The Fell Gard Codices


Ulixa was at work on the trapped door to the library when Euarchy flew to her with news of what was approaching on the stairs. When the gawry said the name, Ulixa thought she had fallen into one of the stories her father had told her when she was little, about the times long past, when the world was young and the kindred dwelt in the land called Home.

“It can’t be,” she said. “They only come when there is a war of gods or wizards. All the stories say so. Only when the world is turned upside-down, when an empire falls …” She was babbling, she knew, but still she could not bring herself to name them.

Villains out of nightmare. What was she to do?

She looked back to the door, took a breath, made a last, subtle motion with the tools, and disabled the trap. Then she stood. The gawry’s face was a mask of fear. Ulixa tried to be calm; but how, in the face of what was coming? Perhaps a mistake had been made. Perhaps.

“Tell the others,” she ordered Euarchy. “Tell everyone. Gather them all in the clearing between oak and holly. Have them get all their gear, everything they’ll need if we flee. Oh! And have Kwangrolar alert the elves. They must be warned.”

The elves would not want to run; they held that cursed ruby. But the rest of them? Was it possible to flee from such things? Would they not follow, scenting blood and fear? What else to do?

(She had heard of them all her life. Who had not? They were the things that were the very definition of ‘monster’; they were the sum of mortal fears. They were what was lurking in the night, around the next bend, across the far black mountains of the horizon, they were what could come at any moment and overthrow all your works and leave your home and people and all your cities as smoking ruins. They were the antithesis of mercy. Why should she be surprised that they were to be found in Fell Gard?)

Gryselde had delegated her authority to Ulixa when she had set out, invisible, after Kate and the preceptor. “Why me?” Ulixa had asked, surprised.

Gryselde had said: “You told me once you would rather run than fight.”

Walking south, feeling her stomach knot with fear, Ulixa understood what she’d meant. With the party of explorers still away, with Gryselde and the preceptor — and Kate, come to that — all away as well, there were few of them that had any skill or notable experience with fighting. Diccon readily acknowledged that he was indifferently-skilled with a blade, at best. And he was one of the best of them, there in the chamber. Hochelaga might have some magic, perhaps Kezia, and then of course there was Gamelyn, for whatever he was worth. But there was little healing power left. Ulric and Paradox had exhausted themselves earlier, after the demons’ attack. Even the caladrius had gone to sleep in the high tree branches. If what was coming —

She did not think about it. She would not.

After that moment with Gamelyn earlier, she had been looking forward to being alone. It seemed as though they had all been looking at her, at the council. As though everything they’d said had been a mockery. From white to white on a chessboard. What kind of creatures haunt this place? All you can imagine. She knew they were mostly baffled by her, at best, the darkness of her skin; what did it mean, they wondered. That was how the Empire folk thought. Surely everything meant something. No, no, she wanted to scream sometimes, not everything means anything, a sign is sometimes only a trick of sight, and its meaning is only what you give to it.

Ah, but there she was sounding like an illusionist, which, at that moment, she had no interest in doing. Gryselde had selected her as leader. What did that mean? She had no idea, and so had retreated from all of them, to work on the trap upon the door, and not think about God, the two-who-are-one, who, she had been taught, had retreated from the mortal world long ago and would return only on condition of right behaviour from all mortals. She did not think of the story of the woman who went wandering through the world, seeking God, all immortal, unable to climb up to the heavens. No, she was not thinking of that story, and she did not think of the stories about Chameleon, trickster and sight-blinder; those especially she did not think of.

And now she had been reminded that there were more terrifying stories; and of those she must think, for that was her responsibility.

She strode quickly, hands in the pockets of her long coat, to the forest room and the stairs down to the long white marble porch. Aura was waiting there, as were Kezia, Ulric, Paradox, Diccon — not Gamelyn, of course. Diccon held a torch.

“Well?” she asked. Aura plucked at the wisps of her diaphanous skirt in a fearful half-curtsey.

“I saw them,” she said. “They’re coming. One of them ahead, as a scout, but a dozen or more are following.”

Diccon’s face was white, more than usual for his skin: more white than white, thought Ulixa. “We can’t fight that!” he said.

“How much time do we have?” asked Ulixa.

There came a loud cry from the darkness below, a beast’s roar, a bellow that froze the blood with fears from before mortals had found out the secrets of fire or writing.

Ulixa turned to Kezia. The vala’s face was grim in a way Ulixa had not imagined it could ever be. She held her stone-headed spear upright; Ulixa had hardly noticed it before, and now it seemed the dominant fact about Kezia, an expression of her will and desire. “Can you see it?” Ulixa hissed to the vala.

Kezia nodded. Entemena and Keturah came at a dead run down the stairs from the forest chambers. “We have come for the killing,” said Entemena, nocking an arrow to his bow.

“We have to run,” said Ulixa. Aura flittered away up the stairs.

“The first of them comes!” Kezia cried. Diccon fled, leaving them in darkness but for the ætheric light that filtered down from the forest chamber above. Ulixa dropped back into the shadows. Kezia raised a hand, and a fire green as spring leapt from her palm to wreath itself around a monstrous shape coming up the stairs step by remorseless step. It did not blink at the flame. The other elves began to loose their arrows.

And Ulric whispered, quoting his strange scripture:

“Art thou not Orc, blasphemous demon, antichrist, hater of dignities, lover of wild rebellion, and transgressor of God’s law?”

There: it was named: it could not be avoided, or wished away.

“Sometimes an eagle screaming in the sky, sometimes a lion, stalking upon the mountains,” murmured Ulric.

The orc was tall, almost seven feet, Ulixa judged. Its features were thinner than she might have expected, somehow; all the rest of it was so thick. It wore a kind of armour of hide and bone. It had no shield, but bore a great stone maul. An elven arrow lodged in its skin; it showed no sign of noticing. Another struck it, and then a third, which drew a grunt.  “And sometimes a whale I lash the raging fathomless abyss,” continued the prophet, his voice rising. The orc bared its teeth, which were cruelly fanged, like no animal Ulixa had ever seen.

Then it moved, quickly, charging up the steps to Kezia, who set her spear. Ulric began shouting: “Anon a serpent folding around the pillars of Urthona,” and the stone spear-head tore through the side of the charging orc, who did not seem to notice it. It swung the hammer, which crashed into Kezia’s shoulder. There was the crack of bone, a shriek from the vala, and she fell, her chest half-crushed.

Ulric struck at the orc with his mace, and it ignored him. Then Ulixa attacked from the shadows, risking Keturah’s arrows. She drove the knife up through the orc’s neck as an arrow caught it in an eye. It tottered, howled again — and despite herself, even knowing it was dead, Ulixa trembled — then it fell and was still.

“And round thy dark limbs, on the Canadian wilds I fold, feeble my spirit folds,” chanted Ulric. “For chained beneath I rend these caverns.”

More howls came from down the stairs.

Paradox gasped. Kezia groaned. “I had so little left,” said the boy. The vala’s arm and chest were whole again, but not straight, not quite right.

“You did well,” said Entemena.

Ulric stood over the orc, staring at it. Kezia’s magic fire had died; Ulixa could see now the skin, a weird shade of light blue, mottled with a colour like sand. “Go,” said Ulixa. “Everyone. Go. Now. We can’t fight a dozen like that. Ulric, take Kezia.”

“I will take her,”said Keturah. Ulixa nodded, and they went.

Half-carrying Paradox, Ulixa heard herself whispering furiously, “What were you doing there? What did you think you could do?”

She had thought the boy was unconscious; but he mumbled. “Had to. Had to see for myself. I knew … heal. Hadn’t thought … so much was gone.”

“Try to gather yourself,” she said. “Be ready to run.” She did not bother to say that she had not been whispering to him. She had the disquieting sensation that he knew, anyway; that he had spoken to distract her from herself.

In the forest chamber they’d all gathered, as she’d asked. She saw them, standing in the mosslight, in Diccon’s torchlight, among the forest scent. She tried to count quickly: the four from below (Wymarc, Diccon, Agneta, Elous), the two winged folk, the sylph, the old dwarf Yune, the old bard Robert, the cervidwen looming above them all, Hochelaga holding Atrahasis’ hand — Gamelyn, of course, looking at her, full of doubt. Wait; something else, too, in that group. “Ulixa,” said Diccon. “There’s been, ah …”

“Come forward, my sweetmeat,” said Wymarc, stepping forward. She had a boy by the hand. He was perhaps five years old. Ulixa had never seen him before.

“He came from the west,” said Atrahasis.

“The west?” said Ulixa. The boy burst into tears.

“I’m sorry!” he sobbed. “I’ll go home now, I promise!”

“From the stairs to the west?” asked Ulixa.

Diccon shook his head. “Not from what he says.”

“Entemena,” said Ulixa, “didn’t you tell us —”

“The only hall west leads to a gargoyle that sets curses,” he said. “I don’t understand.”

“Maybe it only curses you if you’re going westward?” asked Hochelaga.

The cry of an orc came from behind them; and then another. Ulixa groaned. “Entemena, what are your people going to do?” she asked.

“Retreat to guard the ruby,” he said. “It’s all we can do.”

“Go,” she said. “We’ll try and lead them away from you, I suppose.” He nodded, then paused.

“Before you come to the western hall with the gargoyle, there’s a room with a door to the north,” he told her. “The boy could have come from there.”

“I think that’s our path of retreat,” Ulixa murmured. Where else? The doors to the south were locked; north-west were the outlaws. As she thought about it, the elves ran to the west, Keturah still carrying Kezia. Ulixa took the burning torch from Diccon and another unlit torch as well. “What’s your name, child?” she asked as she lit the second torch.

“Otto,” said the boy. “Otto of the Village Innsdene.” She gave Diccon his torch back.

“Are there more of you?” asked Agneta. “Where you came from. More mortals?”

“There’s Innsdene,” he said.

“What’s that mean?” asked Diccon.

“It means mortals are to the west, I think,” said Yune.

“If —” began Gamelyn, but Ulixa overrode him:

“Hochelaga!” she cried. “Will your familiar know where you are?”

“Yes,” said the girl, puzzled. “Why — oh!” Ulixa gave Yune the second torch.

“Take — take Ulric, and Diccon, Atrahasis — you have to go to the library,” she ordered Hochelaga. “Or wherever is best. You have to warn Gryselde, and also warn William and the rest of them when they come back! Watch for them! The rest of you — go! Westward! To the room Entemena said! Go!” She shooed them with her hands. They went.

Paradox had recovered enough to move under his own power; he followed them, though not quickly. Ulixa went some way behind him, looking back now and again. “Why are they coming after us?” growled Ulixa. And what did this boy’s sudden appearance mean? A boy from the west at the same time they had to flee west. A rumour of other mortals. It seemed too neat. It seemed like a trap. Like the trap she had nullified at the library door: a complex work of craft. And it had caught her. She was doing it all wrong. And never a thought for right behaviour.

She came to the storeroom. Where she had spoken with Gamelyn. Spoken with? As well to say, made a fool of herself. She savoured the phrase. Ah, what a maker I am, she thought. Of myself to fashion a fool. She took out the key she had shown him.

It was a slim chance. But might as well try it. The solution, he had said, was close to the puzzle. She found the keyhole. Yune and the rest were well ahead. It was almost as dark as when she had been there before, with Gamelyn. But now, of course, she was all alone.

She fit the key into the lock. There was no door, only a lock in the wall. She turned the key. There was a faint glow in the stone. A shadow appeared within the glow, and then stepped forward out of the stone.

Ulixa almost gasped. It was a mortal shape with a bird’s head; a black raven’s head. It was near-naked, covered in black feathers. She had heard of such things; corvinae, the crow-men. It was tall, well above six feet, and lean. It — he? — stared at her, and then dropped briefly to one knee. It rose again, and waited. “Can — can you talk?” Ulixa asked. “Can you fly?”

It stared at her. There was a beauty to it, him, her, whatever it was; a sleek darkness, so unlike the brightness of —

“Fuck,” said Ulixa precisely. She was a fool, she was a fool, she knew it, she had never been wise, and Gryselde should not have trusted her. Well; nothing for it but to make it up. That was right behaviour. And foolish.

She had left the caladrius behind in the forest chamber, asleep on a high branch, and now she would have to go get it. It was her responsibility.

She pointed westward. “Go!” she said. “Bad things are back the other way. Do you understand? Go!” She pointed again. The crow-man bowed again, and went. She went the other way.

She knew the way in the dark well enough. She tried to move as quietly as she could, but she was shaking so much she thought it must have been wasted effort. In any event the orcs were distracted.

Ulixa approached the main forest chamber through the smaller room to the south-west. She could see the caladrius, slumbering in the crook of two branches high in a birch tree. The orcs had thrown the body of their dead scout down in the clearing before it. Half of them were crouched around the body. They’d torn it to bits, and they were eating it raw.

Ulixa went as soundlessly as she could around the room until she stood by a tall elm tree right behind the birch. She began to climb the elm, moving as lightly as she could, hoping the birch would act as a screen for her. She heard the other orcs shouting, in the underground tongue, she thought. She glanced down to see them shaking a little manlike thing in a dark cloak. It’s one of the darklings Enheduanna saw in the cave, she thought. What does that mean, I wonder?

Whatever the orcs were asking it, they weren’t happy with the whispered answers they were getting. She couldn’t hear them, and wouldn’t have understood them; but the orcs seemed baffled as well as angry. She kept climbing.

One of the orcs below her howled. She froze. The orc reached out, and ripped the darkling’s head off. The other orcs howled, then, as the darkling burst into black fire. They threw the corpse down, and kicked it, ignoring the fires as they drove it about the clearing. Ulixa climbed the last little way up to the caladrius. She reached out, and took it. The caladrius stirred, but did not wake. Carefully, she began to climb down.

She made it to the ground without the orcs noticing. She turned to leave.

She heard a howl.

She spun about. The orcs had not seen her, busy at their butchery and cannibalism. The howl had come from one of them who stood now to glare down at his fellows. At the noise, the caladrius twitched, and opened its wings, shining. “No,” she whispered. “Not now!” She hunched over it; and perhaps it sensed something of their danger, for it huddled shut itself. But that glimmer of light had been too much. She heard more howls behind her, cries of red rage. She ran. And after a moment she heard thudding footfalls chasing her. She glanced back, quickly; they were coming for her.

Of course, she thought as she ran, now the caladrius’ light would be useful. They would see it, but wouldn’t they see her anyway? Did she dare go at full speed in the pitch dark? Did she have any choice? A massive spear was flung past her ear. She gasped, a little, and ran harder.

The orcs were bigger than her, and perhaps faster in a straight race, but she knew the layout of the halls. She ran hard, her feet pounding, the caladrius struggling in her arms. They couldn’t quite catch up. Through the storeroom, through the room where the men had slept the night before, through the room where the dead bandits had been burned. A stitch tore through Ulixa’s side. She gasped and stumbled, and heard a howl behind her, and kept going. But slower, now, slower.

She ran down the hall that led, firstly, to the passage north-westward; then past the door to the bandits’ old lair; then, around a corner, to a flight of stairs downward. She wanted to take the north-west passage. But she was stumbling. She couldn’t seem to get her full speed back. She could hear the orcs behind her. She reached the turn, but she knew they’d find her, get her —

And then she saw herself run past herself, back out into the hallway —

— And then someone caught her, and a hand was clamped over her mouth, and she was pulled around the corner and pressed against the wall of the passageway by a man’s body against hers.

She felt the stone rough against her back. She needed to take a breath but could not. He was pressing close against her, the caladrius almost crushed between them. The image of herself in the corridor beyond held a caladrius, too. She threw it in the air, and it blossomed into bright light. For a moment the light shone down the north-west passage. It was Gamelyn who was holding her, of course, his eyes closed in concentration, his mouth open, sweat on his brow.

She looked back at herself, as the false image began to run westward, toward the stairs. The image was a little taller than she was; the bits of grey in her hair nowhere to be seen. Her breasts were a little fuller and higher, her legs longer. Her eyes larger. For a moment she understood, looking at the image, what he felt for her, whether he would say it or not. The image began to run. The light grew longer, and fell away from them. They were in darkness again, him pressed against her. She did not dare to breathe, though she was in pain from holding her breath.

The orcs ran past, howling. She felt her heart racing. Gamelyn gasped. She smiled, holding him. It had sounded like —

“Let’s go,” he whispered in her ear. “They’ll be back soon.”

She reached out with one hand and grabbed the back of his neck and forced her mouth onto his. He didn’t seem to know what to do. She let him go after a moment, and began to lead him down the hall. North-west.

Things were becoming clearer, bit by bit.


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One Response to “Part 3, Chapter 8: Among Villains, Traps, and Illusions”

  1. Perfidius the Rogue

    “..eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas..”

    All the while I was reading the build-up to whatever it was that was going to come howling out of the deeps, I kept thinking of the mines of Moria. But it wasn’t the balrog I should have been afraid of, oh no – it was the orcs! 😀

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