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The Black Throne

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The Black Throne

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Author: Roger Zelazny
Fred Saberhagen
Publisher: Baen, 1990

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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As children they met and built sand castles on a beach out of space and time: Edgar Perry, Little Annie, and Edgar Allan Poe.... Fifteen years later, Perry meets Annie again, all grown up and beautiful - and in the real world. She warns him of his mortal peril, then flees for Europe on a mysterious black ship.

Perry is recruited by a fabulously wealthy man to follow that ship to Europe where he meets the famed detective Auguste Dupin, has an encounter with a Maelstrom and a black raven, has a run in with a Pit and a Pendulum, and lives many more of the stories his alter ego, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote. He and Poe have exchanged places: Perry will thrive in the dark, romantic world where lead can be transmuted to gold, ravens can speak, orangutans can commit murder, and beautiful women are easy to come by; while Poe is now doomed to live out his life a misfit, and end as a pauper, a drunk, and a genius....



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.

"What school?" Perry asked.

"Manor House School. It's just up that way."

Perry's broad forehead creased and he shook his head slowly.

"I don't know it," he said. "But I don't really know this area. I go to a school called Manor also--though I don't know you from there. I was just out walking...." He glanced at Annie, who had turned her head as Allan spoke, as if noticing the hill for the first time. "Do you?" he said to her.

"I don't know either school," she said. "But this area is mine--I mean, it's very familiar."

"It's interesting you both have American accents," Allan observed.

At this, both of them stared at him.

"Why shouldn't we?" Annie said then. "You do, too."

"Where do you live?" Perry asked suddenly.

"Charleston," she said.

He shifted from foot to foot.

"There's something peculiar about this," he said. "I was having a dream this morning before I came walking here, before I found this place--"

"Me, too!"

"Me, too...."

"--almost as if I were already here with someone: You two."

"Yes, so was I."

"I was, too."

"I hope I'm not still dreaming."

"I don't think so."

"It feels a little strange, though," Allan said, "as if it's real in a very special way."

"What do you mean?" Perry asked.

"Dip your hands in the water," the other boy told him.

Perry leaned to the side and obliged.

"Yes?" he said then.

"Sea water is never that warm," Allan answered.

"Well, it's been sitting in this pool for some time, and it had a chance to heat up."

"The sea's the same way," Allan answered. "I felt it earlier."

Perry rose to his feet, turned away, began running toward the water. Allan glanced at Annie, who laughed. Suddenly the two of them were running after.

Before long, they were splashing about in the ocean, laughing, dunking each other, waves boiling about their legs.

"You're right!" Perry called out. "It's never been this way! Why should it be like this?"

Allan shrugged.

"Perhaps it's warm because the sun's shining on it hard someplace we can't see. Then the waves are bringing it to us that way--"

"That doesn't sound right. Maybe it's a current--like a river in the sea--"

"It's warm because I wanted it to be," Annie interrupted. "That's why."

The boys looked at her and she laughed.

"You don't think this is a dream," she said, "because it's not your dream. It's mine. You remember getting up this morning and I don't. I think it's mine, and this is my place."

"But I'm real! I'm not a dream-thing!"

"So am I!"

"I invited you, that's why."

Both boys laughed suddenly and splashed her. She laughed, too.

"Well--maybe..." she said, and then she splashed them back.

Their garments grew wet and were dried several times over, as they felt compelled to verify the sea and its moods on several occasions. Slowly, between baths, a new castle grew beneath their hands.Thisone, larger and more ambitious than that with which Allan had collided, sprouted towers like asparagus branches, its thick walls climbing and descending the rolling sandscape, rippling inward and outward, sprinkled and dampened from the pool where small crabs, bright fish, and hidden molluscs dwelled amid the glitter of stone, shell, and broken coral. Impulsively, Allan reached forth and took Annie's gritty hand within his own. "It's a wonderful castle you thought of," he said. Even as she began to blush Perry had hold of her other hand. "It is," he said, "and if it's a dream, you're the best dreamer yet."

He could never be sure how their time on the beach ended. There was a great sense of amity with Perry, as if the two were--somehow--brothers, though his feelings for Annie were different and he was sure that Perry loved her, too. The light around them was gray, and sea-green, and pearly with the mist. The sun rarely appeared. The sea and the air were timeless, throbbing warmly beside and about them.

"Oh, my God!" said Annie.

"What's the matter?" both boys shouted, turning in the direction of her wide-eyed gaze.

"In--the--water," she said. "Dead--isn't he?"

The fog had parted. Something wrapped in tangles of seaweed and a few tatters of cloth lay half in and half out of the water. Here and there a patch of swollen, fishbelly white flesh showed. It might have been human. It was difficult to say, wrack-decked as it was, tossed by the surf, strands of fog drifting past it.

Perry rose to his feet.

"Maybe it is and maybe it isn't," he said. Annie had covered her face by then, and was peering between her fingers. Allan stared, fascinated.

"Do we really want to know?" Perry continued. "It may just be a mess of weeds and trash with a few dead fishes caught in it. If we don't go and look, it can be whatever we want it to be. You know what I mean? You want to tell your friends you saw a body on the beach? Well, maybe you did."

The fog moved between them, hiding it again.

"What do you think it is?" Allan asked him.

"Seaweed and rubbish," Perry replied.

"It's a body," Annie said.

Allan laughed. "No, you can't both be right," he stated.

"Why not?" Annie said suddenly.

"The world just doesn't work that way," Allan said.

Allan rose and began walking through the fog in the direction of the body.

"I think that sometimes it can," he heard her say, somewhere behind him.

The fog churned, parted once more. Through a sudden rift Allan caught sight of the heaving mass, now drawn entirely back into the water a few paces offshore. This could be resolved in a matter of moments.

He strode forward, simultaneous with the shifting of a wall of fog to a position directly before him. But be was not about to let the vision escape. He plunged ahead. Any moment now he should feel the water swirl about his ankles--

"Allan...." Her voice seemed distant.

"Where are you... ?" Perry called, also, it seemed, from afar.

"A moment," he answered. "I'm near it."

It seemed that they called again, but he could not distinguish the words. He pushed on. Suddenly, he seemed to be moving uphill. There were dark shapes about him once again. The ground seemed to have grown harder. From overhead came that strange bird cry.

"E-tekeli-li!" it seemed to sound. He began to run. He stumbled.

* * *

And then. And then. And then.

* * *

Bright splash in the pool of my vision, up from the sand, against my brow, falling, fallen, then.

I was on my way back to the fort when it happened, returning from Legrand's hut. I did not even suspect that my life had been permanently changed. Not that my life before had been devoid of visions. Far from it. But this time I experienced none of the premonitory sensations or perceptions with which the visions were wont to announce themselves.

When the golden beetle flew up from somewhere and struck me in the face I could not have known that this signaled a change in everything for me, forever. I sought it as it lay on the sand before me, a remarkable and brilliant gold in the lowering October sun. I knew that certain chafers had something of a metallic color, gold or silver, and might be very beautiful. But this.... This was an unknown species, unknown at least to me. As I knelt to regard it more closely, I was amazed by its markings. The black spots on its back, I suddenly realized, were so situated as to result in its likeness to a golden skull.

I pulled a large leaf from a nearby plant, brushed the gleaming insect onto it, wrapped it carefully and put it into my pocket. Legrand, I was certain, would be extremely interested when next I visited him. If not a disquisition, an intriguing speculation would doubtless result.

I trudged on along the sandy beach, depressed despite a pleasant afternoon, an interesting find. I studied the dark cloud formations on the horizon while petitioning an inordinate boon of destiny, all unknowing that it had--in a way--already been granted. Just inland, to my right, a dense, almost impenetrable thicket of evergreen myrtle covered most of the ground. Graveyard flowers, I've heard them called, giving full and easy coverage. It was such a strange thing--to see a dream after years of dreaming, to realize of a sudden that it was, somehow, of a piece with life. Then, at the instant of the spirit's triumph, to have it snatched away before any understanding might follow. Left, left and bereft then, mystery proved but reason fled, a piece of my own life seen, as it were, for the first time, in a new light, then torn from me with no means of recovery. What evil hap might grant one's fondest wish against all odds, then snatch it away but moments later? I kicked at a stone, listened to a distant roll of thunder far out over the water. It was not only that my entire view of life had been altered in a few minutes--I am not so introspective and inclined to metaphysic as to be paralyzed by this--but that it should occur in such a fashion as to portend a doom and me powerless to defend the beloved ghost against it.

After I'd gone perhaps another mile my path turned inland, penetrating the thickets. This way took one across the island. The shadows were struggling to unite as I passed within, for now the sun was setting.

I halted a bit later as I emerged on the inland side of the island. Something was very wrong. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, but the vision did not change.

They stood inland, beyond the tidal creek and a mile or so of marsh--tall in the reddish dusk, a pair of wooded bluffs, where I would take my oath none had stood before. Something was wrong, very wrong, and I'd no idea what it might be. I doubted my staring would alter the vista, however, and I turned again upon my westward path. Shortly thereafter, I was able to see the lights of distant Charleston twinkling across the harbor, some already masked in part by the rapidly accumulating fog. The fog seemed to approach with an uncommon swiftness, and I halted for some while to regard its performance.

The disposition of the city seemed slightly different than the last time I had studied it from this vantage, though my mind was troubled and the fog moved too quickly for me to be certain of anything. For with fog I could see her again with the eyes of memory, Annie, dream child, dream girl, dream lady, Annie, she whose existence I had counted over the years as some recurrent fantasy, a child's imaginary playmate who had, somehow, grown up along with him, who, somehow, summoned me, or I her, to realms of hysterical vision, usually upon a seashore, Annie, my dear hallucination, my lady of the fog....

And that was all. For what more could she be--my secret aberration, dream companion, somehow friend or even more... ?

Annie. Not real. Of course not. All those times we had met, no more substantial than the fog I now considered. Or so I'd thought. Until the day before yesterday when my world was broken.

I had been walking in the town, prompting digestion following dinner. Then as now a bit of fog had drifted on the sea breeze through lengthening shadows. Autumn matched the sea with a dampness of its own. Storefronts mixed darkness with reflections. A patient spaniel awaited his master before a public house. Dust glistened on the roadway. Several dark birds passed seaward, uttering raucous notes. At this, I was overtaken by a great feeling of uneasiness. Moments later, I heard the cry.

That seems the best way to put it, though upon reflection it does not seem I actually could have heard her just then. For the coach was not yet even in sight. It was more that there was a cry and I apprehended her presence.

A moment later the coach careered around the corner--a tall, black affair--springs protesting, horses all lathered, its swart driver wrestling with the reins, lips curled back in something near to a snarl. The vehicle swayed dangerously, straightened, and plunged ahead, passing me in a swirl of dust. But I saw her face at its window--Annie. Our gazes met for but the briefest of moments, and she started and I heard her cry out again, though I was not certain that her lips had moved, nor did any of the several other pedestrians near me show any signs of having heard.

"Annie!" I shouted back, and then she was by me and gone away down that street that took her to the sea.

I turned and I began running. The dog barked a few times. Someone shouted something I could not understand and followed it with a laugh. The coach rumbled on its way, gaining on me, and I found myself racing through a cloud of dust.

I began to cough before I reached the corner, and my eyes were brimming, I moved back to the side of the road as the coach pulled away, regaining the boarded walk I had departed. I continued to follow, though at a slower pace, concerned more with keeping track of the coach than catching up with it immediately. I was, in this fashion, able to keep it in sight for some while, increasing my pace as the dust settled. When it turned, I ran again, to the corner in question, and I caught sight of it once more.

Eddie, I seemed to hear her say. Help me. I fear that I have been drugged. I believe they mean me harm....

I began another dash, this time downhill. The coach seemed headed toward the harbor, was almost there, actually. I ran on, oblivious to everything but the plight of a woman whose very existence had been a thing of ambiguity to me but moments before. My lady of dreams and shadows, of beaches and mists, was somehow trapped in the real world, confined to a coach rushing toward the docks. She needed my help and I'd some fear as to my ability to reach her in time to provide it.

Nor was this fear unjustified. As I pounded down the street her captors must have been transferring her to a boat. By the time I reached the pier upon which the coach stood abandoned, door flung wide, the boat was already drawing alongside a black ship of somewhat unusual construction, sails raised and bulging--a frigate or brig perhaps (I'm a soldier, not a sailor)--which looked swift, and possibly well-enough armed, to be a privateer. I'd swear I heard her call one more time then, though the distance was great, and as I uttered an oath and looked about for some means of transport for myself the boat was grappled to the ship's side where its crew commenced transference of a burden which had to be an unconscious woman.

I shouted, and none of them paid me the slightest heed. Nor did anyone appear in the vicinity to see what prompted my cries. I was tempted to plunge into the water and swim out, though common sense warned me of the foolishness of putting myself into such a weak position. Then--for an instant--I thought that my shouts had been answered. A series of cries were uttered aboard the vessel. But moments later these were followed by sounds of the anchor winch. It was sailing orders that I was hearing.

Powerless, I watched as the vessel turned slowly to begin a tacking sequence which bore it into the line of a breeze which quickly took it seaward. There was no one about who might assist me, no vessel I might appropriate in which to give pursuit--and, of course, no chance of achieving anything by myself even if I did possess a small, fast boat. I could only stand and curse and watch my Annie being spirited away to the ends of whatever perverse destiny had ruled our association.

And so the coming and going which had ruled my thoughts these two days, casting a pall that even an afternoon with Legrand could not lift. And now, as I made my way back to Fort Moultrie, I'd a premonition I would not be returning to the service this night, for riding at anchor perhaps a quarter of a mile out from shore was a ship, a black ship of somewhat unusual construction. I would swear it to be the vessel into which I had seen Annie being taken.

* * *

Later. Later. Much later. Walking. Staggering, really.

* * *

And he staggered through the fog, seeking her, uncertain how he had returned from Fordham to the kingdom by the sea. Perhaps the air would clear his head. There was a gap somewhere between events. The Valentines had been kind, as had Mrs. Shew. But the break in consciousness between that then and this now was so strange a thing as to deny the touch of reason. There was a gap--yes! a black chasm--somewhere at his back, a thing profound as death or sleep. Yet he could not be dead, unless to be dead was to feel as if one had been drinking. He massaged his heavy brow, turned slowly and looked back. The fog prevented his seeing where he had come from, beyond a half-dozen or so irregular tracks. And he knew as he considered them that he was incapable of retracing them. He stood swaying, listening to the sea. At length, he turned again, continued what he knew to be his course. This was a special place, a place where holidays of the soul were celebrated. Why now? What now? Something was denied, something withheld. Like a word at the tongue's tip, the harder he tried the more difficult it was to recall.

He reeled; once, he fell. Truly, he could not remember whether he had taken a drink. He suspected that he had, though its occasion eluded him. The waves came louder of a sudden. The sky was darker than it usually was here, behind the fog. He brushed sand from his trousers. This was the place, yes....

Stumbling forward now, his head cleared and the grief assailed him, fresh, heavy, overwhelming. And with it, he suddenly knew what he would find, with but a little more persistence. He turned inland, and after but a few paces a dark bulk loomed.

The ground rose, grew less sandy though the voice of the sea lost nothing of volume. His step grew steadier as he exerted his will. The massive shape before him diminished somewhat. Its lines grew clearer. Eyes blazing, jaw tightening, he hurried.

Arriving, he put forth his shaking hand, slowly, to touch the cold, gray stone. Then he sank to his knees there on the threshold, and for a long time he remained unmoving.

When finally he rose the sea was sounding even more loudly at his back and its crumbling fingers had touched his boot. Without a backward glance he reached for the black iron gate, unlatched it. He pushed it open and entered the place's damp interior. He rested long amid the shadows then, listening to the sea, to the sounds of birds in their passage.

It was later, much later, in another place, in something like tranquility, that he wrote, "I was a child and she was a child, in a kingdom by the sea...."

* * *

Downward to the shore....

* * *

We walk about, amid the destinies of our world existence, encompassed by dim but ever present Memories of a Destiny more vast--very distant in the bygone time and infinitely awful.

We live out a youth peculiarly haunted by such shadows; yet never mistaking them for dreams. As memories we know them. During our Youth the distinction is too clear to deceive us even for a moment.

Eureka, Edgar A. Poe

Copyright © 1990 by Roger Zelazny

Copyright © 1990 by Fred Saberhagen


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