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Of Love, Death, Battle & Exile; The White Wolf Encounters a Not Entirely Unwelcome Echo of the Past.
FROM THE UNLIKELY peace of Tanelorn, out of Bas’lk and Nish-valni-Oss, from Valederia, ever eastward runs the White Wolf of Melniboné, howling his red and hideous song, to relish the sweetness of a bloodletting . . .
. . . It is over. The albino prince sits bowed upon his horse, as if beneath the weight of his own exaggerated battle-lust; as if ashamed to look upon such profoundly unholy butchery.
Of the mighty Haghan’iin Host not a single soul survived an hour beyond the certain victory they had earlier celebrated. (How could they not win, when Lord Elric’s army was a fragment of their own strength?)
Elric feels no further malice towards them, but he knows little pity, either. In their puissant arrogance, their blindness to the wealth of sorcery Elric commanded, they had been unimaginative. They had guffawed at his warnings. They had jeered at their former prisoner for a weakling freak of nature. Such violent, silly creatures deserved only the general grief reserved for all misshaped souls.
Now the White Wolf stretches his lean body, his pale arms. He pushes up his black helm. He rests, panting, in his great painted war-saddle, then takes the murmuring hellblade he carries and sheathes the sated iron into the softness of its velvet scabbard. There is a sound at his back. He turns brooding crimson eyes upon the face of the woman who reins up her horse beside him. Both woman and stallion have the same unruly pride, both seem excited by their unlooked-for victory; both are beautiful.
The albino reaches to take her ungloved hand and kiss it. “We share honours this day, Countess Guyë.”
And his smile is a thing to fear and to adore.
“Indeed, Lord Elric!” She draws on her gauntlet and takes her prancing mount in check. “But for the fecundity of thy sorcery and the courage of my soldiery, we’d both be Chaos-meat tonight —and unlucky if still alive!”
He answers with a sigh and an affirmative gesture. She speaks with deep satisfaction.
“The host shall waste no other lands, and its women in their home-trees shall bear no more brutes to bloody the world.” Throwing back her heavy cloak, she slings her slender shield behind her. Her long hair catches the evening light, deep vermilion, restless as the ocean as she laughs, while her blue eyes weep; for she had begun the day in the fullest expectation that the best she could hope for was sudden death. “We are deeply in your debt, sir. We are obligated, all of us. You shall be known throughout Anakhazhan as a hero.”
Elric’s smile is ungrateful. “We came together for mutual needs, madam. I was but settling a small debt with my captors.”
“There are other means of settling such debts, sir. We are still obliged.”
“I would not take credit,” he insists, “for altruism that is no part of my nature.” He looks away into the horizon where a purple scar washed with red disguises the falling of the sun.
“I have a different sense of it.” She speaks softly, for a hush is coming to the field, and a light breeze tugs at matted hair, bits of bloody fabric, torn skin. There are precious weapons and metals and jewels to be seen, especially where the Haghan’iin nobles had tried to make their escape, but not one of Countess Guyë’s sworders, mercenary or free Anakhazhani, will approach the booty. There is a general tendency amongst these weary soldiers to drop back as far as possible from the field. Their captains neither question them on this nor do they try to stop them. “I have the sense, sir, that you serve some Cause or Principle, nonetheless.”
He is quick to shake his head, his posture in the saddle one of growing impatience. “I am for no master nor moral persuasion. I am for myself. What your yearning soul, madam, might mistake for loyalty to person or Purpose is merely a firm and, aye, principled determination to accept responsibility only for myself and my own actions.”
She offers him a quick, girlish look of puzzled disbelief, then turns away with a dawning, woman’s grin. “There’ll be no rain tonight,” she observes, holding a dark, golden hand against the evening. “This mess’ll be stinking and spreading fever in hours. We’d best move on, ahead of the flies.” She hears the flapping even as he does and they both look back and watch the first gleeful ravens settling on flesh that has melted into one mile-wide mass of bloody meat, limbs and organs scattered at random, to hop upon and peck at half-destroyed faces still screaming for the mercy laughingly denied them as Elric’s patron Duke of Hell, Lord Arioch, gave aid to his favourite son.
These were in the times when Elric left his friend Moonglum in Tanelorn and ranged the whole world to find a land which seemed enough like his own that he might wish to settle there, but no such land as Melniboné could be a tenth its rival in any place the new mortals might dwell. And all these lands were mortal now.
He had begun to learn that he had earned a loss which could never be assuaged and in losing the woman he loved, the nation he had betrayed, and the only kind of honour he had known he had also lost part of his own identity, some sense of his own purpose and reason upon the Earth.
Ironically, it was these very losses, these very dilemmas, which made him so unlike his Melnibonéan folk, for his people were cruel and embraced power for its own sake, which was how they had come to give up any softer virtues they might once have possessed, in their need to control not only their physical world but the supernatural world. They would have ruled the multiverse, had they any clear understanding how this might be achieved; but even a Melnibonéan is not a god. There are some would argue they had not produced so much as a demigod. Their glory in earthly power had brought them to decadent ruin, as it brought down all empires who gloried in gold or conquest or those other ambitions which can never be satisfied but must forever be fed.
Yet even now Melniboné might, in her senility, live, had she not been betrayed by her own exiled emperor.
And no matter how often Elric reminds himself that the Bright Empire was foredoomed to her unhappy end, he knows in his bones that it was his fierce need for vengeance, his deep love for Cymoril (his captive cousin); his own needs, in other words, which had brought down the towers of Imrryr and scattered her folk as hated wanderers upon the surface of the world they had once ruled.
It is part of his burden that Melniboné did not fall to a principle but to blind passion . . .
As Elric made to bid farewell to his temporary ally, he was attracted to something in the countess’s wicked eye, and he bowed in assent as she asked him to ride with her for a while; and then she suggested he might care to take wine with her in her tent.
“I would talk more of philosophy,” she said. “I have longed so for the company of an intellectual equal.”
And go with her he did, for that night and for many to come. These would be days he remembered as the days of laughter and green hills broken by lines of gentle cypress and poplar, on the estates of Guyë, in the Western Province of Anakhazhan in the lovely years of her hard-won peace.
Yet when they had both rested and both began to look to satisfy their unsleeping intelligences, it became clear that the countess and Lord Elric had very different needs and so Elric said his goodbyes to the countess and their friends at Guyë and took a good, well-furnished riding horse and two sturdy pack animals and rode on towards Elwher and the Unmapped East where he still hoped to find the peace of an untarnished familiarity.
He longed for the towers, sweet lullabies in stone, which stretched like guarding fingers into Imrryr’s blazing skies; he missed the sharp wit and laughing ferocity of his kinfolk, the ready understanding and the casual cruelty that to him had seemed so ordinary in the time before he became a man.
No matter that his spirit had rebelled and made him question the Bright Empire’s every assumption of its rights to rule over the demibrutes, the human creatures, who had spread so thoroughly across the great land masses of the North and West that were called now “the Young Kingdoms” and dared, even with their puny wizardries and unskilled battlers, to challenge the power of the Sorcerer Emperors, of whom he was the last in direct line.
No matter that he had hated so much of his people’s arrogance and unseemly pride, their easy resort to every unjust tyranny to maintain their power.
No matter that he had known shame —a new emotion to one of his kind. Still his blood yearned for home and all the things he had loved or, indeed, hated, for he had this in common with the humans amongst whom he now lived and traveled: he would sometimes rather hold close to what was familiar and encumbering than give it up for something new, though it offered freedom from the chains of heritage which bound him and must eventually destroy him.
And with this longing in him growing with his fresh loneliness, Elric took himself in charge and increased his pace and left Guyë far behind, a fading memory, while he pressed on in the general direction of unknown Elwher, his friend’s homeland, which he had never seen.
He had come in sight of a range of hills the local people dignified as The Teeth of Shenkh, a provincial demon-god, and was following a caravan track down to a collection of shacks surrounded by a mud-and-timber wall that had been described to him as the great city of Toomoo-Kag-Sanapet-of-the-Invincible-Temple, Capital of Iniquity and Unguessed-At Wealth, when he heard a protesting cry at his back and saw a figure tumbling head over heels down the hill towards him while overhead a previously unseen thundercloud sent silver spears of light crashing to the earth, causing Elric’s horses to rear and snort in untypical nervousness. Then the world was washed with red-gold light, as if in a sudden dawn, which turned to bruised blue and dark brown before swirling like an angry current towards the horizon and vanishing to leave a few disturbed clouds behind them in a drizzling and depressingly ordinary sky.
Deciding this event was sufficiently strange to merit more than his usually brief attention, Elric turned towards the small, red-headed individual who was picking himself out of a ditch at the edge of the silver-green cornfield, looking nervously up at the sky and drawing a rather threadbare coat about his little body. The coat would not meet at the front, not because it was too tight for him, but because the pockets, inside and out, were crammed with small volumes. On his legs were a matching pair of trews, grey and shiny, a pair of laced black boots which, as he lifted one knee to inspect a rent, revealed stockings as bright as his hair. His face, adorned by an almost diseased-looking beard, was freckled and pale, from which glared blue eyes as sharp and busy as a bird’s, above a pointed beak which gave him the appearance of an enormous finch, enormously serious. He drew himself up at Elric’s approach and began to stroll casually down the hill. “D’ye think it will rain, sir? I thought I heard a clap of thunder a moment ago. It set me off my balance.” He paused, then cast a look backward up the track. “I thought I had a pot of ale in my hand.” He scratched his wild head. “Come to think of it, I was sitting on a bench outside The Green Man. Hold hard, sir, ye’re an unlikely cove to be abroad on Putney Common.” Whereupon he sat down suddenly on a grassy hummock. “Good lord! Am I transported yet again?” He appeared to recognize Elric. “I think we’ve met, sir, somewhere. Or were you merely a subject?”
“You have the advantage of me, sir,” said Elric, dismounting. He felt drawn to this birdlike man. “I am called Elric of Melniboné and I am a wanderer.”
“My name is Wheldrake, sir. Ernest Wheldrake. I have been traveling somewhat reluctantly since I left Albion, first to Victoria’s England, where I made something of a name, before being drawn on to Elizabeth’s. I am growing used to sudden departures. What would your business be, Master Elric, if it is not theatrical?”
Elric, finding half what the man said nonsense, shook his head. “I have practised the trade of mercenary sword for some while. And you, sir?”
“I, sir, am a poet!” Master Wheldrake bristled and felt about his pockets for a certain volume, failed to find it, made a movement of the fingers as if to say he needed no affidavits, anyway, and settled his scrawny arms across his chest. “I have been a poet of the Court and of the Gutter, it’s alleged. I should still be at Court had it not been for Doctor Dee’s attempts to show me our Graecian past. Impossible, I have since learned.”
“You do not know how you came here?”
“Only the vaguest notion, sir. Aha! But I have placed you.” A snap of the long fingers. “A subject, I recall!”
Elric had lost interest in this vein of enquiry. “I am on my way to yonder metropolis, sir, and if you’d ride one of my pack animals, I’d be honoured to take you there. If you have no money, I’ll buy you a room and a meal for the night.”
“I would be glad of that, sir. Thanks.” And the poet hopped nimbly up onto the furthest horse, settling himself amongst the packs and sacks with which Elric had equipped himself for a journey of indeterminate length. “I had feared it would rain and I am prone, these days, to chills . . .”
Elric continued down the long, winding track towards the churned mud streets and filthy log walls of Toomoo-Kag-Sanapet-of-the-Invincible-Temple while in a high-pitched yet oddly beautiful voice, reminiscent of a trilling bird, Wheldrake uttered some lines which Elric guessed were his own composition. “With purpose fierce his heart was gripped, and blade gripped tighter, still. And honour struggling within, ’gainst vengeance, cold and cruel. Old Night and a New Age warred in him; all the ancient power, and all the new.