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Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A dream to some, a Knightmare to others

Tim Child was a visionary. That’s not unknown among television producers, but what strikes me as rarer is that he was – and is – an innovator. And one with some powers of persuasion, to boot, because he somehow talked the powers that be at Anglia TV into letting him put out a Dungeons-&-Dragons inspired game show in the prime kids’ teatime slot. And it ran for eight seasons. That was Knightmare.

I wasn’t involved in the TV production, but I always enjoyed meeting Tim and taking a look around the studios. I’d been called in to polish a novel of his designed to add backstory to the show. I ended up rewriting quite a bit, though most of the ideas were Tim’s. The only problem, really, was that he’d written it like a TV script, with lots of cross-cutting between scenes that prose doesn’t handle well.

As well as the novel, I added a 105-section gamebook-style adventure. Each year after that, Tim and Transworld (the publishers) came back and got me to do another. From now on I was left entirely to my own devices as regards both the novel and the gamebook part, so I guess they trusted me. All the editors ever asked to know in advance was the title for each book. That's a great way for an author to work!

The first few were drawn from my Dragon Warriors adventures in large part, though relocated in early 13th century Europe. In The Labyrinths of Fear, the hero Treguard got embroiled in a tourney, lost in the wildwood, and encountered the king of the elves – who was freakin’ terrifying, let me tell you. There's a funny story about that and recreational drugs that - hmm, no, better keep it to myself. I didn't inhale, let's leave it at that.

In Fortress of Assassins, which I co-wrote with Oliver Johnson, Treguard went looking for the lost heir of Richard the Lionheart. And his fourth and last outing in an historical adventure setting was The Sorcerer’s Isle, wherein he faced a quest for the Grail in the company of a resurrected Sir Lancelot. Maybe the Grail, maybe Lancelot... you'll get no spoilers here, not even two decades on.

After that the publishers asked me to take the books younger, which meant giving Treguard a back seat, moving the action to present day, and making the protagonists kids. Despite what you may think, The Forbidden Gate was my favorite in the series. I felt I channeled a little bit of Alan Garner and a dash of John Masefield. Enough to satisfy me, anyway. And David Learner, one of the actors on the show, turned it into a stage play. The children who came to see it will be in their thirties now. And that’s scarier than anything in the Knightmare dungeon.

I can give you only this little taste, which comes from Fortress of Assassins. Copyright in the text (both novels and gamebook sections) is not mine but resides with the publishers and Tim Child, so if you find any ripped PDFs online better keep quiet about them ;-)

Tim Child’s daughter once suggested publishing an omnibus volume collecting all the stories together, but nothing ever came of that – and, now that the show is receding into the mists of time, I doubt it ever will. A Kindle edition might be feasible, but you’d have to write to Transworld about that.
The Syrian Desert, AD 1212

The caravan hurrying through the low dunes was not the usual assortment of merchants and pilgrims journeying between Hamadan and Aleppo. For one thing, there were but six people in the entourage and only eight camels – a far smaller party than would usually brave the threatening wastes of the desert, infested as it was with brigands and predatory animals. And it seemed that the party was trying to he as inconspicuous as possible. There were none of the usual gay trappings of bells and colored tassels hanging from the camels' saddles. The bales of silk and silver that they had borne from Hamadan were swathed in a dull, dun-colored cloth. So also were the merchants themselves, as though they preferred to blend against the background of rolling dunes all about them.

The caravan was in a hurry – that much could be seen from the sand kicked up in their wake and the sweat-streaked, dusty faces of the men. At intervals two of the men would stop to cast anxious glances back in the direction they had come. The scene behind them was one to frighten the most hardened of desert travelers: a purple-black cloud, spinning dust devils marking its inexorable progress over the yellow dunes, was bearing down on them from the east. This would have been cause enough for alarm – caravans much larger than this one had been lost forever in such a sandstorm – but it was not the impending storm that filled the men's hearts with dread.

The two who kept stopping to look back were brothers, merchants of Venice – by the look of them too elderly and comfortable to undertake such a journey unless it promised great rewards. Their guards, grim-faced Frankish veterans, were armed with winch crossbows and swords of tempered Toledo steel. They walked with blades bared, anticipating danger.

Over the course of the day, first one and then the others had thought to see a black-garbed figure walking steadfastly in pursuit of them on the very fringe of the dust storm. It had seemed like some unstoppable creature out of Hell. Now, as the sun sank lower in the sky, the shadows at the centre of the storm grew more impenetrable and wind whipped at their cloaks. The storm was upon them.

'Santino,' cried one of the merchants in a voice edged with fear, 'we must abandon it! What are two hundred ducats compared to our lives?'

'Have you so readily forgotten the precepts of our father?' the other jeered back at him, fearless and indomitable where his brother trembled with fear. 'Never surrender what is rightfully yours – those were his words, Giacommo. Even in these heathen lands, the law of possession must hold. I paid a fair price for the thing and it is ours.'

Just as these words were out of his mouth, a searing blast of hot air struck them as if a furnace door had opened in the east. A wall of stinging sand flew into their faces. They hunched down and struggled through the cauldron of dust towards the fast-disappearing rumps of the camels.

'Close up!' the elder brother, Santino, yelled to their guards. Faint answering cries came back to them through the howling storm. Presently they saw three of the guards urging the camels back against the brutal strength of the wind. Of the fourth guard there was no sign.

'By San Rocco, where's Barthelemeo?' hollered one of the guards. 'He'll be lost – we must follow him! Barthelemeo!'

'Don't be a fool. It would be the end for us all if we did that.' Santino, was still ice cool despite the danger.

A faint answering cry came out of the swirling dust ahead. Before the others could stop him, the man who had called out blundered off into the storm, his cloak snapping about him until he was lost to view. A heart-stopping scream followed a few seconds later. The remaining four stood transfixed, nerveless hands clutching at their weapons. They backed away together, their eyes desperately seeking for signs of attack.

'Over there!' another guard screamed. They all whirled to face in the direction of his shaking crossbow. A shadowy form was materializing with faltering steps out of the storm. It was Barthelemeo, the hood of his desert cloak swept back so they could recognize his ashen face. A gush of bright blood covered the front of his chest, and a bubble of it formed on his lips as he tried to speak. No sound came above the shriek of the wind. Instead he pitched forward at their feet. Now they could see that the man's throat had been cut from ear to ear. He was still trying to say something. The younger of the brothers leaned down. He could just make out what Barthelemeo was saying: 'Master, beware… he is like the desert wind… I never saw him.' The guard twitched once, then lay still.

Giacommo got to his feet hastily. Just as he did, another of the guards gave a cry, his crossbow discharging harmlessly into the air. A jagged black throwing knife protruded from his neck, just under the ear. Even before his dead body pitched forward into the sand, Santino had drawn his sword and launched himself in the direction of the attack.

It was his last living action. As if wielded by an invisible attacker, a scimitar flashed out of the stinging wall of sand, severing his head from his body with one blow. Giacommo stood transfixed as the head rolled across the sand towards him, leaving a crescent-shaped trail of blood behind it. It came to rest against his foot. Santino's eyes stared up at him with the same cold imperious glare they had possessed in life. Giacommo slowly dragged his gaze up from his brother's head, his sword dangling uselessly by his side. He was not surprised to see that, somehow, the fourth of their guards had now joined the others in death. He had not even seen the blow that had opened up his rib cage so neatly that his vital organs had fallen to the ground between his feet. Giacommo heard a whimper of fear; it came from his own throat.

Suddenly the wind dropped, leaving a hollow silence. The swirling dust clouds drove off to the west in the direction of the setting sun, casting an eerie purple shadow over the scene of carnage. Giacommo hardly noticed the storm's passing. All his attention was focused on the figure who stood in front of him — a tall warrior clad from head to foot in the black robes of the Hashishin - the Assassins. The scimitar that had beheaded Santino still swung from one hand, its sharp blade caked with dust and blood.

`Saints . . .' moaned Giacommo. His hand brought his sword up in a hopeless gesture, but he lowered it again under the scrutiny of the assassin's eyes. Partially veiled by the swathes of the burnoose, they were of the deepest blue that Giacommo had ever seen; even the waters of the Venetian lagoon could not compare to their oceanic depths. In the face of that cold gaze, his resolve melted. The sword fell from his fingers and he sank to his knees on the sand.

He sensed the black-clad figure walking closer… and past him. Giacommo stared up, slack-jawed. He had expected to die. The figure stood silhouetted against the sullen glow of the sun as it sank beyond the westward-driving storm. With superhuman strength, the assassin flung aside the boxes and saddle-bags that had been slung over the camels. With a savage downward sweep of the scimitar, the brass binding of a chest was smashed open and delicately embroidered Chinese silks spilt out. These the assassin tossed into the evening breeze like so many worthless rags.

Giacommo knew what it was that the stranger sought. 'There,' he pleaded, pointing to one of the camels. 'Take it; only let me live.'

Striding over to the bundle he had indicated, the assassin tore it down and unfurled the cloth wrapping. A sword lay revealed – a sword whose blade shone with the white light of heaven. A black-gloved hand reverently took up the sword and raised it aloft, holding its hilt up to the sunset. For the last time, Giacommo saw the delicately worked hilt: a lion's head of gold with two amethysts for eyes. They blazed as if on fire in the orange glow.

At last the assassin uttered a sound. It was a feral cry that rang out across the sands like the call of a jackal. Then, uttering a low laugh of triumph, the assassin pulled aside the black veil. As Giacommo slipped into grateful unconsciousness, the sight of the assassin's face lingered in his mind like a brand that had been burned on to his eyes. He would remember that face to his dying day.

The assassin was a woman...


  1. KNIGHTMARE!!! I've had just a handful of favourite TV programmes in my life. Perhaps the first was the Transformers cartoon, shown in 5-minute bursts partway through Timmy Mallett's 'Wacaday'. In my late teens and early twenties, there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was probably aimed at people a little younger than myself. Somewhere in the middle was Knightmare, and 4:25 on a Wednesday afternoon was a hallowed time.

    I have to say a few words about the TV programme, before I come to the books. It was so, so, so, so good! If I'd been able to assemble three friends who knew what the hell Dungeons and Dragons was, I'd have absolutely tried to get on that show. I've just looked up the statistics, and in series 1 and 3 there were NO winners. That's right, not one team won in those series! That's a kids' game show you can respect. You answer every riddle right, and you pick every correct clue item – or you die. That's it.

    Around series four the show got prettier, and a lot of outdoor locations replaced the dungeon rooms. But the show also became easier – it seemed that the characters were too eager to help the teams, and that it was pretty much impossible to 'die' in levels 1 and 2 of the dungeon, so that the teams got to play through (and show to home audiences) more of the 'story' of each quest. Still, very few teams managed to complete that third level. Wikipedia tells me that only 8 teams ever succeeded in beating Knightmare, in the show's eight-year history.

    Plus I was a little bit in love with one of the characters, Gundrada. A chick with a big sword and a speech impediment. Hot.

    Every episode of Knightmare can be found on YouTube, incidentally, uploaded by GaryGarratt. Whoever he is.

    Okay, the books. I'll confess it's been many years since I read the 'story' part of any of the books. Yes, a creepy elf rings a bell... and I remember the resurrected (and unkillable) Lancelot. I'll really have to reread those. On the other hand, I read and reread the gamebook sections of those books many times over, and they were great fun. Sort of 'gamebook lite', if you'd just put down one of the Blood Sword books, say, but great fun nonetheless. The gamebook part of the first Knightmare book seemed, if I may be permitted to say so, a little constrained by the mechanics of the TV show – notably by the ever-diminishing life force, and constantly having to hunt for food like some sort of ravenous beast. Interestingly, that story also had the idea of inherently 'sinister' paths – one sentence said something like, 'If you have a choice of two paths and no indication of which is the best, always take the right path – left is the path of darkness and evil'. I'm paraphrasing enormously, of course. It was, too – at least, it could get you killed pretty fast.

    I think the adventure in Fortress of Solitude was my favourite, maybe because it was the first one I picked up. The focus on 'Honour' in the fourth book was interesting – 'You find a fishing rod lying by the side of the river. Do you want to take it?' And, of course, you do, because it's a gamebook, and you should pick up absolutely everything you can carry. But no! 'You've ruined the livelihood of a poor peasant fisherman. Lose 2 Honour Points'.

    Happy times.

  2. I'm blanking on the Fortress of Solitude - unless we're talking about Superman's little pad - but I remember the emphasis on taking right-hand paths. That was an element of the TV series that they asked me to include in the gamebook sections. The first gamebook adventure was weaker than the others, I think. I had less time because that novel needed a lot of work. I do like some of the others, though not as much as the gamebook sections in my Heroquest books.

  3. I've said it before, but I'll say it again... Knightmare was absolute genius. It was years ahead of it's time when it emerged way back in the 80's, but it still stands up even now as a great production and concept.

    Really enjoyed the couple of gamebooks I bought too - Dragon's Lair and Labyrinths of Fear. Board game wasn't half bad either.

    Bring back Knightmare! Bring back Fabled Lands first though!!

  4. Whoops. Meant to say 'Fortress of Assassins'... Something Freudian there - maybe I thought Treguard would've looked good in a cape.

  5. Actually, he DID have a cape, didn't he? That'll be what's causing me to make the connection, then...

  6. Now there's a leap. I don't think Hugo Myatt would quite be any casting director's pick for the Man of Steel :-)

  7. Several of the Knightmare books are available as free downloads here:
    but not the first two.

  8. I'm sure that Random House, Anglia TV and Tim Child would all have something to say about that, Anon. However, in this instance I guess the books are true "abandonware" in that it's highly unlikely they would ever be republished. Although I will point out that you can buy nice (and legal) print copies on Amazon for only a few pennies.

  9. I got an e-mail today from amazon telling me my order of Mirabilis: Year of Wonders, Vol. 2 hardcover has been cancelled because their supplier says the item is no longer available. Is this permanent? I was looking forwrd to having it in hardcover. Apologies for posting this here, but I don't know anywhere else to get a faster or better answer.

  10. Hi Wanderer - I just put up a post about that on the Mirabilis blog:

    It seems that Amazon's ordering systems got confused because the publication date was changed from Oct 2 to Dec 2. So now they're telling people it's unavailable, but in fact it'll be released in less than two weeks. The strange thing is that it's listed correctly on the Book Depository, which Amazon own.

    Anyway, the short answer is that the email you got from Amazon is wrong. Vol 2 will be out in hardcover in time for Christmas. Btw, thanks for your review of Vol 1 - much appreciated!

  11. This is good to hear, I am relieved. Do you think I would get it faster if I bought it from the book depository rather than amazon?

  12. Technically they're the same company (unfortunately, as monopolies aren't good for the consumer) but I get the feeling that the Book Depository's fulfilment is better for books ordered in the UK and Commonwealth.

    Having said that, I suspect the hold up is mainly due to getting the books from the printers (in Bosnia) to the warehouses (in Britain and Ireland) so not sure how long that will take, but I would still suggest the Book Depository rather than Amazon UK.

  13. I was born in 1980, so I'm one of those thirty-somethings which terrify you so much :)

    Loved Knightmare when I was a kid, and the books were the first real historical fiction/fantasy I ever read.

    I'm afraid I only managed to buy the first four of your books (fighting fantasy was entering its twilight years around that time, and pocket money could only stretch so far...), so I missed out on The Forbidden Gate and the rest. It's a shame they were never reprinted. Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel, as Treguard might have said.

    If you had your 'Alan Garner' moment in those later books, I think you were channeling Robin of Sherwood a bit in the early ones. Saxon versus Norman? That struggle seems sadly forgotten these days.

    My favourite book? Labyrinths of Fear. For the wildwood, the dew drenched water meadows, and the elves.


    Alex McIntosh, Carlisle

    1. Robin of Sherwood was a big influence on Dragon Warriors too. In fact, Labyrinths of Fear could easily have been set in Legend. The wildwood and the dew and the elves - yep, that's where I'm coming from, all right.

  14. Hi Dave... do you remember the Knightmare books well enough to answer a plot-related query? (I'm not even sure whether it's a detail of yours or Tim Child's, if he wrote the original draft.)