofs finally struck its brink, and she came forward and then stood still, regarding us all: our Unicorn.
The Courts Of Chaos