The Fell Gard Codices


Their leader, thought Diccon, had been damnably attractive. Which of its own was not enough to decide him, but it had to be said. Gryselde; he remembered her name, oh yes. He remembered her simple black robe. Her hair was cut short, he’d seen that in the fight: bewitching. He could not help but remember the way she’d moved, the grace of her. Another man might be inspired to lubricious imaginings by these memories, he thought. And if another man, why not me? Am I better than him? Oh, that would be terrible pride, to set myself above another man like that. He grinned. In the dark, none of the others could see him. He could feel it in his belly and his balls: fate was calling him.

The seven of them who’d lived had left off talking some time ago. They’d all spoken forthrightly enough before, bound hand and foot in the dark, the elves no doubt listening and watching, their choice of futures before them like a forking hallway. Agneta and Wymarc would leave Conradin. Elous he wasn’t sure of. Avice, Estrild, and Godeleva were all bent on returning below. Diccon couldn’t blame them; it had been hard, seeing Hamon and Alina and all the rest killed. But that was the way of things. Wymarc understood, being old enough to have seen six husbands, or eight, or nine, or however many — it varied each time she told the tales — die through one misadventure or another. What had she said, when Avice had said that Conradin was a good chief, and would lead them well in battle? “Aye, that’s the worst of things, a good chief who looks for war.”

Well, whatever it meant, she was ready to throw in with Gryselde and her band. Agneta too, though Diccon wasn’t happy with that. Beautiful Agneta, hard and inhuman as the stones of Fell Gard. He knew if she was set to join these others it was because she believed that through them she could come to power and majesty. He was not well pleased that he would not be leaving her behind; but then, the fact that she’d chosen the new band might mean only that they were the most practical choice after all. And young Elous … well, what was there for her with Conradin and the others?

Diccon sat in the dark, going over these and other matters, smiling to himself, until a door opened and he saw the light of a hovering lanthorn. Gryselde stood beneath it. By the Ninefold Way, but she was a beauty, her snub nose, her thin face, her dark eyes. Clever, too, he suspected; which was good, as he liked a woman to be able to keep up with him. “We have returned,” said Gryselde. “You will be freed, now, and may make your choices. Join the House we are founding here; or return below, to your Conradin.”

“Oh, I will join you, lady,” cried Diccon at once. “Strike my bonds from me, and I will be your loyal servant.” He grinned. It sounded unbelievable, he knew, and yet it happened to be true. He realised, looking at her, that whatsoever oath she’d exact, he’d swear to it.

Gryselde looked at him gravely. Diccon could not stop smiling at that overserious stare. She turned to the others: “Have the rest of you decided?” she asked.

One by one, they spoke as Diccon had expected. Elous was last. “I, I do not know,” she said. “It’s not easy. I don’t know. Oh … I do not want to die.”

Gryselde said, “I do not want to kill you. Nor anyone. I promise you we would not have hurt your fellows, had we been given the choice.”

“No, lady,” said Wymarc, “and your man there saved me of my own hurts, and oh! I’ve not enjoyed a man’s touch so much since my last husband but one came to blows with the thurse that slew him, Judges have mercy on his soul. Now I’m an old woman, Elous, and not much of a one for war, but I say you could do worse than a lady that looks that way on death.”

“Well,” said Elous, “I suppose … I suppose then that …”

“Conradin will not forgive you,” warned Estrild.

Wymarc blew her tongue between her lips. “That’s for Conradin, and you can give it to him with all my love.”

“It’s not easy, Elous,” said Diccon. “But at least we have a choice. You’re the only one that can know if it’s fated for you.”

Elous looked at Agneta. “I will stay with you,” said Elous. “I will.” She sighed.

The elves moved in swiftly, then, taking Estrild, Godeleva, and Avice to the stairs west of their former lair, which would take the three mortals right to Conradin. Diccon thought it was cleverly done; the three of them were kept thereby from knowing how many fighters Gryselde had. Which, he soon saw, was perhaps just as well.

She had above twenty followers; with the elves, and the four who’d come from Conradin’s band, above thirty. Yet they were an odd group. Many of them didn’t look like fighters, others looked like like they’d just taken up weapons. Those that could fight at least had good arms. But not all of them were mortals. They were a mix of races, dwarves and cobolds and a sylph, of all things. At least, he decided, this looks like it could be interesting.

The first thing Gryselde had them do together was walk out the halls, so they would each know all the passages and rooms of the area. That included the chambers the elves had guarded so fiercely. Gryslede told all her people that at the end of one hall was a curse, that she had seen almost destroy one of her party; the elves would continue to dwell in the rooms nearby, and watch over it, as they had been doing. Well, thought Diccon, that was one mystery solved, if that was after all why the elves had fought so hard. The elves left them, there, saving one of the females, and he noticed an old man tug on Gryselde’s sleeve; eavesdropping without shame (and wondering, as he always did, about words: he knew an eavesdrop was a hole through which one could listen in on unsuspecting people, thus eavesdropping was the act of overhearing conversation — but did not know how the eavesdrop came to be named; what was an eave, and what did it drop, and how was it related to listening to the world around him?), he heard the man say that he would like to go with Gryselde and the other mortals. “For,” he said, “as I am mortal now, I should be with you, and understand what I am. And, in truth, there are memories with Entemena … one of those that died while I was not present was … she and I …” he shook his head then, and said: “It is strange, we say that the unreliability of memory is the curse of the elf-folk, but now I am mortal I find that the clarity of memory is a curse all its own.”

Diccon liked to think of himself as clever, or at least as one capable of serious thought. He found himself considering the old man’s words as they went along. He had just about decided that the old man was wrong, and that the mind played games with memory of which the mind never told, when they reached the band’s former lair. Diccon noticed a water clock had been set up, and Wymarc gave a cry and gathered her battered collection of pots. “Oh,” she said, looking at them tenderly, “I’d feared for you, my chicks and little puppies!” She sighed and looked around at the group: “They’ve fed me well down the years, and not a one of them but has lasted out half-a-dozen husbands or more. Shouldn’t I care for them, then?” Diccon, knowing her, smiled.

The strange group went on their way, beating the bounds, through the grain room and the store room and all such places. They passed the dead bodies of Hamon and the others, in the room with the measuring-stick in the wall. As always, Diccon found a part of him was surprised at how little he felt for men and women that had been his comrades. But they had found their fate. What more was there to say or feel?

His new band came to the vast garden, and Diccon was impressed with it, as he had been from the first time he’d seen it. The soaring lines of the ceiling; the tracery of the vaultings. The odd earthy smell, like a hall had collapsed but then also nothing like that at all, being more alive. The trees, so very many of them, so thick that the ætheric light hardly reached the floor, in some places. The long shadows, that twitched as the lighter branches shifted in the faint air currents. The feel of an open place, of stone for a moment retreating. Gryselde’s band gasped, and some clasped their hands together or moved them in odd signs. The biggest man among them, struck with awe, set his hand to the trunk of the tallest tree in all the rooms. From somewhere a caladrius bird, shining brightly, flew up to perch on a branch above him.

Gryselde led them further on, and showed them all the Abyss of Stairs; Diccon shivered, remembering stories. The clarity of memory, its curse, he thought. Then she returned them to the largest of the forest rooms, and they stood before a tree with bright red berries. Far too small for apples, thought Diccon. Chestnut? No. Plum? How many kinds of trees are there?

“You have all seen now what is near this place,” Gryselde said. “It seems to me that there is much good. There are dangers. The Abyss of Stairs, as Gamelyn has named it, gives creatures from below a path to these rooms. Still I believe this was meant for us. You that are of my faith see the oak in greenest leaf and the holly with its berries, together.” She sighed.

Ah, thought Diccon. So sad, so in need of comfort. Well then I shall be there for her, and give her good cheer. He could not keep from smiling.

“I think that this is a place where we can build for ourselves a home,” she said. “I think … I fear many of us, and I myself, did not grasp how long we may be in Fell Gard. Having walked these halls, and learned a little of its nature, I know now that it may be long before we find a way to return to the surface of the world. But I think we can build some place for hope within the dungeon. I say to all of you I want to found a House, a hall where we may welcome the lost and protect the weak, even as we venture deeper into the low courts of Fell Gard. But of this we should speak later.

“First, then, gather what you like from these trees. Wash yourselves; there are springs beneath some of these roots. We will eat, and share stories. And then we will decide what action to take.”

They did as she said. There were apples, plums, pears, mulberries, cherries, chestnuts, walnuts, almonds, even peaches. Gryselde’s band gathered the fruits, laughing among themselves, and took care to wash their faces and hands — even the little cobold, to Diccon’s astonishment, though not the large one. They showed no sign of wanting to hunt for bats or rats, or of wanting to cook, even though Wymark announced she had a sack of oats for making pottage hidden under the coins in their old lair. Diccon realised that Gryselde’s people were all ravenously hungry.

As he watched them picking fruits and nuts, and setting their bounty in the clear space between the trees, he felt himself being watched; he turned, to find the thin man called Gamelyn observing him. Diccon smiled. “It’s good food, on these trees,” he said. “We’ve been eating from them several days now.”

Gamelyn grunted. “Tell me,” he said, “are you a follower of the Exarch?”

“No,” said Diccon, taken aback. “No. The Ninefold Way. Fated Life.”

Gamelyn rolled his eyes. “Really,” he said without surprise. “Have you heard of Oak and Holly?” Diccon shook his head. “It’s an outer-world belief,” Gamelyn told him. He pointed. “That’s an oak tree. That’s a holly. They worship the trees, I gather.”

Diccon shrugged. “Well enough, if they like it.” He remembered Gamelyn identifying the treasures, and pointing out the Robe of Vision. And Gryselde had mentioned that he’d told them of the Abyss of Stairs. Diccon asked: “Who are you? Not one of them.”

“Not at first, but that’s not the point,” said Gamelyn. “Gryselde’s a sorine, which means she’s vowed to one of their gods. I don’t know the nature of her oaths, exactly, but you might want to ask her about them.”

“Ha, hum,” said Diccon. “That obvious, eh?” He grinned. Gamelyn gave him a sour look in return. “Oh, well,” said Diccon. “Whatever her oaths, I’m sure I can lead her into bending them.”

Gamelyn shrugged, and they joined the others. Some of them had already started to eat, but others watched as Gryselde spoke some sort of benediction. She finished as Diccon and Gamelyn arrived, cupping her hands and then raising them in an odd circle; all the rest fell to. Almost all: Diccon saw one of the girls talking to the little cobold, who was weeping. “She can’t eat the fruit,” the older girl said. She said something to the knight in a language Diccon didn’t know.

“Don’t worry,” said the elf-woman. She took up her longbow, sighted, and shot an arrow. A bat came down. The little cobold was on it at once, and bolted it down, the bones crunching. Oddly, she didn’t seem much happier. The other cobold stared at her, even after the elf — with some reluctance — brought down a bat for him as well. Who could say what went on in a goblinkin’s mind?

The meal went well after that. They were mostly in small groups, twos and threes, scattered on the grassy space between the trees — between oak and holly. “But I know I saw a cat,” he heard the dark woman say to Gamelyn. Someone laughed, and a ripple passed through the group. Diccon was watching Gryselde. He ambled closer to her. She was listening, with a frown, to the tall girl who had spoken with the little cobold. No, Diccon realised, the girl was translating for the woman in armour, who seemed to be complaining about the layout of the rooms, and how difficult they would be to defend. Gryselde did not seem to want to hear it, and Diccon could hardly blame her.

He went and sat by them. He saw that Gryselde was plucking feathers from a dead skrythe. The knight stopped speaking, and so did the girl, watching him. “Those make for good food,” he said, nodding to the bird. “What will you do with it?”

Gryelde looked at him before speaking, and then said only “I don’t know.”

“Wymarc really is a fine cook,” said Diccon. “Can’t fight, really, but worth having for her cooking … though, I say she can’t fight, she likes to say that men enough have wrestled with her, in her time …” he smiled, and shrugged.

“In this place,” said Gryselde, “I suppose everyone fights all the time.”

Diccon nodded. “That’s so,” he said. “It’s a fight to gain anything, and then you fight those trying to take it away from you once you have it. Or else you find yourself fighting something that wants to eat you. Or something passing by that will kill you without noticing, or, well.”

Gryselde looked at the girl. “Don’t you think Amanos should hear this?” she asked. Then to Diccon, as the girl began to translate, she said: “Is this so everywhere in the dungeon? Are there safer places, rooms or halls that may be more easily defended?”

“To a point,” said Diccon. He was proud of what he knew, and smiled as he spoke, happy to be a source for her. “But the truth is that sooner or later, something will always come. A creature of the Lower Courts, or a collapse of the walls — rare, but it happens — or some ambitious kingdom with more fighters or more magic than you can deal with. And stairs are everywhere; those are fearful, but so common you can’t get away from them, really.”

“In fact, your band dwelt near this place, despite the closeness of the stairs,” said Gryselde.

He nodded again, quickly, still smiling. She understood. He had heard legends about those newly brought into the House of Creation; but she seemed to grasp the nature of life. “The food, the water, and of course the treasure — having them all together, as they are here, was more important than the risk from the stairs,” he told her. “So we judged. We didn’t die. Well, some of us did, but you didn’t come at us from the stairs.”

Gryselde tilted her head, looking at the knight, as the girl translated. The knight breathed out through her nose, and shook her head. “We will speak more of this tomorrow,” said Gryselde. The girl translated, and the knight nodded, once, and left, along with the tall girl. Gryselde continued plucking the skrythe.

“May I ask,” said Diccon, watching her white hands, “Gamelyn said that you were a … that you had sworn oaths to a god. Are you a prophet, then?”

“No,” said Gryselde. “Surely I am not that.”

“A monastic?” he asked.

“A mendicant,” she said.

Diccon shook his head. “I don’t know what that is,” he said. “Mendicant … in the Old Speech that would mean something like beggar.”

“My order begs,” she said. “We wander, and preach.”

Diccon smiled. She didn’t look up. Her fingers moved quickly, surely. “Do you have a discipline that teaches you to refrain from certain things?” he asked. “I mean, in order to teach you … habits of mind, which leads to powers, or skills?” She paused and looked at him, her face perfect and expressionless. “We have many like that, in Fell Gard,” he said.

“What gods do they worship?” she asked. “Oak and Holly? The Revelations of Ossian?”

Diccon shook his head. He wanted to smile wider, at her assumption that he would understand what she meant, at the hint of further knowledge, at all that he did not know but could now learn. “No,” he said. “There are many, many faiths in the House of Creation.”

She nodded, and returned to the bird, which was almost denuded of its feathers. Diccon imagined himself plucking the black robes from her. Running his hands over the curves of her hips. Over the length of her legs, as they wrapped around him. “In what gods do you believe?” she asked.

“Well,” he said, “all of them. Or at least all the ones I’ve met. That’s a joke,” he added, as she glanced up at him. “You see few gods this high in the dungeon; most of them are with the devils and demon princes and such, in the Lower Courts, or the Heart of Fell Gard.”

“I see,” she said. Her hands had paused in their chores. Now they resumed.

“I follow the Ninefold Way,” he told her.

“And what is that?” she asked. Diccon blinked. He’d never had to explain the Way before. Every creature in Fell Gard had heard of it. Of course, he thought, now there are new creatures in the dungeon. Winsome, white-fingered creatures. “We hold that there is life and death and the medial way,” he said. “That is, that you can approach the All, which is, um, consummation … transcendence … you can come to it by a belief in life, death, or what is in between. Three ways. But also, and at the same time, you will have a belief in fate, freedom, or what is between them as well. Another three ways, that each may modify the first three, thus three by three, or nine ways. So one may say, as I do, ‘I follow Fated Life.’ Or Fated Death, or Medial Fate. And so on, Freed Life, or the Golden Mean — that is the medial of all things.” He shrugged. “We hold that most races are servants of one creed or another. That is, in the war of creeds, their nature or destiny is to increase the might of one creed at the expense of others. Mortals and some other speaking creatures may choose their creeds.” Gryselde had finished plucking the bird. She took out a small knife and cut into it. He handed her a bowl: “Save the blood,” he said. “Wymarc can make a pudding with it.”

She nodded, and decanted the blood into the bowl. “Your goal is to argue speaking creatures around to your own creed?” she asked.

“Not exactly,” he said. “If you can, you do that. Otherwise you exemplify your creed as best you may. When you meet others of a creed opposed to you, well, you work with them if you must, or kill them if you can. It’s all right to kill those of opposed creeds, of course; they’re the enemy.”

“Your creed is Fated Life?” she asked, cracking and opening the bird’s ribs.

“That’s so,” he said.

“And is fate a way to mean order, and system?


“And freedom, then, is as much as to say, what is not controlled, or what is freely chosen?

“I suppose.”

Gryselde took out the skrythe’s crop and gizzard. “I am sworn to wander, and take life as it comes,” she said. “That would be freedom. And my god … my lord, the Graf Vaka-Bane, is a god of death.” She set the  bird’s organs to the side. He felt as if she was reaching into his own bowels, her cold hands dragging out his guts piece by piece. “Am I your enemy, Diccon?”

Was she, then? Had he erred, in following her? He did not think of himself as the most devout of men. Still, the Way was not a matter of gods, but of how people acted; of who they were, and whether you could trust them or no.

He’d thought being with Gryselde was fated. But of course that was always an error, to imagine you could perceive the patterns of fate (an error he knew he was prone to, as it was his habit of mind to want to learn and know more and seek for patterns in what he’d found out). No, no. You could only go your way, and suffer the changes it would bring you, and assume that you fit into the order you could not grasp.

You made the best of it. You tried to understand what was never to be understood. You’d fail, but come to know at least a little more. That was what Diccon believed.

“No,” he said at last. “I hope not, Gryselde.”

She looked at him, that expressionless gaze. “You must call me Sorine. It is my title.”

“I don’t mean for you to be my enemy,” he said. He smiled. “I must be true to myself, and show you the way to Fated Life, that’s all.”

He thought there was almost the flicker of a smile on her own face at that. Perhaps he was mistaken. At any rate she nodded.

“Is that your free choice, Diccon?” she asked.

“It is my fate,” he said, staring at her. “Or so I feel it.”

She plucked out the heart of the bird. On an impulse, he reached out to take it. She let him, surprised. “It’s good luck,” he said. “Or so some say. Eat the heart of a thing, and you eat its essence.”

“What is the essence of a skrythe?” she asked.

He smiled. “It’s said they’re a sign of the nightmare,” he told her, “for they can send you to sleep with a shriek, or weaken you with fear. To eat its heart is to ensure good dreams. Or ensure that your dreams come true.”

Gryslde nodded, and took back the heart from him. “It’s food, at any rate,” she said.

They washed their hands, and she wrapped the meat in a sack and set it in a cold spring among a tree’s roots. For a moment he watched her walk back to the others. He thought of her body, of the play of her flesh beneath the robe, the curve of the cloth over her hip and arse. These moments would be clear to him ever after in memory, he knew. Would that be a curse? Would she tear out his heart and set it in the cold of a trickling spring? Surely not, if he were true to his creed.

He smiled, and followed her.


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