Fortune and fate, cursed the dwarf to himself, cowering by the pillar of the high arch, watching the dead men walking upon the stone steps before him, down and down into the torch-lit chamber. Dark and deep, he swore again. His hand reached up to clutch at the square amulet around his throat. He let the hand drop. The dead men, their flesh dried and tight upon their bones, their tunics rotted to bleached woollen rags, were descending toward him, and they had swords in hand, rusted and old but yet whole enough to wound and kill. Ah, what help for it?
The dwarf turned to look over his shoulder into the odd-angled room behind him. He had found himself there when the mists had faded, beside five sleepers. Four mortals, girl and man and woman and old man. And an elf, with her bow and sword. All still sleeping. He looked again through the archway, one of two leading into the large room with the stairway. The dead men were half-down the long stairs, moving in fits and starts. Coming from where? Ah, but did it matter? No. For now there was only this room, with five sleepers; and the room beyond, with those stairs and the three dead men coming to kill all of them.
The dwarf scurried to the younger of the mortal males. The man’s outflung left hand held a heavy pack. He wore a grey-green cloak over a tunic of brown wool that reached to his knees and was cinched by a belt; on the belt hung a scabbarded sword. The dwarf grinned and set his hand on the mortal’s mouth. The man’s eyes fluttered, and his right arm jerked, half-rising. “Hush,” whispered the dwarf in his ear. “A fight is coming. Get your weapon in your hand.” The dwarf left him, and scurried to the mortal woman, who was wrapped in a wide-sleeved black robe, a black coif over her head. The woman had a halberd by her. She too would fight.
As the dwarf reached for her she opened her eyes. There was no hesitation as she sat up and looked about, no sleep-slowness. She stared at him as he drew back. He dropped his grin, and glared at her unsmiling angular face: “Take up your weapon,” he said. “A fight is coming.”
The man the dwarf had woken had gone to look through the arch. “The dead walk!” he hissed now. He took an old helmet from his pack and clapped it on his head, then took his shield from his belt and drew his sword. The woman stood as the dwarf went on to the elf. Whose eyes were opening, a languid smile having crept across her face. She watched the dwarf without moving, and the dwarf thought she was mad, surely; but that was the way of elves. She had a bow, a sword, armour of metal scales; she looked every bit an elf, silver-shining hair and pale skin, a white cloak about her.
“Take up your bow,” said the dwarf, drawing his sword. “Or accept death, as you like.” He left her, and, ignoring the old man and the little girl, joined the two mortals by the arch.
“Witherlings,” murmured the woman. She stretched, in her odd black cloak, preparing to fight. “They move swiftly,” she warned. “So must we.” She drew in a breath.
“Who —” began the man; but now the woman had let out the breath, and she had run to meet the dead things upon the stairs. The dwarf gave a leering grin to the mortal man, and ran after her.
The room holding the stairs was forty or fifty feet to a side, and at least as high, its ceiling rising above the dull dim torchlight into vaulted darkness. The dead men, now on the lowest stairs, were twenty feet from the archway into the sleepers’ chamber; the woman closed the distance to them in seconds, but not before an arrow lodged in one of the things and another clattered off the stone steps. The dwarf looked back to see the elf-woman setting down a bow and taking up a long slim sword and a round shield. He had a moment to curse their foolishness, running to close rather than letting the elf attack from a distance; then a dead man was before him.
It smelled of brine, and there was no fat to it, only dry flesh wrinkled but tight over muscle and bone. And it moved fast, crouching to lash out at him. He twisted away from the blow, and struck hard himself with his broadsword. The steel cut the dead man deeply in the skull, but no blood gouted forth nor did the thing slow. The living man close by cursed as he struck with the same lack of result. Out of the corner of his eye the dwarf saw that the mortal woman had dropped her halberd; it had lodged in dead flesh or bone — in the witherling, she had called it. Now she was weaponless. The worse for her, he thought.
The elf-woman was running to help the mortal woman; but the mortal was spinning, as though dancing around the dead man’s blows, and then her own hand reached out like it was plucking a berry and in a blink the dead man’s jaw was broken half off. For his part the dwarf dodged the thing before him, which swung its open hand like a hammer, but his return strike also missed. It was faster than it ought to be, faster than nature; he saw, in one of those frozen half-seconds that remains hauntingly in memory, its eyes were a solid white. Beside him, the mortal man screamed as the witherling struck him a hard blow, its cruel nails gashing his temple deeply. The man staggered, near to falling.
Nor am I in position to give aid, thought the dwarf, even if I wished it. He struck at the dead man before him, opening a wound in its belly that ought by rights to have disembowelled the thing. It did not slow. The mortal man swung his sword weakly, clearly dazed. The witherling brushed the blade aside and reached for his throat; but then a voice, rich and vigorous and old, cried “Leave a poor man be!” The heavy head of a mace crushed the dead man’s elbow. It was the elder mortal, that the dwarf had not woken. Long lank white hair whirling about his lean face, his eyes curiously focused, smiling. The witherling turned on him, and reached past the kite-shaped shield the man held to hit him; but held off by the shield, it could not strike so hard, and meanwhile the other mortal man was recovering his balance.
The elf-woman neatly buried her sword in the skull of the witherling before her, which sank to the floor and did not move. But then as the dwarf tried to fall back before the creature he was fighting it struck him with a more-than-living strength — such speed, he had not dreamed — there was pain in his chest, and for a moment he could not breathe. He swung a return blow, gasping, and missed. The thing took a step toward him. Then its head bent at an odd angle. A sword blade had cut deep into its neck. It collapsed, limbs twitching, head tossing. The elf was behind it, sword still raised, looking at him — at him! — with concern, that fate-damned languid smile still not wholly gone from her lips.
He growled and turned to the others. The mortal woman had regained her halberd and was whirling it about like it was a toy. She struck the last witherling, which ignored her to lash out at the older mortal, who barely moved: “Oh, I’ve faced many a harder blow than that, friend!” cried the man, smiling. The woman struck the dead man again with the halberd, and snapped its spine. It collapsed to the floor, and with she drove the spike of her halberd through an eye. The thing did not move. “Ha-ho!” exclaimed the old man, a laugh and cry of pain and, thought the dwarf, a shout of praise too.
“Um,” said a high, sleepy voice from the arch. “What’s going on?”
It was the girl, of course. Dark hair tumbled in confused masses about her small face, her blinking eyes. The man turned, letting the mace fall. He clapped her on the shoulder. “Why, we’ve faced wickedness and held our own against it,” he said, bleeding but still happy. “Which for us, older and sadder folk than you, is all we can expect. But wipe the sleep from your eyes, my child, for in a dark place we find ourselves in the company of heroes!”
The dwarf laughed, a bitter sound after the old man’s talk. The mortal woman glared back at him. He leered at her, and began climbing the stairs. “Well,” said the younger man, tottering against a wall and sliding down to sit on the floor, “I wish I felt as heroic as you say I should. — But thank you for your bravery on my behalf.”
The dwarf heard them as he continued up: “To stand pain for another’s sake,” said the older man, “what better is there in the world, hey?”
“Who are you?” asked the woman with the halberd. “Who are all of you?”
“I am Ulric of the Given Word, Sorine,” said the old man. “You are a follower of the Graf Vaka-Bane?”
“I am,” she said. “Sorine Gryselde.”
“Sorine is … a title?” asked the elf. “Forgive me. I have never met a mortal before. — My name is Enheduanna.”
“Mine’s William of the Long Road,” said the wounded man, “but before we continue … are there more of those things on the way? And what were they?”
“Witherlings,” said the sorine. “Walking dead; perversions of death. Raised by wicked necromantic art, or evil spirits, or such.”
The dwarf climbed back down. “There are none above,” he said.
There were two ways out of the chamber with the stairs, beside the arches back into the room where they had all woken. Stand with your back to the arches, and the wall to your right hand held a passageway that ran off at an angle. Then on the far wall ahead was an opening onto another hallway, that ran to the right; but on the other wall of that hallway, directly across, was still another archway, which gave onto a small and bare room. Lit torches flickered on every wall of every passage. The sorine and elf went to look each way, and saw nothing coming from any direction. Better to speak with them now, thought the dwarf. Learn who they are, before we go further. A dizziness came over him: his wound. He stumbled back to the lowest step, and sat upon it.
The younger man — William — had been tended to by the older, Ulric, and he seemed better, the wound on his face somehow closed. So when the older man held out a hand to the dwarf and said, “Let me help,” he took it. He almost gasped, then, feeling — but what was it that he felt? He snatched his hand back and stood. His pain was gone. He felt a deep driving force within him.
“What have you done?” he snarled.
“Nothing,” said Ulric, still smiling, still behind his smile that same fierce relentless force. “That is the work of my lord, who is Urthona the Creative Imagination.”
“I do not know that god,” said the dwarf. “I have heard of the mortals’ Vaka-Bane. But this Urthona is meaningless to me.”
“We must talk,” insisted the woman who called herself a sorine. “All of us. Where is this place? How did I come to be here? I remember only an unnatural mist, rising well after the sun had set. And it was as though wakefulness was pulled from me; but my spirit did not enter the house of dreams.”
“That’s well said,” William told her. “It’s what happened to me.”
“And me,” said the elf. Ulric nodded.
“Well, of course,” said the child. “That’s what they told me would happen.”
“Who?” asked the sorine.
“The glossologists,” the girl said. “They told me.”
William, who had been sitting leaning forward, elbows upon his knees, straightened his back and raised his head, wondering. “Wizards?” he said.
Ulric set his hands on the child’s shoulders; Gryselde dropped to one knee beside her. “Child,” she said, her voice warmer now by far than the dwarf had yet heard it, “if you have dealt with wizards — if they have played some trick on you —”
“No!” said the girl. “Oh, they said you wouldn’t understand. They’re my parents.”
“Wizards don’t have children,” said Ulric gently.
“Well, they raised me, anyway,” the girl told them. “They — they’re my home.” She turned toward him. He knelt and held her as she began to cry. “They’re my home.”
“Raised by wizards?” muttered William.
The sorine took one of the girl’s hands. “We’ll bring you back to your home,” she said. “To the wizards, or whoever you like. I promise it.” William looked unsure at this; but the girl wrenched herself away from Ulric to stare at Gryselde, dark eyes fixed on the sorine.
“Really?” she asked. Her voice had changed; she was not weeping, nor on the edge of weeping. “Do you really promise this?”
The sorine put her other hand on the girl’s, staring deep into those eyes, that were darker, thought the dwarf, than all the dark things that were in his lore. “I do,” she said. “Tell me your name.”
“My name is Hochelaga Trice,” said the girl. She sighed, and it became a yawn. She took her hand back from Sorine Gryselde.
“Hochelaga,” said the sorine, standing. “That’s a pretty name. What does it mean?”
“It’s a city in my dreams,” said the girl. “Where are we, anyway?”
“A good question,” said William.
The elf, who had been standing still as stone, said: “I can’t say.” She pointed toward the room where they had woken. “That way’s north. Or so I think. This place is not … I cannot be sure.” She ducked her head. “I cannot be sure.”
“I had heard it is the nature of the elf-folk,” said William, “to know their ways.”
The elf, Enheduanna, raised a hand. “And it has ever been so,” she said. “But … not here. I can see a little ways through pitch dark; but I cannot know true north. How is this possible?”
The dwarf laughed his bitter laugh. The time had come, he thought, to put an end to the wondering. “Don’t you know?” he said. “Cannot any of you guess this place?” They all looked at him, curious (in the case of the elf), or doubting (in the case of William), or keenly waiting (in the case of Ulric), or simply unreadable (in the case of the sorine and the girl, two different unknowables). “This is Fell Gard,” he said, “the Master Dungeon of legend.”
“No,” said William. “By Oak and Holly! No.”
“I will not accept that,” said the sorine. “Fell Gard is a fable.”
“But fables may have truth in them,” said Ulric.
The elf shook her head. “I know nothing of any Fell Gard,” she said. “I was hunting a man, and was caught by a mist, and slept. But I know that dwarves do not sleep. So tell me, you that have not named yourself — what did you see when the mists fell?”
I have come this far, thought the dwarf. Why not trust them a step farther? He did not like the idea of trust; but he saw no harm in giving an answer, and of course he had little choice. “My name is Gral,” he said. “And I saw only mist, which rose and rose, and it was very cold. I could not see through it. Then it fell away. And I was in that room, and all of you with me.” He shrugged. “You are an elf, and very young. I am a dwarf, and very old. My kin have told me of Fell Gard. They saw it, and there were those among them that helped to build it.”
“The story of Fell Gard is time-worn,” said William, “told for a thousand years and centuries more. It goes back to the Invicti. To the fall of their emperors.”
Gral shrugged again. “Even so. I am a dwarf.”
There came a noise from the top of the stairs.
The dwarf sprang to his feet. He scurried, soundless, up the steps. A moment later he was back. “Goblins,” he said. “Many of them. Too many to fight.”
“Then we must go,” said the sorine.
William was standing in one of the arches between the stair-room and the room in which they had woken. He had gathered his gear, a bulging backpack. “There’s a map in that room,” he said, his voice low. “A sky-map, high on the far wall. The north wall,” he said, with a nod to Enheduanna; the elf and Ulric were gathering their own packs.
“We must find safety, to worry properly about such things,” said Gryselde with asperity. Gral already had his pack slung over his shoulder; so did the girl, Hochelaga, while the sorine herself seemed to carry nothing more than she had on her. She nodded toward one of the halls out of the stair-chamber, and they followed her out, quickly but trying in their clumsy mortal way to be quiet (the elf, it had to be said, made no more noise than a ghost or ætherial huntsman).
Gral followed; but first he looked into his backpack. He did not hurry unduly. He knew the goblins were not yet coming down the stairs. But if the others had remained there, before long they would have examined the third room, to the south of the stair-chamber; and they might have found the niche in the wall where he had discovered the amulet that was now around his throat. That would have led to questions.
In the pack, the three tiny naked women glared up at him with cats’ eyes, and hissed with their tiny serpents’ tongues. He grinned his bitter leer at them; he knew they could talk in words, for had they not told him a little of the nature of the place, at the command of the strange square amulet? Oh, there were goblins above, he had learned, but they were not coming, not yet. One of the little things, which he had let out the first time he had climbed the stairs and taken up again the second, had thrown a stone as he had ordered, to make a noise and start the mortals moving. He could not now tell which of the three it had been. “Well done,” he told them all. “Now keep silent a while longer yet; and maybe I’ll free you, in time.” He closed the pack and buckled it. “May be,” he muttered, and hurried after the others.
He was in Fell Gard; and he had begun his betrayals and secret-keeping. There would be more to come, for better or worse, before all those he meant to kill were dead.