There did seem to be something about me that lent itself to recognition by this man. If there were some memories of a shadow of myself in this place that was like yet not like Avalon, what form did they take? How would they condition a reception of the actual me should I be discovered?
The sun was beginning to sink. A cool breeze began, hinting of a chilly night to come. My ward was snoring once more, so I decided to sprint most of the remaining distance. I did not like the feeling that this forest after dark might become a place crawling with unclean denizens of some damned Circle that I knew nothing about, but who seemed to be on the make when it came to this particular piece of real estate.
So I ran through lengthening shadows, dismissing rising notions of pursuit, ambush, surveillance, until I could do so no longer. They had achieved the strength of a premonition, and then I heard the noises at my back: a soft pat-pat-pat, as of footfalls.
I set the stretcher down, and I drew my blade as I turned.
There were two of them, cats.
Their markings were precisely those of Siamese cats, only these were the size of tigers. Their eyes were of a solid, sun-bright yellow, pupilless. They seated themselves on their haunches as I turned, and they stared at me and did not blink.
They were about thirty paces away. I stood sideways between them and the stretcher, my blade raised.
Then the one to the left opened its mouth. I did not know whether to expect a purr or a roar. Instead, it spoke. It said, “Man, most mortal.” The voice was not human-sounding. It was too high-pitched.
“Yet still it lives,” said the second, sounding much like the first.
“Slay it here,” said the first.
“What of the one who guards it with the blade I like not at all?”
“Come find out,” I said, softly.
“It is thin, and perhaps it is old.”
“Yet it bore the other from the cairn to this place, rapidly and without rest. Let us flank it.”
I sprang forward as they moved, and the one to my right leaped toward me.
My blade split its skull and continued on into the shoulder. As I turned, yanking it free, the other swept past me, heading toward the stretcher. I swung wildly.
My blade fell upon its back and passed completely through its body. It emitted a shriek that grated like chalk on a blackboard as it fell in two pieces and began to burn. The other was burning also.
But the one I had halved was not yet dead. Its head turned toward me and those blazing eyes met my own and held them.
“I die the final death,” it said, “and so I know you, Opener. Why do you slay us?” And then the flames consumed its head.
I turned, cleaned my blade and sheathed it, picked up the stretcher, ignored all questions, and continued on.
A small knowledge had begun within me, as to what the thing was, what it had meant.
And I still sometimes see that burning cat head in dreams, and then I awaken, wet and shivering, and the night seems darker, and filled with shapes I cannot define.
The Keep of Ganelon had a moat about it, and a drawbridge, which was raised. There was a tower at each of the four corners where its high walls met. From within those walls many other towers reached even higher, tickling the bellies of low, dark clouds, occluding the early stars, casting shadows of jet down the high hill the place occupied. Several of the towers were already lighted, and the wind bore me the faint sound of voices.
I stood before the drawbridge, lowered my charge to the ground, cupped my hands about my mouth, and called out:
“Hola! Ganelon! Two travelers are stranded in the night!”
I heard the clink of metal on stone. I felt that I was being studied from somewhere above. I squinted upward, but my eyes were still far from normal.
“Who is there?” the voice came down, big and booming.
“Lance, who is wounded, and I, Corey of Cabra, who bore him here.”
I waited as he called this information to another sentry, and I heard more voices raised as the message was passed along the line.
After a pause of several minutes, a reply came back in the same manner.
Then the guard called down:
“Stay clear! We’re going to lower the drawbridge! You may enter!”
The creaking began as he spoke, and in a brief time the thing banged to earth on our side of the moat. I raised my charge once more and walked across it.
Thus did I bear Sir Lancelot du Lac to the Keep of Ganelon, whom I trusted like a brother. That is to say, not at all.
There was a rush of people about me, and I found myself ringed by armed men. There was no hostility present, however, only concern. I had entered a large, cobbled courtyard, lit by torches and filled with bedrolls. I could smell sweat, smoke, horses, and the odors of cooking. A small army was bivouacked there.
Many had approached me and stood staring and murmuring, but then there came up two who were fully arrayed, as for battle, and one of them touched my shoulder.
“Come this way,” he said.
I followed and they flanked me. The ring of people parted as we passed. The drawbridge was already creaking back into place. We moved toward the main complex of dark stone.
Inside, we walked along a hallway and passed what appeared to be a reception chamber. Then we came upon a stairway. The man to my right indicated that I should mount it. On the second floor, we stopped before a heavy wooden door and the guard knocked upon it.
“Come in,” called out a voice which unfortunately seemed very familiar. We entered.
He sat at a heavy wooden table near a wide window overlooking the courtyard. He wore a brown leather jacket over a black shirt, and his trousers were also black. They were bloused over the tops of his dark boots. He had about his waist a wide belt which held a hoof-hilted dagger. A short sword lay on the table before him. His hair and beard were red, with a sprinkling of white. His eyes were dark as ebony.
He looked at me, then turned his attention to a pair of guards who entered with the stretcher.
“Put him on my bed,” he said. Then, “Roderick, tend to him.”
His physician, Roderick, was an old guy who didn’t look as if he would do much harm, which relieved me somewhat. I had not fetched Lance all that distance to have him bled.
Then Ganelon turned to me once more. “Where did you find him?” he asked.
“Five leagues to the south of here.”
“Who are you?”
“They call me Corey,” I said.
He studied me too closely, and his worm-like lips twitched toward a smile beneath his mustache. “What is your part in this thing?” he asked.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
I had let my shoulders sag a bit. I spoke slowly, softly, and with a slight falter. My beard was longer than his, and lightened by dust. I imagined I looked like an older man. His attitude on appraisal tended to indicate that he thought I was.
“I am asking you why you helped him,” he said.
“Brotherhood of man, and all that,” I replied.
“You are a foreigner?”
“Well, you are welcome here for so long as you wish to stay.”
“Thanks. I will probably move on tomorrow.”
“Now join me in a glass of wine and tell me of the circumstances under which you found him.”
So I did.
Ganelon let me speak without interrupting, and those, piercing eyes of his were on me all the while. While I had always felt laceration by means of the eyeballs to be a trite expression, it did not feel so that night. He stabbed at me with them. I wondered what he knew and what he was guessing concerning me.
Then fatigue sprang and seized me by the scruff of the neck. The exertion, the wine, the warm room — all of these worked together, and suddenly it was as if I were standing off in the corner somewhere and listening to myself, watching myself, feeling dissociated. While I was capable of great exertion in short bursts, I realized that I was still very low when it came to stamina. I also noticed that my hand was trembling.
“I’m sorry,” I heard myself saying. “The day’s labors are beginning to get to me…”
“Of course,” said Ganelon. “I will talk with you more on the morrow. Sleep now. Sleep well.”
Then he called in one of the guards and ordered him to conduct me to a chamber. I must have staggered on the way, because I remember the guard’s hand on my elbow, steering me.
That night I slept the sleep of the dead. It was a big, black thing, about fourteen hours long.
In the morning, I ached all over.
I bathed myself. There was a basin on the high dresser, and soap and a washcloth someone had thoughtfully set beside it.
My throat felt packed with sawdust and my eyes were full of fuzz. I sat down and assessed myself.
There had been a day when I could have carried Lance the entire distance without going to pieces afterward. There had been a day when I had fought my way up the face of Kolvir and into the heart of Amber itself.
Those days were gone. I suddenly felt like the wreck I must have looked.
Something would have to be done.
I had been putting on weight and picking up strength slowly. The process would have to be accelerated.
A week or two of clean living and violent exercise could help a lot, I decided. Ganelon had not given any real indication of having recognized me. All right. I would take advantage of the hospitality he had offered.
With that resolve, I sought out the kitchen and conned a hearty breakfast. Well, it was really around lunchtime, but let’s call things by their proper names. I had a strong desire for a smoke and felt a certain perverse joy in the fact that I was out of tobacco. The Fates were conspiring to keep me true to myself.
I strolled out into the courtyard and a brisk, bright day. For a long while, I watched the men who were quartered there as they went through their training regime.
There were bowmen off at the far end, twanging away at targets fastened to bales of hay. I noted that they employed thumb rings and an oriental grip on the bowstring, rather than the three-fingered technique with which I was more comfortable. It made me wonder a bit about this Shadow. The swordsmen used both the edges and points of their weapons, and there was a variety of blades and fencing techniques in evidence. I tried to estimate, and guessed there were perhaps eight hundred of them about — and I had no idea as to how many of them there might be out of sight. Their complexions, their hair, their eyes, varied from pale to quite dark. I heard many strange accents above the twanging and the clanging, though most spoke the language of Avalon, which is of the tongue of Amber.
As I stood watching, one swordsman raised his hand, lowered his blade, mopped his brow, and stepped back. His opponent did not seem especially winded. This was my chance for some of the exercise I was seeking.
I moved forward, smiled, and said, “I’m Corey of Cabra. I was watching you.”
I turned my attention to the big, dark man who was grinning at his resting buddy.
“Mind if I practice with you while your friend rests?” I asked him.
He kept grinning and pointed at his mouth and his ear. I tried several other languages, but none of them worked. So I pointed at the blade and at him and back to myself until he got the idea. His opponent seemed to think it was a good one, as the smaller fellow offered me his blade.
I took it into my hands. It was shorter and a lot heavier than Grayswandir. (That is the name of my blade, which I know I have not mentioned up until now. It is a story in itself, and I may or may not go into it before you learn what brought me to this final pass. But should you hear me refer to it by name again, you will know what I am talking about.) I swung my blade a few times to test it, removed my cloak, tossed it off to the side, and struck an en garde.
The big fellow attacked. I parried and attacked. He parried and riposted. I parried the riposte, feinted, and attacked. Et cetera. After five minutes, I knew that he was good. And I knew that I was better. He stopped me twice so that I could teach him a maneuver I had used. He learned both very quickly. After fifteen minutes, though, his grin widened. I guess that was around the point where he broke down most opponents by virtue of sheer staying power, if they were good enough to resist his attacks up until then. He had stamina, I’ll say that. After twenty minutes, a puzzled look came onto his face. I just didn’t look as if I could stand up that long. But then, what can any man really know — of, that which lies within a scion of Amber?
After twenty-five minutes, he was sheathed in sweat, but he continued on. My brother Random looks and acts, on occasion, like an asthmatic, teen-age hood — but once we had fenced together for over twenty-six hours, to see who would call it quits. (If you’re curious, it was me. I had had a date lined up for the next day and had wanted to arrive in reasonably good condition.) We could have gone on. While I was not up to a performance like that just then, I knew that I could outlast the man I faced. After all, he was only human.
After about half an hour, when he was breathing heavily and slowing down on his counterstrokes and I knew that in a few minutes he might guess that I was pulling mine, I raised my hand and lowered my blade as I had seen his previous opponent do. He ground to a halt also, then rushed forward and embraced me. I did not understand what he said, but I gathered that he was pleased with the workout. So was I.
The horrible thing was, I felt it. I found myself slightly heady.
But I needed more. I promised me I would kill myself and exercise that day, glut myself with food that night, sleep deeply, wake, and do it again.
So I went over to where the archers stood. After a time, I borrowed a bow, and in my three-fingered style unleashed perhaps a hundred arrows. I did not do too badly. Then, for a time, I watched the men on horseback, with their lances, shields, maces. I moved on. I watched some practice in hand-to-hand combat.
Finally, I wrestled three men in succession. Then I did feel beat. Absolutely. Entirely.
I sat down on a bench in the shade, sweating, breathing heavily. I wondered about Lance, about Ganelon, about supper. After perhaps ten minutes, I made my way back to the room I had been given and I bathed again.
By then I was ravenously hungry, so I set forth to find me dinner and information.
Before I had gone very far from the door, one of the guards whom I recognized from the previous evening — the one who had guided me to my chamber — approached and said, “Lord Ganelon bids you dine with him in his quarters, at the ringing of the dinner bell.” I thanked him, said I would be there, returned to my chamber, and rested on my bed until it was time. Then I made my way forth once again.
I was beginning to ache deeply and I had a few additional bruises. I decided this was a good thing, would help me to seem older. I banged on Ganelon’s door and a boy admitted me, then dashed off to join another youth who was spreading a table near to the fireplace.
Ganelon wore a green shirt and trousers, green boots and belt, sat in a high-backed chair. He rose as I entered, walked forward to greet me.