| "Is he dying?"
"Say that he is not, sister! Oh, do!"
"Hush, hush, give him room."
"Look at him … have you ever seen the like?"
"Give him room, I said, Prydwyn."
"I didn't touch him, Guenloie, don't be cross with me."
"Can we touch him yet?"
"All of you, back! Lidoine, for shame, lay a finger on him now and I'll swat some manners into you."
Hands on him nonetheless. Slim, female hands. Corwin groaned as they probed, found pain. He dragged his eyelids open. They felt leaden, felt stone. Immediate light pierced into his brain. Flinching, he tried to raise his arm to block the radiant blue-white glare, but could not.
The hand left off jabbing brutally at his ribs and seized his wrist. "Be still, stranger. You are sorely hurt."
"He's very handsome, isn't he?"
"Away with you, all of you." It was the same voice that had cautioned Corwin to be still, the same one that had been warning off the others. A female voice, with tones of authority and age far in advance of the others.
He sensed them around him, a fluttering crowd. In the impossible brightness, he had only shadowy impressions. Whiteness. Movement. Rustling. If he'd been cold, he might have thought himself caught in a blizzard. But, though chilled and drenched, he was not freezing. He felt warmth, shelter from the elements.
Blinking repeatedly, he tried to accustom his eyes. A shape bent over him. The hands moved again, over his skull as though feeling for deformities. He winced, and winced again, as the fingertips found sore spots that shot silvery lances deep into him.
He swallowed. The lining of his throat was raw from coughing, brackish with sea water, and Corwin concluded that whatever else had happened to him, he must have nearly drowned.
It struck him then that he had no memories. He knew his own name, he understood the speech of those around him, he understood such concepts as 'blizzard' and 'sea water' and 'drowning,' but he did not know where he was. Or how he had come to be here.
Or, indeed, who he was. Corwin, yes, that was his name. And he presumed that he must not be ill-favored, for one of the onlookers had called him handsome. Even in what must be an injured and bedraggled state.
Such light … such brilliance … it seemed that something should be happening to him. Some change. Something as natural to him as drawing breath.
"I want to see, let me see him, no one ever lets me see," declared a youthful-sounding voice, sulky, pouting. It was followed by indignant bleats and squawks, and a sudden flurry-storm of papery snap-rustle-whip noises.
"Quit pushing, Blancheflor!"
"Get off my foot!"
"My dress! You've torn it, you wretched girl!"
The presence before Corwin was gone. "Enough! Enough, all of you, to your perches!"
He had a blurred impression of flapping conflict. Something flew at his face, white against white. Instinctively, with reflexes that surprised him, he caught it from the air. It weighed next to nothing. Light as a feather. Which, of course, it was. He could feel the stiff quill, the satiny texture.
"Out," ordered the authoritative voice, from a greater distance.
Corwin heard protests, and then the heavy slam of a door. A deep silence fell.
During the few moments that then passed, he became aware of other things. Solid stone beneath his body. A scent in the air like night-blooming flowers. A motionless sensation – land, then, not a ship.
"Forgive them," the voice said, closer now. "They are quite young, and your arrival is the most excitement we've seen in decades."
His eyes, abraded by the brightness as if it were scouring nettles, watered copiously as he tried once more to look about. "Where … where am I? What is this place?"
"Albiona," she said. "The White Isle, the Castle of Light."
"Aptly named," Corwin muttered, wiping at his streaming eyes.
"I am Guenloie, chatelaine of the castle. Have you a name?"
"Corwin," he replied, thinking that hers was an odd question. Why wouldn't he have a name?
His vision had cleared and adjusted enough for him to make out the shape of her. Tall, womanly, regal. And very white. Garbed in a snowy gown, with a cape of what appeared to be swan's feathers trailing down her back. Her head, too, was crowned in feathers.
He blinked again, rubbed harder at his eyes, and peered close.
"You're a gargoyle," he said.
Until he heard himself speak it, he had not realized that he was, too. At once, his own image arose in his mind. Golden skin, a sculpted physique, leathery wing membranes fanning from split struts, supple tail, long hair as white as his surroundings.
"Yes," Guenloie said.
They were not of precisely the same sort, he saw as his sight sharpened into the true. Guenloie's fair skin was covered in a downy fluff, which thickened to true plumage at her scalp. Her eyes were ringed with tiny feathers, the effect masklike, the eyes themselves enormous, amber-colored, owl's eyes. That which he had mistaken for a cape was instead a pair of wings, folded gracefully against her back.
Her features and figure were otherwise not avian, for she had no beak. What he could guess of her shape beneath the flowing gown was as humanoid as his own, though far more curvaceous. He could not tell if she possessed a tail or not.
She smiled as if amused by his scrutiny. Corwin averted his gaze and cleared his throat.
"My apologies, lady. I should not stare."
"Were you alone? We found no others, though we searched."
"Alone?" A grinding pain, as of stones, wracked his head. "I … I don't know. I cannot remember what happened."
"You were shipwrecked," Guenloie said. "We found you wounded and half-drowned. Although we saw debris from a craft, there were no other gargoyles."
Dread twisted through him. "I cannot remember!" he repeated, anguished.
"It will return to you. Let me tend your wounds. They are not serious, but you have suffered some grievous knocks."
He turned his head. A white cloth had been unrolled beside him, containing bandages, pots of ointment, paper-wrapped packets tied with twine. Next to it was an alabaster basin, the water within tinged pinkish with blood that seeped from a cloth draped over its rim. Guenloie picked up this cloth and resumed daubing at his wounds.
"I … I think I was alone," Corwin said. "It comes back to me now, because I had never been alone before. There had always been my clan, but one by one …"
"They died?" asked Guenloie gently.
"No … yes …" He strained his aching memory. "One did. Hippolyta. My bright sister. Or, at the very least, so we thought. But the others … one by one, they found mates. Yes, I remember now. First Cassius, who stayed with Khepri. And Ezekiel, winning his savage female. Icarus and Nadia. Even Tourmaline. She remained with Brand, with the wooden ones, the pirates. He had eagle's wings. Yes. Until then, we'd heard but stories of feathered gargoyles. I hope she finds happiness there and is rejoined someday with the egg she left in the care of Nadia's clan."
"Shh," she said, setting a restful hand to his brow. "All will return to you in time. From whence did you come? You have a Scottish look about you."
It was indeed coming back to him, and Corwin let the tension slip from his shoulders. "My clan hails originally from there, but my rookery siblings and I were raised on Avalon."
"Avalon!" she gasped, and pressed too hard against a scrape.
"Oh, I am sorry …"
"You know of Avalon?"
"How could we not?" She dropped the cloth and clutched his hands in hers. They were incredibly soft, as though she wore gloves of finest goosedown, four-fingered as were his hands, tipped with talon-like curves of claw. "Tell me, then, has he awakened? Do you know?"
"The Sleeping King? Arthur Pendragon?"
Guenloie's eyes widened, her owl's pupils dilating until Corwin did not know how she could see at all in the unwavering light. "Yes, him!"
He nodded. "Before we left. It would have been … this is 2005? It was autumn of 2004 when I bade farewell to Tourmaline, at any rate. Ten years ago, give or take."
"The King awakens! What news! What glorious news!"
"Yes," Corwin said, a bit puzzled and taken aback. "He helped to save my clan when the Archmage attacked us."
"Archmage?" She frowned, and shook her head. "No matter. This is grand tidings you bring us, Corwin of Avalon."
"I do not understand."
"I will show you, and explain, in time. First, you require care." She busied herself with salving balm, which she spread carefully onto his wounds.
"While I appreciate the attention, fair lady," Corwin said, "the sun will heal me."
He remembered now. That was what he'd felt should have happened to him, bathed in a light of unimaginable brightness.
Her head cocked quizzically. "The sun? Oh, yes, the sun. I had forgotten. We do not see the sun here, friend."
"Albiona is the sole gleaming lantern in the Sea of Shadow," she said. "Here, there is neither day nor night."
"A magical island, then, like Avalon?"
"Without a fraction of its power," she said. "This has never been a place of the Third Race, but only of mortal magic. Once, it was the refuge of Merlin."
It was Corwin's turn to be quizzical. "I thought that Merlin was a son of the Third Race."
Guenloie's laugh was what he had imagined when Princess Katherine and the Magus had spoken of the song of the morning-lark. "Goodness, no. All that business about him being sired by a spirit? Pish, tosh, what people will believe!"
"He was a human sorcerer?"
"The greatest of them all."
She had finished anointing his hurts with salve, and now began bandaging them. Her talons, though not seemingly strong enough to gouge through stone, were more than up for the task of slicing through the fine white cloth.
"So Avalon sent me here," Corwin mused. He closed his eyes. "Yes … I left Tourmaline with her new clan … took the three humans with me. The Weird Sisters, except that they were not … not entirely … and they were mad. The squids, the beast from the deep … the spellbook was destroyed, but their lives were spared. My charges. Tourmaline said that I was too prone to rescuing damsels in distress and taking pity on lost strays. Avalon took us … where? It makes my head worse to think of it."
"Drink this." She held an alabaster cup to his lips.
He hesitated. Other thoughts were intruding now. Islands peopled by beautiful bird-women … "Are you sirens?"
Again, the morning-lark laugh. "The girls would be delighted to hear that you think so."
"That's not quite a direct answer," he said.
"We are not sirens," she said, sobering and meeting his gaze frankly. "We are gargoyles, nothing more. Not harpies, not furies, not shape-changing Circes. Gargoyles in the service of Merlin, guardians of this holy place, thus we are."
"I hope I did not give offense."
"I doubt that you could. You are welcome here. No harm will come to you, on the shell of my mother I swear it to be so."
He accepted the cup. Here was the source of the night-flower scent, mixed with honeyed mead. A nostalgia swept him – it was akin to the ambrosial draught of Avalon. He sipped it, and a refreshing ripple coursed through his weak and sore limbs.
"When the mist lifted," he said, remembering more, "the ship was in a wine-dark lake. There was a hill, and a tall iron fence, and a building like a vast grey stone fortress. Lights burned in the windows. Light cut by dark lines. Bars. The women knew the place. An asylum. Dark, strange, frightening. After what they'd been through, with the sea monster and the spells and all, I couldn't imagine they'd want to go someplace as ominous as this, but they seemed to welcome the sight of it. Perhaps they felt safe. I carried them over the fence, left them there, departed before I was seen."
"And you were alone?"
"And I was alone. How odd it was … no clan, no one else at all."
"Well," Guenloie said, "you are not alone here."
"How many are your clan?" He felt well enough to stand, and let Guenloie lead him toward the large door through which she'd shooed the others. It, like everything else here, was white. White planks of wood bounded with white-enameled metal.
She pushed it open, and a babble of conversations fell still. Corwin heard once more the rustling of gowns and feathers as those waiting in the room turned as one to look at him.
The room soared to a cathedral's height, with perches and shelves and balconies all about. The windows in the ceiling were too bright to look upon, as if a noonday sun – or what Corwin thought a noonday sun must be like – beamed through the swirled silver-golden panes of glass. Yet no shafts of light stretched to the floor, the illumination even and uniform.
Clean light surrounded the flock of gargoyle maidens. They were all, like Guenloie, of a fair and feathery appearance. Some were like swans, others eagles, others owls, but all were white, and dressed in white. These ones were all, to his discerning eye, much younger than the chatelaine.
"We number three score," Guenloie said.
"Are there no males in your clan?"
At this, many of the young females clutched at each other and giggled. Some flashed shy smiles at Corwin, others surveyed him boldly.
"Ah …" Corwin said, with an odd tightening of the throat.
His tail twitched nervously. Glancing down at himself, he was at once relieved to see that his loincloth had survived the shipwreck, and dismayed that it did not cover more of him. It was a mere scrap of cloth, vividly red in this scene of purity. He also became aware again of the itching brine drying on his skin, the strings of kelp caught in his hair.
"Girls," said Guenloie, quieting the gigglers. "This is Corwin of Avalon. He is a visitor here, and welcome. Corwin, these are my charges. I'll spare you the introductions now, for you must be in need of sustenance and rest."
"I am in far more need of a bath," he said humbly. "I fear I am a dreadful sight."
A murmur of negations, and more giggles, swept the room.
Guenloie clicked her claws sharply. "Prydwyn, Sebile! Bathe our guest and see to his needs."
Two of the girls sprang up, beaming, while the rest glowered enviously at them. They hurried to Corwin, and took him by the arms before he could object.
"I'm Prydwyn," said the shorter of the two, whose rounded figure and tufts of feathers gave her the aspect of a snowy owl.
"I am Sebile," said the other, tall and thin and angular, like a great white heron.
"Pleased to meet you," Corwin said. "But, Lady Guenloie, I … um … am capable of bathing myself."
"The girls will show you to the chamber," she said. "While you are away, the rest of us shall arrange a feast. There shall be music, and dancing!" This last was directed to the other girls, whose disappointment was quickly mollified.
"Don't worry," chuckled Prydwyn. "We don't bite."
"Ladies … um …"
"This way," Sebile said.
They led him down a hall, one wall of which was hung with white draperies that had scenes worked into them with white thread. He caught glimpses of a woman's arm holding a sword aloft from a pool, a group of armored men seated around a table.
At the end of this hall was another large room, this one perfectly round with a ceiling that was a dome of white marble. A shallow basin, fully fifty feet in diameter, rose on a short but broad pedestal. The basin brimmed with crystal-clear water that sparkled in the constant white glow. The floor all around it was strewn with benches, small tables, shelves, stools, and bins of folded cloths.
"Thank you," Corwin said. "I can manage quite well from here, thank you."
"Nonsense," Prydwyn said. "You've been hurt. You can't very well expect us to leave you alone. Suppose you suffered a relapse, and lost consciousness? We could never allow that."
"Honestly, I am feeling much better."
"We only wish to help." Sebile grasped his belt.
Corwin skipped backward out of her reach. What had possessed him to wear such an absurdly small loincloth? That in itself was bad enough; he could hardly remove it in front of these girls.
"We are Guenloie's apprentices," Sebile chided. "Trained healers. You may feel better from the medicine, but your muscles –"
"Muscles, yes," cooed Prydwyn.
Sebile shot her a look. "Would benefit from a massage. We are trained in that as well."
"Ahem, yes, of course," Prydwyn said, her expression slightly abashed.
"A bath will suffice," Corwin said. He was fighting the urge to conceal as much of himself in his wings as he could.
"You would not insult us by refusing our help," said Sebile.
"Perhaps his clan is shy." Prydwyn opened her luminous eyes wide. "Perhaps he's modest."
"Hardly that, not my clan. I used to bathe in the river with my rookery brothers and sisters all the time."
"Then there's no harm in it." Sebile reached for his belt again.
"Your leader, your chatelaine –"
"This was her order," Prydwyn said.
They had cornered him. His back was to the raised rim of the bathing basin, and short of bowling past the two girls, Corwin had nowhere else to retreat. He jumped as Sebile's fingers hooked over his belt.
Full memory returned at once, and with it a recollection of a time when several of his rookery sisters had ambushed him.
"Ladies, there is something you should know –"
Sebile undid the buckle, and his loincloth fell away. Corwin hastily covered himself with both hands.
"You cannot bathe clothed," said Prydwyn. She unfastened a clasp at the back of her neck and shrugged out of her garment. It slipped to her feet and she stepped out of it, her ripe curves covered with down that thickened into a maribou puff at her groin.
"I'm flattered, truly I am –"
"We were told to bathe you, and bathe you we shall if we have to drag you into the water," said Sebile. She, too, had shed her gown. Her body was as long, lean, and angular as it had seemed, yet not at all without grace.
"Any of my rookery brothers would give a wing to be standing here with two such lovely females," Corwin said. "But I fear I am not what you expect."
"Bath," they said together, pointing peremptorily at the basin.
With a sigh, a shrug, and a skyward rolling of the eyes, Corwin gave up. He seized the rim of the basin, vaulted up and over, and splashed into water as cool and silken as the air of an autumn night. It rinsed the brine from him, sluiced deliciously over his skin.
Moments later, he was joined by the two females. They had paused long enough to gather jars and cloths from the shelves. Briskly, efficiently, they opened the jars and scooped out soft white soap. Then they descended on Corwin, brandishing the cloths.
He held still and let them wash him, kneeling in water that reached his waist while they soaped his chest, arms, back, and wings. Prydwyn stood behind him, her ample breasts cradling his neck, while she lathered his hair and pulled tangles from it with an ivory comb.
"You'll have to stand now," Sebile, crouching before him, said.
"Ah … um …"
"Stand," she said, waving the cloth. "I must wash your legs."
"And tail," Prydwyn said, sliding her sudsy hands down his spine to grab the base of it.
"Ladies …" But there was no arguing with them. Corwin stood.
A momentary frown crossed Sebile's face as she beheld the rest of him. Prydwyn, seeing her friend's expression but not the reason, leaned around to look. She gasped, and made a small sound. Disappointment? Perhaps … Corwin knew that any other male would have been standing turgid and at attention in the wake of such treatment. Not dangling, as he was.
No one spoke for a long and awkward moment.
"I assure you, ladies, it is not for any lack on your part," Corwin said. "You are both exquisite, extremely attractive."
"He has been through a lot," Prydwyn said. "Injured and nearly drowned."
"Yes," said Sebile. "Yes, that must be it."
"Or he has marvelous self-control."
"That could be."
They continued washing him, but no matter how sensually they applied the soap, they failed to elicit the desired reaction from him. He knew he should tell them the truth of himself, yet couldn't seem to find the right words. Strange; it had never been a problem before, once he'd understood his true nature. Now, he was curiously tongue-tied.
When he was clean, Prydwyn and Sebile made a show of bathing together, lavishing the same sort of embraces and caresses on each other that they had on him. He watched appreciatively, though not so appreciatively as they clearly hoped. To his eyes, they were beautiful, sensual, and of no lustful interest to him whatsoever.
There still seemed no good way of conveying that without upsetting them. He kept his silence instead.
He eventually dried and retrieved his loincloth. But, finding it ruined after one too many dunkings in the salt water, one too many battles against the elements, he kept the belt and threw away the scrap of red cloth. He fashioned a new one of white, making sure that this one rode higher on his flat belly and covered more of his backside.
Sebile and Prydwyn observed this process, whispering between themselves as they donned their gowns. Corwin, ridiculously, blushed. But the oddest thing was that something in their conspiratorial exchange left him with the distinct, if nonsensical, feeling that he had passed some sort of test.
They returned to the main room, which in just that short a span of time had been transformed. Hangings, carpets, and cushions – mostly white, but woven through with dawn-colored threads of sky blue, rose pink, buttery yellow, mild lavender – decorated the walls and floor. White-glazed pots held flowering bushes with pale green leaves and cream-colored blossoms.
Tantalizing aromas and sweet music filled the air. Some of the girls played harps, flutes, and mandolins in a trilling melody like birdsong. Many of them wore floral garlands around their necks and waists, and jewelry of ivory, diamond, and pearl.
Guenloie came to meet them as they entered, Prydwyn and Sebile once more clinging to Corwin's arms. A silent message passed between the two maidens and the chatelaine. He knew what it must be about – that he had not only failed to seduce them, but that he hadn't even made an effort. He blushed again, and found that same loss for words preventing him from explaining.
All the same, he thought that this news either pleased or impressed Guenloie. She nodded in satisfaction before opening her hands to him with a welcoming smile.
"Corwin, come and dine with us. Let the girls entertain you. We have not been gifted with an audience in a long while."
"How long has it been since you've had visitors?" he asked as she led him to a heap of silken cushions. "What happened to the rest of your clan? The elders, the males? Hatchlings?"
"Blancheflor is the youngest of us," Guenloie said, indicating a petite female who couldn't have been more than twenty-six years out of the egg. "I am the eldest."
He opened his mouth to say that hadn't been much of an answer, but changed his mind. "You have no contact with the outside world? With humans?"
"We are safe here," she said, evading again. "Will you take wine, or mead?"
Two maidens, bearing fluted crystal jugs, approached. A third presented Corwin with a goblet of some opalescent stone, and batted her long feathery lashes at him flirtatiously.
"Wine, thank you."
The chatelaine took some also, and sat beside him, near enough that the edges of their wings touched but not so near as to be uncomfortable. Corwin then found himself subject to a veritable parade of young beauties. Each paused before him, offering a tray or a platter. Some demurely downcast their eyes – he was powerfully reminded of his sister Elektra. Others turned smoldering gazes on him, or blew kisses when Guenloie was looking away.
He had not thought much of food yet, but all at once his appetite was raving. He sampled everything. The food, like the rest of this place and its inhabitants, was primarily white in hue. Bread as fluffy as clouds. Pale, mellow cheese. Moon-fruit sliced so thinly that he could see through it. Fish that melted on the tongue. A confection of frozen sugar and cream whipped into foamy peaks. The wine was sweetly fruity, heady.
"Are you angels?" he asked abruptly.
Guenloie gaped at him, then laughed her morning-lark laugh again. "Angels?"
"You did not list them among the others." He gestured around. "And this … you and your maidens … it is all exceedingly celestial. I should wonder if perhaps I did drown and die in the shipwreck. That my body has gone to gravel, and my soul sent here."
"And this, you think, is heaven?"
"If there is such a place, as the humans seem to believe, it must look like this." He diplomatically did not add that his personal idea of heaven would have been slightly different in terms of the populace. And, thinking on that, he wondered but also did not say that perhaps this was his personal hell.
"You are very much alive, Corwin of Avalon, I promise you that," said Guenloie, leaning close to him. Her breath was fragrant with wine, her eyes rich jewels. "And we are not angels, not divine spirits, but as real as you. See?"
So saying, she brought his palm to her breast. He felt the rapid hummingbird beat of her heart.
The maidens watched, avidly, jealously. Corwin stammered, aware that he was sitting here with his hand firmly pressed to the bosom of their leader in full view of the entire flock.
"I believe you," he said, gently reclaiming his hand.
The moment passed. Guenloie's demeanor changed back to the brisk and professional one of before. "So, tell us of your Avalon," she invited.
Corwin did, beginning with what he knew of his clan's history. The battle at Castle Wyvern, the curse upon great Goliath, the princess' flight from her cruel cousin Constantine with the precious cargo of eggs, the Magus opening the way to Oberon's mystical island. He told of how he and his rookery siblings had grown up there, loved by their human surrogate parents, fearing nothing, wanting for nothing. Of how their idyllic life was shattered by the Archmage, and how they had fought back with the help of Goliath, his human mate Elisa, and the Sleeping King.
At this mention of Arthur, every last member of the maidenly flock twittered and chirped and exclaimed. They hung on his every word, and looked distraught when he reached the point in his tale where he knew no more.
"He set off from Avalon on his own," Corwin said, "wishing to learn more of the world. I have since heard from members of Goliath's clan that he befriended gargoyles in London, and retrieved his sword."
"Excalibur," they murmured in unison, even Guenloie.
"And Merlin?" Prydwyn asked. "Has he found Merlin?"
"You told me that Merlin was a mortal man," Corwin said to the chatelaine. "Surely, after all these centuries –"
"A mortal man, but a mighty wizard," she said. "Merlin has not died. He has gone by many names and guises lo these countless years, but always, there is Merlin."
"What does he have to do with this place? You said it was once his refuge. Where is he now?"
"Elsewhere," she said with an unconcerned air.
"How long …" Corwin started to ask. "No, heed me not, I suspect I would rather not know. But what do you do here? Do you wait for Merlin? For Arthur? When I told you he had awakened, you seemed overjoyed."
"Of course! Arthur Pendragon is the true and rightful king. Once he has gathered back to him his sword, his advisor, and his knights, he will restore the gods of Britain to the land, and bring peace."
"I'm the first to admit I don't know much about politics," Corwin said, "but I'd think that the current monarchy might have something to say about that."
"But enough of this talk," Guenloie said, waving him off. "Let us have music. Do you dance, Corwin of Avalon?"
"At the risk of boasting, I have partnered Queen Titania herself."
"Then surely you will favor us with a turn across the floor."
He set aside his plate and goblet, rose, and extended a hand in his most gallant manner. "Only if you will honor me with the first dance, my lady chatelaine."
To the music of harps, flutes, mandolins, and song, they danced. Guenloie was exquisite, and Corwin complimented her extravagantly. She had no sooner released him than was he claimed by Prydwyn, and Sebile, and maiden after maiden until he could no longer keep track of them all.
At last, when he was so tired he could barely keep his feet, he pleaded for a rest. It felt as though he'd been dancing forever. As if time was meaningless here. His instincts told him that dawn surely must have passed long ago, yet there was still no sign of the sun, no turning to stone.
Guenloie was immediately contrite, apologetic. "We have been selfish, and I am sorry. No more for now, girls."
Grumbled protests and pouts greeted this, but a stern look from Guenloie sent the flock scurrying about to tidy up. Corwin yawned so hugely he thought his jaw might pop from its hinge.
"Where would you like to sleep?" Guenloie asked, twining her arm through his.
"Have you battlements, parapets?"
"Yes, but you cannot sleep there. You'd risk a fall."
"Oh … yes … I've never slept as such before. I'm not sure how."
"Let me show you to a nest." She led him from the room, several pairs of birdlike eyes watching them go, a ripple of petulant mutterings following them out. "Don't mind the girls, Corwin. They can't help being silly over you."
"I promise you, chatelaine, they are in no danger from me."
She glanced sideways at him. "You haven't, I hope, mistaken us for a convent of celibates."
"We've sworn no such vows."
"And it does get lonely here, all this time with only each other for company. Toss a handsome male into the mix, and the next thing you know they'll be flinging themselves at you."
"Indeed," he said dryly.
She laughed. "As Prydwyn and Sebile already have, I trust."
"Again, my lady, on my honor I did not –"
"I know. They were quite cross about it, too. But it is to your credit, Corwin. Not many males could have resisted."
"They are most comely. Every one of your clan is a beauty in her own right. But they are not … to my taste."
"We are not all of us young, silly, and inexperienced," Guenloie said, stopping him in a shining hallway and turning to face him. "Some of us are older, wiser, and learned."
"I'm sure that you are."
"Perhaps that is more to your liking?" She took a step toward him, wings spreading, one leg emerging from a slit in her gown that he had not previously noticed.
"You misunderstand me, I'm afraid," he said.
"Are you, then, under some vow?"
"Not … not as such," Corwin said.
"Will you kiss me?"
"That much I can do," he said. Taking her hands in his lest they do any untoward roaming, he bent and brushed an affectionate, brotherly kiss on her softly-downed cheek.
When he drew back, Guenloie was studying him thoughtfully. "You intrigue me, Corwin of Avalon. I have never met a male like you."
"Never?" he asked, rather dolefully.
"You are weary. Here, come and rest." Resuming her place at his side, she escorted him to a circular room with clear-paned windows that looked out on a sky of a smoky twilight-blue.
The central feature of the room was a nest, though not like any bird's nest that Corwin had heretofore seen. It was vast, woven from milky stalks of soft grass and twists of white cord. Above it, hanging from a crystal-tipped ceiling finial, were long gauzy panels of white, pale blue, and dove-grey. These formed a sheer tent around the nest, and stirred in the breeze created by Corwin and Guenloie's entrance.
Along the walls were low cabinets and drawers that curved to follow the arc, with handles that looked like platinum and a level, smoothly finished top that was nearly glossy enough to serve as a mirror. Not that it would be needed; an oval mirror in an ivory frame was mounted above the drawers.
"Would you like me to stay with you?" Guenloie asked. "Until you fall asleep? I could sing to you."
"I'd like that," Corwin said, and added, "though as tired as I am, I'm apt to be asleep before you finish the first verse."
He climbed into the nest, finding folded blankets of wool that might have been carded from pure white clouds. He felt foolish lying down instead of taking a fearsome warrior's stance, but he couldn't deny that it was blissfully comfortable.
Guenloie settled herself beside him, lightly caressing his chest. She began to sing a low, sweetly haunting tune of Merlin, but as he'd warned her, Corwin's eyes closed and he drifted away before she had finished the first verse.
He woke later, refreshed, though conscious that his injuries still ached. Ordinary sleep was no healing match for that of stone, it seemed. He sat up, secretly pleased to see that he was alone.
The radiant whiteness remained constant. He had no idea of the time, knowing only that he had slept deeply and now was hungry. But curiosity came before appetite. He went to a window and pressed his brow to the glass in an effort to see out.
The window swung open with a faint creak. Cool air whirled in, smelling of a fresh sea breeze. Corwin grasped the sill and leaned out.
The view was dizzying even to a gargoyle. Below his window, the outer wall of the Castle of Light plunged away in shimmering pearly cliffs, merging with a chalky bluff that dropped to the frothy indigo sea. The sky was a deep amethyst-blue from horizon to horizon, but it was a sky in which no stars twinkled, no moon shone.
Some debris was cast up on the white rocky shore. Corwin supposed sorrowfully that they must be all that remained of the Mists' Passage, the ship that Titania had given them when he and a small group of his siblings had bade farewell to Avalon. It had been their home for a time, larger within than it appeared from the outside.
Had it been a storm? That part of his memory remained faulty. As skillfully-made as the ship had been, it would have needed more than one gargoyle to steer it safely through a squall. Yet the more he thought about it, the more he remembered a calm sea, cloaked in dense silvery mist … silent and damp … and then, out of nowhere, a stomach-lurching fall.
As if he had sailed off the very edge of the world. He had seen an illustration in an old book belonging to the Magus, that depicted hapless sailors clinging doomed and screaming to the rails as the prow of their vessel tipped over a foaming precipice.
"Rubbish, the world is a ball," he told himself. "So Guardian Tom told us, and so too did Elisa Maza agree."
Nothing else broke the seascape. No other islands, no lights, no ships, not even a breaching whale or surfacing denizen of the deep.
He thought of climbing out and gliding to explore, but hastily rejected the notion. The air was not lifelessly still, but there was not much wind. It might give out on him, and there were no other places to land. He did not fancy another swim.
The ship was destroyed.
It hit home, and Corwin put his head in his hands.
The ship was destroyed, and he was trapped here.
Trapped with a flock of lovely bird-maiden gargoyles who plainly had designs upon his person.
Perhaps this was hell.
It should have been some other of his clan here. Some other mateless male. Think what his brothers would have made of this! A paradise of willing females! But no, of all the gargoyles, it was he, Corwin, to be stranded here.
"You're awake. Did you rest well?"
He turned to see Guenloie, in her brisk and efficient chatelaine persona, holding a tray covered with a white cloth.
"Yes, though I am not accustomed to waking without bursting free of my stone skin," he said. "I've been looking outside. Is there nothing nearby?"
"You never leave?"
"We have all that we need here." She smiled. "Almost."
"But why are you here, if I may ask?"
"We serve as guardians, did I not tell you that?"
"Guardians of what?"
"Break your fast, Corwin, and I will show you."
The tray's contents proved to be a meal of thin crepes filled with a mixture of white berries and cream, with a sweet but revivifying beverage of pale chocolate.
As they proceeded through the castle, Corwin looked into many other chambers where the maidens of the flock bent to various tasks. Some, like monks, copied scrolls with fine silvery ink. Others wove cloth and tapestries. They tried to catch his eye as he passed, again ranging from demure to bold, one of them artfully contriving to drop a quill and, in bending low to recover it, allowed her garment to gape at the neck and afford him a glimpse of her bosom.
Guenloie brought him to a spiral stair. "Do you feel at ease here, Corwin?"
"Not entirely, no," he said with a chuckle. "I've never been surrounded by scores of beautiful maidens before."
"Surely you must have had some attentions."
"Well, my sisters …"
"But … ah … they had my brothers to occupy their interest as well. We males outnumbered the females, in our clan."
"May I ask you something?"
"Are you … tempted?"
"By what, precisely?"
Although she remained brisk, no hint of coyness, she said, "Me, for instance."
"I … Guenloie, I do not know what to say."
"Or one of the girls, perhaps? Or more than one?"
"You are all very lovely."
"Yet you desire none of us?"
"I hope that does not upset you."
"I find it strange."
"You're not alone," he said wryly, thinking of his sisters, of Michelle Jessec, of Birdie Yale. Of poor, dear little Aiden, who'd been the one to tell him that the humans had a name for his state, yet who'd blanched with shock to learn that her own mate, Lexington, had dallied now and again with his brothers in his youth.
"What had you heard of us, of this island and this castle?" Guenloie asked.
"Nothing at all. My arrival here was as much a surprise to me as it was to you. I did not come here deliberately, though the hand of Avalon may have sent me here for purposes of its own."
"Avalon sent you," she mused. "And despite every temptation, you resist our charms."
"Do those have aught to do with each other?"
"I think that they must."
"Care to enlighten me?"
"I cannot. Not yet. But first, look here."
She opened a door, and color struck Corwin's eyes. He had already become used to all shades of whiteness and pastel hues, and here were darkly gleaming wood, burnished gold, burgundy, forest green, sapphire blue, the lustrous grey-black of good honest stone.
A short, wide set of steps descended in front of him to the floor of a long hall. Shields lined the walls, blazoned with chevrons and circles, suns and moons, boars, bears, dragons, unicorns. The tapestries here were rich with color, the figures in them so real that he almost expected them to move. Battlefields, jousts, a man kneeling before a queenly woman who crowned his helm with a wreath of flowers, a sorceress conjuring snakes from the spouting blood of a decapitated knight.
"What is this?" he breathed. Genuine firelight from torches lent genuine flickering shadows to this room. It smelled of woodsmoke and cut rushes and the memory of roast red meat.
Guenloie, her plumage more brilliantly white than ever against this darker background, indicated another doorway at the far end. "In there."
Corwin lingered at a tapestry that showed a young knight facing off against a towering figure armored all in green, sprouting with leaves and vines. "The Green Knight," he said. "And there, the Lady of the Lake. My brother Carnelian is hopelessly enamoured of her. Are these things from the time of Arthur Pendragon?"
"Yes, brought here by Merlin when the rising tide of darkness and evil threatened to swamp and undo all the good that men had done."
Awe nearly sent Corwin reeling. "Is … is the Grail kept here? The Magus used to tell us stories of how Arthur and his knights quested for the Grail."
"Not anymore. That has been in human hands for a very, very long time."
She beckoned, and he went to her. The doorway at the end opened onto a smaller room, octagonal, capped with a turret. A large table, with chairs that could have passed for kingly thrones, occupied the center of the space.
Once more, awe swept him. "Is that …"
"The Round Table? Yes. Salvaged by Merlin when it would have been destroyed, and brought here for safekeeping."
"May I approach it?"
At her nod, he did so, barely able to breathe. To behold with his own eyes something that the Magus had spoken of in terms of legend! The Round Table, so that no man might sit higher than another, so that all would be equal. It had been sliced from the trunk of a single tree, the rings of its growth marching steadily outward from core to rim.
"This tree would have been ancient," Corwin whispered, "when the grandparents of my clan were still in the egg."
The wood had been coated with some thick, clear resin, so that when he gingerly touched it his fingertips seemed to float above the surface. He stroked the tabletop, noting flaws in the resinous coating here and there. Touching these, he imagined Arthur's noble knights perhaps emphasizing a debate by hammering gauntleted fist, or the haft of a knife.
When he had drunk in the sight of the table, and walked all the way around it, he turned his attention to the chairs. Ebony, massive, so that even a gargoyle would have been challenged to lift one, they had the air of sentinels. Waiting, no doubt, for their occupants to return.
"Did you know the knights?" Corwin asked.
"Some of them."
"And you said 'not anymore' when I asked of the Grail. So it was here, once?"
"You are wise, Corwin."
"Did you know Sir Bodwyn? My sister, Tourmaline, now bears his sword."
The feathery crests over her eyes flicked, impressed. "Wise and knowledgeable, I see. And so very virtuous, too."
Corwin laughed heartily. "Virtuous?"
"Are you not?"
"I wouldn't claim to be."
"Of course," she said. "The true humility of one who is chaste."
"What was that again? Chaste? Me? Ah … Guenloie … there's something I should perhaps explain to you …"
But her head, swiveling around like an owl's, was now facing another direction and sudden alertness had seized her posture.
A tolling chime, only just audible, reached him. He opened his mouth to inquire, but Guenloie was already racing back the way they had come.
Bewildered, but picking up on her sense of urgency, Corwin ran after. They left the hall of shields and tapestries behind, and as they crossed the threshold from firelight into the even white glow, the chime soared into a resonating tone that shivered to the very marrow of their bones.
"What is that?" Corwin cried, clapping his hands to his ears in a useless effort to block the reverberant sound.
He could only read the reply on Guenloie's lips. "The boundary," he thought that she said.
And then the sound vanished, leaving the excited clamor of voices throughout the castle.
"The boundary … it has been crossed …" Catching herself, she shook all over in a way that ruffled her feathers. She took a breath. "Corwin, please go to your room, shut and bar the door, and wait there until you are summoned."
"Why? What is it, Guenloie? What was that sound? What's crossed the boundary?"
"I cannot explain. There is no time. And if you see, you will not understand."
"Trust me, Corwin! You must!" She spun him toward the corridor leading to his room, and gave him an ungentle shove. "Go, now! And whatever you hear, do not, as you love life, emerge!"
"But I –"
And there was such pleading and command in her voice that he could not refuse. He went, looking back long enough to see her spring away with her wings flaring. A great commotion filled the Castle of Light, though the tolling chime was not repeated.
He went to the room in which he'd slept, and threw the bolt. It galled him to pace the confined space, not knowing what was going on. He had been sent here for a reason, and what if this was it? What if he was missing out on the very purpose of his presence here, by being locked behind this door?
What if the castle and its inhabitants were threatened? Fancy that … him a full-grown male warrior, being locked up for safekeeping by these females! Not that he in any way doubted the capacity of females in battle – he knew far better than that, with sisters such as Ophelia, Tourmaline, and dear Hippolyta – but he had seen no weapons here, and the bodies of his hostesses were far more suited to loveplay than war.
Ear to the door, he could still hear nothing. He went to the window instead.
The view had changed. The sky and sea were the same, but now a boat was anchored a ways offshore of the bluff. A cabin cruiser, if he identified it rightly, but with a figurehead that looked out of place on a modern craft. It reared up in the shape of a magnificent black horse, with streaming mane and forehooves striking combatively at the air. Gold were its eyes, and golden its collar, and written in stark black letters on the white of the hull was a word. A name. Llamrei.
Corwin did not know what it meant, but he understood Guenloie now. Someone had crossed whatever barrier existed to keep this island castle sheltered from the rest of the world. Someone whose ship had not plunged to a splintering doom as if off the edge of the earth, too.
His nerves hummed and sang with danger. He could not, and would not, hide behind a bolted door and leave Guenloie and her maidens to face this unknown threat on their own.
She had been so earnest … had she put a guard on his chamber? He dared not even peek. It would have to be the window.
He went to the sill again, the drop looking more daunting than ever. Here and there, the sheer white wall of the castle was broken up by other windows, but he saw neither ledges nor balconies. He climbed out, opening his wings to the scant breeze, and jumped.
Right away, he knew it was a mistake. The updraft was not strong enough to lift a leaf, and the best Corwin could hope for was a controlled descent. He spiraled down, hoping that he would not have to dig his claws in. It would seem a shame to mar that pristine white surface.
As he rounded the castle, he saw a tall archway with a portcullis, and a drawbridge that lowered like a ramp to a narrow spit of white beach. The Llamrei was anchored directly in front of its little cove, which had been hidden from his sight before by the outer wall.
More of the Mists' Passage, a large and ragged chunk of the hull, was washed up high on the beach. This, he guessed, was where they had found him and taken him in. He had no memory of seeing a white island and a glowing castle looming from the waves. He must have been unconscious by then.
The portcullis was raised, the double doors beyond opened invitingly. The spectral, angelic light was everywhere. A beacon. A lighthouse.
And all at once he was thinking of bright flowers with deadly poison at their hearts, of deep-sea fish luring prey with a luminescent glow. Sirens. Guenloie had denied it, but now it was lodged once more, nagging, in Corwin's mind.
He veered away from the entrance, banking on a feeble updraft to gain some height, and circling around toward the other side. Here, the chalky stone bluff was rougher, and from above he caught sight of a pier poking out into the water.
It was not white, not pristine, but so old and decrepit that it might have been built at the time of Stonehenge. The pilings were black, slimy, awful somehow. The boards looked, even from this height, spongy with decay.
Corwin suspected that if he attempted a landing there, his feet would sink right through the pier with sickening ease. It met the land at a barnacle-crusted tongue of rock, its original whiteness buried now beneath layers of scum and sludge. This part alone of all the island was in shadow, a ridge of stone blotting it partway from the eternal light that issued from the walls.
In the base of that ridge, he thought he saw a cleft, and deeper blackness that might have been a tunnel. It was all so at odds with everything he'd previously seen, and yet at the same time so unsurprising, this dark canker in all the white purity, that he did not pause for even token inner debate. He glided down, landed on the tongue of rock – sharp-edged barnacles slashed at his feet – and inhaled a nauseating miasma of rot. It was as if some sea creature had become wedged beneath the pier, died there, and was silently putrefying.
A canker, a cavity, a festering sore. Corwin breathed shallowly through his mouth, already regretting his impulsive decision. What had Guenloie said? If he loved life? Well, he did, and here he was all the same. Perhaps she'd had good reason for confining him to his room. Perhaps she really did wish him the best. Yet he was meddling, intruding into what was clearly not his business.
The ridge of rock was taller than him, and slanted, so that the gap in it appeared to lead down into the bedrock of the island.
Tucking his wings against his back, not liking the enclosed space, Corwin proceeded inside. The stone beneath him was worn smooth, the walls rougher. The passage sloped steeply, and as he continued on he detected a new odor. One that he could not name. An itchy, sour, bitter smell. Like bleach, like almonds, like rancid butter, like none of these and all of them.
At the end of the passage, he came to a wooden door banded in iron, not painted white, and so small that he would have to duck to pass through. He tried it. Locked, but old. Rusted. The lock squealed and gave a little as he pulled on the handle.
He yanked hard, and the brittle lock fell apart in a rain of rusty metal. The door shuddered open on creaking hinges.
Cool, cellar-like darkness beyond. The smell, stronger. A single flickering flame, as of a candle. Corwin ducked under the frame, and stepped inside.
Open space around him. His eyes, normally keenest in the dark, had already become accustomed to the Castle of Light, and it took him several moments to adapt.
His first thought was of a wine cellar, great vats stored along the walls. But then he realized that the domed shapes he had taken for wine barrels were cages.
Birdcages. Hanging from iron hooks in the ceiling.
An icy splinter sank into his heart. He was suddenly sure he knew why there were no males in the castle proper. But as he moved, almost unwillingly, toward the nearest row of cages, he saw that the shapes within were not gargoyles.
They were humans.
Human males, sitting motionless on swinging perches.
None of them moved. None of them made a sound.
Closer now, Corwin saw that each cage had a placard affixed to the front, and each placard bore a name. Meleagant, Brangore, Culwch, Drudwyn, Accalon, others.
"Can you hear me?" he whispered.
No reply, no movement. They did not appear even to breathe.
Each man was naked, and they might have passed for statues if not for the lifelike hue of their skin. Their eyes stared blankly. Their expressions were slack. They looked dead.
They did not smell dead. They smelled of that same bleach-almond-bitter stench that reigned down in this subterranean chamber.
Corwin moved toward the single candle. He saw vats that truly were vats, though not full of wine. One held water, fresh, not salt. The other was the source of the strange smell. It was filled more than halfway with a clear yellow-pink syrup, and surrounded by scaffolding with a plank bridge over the open top. Above it, dangling from the ceiling, were hooks and manacles on long chains, attached to pulleys.
Liking this less and less with each new discovery, Corwin hastened away from the vat and its peculiar contents. He came to an alcove where the sole candle – fat, white, waxy – burned in a silver dish.
A tapestry hung behind it. Sweeping his gaze over its imagery, Corwin shuddered with horrified understanding.
The tapestry was divided into four panels. In the first, human males approached the open portcullis, where snowy gargoyle-maidens stood waiting and beckoning. In the second, shockingly graphic, the men and the females cavorted lewdly in every possible position. In the third, a line of naked and chained men watched in terror as one of their number was lowered, his face a rictus of agony, into a large vat. In the fourth, a line of cages, each with its occupant.
"By the Dragon," murmured Corwin. "Why? Why?"
A high-pitched cackle answered him, immediately sending his heart hammering into his throat. He whirled as a hunched shape emerged from the shadows.
The candle light fell on a woman's face, perhaps beautiful once but twisted by time into a crone's mask. She was human, stooped, with a dowager's hump bowing her spine beneath a tattered brown rag of a cloak. She leaned heavily on a walking stick as gnarled as her arthritic fingers.
"Why, he wonders?" this apparition asked in a cracked and grating voice. "Why?"
"Who are you, old-mother?"
"Old-mother? I like that, I do," she said, and uttered her cackle again. "He's a polite one, he is. I am Ganieda, though that is a name fitting a young and fair woman, not a hag such as myself. And you, gargoyle?"
"Corwin of Avalon."
"You've not fallen prey to their wiles yet, I take it."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't be daft, pretty-face."
"The females? The flock?"
"What's the matter?" She shrieked a witch's laugh. "Doesn't he like girls, this handsome fellow?"
"As it happens –"
She shrieked again, and clapped her wizened hands. "So! So it is! He doesn't like girls … he likes young men as finely turned of chest and leg as himself!"
"Tell me what this is about," Corwin said desperately. "Who are those men? What's the meaning of this tapestry? And what is your place here?"
"I am here at my brother's bidding," she said. "Merlin, perhaps you've heard of him? I'm told his reputation spans the world, but as he's the one who told me, and he's always been something of a braggart, I harbor my doubts."
"I have heard many tales of great Merlin," Corwin said. "You are his sister?"
"Half-sister, at any rate. Neither of us were ever entirely sure who our fathers were. Our mother kept her bed warm while her husband was away at war, hee-hee."
"You are a sorceress, then?"
"I am, I am. Or I was, when I was younger and stronger. Magic takes a toll on these tired old bones, pretty-face."
"Those men –"
"Are they living or dead?"
"Dead," she assured him matter-of-factly. "Quite dead, dead as a pickled herring. Dead for centuries, and pickled as well!"
"They proved themselves slaves to their lusts," she said, and cackled again. "Unable to resist the beauties of the Castle of Light, casting aside their vows to wallow in those feathery embraces, never mind their quests, never mind their oaths!"
"Quests? Oaths? Do you mean the Grail?"
"The Grail was only part of it, pretty-face. One man stood off their advances, and he was rewarded with it."
"Sir Galahad," Corwin said, fairly sure he was remembering the Magus' tales correctly.
"Such a good boy, that one, hee-hee. Pure as the driven snow, as they say. All lofty ideals and noble intentions. The girls put him to the test, though, they did. He only barely escaped with his virtue intact."
"Do you mean to say that if he had given in to them …" Words failed him, and he could only wave at the tapestry.
"Oh, yes," Ganieda said, grinning toothlessly at him. No, not quite toothlessly, he saw that she had one remaining. "They would have taken him until he could perform no longer, and then into the vat!"
"What's in there?"
Her eyes, rheumy but bright, sparkled at him. "A little something of my own brew. It goes in through the skin, killing them, a poison, but it preserves them as well. Good as new."
"They weren't worthy, were they? If they couldn't keep their minds on their holy quests, if they surrendered to their urges instead, they hardly deserved the Grail, or –" She broke off with a cough, and wagged her finger at Corwin as if he'd tried to trick her.
"It's a test, then. The maidens."
"Well done, pretty-face. You guessed it. All Merlin's idea. He knew how easily men could be led astray, wanted to make sure that only the best, the strongest, and the purest survived this particular trial. Which you've done."
"I'm on no quest! I … Avalon … I never meant to come here. And furthermore, it's hardly my purity that's spared me. Had this castle been brimming with males, good lady, I'd already be immersed in your pickling brew!"
This, apparently, delighted the crone. She screeched with mirth until tears ran down her sunken cheeks. "Be that as it may," she wheezed between gales, "Merlin set the conditions, and you have passed them. You've won."
"What have I won?" A new dread struck him. "The boat … there are others here, others come to the island. That sound was to alert the females, so that they could be ready to greet them. And … and seduce and murder them!"
"It usually doesn't take long. Even the ones who know this place must be too good to be true never protest very much."
"I have to stop them!"
"Why? It's not for you to decide their worth."
"But to kill people, to trick and kill them …"
"What of it?"
"It's wrong, that's what of it. Do excuse me, Lady Ganieda. I must go."
"You'll only anger them," she cautioned. "They might seem pretty and soft and agreeable, but cross them, Corwin of Avalon, and you'll regret it."
"I know." He rushed past her for a flight of steps leading up into the white corridors of the Castle of Light, but paused at the top and looked back. "If the Grail is gone, which Guenloie told me it is, why do others come? What else is here worth questing for? The Round Table itself?"
"She showed you the Table? She likes you, then, pretty-face. She wouldn't want you to be hurt. Stay away until they've finished. I won't tell them."
"Very well … I tried."
Not really believing she would let him go, not when he'd seen the extent of the hideous secret of the castle, Corwin ran down the corridor. He was braced for some spell to seize him, stop him, but none did.
He raced through the kitchens and storerooms, up to a long and high-arched hall that ended at the open portcullis. Through it, he could see the ship with its black horse figurehead, bobbing gently on the low surf. There seemed to be people waiting on the deck.
At the other end of the hall was an arch of white marble, its capstone set with a design of a wizard's staff across a feathery wing. Corwin raked aside a thick white curtain, startling maidens as he burst upon them with eyes ablaze and wings fully extended.
Little Blancheflor squeaked and ran to hide. The others leaped to their feet, dropping bowls of fruit and silver-strung harps.
"What are you doing here?" Sebile demanded.
"Where are they? Fiends, what have you done?"
"It's our duty," snapped Prydwyn. "Stay out of it; you're good at that!"
He did not see Guenloie, could not judge how many of the flock might be absent from this room. With a snarl of frantic exasperation, he pushed the tall, angular Sebile aside.
"Stop him," another of the maidens shouted, and a ring of them surrounded him.
Ganieda had been right … soft and harmless, they might look, but their small claws were razor-sharp. And their eyes, one and all, were those of pitiless killers.
"We'll make him lie with us," said Prydwyn, "and then he'll be ours by right!"
He hated to hurt them, but he was not about to submit. Seizing up a cushion the size of a mattress, he held it before him and used it to knock them aside as he charged for the other door.
Prydwyn leapt on him from behind, locking surprisingly strong and wiry legs around his waist. Corwin stopped fast and bent, and she sailed in a somersault over his head. She landed upside-down on a heap of pillows, entangled and thrashing furiously in her own gown.
Hurling the cushion at the nearest group, he sprang past them and out, lingering only long enough to twist the handles of the door into a knot.
The bathing chamber! He ran as fast as he could, knowing that the flock were far more familiar with the castle and could easily find another way to get ahead of him. He could hear their shrill and furious cries, and now they did seem like harpies, not angels by any stretch of the imagination.
He reached the room with the giant basin, and at first saw no one. Then he heard a voice, a male voice, sounding both embarrassed and amused.
"I'm flattered, girls, I truly am, but you've got the wrong bloke. I'm here on a quest, you see, and – I'd rather keep my jacket on, thanks – mind the hands, luv, we've only just met!"
Corwin jumped to the rim of the basin and launched himself over it, seeing a distinct shape of browns and blacks trying vainly to fend off a trio of determined maidens. Astonishingly, it was a handsome male gargoyle in their midst. He looked akin to them with his eagle wings and a tuft of hair rising like a feathered crest atop his head, but his coloring was russet and gold and warm brown.
Guenloie was not with them. He thought one might be called Lidoine, did not know the others. One of them saw him gliding at them and screamed. The other two jerked their heads up, and their hands away from the leather jacket, which the male then quickly and securely fastened.
Landing in their midst, scattering them, Corwin rose up to his full height. Tail lashing, he roared, "Leave him be, temptresses!"
"How dare you!" spat Lidoine. "Get out of here!"
"I say!" said the male. He raised his hands, palms out. "I'm no poacher, friend. I would not interfere with your good ladies --"
"Away from him," Corwin said to the females. "You'll have no victims tonight!"
"Victims?" echoed the male. He was not, Corwin saw, entirely avian in aspect. There was a leonine quality about him as well. He resembled, in fact, a griffin. Even in his confusion, he held himself with a confidence and spoke with a charisma that was instantly attractive.
"This is no business of yours," hissed another of the females.
"Resist them," Corwin said. "They'll only kill you when they've finished with you."
"That's hardly hospitable." The male jerked his head, causing his stiff lock of hair to bounce. "I'd hate to have to fight my way out of here."
A mad, flapping, screeching hurricane exploded into the bathing chamber.
"We may have to," Corwin said.
A white blur streaked down, landing between them and the onrushing flock. Guenloie threw her arms up, stretched her wings into a feathery shield in front of Corwin and the other male, and loosed an ear-splitting shriek. The maidens stumbled to a halt, tripping over each other, some going sprawling.
A torrent of accusations filled the air. Sebile and Prydwyn were pointing at Corwin, Lidoine and her companions were hopping up and down in a fine fury gesturing at the other male. Guenloie scolded them all, they argued back at her.
The griffin male stared uncertainly at Corwin, tugging on the cuffs of his jacket. "Do you reckon we're going to live through this, mate?"
Corwin grimaced and shrugged. "I'd like to."
"Yes, well, so would I. But I'm afraid that the lovely ladies aren't very keen on us just now."
"Trust me, you don't want them keen on you. I imagine 'tis fun while it lasts, but the final result leaves something to be desired."
Guenloie had quelled the others, but many a baleful hawk's glare was directed at both of the males. There was no indication now in their expressions of any flirtation. Only a blood-killing chill.
"Never understood the fair sex, myself," commented the griffin male, blanching under those combined hate-filled stares. "Baffling, really."
"Corwin," said Guenloie.
"Oh, Corwin," she said, sadly. "I told you not to leave your room."
"Now he must die!" Prydwyn flexed her claws eagerly.
"You know the law," Guenloie said to her.
"I thought that this castle, and your clan, might be in danger," Corwin said. "I could not in good faith remain safely locked up and leave you to face the peril alone. So did I think at the time. But I have seen your cellars, Guenloie. I know the truth of this place."
"You see!" Prydwyn rushed at him, but Guenloie held her back. "He knows too much, he cannot live! If he is not to be pickled, he can at the least be torn to mincemeat!"
"She's rather miffed at you, old chum," the griffin observed.
"I spurned her advances."
"Tsk, tsk. Hell hath no fury, and all that."
"Did this one refuse you, Lidoine?" Guenloie called, over the mutters and grumbling and vile swearing of Prydwyn.
"We hardly had a chance, before this fool came blundering in!"
"Would someone mind awfully telling me what the blazes is going on here?" The male looked to Guenloie. "Madam, I assume you're in charge … I am not here to … to defile your maidens. I've come on a quest."
"Are they not beautiful?" challenged Guenloie.
"They are indeed, but –"
"Do you not desire them? A bevy of willing females? Any of them to be yours, in any way that you wish?"
The male coughed as if a bone had lodged in his throat. "It is a generous offer, I must say, but no, no thank you, I think not."
"What has happened to our race?" snarled Sebile. "Have all the males gone mad? Look at us!" She stripped off her gown, urging her sisters to follow suit. Within moments, they had done so, gowns littering the floor.
Guenloie looked pained and pressed her fingertips to the bridge of her nose. "Oh, dear."
"Is there no blood in your veins?" Sebile said haughtily. "Have you no passion?"
"Passion aplenty," Corwin said, "but as I have tried to confess, you are not to my tastes."
"Why not?" asked Prydwyn. "Do you not fancy feathers, you leather-winged dolt?"
"I've nothing against feathers at all," he said. "It's … well, it's females I don't fancy."
A stunned silence was their response, as if they had simply never even considered the possibility. Then, into the silence, a morning-lark trill of laughter. Guenloie flung her arms in the air and shook her head, laughing until she cried.
"This," she giggled, "this was never addressed in our law. Oh, whatever do we do now? No wonder you remained chaste, Corwin of Avalon, despite everything we tried. And we thought you were iron of will!"
"I did try to explain," he said.
The rest of them, Prydwyn and Sebile in particular, only looked more incensed. As if now, they not only felt like failures but like fools as well, and hated him for making them so.
"And you, Griff of London?" inquired the chatelaine.
He coughed again. "As I said, madam, I'm on a quest. I was sent here seeking the Soul of Galahad. I was warned that distractions and temptations might stand in my way. Not that I expected such as this."
"Who sent you?" Guenloie asked.
Folding one hand to his chest, Griff bowed. "I am honored to be a knight in the service of Arthur Pendragon."
"The Soul of Galahad," Corwin said softly. "Finder of the Grail. So that is what else you guard here."
"Even so," said Guenloie. "We were charged long ago by Merlin to keep this castle, and to give its greatest treasure only to one who could, as Galahad did, resist our charms. Yet now there are two of you."
"I did not come here on any quest, chatelaine," Corwin said. "My arrival was by accident, by Avalon's whim, not by my own design. Griff has won through. Give to him what he sought."
"That's jolly sporting of you," Griff said. "Of Avalon, you say? My lord Arthur spent a spot of time there."
"Yes," said Corwin. "My clan was privileged to fight as his allies against the Archmage."
"You're kin to Goliath, then." Looking Corwin up and down, Griff nodded approvingly. And, unless Corwin was greatly mistaken or blinded by his own hopes, with more than a hint of interest. "I might have thought so. The Scottish lands always did produce an impressive breed of gargoyle."
"Does this mean we're not to kill them?" Prydwyn asked sullenly.
"By our own law, we cannot," Guenloie said.
"Even him?" She pointed at Corwin.
"Then he must go! He must not be allowed to stay here!"
Guenloie sighed. "Corwin, I fear she is right. Though I would welcome you into our clan, your presence here would likely cause ill feelings to fester among us."
"I would not disrupt your home further," Corwin said. "But as my ship was dashed to bits on the rocks, I must beg some other passage from Albiona."
"Not to worry," said Griff, giving him a hearty cuff on the shoulder. "You'll come with us, of course. There's the makings of a fine knight in you, I daresay, and it'd be good to have the company of a fellow gargoyle in these journeys."
"Then I accept," Corwin said. His gaze held Griff's, and what he saw there was an empathy, a kinship, an understanding. And perhaps … more?
Griff smiled, and Corwin knew in that instant his suppositions had been true. They clasped forearms, shook firmly.
"I will lead you to the Soul of Galahad," Guenloie said. She sounded glum, and her feathers drooped dispiritedly. "Girls, your clothes."
Abashed, the flock scurried to dress. Guenloie swept through them without a second look, Griff and Corwin on her heels.
"Have you always known?" Griff asked abruptly.
"Not always," Corwin said. "I began to suspect in adolescence."
The crested head bobbed knowingly. "But not really the sort of thing that was deemed right and proper among your clan? So you tried to play along, do what was expected of you. Had some disastrous encounters with females, left them hurt and confused. Made up for it by becoming the best warrior you possibly could? Taking stupid risks, getting in fights, all in the name of proving yourself, of overcoming this flaw?"
Corwin looked at him from beneath a raised brow ridge. "I wouldn't say that. I never felt that it was a flaw. Just a difference. I think it might've troubled Guardian Tom a bit, to tell you the truth, but he never spoke of it to me. The others accepted it as just part of who I was, as they accepted Deborah's singing talent, Tourmaline's temper, Jacob's swiftness, Deucalion's whimsy."
"You were fortunate, then," Griff said.
They followed Guenloie to the long hall of shields and tapestries, and then into the octagonal room where stood the Round Table. As Corwin had done, Griff skimmed his fingers over it reverently.
"Will he be reclaiming the Table, as well?" asked Guenloie.
"He hasn't said so," Griff replied. "I doubt there's a good place to keep it right now, and sad to say a lot of the seats would be vacant. None of the others of my clan are interested in taking up Arthur's cause."
"Is your clan large?" Corwin asked. Guenloie had vanished through a narrow doorway, and he could hear her rummaging amid items that thunked and clanked.
"No, no, there's but the nine of us. Hart, Bors, and Leo. Una and Draga. And the little ones. Equua, Drake, and Fawn."
"Here it is," Guenloie said, emerging with dust on her feathers and a large golden signet ring cupped in her palm.
The ring was set with a milky stone, which seemed to glimmer with the same sort of ever-present radiance as the Castle of Light itself. Heraldic sigils surrounded this jewel, and images of swords, plumed helms, lances, a chalice spilling forth rays.
"Is that truly his soul?" asked Corwin. "Literally?"
"His soul is contained within," said Guenloie. "As Merlin tells it, when Arthur seemingly died, this his most faithful and enduring knight wished to die as well. But as Galahad had been touched by the power of the Grail, he was immortal."
"And a bloody nuisance it was," Griff said. "He thought it more a curse than a blessing, the poor chap. Doomed to go on, unchanged, while everyone he'd ever known aged and died. I've had a bit of a sampling of that sort of thing myself, skipping out on a good half-century, and it's no treat."
"From what I've heard of the ones called Demona and Macbeth," Corwin said, "they'd likely agree with you."
Guenloie picked up the thread of the tale. "So he pleaded with Merlin, and Merlin agreed to divide his soul and his body. Of course, without the soul the body cannot be, so it fell away to bones and dust."
"Which," said Griff, "are entombed beneath Westminster, in catacombs dating back before the Romans came to Britain."
"While his soul was placed into this ring." Guenloie held it up. "Asleep, and unaware of time."
"And when the two are rejoined?" asked Corwin.
"Galahad will live again," she said, and placed the ring into Griff's hand. "Ever true, ever pure, ever loyal."
"In other words," Griff said, examining the ring, "a bit of a lofty fellow to live up to. Probably insufferably heroic and all that. Una says it'll right put me in my place, having him around."
"You should go, now that your quest is complete," Guenloie said. "I'll see you out, lest the girls try some mischief. They'll be impossible now that our main function here is ended."
"What about you?" Corwin asked as she led them through the corridors again, down toward the entrance hall with its raised portcullis. "What will you do, Guenloie?"
She shrugged and became intently fascinated with the cuff of her sleeve, plucking fastidiously at a loose thread.
They saw none of the other maidens, heard only whispers and fluttering that told them they were being watched. Corwin was ready for some display of feminine pique, the jilted female in full spate, but nothing happened by the time the three of them had reached the tall archway that looked out onto the drawbridge, the beach, and the anchored ship.
On deck, the same two figures could be seen looking to shore. The castle's light glinted on the scrolled and ornate breastplate of one, and lent a frosty sheen to the long white hair of the other.
Guenloie uttered a wordless warble of joy. She ran down the drawbridge, leaping from it, soaring into the air.
"Makes that look bloody easy, doesn't she?" groused Griff. "I had a time of it gliding over here."
"Perhaps they've hollow bones," Corwin said.
"Best not lose this." Griff tucked the golden ring deep in a pocket, then offered Corwin a sidelong grin. "Ready? I know what a trial it must be, leaving a veritable paradise like this –"
"Your humor is only exceeded by your wit, my friend."
They sprang skyward, fighting for altitude in the lackluster currents of air. Guenloie reached the ship well in advance of them, eliciting alarm when the armored man that Corwin took to be none other than the Sleeping King himself drew a shining blade that could be only the fabled Excalibur. But the other figure stopped Arthur before there could be violence, and by the time Corwin and Griff landed on the deck of the Llamrei, Guenloie was joyfully hugging the second of the two figures.
"That's enough, my dear, I'm not as young as I used to be," he said, setting her back from him with a smile.
He was an imposing presence, tall and thin, clad in rich robes of deep purple sewn with gold and silver stars. His long hair and longer beard might have been fine-spun from wisps of cloud. His face was lined and careworn, but wise and kind. Behind gold-rimmed half-moon spectacles, his eyes twinkled brightly.
"You have neglected us, Merlin!" chided Guenloie, wiping glad tears from her eyes.
"I suppose I have, but in my defense, I've been fairly busy."
"Merlin," breathed Corwin.
Griff, meanwhile, knelt to Arthur and presented him with the ring. "My quest was successful, my lord, and no thanks to either of you for warning me in advance. Telling me I was best suited for the perils, without a word as to what they were!"
"Nonetheless, you triumphed as I knew you would." Arthur looked unchanged, as Corwin remembered him from their brief acquaintance on Avalon. "Thank you, Griff."
"I had help, sire. This is Corwin, sent here by Avalon."
"Avalon," Merlin said sourly. "Meddling in everyone else's affairs, Avalon, thinking that it, a sentient realm, knows what's best for the outside world."
"How many times," said Arthur, sounding aggrieved, "must we apologize for turning up unexpectedly on your lake?"
"Not that we've heard any apologies from you regarding the giant squid incident," added Griff, rubbing at his upper arm.
"The defenses are supposed to be impregnable," said Merlin. "You two could have caused a panic. My students have been on edge lately, and rightly so, might I add. But I do not blame you, Arthur. It's Avalon itself that I protest."
"Be that as it may," said Griff, "it did bring Corwin here, and I've invited him to travel with us. He prevented me from perhaps being very nastily murdered by those harmless maidens that Merlin mentioned."
"I knew you'd behave yourself. And as for you, Guenloie, my dear, it is very good to see you again. How is my sister?"
"As well as can be expected."
Arthur offered a hand to Corwin. "If you have won Griff's trust, you have mine as well."
"Thank you, sire."
"I remember you from Avalon. You fought bravely."
"If perhaps less than skillfully," Corwin demurred. "Since then, my rookery siblings and I have been more dutiful to our warrior training."
"Well, should you prove to be half the stalwart warrior that Griff is, you'll be a valuable addition to our company. If, I presume, you wish to join us."
"What do you say?" asked Griff. "Knocking around Britain with Arthur and Merlin, getting into scrapes, saving the world here and there … I won't tell you it's always fun, but it's never boring!"
"I couldn't ask for more," Corwin said, grinning.
"Don't leave again," pleaded Guenloie, clinging to Merlin's sleeve. "Or … let me come with you."
The rest of them turned to look at her. Arthur cleared his throat. "Merlin, you've yet to introduce this fair lady."
"Guenloie, this is Arthur. Arthur, meet the chatelaine of Albiona, Lady Guenloie."
The king captured her hand, kissed it. "My lady."
"My king," she whispered. Her eyes were rapt, luminous, wondering.
Arthur considered her again, this time clearly taking appreciative note of her beauty, her regal stature. The lines at the corners of Merlin's eyes crinkled knowingly, and he hid a smile.
"Careful, Arthur old sod," chuckled Griff. "She'll get her claws into you."
Speaking to Merlin but without looking away from Arthur, Guenloie said, "I have served here as chatelaine for so long, Merlin … please, release me from my duties. Release me from my oaths."
"The outside world is not the one you knew, my dear," the wizard said. "And you'll no longer be immune to the passage of time. Once you leave the castle, there could be no returning. I would hate to see you make and regret a hasty decision."
"My decision is made," she said, gazing into Arthur's eyes. "My heart goes with you, even if the rest of me does not."
"Well, that would be messy," said Merlin. "Very well, I release you, but don't come crying to me if it all goes wrong."
"Why can't it be that easy for the rest of us?" muttered Griff as Arthur chivalrously escorted Guenloie around the ship. "He's gone on her, just like that, and she's giddy over him. It's ruddy unfair, that's what it is."
"They do make a striking couple," Corwin said.
"I suspect," said Merlin dryly, "that people will say the same of the two of you."
With that, he drew a wand from his robes, and the Llamrei surged obediently out to sea despite the lack of wind in the sails. Griff looked at Corwin. Corwin looked at Griff.
"Shall I show you around the ship, then?" Griff asked.
Corwin took his arm. "Delighted."