Nine Princess In Amber
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"Then you're crazy, Charlie."
"Well, good luck, anyhow."
"See you around."
And that was that, and it troubled me.
Was I heading into a trap?
Eric was no fool. Perhaps he had a real death-gig lined up. Finally, I shrugged and leaned out over the rail, the cards once again behind my belt.
It is a proud and lonely thing to be a prince of Amber, incapable of trust. I wasn't real fond of it just then, but there I was.
Eric, of course, had controlled the storm we'd just passed through, and it seemed in line with his being weather master in Amber, as Random had told me.
So I tried something myself.
I headed us toward an Amber lousy with snow. It was the most horrible blizzard I could conjure up.
The big flakes began to fall, out there on the ocean.
Let him stop them a normal enough Shadow offering, if he could.
And he did.
Within a half hour's time the blizzard had died, Amber was virtually impervious-and it was really the only city. I didn't want to go off course, so I let things be. Eric was master of the weather in Amber.
What to do?
We sailed on, of course. Into the jaws of death,
What can one say?
The second storm was worse than the first, but I held the wheel. It was electrified, and focused only on the fleet. It drove us apart. It cost us forty vessels more.
I was afraid to call Bleys to see what had been done to him.
"Around two hundred thousand troops are left," he said. "Flash flood," and I told him what Random had told
"I'll buy it," he said. "But let's not dwell on it. Weather or no, we'll beat him."
"I hope so."
I lit a cigarette and leaned across the bow.
Amber should be coming into sight soon, I knew the ways of Shadow now, and I knew how to get there by walking.
But everyone had misgivings.
There would never be a perfect day, though.
So we sailed on, and the darkness came upon us like a sudden wave, and the worst storm of them all struck.
We managed to ride out its black lashings, but I was scared. It was all true, and we were in northern waters. If Caine had kept his word, all well and good. If he was getting us out, he was in an excellent position.
So I assumed he had sold us out. Why not? I prepared the fleet-seventy-three vessels remaining-for battle, when I saw him approach. The cards had lied-or else been very correct-when they'd pointed to him as the key figure.
The lead vessel headed toward my own, and I moved forward to meet it. We hove to, and side by side regarded one another. We could have communicated via the Trumps, but Caine didn't choose to; and he was in the stronger position. Therefore, family etiquette required that he choose his own means. He obviously wanted to be on record as he called out, through an amplifier:
"Corwin! Kindly surrender command of your fleet! I've got you outnumbered. You can't make it through!"
I regarded him across the waves and raised my own amplifier to my lips.
"What of our arrangement?" I asked.
"Null and void," he said. "Your force is far too weak to hurt Amber, so save lives and surrender it now."
I looked over my left shoulder and regarded the sun.
"Pray hear me, brother Caine," said I, "and grant me this then: give me your leave to confer with my captains till the sun stands in high heaven."
"Very well," he replied, without hesitation. "They appreciate their positions, I'm sure."
I turned away then and ordered that the ship he turned about and headed back in the direction of the main body of vessels.
If I tried to flee, Caine would pursue me through the Shadows and destroy the ships, one by one. Gunpowder did not ignite on the real Earth, but if we moved very far away, it too would he employed to our undoing. Caine would find some, for it was probable, were I to depart, the fleet could not sail the Shadow seas without me, and would be left as sitting ducks upon the real waters here. So the crews were either dead or prisoners, whatever I did.
Random had been right.
I drew forth Bleys' Trump and concentrated till it moved.
"Yes?" he said, and his voice was agitated. I could almost hear the sounds of battle about him.
"We're in trouble," I said. "Seventy-three ships made it through, and Caine has called on us to surrender by noon."
"Damn his eyes!" said Bleys. "I haven't made it as far as you. We're in the middle of a fight now. An enormous cavalry force is cutting us to pieces. So I can't counsel you fairly. I've got my own problems. Do as you see fit. They're coming again!" And the contact was broken.
I drew forth Gerard's, and sought contact.
When we spoke it seemed I could see a shore line behind him. I seemed to recognize it. If my guess was correct, he was in southern waters. I don't like to remember our conversation. I asked him if he could help me against Caine, and if he would.
"I only agreed to let you by," he said. "That is why I withdrew to the south. I couldn't reach you in time if I wanted to. I did not agree to help you kill our brother."
And before I could reply, he was gone. He was right, of course. He'd agreed to give me an opportunity, not to fight my battle for me.
What then did that leave me?
I lit a cigarette. I paced the deck. It was no longer morning. The mists had long vanished and the sun warmed my shoulders. Soon it would be noon. Perhaps two hours.
I fingered my cards, weighed the deck in my hand. I could try a contest of wills through them, with either Eric or Caine. There was that power present, and perhaps even others of which I knew nothing. They had been so designed, at the command of Oberon, by the hand of the mad artist Dworkin
Barimen, that wild-eyed hunchback who had been a sorcerer, priest, or psychiatrist-the stories conflicted on this point-from some distant Shadow where Dad had saved him from a disastrous fate he had brought upon himseIf. The details were unknown, but he had always been a bit off his rocker since that time. Still, he was a great artist, and it was undeniable that he possessed some strange power. He had vanished ages ago, after creating the cards and tracing the Pattern in Amber. We had often speculated about him, but no one seemed to know his whereabouts. Perhaps Dad had done him in, to keep his secrets secret.
Caine would be ready for such an attack, and I probably couldn't break him, though I might be able to hold him. Even then, though, his captains had doubtless been given the order to attack.
Eric would surely be ready for anything, but if there was nothing else left to do, I might as well try it. I had nothing to lose but my soul.
Then there was the card for Amber itself. I could take myself there with it and try an assassination, but I figured the odds were about a million to one against my living to effect it.
I was willing to die fighting, but it was senseless for all these men to go down with me. Perhaps my blood was tainted, despite my power over the Pattern. A true prince of Amber should have had no such qualms. I decided then that my centuries on the Shadow Earth had changed me, softened me perhaps, had done something to me which made me unlike my brothers.
I decided to surrender the fleet and then transport myself to Amber and challenge Eric to a final duel. He'd be foolish to accept. But what the hell-I had nothing else left to do.
I turned to make my wishes known to my officers, and the power fell upon me, and I was stricken speechless.
I felt the contact and I finally managed to mutter "Who?" through clenched teeth. There was no reply, but a twisting thing bored slowly within my mind and I wrestled with it there.
After a time when he saw that I could not be broken without a long struggle, I heard Eric's voice upon the wind:
"How goes the world with thee, brother?" he inquired.
"Poorly," I said or thought, and he chuckled, though his voice seemed strained by the efforts of our striving.
"Too bad," be told me. "Had you come back and supported me, I would have done well by you. Now, of course, it is too late. Now, I will only rejoice when I have broken both you and Bleys."
I did not reply at once, but fought him with all the power I possessed. He withdrew slightly before it, but he succeeded in holding me where I stood.
If either of us dared divert his attention for an Instant, we could come into physical contact or one of us get the upper hand on the mental plane. I could see him now, clearly, in his chambers in the palace. Whichever of us made such a move, though, he would fall beneath the other's control.
So we glared at each other and struggled internally. Well, he had solved one of my problems, by attacking me first. He held my Trump in his left hand and his brows were furrowed. I sought for an edge, but couldn't find one. People were talking to me but I couldn't hear their words as I stood there backed against the rail.
What time was it?
All sense of time had departed since the beginning of the struggle. Could two hours have passed? Was that it? I couldn't be sure.
"I feel your troubled thought," said Eric. "Yes, I am coordinated with Caine. He contacted me after your parley. I can hold you thus while your fleet is demolished around you and sent down to Rebma to rot. The fishes will eat your men."
"Wait," I said. "They are guiltless. Bleys and I have misled them, and they think we are in the right. Their deaths would serve no purpose. I was preparing to surrender the fleet."
"Then you should not have taken so long," he replied, "for now it is too late. I cannot call Caine to countermand my orders, without releasing you, and the moment I release you I will fall beneath your mental domination or suffer physical assault. Our minds are too proximate."
"Supposing I give you my word that I won't do this thing?"
"Any man would be forsworn to gain a kingdom," said Eric.
"Can't you read the thought? Can't you feel it within my mind? I'll keep my word!"
"I feel there is a strange compassion for these men you have duped, and I know not what may have caused such a bond, but no. You know it yourself. Even if you are sincere at this moment-as you well may be-the temptation will be too great the instant the opportunity occurs. You know it yourself. I can't risk it."
And I knew it. Amber burned too strongly In the blood of us.
"Your swordsmanship has increased remarkably," he commented. "I see that your exile has done you some good in that respect. You are closer to being my equal now than anyone save Benedict, who may well be dead."
"Don't flatter yourself," I said. "I know I can take you now. In fact-"
"Don't bother. I won't duel with you at this late date," and he smiled, reading my thought, which burned all too clearly.
"I more than half wish you had stood by me," he said. "I could have used you more than any of the others. Julian I spit upon. Caine is a coward. Gerard is strong, but stupid."
I decided to put in the only good word I might.
"Listen," I said. "I conned Random into coming here with me. He wasn't hot on the idea. I think he would have supported you, had you asked him."
"That bastard!" he said. "I wouldn't trust him to empty chamber pots. One day I'd find a piranha in mine. No thanks. I might have pardoned him, save for your present recommendation. You'd like me to clasp him to my bosom and call him brother now, wouldn't you? Oh no! You leap too quickly to his defense. It reveals his true attitude, of which he has doubtless made you aware. Let us forget Random in the courts of clemency."
I smelled smoke then and heard the sounds of metal on metal. That would mean that Caine had come upon us and was doing his job.
"Good," said Eric, catching it from my mind.
"Stop them! Please! My men don't have a chance against that many!"
"Not even were you to yield-" and he bit it off and cursed. I caught the thought, then. He could have asked me to yield in return for their lives, and then let Caine continue with the slaughter. He would have liked to have done that, but he'd let those first words slip out in the heat of his passion.
I chuckled at his irritation.
"I'll have you soon, anyhow," be said. "As soon as they take the flagship."
"Until then," I said, "try this!" And I hit him with everything I had, boring into his mind, hurting him with my hatred. I felt his pain and it drove me harder. For all the years of exile I'd spent, I lashed at him, seeking at least this payment. For his putting me through the plague, I beat at the barriers of his sanity, seeking this vengeance. For the auto accident, for which I knew he had been responsible, I struck at him, seeking some measure of anguish in return for my hurt.
His control began to slip and my frenzy increased. I bore down upon him and his hold upon me began to slacken.
Finally, "You devil!" he cried, and moved his band to cover the card that he held.
The contact was broken, and I stood there shaking.
I had done it. I had bested him in a contest of wills. No longer would I fear my tyrant brother in any form of single combat. I was stronger than he.
I sucked in several deep breaths and stood erect, ready for the moment the coldness of a new mental attack occurred. I knew that it wouldn't, though, not from Eric. I sense that he feared my fury.
I looked about me and there was fighting. There was already blood on the decks. A ship had come alongside us and we were being boarded. Another vessel was attempting the same maneuver on the opposite side. A bolt whistled by my head.
I drew my blade and leaped into the fray.
I don't know how many I slew that day. I lost count somewhere after number twelve or thirteen. It was more than twice that, on that engagement alone, though. The strength with which a prince of Amber is naturally endowed, which had allowed me to lift a Mercedes, served me that day, so that I could raise a man with one hand and hurl him over the rail.
We slew everyone aboard both boarding ships and opened their hatches and sent them down to Rebma where Random would be amused by the carnage. My crew had been cut in half in the battle, and I had suffered innumer able nicks and scratches but nothing serious. We went to the aid of a sister vessel and knocked off another of Caine's raiders.
The survivors of the rescued vessel came aboard the flagship and I had a full crew once more.
"Blood!" I called out. "Give me blood and vengeance this day, my warriors, and you will be remembered in Amber forever!"
And as a man. they raised their weapons and cried out, "Blood!" And gallons-no, rivers-of it were let that day. We destroyed two more of Caine's raiders, replenishing our numbers from those of the survivors of our own fleet. As we headed toward a sixth, I climbed the mainmast and tried to take a quick count.
We looked to be outnumbered three to one. There seemed to be between forty-five and fifty-five remaining of my fleet.
We took the sixth, and we didn't have to look for the seventh and the eighth. They came to us. We took them too, but I received several wounds in the fighting that again left me with half a crew. My left shoulder and my right thigh had been cut deeply, and a slash along my right hip was hurting.
As we sent those ships to the bottom, two more moved toward us,
We fled and gained an ally in one of my own ships which had been victorious in its own recent battle. We combined crews once more, this time transferring the standard to the other vessel, which had been less damaged than my own, which had begun shipping water badly and was beginning to list to starboard.
We were allowed no breathing space, as another vessel neared and the men attempted to board.
My men were tired, and I was getting that way. Fortunately the other crew wasn't in such great shape either. Before the second of Caine's vessels came to its aid, we had overwhelmed it, boarded, and transferred the standard again. That ship had been in even better shape.
We took the next and I was left with a good ship, forty men, and gasping.
There was no one in sight to come to our aid now. All of my surviving ships were engaged by at least one of Caine's. A raider was heading toward us and we fled.
We gained perhaps twenty minutes this way. I tried to sail into Shadow, but it's a hard, slow thing that near to Amber. It's much easier to get this close than it is to depart, because Amber is the center, the nexus. If I'd had another ten minutes, I could have made it.
I didn't, though.
As the vessel hove nearer, I saw another one off in the distance turning in our direction. It bore the black and green standard beneath Eric's cotors and the white unicorn. It was Caine's ship. He wanted to be there for the kill.
We took the first one and didn't even have time to open its hatches before Caine was upon us. I was left standing on the bloody deck, with a dozen men about me, and Caine moved to the bow of his ship and called upon me to surrender.
"Will you grant my men their lives if I do this thing?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said. "I'd lose a few crewmen myself if I didn't, and there's no need for that."
"On your word as a prince?" I asked.
He thought about it a moment, then nodded.
"Very well." he said. "Have your men lay down their arms and board my vessel when I come alongside."
I sheathed my blade and nodded about me.
"You have fought the good fight. and I love you for it," I said. "But we have lost in this place." I dried my hands on my cloak as I spoke and wiped them carefully, as I'd hate to smudge a work of art. "Lay down your arms and know that your exploits of this day will never be forgotten. One day I will praise you before the court of Amber."
The men, the nine big red ones and the three remaining hairy ones, wept as they put down their arms.
"Do not fear that all is lost in the struggle for the city," I said. "We have lost only one engagement and the battle still continues elsewhere. My brother Bleys hacks his way toward Amber at this moment. Caine will keep his word to spare your lives when he sees that I have gone to join with Bleys upon the land, for he would not have knowledge that he was forsworn come into Amber. I am sorry that I cannot take you with me."
And with this, I drew Bleys' Trump from the pack and held it low and before me, out of sight of the other vessel.
Just as Caine came alongside, there was movement beneath that cold, cold surface.
"Who?" Bleys asked.
"Corwin," I said. "How fare you?"
"We won the battle, but lost many troops. We're resting now before we renew the march. How go things with you?"
"I think we've destroyed nearly half of Caine's fleet, but he's won the day. He's about to board me now. Give me
He held forth his hand and I touched it and collapsed into his arms.
"This is getting to be a habit," I muttered, and then I saw that he was wounded too, about the head, and there was a bandage around his left hand. "Had to grab the wrong end of a saber," he remarked, as he saw my eyes fall upon it. "It smarts."
I caught my breath and then we walked to his tent, where he opened a bottle of wine and gave me bread, cheese, and some dried meat. He still had plenty of cigarettes and I smoked one as a medical officer dressed my wounds.
He still had around a hundred and eighty thousand men behind him. As I stood on a hilltop and the evening began around me, it seemed as if I looked out over every camp I had ever stood within, stretching on and on over the miles and the centuries without end. I suddenly felt tears come into my eyes, for the men who are not like the lords of Amber, living but a brief span and passing into dust, that so many of them must meet their ends upon the battlefields of the world.
I returned to Bleys' tent and we finished the bottle of wine.
Nine Princes In Amber
That night there was a bad storm. It hadn't let up when dawn struggled to cross the world's palm with silver, and it continued on through the day's march.
It is a very demoralizing thing to tramp along and be rained on, a cold rain at that. How I've always hated the mud, through which it seems I've spent centuries marching!
We sought after a shadow way that was free of rain, but nothing we did seemed to matter.
We could march to Amber, but we would do it with our clothing sticking to us, to the drumbeat of the thunder, with the flashing of the lightning at our backs.
The next night the temperature plummeted, and in the morning I stared past the stiff flags and regarded a world gone white beneath a gray sky, filled with flurries. My breath went back in plumes behind me.
The troops were ill-equipped for this, save for the hairy ones, and we got them all moving quckly, to prevent frostbite. The big red guys suffered. Theirs had been a very warm world.
We were attacked by tiger. polar bear. and wolf that day. The tiger Bleys killed measured ever fourteen feet from tail tip to nose.
We marched on well into the night, and the thaw began. Bleys pushed the troops to get them out of the cold Shadows. The Trump for Amber indicated that a warm, dry autumn prevailed there, and we were nearing the real Earth.
By midnight on that second night we'd marched through slush and sleet, cold rains, warm rains, and on into a dry world.
The orders were given to make camp then, with triple security cordons. Considering the tired condition of the men we were ripe for an attack. But the troops were staggering and couldn't be pushed much further.
The attack came severat hours later, and Julian led it, I learned later from the description given by survivors.
He headed commando raids against our most vulnerable campsites on the periphery of the main body. Had I known it to be Julian, I would have used his Trump to try to hold him, but I only knew it after the fact.
We'd lost perhaps two thousand men in the abrupt winter, and I didn't yet know how many Julian had accounted for.
It seemed the troops were beginning to get demoralized, but they followed when we ordered them ahead.
The next day was one continuous ambush. A body of men the size of ours could not be allowed to deviate sufficiently to try to deal with the harassing raids Julian led against our flanks. We got some of his men, but not enough, one for every ten of ours, perhaps.
By high noon we were crossing the valley that paralleled the seacoast. The Forest of Arden was to the north and our left. Amber lay directly ahead. The breezes were cool and filled with the odors of earth and its sweet growing things. A few leaves fell. Amber lay eighty miles distant and was but a shimmer above the horizon.
That afternoon, with a gathering of clouds and but the lightest of rains, the
blots began to fall from the heavens. Then the storm ceased and the sun came forth to dry things off.
After a time, we smelled the smoke.
After another time, we saw it, flapping skyward all about us.
Then the sheets of flame began to rise and fall. They moved toward us, with their crunching. constant footsteps; and as they came nearer, we began to feel the heat, and somewhere, way back along the lines, a panic arose. There were cries, and the columns swelled and welled forward.
We began to run.
Flakes of ash were falling about us now, and the smoke grew thicker. We sprinted ahead and the flames rushed even closer. The sheets of light and heat flapped a steady, welling thunder as we ran, and the waves of warmth beat upon us, washed over us. Soon they were right there alongside us, and the trees blackened and the leaves
flaked down, and some of the smaller trees began to sway. For as far ahead as we could see, our way was an alley of fires.
We ran faster. for soon things would be worse.
And we were not mistaken.
Big trees began to topple across our path. We leaped over them, we circled around them. At least, we were on a trail.
The heat became stifling and the breath came heavy in our lungs. Deer and wolves and foxes and rabbits darted past us, fleeing with us, ignoring our presence and that of their natural enemies. The air above the smoke seemed filled with crying birds. Their droppings fell among us, went unnoticed.
To burn this ancient wood. as venerable as the Forest of Arden, seemed almost an act of sacrilege to me. But Eric was prince in Amber, and soon to be king. I suppose I might have, too.
My eyebrows and hair were singed. My throat felt like a chimney. How many would this assault cost us? I wondered.
Seventy miles of wooded valley lay between us and Amber, and over thirty behind us, going back to the forest's end.
"Bleys!" I gasped. "Two or three miles ahead of us the trail forks! The right branch comes more quckly to the
river Oisen, which goes down to the sea! I think it's our one chance! The whole Valley of Garnath is going to be burned! Our only hope lies in reaching the waterl"
We raced on, but the fires outpaced us.
We made it to the fork, though, beating out flames on our smoldering clothing. wiping ashes from our eyes, spitting such from our mouths, running hands through our hair when the flamelets nested there.
"Only about a quarter mile more," I said.
I had been struck several times by falling boughs. All the exposed areas of my skin pulsed with a more than feverish pain, and many of the covered areas as well. We ran through burning grasses, heading down a long slope, and when we reached the bottom we saw the water, and our speed increased, though we didn't think it possible. We plunged in and let the cold wetness embrace in.
Bleys and I contrived to float as near together as possible as the currents took us and we were swept along the
twisting course of the Oisen. The interlocked branches of the trees overhead had become as the beams in a cathedral of fire. As they broke apart and collapsed in places, we had to turn onto our bellies and swim or dive for the deepest places, depending on how near we were. The waters about us were filled with hissing and blackened debris, and at our backs our surviving troops' heads in the river seemed as a strip of floating coconuts.
The waters were dark and cold and our wounds began to ache, and we shivered and our teeth chattered.
It was several miles before we left the burning wood and reached the low, flat, treeless place that led on to the sea. It would be a perfect place for Julian to be waiting, with archers, I decided. I mentioned this to Bleys and he agreed, but he didn't reckon there was much we could do about it. I was forced to agree.
The woods burned all around us, and we swam and we drifted.
It seemed like hours, but must have been less, before my fears began to materialize and the first volley of arrows descended.
I dove, and I swam underwater for a long distance. Since I was going with the current, I made it quite a way along the river before I had to surface once more.
As I did, more arrows fell about me.
The gods knew how long this gauntlet of death might be drawn, but I didn't want to stick around and find out.
I gulped air and dove once more.
I touched bottom, I felt my way among rocks.
I moved along for as far as I could, then headed toward the right bank, exhaling as I rose.
I burst through the surface, gasped, took a deep breath and went down again, without sticking around to get the lay of the land,
I swam on till my lungs were bursting, and surfaced then.
This time I wasn't quite so lucky. I took an arrow through my biceps. I managed to dive and break off the shaft when I struck bottom. Then I pulled out the head and continued on by means of the frog kick and underbody sculling with my right hand. The next tIme up I'd be a sitting duck, I knew.
So I forced myself on, till the red flashes crossed my eyeballs and the blackness crept into my head. I must have stayed down for three minutes.
When I surfaced this time, though, nothing happened, and I trod water and gasped.
I made my way to the left bank and grabbed hold of the trailing undergrowth.
I looked all around me. We were running short on trees at this point, and the fires hadn't gotten this far. Both banks seemed empty, but so did the river. Could I have been the only survivor? It didn't seem possible. After all, there had been so many of us when the last march began.
I was half dead with fatigue and my entire body was laced with aches and pains. Every inch of my skin seemed to have been burned, but the waters were so cold that I was shaking and probably blue. I'd have to leave the river soon, if I wanted to live. I felt that I could manage a few more underwater expeditions, and I decided to chance them before departing from the sheltering depths.
Somehow I managed four more laps, and I felt then that I might not come up again if I tried a fifth. So I hung onto a rock and caught my breath. then crawled ashore.