The Fell Gard Codices


Gryselde could not turn her mind from the sight of Elfrida’s corpse, and of Elfrida’s own knife driven cruelly into her heart. When Atrahasis began jabbering about the cursed treasure, and the sylph and the prophet, she hardly noticed; and when the others ran off she followed only slowly, behind them, at the edges of the torchlight. She found herself thinking: One fewer survivor of Hallowchant. O Elfrida, that you should die so very close to Oak and Holly together, and now never to see them. Lord, why did you bring her to this place? Did you give to her the dreams you gave to me? Was she to join me? Did I fail her?

There were no answers. There never were. The servants of the Graf Vaka-Bane were taught not to expect them, and so taught others: there are no answers, but only death. He is what makes us mortal. He is the leveller of all things, and solves all riddles. He is always with us, and at any moment may take our hand and lead us to our rest. He is the end, who shapes all that goes before. For we cannot know our lives till they are done, only go on with what life we have, in faith that Vaka-Bane will give us a shape of meaning, even if it is a meaning we cannot grasp. Only go on; and the last moment will be unknown to all but you and the Graf, so you and he alone will understand the significance of you.

Ahead of her, William was laughing; at least, it was his voice, if not his laugh. She saw the torchlight and the light of the caladrius shining from coins and treasure of all kinds. She thought of Alys, laughing at the peasants’ rumours of the wealth of the Dark Robes. Gryselde remembered not understanding that slander: We are mendicants of holy orders, sworn to poverty, she had stormed. How can they think we are hoarding silver?

Why, Alys had said, because they know that they have no silver; and surely someone must. Who else, if not those that judge life and death?

But we do not have any authority over death, much less life, Gryselde had argued. Had she been so quarrelsome? So forgetful of the Rule?

We do, said Alys, as they have given it to us, without our asking.

She had loved Alys. Elfrida had loved Alys. Who had not? Black Alys of the Dark Robes. Elfrida had gone to war over her death. As she had so often, Gryselde wondered: was that the greater love? And as always, there was no answer.

Time, Gryselde thought, is not always what it seems to us; it is not so that now is always the most meaningful of moments. The present is only the troubled surface of the boiling waters of the past; the future, only wisps of steam.

William had stopped laughing. Gryselde reached the treasure-vault to see him fall, a large ruby spilling out of his hands. “Beware the gem!” cried Atrahasis. The three elves moved to stand around it, the one called Entemena, then another male, and a female; ready for — what? They did not seem surprised, but rather mournful, regarding the gem with pity.

“You have done ill,” growled Ulric. Gryselde spun; but he was speaking to Aura, the sylph, who tossed her head and crossed her arms.

“En,” said William, his eyes fluttering open. “En — he — Enheduanna. Enheduanna.”

“William!” the elf said, rushing to him. Gamelyn had taken up the torch. Ulixa was next to him, looking at the coins and gems scattered everywhere about.

“Beware!” asked Atrahasis. “It may not be —”

William reached up, his arms circling Enheduanna’s neck. Gryselde tensed; and then William leaned up and kissed Enheduanna deeply.

“— may not be the singer,” completed Atrahasis. He paused. The kiss went on. “Or,” he continued, “then again …”

William broke away from Enheduanna. “I love you,” he said.

“William!” she said, and laughed in delight. “I love you too,” she told him.

“Live quickly,” he said.

“Yes,” she agreed, and kissed him.

Gryselde thought then that she did not, after all, know so much about love. What choices had she ever made for love, of whatever sort? What that she was sure of?

Elfrida had been older than she. Most of the sorines of Hallowchant had been older than she; she had been taken in as an infant, and brought up among them. And when she was old enough she had accompanied them on their preaching. She remembered standing still at a gallows as one of her sisters spoke; she remembered ceremonies in minster-yards; she remembered nights in some lord’s hall, dining at the low tables, speaking to those who would listen. It was the life she had wanted. It had all seemed like her choice.

There had been those, in the Priory and out of it, who doubted whether it was right for a child to belong to the Emblan Order, or any Order. But she had not taken her vows until she was thirteen; other girls married at that age. She had become married to her church, to her Order, to Vaka-Bane the Graf of Kings. Had it been love? Or the absence of love?

Beside her, Atrahasis sighed. “That’s well done, I suppose,” he said. The kiss finally ended. The old man went on: “Singer. Please, tell me this. In that gem, was there not the spirit of an elf?”

“Yes,” said William. “Enlilitu, the Perfected Androgyne. She-he is mighty in magic, but his-her grasp of art is limited by her-his imagination.”

“Hum,” said the old man who once had been an elf. “A Perfected Androgyne … now, how would … hum.”

“Enlilitu, the mad Chymical Autarch?” said Gamelyn. “That is the spirit in the gem?” He gave a short laugh, not taking his eyes from William. “And you overcame her?”

“He-she has been in that prison a very long time,” said William. “I don’t think she-he … was ready to face another spirit’s art.”

“Well, maybe,” said Gamelyn. “Maybe so.”

“Entemena,” said Atrahasis, “let’s get them out of this place, eh? You said the others are somewhere nearby?”

The leader of the other elves sighed. “Atrahasis …” he said. “Yes, they’re near. Those who remain.”

“What?” said the old man. Entemena shook his head. He and the other two elves were clad in armour like Enheduanna wore, but not so fine. They had swords, and horned bows, and fine curved helms. “Six of us, in total,” he said. “Timna did not survive. I’m sorry, Atrahasis.”

“Never mind,” said the old man who once had been an ever-young elf. He seemed, that moment, very old indeed. He looked at his hands, quizzically, as though surprised by his own flesh. Perhaps he was. “Let us go from this place,” he said. “But keep a guard.”

Aura flew over to Gryselde. She had an ebony coffer in her hands, filled with some kind of aromatic beans. “See what I have found for you, mistress,” she said.

“Yes,” murmured Gryselde. “Very nice. Let us follow the elves, now.”

Ulixa took the coffer, exclaiming over the beans. They went with Atrahasis and Entemena who led them to a large room where three more elves were waiting; a female and two males. They had gathered leaves and boughs, slightly more comfortable to sit on than bare stone. Atrahasis settled into the greenery with a sigh. They exchanged names; the female elf was Keturah, while the two males, they learned, were a married pair, named Etana and Sabium. For two males to be married was not in the scriptures of Ossian; but then it seemed, very often, that much of life was outside such frameworks.

Entemena said to Atrahasis: “We’ve been keeping watch over the vault, and over the chamber of the sky map in case of your return, and also maintaining this room as a safe place to sleep and eat. At first, we looked for you, and tried to explore this … place.” He shrugged. “There is a group of mortals in another vault nearby, who are very unfriendly, and we have fought them. There is a hallway to the west, where a … gargoyle, you call them? A gargoyle, then, cursed Dishon so that he fled from us on some quest or other. And then … there are stairs, to the north, leading downward. As we neared … there were three creatures, like mortals, but grey-skinned, lacking hair or sex organs, their fingers longer and like talons. Their eyes were pink. Their lips were cracked and bleeding froth. I remember this because they whispered. I can’t … I cannot say what. I do not wish to remember those things, Atrahasis.”

“You’re describing Ere-rownerys, the whisperers of secrets,” said Gamelyn. “I’m surprised any of you survived.”

“There were twelve of us, mortal man,” said Entemena. “Now there are fewer.”

Gamelyn shrugged. “Nevertheless.”

“Ere-rownerys are demons,” said Gryselde. “I have heard stories of them. They are agents of the Elder King.”

“There are many theories of the provenance of demons and devils,” said Gamelyn.

“They are servants of Helren, betrayer of Oak and Holly,” Gryselde told him. He shrugged.

Them they spoke of other things, and so came to discuss with the elves the lay of the land. The forest chambers with oak and holly were near; they had circled around as they had explored, and the forested rooms were now only a little to the east. The elves readily agreed that Gryselde and the rest of the mortals could live nearby, so long as they did not seek to meddle with the ruby. Entemena said that they had sworn to find the ruby, and return it to their people; as the mortals sought an exit from the dungeon, an alliance seemed natural. To begin with, Entemena promised to show the mortals the nearby halls. Etana and Sabium chose to go with them; Keturah remained behind, as did Aura, William, Enheduanna, and Ulric, who still held the sleeping caladrius. The singer claimed to be dizzied, and the elf said she would care for him.

Gryselde was pleased enough to learn the ways of the nearby halls at first hand, rather than have them drawn out for her. It felt more natural to see the land, to feel it in her body as she walked its ways, rather than try to understand it from a map, as though from far above. And as Entemena described what lay near, she knew she had to see it for herself.

She had always been a great walker. These past years, how far had she come? Far enough she rarely heard now the name Hallowchant. From one end of the Grey Kings’ lands to the other, over all the great flat forestlands and farmlands of Edu. She had walked from the north, where the Order’s task had been to preach against the heresies of Powys-Terrwyn and the paganism of the Birch People called the Koïvut, who named themselves Those Remembered By God, until she had reached a place where it would again be her task to speak against error; but this time against the Sceadu and their joyless creed of a damned world of puppets and shadows. Still, she had not preached since the sack of Hallowchant. She wondered if she had been irresponsible. Who was she to speak? To judge? Where were her sisters? Where was her House, now?

Entemena led them southward and eastward, through long halls, past closed doors — he had pointed to one, and said “The other mortals are past there; be wary of them” — and through a room with an empty sword-rack and a measuring stick set in a dividing wall that stretched across half the room, and then through more halls, and finally to a large triangular chamber with ætheric moss upon the ceiling, and light like the ruddy moon Fyrbend at its full, so that the torch Gamelyn carried was needless; and the room was filled with growing wheat, high as her shoulder.

It was, she thought, almost too perfect. Halls ran eastward from the great triangular chamber; one of them, she found, ended at a fire-pit, while the other led to another hall that ran back to the chamber of oak and holly. A hall also ran southward from the grain room, as did a passage from the room with the measuring-stick — but Entemena had said they ended at rooms whose only southern exits were locked doors. Meaning that no attack could come from that direction. The elves were to the north, and only one hall in the whole area ran to the west. Almost too perfect, indeed.

She returned from the fire-pit back to Gamelyn, Ulixa, and the elves. “I tell you I heard something,” Sabium was insisting. “Back down the hall.”

“We should return to the others,” said Entemena. “Lady — Sorine — has what you have seen pleased you?”

“Bread,” said Gryselde. She indicated the grain all around them. “Straw, as well, which is useful; but, bread!” She shook her head. “We must settle here.” She reached out to cup the tip of a stalk of wheat in her hand. She sighed. It had to be asked. “But tell me one thing,” she said. “The mortals you found, in the chamber where you woke. You have said there were two of them. Well, why did you not wake them?”

“We had to find the ruby,” said Entemena. “That was our oath. I am sorry, lady. We erred, and one of you is dead.”

“I do not judge you,” said the sorine, passing her hand through the stalks. “I wanted only to know.” She sighed again. Elfrida had teased her for sighing, once. “But it will change nothing, so what good is there in the knowing? Yet tell me this. The other mortal, the one who did not die in that tunnel. Did he, or she, bear any sign? A golden bear, on a sable field?”

“No,” said Entemena. “The mortal was a woman. She was dressed like the one who died; like you.”

Gryselde stumbled. It cannot be, she thought. No. She stilled herself. Discipline, she thought. Remember the Rule. But she remembered also being taught the Rule, remembered Alys’ sweet loving voice as she kneeled before the altar, the cold, the grey light before dawn; Alys chanting, making of the Rule a prayer. Gryselde could feel the blood in her body, as she had been taught; she could feel also the tears behind her eyes. “Was there any sign,” she said, “that this other mortal was … Was she truly mortal?”

“I don’t understand your question,” said the elf.

Another of the elves, Sabium, tilted his head to the side: “What was that?” he asked. “I heard something …”

Entemena looked at him, then Gryselde. “We should return to your friends,” he told her.

“Did she have black hair?” asked Gryselde. “Did she have bright glittering black eyes? Did she seem old, Entemena, but also young?”

“You all seem old to us,” said the elf. “And I never saw her eyes. But she did have black hair.”

Oh, Alys, thought Gryselde. “I have seen enough,” she said. The shape of it came to her again, the shape of memories she could not escape. Hallowchant burning. The banners, gold against black. The man she had killed, struggling to breathe after her fingers had crushed his throat.

Alys, dead.

Alys, standing.

Alys, forsaking Vaka-Bane. Ordering her away. Swearing to bring death to the Order. And to her last of all.

“I have seen enough,” she repeated.

Should she have looked for vengeance, afterward, with Elfrida and the others? And what had that brought? Death. More death. Vaka-Bane was a betrayer, she had thought. Lacking in morals.

But, no, she knew now that was not so. She had presumed too much. Death was always with her, and that was a comfort. It was a comfort, then, if it came to others. Death was mercy.

She found more of it as they went.

They were walking along the west side of the room with the measuring-stick set in the half-wall that ran north to south. They had entered from the south, and were approaching a hall at the north end of the room, with Entemena in the lead. That was when half-a-dozen mortals in gambesons — thick silken shirts stuffed with Gryselde-knew-not-what —stepped from the north hall to stand before them, swords drawn. One of them had a mail shirt: “I promised you,” he said, “I would bring your end. Didn’t I?”

“You did mouth those words,” said Entemena. The elves drew their swords. “This is not the day they shall be performed.”

Gamelyn cleared his throat. “I, ah, don’t suppose this is open to rational discussion?” he asked.

“Kill them!” cried the mortal leader. “Kill them now!”

From behind the half-wall spilled more mortals; four, six, eight. Some of them had bows.

But they had been waiting in the dark, meaning they had no light of their own. Gamelyn, seeing this, smothered the torch in his robes, plunging the chamber into darkness. Of course, for the elves, this was no disadvantage, as their ætheric sight let them see without firelight.

Only, before Gamelyn put out the torch, the leader of the mortal men stabbed Entemena with his sword; at which Gryselde drove the spike of her halberd through the mortal’s eye and into his brain.

Then all was dark, and Gryselde concentrated on what she heard around her. It was like a meditation exercise. She remembered those exercises in her flesh and bone, and so moved as she had schooled herself, at every sound reacting, listening for the scuff of shoes on stone, measuring the distances from scream to scream, swinging at the gasping, stinking mortals that she could not see.

She, like her sisters, had been taught a Rule, which brought them into a deeper relationship with the Graf Vaka-Bane. Whether she was meditating in a quiet chamber lit by a sputtering tallow candle, or by the side of a road in the pouring grey rain, the Graf took her out of herself and brought her to the moon that was the House of Dyst. She learned, they all learned, in that dream-place how to minister death. So it had been that when they had gone about in the world, they had been loved for their preaching, but feared, as well.

It was not long before the fight ended. Mortal voices screamed surrender. Gamelyn soon had the torch lit again. Four were alive but unharmed; the elves had taken their weapons. Gryselde tended to the others as best she could. Three, she thought, were likely to survive. Of the seven, all but one were female. Another seven were dead or dying, four female to three male. That was in addition to the male leader, whom she had killed.

“What shall we do with them?” Etana asked Entemena.

“Please,” Gryselde said, “do not kill them.”

Gamelyn tugged at Gryselde’s sleeve. “I might be misremembering,” he said, “but didn’t we already have this discussion? About prisoners?”

Gryselde watched the other mortals. The room stank, now. Her Lord was not clean. The four standing captives stared at her, wary. Gryselde noticed their clothes as well as their armour was of a kind of silk, like Gamelyn’s robes.

Entemena looked to her, but she could not read his face. “Lady, these are of your kind, but not of your people,” he said.

“I am not a noblewoman,” she told him. “But as for these, I will take it upon myself to … make some justice be done upon them.” She sighed. “Though first I might beg your indulgence to watch them, as I go to gather my people.” And who was she to deliver justice? But who else was there to do it?

“Do you understand this?” Entemena asked the four. One of the women nodded. “Bind them,” said Entemena.

“Thank you, lady!” cried the man as the elves came and bound the seven living mortals, even those wounded, with glittering elven rope. The mortal that had spoken was very young, Gryselde thought.

“Wait,” said one of the women. “If we … if we tell you about … our treasures, the dungeon nearby … will you remember it when you decide what you will do to us?”

“That is fair,” Gryselde agreed.

“Then I will show you our gold,” said the woman at once; Gryselde felt that she had erred.

“I will, as well,” said the young red-haired man, smiling at Gryselde, “as I had no love for Prentiss.” The rest, sullen, would not aid them. They made the healthy prisoners carry their own wounded back to the chamber where the others waited. Entemena explained to her along the way that they had fought the mortals before, killing, he thought, ten or twelve of them. “It’s true,” the young man called back. “Prentiss had us watching for you, here and there. When he thought he had a chance to set an ambuscade against a weaker party, he took it. More fool he!”

“Damned ass didn’t want us to risk giving up surprise by keeping a torch lit, after Diccon told him you lot had one,” grumbled one of the wounded, an older woman with her eyes closed in pain. “May the Old-Murchy and all the fiends piss on his soul in hell.”

The elves set the prisoners in a chamber next to their living quarters as Gryselde explained what had happened. Ulric asked which of the women was hurt the most, and cured her. The woman did not seem surprised at this. It occurred to Gryselde that she did not know these people; did not yet grasp the conditions of their life; and yet she had set herself up as their judge.

The two helpful prisoners, Agneta and Diccon, led them to the vault where they had made their lair. Walking beside her, Diccon told them all a winding story about how their chief, Conradin, had sent a band to the new court recently — a few watches ago, he said — and had chosen the weakest among them, or so Conradin had said, to explore. He told the tale deftly, making it a joke on himself and Conradin both. Their treasures turned out to be a room filled with coins, a golden medal worn almost smooth with age, a horn of ivory worked with gold, a large covered brass bowl set with agates, a silver dagger with seven moonstones in the hilt, a marble tablet etched with words and notations Gryselde did not understand but which Gamelyn assured her were magic (“Really?” gasped Agneta), a silver comb Gamelyn said must once have belonged to a banshee, and a battered robe that Gamelyn set on Ulric’s shoulders. At which the old man shouted.

“I can see!” he cried.

“Mm,” said Gamelyn. “It’s a Robe of Vision. I recognise the type. You may find you can do some other tricks, as well. I can’t say what; every work of magic is slightly different, of course.”

While this was happening Gryselde found an odd stone, round, with a hole through it that had been made by no mortal hand. Her fingers trembled as she picked it up. “What’s that you have?” asked Ulixa.

“It is a drudestone,” said Gryselde. She said what Black Alys had told her — was it fourteen years before? Fifteen? “They are pieces of luck, that will repel the witches called drude, who accompany the Nighted Hunt in winter skies. The drude can afflict a mortal with dangerous dreams, that open to them wicked parts of themselves.”

Alys had gone on: These dreams can set a soul out of balance. That is a danger, to oneself and to the world beyond oneself. The harmony in a mortal soul, Gryselde, is an image of the harmony of the stars and moons and all other things. It is the harmony of Oak and Holly. And the reverse is true as well. Our House, the Priory, is also an image of the world and of the heavens; it follows a Rule, just as the heavens must. And it is the union of many souls, just as in the House that is called Edu. That great House of the Grey Kings was overthrown, oh, long ago. But we believe it must come again, and then we shall see Oak and Holly together.

She remembered Alys telling her this where they had found the stone, in the green field called the Cunning Acre, near the Priory, scattered with violets and wild strawberries. The grey rock of the hill under a coat of mosses. The high sun, its brightness to every hand. Also she remembered the field long years later, after the battle, lit by the burning Priory, as she had stumbled through it, weeping, her shadow long before her. Memory layered upon memory, memory within memory; had she not remembered the lesson of the drudestone then, as she had stumbled, the Rule for that moment not present to her? How many days and nights over the course of her life had she walked the field and remembered, how many homecomings and leavetakings before that final flight; how many years had she known it, in how many winters, snow-drifts upon the hillside, how many autumns, dry leaves scattered in the field, how many summers and springs?

And how many years unremembered had the Cunning Acre seen? How many memories unknown to her? Once, the singers of all the nations of the Vættir had fought their duels of song in that place, and it was known in their sagas. It was said that in more recent times Embla of the Dark Robes had seen visions there. And long before either Embla or the singers it had been the field where Æthulwulf — clad in the magic cloak Har-Forsceawung, Grey Foreseeing, and at his side the blade Ides Frithwebba, Lady Peaceweaver — chose from among the masses those that would accompany him south to found the line of the Grey Kings. But Embla was dead, and the Empire of the Grey Kings had passed away, and all those times gone by had led to the burning of Hallowchant.

Whereupon she saw it; she understood. Standing among coins bearing the faces of kings she did not know. Turning the drudestone in her hands. The meaning, or a meaning, of Oak and Holly together. The founding and the passing. The seeing of dreams. There was a shape, maybe, that her life could take; that would shape other lives; that would make a yet greater shape.

If she could bear it. It came to her also that there would be weeping, for shapes such as she saw are never made but at cost.

And why?

To make of the world a meaning.

To redeem Fell Gard the Master Dungeon. To open it to the All from which all things come. Perhaps, she thought, this is the working-out in history of the plans of Oak and Holly.

Perhaps not. Elfrida would remain dead, either way. Another death would come, a great death, and she would see it. And Alys …

Moments of illumination come rarely, she knew. We blunder in the dark, not knowing toward what end we reach; until a moment arrives, often itself unlooked-for, that is outside of time and in which we have the sight of gods, when we are touched by rough magic, and we see — in outline or in detail, in mathematical form or sensuous colour, according to our gifts — a future that might be. And then? Knowing what might come, who dare turn from it, though it promises a path of thorns, and stones, and ghosts? But at the end of every road is an open grave. The moment passes; darkness covers us again; but, unquiet sleepers, we have a dream to send us forward, and to pull at our limbs and guide us where sight fails.

She realised all this; and for the moment said nothing.

“Oh!” cried Ulric. “There are goblins upon the stairs! I see them! They are coming!” He whirled, and took her by the arm. “We must return,” he said, his eyes looking past her to what she could not see. “At once!”

“Yes,” she said, to him, to herself, some assent she could not limit.

But first they went back to the elves in their chamber, and the prisoners; and she spoke, briefly, passing judgment.

“This is what I say,” the sorine told them. “That we of my party will establish ourselves here as a community. As a House. You, and all others, may choose to be of the House so long as you work for its good. If you hurt any of us, or betray us in any way, then we will cast you out. If the hurt or betrayal is serious, you will be executed, as criminals. If you do not wish to be a part of this House, then you may go now, and return whence you came. If we must exile you later, we will send you some other way, deeper into the dungeon, to parts unknown to you. Do not decide now. You must consider this, on your own and with your friends. We shall hear your decision when we return.”

That was the start of the shape she had seen; there would be more.

Even Gamelyn had to admit it was fair enough, given that Gryselde refused to kill the prisoners outright. That decided, they set out to return to Gral and Hochelaga and the Sceadu knight and the others; Sabium, Etana, and Keturah came with them, saying they wished to see more of the dungeon. And, also, elves loved to make war on goblinkin. So it fell out that as Gryselde and Enheduanna, in the lead, approached the stair-chamber, Enheduanna touched her arm and whispered, “As Ulric saw. Goblins.” The elf went ahead, to spy on them, and came back; “Two dozen, near the stairs,” she said, “but they’ve heard a noise — they’ve set out to the rooms where we left the others.”

“We must go,” said Gryselde. “Quickly!” She waved behind her, and began to run.

Ahead of her, as she went, she heard the sounds of fighting begin.


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