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Roger Zelazny Fred Saberhagen

The Black Throne


She sang beyond the genius of the sea, and he heard.

Walking on that gray, warm morn through fogs which entombed his world in near-viscous whiteness, perfect as snow, quietening as cloak or shroud, the boy moved with a certain deliberation, wordless voice within his head, veiled forms swaying about him, avoiding cobble and branch in passage through the wood behind the school, oddity back of a place once known well, occurring mystery somehow situated to hold his soul chrysalis for a vital season, somehow special, personal, and marking a passage distinctive as scar or tattoo upon his life and forever.

It was more than the dark voice of the sea that made the world acutest at its vanishing. And the sea, for that matter, the sea ought not to be this close, ought it? Nor in this direction. No.

Yet sea must there be. Somehow the song told him this, wordless though it ran. Sea must there be, and to it hieing on this day, he, day embedded in cotton, warm, salt tang within it, like the interior of vein or artery, song throbbing through.

Brittle fingers brushed his shoulder, leaves kissed moistly. He drew back from a dark treeform, stumbled against another, recovered. One grows accustomed to fog in London. Even an American child comes quickly to understand it, to separate caution from fear, to appreciate the distortions of distance, the slippery footing, the dearth of echoes. He moved in half-conscious quest of the singer—a quest which might have commenced before his awakening. Indeed, this seemed, somehow, but a continuation of a peculiar dream.

He did remember getting up, dressing, departing. But that had almost been an interlude. This had been going on before that. Something down on the strand... . Beach? Strand. Same thing. He had to go and find it now. He knew it would be there. The singing had been present on both sides of sleep. It had told him, it led him... .

He walked on, his clothing grown clammy, beginning to cling, a feeling of dampness coming into his shoes. The way sloped downward, and as he followed it the trees retreated, though shadows still formed within the fog; and a bell—somewhere a bell was ringing, just at the edge of awareness, slow, earthy, full-throated counterpoint to the ethereal song.

The first sea salt smell reached his nostrils as he began the descent, and he increased his pace. Soon, soon... .

The trail steepened abruptly. From somewhere there came the calls of gulls; their dark shapes slid above the overhead whiteness. The faintest of breezes drifted past him then, bearing even stronger sea smells than he had noticed earlier.

The trail widened, losing its steepness. Suddenly, there was sand underfoot, and smooth pebbles clicked and bounced. The sound of the sea came to him. The gulls continued their calling. The sounds of the bells began to fade.

The singing, hardly louder than before, seemed nevertheless nearer. Turning left, he followed it, passing about the squat form of a final tree—a palmetto, it would seem. But it shouldn't be growing here.

The fog became more active, drifting in from the apparent direction of the water. In places the whiteness broke, giving him glimpses of pebbles and sand. In other places it writhed, serpent-like, near to the ground, or was blown into grotesque shapes which faded almost as quickly as they formed. Advancing till he came to the water, he halted, stooped, let the sea run into and out of his hands. He raised a finger to his lips.

It was real. Warm and salty as blood.

A wave slopped over his shoetops and he backed away. He turned and began walking again, certain now where he was headed. He increased his pace. Before long, he was running.

He stumbled, picked himself up and kept going. Perhaps he had somehow crossed over and was back in his dream. The tinny sound of a buoy bell came to him now, marking some channel far to the right. The sea itself seemed of a sudden louder. A vast flock of birds passed overhead, uttering cries unlike those of the gulls or any other birds he had ever heard. The bells—somewhere behind him now—took on a new voice, answering the random notes of the buoy with something patterned, something deeper. And the singing... . For the first time the singing grew louder. It seemed very near.

A dark form appeared suddenly in his path. A small hill or—

He stumbled again, trying to avoid it. As he fell, the singing ceased. The bells ceased. He looked upon bleak walls and vacant eye-like windows—battlemented, turreted edifice emergent from duneside—drear, dark, partly crumbling, beside a gray, unruffled tarn. He was falling—somehow too fast—toward it... .

Then the fog swirled and the veil fell away. What had seemed a distant prospect was almost within reach, as an instant rearrangement of perspective showed it to be a castle of sand constructed on a slope above a tidal pool.

His outflung arm struck a wall. A tower toppled. The great gateway was broken.

"No!" came a cry. "You mean thing! No!"

And she was upon him, small fists pummeling his shoulder, head, back.

"I'm—sorry," he said. "I didn't mean—I fell. I'll help. I'll put it back—the way—it was."


She stopped striking him. He drew back and regarded her.

She had very gray eyes, and brown hair lay disheveled upon her brow. Her hands were delicate, fingers long. Her blue skirt and white blouse were sand-streaked, smudged, the hem of the skirt sodden. Her full lips quivered as her gaze darted from him to the castle and back, but her eyes remained dry.

"I'm sorry," he repeated.

She turned her back to him. A moment later her bare foot kicked forward. Another wall fell, another tower toppled.

"Don't!" he cried, rising, reaching to restrain her. "Stop! Please stop!"

"No!" she said, moving forward, trampling towers. "No."

He caught hold of her shoulder and she pulled away from him, continuing to kick and stamp at the castle.

"Please ..." he repeated.

"Say, leave the poor fellow's castle alone, would you?" came a voice from behind them both.

They turned, to regard the figure which approached through the fog.

"Who are you?" they asked, in near unison.

"Edgar," he replied.

"That's my name," said the first boy, staring, as the other drew nearer.

The newcomer halted a pace later and they both stared. The boys resembled each other to the point of twindom. Hair, eyes, pigmentation, physiognomy seemed identical. The resemblance extended to posture, gestures, voice, and the school uniforms they wore.

The girl, halted in her rampage, turned her head slowly from side to side.

"I'm Annie," she said softly. "You could be brothers, or—something."

"I guess so," the newcomer acknowledged.

"So it might seem," said the first boy.

"Why were you breaking his sand castle?" the second Edgar asked.

"It's my sand castle, and he broke it," she said.

Edgar Two smiled at Edgar One, who shook his head and shrugged.

"Uh, why don't we all put it back together?" the other boy said. "I'd bet we could do an even better one than what was there—Annie."

She smiled at him.

"All right," she said. "Let's."

They dropped to their knees about the disheveled sand heap. Annie took up a stick and began tracing new outlines. "The central keep will be here," she began, "and I want lots of towers... ."

They worked in silence for a long while, both boys soon removing their shoes, also.

"Edgar ... ?" she asked after a time.

"Yes?" the boys answered.

They all began to laugh.

"There's got to be more to it than that," she said to the first boy, "if I'm to tell you apart."

"Allan," he replied. "I'm Edgar Allan."

"I'm Perry—Edgar Perry," said the second boy.

The boys stared at each other again.

"I've never seen you anywhere around here before," Perry said then. "You visiting or something?"

"I go to school," Allan replied, gesturing with his head in the direction of the small bluff he had descended.