The Fell Gard Codices


Sir Hugh of the Annulets Sable stood at the oriel window of his manor hall, hands clasped behind his back. It had been his habit to stand so, and look over the lands that he held in charge. Now he saw only the shadowed rock of the cave wall. He turned away, back to his contention with the sorine. Across the room the fire snapped on the sooty hearth; Hugh watched smoke curl to the wood of the roof-trusses, and tried not to think of the dream. Instead he struggled to make himself remember the battle just past, in which he had had no little part; and to remember the notorious outlaws he now held imprisoned. He looked to the right, where Sorine Gryselde stood before his high seat, calm in her rough dark robes. He looked to his left, where Lina stood by the doors at the far end of the room, a hand on her sword-hilt, that damnable half-smile on her lips. Whenever he saw her he doubted his manhood, or knew his lord doubted it, which was much the same. Hugh wondered if she knew that; if she was in on the joke.

“Continue,” he said, striding back to the grim sorine.

“I have little more to say,” she told him. “I believe our situation is simple. It seems to me that your village and my House are suited to live together. We to protect you, and find a way out of this place where we are trapped; you to help feed us and support us as we do.”

“Hm,” said Hugh. He looked about his hall. Its hangings, that he had brought with him from Five Oaks. The familiar stones of the floor. The benches and trestle-table against the walls. The rush-lights flickering above them. The wooden partition-wall, a screen before the entryway; Lina before the screen. The dais and his seat; beyond them, the door to his bedchamber. His, by right of his position as bailiff, and his alone, for he had no wife. Three sons, but no wife, not any longer.

Hugh turned away from the sorine and, hands still behind his back, paced to the dais. He did not sit upon his chair, but gazed upon the bare floor. Not for him brightly-painted walls, nor decadent carpet. He had no time for frivolities. He had no hawks (an odd thought; clearly a remembrance of the dream, the hawks flying about the branches of the oak tree, among the moons and planets that moved on their silver lines). He likely had no horse, now; not for the first time he wondered what had happened to Valour, left behind when Innsdene and the manor and its stables had been taken into Fell Gard. He shook his head, and turned back to the sorine.

“I will agree with what you have so far said,” he told her, “but you must swear homage to me as bailiff, and give your man William, who betrayed us, to face trial. Baron Toly holds the right to high justice on his lands. In the absence of him or his steward, it is my duty to visit that justice upon traitors.”

“I cannot agree to do homage, Sir Hugh,” she said, calm, neutral, “nor would it benefit you if I did. It appears as though mastery of our House will rotate.”

“Then each head in turn will swear to me,” said Hugh. He thought her coldness more provoking than anger. Why should he be surrounded so, by provoking women?

After the dragons had left, he had let her go, as she had asked, to the chamber of Oak and Holly. Some time soon he would see that chamber for himself (he thought of the oak tree in his dream, so tall as to reach among the stars). But then, then, she had gone, she and hers, while he and the folk of Innsdene had chanted a Ring, hymning thanks for their deliverance. And now that they were done, she had returned ready to argue rights and precedence.

He thought again of the worship done after the battle. There had never been a Ring chanted like that one, not in that church. Never such a truly-felt thanksgiving. All the quarrels of the village forgotten, for that moment. All the folk in their fit circles. And himself at the focus. His sons kneeling beside him, like him feeling Ranulf’s finger draw the watery ‘o’ upon their brows. His sons: they were not all of them as he would have chosen. Godwyn was moody; Herbert was over-cunning, sly. And Laurence … he questioned too much, that one. Still, all in all, they were not bad men. They were his sons, and who could say if he would have another?

He thought of his Milisant, who had been gone so long.

“I do not intend that we should swear homage to you,” said the stiff-necked sorine.

Hugh in that instant remembered the dream, when a dead woman in dark robes had measured him for his coffin, out there among the snows; when the three girls in those same robes, naked underneath, the hairs at their sex dark like those robes, their flesh flashing white, when they had buried him under the earth and he had grown out of his grave as an oak tree. No, he did not remember it, he relived it, dream striking him like a lightning-bolt.

“On what authority then do you establish your House?” he asked, thinking of the roots of his oak tree, and of the war he had seen about the base of the trunk. That had been before; or was it after? Dreams were so damnably confusing. And insistent, though nonsensical.

“Sir?” she asked. He shook his head, irritated.

“You cannot claim to act in the interests of the Church,” he said. “And I am the lawful representative of the duly-ordained secular power. On what do you establish your House, if not the authority of church or king? On what basis? On what right?”

“There is no distinction, in the end, between the authority of church or king,” the sorine insisted, voice soft but not uncertain. “And here in this Fell Gard we are it were in another world, and must make shift to find such authority as seems best to each of us.”

Yes; and they were in Fell Gard, weren’t they? The inescapable truth.

He thought of the fight just done. Goblins and orcs — it had hardly seemed true. He had fought in many battles, but none like that. Then the struggle with the outlaws, that at least was like the fights he’d known. Finally he had got to grips with Godeleva’s band; in Fell Gard, of all places under seven moons. And then the dragons. He had been afraid. Say it truly: afraid. Every man and woman by him the same. Could they have done something more than stand by the manor? He had not thought so, at the time. What could they have done, him and his collection of village-folk? He remembered still the horror, the dread; not simply the bowel-clenching fear, but awe, like looking upon a god, or hanging above a cliff-face — the knowledge of some power that could destroy you utterly, without even noticing. A thing that, by the might inherent in its existence, reduced you to nothing.

And then had come the angels, and the devils. Again his folk had done no more than hold their ground; but not out of fear. No. They had known, all of them, that in that moment they were seeing what prophets saw. Hugh had wondered if it was the Fourth Union. He still felt hardly certain that it was not.

It was all so much, so quickly, these days without a sun. The lust of the huldra. The fear of the dragons. The sight of heavens. And, of course, the capture of the outlaws.

Still, what the sorine had said could not go unchallenged. “That’s near to blasphemy,” Hugh observed.

“I do not mean it so,” said the sorine. “But much as I might wish it otherwise, in this place we are beyond the hierarchies we have always known. We cannot appeal to the church. Nor to any king we know.”

Hugh did not allow himself to show his anger. He thought of himself as a fair man, but not soft. He did not insist upon the rights of his class, as so many younger men did, who feared the clerks and merchants and such — they would not say it, but they did, they feared all those who were coming up in the world. Still: Hugh was a knight and son of a knight, and of noble lineage to either side of his family. That was enough, surely. Respect was only his due. And obedience from those below him in the chain of all, or the ring of the world. As he owed respect and obedience to those above him. “We do not need to appeal to those above us,” he said. “I am the authority here. As you recognised during the battle just past.”

He knew how to wield authority, he told himself. That was part of the reason he had been ordered to Innsdene in the first place. Why Baron Toly had sent a knight as bailiff. To deal with the outlawry in the district. Well: now he had Godeleva and her band locked in one of his stables. Another provoking woman. But this one under his control. He thought of the goods taken from her people, their armour and weapons and coin, and was pleased.

“Of course I recognise your authority over this village,” the sorine said. “I do not challenge that at all. But we are no longer in your manorial lands. My House is no part of your jurisdiction.”

“No?” he asked. “Let us consider the matter of your William. Do you say I have no jurisdiction there? Is it not my duty to sit in judgment upon him? Or do you claim that right?”

She stood with her eyes ever-so-slightly downcast, avoiding all challenge in gaze or stance. And said: “In my old House, we had the right to try, and to punish, our own members. Well, then, I claim that right for this new House.”

“You were clergy, in your old House,” said Hugh. He waited. She did not answer. “He betrayed the folk of Innsdene,” said Hugh.

“He was not serving with them,” said Gryselde. “You were very clear on that point. We were to be separate from your forces —”

“Then was what he did not an act of war against us?” asked Hugh blandly. War; betrayal; justice. These were deep matters. He knew what he was: a rustic knight. Such complexities were more than he was fashioned for dealing with.

And yet when he had last slept he had dreamed a dream. What it meant he could not say. Some parts of it were shameful. Other parts were more powerful than he could easily explain. That was always the way. In dream you were shown the Houses of the gods, and they were more potent than any earthly House. After that most recent dream had come dragons and angels; but simple rustic as he was, still the dream had in some way readied him to face those things. Those things, and whatever more might come.

“What William did,” said Gryselde in the end, “was wrong. We will punish him for it.”

“Will you?” asked Hugh. “By what code of justice? By what definition of justice? And, when in future some member of your supposed House injures some member of my town again — what then? Do you expect me to give your malefactor over to you?”

“Yes,” said Gryselde. “We expect to live here with all of you. Therefore we must be just, and maintain the peace.”

“There is a mechanism for that,” said Hugh. “My manorial court.”

“I propose a different machine,” she said. The words stuck a cold knife in him.

He remembered the oak in his dream. Not the one he had grown into; or perhaps it was. He had seen it from a distance. He had seen the planets and the moons within its branches. The silver lines upon which they moved, like the drawing he had once seen of the signs in the stars. There had been a war fought at the base of the tree, which was like the dragon, bigger than mountains — no, no, the dragons had not been so big, only — only they had felt like it.

Hugh thought of the village stories. The grove where a unicorn had once been seen. The old churchyard, that on the quarter-nights of the year hosted a revel of ghosts. The fables of dwarves, of elves, from years past.

He thought of the elf king in his dream.

“Let us leave this,” he said, pacing between Gryselde and the dais. “What of the elves in the lake?”

The neutral cast of the sorine’s face did not break as she raised her eyes to follow him. “They will not attack you,” said Gryselde, “not now.”

“But they might do so, you mean?” Hugh asked. That damned dream: he could not avoid thinking of the dead children with hate in their eyes crawling from the lake. Of the elf-eyed king; not the real king under the waters, he was sure. Not him.

“They might have done so, once,” said Gryselde. “If Enheduanna had not spoken to them.”

“And now she is a surety against them launching an attack,” he muttered. “Isn’t that so?”

Gryselde was silent for a moment. “She is of their kind,” she said. “I cannot think they would be pleased, if she were hurt.”

Hugh grunted. Of their kind; did that matter? He was of the same kind as the folk of the village. When had they ever taken to him? Peg and the innfolk hated him; well, that he could understand. However wrongly, they thought their patrimony gave them rights. But that the Line Aubrey should be slow about their duties — that was unjust. And that so many of the rest of the village should bow their heads to him, but not accept him as one of them; and Yllaria, and her refusal to allow him into her tower, and all the rest of it. He had been very patient. Very patient. He was a patient man; patience produced results.

Which was why Baron Toly had appointed him. He was not too highly born (so he could be spared), nor too lowly (so the town, and the bandits in the area, would be impressed with his status); and he was patient. Had his patience not been proven wise? Had he not now captured Godeleva herself? Had he not done in his part, in the battle, among orcs and dragons? After the huldrafolk had disordered the desires of the people of Innsdene, had his order not steadied them? He was a patient man; for that, at least, they knew him, in Innsdene.

In the dream he had been running, hadn’t he? At one point. Running, and he could not move, could not reach or catch whatever he was after.

“Very well,” he said aloud. “I must speak with the elf king, in the times to come, and make a pact with him. If the huldra return, he would be a strong ally for the village.” He broke off, to stare at the sorine. “How do you think my village will make of that? Allied with elves.” She did not answer. He understood then that he had asked a strong question. He stopped his slow pacing. She stared straight ahead, at the high seat, and did not turn to meet his gaze. “What do you think they make of all this, sorine? My village. Innsdene. What do you think they understand of this, of Fell Gard?” She did not answer. He nodded. “You, and so far as I can see many of your house, you are … wanderers. Your singers, your dwarves, your wizards. All such as they. But my village lives in the real world, sorine, the world of work and sweat. How do you think they feel about being here, in this place?” He crossed his arms before his chest. “Lina. You have been silent. Tell me. What have you to report, of the village?”

“Not much new that I have heard,” she said. “No-one’s found that halfjack. The prisoners we do have want to see you.”

“When I please,” he said. Lina shrugged.

“The folk are pleased to be alive,” she said.

“Hm,” he said. “And how do they feel about the sorine’s House?”

“Sir Hugh?” she asked. Her eyes flicked from him to the sorine. “They, uh,” she said, trying to gauge what he wanted to hear. He nodded. Let her say what she liked. “They’d like the flying ones to cover up,” she blurted out. “When they fly around you can see all their parts. Sir.”

“That is reasonable,” said Gryselde, still expressionless. “I shall speak to them.”

They task me, these damnable females, he thought. One was too clever, the other … he still did not know how clever Lina really was. She had a cheerful contempt for learning, and could make him laugh with her obscene jests against the sage. Lina had a salt tongue, and so far as he could see enjoyed its use.

“What do they think of this House?” he asked her again. “Would any of them join it, do you think, and risk their lives to explore the dungeon?” Again Lina started to answer and stopped. He waved to her to continue. “The truth,” he said.

“Well,” she said, “the truth is that Peg at the inn’s got some pieces of gold out of these folk —”

Gold?” he said.

She nodded. “It has them thinking. Truth be told, I don’t know … some would join for gold, I think. Now, the battle may have changed matters. The feel of a true fight, and the things we all saw. What’s gold against all that? I worry more about those who’d join for other reasons. For the tales they’ve heard of Fell Gard. Or because … why, because it would be a new life.”

A new life. They were in Fell Gard; and they looked for life?

Hugh remembered stories when he was a boy. He remembered the tales of minstrels, by his father’s fire, late on a winter’s night. His bones aching from sport in the tilting-yard. A fur wrapped around him. Henry to one side of him, little Herbert to the other with his arms around Hugh’s neck. He remembered listening to smooth words, to stories of knights — knights like him, like his father. The sort of stories one listened to, and loved because they happened so far away and to other people. Only, now he found himself within those stories. Had he come so far, then?

Fell Gard was only a fable. A mad place of treasure and monsters. Of traps, and ghosts, and wizardry. It was all the unknown parts of the world, all the legends and fables and ballads. All the tales of all the giants, all the trolls, all the ogres.

All the dragons. Yes, those too.

All the dreams.

He thought of hateful dead children. He thought of the girls in the sorine’s robes. He thought of the dead woman.

What was Fell Gard to him? Was it a nightmare? Was it his end? Did he see his overturning, in this sorine? Was he no longer of use to anyone? Was he a nullity, a placeholder?

What meaning did he have, if she would oversee the House that would deliver them all?

He realised they were silent. He had been silent. What had Lina last said? “What sort of life should they expect, Sorine?” he asked.

“In what sense?” she asked.

“In Fell Gard,” he said. “What is there to expect, here?”

“I can’t truly be sure,” she said. “Much of what I know of the dungeon is hearsay.”

“And yet you ask me to recognise your House based on hearsay,” he said.

“No,” she said. “Based on what we have accomplished.”

Should he have cut her off after her ‘no’? Ranted and raged at her? That was not his way. He was patient.

“And what will it mean for Innsdene?” he asked, turning away from her, confronting his high seat upon the dais. “What have we accomplished? I suppose you will say ‘nothing.’ Still, we have survived. Yes; by Oak and by Holly, we have done that.” He stared at the throne. “Should we entrust all our survival to you, Sorine, when you don’t even know what will face us, what will come out of these halls to test us?”

“I know that we are better made to face those things than you,” she said.

“Hmm,” said Hugh.

Was it true?

He wondered if he was afraid of something more than the dungeon. He wondered how much he wanted simply to go back to the way things were.

Was it true, that they were better shaped for the dungeon?

That he, as a knight, should let them face danger in his place …

Ah, but he was no longer only a knight. He was a bailiff. He had responsibilities. His lord had set him in a certain place, and given him a certain oversight. That was how it must be.

He closed his eyes, and drew a breath. He thought of what Lina had not said, but which he knew to be true: that the village had been shaken ever since hearing the song of the Huldra. Men and women alike. Certain things were meant to be kept sacred, and so to have faced the huldra, to have had one’s desires raised —

No; let it be. Set it aside.

He let himself remember the dream.

Hawks were upon the branches of the tree that held the moons and planets moving on their silver lines, an intricate machine. He had to hurry to reach it, but fast as he ran he could not move. Simon Tristram was in the fight, among the angels at the base of the tree, and he wore the red robes as he had seen him that one time, twenty years ago (he had been young then, Simon, but Hugh had been younger still). What side was the Weeping King on? A dead woman in dead robes took Hugh’s hand as he ran — she wore the sorine’s robes, he remembered that now — she set him in his own grave, and then younger women naked under their robes buried him under the earth, but he did not die though he sank into a hell underground. He grew an oak tree from his grave, and the battle raged now about his own trunk, withered holly standards and elder branches and the weeping king who was now eyeless. Hugh was the tree but also then he was a man, and there was another man with him who had come from the forest, elf-eyed, and who aroused him and they had congress; he could not remember, truly he could not, who penetrated whom. Only that when it was done feral children emerged from the lake (now there was a lake by his tree) with hatred in their eyes.

He opened his eyes. Almost he gasped. Almost.

He strode up the steps and sat in his chair.

The dream was some terrible portent, he knew. The death of peoples; the fall of kings. He would have to unriddle it, in time. Perhaps the sage would help. Perhaps she would not.

Either way, this was his life. He was the bailiff of Innsdene. He should not mourn what might have been, or what was lost, or look to follow a dream. He had life ahead of him to live.

“I will recognise your House, for my part,” he told the sorine, “for so long as we are in the dungeon, and only that. I do not recognise you on behalf of my lord Baron Toly, only for myself. This recognition, moreover, is conditional upon your payment of a tax. One half of all monies and precious stones you find and recover in the dungeon. I will not ask you to swear homage, but you, or your House, must sign a treaty to this effect.

“Moreover, it is to be understood that your House is strictly and solely for those who go out into Fell Gard, to find us a way hence from here. That is the duty your House agrees to, as we shall agree to support you as best we can — though not to feed you in preference to ourselves. Those who will not undertake this duty may not remain in your House.

“Cases of law concerning your House will be overseen by your House. But civil matters, where a suit is brought against one of your House by a resident of Innsdene, will be determined by a court of my choosing.

“This is what I offer you. I will not debate the point farther.”

“I will agree to it,” said Gryselde slowly, “but I will add further that should anyone we find in the dungeon choose to join with us, and then choose not to go back into Fell Gard’s halls — they must be given every chance to live in Innsdene.”

“Of course,” said Hugh. Of course; it was what he was counting on.

Let them pay taxes on the treasures they found in the dungeon. He would do right by Baron Toly; and when he returned, he would have — how much money? How many shiny gold coins? How rich would he be, and the Baron as well?

And in the meanwhile … some of his folk would go to them. More of theirs would come to him. Who would be eager to go out into Fell Gard, if they had a choice? Who would confront their own nightmares, day in and day out? Who would accept those dangers, those rough magics? The explorers would find people in the dungeon halls, surely, and surely they would not want to return, if they had a choice. Therefore they would become his subjects. And when they returned to the outer world, all of them, Innsdene would be so much greater than it had before.

No; this treaty would not simply save Innsdene, it would ensure its growth.

He thought of his dream again, and almost shuddered. Almost.

Now that the town’s future was determined, he wondered: what was that future to be? If it were saved — what was it saved for?

His son Laurence entered the hall, and bowed. “I gave you no leave to enter,” Hugh said.

“News has come,” said Laurence. “Some of the sorine’s House have returned. They bring word a hob-goblin city has been found, and there is a war to our north between those hob-goblins and some tribe of dwarves. Also the hob-goblins know of us. Father — we may face another invasion, at any moment.”

Hugh listened to this. He pondered. He thought of the war about the trunk of the oak.

“Well, Sorine?” he said. “What will you do, now?”

But to this question she had no immediate answer.


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