- THE CHRONICLE OF THE BLACK SWORD Wheldrake's tr.
MY NAME IS Oonagh, granddaughter of the Countess Oona von Bek. This is my story of Elric, the White Wolf, and Onric, the White Wolf's son, of a talking beast in the World Below, of the League of Temporal Adventurers, the Knights of the Balance and those who serve the world; of the wonders and terrors I experienced as the forces of Law and Chaos sought the power of the Black Sword, found the source of Hell and the San Grael. All this happened several years ago, when I was still a child. It is only now that I feel able to tell my story.
As usual, I was spending my summer holidays at the old family house in Ingleton, West Yorkshire. My father had been born there before his natural parents were killed in Africa, and he had inherited it when still a small boy. It was kept in trust by my grandparents until he was twenty-one.
Tower House was an old place. The main part dated back to the seventeenth century. There was a big late-Victorian addition, built from local granite, put on when the building was turned into a girls' boarding school in the 1890s. By the 1950s it had been split into several dwellings and sold to separate owners. My grandparents had helped my father turn the house back to its former glory. This meant that any guests generally had an entire wing to themselves. There was even a flat over the old stables, now a garage, where the permanent housekeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Hawthornthwaite, lived.
My grandparents, Count and Countess von Bek, had come to love the place and now remained there almost permanently, only going down to London for the theater season or to visit doctors and dentists. They were a hearty old couple. My grandfather was at least ninety, and my grandmother, though she did not seem it, must have been close to seventy. Everyone remarked on how youthful she looked. I was not the only family member to notice how, beneath her makeup, her face was actually younger, softer. "Good skins run in the family," said my mother. She never seemed to notice the oddness of that remark. Even Grandma's slower movements and apparent absentmindedness seemed designed to deceive you into thinking she was older. Of course, she should have looked older, given that she had married my granddad in the 1940s, after the Second World War. But at that time in my life I didn't really think much about it. Perhaps she aged herself to save my grandfather's pride? No one else in the family mentioned it, so I didn't think a lot about it, either.
We had been going up to Yorkshire for the summer holidays ever since I was tiny. My mum and dad had spent the summers there long before I was born. I knew every inch of Storrs Common, the brook, the old caves all around the area, the abandoned mine workings down past Beesley's farm on the path to the famous waterfalls. The falls themselves roared through a deep gorge in thick woods. The farms on the other side of the dale tried to charge tourists for walking in that beauty spot. This kept them fairly free of all but the most dedicated visitors! In Victorian times, trains had run special excursions to the Ingleton Falls, but now there was no station, let alone a railway.
All that was left of Ingleton's former glory were the reproductions of old photographs showing ladies in bustles and big hats posing beside one of the main falls. School parties came occasionally, little crocodiles of captive kids with packed lunches in their haversacks, trudging moodily along the high paths above the river. But most of the time it was still fairly remote country. I saw the occasional big red English squirrel in the oaks and hazels, and I had seen my first crayfish by the stepping-stones through that part of the river we called "the shallows." You could sometimes catch trout if you fished patiently, but the water was too fast-running to attract most anglers. During high summer and autumn there were few visitors. People were no longer allowed to park on the common across from our house, mainly because of the erosion so many walkers had created. Instead they had to park in the village, and for many the paved road up to the common was too steep.
We were used to that road. It was only half a mile, a bit less if you went the back way. Although a trip to the village took you about an hour, you could still get down to buy fish-and-chips, the occasional sweets and comics, or have a look in the souvenir shop. If it took more than an hour, it was because someone wanted to chat. We were on good terms with almost everyone there. It had taken my mum and dad a few years to be accepted, especially by our neighboring hill farmers, but now even they remembered my name most of the time.
The place nearest to us was another half an hour up the hill. Without running water, the big old farmhouse was accessible by a rough cart track which even four-wheel-drive Jeeps found hard to handle. Having no significant land attached to it, the house tended to change hands quite often. We rarely saw much of the occupants, who were almost always natural recluses. The place was known as Starr Bottom, and when we were small, my older brothers and sisters had sworn it was haunted. Shaggy free-range sheep still grazed up to the foundations of its rather neglected drystone walls.
Tower House had no gas, but it had electricity, central heating, fireplaces and a huge coke-fired stove in the big granite-flagged kitchen which had once served the whole school. It was built on the side of Ingleborough, one of the famous Three Peaks, and had a view over twenty miles of rolling hills and dales to the Atlantic at Morecombe Bay. On a clear day you could see even further from the central tower: a beautiful, rugged landscape, whose limestone glittered in the sunshine and whose hawthorns bowed close to the crags, telling of our high winds and winter snows. Our scenery was made famous in old TV series like All Creatures Great and Small, and preserved in its original beauty by the National Trust and the farmers who loved it.
We were a short distance from the Lake District and in easy driving distance of Leeds, so the house was convenient for almost any kind of activity. Sometimes we would drive into Leeds for the fun of it, visit one of Dad's old friends and spend an afternoon in those wonderful covered markets, the Arcades, all dark green Victorian iron girders and sparkling glass. I loved our trips to Leeds.
Only one episode spoils the memory of my early childhood in Yorkshire. I would wake in my bed with a full moon streaming into the window, showing me all the things of my daytime life: toy boxes, modeling table, audio stuff, books, various projects I had half started, but they had all taken on a mysterious and even sinister quality. As I sank back into sleep, I remember screaming a loud, terrible scream which did not wake me, but which I learned later woke the rest of the house. I don't remember much else. I always woke up very frightened.
I remember one dream which was especially terrifying and which remained in my memory (whereas the others tended to fade): I was out on the common and had somehow wandered into a deep cave. I was lost but knew home was fairly close. I just had to find it. Below me, in semidarkness, was some sort of city with pale, slender towers like spikes of rock. And these strange creatures were coming towards me, pointing. They were not particularly unfriendly, these figures in high, conical hats, almost like elongated Ku Klux Klansmen. I couldn't make out their faces, yet I was sure they weren't fully human. I heard a shout and looked back. There was a man following me. I was more frightened of him than of the creatures approaching me. His face, too, was in shadow, beneath the broad brim of a black hat. He had a wide white collar worn over a black jerkin. A Puritan. Trying to escape them all, I darted aside and was suddenly in a deep, peaceful greenwood. For a moment I felt safe. Then I saw a man with bone-white skin and red eyes standing on a large bough over the path I was on. He was dressed in a long turban, vividly colored cloak and sashes swirling around him, his large black sword held high as he reached towards me across the treetops. "How ...?" he said. He was mouthing a question I couldn't hear. He could only help me if I answered him. He reminded me of my granddad, but was much younger. I knew he was trying to save me, but something was stopping him. "How ...? Grunewald? Mittelmarch?" Those are the only words I remembered.
Then I was running from him, too, running down towards where the men in conical hats waited for me, running straight into the tall body of yet another bizarre creature who looked down at me with kindly brown eyes. I think he was a friend of my grandfather's. A huge red fox, dressed elaborately in late-eighteenth-century finery, who smiled his pleasure at seeing me, displaying sharp, white teeth.
"Well, I suppose I'm in good hands," I said, trying to show I was grateful for his friendship.
"Paws," he said, with the literal logic of a dream, "actually. My dear mademoiselle, we must hurry ..."
Then the Puritan was behind him, his skull-like face grinning as he lifted a huge pistol and shot the fox in the back. With a look of surprise and grief, the fox fell.
I began to run again ...
I was screaming.
The local doctor was called, but he wasn't much help. After trying me on a few different prescriptions, he eventually admitted he was baffled. I then had a psychiatrist for a few sessions until I started to get better on my own as the dreams, or feelings, never recurred. I could still remember the people of that dream, but Mr. Handforth, the local vicar and a bit of a family friend, was the most help. He took me seriously and said I seemed to have quite a lot of "guardian angels" looking out for my safety. In his deep, cultured accents he spoke of my troubled spirit. He thought I had been a soul under attack.
"And should we worry that she believes herself under attack?" I remember my father asking him.
"Mr. Beck, she was under attack," the vicar insisted. "I'm convinced of it. There is no saying those forces will never be back. But meanwhile ..." He spread his hands and sighed.
"Strange that of all of us, she should not have been spared," I was puzzled by my grandmother saying one day. I had no idea what she meant, and didn't really let it bother me much. Then, as my dreams stopped coming, I forgot all about it, though I did like the idea of the giant fox. He was like something out of Alice in Wonderland!
My grandparents' family estate had been in Germany, but my grandfather had given the whole place over to the nation years ago to use as a rest home for aged people suffering from dementia. Granddad was a tall, rather gaunt man, strikingly handsome as my grandma was beautiful. She was stockier, though equally striking. Remarkably, they were both pure albinos with rare red eyes, just like the man I had seen in those dreams. The two of them were clearly deeply in love. As he grew frail, she grew ever more solicitous of his health. Though my parents clearly loved the count and countess, they sometimes thought them a little old-fashioned with their decided opinions about modern pop culture! My mum and dad liked rock-and-roll, but Countess von Bek, for instance, had decided opinions about modern pop music! The only light music she was willing to accept was played by the 1930s big bands.
My grandparents' own circle of friends occasionally visited Ingleton. An odd, often bohemian collection of old people, they sometimes seemed a little remote from us but evidently took pleasure in seeing children about and almost always brought us gifts. They would disappear off to my grandparents' wing of the house or go for long walks, talking about obscure and mysterious things. We were never particularly curious about them. Some, we gathered, had been anti-Nazis in Germany and had known our parents during the Second World War.
We spent most of the year in London, so we knew how to look after ourselves, but we enjoyed immense freedom in Yorkshire. We were allowed to range across the fells at will as long as we took our cell phones. We weren't idiots. We avoided going down into the various cave systems which ran under large parts of the hillside. These systems were the haunt of cavers, desperate to discover new and connecting routes, just as the high, shining terraces were favorite places for climbers, some of whom returned every year and were known to us. Gradually, under their expert if slightly condescending supervision, my brother and sister and I learned technical rock climbing as well as caving. Yorkshire was just the greatest place I knew in the whole world.
My adventure began on one of those slow, wonderful, dreaming, sparkling summer afternoons you get in the dales. The whole landscape takes on a magical quality. It's easy to imagine you're in fairyland. The lazy air is full of insects, the grass full of surprising little plants, such as wild orchids and fritillaria, all different kinds of mosses and the tiny creatures living in them. The hills seem endless and the days infinite. Only an idiot couldn't love it. But that day I had no company.
My dad had driven my grandparents into Lancaster to get the train to London, and my mum had gone with him, taking my brother, Alfy, and sister, Gertie, to shop for new shoes and some art supplies. They had a few other plans, so they would probably not be back until the evening. I had stayed behind because I thought one of my favorite old films was coming on the television. They had left Mrs. Hawthornthwaite, a kindly dumpling of a lady, in charge of me. Only after they'd gone did I discover that I had misread the TV Guide; my film, The Thief of Bagdad, had been on the previous week. Now I had nothing to look forward to and was doubly bored.
After lunch Mrs. H, probably irritated by my deep sighs, told me it was all right if I wanted to go down to the shallows (our end of the river where it emerged from the woods) to look for fish. It wasn't the most exciting option, but it was better than hanging around watching her load and unload the washing machine, since she wouldn't allow me to help her.
As usual, I took the cell phone. I had instructions to phone her if I needed her or got into any sort of trouble. "Mr. H can be down there in a minute or two," she assured me as she saw me off. "It doesn't matter how silly or trivial a feeling you get; just phone up. He'll know what to do. And if there's nowt to do, so much the better. He needs to be kept busy."
Mr. Hawthornthwaite, an amiable man with a shock of snow-white hair and with startling blue eyes in ruddy features, was up in the Tower mending a pipe and could be heard cursing mildly from time to time as metal clanged against metal.
I put one of Mum's old Indian bags over my shoulder. Its tassels hung down almost to the ground, but it was the best thing I had to carry my bits and pieces in, including the phone. On the way to the river I spent some while playing around in a ruined building we called the Castle. It was actually part of an old quarry, with a loading platform and rail tracks still running into it where the First World War graphite trucks used to unload, transferring the stuff to the steam train which ran along a narrow-gauge line to Ingleton Station. The remains of the graphite mill was on the other side of the village. It had blown up in 1917. Some thought it was the work of German saboteurs, but my dad said it was probably due to someone's neglect.
Rural Yorkshire has dozens of similar abandoned workings and buildings. There was still an active gravel quarry up the road from us. Occasionally we could hear them dynamiting. Their explosives were why we were never allowed to go into any local caves. A man and his two children had been trapped in White Scar Cave some years ago, hiding from a bull, and only luck had saved them. The quarrymen were not the only ones to use explosives. Even today you would hear a thump and the house would shake, usually because the least responsible cavers, the hooligans of the caving world, were dynamiting new routes into the systems below!
Excerpted from The White Wolf's Son by Michael Moorcock Copyright © 2005 by Michael Moorcock and Linda Moorcock. Excerpted by permission.
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