Read an Excerpt
Is there a madman with a brain
To turn the stuff of nightmare sane
And demons crush and Chaos tame, Who’ll leave his realm, forsake his bride
And, tossed by contradictory tides,
Give up his pride for pain?
The Chronicle of the Black Sword
A Doomed Lord Dying
It was in lonely Quarzhasaat, destination of many caravans but terminus of few, that Elric, hereditary emperor of Melniboné, last of a bloodline more than ten thousand years old, sometime conjuror of terrible resource, lay ready for death. The drugs and herbs which usually sustained him had been used in the final days of his long journey across the southern edge of the Sighing Desert and he had been able to acquire no replacements for them in this fortress city which was more famous for its treasure than for its sufficiency of life.
The albino prince stretched, slowly and feebly, his bone-coloured fingers to the light and brought to vividness the bloody jewel in the Ring of Kings, the last traditional symbol of his ancient responsibilities; then he let the hand fall. It was as if he had briefly hoped the Actorios would revive him, but the stone was useless while he lacked energy to command its powers. Besides, he had no great desire to summon demons here. His own folly had brought him to Quarzhasaat; he owed her citizens no vengeance. They, indeed, had cause to hate him, had they but known his origins.
Once Quarzhasaat had ruled a land of rivers and lovely valleys, its forests verdant, its plains abundant with crops, but that had been before the casting of certain incautious spells in a war with threatening Melniboné more than two thousand years earlier. Quarzhasaat’s empire had been lost to both sides. It had been engulfed by a vast mass of sand which swept over it like a tide, leaving only the capital and her traditions, which in time became the prime reason for her continuing existence. Because Quarzhasaat had always stood there she must be sustained, her citizens believed, at any cost throughout eternity. Though she had no purpose or function, still her masters felt a heavy obligation to continue her existence by whichever means they found expedient. Fourteen times had armies attempted to cross the Sighing Desert to loot fabulous Quarzhasaat. Fourteen times had the desert itself defeated them.
Meanwhile the city’s chief obsessions (some would say her chief industry) were the elaborate intrigues amongst her rulers. A republic, albeit in name only, and hub of a vast inland empire, albeit entirely covered by sand, Quarzhasaat was ruled by her Council of Seven, whimsically known as The Six and One Other, who controlled the greater part of the city’s wealth and most of her affairs. Certain other potent men and women, who chose not to serve in this Septocracy, wielded considerable influence while displaying none of the trappings of power. One of these, Elric had learned, was Narfis, Baroness of Kuwai’r, who dwelled in a simple yet beautiful villa at the city’s southern extreme and gave most of her attention to her notorious rival, the old Duke Ral, patron of Quarzhasaat’s finest artists, whose own palace on the northern heights was as unostentatious as it was lovely. These two, Elric was told, had elected three members each to the Council, while the seventh, always nameless and simply called the Sexocrat (who ruled the Six), maintained a balance, able to sway any vote one way or the other. The ear of the Sexocrat was most profoundly desired by all the many rivals in the city, even by Baroness Narfis and Duke Ral.
Uninterested in Quarzhasaat’s ornate politics, as he was in his own, Elric’s reason for being here was curiosity and the fact that Quarzhasaat was clearly the only haven in a great wasteland lying north of the nameless mountains dividing the Sighing Desert from the Weeping Waste.
Moving his exhausted bones on the thin straw of his pallet, Elric wondered sardonically if he would be buried here without the people ever knowing that the hereditary ruler of their nation’s greatest enemies had died amongst them. He wondered if this had after all been the fate his gods had in store for him: nothing as grandiose as he had dreamed of and yet it had its attractions.
When he had left Filkhar in haste and some confusion, he had taken the first ship out of Raschil and it had brought him to Jadmar, where he had chosen willfully to trust an old Ilmioran drunkard who had sold him a map showing fabled Tanelorn. As the albino had half-guessed, the map proved a deception, leading him far from any kind of human habitation. He had considered crossing the mountains to make for Karlaak by the Weeping Waste but on consulting his own map, of more reliable Melnibonéan manufacture, he had discovered Quarzhasaat to be significantly closer. Riding north on a steed already half-dead from heat and starvation, he had found only dried river-beds and exhausted oases, for in his wisdom he had chosen to cross the desert in a time of drought. He had failed to find fabled Tanelorn and, it seemed, would not even catch sight of a city which, in his people’s histories, was almost as fabulous.
As was usual for them, Melnibonéan chroniclers showed only a passing interest in defeated rivals, but Elric remembered that Quarzhasaat’s own sorcery was said to have contributed to her extinction as a threat to her half-human enemies: A misplaced rune, he understood, uttered by Fophean Dals, the Sorcerer Duke, ancestor to the present Duke Ral, in a spell meant to flood the Melnibonéan army with sand and build a bulwark about the entire nation. Elric had still to discover how this accident was explained in Quarzhasaat now. Had they created myths and legends to rationalize the city’s ill-luck entirely as a result of evil emanating from the Dragon Isle?
Elric reflected how his own obsession with myth had brought him to almost inevitable destruction. “In my miscalculations,” he murmured, turning dull crimson eyes again towards the Actorios, “I have shown that I share something in common with these people’s ancestors.” Some forty miles from his dead horse, Elric had been discovered by a boy out searching for the jewels and precious artifacts occasionally flung up by those sandstorms which constantly came and went over this part of the desert and were partially responsible for the city’s survival, as well as for the astonishing height of Quarzhasaat’s magnificent walls. They were also the origin of the desert’s melancholy name.
In better health Elric would have relished the city’s monumental beauty. It was a beauty derived from an aesthetic refined over centuries and bearing no signs of outside influence. Though so many of the curving ziggurats and palaces were of gigantic proportions there was nothing vulgar or ugly about them; they had an airy quality, a peculiar lightness of style which made them seem, in their terracotta reds and glittering silver granite, their whitewashed stucco, their rich blues and greens, as if they had been magicked out of the very air. Their luscious gardens filled marvelously complex terraces, their fountains and water courses, drawn from deep-sunk wells, gave tranquil sound and wonderful perfume to her old cobbled ways and wide tree-lined avenues; yet all this water, which might have been diverted to growing crops, was used to maintain the appearance of Quarzhasaat as she had been at the height of her imperial power and was more valuable than jewels, its use rationed and its theft punishable by the severest of laws.
Elric’s own lodgings were in no way magnificent, consisting as they did of a truckle bed, straw-strewn flagstones, a single high window, a plain earthenware jug and a basin containing a little brackish water which had cost him his last emerald. Water permits were not available to foreigners and the only water on general sale was Quarzhasaat’s single most expensive commodity. Elric’s water had almost certainly been stolen from a public fountain. The statutory penalties for such thefts were rarely discussed, even in private.
Elric required rare herbs to sustain his deficient blood but their cost, even had they been available, would have proven far beyond his present means, which had been reduced to a few gold coins, a fortune in Karlaak but of virtually no worth in a city where gold was so common it was used to line the city’s aqueducts and sewers. His expeditions into the streets had been exhausting and depressing.
Once a day the boy who had found Elric in the desert, and brought him to this room, paid the albino a visit, staring at him as if at a curious insect or captured rodent. The boy’s name was Anigh and, though he spoke the Melnibonéan-derived lingua franca of the Young Kingdoms, his accent was so thick it was sometimes impossible to understand all he said.
Once more Elric tried to lift his arm only to let it fall. That morning he had reconciled himself to the fact that he would never again see his beloved Cymoril and would never sit upon the Ruby Throne. He knew regret, but it was of a distant kind, for his illness made him oddly euphoric.
“I had hoped to sell you.”
Elric peered, blinking, into the shadows of the room on the far side of a single ray of sunlight. He recognized the voice but could make out little more than a silhouette near the door.
“But now it seems all I have to offer in next week’s market will be your corpse and your remaining possessions.” It was Anigh, almost as depressed as Elric at the prospect of his prize’s death. “You are still a rarity, of course. Your features are those of our ancient enemies but whiter than bone and those I have never seen before in a man.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint your expectations.” Elric rose weakly on his elbow. He had deemed it imprudent to reveal his origins but instead had said he was a mercenary from Nadsokor, the Beggar City, which sheltered all manner of freakish inhabitants.
“Then I had hoped you might be a wizard and reward me with some bit of arcane lore which would set me on the path to becoming a wealthy man and perhaps a member of the Six. Or you might have been a desert spirit who would confer on me some useful power. But I have wasted my waters, it seems. You are merely an impoverished mercenary. Have you no wealth left at all? Some curio which might prove of value, for instance?” And the boy’s eyes went towards a bundle which, long and slender, rested against the wall near Elric’s head.
“That’s no treasure, lad,” Elric informed him grimly. “He who possesses it could be said to bear a curse impossible to exorcize.” He smiled at the thought of the boy trying to find a buyer for the Black Sword which, wrapped in a torn cassock of red silk, occasionally gave out a murmur, like a senile man attempting to recall the power of speech.
“It’s a weapon, is it not?” said Anigh, his thin, tanned features making his vivid blue eyes seem large.
“Aye,” Elric agreed. “A sword.”
“An antique?” The boy reached under his striped brown djellabah and picked at the scab on his shoulder.
“That’s a fair description.” Elric was amused but found even this brief conversation tiring.
“How old?” Now Anigh took a step forward so that he was entirely illuminated by the ray of sunlight. He had the perfect look of a creature adapted to dwell amongst the tawny rocks and the dusky sands of the Sighing Desert.
“Perhaps ten thousand years.” Elric found that the boy’s startled expression helped him forget, momentarily, his almost certain fate. “But probably more than that . . .”
“Then it’s a rarity, indeed! Rarities are prized by Quarzhasaat’s lords and ladies. There are those amongst the Six, even, who collect such things. His honour the Master of Unicht Shlur, for instance, has the armour of a whole Ilmioran army, each piece arranged on the mummified corpses of the original warriors. And my Lady Talith possesses a collection of war-instruments numbering several thousands, each one different. Let me take that, Sir Mercenary, and I’ll discover a buyer. Then I’ll seek the herbs you need.”
“Whereupon I’ll be fit enough for you to sell me, eh?” Elric’s amusement increased.
Anigh’s face became exquisitely innocent. “Oh, no, sir. Then you will be strong enough to resist me. I shall merely take a commission on your first engagement.”
Elric felt affection for the boy. He paused, gathering strength before he spoke again. “You expect I’ll interest an employer, here in Quarzhasaat?”
“Naturally.” Anigh grinned. “You could become a bodyguard to one of the Six, perhaps, or at least one of their supporters. Your unusual appearance makes you immediately employable! I have already told you what great rivals and plotters our masters are.”
“It is encouraging—” Elric paused for breath—“to know that I can look forward to a life of worth and fulfillment here in Quarzhasaat.” He tried to stare directly into Anigh’s brilliant eyes, but the boy’s head turned out of the sunlight so that only part of his body was exposed. “However, I understood from you that the herbs I described grew only in distant Kwan, days from here—in the foothills of the Ragged Pillars. I will be dead before even a fit messenger could be halfway to Kwan. Do you try to comfort me, boy? Or are your motives less noble?”
“I told you, sir, where the herbs grew. But what if there are some who have already gathered Kwan’s harvest and returned?”
“You know of such an apothecary? But what would one charge me for such valuable medicines? And why did you not mention this before?”
“Because I did not know of it before.” Anigh seated himself in the relative cool of the doorway. “I have made enquiries since our last conversation. I am a humble boy, your worship, not a learned man, nor yet an oracle. Yet I know how to banish my ignorance and replace it with knowledge. I am ignorant, good sir, but not a fool.”
“I share your opinion of yourself, Master Anigh.”
“Then shall I take the sword and find a buyer for you?” He came again into the light, hand reaching towards the bundle.
Elric fell back, shaking his head and smiling a little. “I, too, young Anigh, have much ignorance. But, unlike you, I think I might also be a fool.”
“Knowledge brings power,” said Anigh. “Power shall take me into the entourage of the Baroness Narfis, perhaps. I could become a captain in her guard. Maybe a noble!”
“Oh, one day you’ll surely be more than either.” Elric drew in stale air, his frame shuddering, his lungs enflamed. “Do what you will, though I doubt Stormbringer will go willingly.”