The Fell Gard Codices


They had still not come to a conclusion about their next move when the goblins found them.

Ulixa (she was used, by now, to thinking of herself not by her true name, but rather by the Empire name by which those around her would know her) had watched the group debate, saying nothing herself. They’d closed the door to the east, and nursed the remains of the torches, keeping one burning in the northern corner of the dragon’s chamber, near the door to the west. William had some smaller torches in his pack, with flint and tinder, but the sorine felt they should save them until they’d begun their next move — whatever that was. She was in favour of exploring further; Gral maintained that they would not be safe with goblins at their back, and argued that they should lure them down from their lair, and ambush them as they came. He outlined some plan, which seemed to rely on dwarven experience in their unending subterrene wars with the goblinfolk; Ulixa thought it was risky, and so, to judge by their faces, did most of the others. They considered, and some of them slept on their bunched-up cloaks, and due to the graveness of their situation they kept silent rather than tell travellers’ tales or sing or make jokes. Once William muttered something about a bed of brass coins, and when Ulixa pointed out to him that the coins in the dragon’s lair were not brass but gold he stared at them, astonished, and gathered several handfuls before leaving off, stunned and disbelieving. Twice during the while they rested, they went as a group to the room with the crack in its floor, to relieve themselves. At another point, following the sorine’s urging, those of them with skins of water (William, the wizard girl, the sorine, and the elven huntress the prophet had restored to health) let the others drink. And then the elf said that she heard steps in the western passage.

Ulixa had been wondering what her own next move was to be. She did not know these people to trust them, and of course they were not of the kindred. What was right behaviour in that situation? Did the concept mean anything, in that place? What would she tell these people, of her reason for travelling and being alone? Most of them were young. She thought she could take advantage of that, if she had to. Though what was she to make of the prophet? So she was lost in her own thoughts when Enheduanna’s warning came.

She woke Hochelaga, for they had made plans together for such a situation when they first chose to rest in the dragon’s lair, and along with the elf Ulixa led the girl out the eastern door, ignoring her furious whispered protests. From there they watched, Ulixa with her sling readied, the elf with her bow. The dwarf positioned himself to one side of the door, the knight to the other; rather than stand back with his bow beside Ulixa and Enheduanna, the singer took his sword in hand and went to support the sorine and the prophet where they stood just before the east wall, giving the elf a clear field of fire. Then the door was kicked in.

Ulixa had never seen a goblin before. But she knew them at once, in that first flash as they burst into the room, just as you knew things in a dream or in a nightmare: tall as a man, perhaps taller, but hunched over, their skin mottled blue and green like the colour of sick night, their eyes like drops of blood. Thick stubby swords in hand, rough armour of hide that left free their long feet with toes like fingers and thumb. The sorine raised an imperious hand, and cried “Halt!” — But the goblins paid her no mind, only howled and charged.

Gral and Lady Amanos struck them from behind as they ran. One died. Two more fell with the elf’s arrows in their throats. The three remaining reached the waiting humans, and then there was a confused swirl Ulixa could hardly make out in the waning torchlight. The goblins’ chopping short swords rose and fell. The dwarf and knight moved to join the melee, but Gral for some reason bent over and got in the knight’s way. A goblin’s blow glanced from Ulric’s mail. The sorine swayed one way and then another, seeming to hardly notice the attacks that she deftly avoided.

Then one of the goblins near to gutted the singer, who fell, blood spilling from his belly. “William!” shouted the elf, who had dropped her bow; there was no way, even for her, to shoot arrows into such a confused mass. She ran forward, scrabbling for her sword.

Then the sorine reached out to touch one of the goblins in the throat. It dropped, and did not move. The other two, seeing this, turned to run. One barrelled through the humans, taking a heavy blow from the prophet’s mace. The other leaped against the north wall, his feet gripping the stone of the wall, and raced over everyone’s heads to the door and through.

The fight was done; and William was dying. Then the prophet bent to him, and he was not. He looked up at the old man with wonder. Ulric smiled, that bright and frightening smile through which burned a fire Ulixa could not trust. “Urthona favours you, William,” he said.

“I think I must return that favour,” said the singer. “Give me one of your prayers, Ulric, and I pledge you I’ll make a song of it.” The prophet laughed.

Swiftly, Gryselde said: “Gather your things. We must go. Surely there will be more before long. Gral. I do not like this killing. I like less the prospect of being killed, or seeing you others killed before me. You said you saw dozens of the goblins up those stairs. This was six. There is risk below, but more here. Do you disagree?”

The dwarf spat. “Sooner or later,” he said, “they must be killed. Like it or not.”

“Murder is natural to goblins,” said Enheduanna. “As a hound must have meat, and not grass or fruit. They must kill. Look at the armour and helmets of these ones. Those are not animal hides, but speaking creatures.”

“That’s a worry for the future,” said Gryselde. “For now, we, at least, have another choice.”

“The time will come when we will not,” said Gral. To William, he said, “Tell the lady knight in future to strike at their feet. You saw how they climb with them. Goblin feet are sensitive, and vulnerable targets.” He shrugged. “We dwarves have learned well how to fight such creatures. But, if we are now to go deeper into Fell Gard, then let us go; only I tell you we will find ourselves at war with them, sooner or later.”

In a few moments they were on their way. Gral went before them with the elf, looking for traps. They soon reached the stairs Ulixa had found after waking. She clutched the stone in her pocket tight. The scarab. What was right behaviour?

Surely at that moment it was joining them as they descended the stairs.

The steps were old, to all appearances, and crumbling. They went down a very long way, and ended at an archway opening into a room. Enheduanna and Gral, who could see in the dark, said that there was nothing in the room but three doors leading away. Still the humans went cautiously, until by the light of a torch carried by William they could see the whole of the room, twenty feet wide and ten yards long, stretching away before them. Two heavy wooden doors were on the right-hand wall; another, with a black iron key-hole under its latch, halfway along the left.

Gryselde sighed. “We’ll look through each of the doors before deciding where to go. First, Gral, you should see if there are more traps on them. After he has done, Ulric, you will open the doors but move aside as you do. Enheduanna, be ready to shoot any hostile creature beyond. If nothing attacks, then the rest of us will look more closely. Is this acceptable?”

It was sensible enough. But: “I can help the dwarf,” Ulixa heard herself saying. “I have training.” The dwarf gave her an appraising look. The sorine only nodded.

There were no traps that either of them could find, but the door on the left side, the east, was locked. “Can you open it?” murmured the dwarf.

“Perhaps,” she said. “I have tools.” The dwarf sneered; she wasn’t sure what he meant by it.

But now the others were about to open the first door, on the west wall. Ulric pulled it open, ducking behind the door. “Something’s moving,” said the elf. “But it’s not — wait. There are three, on the walls. But they are not approaching.”

The sorine stepped forward, with the torch. The knight watched. William said something to her, and she followed the religious. The others were behind them. Ulixa waited, and stood at the rear.

“What are they?” asked the singer.

“Gargoyles,” said the sorine. “Stone gargoyles that move.” She cried: “Can you hear us?”

“They’re looking at us,” whispered the elf. “Watch, their eyes.”

Ulixa shifted her position to see what they were talking about. A narrow hall led away north-westward from the door. An arch was at the limit of the torchlight, and on the arch there were three manlike things of stone, with fangs and horns and gaping mouths. They climbed back and forth upon the thirty-foot-high arch, glaring with gemstone eyes at the group by the door. They made no move to descend, or speak to the sorine. The dwarf said something to them, odd words that were mostly vowel-sounds and f-sounds and sibilants. They did not react.

“Now, do you speak magic gargoyle? Stone to stone?” asked William.

Gral turned a baleful eye on the tall singer. “The trade language of the deep dark is older than your empires, soon-to-die mortal man.”

“We should all learn it, then,” said Gryselde. She motioned to the prophet, who shut the door. “But later. I do not think we should go that way, not now. Let’s see what’s past the other doors.”

The south-western door opened onto another hall, that led directly west some ways to another door. The eastern door, of course, was locked. Gral knelt before it, and took out a set of tools; after a moment he cursed, and backed away shaking his head. He motioned to Ulixa.

What was right behaviour? Surely, to open the door. It seemed she had cast her lot with these people. Ulixa decided she should be able to trust the sorine; which was to say, trust her to behave as Ulixa expected. But the dwarf? The elf? And what sort of God did this prophet worship? Could you trust the creative imagination?

Ah, well, for the moment there was only the lock. She took out her old tools. She had hoped she would not need them again, after she ran away from the city, ran away for the second time in her life. But that was the problem with running away. If you did not have somewhere to run to, you often ended up back where you started from. The lock in the door clicked. “It’s done,” she said, standing.

They positioned themselves, and opened the door. They found a short hall that angled away to the south-east. A chamber of some sort was visible at the end. Gryselde sent the elf and dwarf through; they came back to report that there was a kind of suite of rooms that opened one into another. “Better to search them, now we’ve started,” said the sorine, and they did.

There were half-a-dozen rooms, jumbled together, all of them uninhabited. One was lined with dusty shelves. Another held sticks of incense. Another had a pentacle worked on the floor; Hochelaga announced that she could use it as a summoning circle, and Gryselde had to forbid her from taking the incense and attempting a calling of spirits right that moment. The southernmost room was large and circular, with a domed ceiling. There was a silver figurine at the centre of the room, which greatly resembled the creatures on the arch. A hallway led from the circular chamber to the west; another had stretched away from the northernmost room, north and east.

“Which way?” Gral asked the sorine; his tone challenged her to pick correctly. Then the knight began to speak urgently.

William translated: “She says that we could take this area, and fortify it. We can set up traps, and have ways of retreat.”

“True,” said the sorine, “but we don’t know what other creatures are around us.” The knight was still speaking.

William said: “She suggests that we leave a guard posted here, to watch out for —”

“Did you hear that?” interrupted the elf. They all looked at her. She motioned to the west. “A loud crash, somewhere over there.”

“We’d better see what it is,” the sorine said. “All of us.” So it was decided, and they went.

The western passage soon split, with one branch continuing west while another led south. Both ended at doors. The elf pointed to the western door. The sorine whispered to the dwarf, who examined the door closely. Then the sorine took hold of Ulixa’s arm and whispered in her ear, “Better I think that he spy out any traps; if we are surprised by an attacker, I know he has his sword. Are you ready, if it comes to it?”

Ulixa took one of her knives out of her pocket; no need, she thought, to mention yet the one in her boot. “I would rather run than fight,” she said, wondering if she was telling an untruth. “But I have gone alone a little while.” There, that was right. She avoided using Invicti-descended words as much as she could; which maybe wasn’t needed, but she knew it was a point of right form with those of the Empire lands. At any rate, the sorine nodded.

The door opened to a room, a little longer and a little wider than the first they’d found on that floor; the ceiling was very high, and a flight of stairs to the right led up to a balcony. Three halls led out, two on the south wall and one on the west. The elf led them westward. That passage stretched a couple of dozen feet, and then opened into another room of roughly the same size.

They were halfway through the room before they realised they weren’t alone. By then, of course, it was too late to back out.

There were eight or ten or twelve of the things, and they were like the goblins above but smaller — hardly taller than the dwarf — and frailer, with bigger eyes. They hissed and began to circle around, their cruel pointed knives held blade-downwards. “Halt,” cried the sorine, as she had to the goblins, dropping her weapon to stride forward, hands up; it had no more effect this time than it had before.

Then, at some signal Ulixa did not notice, the things attacked. They were very fast. The elf had the bow knocked from her hands. Still Gral brought one down, so did the prophet, and also William, who’d had time to drop his own bow and ready his sword — then there was one before Ulixa. She waved her knife at it. It danced away, hissing, but slashed at her, and cut her arm.

She stepped back. The hissing thing followed. It attacked again. It would have caught her leg, but her long leather coat turned the blade; the thing was not strong. Maybe later she’d have a bruise but now she didn’t feel it. Only, her arm was bleeding. Had the muscle been cut, or one of the other soft things that would not heal quite right? Irrelevantly she remembered her father’s models of the human body, inside and out, which he had hidden when his clients came to call — “They would not understand,” he would say, or, “It would trouble them.”

Then, behind them, the girl Hochelaga shrieked. The things they were fighting began to back away. Ulixa risked turning her head. She almost cried out herself.

Coming along the hallway through which they had entered the room was what seemed to be a giant distended eyeball, long as a man was tall, or more, and high as her shoulder, white all over, with a horrible overlarge pupil rimmed with blood-red at its front. It moved in spasms, bunching and stretching and reaching forward, staring and mad.

And then a door on the north wall was flung open. A man, a human man, white-skinned, with a torch in his hand, ran out shouting for help, for asylum, first in the speech of the Grey Kings with a strange accent she did not know, and then in the tongue of the Vaettir, and then in that of the Invicti.

She ran forward and grabbed his free hand. There was a door ahead of them, on the west wall. She slammed into it, knocking it open. Why was she doing this? Was she fleeing?  He had asked for help. It was not right behaviour to ignore that.

The hall led away for thirty feet. They ran. “Who are you?” she asked, in the Invicti language.

“From below,” he gasped. “Free me.”

They came to a room, odd-angled, like the room where she had woken up. There was a man, a boy, asleep there. He wore a simple white garment, like a sheet or shroud, and was pale-skinned like the men of the Empire lands. Like the new man with the torch. She looked back. The creatures from the other room were not chasing them. “Who is he?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” said the man. Ulixa went to the boy. He was breathing. His heart was steady. Then there was a gasp behind her: the new man. She stood, spinning about.

There was another passage into the room, in the same wall as the one by which they had entered. And coming from it were creatures tall as men and with swords like men but with rats’ heads and rats’ fur.

The first of them pointed at her, and they advanced, blades high.


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