Authors: David Gemmell
Knights Of Dark Renown
He was nine years old, torn between grief and joy, and he was flying beneath the stars and above a land bathed in moonlight. It was a dream. Even at nine years old he knew that people did not really fly. But still, at this moment, dream or no, he was alone and free.
No one to chastise him for stealing a honey-cake, no one to beat him for failing to see a finger-mark on the silver as he polished and polished hour upon hour.
Somewhere - though he knew not where - his mother lay cold in death, and the grief was like hot knives in his soul. But, as children will, he forced it from his mind and looked to the bright, diamond stars. They seemed so close and he tried to soar towards them. But ever they remained, glittering and cold, far from his reach. He slowed in his flight and gazed down.
The land of the Gabala was so small now, and the world so large. The Forest of the Ocean lay beneath him like a wolf pelt, the mountains merely wrinkles in an old man’s skin. He dropped lower, falling, spinning towards the ground, and screamed in his fear as the mountains roared up towards him, jagged and threatening. His dizzy fall slowed and he floated once more. On the sea beyond Pertia Port he could see the great triremes with their square sails, their oars lifted - and on the land the lights of the towns and cities. Four huge braziers were lit on the walls of Mactha fortress, twinkling like candles on a cake. He sped away from the lights towards the distant mountains.
He wished he might never go home; wished he could float like this for ever, safe from the many tortures of slavery. While his mother had been alive there had been someone who cared for him - not as a slave boy but as Lug, the child, flesh of her flesh. Her arms had always been open to him.
Grief and pain swamped him once more. When she had become ill Lug had been told she needed rest. . . but it did not help. They had sent for the healer, Gwydion, but he was away in the city of Furbolg. Lug had watched the flesh vanish from his mother’s features, seen her change from a living, loving woman to a skeletal creature whose eyes could look at him without recognition, and whose arms did not have the strength to open for him.
And then she was gone . . . while he slept. He had kissed her good-night and been led away to a room he now shared with five other boys. In the morning he had finished his chores and run to her chamber, only to find her covered with a white linen sheet. This he had pulled back from her face. The eyes were closed, the mouth open. And no trace of breath or movement could be seen.
The elderly house slave Patricaeus had found him there and carried him back to his own room. Lug had been aware of the old man, but he could not move. He was frozen in shock. He felt himself tucked up into Patricaeus’ bed, the warm blankets around his shoulders, but he could not even close his eyes. The old man had stroked his face, and gently closed his lids.
For a long while Lug had slept. Then something inside him snapped - and his spirit had sailed free into the night air.
He shivered, though he felt no cold, and wished he could bring his mother back. Just then his eye was caught by movement far below. A line of riders, nine of them, were riding out into the night on tall white horses. Lug dropped towards them and saw that they were Knights dressed in silver armour, white cloaks draping to their saddles. They formed into a line in a meadow, and white mist billowed around the horses’ hooves like a ghostly sea. On a nearby hillside Lug saw a man, his face partly hidden by a dark hood on a velvet cloak. The man was chanting, but the language was unknown to the boy. The Knights sat silently as the mist deepened.
Lug came closer, avoiding the chanting man and settling himself on another hillside near some trees. As he came to the ground he sank through it; a touch of panic spurred him and he rose again, wishing that he were solid. The wish became reality and he sat down upon the grass. The mist had not reached the upper slopes of the hill and he settled down to watch the Knights.
Their armour glistened in the moonlight, round helms under tall black plumes, silver neck-plates linked to curving shoulder-guards, engraved breastplates, thigh-guards and greaves. Yet they carried no shields.
Nine riders on nine white stallions. . . .
Lug remembered the stories Patricaeus told in the Slaves’ Hall at the Solstice Feast - and he knew then upon whom he spied.
The legendary Knights of the Gabala.
Lug did not know their names - save that the Lord Knight was Samildanach, the greatest swordsman in the realm. The boy scanned the group. There at the centre, taller than the others, shining silver raven wings adorning his helmet, was Samildanach, sitting silently . . . waiting.
But for what?
Lug transferred his gaze to the chanting man and suddenly the horses began to whinny in fear. The Knights held them steady, and Lug’s mouth dropped open, for the stars were disappearing from the sky as a great black gateway formed before the riders. A sliver of silver grey appeared in the rectangle of black and a bitter wind howled through the opening. Then the mist rose like a huge wave to engulf the Knights, and unearthly screams sounded from beyond the black Gate.
‘Follow the Sword,’ came the cry, and Lug saw the blade of Samildanach shining like a lantern, and heard the drumming of hooves as the Knights thundered forward.
Then there was silence and the darkness faded, leaving the stars to shine once more.
Lug looked across at the far hillside, but the chanting man had gone.
The mist gathered and flowed up the hillside and Lug rose and tried to fly. But he could not. His body was solid, and rooted to the earth. The cold wind touched him and he shivered.
The dream was no longer comforting and he was desperate to return home. But where was home? How far had he flown?
A noise came to him through the mist — a slithering, rustling sound. He spun and tried to scan the ground, but the grey fog was everywhere. Lug ran back up the hill, heart pounding, but he slipped and fell in the muddy grass and rolled to his back. A black shadow reared over him and sharp talons raked down at his body; he rolled again desperately as they scored the skin of his chest.
‘No!’ he screamed, as the slavering jaws of the beast dropped towards his face. He threw up his arm. A blazing beam of golden light sprang from his fingers to engulf the creature and with a scream of agony it disappeared as Lug sank back to the grass. Another shadow fell across him and he cowered to the ground.
‘Do not be afraid,’ said a voice.
Lug looked up to see the outline of a man. The moon was shining over the stranger’s shoulder and his face was in silhouette, his features impossible to see.
‘I’m frightened,’ said Lug. ‘I want to go home.’
‘And so you shall, my boy. And then this. . . dream . . will be forgotten.’
‘What was the beast?’
‘It came from beyond the Gate. But it is dead. You destroyed it, boy — as I knew you would - for within you is the Power. Farewell. We will meet again.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I am the Dagda. Sleep now - and return home.’
Lug had closed his eyes and slipped from awareness. When he opened them again he was lying in Patricaeus’ bed; the old man was sitting beside him, dozing in a chair.
Lug rolled over. The bed creaked and the old man awoke.
‘How are you feeling, Lug?’
‘What am I doing here, sir? Where is my mother?’
‘She is dead, boy,’ said Patricaeus sadly. ‘We buried her this afternoon.’ The blanket slid from the boy’s chest as he sat up.
‘Dear Gods!’ whispered Patricaeus. ‘What have you done?’ Lug looked down; his chest was scored in four shallow cuts which had bled profusely, drenching the sheet below the blanket. When Patricaeus pulled the bedding aside, the boy’s legs were covered in dried mud.
‘Explain this, Lug. Where did you go while I was sleeping?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Lug. ‘I don’t know anything. I want my mother! Please?’
The old man sat beside the weeping boy and placed his arms around him.
‘I am sorry, Lug. Truly.’
The rider paused at the crest of the pass, the wind swirling about him and screeching through the mountain-tops. Far below him the lands of the Gabala stretched green and verdant, ribbon streams and shimmering rivers, hills and vales, forests and woods - all as he remembered, echoing his dreams, calling for his return.
‘Home, Kuan,’ he whispered, but his words were whipped away by the wind and the tall grey stallion did not hear him. Touching his heels to the horse’s side, the rider leaned back in the saddle as his mount began the long descent. The wind dropped as they neared the deserted Border fort, its gates of oak and bronze hanging on broken hinges. The Gabala Eagle had been hacked from them - only the edge of a wing-tip left on the rotting wood, and this covered by a brown and green patina that all but merged it with the timber.
The rider dismounted here. He was a tall man wearing a long hooded cloak, a heavy scarf wound about his face and holding the hood in place. He led the stallion into the derelict fort and halted before the statue of Manannan. The left arm was broken, and lying on the cobbles. Someone had taken an axe or a hammer to the face and the chin was smashed, the nose split.
‘How soon they forget,’ said the newcomer. Hearing his voice the stallion moved forward, nuzzling at his back. He turned, removed his thick woollen gloves and stroked the beast’s neck. It was warmer here and he unwound the scarf, draping it over the pommel of his saddle. As he pushed back the hood, sunlight flashed from the silver helm he wore.
‘Let us find you a drink, Kuan,’ he said, moving to the walled well at the centre of the courtyard. The bucket was warped by’ the sun, gaping cracks showing beneath the iron rings. The rope was tinder-dry, but still usable if handled with care. He searched the deserted outbuildings and returned with a clay jug and a deep plate, then stood the jug in the bucket before lowering both into the well. When he carefully drew the bucket up, water was gushing from the cracks, but the jug was full and he lifted it clear and drank deeply. Placing the plate on the cobbles, he filled it. The stallion dropped its head and drank. The rider loosened the saddle girth and poured more water into the plate, then climbed the rampart steps and sat in the sunshine.
This was the end of empire, he knew. Not the blood-drenched battlegrounds, the screaming hordes, the discordant clash of steel on steel. Just the dust blowing across .the cobbles, limbless statues, warped buckets and the silence of the grave.
‘You would have hated this, Samildanach,’ he said. ‘This would have broken your heart.’
He searched inside himself for any grief over the Fall of the Gabala. But there was no room ... all his grief was for himself as he gazed down at his statue.
Manannan, Knight of the Gabala. One of the Nine. Greater than princes, more than men. He delved into his hip-pouch, pulling clear a silvered mirror which he held up before his face.
The Once-Knight looked into his own deep blue eyes, then at the square face and the silver steel which surrounded it. The plume was gone from the helm, hacked away in some skirmish to the north; the visor, raised now, dented by an axe-blade in the Fomorian War. The runic number that named him had been torn from the brow in a battle to the east. He could not remember the blow; it was one of so many he had endured during the six lonely years since the Gate closed. His gaze shifted to the plate rings that circled his throat and pictured the beard growing beneath them, slowly - oh, so slowly - preparing to choke him to death.
What a death for a Gabala Knight, imprisoned within his helm, strangled by his own beard. Such was the price of betrayal, Manannan told himself. Such was the penalty for cowardice.
Cowardice? He rolled the word in his mind. During the last, lonely, aimless years of wandering he had proved his physical courage time and time again, in sword-play, in the charge, in the long wait before the onslaught. But it was not his body which had let him down on that dark night six years before, when the Black Gate yawned and the stars died. It was altogether a different cowardice which had robbed him of the power to move.
Not so the others. But then Samildanach would have braved the fires of Hell with a handful of snow. As would the others: Pateus, Edrin ... all of them.
‘Damn you, Ollathair,’ hissed the Once-Knight. ‘Damn your arrogance!’
Manannan returned his mirror to its pouch.
He rested for another hour and then stepped into the saddle. The Citadel was three days’ ride west. He avoided towns and settlements, buying his food at isolated farms and sleeping in meadows. On the morning of the fourth day he approached the Citadel.
Manannan steered his stallion through the trees and into what had once been the rose garden. It was overgrown now, but here and there a bloom still flourished, stretching above the choking weeds. The paved path . was mostly covered by grass and small blue flowers. It was only natural, thought the Once-Knight - six years of wind-blown soil settling over the carefully laid stones. The side gate was open and he rode into the courtyard. Here and there grass seeds had settled in the cracks of the pavement, fed by the fountain pool which overflowed its marble parapet.
He dismounted, his silver armour creaking and his movements slow. The stallion stood motionless.
‘Not as you remember it, Kuan,’ whispered the Knight, removing his gauntlet and stroking the beast’s neck. ‘They have all gone.’ He led the horse to the pool and waited as it drank. A wooden shutter nearby was caught by the wind, which cracked it against the window-frame. The horse’s head came up, ears laid flat against its skull.
‘It’s all right, boy,’ Manannan soothed. ‘There is no danger here.’
As the stallion drank, he loosened the saddle girth and lifted the pack from its back. Hoisting this to his shoulder, he walked up the steps to the double doors and entered the Welcome Hall. Dust had gathered here and the long carpet smelt of mildew and corruption. The statues stood staring at him with sightless eyes.
He felt the burden of his guilt grow even stronger and pushed on past the figures to the chapel at the rear of the building. The hinges groaned as he forced open the leaf-shaped door. No dust disturbed this place, with its low altar, but the golden candlesticks were gone — as were the silver chalice and the silken hangings. Yet still the chapel emanated peace. He lowered his pack and unfastened the leather binding thongs. Then he moved to the altar, removed his baldric and scabbard and unbuckled his breastplate, slipping it under the protruding shoulder-plates. Carefully he placed the armour on the altar. Shoulder-plates and habergeon followed. He would miss the sleeveless coat of mail; it had saved his life more than once. Hip-shields, thigh-guards and greaves he laid upon the stone, placing his black and silver gauntlets atop the breastplate.
‘Let it be over,’ he said, reaching up to release the helm, but his fingers froze as fear flowed in him. The spell had been cast by Ollathair in this room six years before - but without the wizard, was the peace of the chapel enough to remove it? Manannan calmed himself. His finger touched the spring-lock, but the bar did not move. He pressed harder, then dropped his hand. Fear fled from the onset of his anger: ‘What more do you want of me?’ he screamed. Sinking to his knees he prayed for deliverance, but although his thoughts streamed out, there was no sense of their reaching a destination. Exhausted, he rose - a knight without armour. Moving to his pack, he dressed swiftly in well-fitting woollen trews and leather tunic, then looped his baldric over his shoulder with the sword and scabbard nestling at his right side. Finally he pulled on a pair of soft doeskin riding boots and gathered his blanket. The pack he left where it lay.
Outside the stallion was cropping grass at the far wall. The man who had been a knight walked past the beast and on to the smithy. It too was dust-covered, the tools rusted and useless, the great bellows torn and tattered, the forge open - a nesting-place for rats.
Manannan picked up a rusted saw-blade. Even had it been gleaming and new, it would have been useless to him. The silver steel of the helm was strong enough in its own right, but with the added power of Ollathair’s enchantment it was impervious to everything but heat. He had once endured two hours of agony as a smith sought to burn the bar loose. At last, defeated, the craftsman had knelt before him.
‘I could do it, sir, but there would be no point. The heat needed would turn your flesh to liquid, your brain to steam. You need a sorcerer, not a smith.’
And he had found sorcerers, and would-be wizards, seers and Wyccha women. But none could counter the spell of the Armourer.
‘I need you, Ollathair,’ said the Once-Knight. ‘I need your wizardry and your skills. But where did you go?’
Ollathair had been above all a patriot. He would not have left the realm unless forced. And who could force the Armourer of the Gabala Knights? Manannan sat silently among the rusted remains of Ollathair’s equipment and fought to remember conversations of long ago.
Considering the size of the empire it had once ruled, the lands of the Gabala were not large. From the borders of Fomoria in the south to the coastal routes to Cithaeron was a journey of less than a thousand miles. East to west, from the Nomad steppes to the western sea and Asripur, was a mere four hundred. One fact was sure - Ollathair would avoid cities; he had always hated the marble monstrosity of Furbolg.
Where then? And under what guise?
Ollathair had been merely the name chosen by the Armourer, but there was another name he used when wishing to travel alone and unreported. Manannan had discovered this by chance ten years before, during a visit to the northernmost of the nine Duchies. He had stopped at a wayhouse and seen the owner showing off a small bird of shining bronze that sang in four languages. As the man lifted his hand, the bird circled the room and a sweet perfume filled the air.
Manannan had approached the man, who had bowed low upon seeing the Gabala armour.
‘Where did you come by the bird?’ he had asked.
‘It was not stolen, sir, I promise you. On the lives of my children.’
‘I am not here to judge you, man. It was merely a question.’
‘It was a traveller, sir ... two days ago. A stocky man, ugly as sin. He had no money for a room and paid with this. Am I right to keep it?’
‘Keep it, sell it; it is not my concern. Where did this traveller go?’
‘South, sir. Along the Royal Road.’
‘Did he give you a name?’
‘Yes, sir - as is the law. And he signed the register. I have it here.’ He lifted the leather-bound book and showed it to the Knight.
Manannan caught up with Ollathair the following afternoon on a long open stretch of road. The Armourer was riding a fat pony.
‘Is there no peace?’ Ollathair asked. ‘What is the problem?’
‘There is no problem that I know of,’ Manannan told him. ‘This is a chance meeting. I saw your handiwork at the inn; a little extravagant for a night’s lodging, was it not?’
‘It’s flawed; it will not last out the week. Now ride on and leave me to a little serenity. I will see you at the Citadel in a week.’
Now as Manannan looked about him at the cobwebs and the decay, he shivered.
Perhaps Ollathair would have chosen another name. Perhaps he was dead.
But with no other clues the Once-Knight had no choice. He would ride to the north and seek news of a craftsman called Ruad Ro-fhessa.
The boy gripped the tweezers, lifted the tiny bronze sliver and took a deep breath. He licked his lips as he leaned over the bench, his hand shaking.
‘Easy, now,’ said the ugly man, sitting beside him. ‘Be calm and breathe easily. You are too tense.’ The boy nodded and rolled his shoulders, seeking to ease the knots of tension. His hand steadied and the bronze sliver slid into place at the back of the model. ‘There!’ said the man triumphantly, his one good eye examining the metal hawk. ‘Now take the wing and lift it - carefully now!’
The boy did so and the wing spread effortlessly, the bronze feathers gleaming. ‘And release.’ The wing snapped back into place against the scaled body.
‘I did it, Ruad. I made it!’ cried the boy, clapping his hands.
‘Indeed you did,’ the man agreed, a wide grin showing his crooked teeth. ‘In only a year you have duplicated that which took me three, when I was your age. But then you had a better teacher than I!’
‘Will it fly?’ asked the boy. Ruad Ro-fhessa ruffled the lad’s tightly curled blond hair. He shrugged his huge shoulders and stood, stretching his back.
‘That will depend on your ability to draw the air-magic. Come, we will sit for a while.’ Ruad moved away from the bench and through the workshop to a wide room where two deep chairs were set before a hearth in which a log-fire blazed. There he settled himself, stretching his short legs towards the blaze and resting his massive arms across his chest. The firelight gleamed on the bronze patch covering his left eye and highlighted the silver streaks in his thinning black hair. The boy joined him; he was tall for his age, and had almost outgrown the tunic of his House.
‘You did well, Lug,’ said Ruad. ‘One day you will be a Master Craftsman. I am greatly pleased with you.’ Lug blushed and looked away. Compliments were rare from Ruad, and never before had he been asked to sit by the fire.
‘Will she fly?’
‘Can you feel the magic in the air?’ countered Ruad.
‘Close your eyes and rest your head back against the chair.’ Ruad lifted a heavy poker and stirred the blaze to life, adding three fresh logs to the fire. ‘The currents of magic are many, the colours deep and sometimes startling. You must begin with the colours. Think of White, which is peace. Harmony. Picture the colour, flow with it. Can you see it?’
‘Yes,’ whispered Lug.
‘When there is anger, or hatred, or pain, other than that of the flesh, White is the answer. Summon it. Blue is the sky, the power of the air, the dream of things which fly. Blue is what calls them on halting wings. Can you see the Blue?’
‘I can, Master.’
‘Then call on the Blue.’ Ruad closed his good eye and aided the boy in his search. ‘Do you have it, Lug?’