It was a confusing victory, at best, for the forces of Amber. Some were not sure if it was a victory at all.
For five years the rangers had been warriors, fighting first against the traitor-Princes Corwin and Bleys, then against their creatures. Eric was King of Amber, but he had burned Garnath to take it. His disdain for Julian and through him the rangers was palpable. It would have driven many out, except for the force of Prince Julian's will and the threats to all that the rangers were fighting.
The forest grew wilder in these years and was not as hospitable to strangers. Few men joined the rangers and those few were wilder, too.
Now Eric was dead, fighting for Amber, but Corwin was back and somehow in charge. The rangers had fought under Benedict and had been hard pressed until the riflemen arrived. Now they were in the castle and the Rangers were back in the forest. The failed assassin and quondam prisoner Random, who had begun to weasel his way into Eric's confidence, was freed.
And Caine was killed, possibly in vengeance for his opposition to Corwin. And Brand was free and also at liberty in the castle.
The rangers heard all the stories, and fabulous rumors besides. You had the truth from your father. Most of the rumors were almost as wild as the truth. He'd fled the castle when it looked like the conspiracy was winning, and paying back their opponents.
"What are you going to do?" you'd asked him.
"Do? Repel their attack, I hope. We have mobility and knowledge. They have their damnable black road. We shall prevent the enemy from entering our home, nothing less."
Julian looks at you, and you wonder if he is pleased. "Your brothers are preoccupied with their own concerns. You must take this burden on alone. I must know what comes up the black road."
He does not say "will you be my scout?" He trusts that you will. You feel an odd pride that he will order you into such danger.
"Go no more than a few days down the road, and watch for the time differential." He hands you his Trump. "Contact me if you find anything unusual..." he pauses, "More unusual than normal, let us say."
He passes you the card and puts his hand on your head, saying nothing.
"How many riders, Father?" Robin asks, and he knows she means, "can I take with me?"
"Were your brothers here, two; but they are not. The road passes through Calusa and Arcadia as well. Jovian chose his duty to Calusa over his duty to Amber, at least for the nonce, and Daeon --" Your father falls silent here, and you feel his frustration through his fingers in your hair.
That your sister Dione could be of any aid here is beyond thought. That she should remain a child is somehow right and proper, even though you know she is older than some of the trees that your father has permitted his brothers to fell for the masts of ships on rare occasions. But Daeon is not so, and he troubles your father.
Julian resumes: "Only those of our blood, those strengthened by the Pattern, can withstand the effects of the road for any period of time. It kills lesser men. You may recall that your uncle Gerard and I attempted to travel down it together soon after it appeared, and to fight the travelers on it with brute force.
"Gerard got his leg and almost his head broken for his pains. I do not know that it will be safer now, Robin. You are not my brother; you haven't his strength, but he hasn't your subtlety. And with our recent victory, if victory it truly was, the travelers may be less dangerous. I hope this is so, but I cannot count on it. So you must ride alone."
Your father's lengthy explanation is both apology and comfort, the latter perhaps for himself as much as for you.
"Cruel," Robin says, shaking her head. "Cruel, cruel, cruel not to give your daughter any company."
She smiles, leans forward on her toes and kisses his forehead fondly. She hopes there are rangers watching as she does so, and spares a glance to make sure.
Some of them are there, but they are looking away. He has never said the word "daughter" before any of them, you think, but they all know who you are, even the dogs and Morgenstern. The rangers treat you with an odd combination of camaraderie and deference -- the way they treat him. And they take your orders as if he spoke them, whether they came from him or not.
At the touch of your lips on his forehead, you know that your father smiles too. Of another man, one might say that he smiles indulgently, but the smile itself is an indulgence from your father. He has smiled so rarely of late.
"I hope I get a horse at least," she says with a solemn pout. But her hands are already fluttering about, as sometimes happens when she is all anticipation.
Robin rides from Arden down to the vale to pick up the black road, then along the path of corruption out into shadow. Whatever the thing is, it makes life impossible. Robin and most things she values being very much alive, she knows herself for its enemy.
Very well, she thinks. One can try to travel on the road, or alongside the road. From what father said, alongside the road would be easier, if it works. From what father said, he wonders whether Robin is tough enough for the road. The thing is, it's better to get the answer to that question before you strictly need to know it. So Robin guides her horse onto the black road and down it for a spell, asking all the while, So what's this like then?
The grasses on the edge of the road look wrong somehow to your senses, and so you jump your horse over them and onto the road. The blades stir somehow as you pass over them, and you note this for future reference.
Coming onto the road is like coming out of a dark tunnel in reverse. From the proper, natural daylight of the shadow of the vale you ride into a black-and-white landscape. It is disheartening somehow; you feel strength and will leaching out of you as the color is leached from the landscape. Being what you are, you are in no danger, but your father was right to send you alone.
The landscape off the road now also seems drained of color and life, though you know that what you see from within this realm is nothing like what you saw outside it.
As you ride along, you see some patches of mist. You ride through one, and there is something foul about it, something that draws the breath from your lungs in a way you do not care for. Your horse is panting as if you had galloped him for too long.
Ahead in the distance, you think you see someone -- or something -- on the road.
Whoever it is, thinks Robin, is upright, therefore has not been destroyed by the road, therefore falls into one of two classes. The People Who Made This Thing are her enemies. Other Family Members are not necessarily her friends.
That means they get the sniff test. First Robin bares her fang - pulls her blade from its scabbard and lays it across her pommel. Her new acquaintance will see it but not see it brandished. Then she leads her horse toward the figure at a slow walk, skirting the mists where possible. Robin is not afraid. Nor is she trying to look peaceful. She's giving her mount as much rest as possible before any unpleasantness that might demand its energy.
If there is a meeting, she draws rein and says "Hello" at a distance that does not require raising her voice. She looks whoever or whatever directly in the eye as she says it.
Robin approaches the figure, learning more with each step forward. The figure is cloaked, back turned to Robin. A woman, armed, with a bow at her side. She faces a rise in the black road, waiting. You apparently approach her unnoticed. She is very still, so much so that you wonder if she is alive, but you decide that it is the mist and the black tinge on the world.
You rein in and say "Hello". She turns her head, a momentary panic being replaced by calm. You almost see her features, but they are obscured by the mist which passes between you.
"Quiet!" she hisses, "they'll hear you!" The woman is blonde, lithe, and moves with the natural ease of a ranger. She reminds you, somehow, of Julian.
Does she remind Robin of a mirror, is the question. Or say, perhaps, a still pool in good light?
Nothing along the black road reminds you of anything in good light. She seems older, some details are different, but she is very like you. You might look like that on a very, very bad day. Maybe she's a shadow of you; you're pretty close to Amber. She still has her eyes on the road, and she's backing towards you, slowly. Her cloak is a muted red. Perhaps it would be brighter if you were not on this road.
Robin notices that where there had been stillness now there is movement. Since Robin doesn't trust the figure, she has an absurd vision of backing all the way to Amber to keep the woman in front of her. The vision doesn't appeal.
"Stand your ground," she says, perhaps a touch peremptorily, but in the quieter voice her interlocutor requested. "It's no more promising behind you. If not that, better to run as fast as you can, off the road too."
As Robin speaks, she quietly loads the crossbow slung from her horse's neck with her left hand.
The figure stops and half turns, clearly more concerned about what might come over the hill. Her weapon is ready, but not threatening.
"Quiet! I'm only coming close enough to talk. My uncles are over there and they want to kill me. If they all come looking, they'll kill us both."
"I understand," Robin says, and the strange thing for the other woman might be that Robin clearly does understand, "but if you're not going to kill them, why not just get off the road and get away?"
"They've allied with the black road people."
Robin picks up the loaded crossbow in her off hand. She's looking mostly over the rise, but she makes sure her interlocutor is on the crossbow side of her horse and keeps the sidelong part of her glance on the newcomer.
One controls a horse through the knees and it's Robin's knees that will tell her if the horse takes exception to...
"What shall I call you," Robin asks. (Not the horse.)
"Call me ... Laurel," she says, and Robin knows that it's a use-name, like those taken by some of the rangers. "You can't run from my uncles. If I left the road, they'd know, and anyway, they have my father and my brother and my sister, and I can't just leave them."
You can't see over the rise yet. Your horse would be heard by someone just on the other side, but you could dismount and approach more silently. But then she'd be behind you and you wouldn't be mounted.
Robin pauses to hope that this hemmer and hawer is a pale shadow indeed of her true self.
"Laurel, consider." She continues to speak softly. "If you mean they'd follow you if you left the road, that would be good for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you'd clear my own path for me, which I'd like. Secondly, if they're allied with the black road people, they'd probably be weaker out there. That gives you a better chance of getting your brother and your sister and your father back. And thirdly..."
Robin turns her horse face-on to Laurel and presses enough that the woman could not bring her bow to bear without leaping back.
"...because I'm used to being in charge, and I'm going to help you beat your uncles. Now get."
Robin likes to think that if this isn't a trap, Laurel has enough spunk not to cry out and ruin things. Robin can apologize, at least mentally, later. If it is a trap, better it spring on Robin's own initiative. She will press Laurel across the road until they reach the edge or everything goes to hell.
Robin begins to implement this plan, pushing Laurel back towards the edge of the road. Laurel gives a few steps. She says "Hey, stop! Wait. Cut it out you damn shadow. "
Laurel hops back a few paces and says "We need to catch one of them and get me a horse and then we'll both attack."
Laurel stops dead, turned and facing north. On the top of the rise is a horse ridden by a man in silver and black. He holds in his left hand a complicated scythe-like weapon. The right sleeve of his jacket is rolled up and pinned to his side because he is missing most of that arm. It is pinned with a silver rose. There is something unsettling about his eyes, but you cannot tell at this distance.
"Making new friends? Haven't you learned that the shadows can't help you?" His question is soft, gently belying his actions. He spurs his horse at Laurel. Laurel is crouching, readying herself to meet his charge. She holds the bow in her right hand and the sword in her left.
He seems all but oblivious to any potential danger you might represent.
In honor of his attitude, Robin looses the crossbow bolt at his chest. It's a one-handed off-hand shot, but she's good with horses and the angle, since Robin is close to Laurel, is nearly straight back along the path of his approach.
The bolt flies straight and true and hits his armor slightly to the left of center, as if it were tracking on his heart. It makes no noise as it penetrates his armor, and you see the bolt continue along its trajectory from his back and lodge itself in the trunk of a black tinted tree behind him.
She hangs the crossbow back on her pommel by its stock loop, raises her saber and shifts her horse so that her blade is on the approach side of her new opponent. There is a quick consideration of mounted sword-vs-scythe combat. Perhaps unhelpfully, Robin allows Laurel's uncle to complete his charge if the bolt doesn't bring him down, letting Laurel deal with the initial attack and letting Robin see how she does. As soon as he is past or onto Laurel though, Robin spurs into action and takes the man from behind with the point of her blade.
Laurel parries the wicked looking scythe-thing with her bow and tries for a blow at the rider with her sword. She almost hits, but the rider is fast--fast enough to get away with his poor tactics.
You swing at his back and you should have connected. Your horsemanship skills and the subconscious concern that this would happen are the only things that save you from overbalancing due to the lack of expected resistance when your blade enters his body. He again does not notice your attack. He charges by and turns for another pass. Laurel looks as if she has the same tactics in mind. He spurs his mount.
This time Laurel is not as lucky. The rider passes to her left, on the side that he has the scythelike thing. It moves almost languidly into position to take her head off, arriving at the point her neck should be at precisely the correct moment. That Laurel is not there is her saving grace. Her bow provides an effective parrying device to prevent the rider from recovering.
However, her counterstrike does not penetrate his ribs. It glances off his armor and slices into his mount. It complains and continues past, slowing to recover for another pass. Laurel has lost her bow but still has her sword.
Then Robin spurs her mount to catch Uncle Evil at the end of his pass. She sets her horse at an angle and flourishes her cloak in his face. She tries to keep it there. She hopes this insubstantial thing works both ways, but if it doesn't, it comes down to her reflexes.
You attempt to interfere with the rider and succeed in getting his attention. The cloak does seem to interfere with him and you are close enough to prevent him from successfully bringing the scythe into play. You suspect that he will be able to do so shortly, though. You finally get a good look at his face. His eye sockets are empty and dully red.
"Laurel, get him!" she shouts, in case the phantasm can't recognize an opportunity when it presents itself.
Laurel is in motion before you call out, running towards you where you are holding off her uncle. She leaps at him, going for his right side. She screams as she leaps and the sound reaches you despite the muffling effect of the black road fog. She jumps up in an extremely athletic flying tackle, unhorsing your assailant.
He is carried off his horse, but manages to drag you off your mount as well. The three of you end up in a heap, with your breath taken away. The horses have stepped away.
You recover first, but just slightly, both the rogue Uncle and Laurel are gathering themselves for action.
Getting over my astonishment that the guy could touch Robin... ...and quickly moving on!
Robin does not bother to draw a weapon. She takes advantage of her advantage in recovery time and pounces on Bad Uncle. The goal: knock him flat again before he gets up and choke choke choke while Laurel gets a weapon and applies any necessary finishing touches.
You pounce upon him, crushing his windpipe with your thumbs, forcing his skull onto the black rocks of the road. He struggles, but is hindered by his stump. You maintain your grip on him, wildly wrestling to prevent him from rising. You look over your shoulder and see two things: Robin has grabbed the scythe-like weapon and is rushing towards you. She makes eye contact and you know she wants you to hold him until the last possible moment.
You also see, blowing up behind her, the choking fog that has been rolling in patches over the road for most of your journey.
Robin laughs at choking fog! Haha! Imperceptive observers may take it as a nervous laugh, but that's not Robin's problem!
She holds Uncle Evil as long as she can, rolling out of the way as necessary to avoid being skewered.
Uncle Evil struggles mightily and it fascinates you to see how he seems to be growing a replacement arm as you watch. It is as yet soft and fat and pink and you do not see it as a threat, yet. He was damn dangerous with just one arm. You hold him until the last possible second, rolling away from danger. It is almost as if you knew exactly where and when Laurel would strike. Her blow slides up between her uncle's chest armor and his helmet, with a grating sound of metal upon metal. He collapses as you roll to your knees. Laurel has left the scythe-like thing deep in his neck and she is looking at you.
It is at this moment that the low cloud of fog reaches the body on the ground. It drives Laurel back, coughing. When it clears the spot that her Uncle had occupied, there is only his weapon on the ground.
Laurel looks at it, then back at you. "Are you still game for an attack on my remaining Uncles? Would you rather try that or my sword?"
"I have my own sword," Robin says, with a quick, maybe arguably indulgent grin, in which some might insist on reading a trace of condescension. "And you've got a horse!"
Laurel stands for a moment, shrugs, and walks to the second horse. She sheaths her sword and carries the scythe, which seems as if it would be very useful from horseback against fleeing victims.
She seems to be muttering, probably speaking to the horse, although you think at one point the words "shadow" and "Gerard's daughter" are clearer.
Robin trots to her own, mounts up, and waits for Laurel.
Laurel rides up and you see that she has attempted to doctor the wound her horse has taken. It looks good enough for combat.
"They'll be in the pavilion in the center of the camp. Don't get bogged down fighting the creatures."
Robin charges over the rise. Her blade is out, her crossbow is tucked away, and she in no way acts like their missiles mean as little as her missiles.
Laurel spurs forward, and you are beside her. And she controls her horse as you would and she makes the same sort of reassuring noises to it that you do.
You stop atop the ridge, momentarily, to take in the view of the campsite. It is larger than you might have expected, being peopled by a number of the Uncles' allies. Perhaps another word than peopled should be used, although they are mostly person-shaped. They are large and red and furry and have fangs that look wicked. It is a small army of them, which Laurel had not mentioned. You would guess from her body language that she didn't recall it being like this when she last looked upon it.
"Shit", Laurel says in an almost matter-of-fact way. She almost asks you a question, but decides better of it and spurs her horse forward. The camp seems unguarded but there are armed man (not men really) all over the place. Laurel seems to be headed towards a cluster of them who are near the end of what looks like an avenue.
Unless these guys have something they aren't showing, they look like they'd be pushovers for the Rangers. Ah, it would be the automatic weapons. The group that Laurel is about to run down seems to be carrying military firearms. That bodes ill.
There are a half dozen guards at this command post, which seems to be the only group nearby with guns. Most of the others that she sees are armed with swords and the rest rely on natural weapons. Without firearms, they cannot immediately affect this battle.
You overrun the guardpost easily, bowling down foes who do not have time to bring their weapons to bear. Laurel takes out two with her scythe and a third is trampled by her mount. You have felled one with your sword (which works just fine, thanks, against the large red furry opponents) and face the other two.
Your confidence that you can take them quickly and clear your way for a mad ride down the camp avenue to the central pavilions is reasonably high. They aren't very well disciplined.
You feel a jolt underneath you and hear a crack, and then you are using all of your riding skills to dismount from your horse, which is collapsing under you, his neck covered with blood. You cannot tell where the shot came from that felled your horse.
Laurel is a bit past you and has turned to look back, you are regaining your feet and are about to be set upon by two guards. To you, the guards look uncomfortable with their weapons, but they may not have to be very good.
Flee a knife, charge a gun. Or was it, feed a cold, starve a fever?
Robin hopes she remembers it right, but not for long. She's close to the two guards, because it's just the one command post. So she leaps. She'll skewer the closer, and we do mean skewer - out the back and up to the hilt, if possible.
The leverage she'll use to swing his furry, impaled body in line with the other one's aim. At that point she's inside the firing circle of the first furry fellow and he has become a massive wrist guard and shield. So Robin shoves forward at the other one, blade, monster and all. She should be able to at least unbalance him, at which point she pounces and gets his gun away. Then she'll beat him bloody or shoot him, depending on which seems quicker. Then she needs a ride from somewhere.
L'audace, dad used to say, Quelquefois l'audace. And this is quelquefois.
Your plan is inspired, and they go down rapidly as described. They are tough and they are armed, but you are Julian's daughter. Even the guns and the numbers do not allow them to prevail. There are a few shots fired, wild and useless. Soon you stand over a corpse, bleeding on the unconscious body of the creature you beat senseless with his own gun. You suspect from the bullet hole in your pants that is matched only by an exit hole in the back of your pants that you were hit by gunfire. You have no wounds, though.
The barking, the little victory dance, and the fact that a serious enemy seems to have cloned herself encourages the rest of the troops to go for help rather than attempting to impede your progress.
And as Robin looks up and Laurel is coming to a halt at your side. Her hand reaches down and she would pull you up behind her.
"This should be interesting," Robin says, and she learns, through experience, whether it is possible for Laurel to pull her up on the horse and the horse to support her.
And the lesson is made clear to Robin as Laurel pulls her up. Laurel brings the horse quickly to a gallop. She leans low over the horse's neck and turns her head back towards you. "Shoot the soldiers! That won't work on people!"
You comply, spraying bullets at those red soldiers who are not fast enough or cautious enough are forced to deal with your bullets. It is not until some time later that you will consider that you fired many more shots than the magazine of the gun should have held.
"They're up there! Just cause as much trouble as you can while I try to take out Brandom. He's the one who's behind all this."
And the horse courses down the road in the road, her hooves seeming to merely kiss the black road surface. Headlong you rush and the distance stretches with your speeding. You come to the ring of tents that marks the center of the camp. You note as you approach that it is on the edge of the black road and that half of the camp is pleasant and green, instead of the all-pervading blackness that you have heretofore experienced in this shadow.
And you pass into the circle of tents and view the scene beyond.
On a small mound there sits a throne, identical to the one that rests in the great hall of the Castle in Amber. There is an ermine pillow on the chair and resting on it is a seven pointed crown, with a sprig of rosemary in the middle. The smell of the rosemary covers a sharper scent, but not so well that you do not identify it as blood.
There are many bodies (man, hounds, horses) lying as if scattered from a height and a man pacing back and forth across them. The do not impede his progress and, while he never steps on any one, he takes no overt notice of them. You notice right away that your father is hanging upside down over a pit. The man seems to be asking him questions. Morgenstern lies a few feet away, unmoving. You cannot see the faces of all of the bodies, but you recognize some. Your Uncle Caine lies unseeing, looking at the sky. Your sister Dione is next to him, equally dead.
The only other figure is a man in a cage. His clothes are wet. He sees you and yells "Help!"
Laurel yells "I'm coming Dad!" and you can tell she is about to charge. You could get off the horse or not. What do you do?
[Charging where: The pit? The pacing man? Or the cage?]
Looks like the pit or the pacing man. The cage is off to one side.
Robin plays a hunch. She leaps from the charging horse for the throne. Her plan: to snatch up the crown, rosemary sprig and all, and make for the pit, at the other end of it from the pacing man - to the extent that there is another end.
The leap goes as planned. You land on your feet and run the few steps up the mound to the throne. You grab the crown from the ermine pillow and the sprig of rosemary with it. The scent of it is strong and you look down at your hands, holding the sprig, the crown, your hat. You look back up into your father's face and he continues telling you of the day's efforts.
"I am, of course, unofficially in Eric's ill graces. I have had to make certain... concessions. However, I owe Corwin that much, for not killing me. I want you to attend the coronation dinner tonight. You should see exactly what we are defending -- what we have fought for."
Your father looks out of the window of his quarters, staring morosely for several moments at the blackened ruin that was recently disputed by Bleys and Corwin's mercenaries. He feels responsible, you guess. He thinks that if he could have stopped them sooner, it would have prevented this.
"Your uncle has excluded the Rangers from the ceremony. Just as well; they're occupied with the fire he started in Garnath.. You might think it was a good day for a spot of rain. I suppose it depends on what you were trying to accomplish."
"Lord Carnadan will accompany you. He knows his escort as 'Carmel', You will be seated near me, close to the foot of the table. Say as little as possible; your duty is to observe."
Julian looks up at you, expectantly, as if he has asked you a question and is waiting for an answer.
"Of course, Father," she says straightaway. "So long as I don't have to wear a dress.
"Kidding!" she says after a beat. She has succeeded if she made him look away from that awful window.
It is good that his cool is legendary, because it is under a great deal of stress at this moment.
The big galoot! He's supposed to know, Robin thinks petulantly, when I am trying desperately to cheer him up. He is further supposed to be dutifully cheered.
[While it may be that his relative cheer is up, it does not seem to be high enough up to register on your meter. Perhaps he was significantly cheered down by selling out to Eric for Corwin's sake that he's running a significant deficit of cheer...]
"It's not as if we've won here, you know. We've defeated an army -- any of my brothers could have raised it, or bested it -- and we've captured Corwin, who was considered dead until three months ago.
"What we have done is given Eric the excuse he needed to crown himself as Amber's savior and protector. Whatever we say in public, the truth is that Eric was not crowned reluctantly by the will of the people. Eric got what he wanted, no more and no less. Eric has won."
He smiles, grimly. "Fortunately, Eric's victory does not mean that Arden and Amber have lost.
"After the coronation, immediately after the coronation. I want you to go to the Rangers and tell them what you saw here. I will have...other duties."
"Yes father," Robin says. And she stands on tiptoe and kisses his forehead gravely. "What does this Carnadan know about me? What do I get to know about him? What is the answer for those who wonder at his choice in consorts?"
With those questions answered, Robin sets to thinking about the dress issue. She has no quarters here, nor any royal prerogatives. She doubts that dresses are to her father's own taste, and the alterations necessary would overwhelm the available time in any case.
"Money, father, please," she says.
And he nods and hands you a purse and it holds silver, and it glints in the candlelight and you realize that Prince Corwin was speaking to you. You look to Carnadan, but he is paying attention to the woman on his right. "It's all right to talk with me, honest," he says. "It's not contagious."
"Treason? Isn't it?" you don't say, as you smile, shallowly. "I'm Carmel. How are you, Prince Corwin?" you ask.
"That's a sweet name and I'm just fine. What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
And as you take a drink of your water, you glance into his eyes, and you know he is not saying "your perfume reminds me of chestnut blossoms in the spring." You see something in his eyes, something fascinating, like a flaw in a gem.
His green eyes are like the green grass on the sward and you look up from the picnic lunch at the half completed metal framework that has already begun to tower above the City of Lights and you realize that you can smell the chestnut blossoms and that you have no idea what you are doing in a place like this.
"Your Highness!" Robin exclaims, dimpling. She smiles coquettishly, then savagely stabs at his throat with the knife strapped under her long skirt. "Sometimes it doesn't do to think too much."
If it isn't dead, she stabs again.
And his blood runs red down the green sward as he lies there unmoving, his green eyes staring at the sky. The wind picks up the iron salt scent as it runs down the side of the hill you are sitting on with the dead body of a man who may be your uncle or may be your lover or may be no one at all.
The blood tide is huge; surely so much blood cannot have come from that single stab wound? But when you look at him again, he's young and blond and you've gutted him like a fish and the flow has almost reached the hedge maze at the foot of the hill, the hedge whose berries are the color of blood and flames ...
... as the gushing river touches the maze, its familiar curves and veils lit like a fuse, flaming against the darkness of the sudden evening sky. And now the scent in the air is smoke, a dark roiling cloud of it, boiling up from the bottom of the hill, the scent of the chestnut blossoms covered by the smell of burning blood from the crematorium below.
The dark cloud rolls towards you.
The hedge maze reminds Robin of something important, though who can say if she knows exactly what. She circles it widdershins, interested in getting a bit of an angle on the dark cloud of smoke. What she wants is some clouds of her own. Working with the local shadow, she seeks a wind at her back and, when turning, actual thunderheads moving over the selfsame hill, with clean rains for the maze and the smoke. She keeps circling with an eye toward this happening.
The stuff of shadow is impossible to grasp and work here, and no rain comes. The smoke and now the flames and smoke are coming closer, almost as if seeking you out. Circling rapidly becomes dangerous.
To evade the smoke and the flames, you have two choices: into the city, or away from it, into the countryside.
With nothing to rely on but instinct, Robin immediately opts for the countryside. She just doesn't act on that impulse: brain says country; feet say city, and to the city she goes. She recalls being angry at something, and cities annoy her. The fight-or-flight reflex seems still to be set on fight.
The outer arrondisements are deserted, which is good, because the flames and smoke now really do seem to be following you. Now there are burning buildings behind you -- the wind catching the flames and smoke almost up to you -- as well as burning foliage.
Straight ahead takes you further north, past the half-completed metal framework and into the heart of the city; to one side or another will take you out of the city.
Heart of the city. She'll check if there's a plausible firebreak by the strange metal construction; otherwise, keep going unless she stumbles on something remarkable.
The metal tower is on an open grassy area, but the grass there catches flame as does everything else behind you.
Robin has this notion that she should be going somewhere to attack someone. It's not PMS - it's strategy. She's just not sure which strategy. Anyway, it's more likely that there will be people at the center of town than outside it.
Robin sees no people in the city. It's not as if the place was long since abandoned, for there are signs of habitation -- strange broadsheets blow by in the fierce wind, there are plates of food and glasses of wine and cups of coffee on the tables of the sidewalk cafes as Robin flees by them. It's more like someone snatched all the people away in mid-moment and left their things behind instead.
Perhaps it occurs that whatever did that, or the fire itself, is more an enemy than any man could be.
(Any birds around?)
Animal life has deserted the place as well.
You run deeper and deeper into the city, until you come to a river crossed by a number of bridges. There is an island in the middle of the river; even from between the buildings you can see the two spires of its tallest building.
Some of the bridges take you across the river; the nearest bridge will take you to the island. Of course, the river itself is a road of another kind. You might also be able to cut across to the left or right and get out of the city.
Or something else altogether.
Robin will head for the island with the strange building. She's curious whether the fire will travel the bridge or not. She's even curious whether the water will burn.
You reach the relative safety of the a small park or garden in front of the building. While the fire has not crossed the river, it seems to be approaching it. The bridge you crossed was made of stone, so it should not burn. The fire seems to have spread to the side streets. As you look up the river, you see a boat that is moored along the near side. The boat is burning.
Smoke is billowing from the burning city. Empty, abandoned, it has no defenders to slow the blaze. Smoke obscures your view of the towered building. A buttress here, a tower there and the elaborate carvings on the nearby facade can be seen intermittently. The garden is close enough to the doors that they can be looked through.
At a guess, the building is over 100 feet high. As you look at it, the rest of the city seems to become less real. Perhaps the building just seems moreso. A 100 foot plus stone building buttressed and arched and elaborately carved on every surface is bound to dominate the local landscape.
When the smoke is clear, you can see through the open doors that the entire building seems to be a single floor. There are candles everywhere, all left burning. There are many of them at the central dais.
Buildings are not to be trusted. And if candles haven't had time to burn down yet, there may be someone or something to find here. Robin enters the place, weapon drawn, senses tuned.
Inside, the place is made of three long rows of arched stone. There are mosaic-like windows of heavy leaded glass throughout the building; the ones on the right gleam a hellish red from the flames consuming that side of the city.
A breeze marks your passage through the building, causing the candles to flicker in your wake. Their light is pure; you think they must have been made of the best beeswax. Some of the candles are burnt almost completely down, but others are tall, and can only have been lit very recently. Not all of them are the same size, and you have no sense of how long they burn.
On the dais, at almost the far end of the building, you can now see a large stone block that might once have been carefully placed, but now is cast aside and broken. Beneath it there is a stairway, leading down. The candles nearest the stairway are also flickering as you approach.
A moment to enjoy the odd quiet after the crackling inferno of the city. Then take the tallest candle and descend into the shelter underneath the dais. With any luck, whoever lit the candles is hiding down there and can explain some things.
The flames play with greater urgency against the glass mosaics in the windows. If there is method, pattern, or message in the particulars of which scenes are lit in what sequence, you do not find it.
You head down the stairs, which turn into a longer spiral staircase carved out of the rock below the cathedral. Down, down you go, interminably, until you feel as if you are no more than a speck--the essence of Robin's willpower going forward to the end of this path. The silence is complete and the illusion that you are but a disembodied point of sentience is strong.
After an immeasurable time, when you had almost forgotten that there had ever been a top to the stairs, you find yourself at the bottom. You stand in the doorway to a small guardroom, a small guard is seated at a table, leaning his chair back on two legs and propping it against the wall. Next to him is a rack which holds supplies, mostly oil lamps.
He sees you and speaks, dropping his chair to the ground and beginning to stand. "Who are you? What are you doing down here?" Guarding must be pretty easy around here, as he has not yet drawn a weapon or made an alarm. On a prominent hook behind the guard's station hangs a large key, almost a foot in length. It is the only decoration on the stone walls.
Before you can answer, you hear a rumbling and a blast of air throws Robin forward, across the room. You drop your candle but are safely clear of the collapse in the stairwell behind you. The dust settles and you can roll over and sit up. There is enough light from the torches in the corridor to see, vaguely, in the guardroom. You can't find your candle, but you do see several of the oil lamps from the rack. You can't tell from here if the entire building fell down the shaft or just enough to block the doorway, but it seems as if the stairway which you descended is blocked by rubble.
The guard has not yet moved; he is lying slumped over his little table.
Robin gets a lamp and, staying wary, tries to revive the guard.
On closer inspection Robin does not have the gifts to revive the guard. He is ace-down in a pool of his own blood on the table and will require no more help, ever.
She also takes the key, figuring the guard isn't well enough to stop her even if alive, and see if it fits anything.
The key is large and well made, although perhaps not designed for an over-precise lock. It is very thick and looks like it could stand up to some serious turning pressure if necessary. You notice when you pick it up that you've got blood on your hand from inspecting the guard.
The short hallway leading out of the room is covered in dressed, regular stones. The cave it opens into is not. It is vast, going beyond the reach of your lantern. Far across the cavern you see a figure moving deliberately, lit by a brilliant red glow. He goes down a side passageway. You follow, going as quickly as you can, but you cannot catch up. He passes several barred and grated side passages and a few open ones and eventually disappears.
When you finally catch up to him, you find a door---many feet tall, bound into the living rock, and splintered into giant rough beams as if his by a bolt of lightning. The door still smolders and swings as if the damage were recent.
Inside the room, you see the figure clearly. The chamber is the great chamber of the pattern and it holds the family's great artifact. The last time you were here, the Pattern was lit from the center to the edge, lighting a room that even you could not fire an arrow across.
The pattern is only half illuminated--from the start to the point where the man walks. As he comes your way, you recognize him: Corwin. He is writing the pattern but it is wrong. Subtle differences appear in several locations.
You watch from the edge, unable to interfere, as Corwin completes his work. He looks around for a moment and the red glow that had accompanied him since you first saw him fades. A second later so does Corwin.
Standing in his place is Random, holding a crossbow. He points it at you and fires.
[Random is at center of Pattern?]
[looks like Random!]
[But did it look like center, was the question.]
Robin ducks and rolls. If that works, then while he reloads, she calls, "Your Highness! Don't shoot! I am Robin of the Rangers!" But she's ready to duck again if need be.
Random's bolt strikes you -- he's faster than you -- but passes harmlessly through your body. (Or perhaps his string was wet. ;)
He doesn't get a chance to reload, though, and you don't get a chance to stand up. As he moves, there is a sudden groaning in the earth, and the floor of the Pattern Chamber cracks in two. The fissure starts near your feet and passes through the center of the Pattern all the way to the other side of the room, or at least as far as you can see in the rapidly dimming light.
On Random's face, you see a look of alarm and then a moment of terror, as he falls into the chasm. Then the darkness overtakes both of you, and you think the ceiling is collapsing from the sounds, although you can see nothing.
Then something strikes you in the head, and it takes you down into the darkness too, and the world with it.
Last modified: 5 Apr 2006