It was the morning of the second day after the incident hit King Random. Benedict really didn’t have time to do this, but it was important and he wasn’t really contributing to the investigations. He would’ve preferred to keep an eye on things, especially after Fi’s (deserved) blowup at Caine, but he was going to have to trust them to play nice and get the job done.
As he ascended the stairs from the troops’ gear storeroom to the fourth floor residences, he thought back on the past few months. It was no surprise that Amber was under threat again – he’d lived long enough to realize that any peace in the kingdom was mere illusion and delay. This may be the shining citadel, a crystalline perfect exemplar for all Shadow to echo. But Oberon’s plan was never for peace or stability; it wasn’t in his (or Dworkin’s) nature or heritage and nothing Eric, Corwin, Random or anyone else could do would change that.
Nor was it Caine’s prophecy that bothered him; the family had long been embroiled in plots hinted at by ‘mysterious higher powers’. Indeed, Tir had brought him an unearthly arm at a fortuitous moment only to take it away later at an equally unfortunate time. The Trumps were an ancient device predating the Pattern and all of Shadow and, though he really didn’t begin to understand their true workings, he’d be foolish to ignore their potence.
It wasn’t even the new nieces and nephews coming out of the woodwork, or his promise to Eric fulfilled sooner than he was prepared. Perhaps a bit convenient in timing – clearly orchestrated by someone or something unseen given recent evidence. But not all that troubling.
No – the thing that was gnawing at the back of his skull was far more personal. He could never really abandon Amber – that was, after all, the point of the morning’s exercises. But in the past, he sure as hell would prefer to be away from all the petty squabbling, the rivalries, the posturing and positioning in court. He had seen all the attempts at killing brother, sister, father, nephew. All the bargains and backroom politicking that led to unwise treaties, resentment of deals fallen through, assassinations and other recriminations. He’d even participated in the lot many many years ago. But he’d lost his taste for the machinations long ago; taking to long escapes into Shadow just to avoid the family business. It just didn’t work for him anymore. Or so he’d thought.
Recently, however, his mind – or some other equally fickle organ – seemed to betray him. As much as Bleys’ plotting or Florimel’s positioning or Caine and Fiona’s bickering and one-upsmanship made him sick to his stomach, he also began to see a bit of the old lust for the game creeping back in. Perhaps it was the simple fact that he was more experienced; did know a lot of the answers. It was only rational that he want to take charge on those grounds alone; put these foolish pretenders back in their place. Maybe it was just a desire for the challenge again – to rule someplace where it really mattered and not just Avalon or any of the other countless Shadows he’d made his own – through conquest, benevolence, worship or terror.
Whatever the truth, he felt he probably needed this hike as much as his charges.
He knocked on Cilantreau’s door first. Bleary eyed and resentful for being awakened at such an early hour, but eventually compliant. Sorell next; more grousing, but reluctantly agreeable. Kovaks keen to participate. Nella – hungover, but excited. Claudomir – ready and dutiful; a bit perplexed. Finally, Kyra – awake, vibrant and eager to go.
He’d intentionally overloaded the rucksacks and made a point of complicated layered clothing. The short hike up Kolvir was nothing any of them – even the elderly-appearing Cilantreau – shouldn’t be able to handle without even breaking a sweat. So throw in a slightly complex set of heavy-ish gear to help bolster both the challenge and the enigma. Reactions to apparently pointless hardships was part of what he was looking for.
Martin met them as he headed toward the back entrance and out through the gardens. Whether Random’s or his own, it was actually a pretty good idea for Martin to accompany them. He’d normally prefer delivering this lecture solo, but the boy’s presence might just help punctuate a few of the finer points.
The last of the court gardens was his own, stylized after Zen gardens from a hundred Shadows. He’d put centuries of work into it, meticulously sculpting every branch, twig, trunk, pond. In many ways, this exemplified the message, but it was far too personal for anyone other than himself to understand. No use pausing here; with the short time they had, the only one that would really benefit was himself.
So out through the back trail and up the side of Kolvir. Branches would lead to the Grove of the Unicorn, the ridge leading to the base steps of Tir Na Nog’th, others down towards the sea. But the one he sought was very specific – to a headwater far above the rest of the realm. He met all questions with a stony silence, setting a brisk enough pace to discourage a lot of talking amongst those behind him. Martin was looking a little less yellow than the past few days; the hike would help him recover and it would probably mean he’d have to deal with the cousins more. Good.
They neared his destination: Loch Cuimilt an Scamaill – a crystal-clear lake far up the side of Kolvir; the highest source of the main cataract that spilled down past Amber and out towards the sea. As they rounded the crest, the snowy peaks of Kolvir glowed in the mid-morning light and cast a brilliant reflection across the waters perfectly framed by the blue/green pines and firs and juniper scrub higher up.
Again, practically wordless, he bid them all sit in a semi-circle facing the lake. Martin assisted, then took up his position on the crescent. Benedict walked to the edge of the water, then found his seat facing his bewildered pupils. The last push had been particularly vigorous, so they were all still breathing somewhat heavily – exactly the place he wanted them to start from.
He paced slowly in front of them, pausing to look at each for a moment, trying to draw them in. Behind him, a perfect mirror of Kolvir’s remaining ridge framed him across the lake. “Take a few deep, slow breaths and relax”, he said. The crisp odor of evergreen, a touch of earthiness and clean mountain mist was nearly overpowering at this point. “Close your eyes and listen…” – an eagle’s cry punctuated his sentence. From the distance, sounds of the sea and town far below were just at the threshold of hearing.
“Now stand and open your eyes as you turn around,” he continued. The group slowly took their feet and were met with a glorious view of the valley below, stretching all the way to the sea in the East and Arden through the South. Amber’s golden spires were blinding in the morning sun and the city was full of busy ants selling their wares, leading horse and cart to market, marching down to the now toy-like great ships along the wharf. All senses threatened to be overwhelmed; the group teetered over something instinctively Important.
Benedict rounded the group on the other side, regarded each as the gazed at the Castle and the world stretching outward below. “This is the center. This is Real. This is ours. Yours! This is why we fight.” He paused as an even greater seriousness came over his face. “If you ever threaten her or betray her, I will hunt you down to the ends of Shadow and destroy you. I hope you will instead learn to love and defend our home as I have.”
The silence was deafening as each took in his words and knew he could, and would, calmly execute on every syllable if needed.
Martin shuffled across to stand next to him. Aside Benedict’s piercing gaze, he was almost insignificant, but he drew himself up and, eventually, began to speak. “Um, look. I can’t really threaten you or bargain with you or anything like that. But I can say that Brand and his allies came looking for me with the intent to end all of this. He stabbed me and bled me and almost destroyed everything.” At this, he paled, bit his lip, then continued. “But I managed to survive. And more importantly, we fought back and kept him from wiping this all out. It IS worth fighting for. It IS everything. And I am PROUD to be one of its defenders.” As he spoke, he seemed to grow in stature; almost standing as tall as Benedict for a moment. But finishing, he swallowed hard and relaxed down again.
One last glance at each of the assembled, then “Let us not speak of this again.” Benedict began the long walk back down the hill.
After a half hour or so, Martin broke the silence, dragging a hunk of bread out and started munching and commenting about the beautiful weather of the day. More smalltalk ensued and the group – quite hungry by then – joined in with a slow traveling breakfast.
As they passed down and back toward the city, Cilantreau asked whether anyone had ever tried base jumping from Kolvir, remarking that it might be an excellent way for deploying a force from the mountain. Martin said he hadn’t heard of anyone attempting it – and both he and Random were rather keen skydivers and pilots. They returned to the back of the Castle just as Random, flanked by Fiona and Bleys, came out to greet them. Random – looking much recovered, but still somewhat gaunt and with the shock-white hair – met them with a smile. “All set then?” Benedict nodded.
“Let’s get this show started…” Martin trailed off from the group; his current business ended. The procession marched down through the great Dining Hall to the narrow back passages that led down beneath Castle Amber and deep into the rock of Kolvir. Random and Bleys took point, carrying lanterns and torches and nodding to each guard. Fiona took the middle of the pack and Benedict brought up the end. Even without the energetic hike and promises of life and death sharply given, there was a lightning charge in the air…