“What’s the hour?” The black-bearded man wrenched off his gilded helmet and flung it from him, careless of where it fell. He drew off his leathern gauntlets and moved closer to the roaring fire, letting the heat soak into his frozen bones.
“Midnight is long past,” growled one of the other armoured men who gathered around the blaze. “Are you still sure he’ll come?” “It’s said that he’s a man of his word, if that comforts you.”
It was a tall, pale-faced youth who spoke. His thin lips formed the words and spat them out maliciously. He grinned a wolf-grin and stared the new arrival in the eyes, mocking him.
The newcomer turned away with a shrug. “That’s so—for all your irony, Yaris. He’ll come.” He spoke as a man does when he wishes to reassure himself.
There were six men, now, around the fire. The sixth was Smiorgan—Count Smiorgan Baldhead of the Purple Towns. He was a short, stocky man of fifty years with a scarred face partially covered with a thick, black growth of hair. His morose eyes smouldered and his lumpy fingers plucked nervously at his rich-hilted longsword. His pate was hairless, giving him his name, and over his ornate, gilded armour hung a loose woolen cloak, dyed purple.
Smiorgan said thickly, “He has no love for his cousin. He has become bitter. Yyrkoon sits on the Ruby Throne in his place and has proclaimed him an outlaw and a traitor. Elric needs us if he would take his throne and his bride back. We can trust him.”
“You’re full of trust tonight, count,” Yaris smiled thinly, “a rare thing to find in these troubled times. I say this—” He paused and took a long breath, staring at his comrades, summing them up. His gaze flicked from lean-faced Dharmit of Jharkor to Fadan of Lormyr who pursed his podgy lips and looked into the fire.
“Speak up, Yaris,” petulantly urged the patrician-featured Vilmirian, Naclon. “Let’s hear what you have to say, lad, if it’s worth hearing.”
Yaris looked towards Jiku the dandy, who yawned impolitely and scratched his long nose.
“Well!” Smiorgan was impatient. “What d’you say, Yaris?”
“I say that we should start now and waste no more time waiting on Elric’s pleasure! He’s laughing at us in some tavern a hundred miles from here—or else plotting with the Dragon Princes to trap us. For years we have planned this raid. We have little time in which to strike—our fleet is too big, too noticeable. Even if Elric has not betrayed us, then spies will soon be running eastwards to warn the Dragons that there is a fleet massed against them. We stand to win a fantastic fortune—to vanquish the greatest merchant city in the world—to reap immeasurable riches—or horrible death at the hands of the Dragon Princes, if we wait overlong. Let’s bide our time no more and set sail before our prize hears of our plan and brings up reinforcements!”
“You always were too ready to mistrust a man, Yaris.” King Naclon of Vilmir spoke slowly, carefully—distastefully eyeing the taut-featured youth. “We could not reach Imrryr without Elric’s knowledge of the maze-channels which lead to its secret ports. If Elric will not join us—then our endeavour will be fruitless—hopeless. We need him. We must wait for him—or else give up our plans and return to our homelands.”
“At least I’m willing to take a risk,” yelled Yaris, anger lancing from his slanting eyes. “You’re getting old—all of you. Treasures are not won by care and forethought but by swift slaying and reckless attack.”
“Fool!” Dharmit’s voice rumbled around the fire-flooded hall. He laughed wearily. “I spoke thus in my youth—and lost a fine fleet soon after. Cunning and Elric’s knowledge will win us Imrryr—that and the mightiest fleet to sail the Dragon Sea since Melniboné’s banners fluttered over all the nations of the Earth. Here we are—the most powerful sea-lords in the world, masters, every one of us, of more than a hundred swift vessels. Our names are feared and famous—our fleets ravage the coasts of a score of lesser nations. We hold power!” He clenched his great fist and shook it in Yaris’s face. His tone became more level and he smiled viciously, glaring at the youth and choosing his words with precision.
“But all this is worthless—meaningless—without the power which Elric has. That is the power of knowledge—of dream-learned sorcery, if I must use the cursed word. His fathers knew of the maze which guards Imrryr from sea-attack. And his fathers passed that secret on to him. Imrryr, the Dreaming City, dreams in peace—and will continue to do so unless we have a guide to help us steer a course through the treacherous waterways which lead to her harbours. We need Elric—we know it, and he knows it. That’s the truth!”
“Such confidence, gentlemen, is warming to the heart.” There was irony in the heavy voice which came from the entrance to the hall. The heads of the six sea-lords jerked towards the doorway.
Yaris’s confidence fled from him as he met the eyes of Elric of Melniboné. They were old eyes in a fine featured, youthful face. Yaris shuddered, turned his back on Elric, preferring to look into the bright glare of the fire.
Elric smiled warmly as Count Smiorgan gripped his shoulder. There was a certain friendship between the two. He nodded condescendingly to the other four and walked with lithe grace towards the fire. Yaris stood aside and let him pass. Elric was tall, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped. He wore his long hair bunched and pinned at the nape of his neck and, for an obscure reason, affected the dress of a southern barbarian. He had long, knee-length boots of soft doe-leather, a breastplate of strangely wrought silver, a jerkin of chequered blue and white linen, britches of scarlet wool and a cloak of rustling green velvet. At his hip rested his runesword of black iron—the feared Stormbringer, forged by ancient and alien sorcery.
His bizarre dress was tasteless and gaudy, and did not match his sensitive face and long-fingered, almost delicate hands, yet he flaunted it since it emphasized the fact that he did not belong in any company—that he was an outsider and an outcast. But, in reality, he had little need to wear such outlandish gear—for his eyes and skin were enough to mark him.
Elric, Last Lord of Melniboné, was a pure albino who drew his power from a secret and terrible source.
Smiorgan sighed. “Well, Elric, when do we raid Imrryr?”
Elric shrugged. “As soon as you like; I care not. Give me a little time in which to do certain things.”
“Tomorrow? Shall we sail tomorrow?” Yaris said hesitantly, conscious of the strange power dormant in the man he had earlier accused of treachery.
Elric smiled, dismissing the youth’s statement. “Three days’ time,” he said, “Three—or more.”
“Three days! But Imrryr will be warned of our presence by then!” Fat, cautious Fadan spoke.
“I’ll see that your fleet’s not found,” Elric promised. “I have to go to Imrryr first—and return.”
“You won’t do the journey in three days—the fastest ship could not make it.” Smiorgan gaped.
“I’ll be in the Dreaming City in less than a day,” Elric said softly, with finality.
Smiorgan shrugged. “If you say so, I’ll believe it—but why this necessity to visit the city ahead of the raid?”
“I have my own compunctions, Count Smiorgan. But worry not—I shan’t betray you. I’ll lead the raid myself, be sure of that.” His dead-white face was lighted eerily by the fire and his red eyes smouldered. One lean hand firmly gripped the hilt of his runesword and he appeared to breathe more heavily. “Imrryr fell, in spirit, five hundred years ago—she will fall completely soon—for ever! I have a little debt to settle. This is my sole reason for aiding you. As you know I have made only a few conditions—that you raze the city to the ground and a certain man and woman are not harmed. I refer to my cousin Yyrkoon and his sister Cymoril . . .”
Yaris’s thin lips felt uncomfortably dry. Much of his blustering manner resulted from the early death of his father. The old sea-king had died—leaving the youthful Yaris as the new ruler of his lands and his fleets. Yaris was not at all certain that he was capable of commanding such a vast kingdom—and tried to appear more confident than he actually felt. Now he said: “How shall we hide the fleet, Lord Elric?”
The Melnibonéan acknowledged the question. “I’ll hide it for you,” he promised. “I go now to do this—but make sure all your men are off the ships first—will you see to it, Smiorgan?”
“Aye,” rumbled the stocky count.
He and Elric departed from the hall together, leaving five men behind; five men who sensed an air of icy doom hanging about the overheated hall.
“How could he hide such a mighty fleet when we, who know this fjord better than any, found nowhere?” Dharmit of Jharkor said bewilderedly.
None answered him.
They waited, tensed and nervous, while the fire flickered and died untended. Eventually Smiorgan returned, stamping noisily on the boarded floor. There was a haunted haze of fear surrounding him; an almost tangible aura, and he was shivering, terribly. Tremendous, racking undulations swept up his body and his breath came short.
“Well? Did Elric hide the fleet—all at once? What did he do?” Dharmit spoke impatiently, choosing not to heed Smiorgan’s ominous condition.
“He has hidden it.” That was all Smiorgan said, and his voice was thin, like that of a sick man, weak from fever.
Yaris went to the entrance and tried to stare beyond the fjord slopes where many campfires burned, tried to make out the outlines of ships’ masts and rigging, but he could see nothing.
“The night mist’s too thick,” he murmured, “I can’t tell whether our ships are anchored in the fjord or not.” Then he gasped involuntarily as a white face loomed out of the clinging fog. “Greetings, Lord Elric,” he stuttered, noting the sweat on the Melnibonéan’s strained features.
Elric staggered past him, into the hall. “Wine,” he mumbled, “I’ve done what’s needed and it’s cost me hard.”
Dharmit fetched a jug of strong Cadsandrian wine and with a shaking hand poured some into a carved wooden goblet. Wordlessly he passed the cup to Elric who quickly drained it. “Now I will sleep,” he said, stretching himself into a chair and wrapping his green cloak around him. He closed his disconcerting crimson eyes and fell into a slumber born of utter weariness.
Fadan scurried to the door, closed it and pulled the heavy iron bar down.
None of the six slept much that night and, in the morning, the door was unbarred and Elric was missing from the chair. When they went outside, the mist was so heavy that they soon lost sight of one another, though scarcely two feet separated any of them.