Then she was silent again, and I asked her, “What do you mean?”
“I used a spell to get my first man,” she said, “and look what he turned out to be. If I hadn’t, I’d have been a lot better off. I wanted a pretty daughter, and I made that happen —” She stopped abruptly and I realized she was crying.
“What’s the matter? I don’t understand…”
“I thought you knew,” she said.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“She was the little girl in the Fairy Circle. I thought you knew…”
“I wish I didn’t have the touch. I never use it any more. But it won’t let me alone. It still brings me dreams and signs, and they are never over things I can do anything about. I wish it would go away and devil somebody else!”
“That’s the one thing it will not do, Lorraine. I’m afraid you are stuck with it.”
“How do you know?”
“I’ve known people like you in the past, that’s all.”
“You’ve a touch of it yourself, haven’t you?”
“Then you feel that there is something out there now, don’t you?”
“So do I. Do you know what it is doing?”
“It’s looking for me.”
“Yes, I feel that, too. Why?”
“Perhaps to test my strength. It knows that I am here. If I am a new ally come to Ganelon, it must wonder what I represent, who I am…”
“Is it the horned one himself?”
“I don’t know. I think not, though.”
“If I am really he who would destroy it, it would be foolish to seek me out here in the keep of its enemy when I am surrounded by strength. I would say one of its minions is looking for me. Perhaps, somehow, that is what my father’s ghost… I do not know. If its servant finds me and names me, it will know what preparations to make. If it finds me and destroys me, it will have solved the problem. If I destroy the servant, it will know that much more about my strength. Whichever way it works out, the horned one will be something ahead. So why should it risk its own pronged dome at this stage in the game?”
We waited, there in the shadow-clad chamber, as the taper burned away the minutes.
She asked me, “What did you mean when you said, if it finds you and names you…? Names you what?”
“The one who almost did not come here,” I said.
“You think that it might know you from somewhere, somehow?” she asked.
“I think it might,” I said. She drew away from me then.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said. “I won’t hurt you.”
“I am afraid, and you will hurt me!” she said. “I know it! But I want you! Why do I want you?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“There is something out there now!” she said, sounding slightly hysterical. “It’s near! It’s very near! Listen! Listen!”
“Shut up!” I said, as a cold, prickly feeling came to rest on the back of my neck and coiled about my throat. “Get over on the far side of the room, behind the bed!”
“I’m afraid of the dark,” she said.
“Do it, or I’ll have to knock you out and carry you. You’ll be in my way here.”
I could hear a heavy flapping above the storm, and there came a scratching on the stone of the wall as she moved to obey me.
Then I was looking into two hot, red eyes which were looking back into my own. I dropped mine quickly. The thing stood there on the ledge outside the window and regarded me.
It was well over six feet in height, with great branches of antlers growing out of its forehead. Nude, its flesh was a uniform ash-gray in color. It appeared to be sexless, and it had gray, leathery wings extending far out behind it and joining with the night. It held a short, heavy sword of dark metal in its right hand, and there were runes carved all along the blade. With its left hand, it clutched at the lattice.
“Enter at your peril,” I said loudly, and I raised the point of Grayswandir to indicate its breast.
It chuckled. It just stood there and chuckled and giggled at me. It tried to meet my eyes once more, but I would not let it. If it looked into my eyes for long, it would know me, as the hellcat had known me.
When it spoke, it sounded like a bassoon blowing words.
“You are not the one,” it said, “for you are smaller and older. Yet… That blade… It could be his. Who are you?”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Strygalldwir is my name. Conjure with it and I will eat your heart and liver.”
“Conjure with it? I can’t even pronounce it,” I said, “and my cirrhosis would give you indigestion. Go away.”
“Who are you?” it repeated.
“Misli, gammi gra’dil, Strygalldwir,” I said, and it jumped as if given a hotfoot.
“You seek to drive me forth with such a simple spell?” it asked when it settled again. “I am not one of the lesser ones.”
“It seemed to make you a bit uncomfortable.”
“Who are you?” it said again.
“None of your business, Charlie. Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home —”
“Four times must I ask you and four times be refused before I may enter and slay you. Who are you?”
“No,” I said, standing. “Come on in and burn!”
Then it tore away the latticework, and the wind that accompanied it into the chamber extinguished the candle.
I lunged forward, and there were sparks between us when Grayswandir met the dark rune-sword. We clashed, then I sprang back. My eyes had adjusted to the half dark, so the loss of the light did not blind me. The creature saw well enough, also. It was stronger than a man, but then so am I. We circled the room. An icy wind moved about us, and when we passed the window again, cold droplets lashed my face. The first time that I cut the creature — a long slash across the breast — it remained silent, though tiny flames danced about the edges of the wound. The second time that I cut it — high upon the arm — it cried out, cursing me.
“Tonight I will suck the marrow from your bones!” it said. “I will dry them and work them most cunningly into instruments of music! Whenever I play upon them, your spirit will writhe in bodiless agony!”
“You burn prettily,” I said.
It slowed for a fraction of a second, and my opportunity was there.
I beat that dark blade aside and my lunge was perfect. The center of its breast was my target. I ran it through.
It howled then, but did not fall. Grayswandir was torn from my grasp and flames bloomed about the wound. It stood there wearing them. It advanced a step toward me and I picked up a small chair and held it between us.
“I do not keep my heart where men do,” it said.
Then it lunged, but I blocked the blow with the chair and caught it in the right eye with one of the legs. I throw the chair to the side then, and stepping forward, seized its right wrist and turned it over. I struck the elbow with the edge of my hand, as hard as I could. There came a sharp crack and the runesword clattered to the floor. Then its left hand struck my head and I fell.
It leaped for the blade, and I seized its ankle and jerked.
It sprawled, and I threw myself atop it and found its throat. I turned my head into the hollow of my shoulder, chin against my breast, as it clawed for my face with its left hand.
As my death grip tightened, its eyes sought mine, and this time I did not avoid them. There came a tiny shock at the base of my brain, as we both knew that we knew.
“You!” it managed to gasp, before I twisted my hands hard and the life went out of those red red eyes.
I stood, put my foot upon its carcass, and withdrew Grayswandir.
The thing burst into flames when my blade came free, and kept burning until there was nothing remaining but a charred spot upon the floor.
Then Lorraine came over and I put my arm about her and she asked me to take her back to her quarters and to bed. So I did, but we didn’t do anything but lie there together until she had cried herself to sleep. That is how I met Lorraine.
Lance and Ganelon and I sat atop our mounts on a high hill, the late morning sun hitting us in the back, and we looked down into the place. Its appearance confirmed things for me.
It was akin to that twisted wood that filled the valley to the south of Amber.
Oh my father! What have I wrought? I said within my heart, but there was no answer other than the dark Circle that lay beneath me and spread for as far as the eye could see.
Through the bars of my visor, I looked down upon it — charred — seeming, desolate, and smelling of decay. I lived inside my visor these days. The men looked upon it as an affectation, but my rank gave me the right to be eccentric. I had worn it for over two weeks, since my battle with Strygalldwir. I had put it on the following morning before I trounced Harald to keep my promise to Lorraine, and I had decided that as my girth increased I had better keep my face concealed.
I weighed perhaps fourteen stone now, and felt like my old self again. If I could help clean up this mess in the land called Lorraine, I knew that I would have a chance at least to try what I most wanted, and perhaps succeed.
“So that’s it,” I said. “I don’t see any troops mustering.”
“I believe we will have to ride north,” said Lance, “and we will doubtless only see them after dark.”
“How far north?”
“Three or four leagues. They move about a bit.”
We had ridden for two days to reach the Circle. We had met a patrol earlier that morning and learned that the troops inside the thing continued to muster every night. They went through various drills and then were gone — to someplace deeper inside — with the coming of morning. A perpetual thunderhead, I learned, rode above the Circle, though the storm never broke.
“Shall we breakfast here and then ride north?” I asked.
“Why not?” said Ganelon. “I’m starved and we’ve time.”
So we dismounted and ate dried meat and drank from our canteens.
“I still do not understand that note,” said Ganelon, after belching, patting his stomach, and lighting his pipe. “Will he stand beside us in the final battle, or will he not? Where is he, if he intends to help? The day of conflict draws nearer and nearer.”
“Forget him,” I said. “It was probably a joke.”
“I can’t, damn it!” he said. “There is something passing strange about the whole business!”
“What is it?” asked Lance, and for the first time I realized that Ganelon had not told him.
“My old liege, Lord Corwin, sends an odd message by carrier bird, saying he is coming. I had thought him dead, but he sent this message,” Ganelon told him. “I still do not know what to make of it.”
“Corwin?” said Lance, and I held my breath. “Corwin of Amber?”
“Yes, Amber and Avalon.”
“Forget his message.”
“He is a man without honor, and his promise means nothing.”
“You know him?”
“I know of him. Long ago, he ruled in this land. Do you not recall the stories of the demon lordling? They are the same. That was Corwin, in days before my days. The best thing he did was abdicate and flee when the resistance grew too strong against him.”
That was not true! Or was it?
Amber casts an infinity of shadows, and my Avalon had cast many of its own, because of my presence there. I might be known on many earths that I had never trod, for shadows of myself had walked them, mimicking imperfectly my deeds and my thoughts.
“No,” said Ganelon, “I never paid heed to the old stories. I wonder if it could have been the same man, ruling here. That is interesting.”
“Very,” I agreed, to keep my hand in things. “But if he ruled so long ago, surely he must be dead or decrepit by now.”
“He was a sorcerer,” said Lance.
“The one I knew certainly was,” said Ganelon, “for he banished me from a land neither art nor artifice can discover now.”
“You never spoke of this before,” said Lance. “How did it occur?”
“None of your business,” said Ganelon, and Lance was silent once again.
I hauled out my own pipe — I had obtained one two days earlier — and Lance did the same. It was a clay job and drew hot and hard. We lit up, and the three of us sat there smoking.
“Well, he did the smart thing,” said Ganelon. “Let’s forget it now.”
We did not, of course. But we stayed away from the subject after that.
If it had not been for the dark thing behind us, it would have been quite pleasant, just sitting there, relaxing. Suddenly, I felt close to the two of them. I wanted to say something, but I could not think what.
Ganelon solved that by bringing up current business once more.
“So you want to hit them before they hit us?” he said.
“That’s right,” I replied. “Take the fight to their home territory.”
“The trouble is that it is their home territory,” he said. “They know it better than we do now, and who knows what powers they might be able to call on there?”
“Kill the horned one and they will crumble,” I said.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Maybe you could do it,” said Ganelon. “Unless I got lucky, though, I don’t know whether I could. He’s too mean to die easily. While I think I’m still as good a man as I was some years ago, I may be fooling myself. Perhaps I’ve grown soft. I never wanted this damn stay-at-home job!”
“I know,” I said.
“I know,” said Lance.
“Lance,” said Ganelon, “should we do as our friend here says? Should we attack?”
He could have shrugged and equivocated. He did not.
“Yes,” he said. “They almost had us last time. It was very close the night King Uther died. If we do not attack them now, I feel they may defeat us next time. Oh, it would not be easy, and we would hurt them badly. But I think they could do it. Let us see what we can see now, then make our plans for an attack.”
“All right,” said Ganelon. “I am sick of waiting too. Tell me that again after we return and I’ll go along with it.” So we did that thing.
We rode north that afternoon, and we hid ourselves in the hills and looked down upon the Circle. Within it, they worshiped, after their fashion, and they drilled. I estimated around four thousand troops. We had about twenty-five hundred. They also had weird flying, hopping, crawling things that made noises in the night. We had stout hearts. Yeah.
All that I needed was a few minutes alone with their leader, and it would be decided, one way or another. The whole thing. I could not tell my companions that, but it was true.
You see, I was the partly responsible for the whole thing down there. I had done it, and it was up to me to undo it, if I could.
I was afraid that I could not.
In a fit of passion, compounded of rage, horror, and pain, I had unleashed this thing, and it was reflected somewhere in every earth in existence. Such is the blood curse of a Prince of Amber.
We watched them all that night, the Wardens of the Circle, and in the morning we departed.
The verdict was, attack!
So we rode all the way back and nothing followed us. When we reached the Keep of Ganelon, we fell to planning. Our troops were ready-over-ready, perhaps — and we decided to strike within a fortnight.
As I lay with Lorraine, I told her of these things. For I felt that she should know. I possessed the power to spirit her away into Shadow — that very night, if she would agree. She did not.