“Why?” I asked him, and the sound of my own voice was strange to me.

There was silence.

He emptied his pipe. He refilled it. He relit it. He puffed it.

There was more silence.

Then, “I don’t know,” he said. “I’d stab a man in the back for a pair of shoes, if he had them and I needed them to keep my feet from freezing. I once did, that’s how I know. But… this is different. This is a thing hurting everybody, and I’m the only one who can do the job. God damn it! I know they’re going to bury me here one day, along with all the rest of them. But I can’t pull out. I’ve got to hold that thing back as long as I can.”

My head was cleared by the cold night air, which gave my consciousness a second wind, so to speak, though my body felt mildly anesthetized about me.

“Couldn’t Lance lead them?” I asked.

“I’d say so. He’s a good man. But there is another reason. I think that goat-thing, whatever it was, on the altar, is a bit afraid of me. I had gone in there and it had told me I’d never make it back out again, but I did. I lived through the sickness that followed after. It knows it’s me that has been fighting it all along. We won that great bloody engagement on the night Uther died, and I met the thing again in a different form and it knew me. Maybe this is a part of what is holding it back now.”

“What form?”

“A thing with a manlike shape, but with goat horns and red eyes. It was mounted on a piebald stallion. We fought for a time, but the tide of the battle swept us apart. Which was a good thing, too, for it was winning. It spoke again, as we swaggered swords, and I knew that head-filling voice. It called me a fool and told me I could never hope to win. But when morning came, the field was ours and we drove them back to the Circle, slaying them as they fled. The rider of the piebald escaped. There have been other sallyings forth since then, but none such as that night’s. If I were to leave this land, another such army — one that is readying even now — would come forth. That thing would somehow know of my departure — just as it knew that Lance was bringing me another report on the disposition of troops within the Circle, sending those Wardens to destroy him as he returned. It knows of you by now, and surely it must wonder over this development. It must wonder who you are, for all your strength. I will stay here and fight it till I fall. I must. Do not ask me why. I only hope that before that day comes, I at least learn how this thing came to pass — why that Circle is out there.”

Then there came a fluttering near to my head. I ducked quickly to avoid whatever it was. It was not necessary, though. It was only a bird. A white bird. It landed on my left shoulder and stood there, making small noises. I held up my wrist and it hopped over onto it. There was a note tied to its leg. I unfastened it, read it, crumpled it in my hand. Then I studied invisible things distant.

“What is the matter, Sir Corey?” cried Ganelon.

The note, which I had sent on ahead to my destination, written in my own hand, transmitted by a bird of my desire, could only reach the place that had to be my next stop. This was not precisely the place that I had in mind. However, I could read my own omens.

“What is it?” he asked. “What is it that you hold? A message?”

I nodded. I handed it to him. I could not very well throw it away, since he had seen me take it. It read, “I am coming,” and it bore my signature. Ganelon puffed his pipe and read it in the glow.

“He lives? And he would come here?” he said.

“So it would seem.”

“This is very strange,” he said. “I do not understand it at all…”

“It sounds like a promise of assistance,” I said, dismissing the bird, which cooed twice, then circled my head and departed.

Ganelon shook his head.

“I do not understand.”

“Why number the teeth of a horse you may receive for nothing?” I said. “You have only succeeded in containing that thing.”

“True,” he said. “Perhaps he could destroy it.”

“And perhaps it’s just a joke,” I told him. “A cruel one.”

He shook his head again.

“No. That is not his style. I wonder what he is after?”

“Sleep on it,” I suggested.

“There is little else that I can do, just now,” he said, stifling a yawn.

We rose then and walked the wall. We said our good nights, and I staggered off toward the pit of sleep and fell headlong into it.

Chapter 2

Day. More aches. More pains.

Someone had left me a new cloak, a brown one, which I decided was a good thing. Especially if I put on more weight and Ganelon recalled my colors. I did not shave my beard, because he had known me in a slightly less hairy condition. I took pains to disguise my voice whenever he was about. I hid Grayswandir beneath my bed.

For all of the following week I drove myself ruthlessly. I worked and sweated and strove until the aches subsided and my muscles grew firm once more. I think I put on fifteen pounds that week. Slowly, very slowly, I began feeling like my old self.

The country was called Lorraine, and so was she. If I happened to be in the mood to hand you a line, I would tell you we met in a meadow behind the castle, she gathering flowers and me walking there for exercise and fresh air. Crap.

I guess a polite term would be camp follower. I met her at the end of a hard day’s work, spent mainly with the saber and the mace. She was standing off on the side lines waiting for her date when I first caught sight of her. She smiled and I smiled back, nodded, winked, and passed her by. The next day I saw her again, and I said “Hello” as I passed her. That’s all.

Well, I kept running into her. By the end of my second week, when my aches were gone and I was over a hundred-eighty pounds and feeling that way again, I arranged to be with her one evening. By then, I was aware of her status and it was fine, so far as I was concerned. But we did not do the usual thing that night. No.

Instead, we talked, and then something else happened.

Her hair was rust-colored with a few strands of gray in it. I guessed she was under thirty, though. Eyes, very blue. Slightly pointed chin. Clean, even teeth inside a mouth that smiled at me a lot. Her voice was somewhat nasal, her hair was too long, her make-up laid on too heavily over too much tiredness, her complexion too freckled, her choice in clothing too bright and tight. But I liked her. I did not think I’d actually feel that way when I asked her out that night because, as I said, liking her was not what I had in mind.

There was no place to go but my chamber, so we had gone there. I had become a captain, and I took advantage of my rank by having dinner brought to us, and an extra bottle of wine.

“The men are afraid of you,” she said. “They say you never grow tired.”

“I do,” I said, “believe me.”

“Of course,” she said, shaking her too-long locks and smiling. “Don’t we all?”

“I daresay,” I replied.

“How old are you?”

“How old are you?”

“A gentleman would not ask that question.”

“Neither would a lady?”

“When you first came here, they thought you were over fifty.”

“And…?”

“And now they have no idea. Forty-five? Forty?”

“No,” I said.

“I didn’t think so. But your beard fooled everyone.”

“Beards often do that.”

“You look better every day. Bigger…”

“Thanks. I feel better than I did when I arrived.”

“Sir Corey of Cabra,” she said. “Where’s Cabra? What’s Cabra? Will you take me there with you, if I ask you nicely?”

“I’d tell you so,” I said, “but I’d be lying.”

“I know. But it would be nice to hear.”

“Okay. I’ll take you there with me. It’s place.”

“Are you really as good as the men say?”

“I’m afraid not. Are you?”

“Not really. Do you want to go to bed now?”

“No. I’d rather talk. Have a glass of wine.”

“Thank you… Your health.”

“Yours.”

“Why is it you are such a good swordsman?”

“Aptitude and good teachers.”

“…And you carried Lance all that distance and slew those beasts…”

“Stories grow with the telling.”

“But I have watched you. You are better than the others. That is why Ganelon made you whatever deal he did. He knows a good thing when he sees it. I’ve had many friends who were swordsmen, and I’ve watched them at practice. You could cut them to pieces. The men say you are a good teacher. They like you, even if you do scare them.”

“Why do I frighten them? Because I am strong? There are many strong men in the world. Because I can stand up and swing a blade for a long while?”

“They think there is something supernatural involved.”

I laughed.

“No, I’m just the second-best swordsman around. Pardon me — maybe the third. But I try harder.”

“Who’s better?”

“Eric of Amber, possibly.”

“Who is he?”

“A supernatural creature.”

“He’s the best?”

“No.”

“Who is?”

“Benedict of Amber.”

“Is he one, too?”

“If he is still alive, he is.”

“Strange, that’s what you are,” she said. “And why? Tell me. Are you a supernatural creature?”

“Let’s have another glass of wine.”

“It’ll go to my head.”

“Good.” I poured them.

“We are all going to die,” she said.

“Eventually.”

“I mean here, soon, fighting this thing.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s too strong.”

“Then why stick around?”

“I’ve no place else to go. That’s why I ask you about Cabra.”

“And why you came here tonight?”

“No. I came to see what you were like.”

“I am an athlete who is breaking training. Were you born around here?”

“Yes. In the wood.”

“Why’d you pick up with these guys?”

“Why not? It’s better than getting pig shit on my heels every day.”

“Never have a man of your own? Steady, I mean?”

“Yes. He’s dead. He’s the one who found… the Fairy Ring.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not. He used to get drunk whenever he could borrow or steal enough to afford it and then come home and beat me. I was glad when I met Ganelon.”

“So you think that the thing is too strong, that we are going to lose to it?”

“Yes.”

“You may be right. But I think you’re wrong.” She shrugged.

“You’ll be fighting with us?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Nobody knew for sure, or would say if they did. That might prove interesting. I’d like to see you fight with the goat-man.”

“Why?”

“Because he seems to be their leader. If you killed him, we’d have more of a chance. You might be able to do it.”

“I have to,” I said.

“Special reason?”

“Yes.”

“Private one?”

“Yes.”

“Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

She finished her wine, so I poured her another.

“I know he is a supernatural creature,” she said.

“Let’s get off the subject.”

“All right. But will you do me a thing?”

“Name it.”

“Put on armor tomorrow, pick up a lance, get hold of a horse, and trounce that big cavalry officer Harald.”

“Why?”

“He beat me last week, just like Jarl used to. Can you do it?”

“Yes.”

“Will you?”

“Why not? Consider him trounced.”

She came over and leaned against me.

“I love you,” she said.

“Crap.”

“All right. How about, I like you?”

“Good enough. I —”

Then a chill and numbing wind blew along my spine. I stiffened and resisted what was to come by blanking my mind completely.

Someone was looking for me. It was someone of the House of Amber, doubtless, and he was using my Trump or something very like it. There was no mistaking the sensation. If it was Eric, then he had more guts than I gave him credit for, since I had almost napalmed his brain the last time we had been in contact. It could not be Random, unless he was out of prison, which I doubted. If it was Julian or Caine, they could go to hell. Bleys was probably dead. Possibly Benedict, too. That left Gerard, Brand, and our sisters. Of these, only Gerard might mean me well. So I resisted discovery, successfully. It took me perhaps five minutes, and when it was finished I was shaking and sweating and Lorraine was staring at me strangely.

“What happened?” she asked. “You aren’t drunk yet, and neither am I.”

“Just a spell I sometimes get,” I said. “It’s a disease I picked up in the islands.”

“I saw a face,” she said. “Perhaps it was on the floor, maybe it was in my head. It was an old man. The collar of his garment was green and he looked a lot like you, except that his beard was gray.” I slapped her then.

“You’re lying! You couldn’t have…”

“I’m just telling you what I saw! Don’t hit me! I don’t know what it meant! Who was he?”

“I think it was my father. God, it’s strange…”

“What happened?” she repeated.

“A spell,” I said. “I sometimes get them, and people think they see my father on the castle wall or floor. Don’t worry about it. It’s not contagious.”

“Crap,” she said. “You’re lying to me.”

“I know. But please forget the whole thing.”

“Why should I?”

“Because you like me,” I told her. “Remember? And because I’m going to trounce Harald for you tomorrow.”

“That’s true,” she said, and I started shaking again and she fetched a blanket from the bed and put it about my shoulders.

She handed me my wine and I drank it. She sat beside me and rested her head on my shoulder, so I put my arm about her. A devil wind began to scream and I heard the rapid rattle of the rainfall that came with it. For a second, it seemed that something beat against the shutters. Lorraine whimpered slightly.

“I do not like what is happening tonight,” she said.

“Neither do I. Go bar the door. It’s only bolted right now.”

As she did this, I moved our seat so that it faced my single window. I fetched Grayswandir out from beneath the bed and unsheathed it. Then I extinguished every light in the room, save for a single candle on the table to my right.

I reseated myself, my blade across my knees.

“What are we doing?” Lorraine asked, as she came and sat down at my left.

“Waiting,” I said.

“For what?”

“I am not positive, but this is certainly the night for it.”

She shuddered and drew near.

“You know, perhaps you had better leave,” I said.

“I know,” she said, “but I’m afraid to go out. You’ll be able to protect me if I stay here, won’t you?”

I shook my head.

“I don’t even know if I’ll be able to protect myself.”

She touched Grayswandir.

“What a beautiful blade! I’ve never seen one like it.”

“There isn’t another,” I said, and each time that I shifted a little, the light fell differently upon it, so that one moment it seemed filmed over with unhuman blood of an orange tint and the next it lay there cold and white as snow or a woman’s breast, quivering in my hand each time a little chill took me.

I wondered how it was that Lorraine had seen something I had not during the attempted contact. She could not simply have imagined anything that close to home.

“There is something strange about you,” I said.

She was silent for four or five flickerings of the candle, then said, “I’ve a touch of the second sight. My mother had more of it. People say my grandmother was a sorceress. I don’t know any of that business, though. Well, not much of it. I haven’t done it for years. I always wind up losing more than I gain.”