“Sir Corey, I’ve heard report of your doings this day,” he said, clasping my hand. “It makes your carrying Lance seem more believable. I must say you’re more a man than you look — meaning no offense by that.”
I chuckled. “No offense.”
He led me to a chair, handed me a glass of pale wine that was a bit too sweet for my taste, then said, “Looking at you, I’d say I could push you over with one hand — but you carried Lance five leagues and killed two of those bastard cats on the way. And he told me about the cairn you built, of big stones —”
“How is Lance feeling today?” I interrupted.
“I had to place a guard in his chamber to be sure he rested. The muscle-bound clod wanted to get up and walk around. He’ll stay there all week, though, by God!”
“Then he must be feeling better.”
“Here’s to his health.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
We drank. Then: “Had I an army of men like you and Lance,” he said, “the story might have been different.”
“The Circle and its Wardens,” he said. “You’ve not heard of it?”
“Lance mentioned it. That’s all.”
One boy tended an enormous chunk of beef on a spit above a low fire. Occasionally, he sloshed some wine over it as he turned the shaft. Whenever the odor drifted my way, my stomach would rumble and Ganelon would chuckle. The other boy left the room to fetch bread from the kitchen.
Ganelon was silent a long while. He finished his wine and poured himself another glass. I sipped slowly at my first.
“Have you ever heard of Avalon?” he finally asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “There is a verse I heard long ago from a passing bard: “Beyond the River of the Blessed, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Avalon. Our swords were shattered in our hands and we hung our shields on the oak tree. The silver towers were fallen, into a sea of blood. How many miles to Avalon? None, I say, and all. The silver towers are fallen.”
“Avalon fallen…?” he said.
“I think the man was mad. I know of no Avalon. His verse stayed in my mind, though.”
Ganelon averted his face and did not speak again for several minutes. When he did, his voice was altered.
“There was,” he said. “There was such a place. I lived there, years ago. I did not know it was fallen.”
“How came you here from that place?” I asked him.
“I was exiled by its sorcerer Lord, Corwin of Amber. He sent me through darkness and madness to this place, that I might suffer and die here — and I have suffered and come near to the final lay many a time. I’ve tried to find the way back, but nobody knows it. I’ve spoken with sorcerers, and even a captured creature of the Circle before we slew the thing. But none knew the road to Avalon. It is as the bard said, ‘No miles, and all,’ he misquoted my lyric. “Do you recall the bard’s name?”
“I am sorry, but I do not.”
“Where is this Cabra place you hie from?”
“Far to the east, across the waters,” I said. “Very far. It is an island kingdom.”
“Any chance they could furnish us with some troops? I can afford to pay quite a bit.” I shook my head.
“It is a small place with a small militia, and it would be several months’ travel both ways — sea and land. They have never fought as mercenaries, and for that matter they are not very warlike.”
“Then you seem to differ a great deal from your countrymen,” he said, looking at me once more. I sipped my wine.
“I was an arms instructor,” I said, “to the Royal Guard.”
“Then you might be inclined to hire out, to help train my troops?”
“I’ll stay a few weeks and do that,” I said.
He nodded a tight-lipped microsecond of a smile, then, “It saddens me to hear this indication that fair Avalon is gone,” he said. “But if it is so, it means that my exiler is also likely dead.” He drained his wineglass. “So even the demon came to a time when he could not defend his own,” he mused. “That’s a heartening thought. It means we might have a chance here, against these demons.”
“Begging your pardon,” I said, sticking my neck out for what I thought good reason, “if you were referring to that Corwin of Amber, he did not die when whatever happened happened.” The glass snapped in his hand.
“You know Corwin?” he said.
“No, but I know of him,” I replied. “Several years ago, I met one of his brothers — a fellow named Brand. He told me of the place called Amber, and of the battle in which Corwin and a brother of his named Bleys led a horde against their brother Eric, who held the city. Bleys fell from the mountain Kolvir and Corwin was taken prisoner. Corwin’s eyes were put out after Eric’s coronation, and he was cast into the dungeons beneath Amber, where he may yet remain if he has not since died.”
Ganelon’s face was drained of color as I spoke.
“All those names you mentioned — Brand, Bleys, Eric,” he said. “I heard him mention them in days long gone by. How long ago did you hear of this thing?”
“It was about four years back.”
“He deserved better.”
“After what he did to you?”
“Well,” said the man, “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and it is not as if I gave him no cause for what he did. He was strong — stronger than you or Lance, even — and clever. Also, he could be merry on occasion. Eric should have killed him quickly, not the way that he did. I’ve no love for him, but my hate’s died down a bit. The demon deserved better than he got, that’s all.”
The second boy returned with a basket of bread. The one who had prepared the meat removed it from the spit and set it on a platter in the center of the table.
Ganelon nodded toward it. “Let’s eat,” he said.
He rose and moved to the table.
I followed. We did not talk much during the meal.
After stuffing myself until my stomach would hold no more and soaking down its contents with another glass of too-sweet wine, I began to yawn. Ganelon cursed after the third one.
“Damn it, Corey! Stop that! It’s contagious!” He stifled a yawn of his own.
“Let’s take some air,” he said, rising.
So we walked out along the walls, passing the sentries in their rounds. They would come to attention and salute Ganelon as soon as they saw who it was approaching, and he would give them a word of greeting and we would move on. We came to a battlement, where we paused to rest, seating ourselves on the stone, sucking in the evening air, cool and damp and full of the forest, and noting the appearance of the stars, one by one, in the darkening sky. The stone was cold beneath me. Far off in the distance, I thought I could detect the shimmer of the sea. I heard a night bird, from somewhere below us. Ganelon produced a pipe and tobacco from a pouch he wore at his belt. He filled it, tamped it, and struck a flame. His face would have been satanic in the spark light, save for whatever turned his mouth downward and drew the muscles in his cheeks up into that angle formed by the inner corners of his eyes and the sharp bridge of his nose. A devil is supposed to have an evil grin, and this one looked too morose.
I smelled the smoke. After a time, he began to speak, softly and very slowly at first:
“I remember Avalon,” he began. “My birth there was not ignoble, but virtue was never one of my strong points. I went through my inheritance quickly and I took to the roads where I waylaid travelers. Later, I joined with a band of other men such as myself. When I discovered I was the strongest and most fit to lead, I became the leader. There were prices on all our heads. Mine was the highest.”
He spoke more rapidly now, and his voice grew more refined and his choice of words came as an echo from out of his past.
“Yes, I remember Avalon,” he said, “a place of silver and shade and cool waters, where the stars shone like bonfires at night and the green of day was always the green of spring. Youth, love, beauty — I knew them in Avalon. Proud steeds, bright metal, soft lips, dark ale. Honor…” He shook his head.
“One later day,” he said, “when war commenced within the realm, the ruler offered full pardon to any outlaws who would follow him in battle against the insurgents. This was Corwin. I threw in with him and rode off to the wars. I became an officer, and then — later — a member of his staff. We won the battles, put down the uprising. Then Corwin ruled peacefully once more, and I remained, at his court. Those were the good years. There later came some border skirmishes, but these we always won. He trusted me to handle such things for him. Then he granted a Dukedom to dignify the House of a minor noble whose daughter he desired in marriage. I had wanted that Dukedom, and he had long hinted it might one day be mine. I was furious, and I betrayed my command the next time I was dispatched to settle a dispute along the southern border, where something was always stirring. Many of my men died, and the invaders entered into the realm. Before they could be routed, Lord Corwin himself had to take up arms once more. The invaders had come through in great strength, and I thought they would conquer the realm. I hoped they would. But Corwin, again, with his foxy tactics, prevailed. I fled, but was captured and taken to him for sentencing. I cursed him and spat at him. I would not bow. I hated the ground he trod, and a condemned man has no reason not to put up the best front he can, to go out like a man. Corwin said he would show me a measure of mercy for favors past. I told him to shove his mercy, and then I realized that he was mocking me. He ordered me released and he approached me. I knew he could kill me with his hands. I tried to fight with him, but to no avail. He struck me once and I fell. When I awakened, I was strapped across his horse’s rump. He rode along, jibing at me the while. I would not reply to anything he said, but we rode through wondrous lands and lands out of nightmare, which is one way I learned of his sorcerous power — for no traveler I have ever met has passed through the places I saw that day. Then he pronounced my exile, released me in this place, turned, and rode away.”
He paused to relight his pipe, which had gone out, puffed upon it for a time, went on: “Many a bruising, cudgeling, biting, and beating did I take in this place, at the hands of man and beast, only barely preserving my life. He had left me in the wickedest portion of the realm. But then one day my fortunes took a turn. An armored knight bade me depart the roadway that he might pass. At that point, I cared not whether I lived or died, so I called him a pock-marked whoreson and bade him go to the Devil. He charged me and I seized his lance and pushed its point into the ground, so unhorsing him. I drew him a smile beneath his chin with his own dagger, and thus obtained me mounting and weapons. Then did I set about paying back those who had used me poorly. I took up my old trade on the highways once again and I gained me another band of followers. We grew. When there were hundreds of us our needs were considerable. We would ride into a small town and make it ours. The local militia would fear us. This, too, was a good life, though not so splendid as the Avalon I never shall know again. All the roadside inns came to fear the thunder of our mounts, and travelers would soil their britches when they heard us coming. Ha! This lasted for several years. Large parties of armed men were sent to track us and destroy us, but always we evaded them or ambushed them. Then one day there was the dark Circle, and no one really knows why.”
He puffed more vigorously on his pipe, stared off into the distance.
“I am told it began as a tiny ring of toadstools, far to the west. A child was found dead in its center, and the man who found her — her father — died of convulsions several days later. The spot was immediately said to be accursed. It grew quickly in the months that followed, until it was half a league across. The grasses darkened and shone like metal within it, but did not die. The trees twisted and their leaves blackened. They swayed when there was no wind, and bats danced and darted among them. In the twilight, strange shapes could be seen moving — always within the Circle, mind you — and there were lights, as of small fires, throughout the night. The Circle continued to grow, and those who lived near it fled — mostly. A few remained. It was said that those who remained had struck some bargain with the dark things. And the Circle continued to widen, spreading like the ripple from a rock cast into a pond. More and more people remained, living, within it. I have spoken with these people, fought with them, slain them. It is as if there is something dead inside them all. Their voices lack the thrust and dip of men chewing over their words and tasting them. They seldom do much with their faces, but wear them like death masks. They began to leave the Circle in bands, marauding. They slew wantonly. They committed many atrocities and defiled places of worship. They put things to the torch when they left them. They never stole objects of silver. Then, after many months, other creatures than men began to come forth — strangely formed, like the hellcats you slew.
“Then the Circle slowed in its growth, almost halting, as though it were nearing some sort of limit. But now all manner of raiders emerged from it — some even faring forth during the day — laying waste to the countryside about its borders. When they had devastated the land about its entire circumference, the Circle moved to encompass those areas, also. And so its growth began again, in this fashion. The old king, Uther, who had long hunted me, forgot all about me and set his forces to patrolling that damned Circle. It was beginning to worry me, also, as I did not relish the notion of being seized by some hell-spawned bloodsucker as I slept. So I got together fifty-five of my men — that was all who would volunteer, and I wanted no cowards — and we rode into that place one afternoon. We came upon a pack of those dead-faced men burning a live goat on a stone altar and we lit into the lot of them. We took one prisoner and tied him to his own altar and questioned him there. He told us that the Circle would grow until it covered the entire land, from ocean to ocean. One day it would close with itself on the other side of the world. We had best join with them, if we wished to save our hides. Then one of my men stabbed him and he died. He really died, for I know a dead man when I see one. I’ve made it happen often enough. But as his blood fell upon the stone, his mouth opened and out came the loudest laugh I ever heard in my life. It was like thunder all about us. Then he sat up, unbreathing, and began to burn. As he burned, his form changed, until it was like that of the burning goat — only larger — there upon the altar. Then a voice came from the thing. It said, ‘Flee, mortal man! But you shall never leave this Circle!’ And believe me, we fled! The sky grew black with bats and other things. We heard the sound of hoofbeats. We rode with our blades in our hands, killing everything that came near us. There were cats such as you slew, and snakes and hopping things, and God knows what all else. As we neared the edge of the Circle, one of King Uther’s patrols saw us and came to our aid. Sixteen of the fifty-five who had ridden in with me rode back out. And the patrol lost perhaps thirty men itself. When they saw who I was, they hustled me off to court. Here. This used to be Uther’s palace. I told him what I had done, what I had seen and heard. He did with me as Corwin had. He offered full pardon to me and to my men if we would join with him against the Wardens of the Circle. Having gone through what I had gone through, I realized that the thing had to be stopped. So I agreed. Then I fell ill, I am told that I was delirious for three days. I was as weak as a child after my recovery, and I learned that everyone who had entered the Circle had been likewise taken. Three had died. I visited the rest of my men, told them the story, and they were enlisted. The patrols about the Circle were strengthened. But it would not be contained. In the years that followed, the Circle grew. We fought many skirmishes. I was promoted until I stood at Uther’s right hand, as once I had at Corwin’s. Then the skirmishes became more than skirmishes. Larger and larger parties emerged from that hellhole. We lost a few battles. They took some of our outposts. Then one night an army emerged, an army — a horde — of both men and the other things that dwelled there. That night we met the largest force we had ever engaged. King Uther himself rode to battle, against my advice — for he was advanced in years — and he fell that night and the land was without a ruler. I wanted my captain, Lancelot, to sit in stewardship, for I knew him to be a far more honorable man than myself… And it is strange here. I had known a Lancelot, just like him, in Avalon — but this man knew me not when first we met. It is strange… At any rate, he declined, and the position was thrust upon me. I hate it, but here I am. I have held them back for over three years now. All my instincts tell me to flee. What do I owe these damned people? What do I care if the bloody Circle widens? I could cross over the sea to some land it would never reach during my lifetime, and then forget the whole thing. Damn it! I didn’t want this responsibility! Now it is mine, though!”