The Fell Gard Codices


Gryselde could only stare. She heard, as if from a great distance, Kate say: “I am the Princess Katherine of Aurelium, and this is the Sorine Gryselde.”

“Sorine, you say,” murmured the dragon in response. “Princess, you say. Ha, ho, hum. Much matter to consider, in that. Much matter indeed.”

This dragon was larger than the one she had encountered before. It was coloured very differently as well, gold and silver and some pure hue beyond silver; and a crown of white fire flickered among the horns above its head, which themselves looked as though they were pieces of the First Moon. She had seen the light of the fire, but in the darkness of Fell Gard had not known what to make of it before Kate had pushed her to the floor. Now Gryselde could feel nothing but fear. It perhaps had to do with the perfection of the movements of the dragon’s lips, the ripples in the fine scales about its mouth, the precision of the sounds of speech that it made, its forked tongue flicking against its fangs. Or perhaps the largeness of its serpentlike eyes, knowing and sinister.

Or is it merely that it is a creature of death, and therefore perfect in its ability to bring death? thought Gryselde. No; it was more than that. It was the intelligence in its eyes: it was the sense that it knew death, that it understood mysteries that mortals could barely frame in language. Was it blasphemous, she wondered, or was it touched by the Graf?

“Well, come along, then, if you like, the both of you,” it said. “I imagine you would prefer a dialogue to the feel of flame, eh?” It dipped its head to look at Kate, and then Gryselde. “That was humour,” it said. Gryselde could not look away. Should she laugh? She stood, slowly. “Well, as you wish,” said the dragon. “This way.” It turned, and walked back down the hall to the west. The hall bent to the north, and the dragon paused at the corner to allow Kate to catch up to it. They went on with Kate walking beside the dragon’s head, and Gryselde beside her. The dragon moved on four legs with a majesty she had never seen in an animal, such that she felt her own two-legged stride to be forced and unnatural. “Now, princess,” said the dragon, “you are juvenile royalty. And yet you do not resemble other mortal children, as I have seen them. Is this some consequence of royal blood, do you think?”

“No,” said Kate, uncertain. “I guess not. It’s because of Blæcalx. He was the god of the cobolds, and lived in a magic pool. He’s dead now. Geoffrey killed him. Before he died he made me look like this.”

“Is Geoffrey your subject?” asked the dragon.

“I guess,” said Kate. “Well, not really. He comes from Ashmere. They’re not very smart in Ashmere, or that’s what everybody says.”

“Is Geoffrey not very smart?” asked the dragon.

“No,” said Kate.

“Hum, ho, ha,” said the dragon. “And this quiet sorine — is she your subject?” Kate looked at Gryselde.

“Well, no,” she said.

It seemed to Gryselde that the dragon must be aware of more than its questions suggested. “May we have a name to know you by?” she asked carefully.

“Ho, hum, ha,” said the dragon. “You may call me Nil, if you like. Who is your god, Sorine?”

“I follow the Graf Vaka-Bane, the lord of death,” she said.

“You follow him,” said the dragon, “but where does he lead?”

“To the grave,” she said.

“Then why follow?” asked the dragon called Nil.

“It is the nature of mortals.”

“To go to the grave? Or to follow power?”

“We are mortal,” she said. “We must die.”

“And so you make a divinity of necessity?” asked Nil.

It occurred to Gryselde that the dragon did not understand the nature of faith. How could it, not having the weaknesses of mortals? “We do not worship because we choose,” said Gryselde. “We worship because we feel we must; that is, because there is that in us that worships, whether we choose it or not. We worship because that is how we open ourselves to the All, and come to know the signs of the gods that make of this world a meaning.”

“Ho, ha, hum,” said the dragon.

The discussion did not make her less fearful.

They came to a door; the dragon raised one of its claws, like a man lifting a finger, and the door opened. Beyond was a room, perhaps ten yards to a side, with golden coins scattered all about, hundreds, perhaps thousands. There was a door to the west and double doors to the east. “My lair,” said Nil, absently, leading them to the double doors. “Tell me, Kate of Aurelium, do you think that in the future your face will decorate coins like these?”

“It might,” said Kate. “I hadn’t thought of that, before.”

“Curious,” said the dragon. “We think of little else. The coins; their histories. The things done for the sake of gaining this wealth. The dreams it inspires. The legends. These things that so often we do not understand, but which draw us. Tales of lineage, of bravery, of love, of sex, woven around cold metal. Do you understand any of this, Kate? You, who may see yourself stamped in gold or silver?”

“No,” said Kate. “I’m just a girl.”

“You are a princess,” said the dragon. “And I am a dragon; and some of my kind have been drawn to yours. In story.”

Kate thought about this. Gryselde did not know what to say. “Are you a boy dragon or a girl dragon?” asked Kate in the end.

“Neither,” said Nil. “I am a dragon.”

“Are you he or she?” asked Kate, stubborn.

“I am an it,” said the dragon.

“But it’d be rude to call you an ‘it’,” said Kate.

“That is what I am,” said the dragon, “for I am no part of your mortal sexes, and I will not suffer myself to be perverted by your depraved need for gender! No, not even to fit the limitations of your language! I am an it, and proud of my itness, and will have nothing to do with your hes and shes! Do you understand?”

Kate giggled. “Yes,” she said.

“Come along,” said Nil. It raised its claw again, and the double doors opened.

Gryselde wanted to ask why, what the dragon wanted with them; but then she knew well that if the dragon wanted them to know, it would have told them. It watched them calmly as they walked along beside it, down a wide hall to a passage that stretched away to north and south; and it led them northward from there.

“May I ask,” Gryselde said carefully, “how it comes about that you are here, on the twentieth court?”

“Ah!” said the dragon. “A wise question, that! You see, I am a scholar. I —”

Kate screamed.

To their right, a high arch opened on another hall, leading away north and westward. A ghost had appeared before the arch. It was the ghost of a woman, in a mail shirt, with a ghostly shield on her arm. She raised her right arm, slowly; a broken sword was clenched in her first. All is well, she said.

“Yes, yes,” said the dragon. Nil bent its head to Gryselde and Kate as it led them northward. “I wanted a sentry, you see. Therefore once when I killed one of the mortals, I bound her spirit to this place as a watcher. I must wander, and I should not leave my lair without eyes upon it, of course.” Nil raised its head. “Is that offensive to you, as a worshipper of death?”

“Needless death is offensive to me,” Gryselde said.

“It wasn’t needless, I assure you,” said Nil. “They pestered me, and tried to take my coins. Now they fear me, and let me alone. Is that not finer all around?”

“Are all dragons able to raise ghosts?” asked Kate.

“No, no,” said Nil. “Only we who have been initiated into the mysteries of the Empyrean. But you had asked how I came to be here. Well, as an Empyrean Dragon I am naturally concerned with the mysteries of the Ultimate; of the All, you would say. With the truth behind truths. Therefore when the new court of Fell Gard was in the course of being shaped I watched it from the æther. I learned much, and of course when it was complete I decided I must enter it, to compare the result with the process. I’ve spent these past days gathering matter for my studies.”

They passed under an arch, into a room a little larger than the dragon’s lair. Here and there on the floor were fires without colour, burning with no fuel. Masses of gold and silver and copper were scattered through the room, each with some other thing set on top of them. Gryselde realised that the masses of precious metal were coins, that had been melted together to make stands for — “What are these things?” she asked, puzzled. She could see no connection between them: dusty gloves and an empty scabbard, a black iron crown set with amethysts, an obsidian chalice, a marble chessboard, a crystal ball, a cracked and tarnished silver mirror, a mortal’s skull with emeralds set in the eye-sockets. Many others.

“Objects of study,” said Nil. The dragon nodded to Kate, smiling. “Go ahead,” it said. “I would very much like to know what a princess will see in these things.”

“Are they treasures?” asked Kate, moving into the room, wandering uncertainly between the pale fires and the glittering half-melted shapes. Gryselde took a step after her, then paused and looked at the dragon, who gave her no mind.

“Anything a dragon values is treasure, by definition,” Nil told Kate. “I think of this chamber as my cabinet of curiosities. Now do you see the mirror? Yes, the one ahead of you. What do you think of it? Take a close look; it won’t hurt you.”

Kate leaned in to the mirror; she squinted; she shrieked; and she was gone.

“Kate!” cried Gryselde. She spun to the dragon, who was pondering her with no human expression on its face.

“I said she would not be hurt,” the dragon said. “She is being held, for later study.”

“Why?” asked Gryselde.

“She is relevant to my research,” said Nil. “That is also why I wish to speak to you.”

Gryselde looked back toward the mirror. It glittered in the firelight; but she thought now that she could see a shadow across the brightness of the metal, in Kate’s shape. “Where is she?” asked Gryselde.

“On the other side of the mirror,” said Nil.

Gryselde shook her head. “That is the realm of the Elder King.”

“Is it?” asked Nil. “How do you know that? Have you been there?”

“I have not,” she said. “I — there are those who have borne witness. It — we know it to be true.”

“Do you,” said the dragon, its voice flat. “The place beyond mirrors is in fact a part of the æther, that takes its form from our sight. But this is not to the point. Do you believe that the blood of a king has particular power?”

“Is that why you have taken her?” asked Gryselde. “To shed her blood?”

The dragon considered her. “I see I will have to explain the nature of my scholarship,” it said, with what Gryselde thought was something like satisfaction. “Ha, ho, hum! Come along.” It started back to the south.

“I cannot leave Kate,” said Gryselde.

“Now why not?” asked Nil. “Has she commanded you so?”

“No!” said Gryselde. “She is in my charge; it is my responsibility to ensure she is safe. And she is my friend. And … it is not right, for one mortal to abandon another.”

“You would say that is wrong?” asked the dragon. “In a moral sense — it is wrong to you?”

“Yes,” said Gryselde.

The dragon nodded absently. “Well, she will be safe until we come again,” it said. It started southward. Gryselde paused a moment, then followed Nil. The dragon said: “The nature of my study is power and creation. Empyrean Dragons are concerned with what is behind all created things, the force of creation itself that you name the All. The All is a pure fire, which dragons symbolise in their flame. The All is therefore destructive as well as creative; the devourer as well as the prolific. Or the prolific that creates its own devourer. But I fear I am becoming too technical. What you should understand is this: I am a scholar of creation, and therefore of power.”

“What has this to do with Kate?” asked Gryselde. The dragon nodded its head, pleased at the question.

“What indeed!” it cried. “A princess who has felt the touch of a god. Power shaped by power.”

“But these are two different kinds of power,” said Gryselde.

“How so?” asked the dragon.

Gryselde thought carefully as she walked. What does the dragon mean? Is it trapping me in words? “There is the power to do, or to command, that kings have; and the power to make, that wizards have,” she finally said. “Gods have both.”

“Is that how it seems to mortals?” asked the dragon. “Hum, ho, ha! Kings make, Sorine. They make history. You will say that all mortals make history, and in a sense this is so; but kings make more. They make law, of course, but they make an idea in the minds of their people. I will ask you again: do you think a king’s blood has power?”

“I don’t know,” said Gryselde. “Yes. How can it not? A good king rules the land well, and the land is fruitful. When a bad king reigns, the land is poor, and jealous of its yield. This has been seen often.”

“Has it,” murmured the dragon. “Ah, the fallibility of sight! Our ideas have a power over us that we do not even notice. Well; your ideas. But then the king is an idea, as well, you see. A symbol. And therefore has power. A sort of magic, the health of the land aside.”

“Please forgive me,” said Gryselde, “but I do not understand how that power is more worth your study than any of the magic that you yourself perform.” They had come to the ghost. The dragon paid it no mind, and led Gryselde down the north-west hall.

“It is not, in fact, wholly unconnected,” allowed the dragon. “Which is what makes it all worth my study. How is it possible, for example, that rightness can be seen as different from power? Mortals sometimes seem as though they can make this distinction, which we dragons cannot, but then also mortals mostly appear blind to contradictions in their own behaviour. The fallibility of sight again, I suppose.”

Nil fell silent, pondering some question Gryselde did not know. “If I understand, then,” she said carefully, “you are studying kingship, and the nature of a king’s power, and how it has to do with morality on the one hand and with creation on the other.”

“Yes!” said Nil. “Crudely; but yes, yes.”

“Why?” she asked.

The dragon released a gout of fire at the ceiling. “What else is worth the study?” it roared. It reared back, glaring down at Gryselde, fires within the cavern of its mouth, fires seeming to shine from its eyes. Fear swept through her; she thought of the Rule, she thought of the words she had been taught, she thought of the closeness of the Graf Vaka-Bane. I can all but touch you, my lord, she thought.

Then the dragon visibly calmed. It went back to all fours, and the fires within it dimmed. “But I have been asked that question too often, by my peers,” it said. “I give you apologies, Sorine. Come.”

Nil led her on, to a blank wall; but at a lifted claw the wall slid aside. The corridor beyond led back to the outlaws’ entry chamber. Gryselde could see nothing, hear nothing, of either bandits or goblins. The dragon led her south, toward the large chamber, then down another hall to the north-west. “Do you know the origin of your word dungeon?” it asked.

“No,” said Gryselde, quietly.

“When the wizard Scaeva imagined his House of Creation he needed to make a word to describe it,” Nil told her. “He was of the Invicti, of course, and so thought of the word dominus, lord, and then domnionem, a lord’s property. And by playing about with these words he created the idea of the dungeon, the House of Creation. Power and making. His House, you see, his realm, he would be the lord. But within it … creation. So he hoped.”

Nil stopped by a door to the south-west, and it opened. Gryselde followed the dragon through. A scorpion as large as a hound came out of the shadows. Nil raised a claw, and it backed away. “Another of my watchers,” the dragon said, leading her through the room to another door. “Where was I? Ha, ho, hum. Ah, yes. Dungeons. But do you know where the word gargoyle comes from?” It opened the door. Beyond were rough cave walls, stalactites and stalagmites, and winged gargoyles that crawled over the rock and hissed at them.

“It entered your language from the Auberch, and through them back to the Invicti,” said the dragon. “It refers to the gullet, and derives from gar, to swallow. It was another word invented by Scaeva. He created them. Now. Stand there. Look at them.”

In the light of the fire that flickered about the dragon’s horns Gryselde looked at the gargoyles. They were hunched parodies of mortal shape, some with bat-wings of stone, or a beast’s head at the end of a long neck. Some had horns, some fangs. They did not dare to come too close to the dragon. “What should I see?” she asked.

“A fair question,” the dragon said. “But I meant only the obvious. They are stone. You see? — No, I see that you don’t. They are stone as the dungeon is stone. They are made of the stuff of Fell Gard. They are the dungeon, come to life, in something like mortal form.”

“Was it you that gathered them here?” asked Gryselde.

“These?” said the dragon. “Yes.”

“There are others,” she said. “I have seen them crawling on an arch. And I have encountered some that do not move, but wield magic.”

“True, but they haven’t the full freedom of these creatures,” said the dragon. “They are, in a sense, not as complete.”

“Why are you showing them to me?” asked Gryselde.

The dragon laughed. “Fallibility of sight,” it said. “I’m not showing them to you. I’m showing you to them.

“Why?” she whispered. “Why me?”

The dragon contemplated the gargoyles and sighed. “A disappointment,” it murmured, and shut the door. “Isn’t it obvious?” Nil asked, leading her back through the room. “Even if you don’t know … hum, ho, ha. Do you know a creature named Alys?”

Gryselde took a breath. “Yes,” she said. “I know she is in Fell Gard.”

“Now why do you think she took you in to her House, when you were young?” asked the dragon, leading her back through the door. Gryselde felt dizzy.

“How do you … have you spoken to Alys?” she asked.

“I am a dragon,” said Nil. “I know many things.”

“But … you hadn’t said …”

“I do not tell all I know. Another question, then: why do you think Scaeva made the House of Creation?”

“I have no idea,” she said.

The dragon led her along in silence, back the way they’d come. When they reached the ghost again Nil nodded: “I command the ghost,” the dragon said, “because I am more powerful. Why does a king command?”

“I don’t know,” said Gryselde. “I don’t understand this matter of commands.”

“A king is not stronger physically than every man or woman under him,” said the dragon. “Nor cleverer. A king commands because the people he commands allow it. This is the riddle I am studying. Why? Why do you allow that to happen?”

“I don’t know,” said Gryselde. The dragon led her northward.

“You allow yourselves to be led by kings and gods and philosophies,” said Nil. “I don’t understand it. No dragon understands it. But because of it …” It swept a foreleg in a wave indicating the hall, the dungeon. “You have it in you to make all this,” it said.

“I … I don’t understand what you mean,” said Gryselde.

Nil laughed. “No,” it said. “That is irony. You see: you submit to what you don’t understand. The blood of a king. The god you cannot deny.” The dragon’s great head leaned in toward her. A terrible unblinking eye stared at her. “The power to make,” said the dragon. “The wind that blows through you. The part of you that dreams.”

“When we dream our souls are raised to the houses of the gods,” said Gryselde.

“If you like,” said the dragon. “What I am saying to you is simple: because you have the ability to choose to submit and do worship, you can submit to the power inside you that makes: that part of the All you cannot understand, but which nevertheless works through you. You do not create by choice. You cannot logically craft true art. Only by yielding yourself to something other, that you do not understand. That is my theory, which I believe I shall yet prove.”

“I have heard that dragons are masters of poetry,” said Gryselde.

“We are masters of form,” answered Nil. “For some of us, that is not enough.”

They entered the dragon’s cabinet of curiosities. “Very well,” said Gryselde. She took a deep breath. She felt as though she had been brought close to danger, but that it had been averted without her understanding. “Will you return Kate to me?”

“No, no,” said the dragon. “I am bringing you to wait with her.”

“Why?” said Gryselde. “What more do I have to teach you?” The dragon stared at her. She tried to stare back; and yet could not. She let her gaze drop. “I do not understand you,” she whispered. “I do not understand these things you say, or why you have shown me to the gargoyles, or what I mean to you.”

“Still, no?” said the dragon. “Then I shall explain.”

“Wait,” she said.

“You are of the blood of the wizard Scaeva,” the dragon told her.

She said: “What?”

It can’t be true, she thought. But she was not surprised. Something in the speech of the dragon had been leading to this; had been preparing her for it. Still — could it be so?

Then she thought: Does it matter, if it is? That a man fifteen hundred years ago, and more, was my ancestor? Let it be. I am not a wizard. I am not an architect. I am no part of him, nor he of me, no part that matters. That is not the shape I have chosen.

“There you are,” said the dragon. “I had hoped the gargoyles would recognise you. They did not. You seem not to have your ancestor’s understanding of power, or of creation. Still, you may be of use, and it would be a shame to waste you.” The dragon smiled at her. “Deep in the flesh of you, in the helices out of which you are built, and in the tetragrammaton that makes those helices, is a record of your connection to the wizard Scaeva,” said Nil. “Who knows what uses that might be put to? Enter the mirror, Sorine, and then I will not have cause to damage you.”

She said: “I invoke the covenant.”

Nil reared back. She did not dare to move.

“Do you?” it cried, as though in pain. “After I have shown you my cabinet of curiosities, after I have discoursed with you of my studies, after I have told you the truth of you — do you still do that?

“I invoke the covenant,” she said. She felt tears on her cheeks. “And a third time I say it: I invoke the covenant.”

Nil returned to all fours. “Very well,” it said, with the disappointment of a parent whose child has failed it. “Then what do you sacrifice, questioner?”

She threw her halberd down before her. “I give this sign of my faith,” she said.

The dragon breathed its pale fire upon the weapon, which was consumed without a trace.

“Ask your questions,” said Nil.

“She took a breath. She had been pondering this action for some time. For a moment, at least, she felt stable; sure. Yet she did not like having to call on the covenant, less for the sake of the dragon than for herself. What price would this exact, beyond the halberd? She thought carefully of the words of her questions. “Firstly,” she said, “is there anything that I can offer to you for Kate’s life; anything that is within my power to give, that you will accept, and that is not in conflict with my morals and aims?”

“The cervidwen are making a magic potion of inspiration,” said the dragon. “Gain that; and give it to me.”

Gryselde asked: “How may I get it, and bring it to you?”

“When you have it, call out that you yield it to me freely,” said the dragon, “and I shall come to you, by the potion’s own power. As for how you are to gain it —” Nil told her, then, what she would have to do; she was not sure that it was entirely true to say that none of it was in conflict with her morals, but still, she could see how to do it.

“My last question,” she said, and paused. Should she ask more about Scaeva? Or about Alys?

One question, that could tell her anything. What did she most wish to know?

Who was she? What mattered?

How shall the world be set in harmony?

She asked: “What can I do for you, to convince you to forgive me for the invocation of the covenant?”

“As you establish your House, as you explore deeper into the dungeon, bring me the items of power that you find,” said Nil. “Let me choose among them, to add to my cabinet. In time, perhaps, if you are willing to yield the magics that please me, I may forgive this humiliation.”

She nodded. “I will swear to that.”

“I do not care for your oaths,” snarled the dragon. It took a deep breath, and fires leapt in its throat. “Ahhh … if you were not going to yield me the potion …”

“Give me Kate,” she said.

“When you fulfill the promise,” said Nil. “I will bring her to you.”

“But what —” started Gryselde.

“Our dialogue is at an end,” rumbled Nil. “Go, or feel my fire.”

What was there to do?

She went, sadder, wiser, knowing more of herself and in more pain, only to find that in her absence many other terrible things had come to pass.


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One Response to “Part 3, Chapter 9: A Dialogue Concerning the Fallibility of Sight”

  1. Perfidius the Rogue

    Oh, tricky old wyrm! Great depiction, here; I almost get a feel of one of Marvel’s Elders of the Universe.

    Good luck, Gryselde.

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