Scabbard's Song is the final volume in Kim Hunter's powerful epic fantasy trilogy, the Red Pavilions.
A strange magic was strewn across the sky. It flowed in livid colours – red, yellow, orange, purple, black – mingling, forming many-hued rivers amongst the placid and seemingly unconcerned clouds. It was like lava from a volcano: a hot, searing magic that burned its passage through the azure heavens. Those who saw it were transfixed in wonder. Those who were not looking skyward at the time soon turned their heads upwards up to behold this amazing sight, for the celestial paints reflected on the ground beneath, the sun imprinting the fantastical marbled tinctures on hill and valley.
‘What is that?’ asked Soldier of his wife the Princess Layana. ‘Is it the weather?’
‘You and your weather,’ she said, smiling at him. ‘The people in the world you come from must be obsessed with weather. We hardly talk about it here, yet you speak of it ten times a day. No, it has nothing to do with rain, wind or sunshine. The young wizard is at last stretching his wings, figuratively speaking of course. He is about to fly the nest.’
Layana spoke as if she were perfectly healthy, but in fact she was suffering from a deep loss of memory. She now knew who she was and what her background had been, but only because those around her had informed her of her past. There were certain intrinsic elements to her which a loss of memory could not erase: she had the bearing, walk and speech of the princess she had always been, along with some of the lofty traits of that rank. A family curse had once left her mad, but now the madness had flown with her memory. Soldier was concerned that once her memory returned, the madness would come back too, and it was a terrible lunacy which would have her trying to murder her husband and suffering horrible nightmares.
‘And do battle with OmmullummO, the usurper?’
‘Just so,’ replied Layana. ‘Our witchboy has at last reached maturity.’
The late King Magus had named IxonnoxI as his successor: as the Grand Wizard who managed all the magical forces in the world and kept the balance between good and evil. IxonnoxI however was still a young witchboy when the King Magus had quit his mortal coil and this position of power had been usurped by OmmullummO, IxonnoxI’s father. Since then, assisted by Soldier, the witchboy had been in hiding. Now he was grown into a full wizard and ready to do battle with his father, a creature who had been twisted into insanity by centuries of incarceration in a sealed dungeon. This was IxonnoxI’s message, this magic flung across the sky, telling the usurper that he was coming for his throne in the Seven Peaks.
Soldier had other problems, however. The head of Queen Vanda, Layana’s sister, had been tossed over the walls of Zamerkand just a few days previously. Another usurper, Chancellor Humbold, had executed the queen of the city in defiance of an order to open the gates and admit Soldier. Soldier’s army of Carthagans, the Red Pavilions, were now camped at the base of the walls. This was a foreign army, of mercenaries, which had traditionally guarded the wealthy city of Zamerkand from its enemies, the Hannacks, the beast-people and other barbarian creatures of Falyum, Da-tichett and the Unknown Region to the north-west. Soldier’s Red Pavilions had just humiliated OmmullummO’s hordes of fiends, thus finding revenge for their own defeat. The honour of Carthaga had been restored. For a country whose whole society was founded on its military skill, this had been essential to its existence.
Soldier called a council of war amongst his captains. It was held in one of the huge red tents which normally housed a single regiment of the Carthagan army. Layana had told Soldier she would not be present at the meeting, for it was an internal Carthagan army matter, even though the outcome of the meeting would entirely affect her future. Soldier appreciated her decision. It would have been awkward, having his Guthrumite royal wife listening to the discussion: awkward for him, awkward for her and awkward for any of his captains who wished to voice an opinion.
Velion, the captain of Soldier’s old pavilion, the Eagles, was the first to speak.
‘Never in the history of Carthaga have its mercenaries entered the city they were protecting in order to interfere in politics. At home our elders would be horrified at even the thought of such a thing. Whether Queen Vanda was the rightful ruler or not, and Humbold, who now calls himself king, is but a jumped-up commoner, it is not our business. Our business is to protect, to defend this city against external enemies. What happens within is to do with Guthrumites, not to do with Carthagans.’
She now sat down amongst the other captains and folded her arms to show that she had spoken. Velion would not be allowed to speak again. Each captain had one chance to voice his approval or disapproval of their general’s plan, after which they must hold their peace. This was to prevent long and tedious arguments developing, which went nowhere. You spoke your mind then you shut up and let someone else give an opinion. Next the captain of the Tiger Pavilion stood up. His argument followed much the same lines as Velion’s. So did the next captain’s.
Soldier fought down the feelings of vexation in his breast. He was annoyed with Velion, a close friend and mentor, for starting this trend. Soldier knew, however, that he had to keep his temper under control. He was a man capable of great outbursts of violence, which earned him praise on the battlefield, but were likely to be his downfall off it. He was a man from another world, having slipped through some window between what was for him reality, and this place of mythical creatures and strange wars. Sometime in his old life he had been wronged, or had wronged someone, enough to create a great bitterness and hatred in his heart. Confusion existed in his head too, for he had forgotten who he was or where he came from, and lived under this pseudonym of Soldier, his only link with the past.
‘What?’ he said at last. ‘Have I not led you to great glory? Have I not helped you vanquish those who had humiliated you in battle? Are these the thanks due my wife, the rightful ruler of Zamerkand now that her sister has been cruelly murdered by Humbold and his minion General Kaff?’
The captain of the Wolf Pavilion stood up with a sigh on his lips. ‘You misunderstand us, General. We are eternally grateful for your leadership. You did indeed restore our pride in our army and for that we are yours, hand, head and heart. But what you ask us to do – to enter Zamerkand in arms – is against all our laws. How would our armies find work in other countries and city states if those who hired them knew that at any time they might be invaded by the very force who had been paid to protect them? It is up to the citizens of Zamerkand to overthrow this upstart king, if they do not want him. We cannot interfere. It would put at risk all Carthagan mercenaries throughout the entire known world.’
‘Are you then going to obey the commands of Humbold?’ asked Soldier. ‘This man is a tyrant, a despot. He holds his place in that city through force – the force of his own Imperial Guard. He has installed himself with the use of fear. Those citizens who might oppose him are put to death or thrown into dungeons and tortured. How can the ordinary citizenship rise up against him when he has the Imperial Guard to protect him? Are you this creature’s army now? You saw how he murdered the rightful queen. Surely she was the one who hired you, not him?’
‘We are neither Humbold’s, nor any other king’s army. We belong to the city. You could order our withdrawal, General – that is your right as our leader. We could go home and leave Zamerkand and the rest of Guthrum defenceless. Is that what you would wish us to do?’
Soldier was in an agony of frustration. His wife’s mortal enemy was smugly and snugly installed behind those walls, which could only be breached with a mighty force of arms. It was clear that his Carthagan army would not follow him over the walls or through the gates. Even if General Kaff – damn his eyes and liver – were to parade outside the walls, the Red Pavilions would do nothing to harm him.
Yet, if Soldier were to withdraw his troops from outside the walls, the Hannacks and the beast-people would be back in their hundred thousands, would swarm over the city and destroy the innocent along with the guilty. It could not happen. He could not leave them defenceless – ordinary men, women and children – open to slaughter from invading barbarians. As general of the Carthagan army he could not even challenge Kaff to a duel, for all the same reasons as those which had been given by the captains here today, in this tent. The situation was intolerable. Now he had to go out and tell Layana that her sister’s murderers could not be brought to justice. That they had to be left to their mocking laughter, their sneering from the high walls, and she must bear it all silently.
‘I thank you for your patience, Captains,’ he told them, once all who wished to speak had spoken. ‘You must see I am sorely grieved by the outcome of this meeting, but I realise I cannot persuade you otherwise. It is a bitter blow, but I have to hope that somehow justice is coming, retribution for Humbold and his cronies. Thank you.’
On the way out Captain Velion put her hand on his shoulder, seeking forgiveness with her eyes. Soldier nodded, though a little grimly, and she exited the tent in a sad frame of mind. The two would always be friends. Velion had assisted him in rising from nobody to general. They had saved each other’s lives countless times. In war, they were soulmates. In peace, they were comrades. Soldier knew that she would have rather died than go against him in counsel, so he knew that his case was lost.
When they had all gone, he was left alone in the vast ochre-red tent that smelled of goat’s cheese and lard-fried grits. A raven flew in through the tent opening and landed at his feet. This creature was the very first being that Soldier had met in this bizarre world, when he had awoken on a warm hillside. The talking raven was both a pest and a boon. He was like a child, an urchin, in feathers. He was a boy in feathers. He was Soldier’s ears and eyes in the wider world, but also mocked the general incessantly.
‘Well, well. Got your answer did you, General? Ungrateful whelps, aren’t they? You give them your all and they kick you in the teeth as a thank you.’
‘It’s not like that, bird, and you know it,’ he replied, as always feeling self-conscious when talking to a member of the animal kingdom. ‘They have no choice.’
‘Most of them say they would die for you,’ muttered the raven, hopping from floor to a perch on a tent pole. ‘Humbold and Kaff are having a fine time in there, laughing themselves silly at your antics. You saved them from the barbarian hordes sent by OmmullummO and now you can’t touch them. The twins would help you. Why not call on them?’
The raven spoke of the White Prince and the Rose Prince, Sando and Guido, joint rulers of Bhantan, a city which thrived on rituals. The youthful twin princes of the small city state had come with their own army to help the Carthagans defeat the barbarians, but it had been merely a gesture, though a much appreciated one. The Bhantan army was quite small and not at all well equipped or trained. It was only because Soldier had helped them retrieve their kingdom that they were giving of their allegiance.
‘I’m sure they would come running,’ said Soldier, ‘but I could not ask them, bird. They have their own borders to defend, against the Hannacks. If they leave their city state undefended, while the Hannacks are in Da-tichett and not here, they will lose all they own.’
‘Well, you’re in a pickle then, aren’t you, boss? Kaff is going about with a rat screwed to his wrist-socket and tearing out the throats of all those citizens who still oppose Humbold. Yet you can’t do anything about it? Let the bodies pile up, I say. More eyes for me to peck out. Fill the gibbets and the gallows with bodies. Lots of nice pickings for corbies.’
‘You stop that, you evil-hearted creature.’
This had come from Layana, who had entered the tent without being heard by the other two. The raven squawked, annoyed at being caught out.
‘You should tell that wife of yours that women should remain silent while the men are talking.’
‘I might remind you,’ Soldier said, ‘that you’re a bird!’
‘I was a man once,’ replied the raven, mournfully, ‘or at least a boy. I would be a man now, if it weren’t for that witch, rot her corpse. Now I have to remain a bird, for only she could change me back again, and she’s as dead as a Hannack’s brain cells.’
‘Sometimes I wish I were a bird,’ muttered Soldier, ‘then I wouldn’t have all these problems to solve.’
‘No, then you’d have other problems, like where to find the next meal, how to avoid humans with slingshots, where does a sick raven go when there are no such thing as raven physicians and oh, watch out for that stooping hawk! Ah, Spagg. The one human who smells like a corpse yet is still walking around. Well, I’ll be off to the rich pickings in the streets of Zamerkand. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for you.’
The raven flew out of the doorway, narrowly missing the head of a squat hairy man with a patch over one eye. This was Spagg, the trader in hands-of-glory, who had now become a sort of companion to Soldier.
Layana said, ‘I swear we’ll have that bird for Sunday lunch one day. Husband, I came to tell you that I shall be in my tent,’ she still spoke like a spoiled princess sometimes, believing everything to be hers alone, ‘if you need me.’ She then began to talk of the most intimate of matters, despite the presence of Spagg. Matters which should have been for a husband’s ear alone. The trouble was, having had a lifetime with slaves and servants present in every room of her household, Layana did not acknowledge the presence of such lowly creatures as Spagg. As a royal personage, she treated such individuals as if they were not there.
Spagg hummed softly to himself while the princess asked her husband if she should remain awake: if he had any intentions of making love to her. ‘My dearest love,’ she finished, softly, in a voice pregnant with lust, ‘I am yours if you desire me.’
Spagg’s involuntary humming got louder.
‘Stop that noise, Spagg,’ said Soldier, ‘you’re distracting me. Layana, please! I’m not used to having people present when you speak thus.’
‘People?’ repeated Layana, raising her eyebrows and adding matter-of-factly, ‘Oh, I see. You mean Spagg. Well, you know where I am if you need me.’
Layana left. She was not an unkind woman. In fact she had married Soldier not even knowing who he was, simply to save him from execution. She was a lady with a kind heart. But her upbringing had instilled in her certain princessly traits which she could not expunge. They were a natural part of her. So natural she did not know she had them. Soldier loved her to distraction and knew of her virtues, which were without number, but he could still be embarrassed by such outbursts as these.
‘What did the raven mean by what he said?’ asked Spagg in a hurt voice, once Layana had gone. ‘I smell the same as everyone else.’
‘We won’t get into a debate over that.’ Soldier paused, after staring at Spagg’s face. ‘What happened to you? Or shouldn’t I ask?’
Spagg wiped his lips, which were covered in a pink ointment.
‘My mouth got burned.’
‘Severely burned, by the look of it. Your lips are blistered.’ Knowing of Spagg’s impatient greed, he added, ‘You tried to eat boiling stew!’
‘No, I tried to kiss a witch. I did kiss a witch.’
Soldier laughed, despite the gravity of the situation he was in.
‘Now why would anyone want to kiss a witch? They’re the ugliest creatures in Guthrum. Have you a fondness for warts? The seven gods preserve you, Spagg, you never cease to amaze me.’
‘It was dark,’ cried Spagg, defensively. ‘How was I to know she was a witch? It was that damned Gnarlggut. She was sort of lurking around the tents. I thought she was a strumpet looking for customers. So I grabbed her and said, “Here I am, darlin’,” and gave her a smacker, right on the lips.’ His expression turned sheepish. ‘I’d had a few too many drinks. When my lips stuck to hers I thought we was a match made in heaven, till I smelled burnin’ flesh – my flesh. Then I had to rip away, leavin’ some of my skin behind. She laughed, the sow. She cackled like a crow and walked off, licking around her mouth. Bloody witches.’
‘This is highly entertaining,’ said Soldier. ‘I need a little light relief to escape my troubles. So, when did this raging desire for sex with women overcome you? You’ve always shown remarkable restraint in that direction. Food and drink, yes, you indulge yourself to the full. Money, why that is never safe when you’re around. But women have never been a priority with you, so far as I remember.’
‘Ah, well, you see, I was with Golgath and some of your captains a while before I saw the witch who I thought was a trollop. They was talking about Captain Cossaona, praising him for being a two-lamp man. I’d had a few, as I say, by that time. I was – was jealous of him, this Cossaona. The captains spoke with great envy in their voices. Golgath kept saying that he wished he had Cossaona’s stamina, that he was one of the world’s greatest lovers. Well, I wanted to be a great lover. I wanted men and women to talk about me the way they talked about Cossaona . . .’
‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, you’ve lost me. A two-lamp man? What in Theg’s name is that?’
Spagg was, as usual, amazed by Soldier’s ignorance of certain matters which Guthrumites took for granted. ‘A two-lamp man? Why, you know, some women require their lovers to keep – well, you know, to keep on going until the lamp goes out, before – before . . . you know.’
Spagg was clearly becoming embarrassed, so Soldier helped him out by suggesting, ‘Before reaching orgasm themselves?’
‘Orgasm. I didn’t know there was a proper word for it. I only know the rude one. Yes, that’s it. You know a woman can do it lots of times, to a man’s one time. Well, to satisfy the woman a man needs to keep goin’ and goin’ for a long time without orgamating. So the woman fills the lamp with oil, lays naked and spread-eagled on the silk pillows like an offering to the gods, and says, “Off you trot, my lovely husky hunk, until the wick dims and the light goes out, then you yourself may orgamate.”’
‘Climax is the word we normally use. I’m not sure the scribes would approve of orgamate. So, a two-lamp man is one who can keep going for the length of time it takes two lamps, one after the other, to burn through their oil.’ Soldier was intrigued. ‘What about the size of the lamp?’
‘Oh, it’s got to be a standard-sized lamp. You can’t have ’em coming in with an oil lamp the size of an elephant, can you? I mean, fair’s fair. But, you see, all this talk got me going . . .’
‘You know all the proper words, don’t you? Yes, roused me up, until I thought I had to have a woman. So off I went, looking for one. A willing one, o’ course. I don’t hold with forcing a woman.’
‘I should think not – I hang my warriors for that.’
‘Yes, and quite right too, General. No, I was looking for a willing partner, and saw this maid lurking around, lookin’ under tent flaps, as if calling for custom. She had the right sort of shape to her, so I grabbed her and gave her a kiss. I mean, that’s not forcin’ her, is it?’
‘It is certainly taking liberties with a stranger, Spagg, and if that had been a young maid, and not an elderly crone, you might have been in great trouble. As it is, there is no reason why witches can’t bring charges for unlawful assault, but since Gnarlggut hasn’t brought it to my attention you might get away with it this time. Let this be a strong lesson to you, Spagg, not to attack – yes, it’s no good looking at me like that – attack females. Seek their consent first. What if that had been my wife?’
‘My head would be on a pointed stick by now?’
‘Exactly, decorating my bedpost. Think before you act. You may accost all the cream cakes and beer bottles in the kingdom you like, but do not force unwanted attentions on females ‘I’m sorry I told you all this now. I didn’t want a lecture, I wanted sympathy. I should’ve said it was hot soup. Well, thanks for nothin’, General, I’m off for a walk.’ He glanced nervously towards the tent opening. ‘I only hope that witch ain’t about. She might of got a taste for me. You can’t trust witches, you know. They ain’t as law-abiding as us real people.
An’ they’re like man-eating tigers – once they get a taste for human flesh . . .’