The Fell Gard Codices


It had been days since Achard had seen the sun. And then there it was, under the earth. For a moment he was stunned, staring upward into the warm gold brightness.

Then the bells rang. A clatter of brass, heavy and frantic.

Achard snapped his head around. He saw all the others, as surprised as he. The rat-man cowering from the light. The stag-man, his arms wide. Diccon with his eyes closed. The sorine took a step back: “Run,” she murmured, and then, louder: “Run! Back to the portcullis! Go!”

She raced away. Aura with her. Gral, the stag-man, and the rat-man following. Achard looked down the south-western hall. There was a closed door. What was behind it? Mystery. Monsters. Treasure. Anyway Diccon still hadn’t stirred.

“Go!” Ygerna shouted to Achard. She took Diccon’s right arm, and shook him.

“I will when you will,” murmured Achard. But he turned away from the door, and toward Diccon.

“Help me with him,” said Ygerna. Achard took Diccon’s other arm as the man began to weep. Together they dragged him down the hall.

Up ahead Gryselde and Gral struggled with the portcullis, Hwitwic in back of them with the lanthorn. Useless, Achard thought. He and Ygerna together hadn’t managed to lift the thing before. As he thought that, Ygerna let go of Diccon, and strode forward, between the sorine and dwarf. “Wait,” said Achard, moving forward; but she had already bent, taken a deep breath, and —

With a cry, she lifted the portcullis, to hip-height, to chest-height, to shoulder-height. “Hurry,” she said, gasping. Achard didn’t believe it.

Aura flew under the bar of the portcullis. The others after her, the stag-man half bent over so his antlers near to swept the ground. Achard was last. The preceptor’s face was red, her mouth open, lips peeled back, eyes screwed shut. “I’m through,” he said. Ygerna shrieked, took a step, and let the thing crash down behind her. “How’d you do that?” he asked.

She bent over, gasping. “I had to,” she said. “I had to do better. What good am I, if I’m not helping others?”

“One way to look at life, I suppose,” said Achard, clapping her on the back.

“To the turning ahead,” Gryselde whispered. “Turn right, and wait. Gral, tell me what comes. If whatever-it-is raises the portcullis, we’ll run further.”

They did as the sorine said, scurrying around the corner where the stag-man hid the lanthorn’s light under his cloak of hide. A few moments later, Gral whispered: “There are skeleton men, on skeleton mounts. They are riding back and forth before the portcullis. They are not lifting it.”

“Tell me when they’re gone,” Gryselde whispered.

Beside Achard and Ygerna, Diccon was shaking with sobs. The preceptor reached out her arms and held him. Achard doubted the man even knew she was there. Not an unattractive man, Diccon, thought Achard. He briefly wondered about the size of his cock. On realising which, he smiled. Near-death situation be damned. There were more important things.

Still, if it did come to a fight … He wondered: would the miracle water work on skeletons? The ellyll had said something about the water being proof against the walking dead. Achard had been surprised when, the sorine standing shivering, the little man had picked up the leather-stoppered glass bottle and given it to him. So surprised he’d taken it. The look on the man’s face: just us lads, one to another. The sort of look that sometimes pissed Achard off and sometimes stirred his lust. And sometimes both. Then the ellyll had begun telling them about the monks and the dungeon, and Gryselde had never asked about the water she’d paid for.

Achard wondered what that pin-prick had done to Gryselde. What had she seen, trembling, eyes closed? What did she know now that she hadn’t before? Why had she forgotten what she’d paid for?

“They’re gone,” muttered Gral. Somebody exhaled. Diccon pulled away from Ygerna as Hwitwic took out the lanthorn.

“We go on our way, then,” said Gryselde. “But I think we will come back again, at some later time. Diccon. How did you know what to say in that room?”

“I remembered it,” he murmured. “I — from when I was young. I, I don’t remember much about my — my childhood. Is that strange? I just … I’d been there before.”

He was trembling again. Ygerna set a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right,” she said. “Whatever happened then is long since gone now.”

“That’s the problem,” he muttered. “I think … I think I was safe there. I remember … they taught me to read.” He collapsed to sit on the tunnel floor. “Oh, gods, I loved the reading,” he said. His head fell into his hands.

Achard cleared his throat. He didn’t like the way he wanted to do what Ygerna had, and hold the man tight. Fucking was one thing. Tenderness, that was trickier. “We should probably go on,” he said. “If they do come through the portcullis —”

Gral hissed something in Ibia to Bliss, who nodded. Ygerna knelt to be on a level with Diccon. “I’m all right,” he said, very quietly. “I’m all right. I think … he’s right. Let’s go.” Diccon stood up. Ygerna remained kneeling for a moment, then stood herself. “When I was a child,” Diccon said calmly, “I was taken to that place. I was taught there. I don’t know, I can’t remember how long I stayed there or why I left. I was very young.”

Gryselde nodded. “If you recall more,” she said, “tell me.”

“Where to, then?” asked Achard. “None of us are hurt, and we still don’t know what we came here to find out.”

“True,” said Gryselde. “I don’t yet propose to return to Innsdene. We go back to where this wide cave first branched away. Just to the north was another wide way to the west. That will be our path.”

“If what’s in the monastery commanded the darklings, it will not be best pleased by finding them dead,” observed Gral. “It may block our return.”

“Then we find another way back to the Abyss of Stairs,” Achard said. “So long as we know generally where the Abyss is, we’ll know where to look to find a way up.”

Gral grunted, spat, and went off to the north-east. Achard glared after him. Gryselde touched his arm. “It is his nature,” she said.

So they went back along the wide cave, past the chambers where they’d fought the darklings, and over the crack in the earth. Then north, and to the wide cave that led west. After twenty yards they passed a branching cave to the north; Gryselde had them keep going, on down the long western passage. The ceiling was high, there, and it felt like they were walking within the bones of the earth, the lanthorn light ineffectually fading away to all sides, showing only the walls to left and right, twenty or thirty feet apart.

Beside Achard, Gryselde was silent. Gral, ahead of them, was at the edge of the light, searching as they went for traps and hidden things. Achard found himself staring in every direction. He was awed by the dungeon; the size of it. Whenever he let his thoughts wander they came back always to the same thing. Fell Gard ought to have been like a hell, he thought. Trapped under the earth, in the dark, with monsters and danger. And yet it was not, not wholly. It was a challenge. It was an adventure.

The sorine glanced at him. Achard realised he was grinning. He composed his face, and nodded to her.

They came to a place where the cave bulged out to the north. The broad way ended, but a narrower passage led on to the west. Achard watched as Gral went to the northern wall. As Achard drew closer he saw a niche in the wall that held an iron sceptre, the twin of the one in his pack. Only this sceptre’s head was a massive black pearl. “A sign,” Achard muttered. “But of what?”

“No traps,” said Gral. Achard reached out to the sceptre and took it up. He waited. They all waited. No bells sounded. Achard shrugged and put it in his pack. “A collection?” the dwarf asked him.

“I mean to return to the outer world, eventually,” said Achard. “I’ll live well the rest of my days, with these things.” He grinned. The dwarf, for his part, maintained a dour silence.

“Onward,” said the sorine.

They went west. After a short space the passage opened into a larger room, with more caves leading away in several directions — to the north-west, but also south and south-west and two ways directly westward. “There is something wicked near,” murmured Ygerna.

Gral said “What’s that to the north?” as Hwitwic pointed down one of the western caves. Gryselde ran where the stag-man pointed, shocking Achard with her speed. Ygerna ran after her. Achard glanced back to see Diccon staring northward as though stunned. “Come on!” Achard shouted, grabbing him by the arm. “After them!” Diccon stumbled, then came running with the lanthorn as they followed the others.

The passage again went only a short way before widening into a larger cave. To Achard’s left Gryselde was fighting a lean doglike thing, whose body was part shadow and partly the colour of blood. A grim jackal. It stank like a corpse. And whined with a noise like a baby in pain. His flesh crawled. He understood: the thing had led Gryselde away from the others, into darkness, then turned on her.

As the dwarf, rat-man and stag-man ran up, and the Sylph fluttered by overhead, Gryselde cuffed the jackal. Then Ygerna ran in to deal it a heavy blow with her greatsword. The beast was knocked off its feet, rolled, came up howling, turned to run.

Achard could not move, being caught by a presentiment of his own death.

Gryselde, unaffected, reached out and snapped the beast’s neck.

The howling stopped, blessedly. He saw Ygerna stagger against a wall and take off her helmet. Achard made himself start breathing. Diccon —

Diccon left the lanthorn, and ran back to the east.

“Hey,” said Achard. “Hey!” He ran back after the man.

What had happened, when the jackal had howled? Achard had thought — no, he had not thought he was dying. It had simply been forced on him that he would die. A day was coming that would end his life. There would then only be cold endless winter, locked in the bowels of the earth, his flesh become dull as soil and stone. Death will happen, he thought, but there’s living to be done first.

So much for him. But Diccon —

Achard realised he could see. There was light ahead of him. From the north-west chamber they had passed before. “You!” he heard Diccon cry. “Did you kill them? Was it you?

Light; firelight. He could see Diccon, a shadow, running to the north-west cave. Achard followed. He found a nightmare.

The cave was a rough square, forty or so feet to a side, with spires of rock like spikes arising from the floor and stabbing down from the roof. In the centre of the cavern was a bare space of floor, on which was drawn in glittering golden fire a circle with a star inside it. Within those fires there was a thing ten feet tall, with a man’s body and a goat’s legs and a cat’s head and curling ram’s horns and batlike wings. It grinned and said nothing as Diccon ran toward it.

Before Fell Gard Achard had always half-thought that wizardry was nonsense, fables for drunks and fools. Still in those fables there had been one thing that was consistent: do not break their summoning circles.

Achard threw himself forward and caught Diccon around the waist, bringing him down just before the circle of fire. Diccon was weeping, and curled up as the cat-thing strode to the edge of the burning circle. The flames rose as it neared to make a waist-high wall before it.

“What are you?” breathed Achard.

“He killed them!” shouted Diccon. “He always wanted to!”

“I am the death of gods,” the thing in the circle told Achard. “I am old, mortal. And I can tell you many things. Here; take my hand.”

Achard drew back, and pulled Diccon with him. “Did you kill the monks? Is he right?”

The cat’s mouth widened. It grinned, its lips peeling back from its fangs. “Why should I answer?”

Achard stared at it, then, one hand on Diccon’s back, sent the other into his pack. “Because I command it by this miraculous water,” he said, “blessed by a man of the Holy Name.”

It laughed. “Don’t be a fool,” it said. “You don’t believe in that any more than I do. No. Listen. I can do more than tell you what you ask. If you make a pact with me I will give you power. We will confront the Exile, and you can overthrow him or join with him as you like.”

“What would that gain me?” asked Achard. “And what would I give up?”

“You would gain power,” said the creature bounded by the circle. “You would gain stature in the dungeon. Who knows? In time you might become the right hand of the dungeon’s new ruler. As for what you would give up … not so much. This is a very old bargain.”

“What are you?” asked Achard again.

The cat-thing smiled.

“It is an Asag,” called Gryselde, as she entered the cavern. Achard watched as the others followed behind her, stag and rat, dwarf and sylph. And preceptor. “It is a spirit of the plague,” Gryselde told him, coming to stand between two of the rock spikes. “I have learned my demonology well.”

“Demonology?” repeated Achard. “Demon —” He looked at the cat-thing, who grinned. Achard thought of the battle on the shore by the lake.

“This is true,” said the creature. “What I have offered to you is also true. Stretch out your hand to me. I will take it. You will have what mortals long for.”

“Achard,” said Gryselde. “Diccon. Let’s go.”

“Wait,” said Achard. “Shouldn’t we consider this? If we’re trying to save Innsdene, and for that matter survive ourselves, then —”

“Mere survival is not enough,” said Gryselde. “Why live, if you will do evil? Pacts with such forces will turn to ash.”

“Maybe you believe that,” said Achard. “Why should I?”

“Because it will destroy you!” cried Ygerna.

“Will I?” mused the thing — the demon. “I could, if I wanted to. Even bound as I am. I will tell you what I am. I am a demon of the plague. Therefore I am sickness. I am all the ailments that afflict you. I am those pains and sore afflictions that come to you, and make you abandon god and lose your faith. I am the proof that there is no justice in the world, no caring, no fairness. Yes, I could destroy you. That is my purpose, and I have been about it a very long time. I saw the Archons fall, gasping as they died from the disease I set among them. I could destroy you. I would rather make a pact, and give you power.”

“Ah,” said Achard. He felt a lazy grin spread again upon his face. “Then, you see, I have no desire to deal with you. For I am less interested in power than I am pleasure, and it seems to be in your nature to undo pleasure and ease. Come, Diccon, let’s go.” So saying he took Diccon by the collar of his tunic, and, standing, began to lead him back to the others.

He did not look back to the circle. He heard the demon laugh. “All right,” it said. “Go on, then. I have not been bound here long at all, a few years, you mortals would say. Some decades will pass before my patience runs out. And you will be back to me before long. You will beg me to make a pact, to let me out of this circle.” Achard and Diccon reached the others. Wordlessly they all then made their way quickly from the room, but Achard could still hear the demon: “There will be plague among you, plague in Fell Gard, and you will know that I have the power to save all the friends that you will watch die — you will see the tumours swell in their flesh, you will smell the rot of them, you will know this and come to me, and beg me for a pact. You will beg to be allowed to free me. And I will refuse you, then. I will refuse …”

They rounded the corner. The words dwindled into a confused echo, a gibberish of disease and imprecation. They staggered on to the next room, where Gryselde had killed the jackal. There Diccon swayed and collapsed. “Diccon?” said Achard.

“It couldn’t have been him,” muttered Diccon. “He was still bound, where he always was.” Achard leaned against the wall, looking down at the man.

“Can you tend to him?” asked Gryselde. “We will look at those other ways out of this room. And the one behind us.” She tilted her head back toward the cave south of the bound demon.

Achard nodded. “Careful,” he muttered to her. To Diccon, as the others set out, he said: “The demon said something about an Exile. Does that mean anything to you?”

Diccon thought for a moment. “No,” he said. “Unless — no.”

Achard was about to press him further, but then the preceptor said, “Were you really thinking of dealing with that …” she trailed off, and shrugged. The lanthorn was at the far side of the cave, where Gryselde and the sylph were examining a passage leading away to the south; so her face was shadowed, and he did not know what to make of her question.

“Well, I didn’t do it, in the end, did I?” he asked. “I meant what I said, about pleasure.” He shook his head. “It is the highest good. The Archons knew that. Some of them. I’ve tried to find out all I can … what gives pleasure. I’ve debated it with John of the Inner Book … I don’t know what I would have done, preceptor. It’s a demon. Its nature is to deceive.”

He could see her nod. “Pleasure for whom?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” he asked in return.

She shrugged. He realised she really did not know what she meant. That she was stumbling toward meaning the way he was. “Is it … your own pleasure, or would you give that up for the pleasure of others?” she asked.

“Depends on the situation,” he said. He thought for a moment. “I find pleasure in carnal knowledge of men,” he said. She started. “Maybe you can relate,” he said. “Maybe not, I don’t know. I mean that … I assume there’s pleasure in it for them, the others. That increases my pleasure. So … I would say there is no contradiction, between pleasure for others and my own pleasure.”

“You’re an idealist,” she said, surprised. He laughed.

“I know myself,” he said. “At least a little.”

Gryselde came up to them. “The southern caves lead to stairs,” she said. “One flight seems to lead up, perhaps all the way back to the twentieth court. There is a passage leading to the west. We should go on, if you are all ready.”

“Yes,” said Diccon. He stood. “Yes. I’m sorry, Sorine. I’ve been, I’ve been setting a poor example, haven’t I?”

Gryselde tilted her head. “You’ve done your best, no doubt,” she said. “Ready yourselves.”

She went back to marshal the others. Ygerna touched Achard on the arm. She seemed almost shy. “I had heard of … men like you,” she said.

“There are women also,” he said, “I think.”

“I suppose,” she said. “I mean … I had heard you were all … you sought luxury.”

He laughed. “Lady Ygerna, the world assumes a man must have a maid. And the reverse. To come to realise that you are not what all the world knows … that you are something beyond the imaginings of singers and poets … to accept that? One must pursue that knowledge. Which is a knowledge of pleasure. You see?”

She thought about that, and nodded. Whereupon they took their places in line, and set out again.

It was all true, thought Achard. Pleasure as the good in life. He had read that in the philosophy of the Archons. The Archons; they had understood pleasure, and love, in ways that had been forgotten now. They knew that both those things took many forms. But that the highest pleasure consisted of a freedom from pain of the body, and from turmoil in the soul.

He thought of the jackal’s keening. He thought of the fear of death. He thought of his philosophical readings. The gravestone of the master: I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care. At his feet there was a flicker in the lanthorn light. He bent and picked up a stone that turned out to be an emerald half the size of his fist. He laughed, and set it in his pack by the miracle water that could not cow demons. And this also is philosophy, he told himself, beware the man who is trying to sell you something.

They went a fair way to the west, perhaps a hundred feet. They passed by a crack in the stone, maybe ten feet wide, leading to the south. Then —

“Tadigemen!” called Gral. “They’ve heard me!”

The dwarf ran forward, and ducked to the side. Gryselde moved ahead as Achard heard stirring and croaking. He remembered the toad-men in the garden. He remembered Reprisal. Drawing his sword, he ran forward beside Gryselde with a whoop. Behind him came Diccon with the light, and he saw —

There was a cave maybe twenty yards north to south, a bit more than half as long east to west. The rock of its walls rippled like curtains and there were more silver coins, and, yes, gold coins than he had ever imagined existed in all the world. But also in it were weird shadows, misshapen forms. Toad-men, three, no four, no, six of them. But also three thinner things. Mortal corpses that walked.

“Oak and Holly, they’re dead,” he said.

“Witherlings,” said Gryselde.

“I will destroy them,” said Ygerna.

Gral had circled to his right, to attack the tadigemen from the flank. Ygerna ran past Achard to one of the witherlings, and with a chopping stroke of her greatsword crushed its chest. A tadigeman leaped at Achard, and he whipped his sword up to meet it. The blade took it in the eye and killed it. As he drew his sword out he saw that between them Bliss and Diccon had brought down another.

Ygerna cried out as she was struck by one of the other witherlings. Two of the toad-men turned away, rather than attack. They ran into a northern niche of the cave. Another attacked Gryselde, who ducked away, and the last drove one of their curious spears at Gral, who spat as the spear-head was turned by his armour.

Achard heard the tolling of a bell, its tone like the bells from the monastery.

Gral drove his sword deep into the tadigeman before him, which fell dead. Ygerna swung her greatsword with all her strength and took off the head of another witherling. Gryselde struck the last tadigeman in the side of its head. Achard spitted it on his sword. Then the two that had sounded the alarm-bell were back.

They tried to run down the western hall. Ygerna drove the last witherling out of their way, and Gral ran to intercept the tadigemen. He reached one, but his sword bounced from its rubbery skin. Achard was right behind him, though. His sword was keener. The tadigeman fell. Behind him Bliss killed the last of them as Ygerna slew the final witherling.

“That was fast,” said Achard. He was almost disappointed. There was a thrill in fighting, in real fighting, and this was against monsters, against the dead —

“We have to get away,” said Gryselde. “That alarm —”

Two white-furred apelike things leapt into the room from the west. They were tall, muscled, but hunched over. Ygerna moved between them and the others. They struck at her, but she took their pummeling on her armour plates.

Then Gral had stuck his sword in the side of one of them and Gryselde broke its neck. Achard swung his sword at the other, but its matted fur was thicker than he’d thought and his blow had no effect. Diccon tried to slash it, with equal futility, but Bliss cut it badly. Then Ygerna brought her sword down on it, crushing its chest. It fell, and died; but already there were more shapes behind it, bringing their own light.

One of them was chanting, a woman’s voice —

Dreams washed over Achard, dreams of himself drowning in coins, young men beautiful as gods pulling him down to them, and it seemed that turmoil receded for ever.

He fell, dizzied, a smile on his face, and around him Gral and Gryselde and Diccon and Ygerna and Bliss all fell too, in their own separate dreams.


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