Sunlight on my face woke me. The warm rays energized me, and with a surge I leapt out of bed. Stretching, a nasty bruise on my right arm caught my eye. The fight in the library came flooding back. I examined myself, tried a few jumping jacks and push-ups. Nothing was seriously hurt, my cuts and scratches were minor. Experience suggested the bruises would be gone tomorrow.
The room's furnishings were spartan and sturdy: bed, desk, chair, and chest of drawers. A fresh change of clothes awaited me on the latter. The servants had been very quiet, or perhaps I had been to tired to hear. The outfit was exactly my size, and I wondered if Chorovius was right about having hired help.
The castle was quietly awake as I wandered down to the kitchen. They didn't have any bagels; I settled for french toast smothered in maple syrup.
Elise was in the dining room, working on a stack of pancakes. Between bites, she said, "You were in the middle of that fight last night."
"Yeah. I successfully managed to not rescue Flora."
I explained my exploits from the previous evening.
She laughed softly. "You underestimate yourself. It sounds to me like you and Chorovius were heroes."
"We just did what anyone would have done." She gave me a sharp look and I shrugged. "Well, any family member, at any rate. Speaking of which, what happened outside the library?"
"I was awoken by the sounding of the alarm. By the time I'd thrown something on and picked up my sword the halls were already crowded." I couldn't picture her with a sword.
"I somehow got turned around in the confusion and wound up heading for the great doors leading down to the Pattern. As I approached I heard the sounds of battle. In front of the doors, Michael and Tristram were fighting shoulder to shoulder, surrounded by a swarm of I-don't-know-what's. They looked like a cross between the monsters under the bed in a children's story and something out of a nightmare."
"Were they winged females armed with daggers and ropes, and taller horned males with tails and curved swords?"
"Most were like that. Seeing them, I hesitated. For a moment I considered going back, and actually took a step or two up the stairs. Then I swallowed my fear and continued down.
"Michael and Tristram must have been fighting for some time before I arrived. There was a pile of dead bodies around them. I got there in time to see the creature who must have been the leader of the horde step forward. There were a few that were larger, but this one seemed to ooze power. The rest of the monstrosities stepped aside and let him through.
"I've never seen anything like him. Ten feet tall with the head of a bull, with scales instead of fur. His torso and head were crimson; his legs were covered in dark brown fur. He was naked but for a breastplate of some strange metal that glowed green in the hall's lantern-light. He carried a huge ball-and-chain mace, and he made straight for the stairs down to the Pattern.
"Tristram was engaged with two of the bat-winged reptilian looking creatures, leaving Michael to face the horned one's charge alone. I lost sight of them in the whirl of bodies as I fought my way through.
"By the time I arrived, the whole thing was over. There was only the stench of sulphur, gore, ichor, and Michael's corpse." She stared at me sadly. "He was just a boy! This never should have happened."
"It may take a while for us to regroup," I said. "But I'm sure there'll be hell to pay for this." I thought of something else: "Did the creatures reach the Pattern?"
"No. Thanks to Michael, they didn't get any further than we did yesterday."
Chorovius showed up after Elise left. "Top of the morning, Roland."
"About time. We've got a football game to catch."
"What and where?"
"Marine City vs. Marysville, Corwin's world."
"Deal. Is there time for me to grab some grub?"
"I'll check." I pulled out my trump of Dave, concentrated.
Dave's picture came to life. "About time, Roland. Lady says the band's playing the national anthem."
"Okay, one minute." I turned back to Chorovius. "Better grab some rolls and come on."
He grabbed an entire basket of rolls and placed his hand on my shoulder. Looking back at the trump I said "Pull us through."
We materialized in my house. "Let's hustle, eh?" Dave said. He quizzically accepted the rolls from Chorovius, who followed me upstairs. I headed for my room; Chorovius ducked in the number one guest room, where he has his own drawer in the dresser, and some shirts in the closet. In about two minutes we emerged, and raced downstairs.
Dave was waiting for us, half-eaten roll in one hand and trump of Lady in the other. "Damn good chow," he said.
Chorovius grabbed the basket, he and I placed hands on Dave's shoulders, and we were there with Lady, out in the woods behind the stadium. The crowd roared. "Opening kick-off," Lady mumbled, as we sprinted for the gates.
We slowed down just in time to arrive with a semblance of decorum. The couple taking the tickets were happy to see me. "Roland! How have you been?" Mrs. Dunn asked me as she rubbed Lady.
"Busy, but well," I said. "Think we can win tonight?"
"This year is the one!" Mr. Dunn replied.
We strolled over and took a place at the fence, about fifty feet away from the bleachers. Marysville was already driving. "Old man," Chorovius said, "isn't this the team that roughs up Marine City every year?"
"Marine City won in '86."
"That was, what, seven years ago?"
"Nine. But Marine City has their best team in years. If they've ever got a chance, this is it."
Dave whistled impatiently. "So, what's happened? Where'd you get that horrible bruise?"
I sighed. "Let's see. A whole bunch of us showed up, ate dinner, danced, and schemed. Then a bunch of demons popped in and we fought. That about sum it up, Chorovius?"
"So," Dave asked, "did you see Random's coronation?"
"No, and that reminds me." I looked at Chorovius. "What did you mean by that crack about `Regent of Amber' last night?"
"You can't really see Random as King, can you? He is, by all accounts I have ever heard, almost the only male member of the family who has no claim on the throne."
"Assuming that the throne goes to the eldest legitimate male child. They talk a good show, but there's no such precedent in Amber. Considering that they all have centuries of experience, age wouldn't seem to be an issue."
Chorovius sighed. "Secondly, he would appear to be the least suited male of his generation to hold the throne."
"What, you'd take Géerard or Julian over Random? Hmmm."
"Most importantly, no one saw Oberon die. We are mythic creatures, Roland, all of us, for better or worse. Creatures of myth and legend don't die in the wings or off stage. If we die at all."
After a good start from Marine City, Marysville clawed its way to the a two touchdown lead. The Mariners fought back valiantly, but with eight minutes left, they desperately needed a field goal. The kick had plenty of height, but the aim was a little off. The ball hit the upright and bounced towards the middle; it hit the crossbar, and bounced back out.
Some days are just like that.
Two trumps and a change of clothes later, I was back in Castle Amber. "So," Celene said, "I hear you're a hero."
"Sigh. I suppose everyone has heard by now."
"Well, I don't know for sure that Llewella's heard."
"I deny everything."
"What, you didn't hold a naked Flora in one hand while fighting off an army of succubi with the other?"
"Not quite." Better change the subject before my face turned red enough you could notice it through the freckles. "What was your role in the big event?"
She didn't have any freckles to hide her blush, so she turned away. "Slept though it I'm ashamed to admit. By the time I knew anything was going on, it was all over."
I wandered down to Benedict's gardens. I needed to think, and this seemed to be the place for it. It was sparse, and totally intentional; every rock, bush, branch, and leaf carefully placed, designed to promote peaceful reflection.
Instinctively I found myself siding with Random. It was easy to see why I was against the terrible twosome; Gwynfarr and Biscilla had done nothing to endear themselves to any of us. As for Random, he'd really done nothing but feed me. He did seem nice enough, though his talk of responsibility scared me. From what I had heard, he had lived hundreds of years without any.
The others? His brothers I had little respect for, at best indifference. Géerard, maybe, was the best of the bunch, the honest, simple sort of person I could understand. Corwin could write a catchy tune. The sisters were still an enigma to me, though I had my doubts about what Fiona was up to.
My male cousins were a sorry lot. Except for Chorovious, of course; it was still hard to think of him as a cousin. The women? Elise was nice; Celene, less beautiful but more wickedly appealing.
"Thank you again," said a soft voice near my ear.
I whirled. "Perry!"
She was wearing in a simple pastel dress that contrasted sharply with her battered appearance. Extrapolating away the bruises, you could see she had inherited her looks from Flora, deep blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair. But that hair was short and unpretentious; she played down her looks. What a refreshing contrast to our cousins!
"Hope I didn't interrupt you?"
"No, I was just pondering. In fact, maybe you can help me."
"Anything for the prince who saved me from a fate worse than death."
Oh, yes? "I'm trying to figure out exactly what happened yesterday."
"Sensible. Where do we start?"
"What kind of guards were posted when you came to dinner yesterday?"
Perry gave me a puzzled look. "There were two guards at the drawbridge, and two more just inside the portcullis. Why?"
"When Chorovius and I got here, there were no guards posted."
"Exactly. That was when Gwynfarr and Biscilla showed up. I'm just wondering if it was some sort of inside job."
"Hrmph. And that brings up our next question: who was behind the attack last night?"
"You have any enemies?"
"No." She thought a moment, then shook her head again. "No."
"You're Florimel's daughter, right? Might they have been after just the two of you?"
"I don't know who'd be an enemy."
"Tell me about yourself."
"I was born in Kashfa, the daughter of a local noble. I never really got to know anyone there; we left when I was very young. I grew up in a place called Rubyatt. Florimel kept a house there. Mom made lots of enemies, but not those kind of enemies, if you know what I mean."
"So there isn't anyone who would gun for you and Flora?"
"I don't think so." She considered. "Well... Mom once mentioned somebody called Jasra. It was the only time I ever heard her curse."
Mother, daughter, a clear and reasonable connection there. "Who was Michael?"
"I only met him once or twice, at formal functions. The fact that he was Julian's son was a secret of sorts; Julian never formally acknowledged him. But he clearly doted on him." Perry chuckled. "According to mom, only three things ever `thawed out Julian's heart': His horse, his forest, and his son."
Hmmm. If my theory was right, Michael was just an unfortunate who got in the way.
At lunchtime I was called into the small dining room. At one table, Random spoke in a low voice to Celene, Malachi, Collin, and Maximilian. Chorovius, Baldric, Perry, and Elise sat at another and talked quietly. Ian and Kierin sat at a third, glaring at the rest of us.
It dawned on me then that Rinaldo was missing. Diane and Tristram, too.
Random noted my arrival and indicated that I should sit. I winked at Chorovius's table and sat down with the redheads.
Random cleared his throat. "I've gathered you here to ask for your aid in the upcoming conflict. Last night there was a major attack on this castle. Many of you played an important role in defending this place, and I thank you for that. But I fear the struggle has just begun.
"Benedict and I have drawn up a plan for your involvement in this affair.
"Malachi, Collin, Celene, Perry, and Maximilian. Your magical abilities make you vital. You will stay here to fortify the castle, and then probe for the source of the invasion."
With the exception of Celene, my tablemates looked at me. I shrugged. Perry was probably getting the same treatment at her table. At least she was considered "vital".
"The rest of you will represent the family at the coronation of Duke Coranado of Kashfa. He is the elder half-brother of the dead king and was quite the warrior in his day. That was some time ago, and he is nearing the end of his natural days. Not that he'll make it that far, if some of the other noble families get their way.
"Kashfa is Amber's closest ally. And it is the most likely path for an invasion of Amber from Shadow. As such it is critical to us, and to those who oppose us."
I was quite disappointed to learn that we couldn't use a trump of Kashfa because of the construction of the magic shield. I didn't understand why we couldn't go out before it was up, or ride a little ways out and then trump, or something like that. I suspect they just wanted us to learn the lay of the land.
I warily eyed the horse I had been assigned, a beautiful Appaloosa. She peered back at me, perhaps wondering what she'd gotten herself into.
"Now, treat her right," the stableboy was saying. "None of that hard stuff."
"Don't worry, I'll take care of her."
I rode out to join the others. "Could you possibly have taken any longer?" Kierin asked.
Ian had to throw in his two bits. "Warning your damn red-headed friends?" He wheeled his horse around and took off, Kierin following quickly behind.
Elise looked back at me, from her position between Chorovius and Baldric. "I suppose we should follow," I said as I joined the three.
"Actually," Elise said, "they're going the wrong way. The route I know starts to the south of the city."
I glanced at her two escorts. Both shrugged. "Lead the way," I said.
The day was living up to the promise of the sunrise. We rode through the city.
As you may have already gathered, fall is my favorite season. I once went so far as to hike for a month, shifting slightly each day to follow the peak color. I thought I'd seen the best the multiverse had to offer.
This ancient forest proved me wrong. Trees older than my world filled our sky with delicate shades of red and gold, backlit by a bright sun. Our horses' hooves crunched on the fallen leaves, but where grass still showed it was a healthy rich green. The smells of fall filled the brisk air, odors I loved and strange new ones that perfectly complemented them. I wondered how the fruit in the trees would taste in a pie. Antique apples, indeed.
I knew someone who would like this view, and I pulled out her trump.
"Roland! Is something wrong?" Lady started. She lay on the dock, watching sunrise over the river.
"I'm fine." I opened up my mind and let her see my view.
"Where are you?" she gasped.
"Forest Arden. Nice place, isn't it."
Chorovius and I were deep in discussion, the latest installment of our long running conversion on the nature of shadow and pizza, when Baldric reined in his horse. "This looks like a good place to bivouac, what?"
I looked around, realizing just how late it was. The glade Baldric pointed at was barely big enough for out tents and horses. But I could hear a brook babbling nearby. It would do.
"What lame kind of campsite is this?" Kierin taunted.
"The kind that's about to have a good fire going," I said, dismounting. I looked my horse in the eyes, decided she could be trusted, and shoed her to the edge of the clearing. She needed a name.
Elise, Chorovius, and Baldric climbed down to join me.
Ian circled our clearing, while Kierin drove his horse into our group, separating out Elise. "Hey, babe," he said, "what's cooking?"
"Yeah," Ian chimed in, "you gonna make it worth our while to come down?"
"I must ask you to stop using that tone of voice with the lady," Baldric said.
"Or what?" Kierin sneered. "You're a big man, Baldy. Got the guts to take me on?"
While Kierin faced down Baldric, Chorovius and I instinctively split up and headed for Elise. Chorovius made it, but Ian cut me off.
"Redhead bastard," he sneered. "This is a trap, isn't it? Your spineless friends going to ambush us here?"
"Baldric chose the spot, not I."
"We all know about your redhead mind games. A feeb like him was probably putty in your hands."
"Didn't you see him talking on the trump earlier?" Kierin cut in. "That's undoubtedly when he specified this place."
"Ridiculous!" bellowed Baldric. "I assure you the decision to stop was mine."
"Oh?" whirled Kierin. "So you're in on this too."
"Yes," I said, "you've found us out. Random gave us secret orders to get rid of the idiots, and you seemed a natural choice."
"And," said Chorovius from behind, "Elise and I have decided on the method: Roland's cooking." He held up a wok with some packages in it.
Elise finished the thought. "Death by Kung Pao chicken."