They’re a few days out of Chicago when the car finally sputters and dies. When they first climbed into it, it was a huge V8 beast, all gleaming black metal, creaking leather, and an engine thrum that flowed into the body through floorboards and seats to settle in the chest cavity like a good bass beat. Two days and countless shadows later, with the forest closing in around them, the car is an ancient lacquered coffin on thin wooden wheels. Talion’s concept of transport doesn’t quite encompass horse and carriage, so this simple machine has taken them as close to Amber’s outskirts as possible. This is the end of the road, at least for powered transport.
Glory glances at Talion to check that the stop was expected, and when she sees no alarm on his face, scans the surroundings herself.
“So I guess we walk from here?” she asks.
She unzips her duffel bag and retrieves a gun, but before Talion can say anything about it not working near Amber, she’s thumbed a switch on the side and a pair of crossbow wings snap out. She cocks the string and drops a bolt in the groove before opening her door and hopping out.
Talion stoops and watches Glory from his seat, ducking low to watch her as she takes a few steps away from his pathetically horseless carriage. His brow furrows, and he makes a small grunting noise.
Glory stands a moment, and looks about herself. Trees tower into a blue sky, and the closest ones aren’t even the biggest; they rear into the sky in the middle distance, and on the horizon – the land rises here, so the view is foreshortened – on the horizon the trees seem to reach the clouds.
She turns, and sees Talion watching her. She waits; Talion stares. After a some moments, she looks about again, and shrugs. Talion shakes himself, and creaks his wooden door open. It sticks, halfway, and he’s forced to kick the entire wooden panel off.
“So,” says Glory. “Walking? I’m guessing,” she gestures up the climbing ground before them, “that-a-way?”
“Uh, yeah… That’s, uh… Arden.” Talion waves a raggedly-gloved hand to the trees. “Or a part of it. An echo, of… “
“Yeah, a shadow, I get it. Weird, but…” she looks at Talion, seeing so much of her own father. “It makes a kind of sense.”
“Well, sort of. Arden’s quite real, and it’s one of Amber’s main lines of defense. So it’s guarded.” As they walk, the trees close in around them, the day’s light tingeing to green and dappled shade. “But you’re with me, and I’m…”
“This is where you’re from, I know.”
“Well… Sort of. But just keep that bow-pistol at your hip.”
Glory smirks, a wry little half smile that conjures near-forgotten memories of another person, another time, and another place, all lost now to the storm. ”So you’re not sure if the locals will remember you,” she says. She starts off up the hilly path, and Talion realises with a pang that she doesn’t check to see if he’s following. She simply trusts that he is. “Are these people bribable, or ‘shoot first’ types?”
Talion’s brows slowly meet in the middle of his forehead, and he makes a noise as he slowly sucks his lower lip. Glory turns, but he doesn’t say anything – he just… makes this odd murmuring sound.
Around them, the trees continue to grow, and while they’ve seen some impressive sights on the way here, the very… forest-ness of Arden is both impressive and more than a little oppressive at the same time. Through the upper canopy – it must be a hundred feet or higher now – Glory can still see the sun, but down on the ground it’s something closer to twilight. On the verge of the path, to either side, solid blocks of shadow seem to detach from the vast knotted roots and slither away and into the gloom. As her hand almost starts to wander back the butt of her pistol of its own accord, Talion clears adjusts the pack on his shoulders and clears his throat.
“Not bribable, no – no I don’t think that would work at all,” he says, the words slightly rough around the edges. She’s noticed that his voice still doesn’t seem all that… worn in. “Arden,” and he waves one leather-gloved hand around them – ”is the domain of, uh, Princess Julia. Amber is a very political place, but Julia prefers her trees.” He pauses. ”She’s not alone out here, though. There are at least… three groups of rangers, I think, and there are her, um… well she has these gorillas, see, and…”
“Uh, yes, mandrills or something – I saw something like it in a zoo once long ago.”
“Yes, they kind of… swing through the trees, and they’ve got these really nasty teeth, and they’re quite loyal to Julia.”
“Something like that, yes.” Talion looks ahead, leaving Glory with the distinct impression that he was somehow… embarrassed. As if this were the best story he could come up with.
“You’re making this up.”
“No,” says Talion, looking quickly at her, and just as quickly away. “No! It’s just… I figure I’m telling you about this Amber, and magic, and demons, and all that, and here it’s… well, it’s gorillas.” He shrugged. “It’s bit of a let down, really.”
“No,” says Glory, and they walk on a few paces. “Always wanted to see a magical forest gorilla in its natural habitat.”
“Ah,” is all that Talion can think to say.
Thankfully, the trail narrows, as it starts its climb up towards Jones Falls, and he moves forward to take the lead. There are little rills of water falling from the rocks now – not running water, per se, but just the constant damp micro-climate of Arden. The path – Talion knows there are others, easier ones, but this one will make it easier to spot if they are being followed – becomes little more than a series of rock steps, and soon they’re both reduced to making the ascent on hand and foot. After an hour on the path, Glory stops.
After a moment, Talion leans against a particularly hardy mountain pine, growing right out of the path. “Um?” he says.
“So,” Glory replies, “about those magic gorillas?”
“I think a couple of them are following us.”
“Oh. To be honest, I’d be surprised if they weren’t,” Talion says, and turns back to the climb. “This is, I think, one of the lesser trails, so it’s odd for anyone to be using it. Even odder for anyone to be leading in someone from out of Shadow, like you.”
“So, is this a wise course?”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Talion says. He ignores Glory’s snort of a reply, and goes on. “But unless I’ve been gone longer than I thought, then they should still know me here, and last I knew I had right of passage in and out of Amber. So I figure they’re just making sure everything’s fine.”
“And they’ll be making it harder for anyone who may be following us, right?”
The path twists around a large stone outcrop up ahead, and then twists back to run between it and the solid earth of the ridge itself. The shadowed space is noticeably colder, and the travellers splash through puddles as they traverse the momentarily flat space, before taking up the climbing path again. Only now, there is a bright space a few dozens of yards above them – the top of the trail. Light cuts through a hanging haze in the branches of tall trees, and the the leaves and bushes of the hardy undergrowth clinging to stone and stubborn dirt.
The climb gets steeper in the last few yards. Talion looks back to give a hand to Glory, but in the pause she actually climbs past him. She’s breathing heavily with the exertion of the climb, but hasn’t slowed her pace. As she clambers onto the last rock ledge, and stands, Talion lowers his pack, heaves it up beside her, and then joins her looking out over the green valley, its tumbling river, and beyond…
“So that’s Amber?”
“That’s Amber,” Talion says. “That’s… home.”
“Looks like Disneyland.”
“Disneyland. With the mouse.” Glory turns, cocking her head on its side as she looks at Talion, like someone would look at a dull child.
“Riiight. Smaller than a gorilla,” Glory says, raising her brows and nodding slowly. “So,” and she gestures downslope.
“Right. This way.”
Talion leads them down. Again, the air is damp, but not forest-damp. After a few paces the source of the dull rushing roar – that Glory has heard for the last half hour, but only now really notices – becomes obvious. To their left is a great rushing cataract, a spewing foam that seems to rush out of the side of a broad mountain face, before crushing hundreds of feet to a pool and river below.
“That doesn’t make any…”
“You’ll get used to it.” Talion takes a moment, and then spots the hint of a path down a tumbled talus slope. “This bit’s a little–”
“Tricky, yeah, I’ve seen worse,” Glory says, leaping from rock to rock and quickly overtaking Talion. “Anything else I’ll need to get used to? Apart from the obvious disregard for geology?”
Talion looks back at her, knowing she’s hinting at… well, him, but ignores the jibe. “Uh… It’s a long list. I’m still working my way through it.”
“I’m a big girl. Indulge me.” She doesn’t hear the sharp intake of breath from behind her, or, if she does, she ignores it.
“Um. Okay, well, there’s a royal family.”
“Oh, like Downton Abbey!”
“Ah… sure. And they’re… powerful.”
“Are they popular? They seem pretty popular in Britain.”
“Sounds juicy. So, is there a King?”
“A queen. She’s… hard to read. I can’t tell if she likes me, and since I–”
“You know the queen?”
“Well, not well, I know her sister a little better, I–”
“You know the Queen’s sister,” Glory laughs out loud. “And you didn’t think that would be a good place to start!”
“I’m her brother, kinda.”
Glory stops, windmills her arms a moment after checking herself midleap, and turns to glare back up the slope. For a moment, Talion fears the entire rockface may slip and slide away, crumbling under her glare. “And you didn’t think,” Glory says, sans laughter. “That mentioning you’re a prince would have been a good place to start?”
“Well… what difference does it make?”
“It…” She purses her lips, before blowing them out in frustration. “Okay, given circumstances… I guess maybe not much.”
“And she knew your father.” Glory notes now a certain look upon Talion’s face – that of a man that figures the only way out is now through. Glory’s glare grows even fiercer, and Talion takes the opportunity to check the webbing of one of his packs as he leaps past her, down a couple more larger boulders, and onto a damp, flat landing beside the foot of the falls. “This way.”
“Whoa whoa WHOA there, cowboy!” She takes the same path, though with a degree more finesse. She opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. She stops, her eyes glancing from side to side. “‘She’ knew my father? ‘She’ the queen, or ‘she’ the queen’s sister who you sort of know?”
“Uh, yes. The second.”
She screws up her face in annoyance. “Wait. The queen’s sister you sort of know, who you are kind of a brother to, is the person who sent you to get me, yes?”
“So this sister of the queen is my long lost aunt Evie? Evelyn Flaumel. My father’s wife. Is a princess. A world-walking magical princess who lives in a fucking castle on the side of a mountain that makes no geological sense, beyond a forest ruled by the princess of the gorillas?”
“That about sums it up.”
“You could have told me this in the first place!”
“I thought it would complicate things; and that you wouldn’t trust me.”
She narrows her eyes at him. “Just for the record, you are sounding way too much like my real dad right now, and it’s freaking me out.” She huffs loudly and passes a hand across her eyes.
Talion doesn’t say anything, but there’s a slight lift to his shoulders.
“Okay. Those guys who you were afraid were following us,” Talion nods. “They were the same ones that had me framed.”
“And you came to rescue me… why? I mean, Evie had been gone for years, so what changed?”
Talion holds his arms out from his sides, and lets them drop.
“Well, prince talkative, I guess we can work it out later.”
Talion stops, and Glory can see even from behind that he is looking to the heavens, pinching the bridge of his nose. He turns around, looks at Glory, and…
“Just for the record, this is weird,” Glory says.
Talion actually laughs. Glory lapses into a contemplative silence, thought Talion can see her lips moving as she goes over some private memory.
He starts again, leading them along the bank of the river. To their right, and more or less west, the great valley leading up towards Garnath. Left, and across the river, the main road over Jones’ Falls, switching back and forth across a rocky, grassy slope. Ahead, one of the outlying towns, and then… A wall, a tower, then a bridge, spanning a deep and fast running flow. Talion picks up the pace, Glory’s muttering behind him letting him know he’s not lost her yet.
The path is pretty obvious, so he slows a moment, to look about. They’ve left the Mandrills behind, so Talion’s pretty sure that there’s no one that could have followed them further than that, but at the same time…
They pass through the town – he doesn’t even know it’s name – and march on to the bridge.
“I see we have a bit of a ren fair aesthetic going on here,” says Glory. Talion glances back at her. He notes that she’s vanished the pistol away somewhere, and is now carrying the duffel in one hand rather than slung over her shoulder. “Although nobody seems surprised by jeans and leather, so I guess they see a lot of visitors from weird places, yeah?”
Glory trots up to walk beside him. “So. I’ve been to a lot of different places, and cities like this always have one thing in common – people trying to sell you shit. Only nobody here is trying to interest me in their bread sticks or their taxis or anything.” She pauses briefly, just in case Talion has anything more substantial to offer than a shrug, and presses on. “You know what this is like? Walking around a war-torn country with my dad in his uniform. Everybody knows what you are–” here she gestures at Talion “–and they’re kind of not sure whether they should be afraid of you or not.”
They pass through Amber City itself, and here Glory falls silent. At every hand she sees something to comment on, points, opens her mouth, and then… another sight, another smell, another…
“What was that guy?”
“Which one? The Chinese dude in the Second Dynasty armour, with all the sighing girls carrying parasols for him? THAT GUY!”
“Venway. They’re… vampires I think.”
“Oh, of course they are,” Glory says. “And what’s…”
She falls silent as they reach the landward stair, which zigs and zags up the outer face of Kolvir’s collapsed caldera. He’s not proud, but needing some time to think, he makes a rapid ascent. Glory does well to keep up, but keeps her breath for the climb.
Eventually they reach the broad plaza before the castle proper, and pass through the great gate and into the courtyard of the palace. The sounds of the city drop away, muffled and baffled by the massive stone walls.
“Wow.” Glory stops walking, looks up at the fortress in front of them. “Now that is a proper castle. And the architecture’s kind of half familiar, you know?”
Talio just stares at her. “It’s … a building.”
She makes a face. “Judging by the wear on these flagstones, and the patina on the walls, that building is over a thousand years old. But… But a building that old shouldn’t look like this… There should be extensions in different styles, and bits where it’s been fixed with more modern materials, and… And…” She waves her arms helplessly. “This looks like…” She glances at Talion, looking either confused or worried. “It looks like the guy who built it still lives here.”
“Not for the last couple of years,” Talion says, nodding awkwardly to a saluting guard. He notices Glory opening her mouth, her brows in the now familiar state of perpetual questioning. “And no, that one’s too complex even for me.”
“But I think he did live here for… a couple of thousand years before Queen Erica took the throne.”
The guardhouse behind them, Talion leads Glory across a wide courtyard between two crenellated walls, one overlooking the city, the other Amber’s harbour. Glory is heading in that direction, her eyes agape at the variety of craft bobbing in the swell below, and just as fascinated by the fortress palace dominating the harbour’s center. But now she spins on her heel and shoots and accusing look at Talion.
“Wait. Are you saying that all these magical kings and gorilla princesses can live… forever?”
“Um, that’s not what I was saying, but I guess… yes?”
“So you will too?”
“Figure so.” And, to Glory’s eyes, he doesn’t look too pleased at the prospect.
“And Aunt Evie.”
“Yeah. She… Yeah.”
Glory stands her ground, peering at Talion through pinched eyes. “So you bring me here, and while all of you are going to traipse around with your magic swords forever, I just get to die.”
Talion’s eyes go wide, and he marches across the flagstones before putting a tentative hand on her shoulder. She flinches – almost turns to leave, in fact – but right now he looks so much like her father that it hurts.
“I am really sorry that this is such a shock, Glory,” he says. “I am sorry that Flora… That Evie left, that your father died, and that you’ve gotten caught up in this. But I would never, ever bring you here just to hurt you like that. You can leave if you want – there are caravans and ships leaving here all the time, and I am sure you can fit right in. I won’t stop you. But I don’t know what you’d find out there, either. But here,” Talion continues, pointing at the ground between them, his shoulders hunched in quiet intensity, “here you can find something else, and you can be in a place where you have friends. People who care about you. And believe me, Evie does. There are… sides, lots of sides here. There’s politics, and manoeuvres, and… it’s all over my head. Evie, though… she’s involved, and I trust that she’s on the right side of things. So if anyone tries to stop her acting, like by letting her know that you,” Talion stabs his finger at Glory, “are now in play, then I’m going to stop them. And if they keep trying to hurt her, or you, I am going to hurt them.”
It is a promise, and it’s more words than Glory’s heard from Talion since she met him… days ago. And on top of that, it’s more than a little… intimidating. Around the pair of them, birds wheel and cry above the city and the bay. Servants pass them by, curtsying, even though Talion plainly doesn’t even see them.
“I… I don’t know what to say.”
“Yeah, I feel that way a lot too. Come on, Evie’s not far.”
There is sun pouring in through the window of the hall. There are dust motes swirling in the beams of light, disturbed by the speed of Glory’s passage. There is a clenching in his chest, of something he’s almost forgotten, or wished to forget.
Flora has thrown her arms arms around Glory and the two hold each other for what seems to Talion like a very long time. When Flora lifts her head from Glory’s shoulder her eyes are wet, but there is such joy on her face. Her gaze settles on Talion, and he sees her mouth a thank you.
There are other people in the hall, this being still technically breakfast time. The servants are being politely oblivious to the display of affection. To either side of the chair so abruptly vacated by Flora sit Madoc and Llewella, the first gaining a better view by leaning back in his chair with his arm across its back, the second ignoring them and aimlessly pushing food around her plate. Across the table, Erica is smiling indulgently.
Talion watches the servants conduct urgent consultations about where to put the extra two place settings. There is a great deal of whispering and head shaking.
Glory and Florimel are talking softly now, standing face to face, hands intertwined. Madoc straightens in his chair and then pushes it away from the table. He collects his glass and plate and moves to sit beside his sister. This produces a flurry of movement from the servants, who are mildly horrified that the prince is doing such things himself. He looks mildly amused as an overzealous maid fusses over him, arranging new cutlery. Two new places are set; one beside Flora in the spot vacated by prince Madoc, and the second, at a gesture from the queen, to her left.
Erica turns that indulgent smile on Talion, and nods at the new place beside her.