Set in a world of dark magic and strange creatures, where ambition, jealousy and war are rife, Knight's Dawn is the first volume in Kim Hunter's classic fantasy trilogy, the Red Pavilions.
‘Wake up, wake up, someone is near!’
The knight wearily opened his eyelids. There was a dead snake near his foot, with a bloody cudgel next to it. A raven hopped around the snake and stick, yelling at him.
The light hurt his eyes. A pale white sun glared down on the knight from the heavens. He was on a hillside, a slope, on which there had been a great battle. All his muscles ached from the fighting. He felt utterly fatigued. It was all very hazy to him now, blurred and warped. He tried to recall what he had been doing in this battle and who the armies were.
If he allowed his mind to look back he could see the battle in full bloody murder. Around him he beheld a great heaving mess of men, armies rolling one over the other, multitudes of men tumbling like waves of water into hordes of other men. They hacked with battleaxes, thrust with swords and spears, beat each other with maces. Weapon points entered flesh through seams and chinks in armour. Arrows thudded into the chests of knights, penetrating breastplates as if they were paper. Heads and torsos were split asunder. Skulls were battered and crushed by warhammers. There was fire and blood and the bright flashes of a hundred thousand blades, lance heads, pike tips.
‘There he is! Do you see him? Down by the tree line.’
The vision of the past washed away and the knight’s eyes were clear once again. He stared at the area indicated by the raven. There was a horseman down there, wrapped from head to foot, swathed in calico dyed with indigo, only his eyes exposed. The man was a obviously a lone hunter. He rode his piebald steed with his knees only, leaving his hands free. On his left wrist was a hawk wearing trailing scarlet jesses. There were golden bells on its ankles. In the hunter’s right hand was a small black crossbow, with a bolt in the breech.
‘I see him,’ said the knight, not considering why he was talking to a bird. There was too much other strangeness in the air to worry about things perhaps unthreatening. ‘I shall keep him in view.’
In his mind’s ear he now heard the shrieks of wounded and dying men on the hillside around him. Some cried for a physician, some for their mothers, some for their comrades. The cries were pitiful to hear. There was the yell of a decapitated head, as it continued its shout of terror even after leaving the shoulders of its owner. There was the clashing of steel on steel, thousandfold, ringing through the surrounding hills. Screams, groans, death rattles. It was a cacophony which filled the knight’s head. The bullroarers and the trumpets. The animal-skin drums and the log-drums. The whistles and bladderpipes and ox-horns. To the ears of the animals in the woodlands and valleys, this deafening discord must have sounded like the end of the world. Especially when their own kind were being slaughtered: the noise of screaming horses as they are disembowelled by the lances of knights, or limb-lopped by foot-soldiers, is something no creature ever forgets.
‘See,’ said the raven, ‘the hunter views his quarry.’
A purple heron flew overhead and the hunter released his hawk. The raptor shot skyward, after the heron which had now swerved in flight. There were few signs of panic in the fleeing prey. Only the leisurely flapping of the great wings and the harpoon head stretched a little further forward.
At that moment, while all eyes were on the hawk and the heron, a black boar broke cover. It rushed at the hunter’s steed from the flank. The horse’s eyes rolled and it whinnied in fright, rearing to the right. The hunter steadied his mount with his knees and took careful aim with the crossbow. There was a thwunk and the bolt struck the boar in the brain. The beast’s legs folded under it and it rolled, crashing into a thicket, dead as a rock. The hunter then looked up to see the heron plummeting from the sky, the hawk having stooped and struck.
‘We should go and speak with this man,’ said the raven.
For the first time the knight turned his attention to the talking bird.
‘Who are you? What are you? Did you come to feed upon the dead?’
‘Dead? What dead?’ asked the bird.
The knight looked about him quickly and then remembered. It had all taken place in his mind. Yet he knew there had been a battle. Looking down at himself he saw that he was wounded in a number of places. They were not serious cuts or abrasions, but they were fresh. His uniform was filthy and in tatters and he wore the remnants of bloodstained armour. He was caked in sweat and dust. His throat was parched: choked with the same dust that decorated his clothes. From his belt hung an empty black-and-silver scabbard, twisted and bent. Stitched on the leather of the scabbard in silver-wire thread were the words, Kutrama and Sintra. The knight was suddenly bewildered. Who was he? What was his name? Why was he lying on this hot hillside, talking to a raven who was looking at him as if he were a corpse?
‘Why do you stare at me like that?’
The bird said, ‘A crow can look at a king.’
‘Well, I don’t like it. If you want to end up on a gibbet, just keep on doing it.’
‘Irritable beggar, aren’t we? No need to get annoyed. I was just looking at your eyes. They’re blue. I’ve never seen eyes that colour before. Everyone around here has brown eyes.’
The knight, who had been unaware of the colour of his eyes, touched his eyelids.
They turned away from each other to stare at the hunter, who was now gathering up the carcass of the boar and strapping it to the rump of his mount. His hawk was enjoying the brains of the heron, where the hunter had cracked its skull with a rock. This was the raptor’s reward for a clean kill. The hunter then sat on a rock and began plucking the heron, purple feathers flying over his shoulders. As the knight descended, the raven hopping on behind, the hunter had finished cleaning and gutting the heron and was preparing a wood fire on which to roast it.
There was a beck nearby. The knight went straight to this and began scooping up the water to drink: clear water, but not sparkling. It was midday, the sun horizontally overhead, but the warmth from it was weak.
The knight was then aware that the hunter was speaking to him.
‘Are you in need of assistance?’
The hunter’s voice was confident, firm, but not very deep. He looked and sounded like a slimly-built youth and his delicate movements offended the knight’s masculinity. Dark-brown eyes stared at him from a band of flesh beneath the swathes of blue calico. There was enquiry there, if not concern.
‘Where am I?’ asked the knight. ‘Has there been a battle here?’
The hunter said, ‘Your eyes – they’re blue.’
‘Does that matter?’
The hunter shrugged and delivered answers which were crisp and to the point. ‘You are just south of the Ancient Forest, near the petrified pools of Yan. To my knowledge there has been no battle hereabouts for over a century.’
‘But, that can’t be true. Look at me!’ He opened his arms and invited inspection. ‘I am wounded. My uniform is in shreds.’
‘I cannot account for your condition. There has been no battle here. What is your name? From what country are you? This is not a time to be wandering Guthrum alone. There are brigands and bandits abroad, and the queen’s soldiers are suspicious of lone travellers. They have licence to execute strangers found roaming the countryside. If you do not end up with a broken skull, you might be hanged from gallows such as those you see on that hill.’
The knight looked up. In the distance, beyond the stream, was a triple-gallows, with several corpses hanging from it. As the soldier stared at this place of execution, seemingly miles from any village, town or city, he noticed that few of the hanged figures had hands on the ends of their arms.
‘Guthrum,’ murmured the knight, grasping at the word and inspecting it closely. ‘That name should probably mean something to me, but it doesn’t. And as for my own name, I can’t remember it. Do I even have a name? I feel I am in some kind of dream, or nightmare. I know nothing about myself.’
‘Perhaps you are mad?’ suggested the hunter, matter-of-factly.
‘No, no. I do not feel mad.’
‘Madmen never do. To whom were you speaking, as you were coming down the hill? To yourself?’
‘Why, no,’ the knight turned and pointed to the raven, hopping on some stones in the stream. ‘To that bird. It speaks as well as you or me. Raven, say something to the hunter.’
The raven simply sipped at the running water with its beak. It looked like any of the other birds in the area. There was no comprehension in its demeanour or its eyes.
The hunter nodded slowly. ‘I think you are mad.’ He pointed to the roasted heron carcass, part of which he had already eaten. ‘You may have some of that if you’re hungry. Then I must be on my way.’
‘Wait!’ said the knight, quickly. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Why, back to Zamerkand of course. I would rather return home before nightfall. If this countryside is dangerous during the day, it is ten times worse at night. There are bears and wolves to contend with, not to mention—’
‘Take me with you,’ pleaded the knight. ‘I have no weapon with which to defend myself and I don’t know the way. I can assist you if you are attacked. Forgive me, but you do not look strong enough to defend yourself against enemies on the road.’
The eyes hardened. ‘Did you see me kill the boar?’
‘Hunting is a different matter. It takes more than a sharp eye to kill a human. You need the strength of will.’
‘Strength of will? A moment ago it was my physique that was important – now it’s whether I have the stomach for killing. You really should make up your mind what it is about me that you find lacking.’ The hunter stared hard for a few moments, then nodded. ‘You may follow my horse. I can’t take you up behind me because, as you see, I am carrying a wild boar.’
The knight felt inclined to argue that his life was more precious than a boar’s carcass, but the hunter had already swung himself back into his saddle. The hawk had taken to the air again, but the hunter whirled a silver lure around his head, on a long piece of cord, and the hawk came down to his wrist. Then the hunter set off at a leisurely pace, his palfrey high-stepping through the woods, the ground being spongy with thickmoss. The knight, weary though he was, trotted on behind chewing on a drumstick. At one point the raven flew down from a branch and landed on his shoulder, to whisper in his ear, ‘You’re mad, you are. Fancy talking to a black bird.’
The bird then flew away, leaving the knight bemused and angry, wondering whether indeed the raven was right.
During the journey the hunter stopped once to treat the knight’s wounds with herbs and healing plants. The cuts were fairly superficial, but there was still a danger of infection. Deep inside him was a bitterness, a hatred for something he could not explain to himself. These feelings were like dark shadows in his soul, but he did not know what was casting them.
In the forest, great spiders’ webs joined high oak branches with the ground. The soldier inadvertently ran through these, getting his face and hands gummed with the sticky threads. When they left the woods and began crossing boggy ground, there were clusters and knots of snakes in every peat hag: far too many to be natural. Every so often they came across another gallows, with hanged people dangling from the bar. In most cases the hands were missing, though some fresh corpses were intact. The knight wanted to ask the hunter about this, but could not catch his breath enough to be able to hold a conversation.
After three hours of travelling, when the clouds were pink islands in the evening sky, the two men crested a ridge. The knight found himself looking down on an immense walled city with turrets and towers rising as thick as spears from an army of closely-packed warriors. Zamerkand.
There were flags and banners fluttering from every pinnacle. Dark, triangular windows peppered these spires and the wind blew through them and played melodies as if they were holes in a flute. Domes and cupolas crowned every other one of the tall columns, upon which the weak evening sunlight glittered with malevolent sheen.
The knight’s aerial view revealed that within this massive fortification of tall spiky buildings were several palaces, parks, gardens and courtyards. Fountains showered expansive lawns, around which were myrtle hedges, shrubberies and spinneys of conifers and deciduous trees. There were bright lakes and moats that f lashed in the evening light. Moreover, a whole town existed within the city walls, with houses, cobbled streets, stalls and cattle pens.
Around the city were at least a hundred large tents – sandstone-red in colour.
An arched stone tunnel ran from one side of the city, across the open wooded countryside, its terminus out of sight beyond the hilly downs and woodland sweeps. The hunter explained that beneath this fortified tunnel lay a canal, straight as a silver arrow, which connected the city with the sea. Along this canal went trading barges, protected from attack by six-foot-thick walls, to meet with ships coming and going from a natural harbour on the Cerulean Sea. Trade with countries like Uan Muhuggiag, across the blue water, was brisk and profitable. It kept the citizens of Zamerkand reasonably wealthy, even during times of siege, when the countryside was ravaged by fighting.
‘What a wonderful place,’ said the knight, pausing to drink in this magnificent scene. He looked around him, at the silhouettes of several gallows on the neighbouring ridges, and down before the city gates at what appeared at a distance to be severed heads stuck on sharpened stakes. ‘Unlike the countryside in which it resides.’
‘Ah, as to that,’ said the hunter, having alighted, ‘you must understand that HoulluoH is dying. His grip on the world has slipped, and people are fearful. But all will be well soon. Things will right themselves once the new King Magus is in command.’
‘King Magus?’ queried the knight.
The hunter placed a slim hand on the knight’s shoulder, which made the tall, dark stranger to this land feel uneasy.
‘You really are a newcomer, aren’t you? Guthrum,my friend, is a region of many wizards, the greatest of which is the King Magus. It is he who ensures that those who have the power of magic do not abuse it. He maintains a balance in the land, between good and evil, nature and supernature, magicians and ordinary folk.’
‘Do the wizards have blue eyes?’ asked the knight, hopefully, wondering if he had special powers.
‘My dear friend, no one in Guthrum has blue eyes.’
The knight shrugged off the over-friendly hand from his shoulder.
‘I am not your dear friend and would prefer it,’ he said, ‘if you did not touch me in that manner.’
There was a twinkling in the eyes of the other, who appeared to be smiling beneath the mask of blue calico. The knight knew he was being mocked, but could not do anything since he was in debt to this person.
‘As you wish, soldier, but you may be in need of a friend in these troubled times, here in Guthrum.’
Soldier? That was as good a name as any. He had no other. Until his memory returned and he knew his identity he would call himself Soldier. It was a manly name, if nothing else.
‘I can take care of myself,’ he said. ‘Don’t you worry about me.’
Soldier stared down at the castle again. In the ruddy light of the dying sun, blood-scarlet in contrast to the whiteness of its midday face, he could see the red pavilions surrounding the city. He estimated that each pavilion would probably accommodate eighty to a hundred men and there were around a hundred pavilions. Ten thousand men. Each one of the pavilions had a pennon flying from the tip of the centre pole. These pennons bore a symbol but the distance was too great to identify them. When he asked the hunter he was told they were animal symbols – boars, eagles, falcons, cats, dogs – which denoted a company of men. Each pavilion was an entity unto itself and loyal in the first place to its commander. In battle it was the honour of the pavilion which was foremost in the minds of the soldiers. Men lived, fought and died for the pavilion and nothing was permitted to smirch its honour.
‘Who are in the pavilions?’ he asked. ‘Do they guard some visiting royal or noble?’
‘Mercenary soldiers,’ replied the hunter. ‘Troops from the land of Carthaga. Queen Vanda uses them to supplement her own army, when she is forced to wage war. Actually the Carthagans do the brunt of the fighting, while the Guthrumites usually end up supporting them. They have special qualities. They are brilliant warriors – brave, selfless, disciplined, dedicated to their duty – they’ve been in the pay of Guthrum for centuries now and are intensely loyal to us. Each soldier serves twenty years then returns to Carthaga. He can keep his whole extended family on his pay while he is a serving soldier and he receives a huge bonus for completing his time.’
‘Why are they outside the city walls?’
The hunter shrugged. ‘It’s the way it has always been. They never enter the city. Perhaps at one time they were not wholly trustworthy? It has become tradition now. The Guthrumite imperial guards are responsible for policing inside the city and for protecting the royal family. Carthagans protect the city from attack by outside hostile forces. If a larger army is required, then the citizens are armed and put in the field.’
Soldier and the hunter then descended from the ridge, with the raven somewhere around in the gathering gloom. As they approached the city Soldier could see that the Carthagans were a squat, broad-shouldered people. They were swarthy, with flat faces and square frames. He and the hunter were not stopped or accosted while they passed through the red pavilions. Soldier assumed this was because they were only two and hardly a threat to an army of ten thousand tough, battle-hardened warriors.
Soldier decided it would be a different story when they reached the gates of the city, decorated with an avenue of heads on stakes.
They walked through this ghastly gauntlet. Matted hair hung over eyesockets picked clean by the birds. Tongues, also attacked by birds and insects, hung from between swollen lips. Noses and cheeks were pitted by the weather and other agents of destruction.
‘Help me,’ whispered one particularly gruesome skull as Soldier passed it by. ‘Help me, please!’
Soldier turned and stared at the head, startled by the voice, only to see the stalking raven squatting inside, staring out through one of the empty eyesockets.
‘Fooled you,’ murmured the raven, in a satisfied tone. ‘Fancy a bit of dinner? Plenty here.’
With that the black bird left the back of the skull and began pecking at the rotting flesh.
‘You’re disgusting,’ said Soldier, curling his bottom lip.
The hunter said, ‘Were you speaking to me?’
‘No, no,’ replied Soldier, wearily, ‘just to the raven. You know? My madness? I am a lunatic after all.’
‘Just so,’ said the hunter. ‘Come, we must enter the city before the gates are locked for the night. Otherwise we might have to share the hospitality of one of these pavilions. Good fighting men the Carthagans might be, but they are also among the legions of the sweaty and unwashed. Their favourite fare is wild-oat porridge dried in the sun, cut into slabs and fried in goat’s lard. If you want to sleep with the stink of axle grease in your nostrils and breakfast on oats fried in animal fat, that’s fine, but I rather look forward to a supper of fish and almonds, followed by a night in clean sheets bearing the fragrance of sandalwood.’
‘You would,’ muttered Soldier, under his breath, ‘but I doubt I’ll see better fare than fried porridge.’