The Fell Gard Codices


William of the Long Road knew they were all about to die. To look down the throat of a dragon is to see your grave and the hell that waits for you. Now this certain death grieved him, for not only was he young and had found an elf-maiden who looked on him with favour, but also he knew enough to feel awe in the presence of a dragon, that was wiser and subtler than mortal thought and was master of the forms of language: for all dragons, though their art is cold and lizardish and so lacks emotion, are lords of metre and rhythm and balance, and did you hear their songs you would weep for the hard perfection of them, like stars seen through winter mountain air. William was singer enough to know all this; and so he was grieved, not only for his death and all that implied, but also that he would not have the occasion to speak to the dragon, and learn from it the secrets of songcraft.

In fact, he knew that the only chance — and oh, how slim a chance it was — for them to avoid fiery death was for him to take action. And that was why, as Enheduanna had distracted the songmaster with her questions, he had set his sword down and taken out his harp. He had it before him now, in his hands, the weight of it and the lines of its frame, that he knew more intimately than his own body and valued more highly. And before the flame washed out over them he brushed the fine strings and began to sing.

William knew the tales of the singers of the past, and how the Archons said that Nossis had sung so that a mountain wept cataracts of tears and the gryphons came at her command; and said too how Hero the divine, touched as he was by the Monad, sang his way to the kingdom of death to recover his dead child, where his music reached even the unbeating heart of Death himself; and how the Invicti said that the revered Coriolanus had sung himself up to the moons and planets to give them the measure by which still they conducted themselves in their courses; and how the Vaettir said that Hvit Egilsson cursed with his song King Audun Keeneye so that Audun became the Blind King; and, above all, he knew how Meilyr predicted his own end and what befell from that, and how the foolish singer Pryderi persisted in his folly and became wise, and especially he knew how Heledd of Powys-Terrwyn had called down a star from heaven and set it in a golden circlet she wore upon her brow; and though William knew full well he was not to be ranked with those legends yet he knew he was of their lineage and tradition, and it was upon him now to do as they had done, and move by his art that which could not be moved by any other means. And so he sang.

He knew, at once, that it was a fair song, and better than fair. This was the performance of his life, as it must be. The words leaped from his throat to hit their notes. His fingers upon the strings moved as they must, and it was not he that moved them but the music itself, acting through his body to be brought into the world. William sang, an old song of the making of the world, and of the seed from which it grew, and of summer and of winter; and it was true art. Under the unblinking eyes of the dragon he sang, and it seemed to him that tears started in the lizardish orbs. He sang, and it was not until Lady Amanos gave a great shout that he realised he had not died.

His heart skipped a beat at that terrible shout of war. His hands froze. As he had sung the others had snuck past him, and now were all around the dragon, in the high arched corridor before the stairs. Amanos’ cry was the signal for them all to strike, with sword and mace and halberd and he hardly knew what all else.

The dragon was quicker than they had thought, and the moment William’s song had stopped it was in motion. Still it was not the creature’s speed which thwarted them, but rather its armour. Amanos brought her sword down on its neck, but the blade did not break through the scales. Ulixa and Gral, striking from behind, found their knives would not penetrate. Nor Gryselde her halberd, nor Ulric his mace.

Only, an arrow punched through the scales near the dragon’s neck, and then another. William turned his head, to see Enheduanna behind him and above, on the stairs, her hornbow in hand; he turned his head back to the corridor; and then the air was full of dragons.

Dragons, as William well knew, were to be revered, for their art and majesty and also their mystery and power. They could work wonders. As the dragon cried out in pain, as it leaped toward him, it seemed two other dragons leaped with it, three dragons all at once. It was impossible, it was terrifying, it was, indeed, wondrous. And quicker than the quickest cat the first dragon was upon him, its claws like white iron, its mouth of fangs — then it was past him, and Enheduanna dodged one claw but not another, and William before he could think about it threw himself upon the dragon’s neck as its jaws closed on the elf-maiden, twisting it slightly so that it bit into her shoulder and not her head. The elven bronze of her armour held, though Enheduanna shouted in pain.

The dragon shook William from its neck. He sprawled on the stairs beside it as Enheduanna drew her sword. He saw the others below attacking the dragons before them. Ulric’s mace, as he watched, passed right through one of the rearing dragons. “Illusions!” cried the old man, his resonant voice echoing in the hallway.

— the dragon breathed fire, full upon the form of Enheduanna.

The pain of her scream was more almost than William could bear to hear. She fell, smouldering, to the floor, and did not move. He scrambled to her, half-standing half-lying above her, between her form and the dragon. He did not know if she was alive or dead. And then he felt himself caught at hip and shoulder, and a tremendous strength carried him up, up, and he panicked as his feet left the ground, kicking at nothing. “Little singer, you’ll sing only for me,” murmured the dragon. “Only for me.”

William cried out as he was whirled through the air, beneath the bulk of the creature. They were flying well over the heads of the others, who had left off fighting the dream-dragons, which could do nothing but rave vainly. He thought: Ah, what a tribute to my skill. It is the greatest praise I have been given in my life.

But he twisted to look back, as the stories claimed had been the downfall of Hero leaving the court of Death; and he saw Enheduanna rise in pain, and take up her bow — which burned with white dragonfire even as she pulled back the string — and then let fly an arrow, that sped straight and true to take the dragon in the back between the wings.

And then they were falling.

The dragon, dying, tried to fly; that was what kept William from being too badly hurt. He fell slowly enough that he was able to roll when he hit the floor. He came up limping, and hobbled to the dragon. It looked at him, and tried to say something; and died. William felt: it has died for me. He thought also: when it leaped past me to claw Enheduanna — why did it not breathe fire on her? Only because I was in the way.

It was a terrible thought. So he turned away, and ran to Enheduanna, under the wings of unreal dragons now circling in the air. She had collapsed. Ulric was by her side. The smell of burnt meat was terrible.

“She is not dead,” he said, to William, to all of them, “not quite. I will stay with her, and pray Urthona sends her health.”

“What can I do?” William asked.

“We should find a secure place to tend to her,” said Amanos in her own tongue.

“We will need a safe place to rest,” said Gryselde. “Was there anything else in the dragon’s lair?”

Most of the others turned at that, and went to investigate the room beyond the secret door. William sat by Ulric, who himself was on one knee, clutching Enheduanna’s hand, his eyes closed, his lips moving constantly, sending out a stream of invocation and poetry. William took her other hand. He did not know what to feel. She had killed something that, to him, had a fragment of divinity in it. And yet in so doing she saved his life. And revenged, perhaps, her own. He did not know what to feel; or else did not want to face in himself what he did feel. He thought: Let it be.

Before long Hochelaga came down the stairs. She had run up to the top of the stairwell when William had begun to sing, which was clever. He expected her to shriek at the sight of Enheduanna’s burns. She did not. Only said, “Elves aren’t like us. She’ll heal all the way back to what she was, and be pretty again. Or else she’ll die.”

“Pretty doesn’t matter,” said William.

“Of course it does,” said Hochelaga. “Nobody writes songs about ugly girls.”

Soon, Ulixa came out to tell them that the dragon’s lair seemed safe. They would move Enheduanna in case some other creature came wandering down the hall. As Ulixa explained, the dragon’s lair had another door, opening onto another passage which ran back to the hall with the fallen ceiling block. “It’s like a loop,” she said. “So we have somewhere to run, either way, if we have to.”

The room was large enough for all of them, twenty or thirty feet to a side. The floor was covered in brass coins that he did not recognise. There was a bow and a quiver of arrows mixed in with the coinage. Also Amanos had found some phials, green glass, which held a liquid she thought was a cureall for poison. And there were flasks of liquid acid. William set the bow and arrows by Enheduanna; no-one objected. He wondered if she would take to the mortal bow. It was one of the true longbows of Powys-Terrwyn; he thought of green trees, of swift cold streams, of mists and bare black crags. He took his seat again by Ulric, as the torches began to gutter. Amanos and Gryselde decided to gather up the torches from the nearby halls, and conserve them for what light they might give later. When they went out the west door, William went back into the eastern corridor, with the stairs, rather than stare at Enheduanna with the muttering Ulric.

He was surprised to see the illusory dragons were still there. And surprised when they turned their heads to look at him. He cleared his throat. “Your master is dead,” he said, pointing to the body. Should it be buried, he wondered. “I think you can go, now.”

“We will go,” one of them said, “in our good time.”

“We were discussing what this death meant,” said the other. “As is the nature of things, we largely disagree about it.”

“Are you both not also dead?” asked William. “Or are you not real enough for that?”

The dragons looked at each other. “We are neither real nor unreal,” said one.

“We are between life and death,” said the other.

“We are images of what the one you killed might have been.”

“We are him, and then also are not; as light is both like a grain of sand on a beach and also like the wave that washes over it.”

“Well, speaking of light, by your leave, I must gather up these torches,” said William.

“Sit with us a while,” said one dragon.

“We wish to hear your song; for which our cousin died,” said the other.

“Maybe in time,” said William, gathering the torches from the high cressets and wrapping them in Enheduanna’s cloak to smother them. The flame singed the cloak not at all.

“All things are in time,” said one dragon.

“Except those that are eternal,” said the other.

“We can tell you the way to rouse the elf-maiden from her sleeping, and have her be well.”

“Only sing for us.”

William turned, his arms full of torches. “Should I believe you?” he asked. “You — your cousin — was killed by her hand.”

The dragons looked at each other; then to him; and then as one said, “We will tell you a piece of our true name.”

William dropped the torches. “Ah,” he said. “I — I had not — that is an unexpected honour, sirs.” He cleared his throat. “I must do as I have promised my peers. That done I will return.”

William gathered the torches from up the stairs, and brought them into what had been the dragon’s lair. He told Hochelaga he would be in the hall outside, and that he was not to be bothered. He took his harp; and went back out into the passage. He found that one dragon, or another, or both, had created a magical light.

“Our name,” said the dragons (one began a statement, another continued, and it soon became impossible to tell them apart), “like all names of all dragons, is a poem; you would call it an epic, of thousands of lines, all we have seen and done and learned. Our name is what we are. Now we are casually known by a line or two of our name, that is particularly significant or emblematic; and you will find it convenient to identify us by a word or two out of those lines. So. To other dragons we are ‘The moon falcate, / Of seven one / Is ever and always itself.’ You may call us Falcate. Now play, as you have promised, and we shall advise you.”

So he played. For how long he played in that corridor, by the glow of dragonlight, he could not afterward say. The dragons listened, both of them, careful and attentive. They were a fine audience. He played for them the mourning of Blagdaross, chief of horses; he played for them the merriness of Jocund Day, the light-bringer. Of course he played for them songs of Ygerna the High Queen, and her magnificent doomed court.

At the end, one of them said “That was fine art, and you are a man of talent.”

The other said: “Still, it was, perhaps, not enough to die for.”

“You have mastered the forms that you have inherited,” said the first.

“But you have not yet developed a form of your own,” said the second.

William set his harp down. “I thank you for your wisdom,” he said. “It is true that I am very young, yet.” Did he feel elated by their acceptance, or hurt by their criticism? He could not say. Nor did he understand what they meant by a form of his own. Forms were given by the generations before you. But —

“You will want to know our advice on the subject of the elf-maiden,” said the first dragon.

“Or do you?” asked the second.

“I do,” he said. The dragons looked at each other; and then at him.

“It is clear from your songs that you have a great love, as mortals are wont to do, for the land of your birth,” said the first dragon.

“It is the land of my fathers,” William said.

“As you like,” said the second dragon. “We are cold-blooded, in this as in other things. Therefore we recommend this: let the elf die.”

“What?” said William. “But — why?”

“Because it is the love for your land that drove your art,” said the first dragon.

“Therefore, if you were to come to love the elf-woman, you would have a love that works against your true love,” said the second.

“If she lives, you may, sooner or later, have to choose between your loves,” said the first.

“Lest you make the wrong choice then, better that she dies now,” said the second. William shook his head.

“That is not a choice I can make,” he said. “All that you say is true, or may be; but I cannot choose her death for my own love.”

The first dragon asked: “What is your name?”

He did not understand, but said: “William of the Long Road.”

The second dragon said: “No; your true name.”

He stood, clutching the harp. “How do you know?” he asked.

“We are dragons,” they said. “We are only neophytes among our kind; but we are yet wise beyond all your race. Tell us your name.”

He glanced back to the door into the former lair. “I have sworn never to give it to a man or woman not of Powys-Terrwyn,” he said.

“Let it go, then,” said the first.

“But will you tell it to her, if she asks?” demanded the second.

“Ah, but men have lied to women before,” said the first, “and then, she will be dead less than a year hence.”

“Also in another world it is said that men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them,” said the second dragon, “but not for love.”

“Do you want to revive the elf-maiden?” asked the first. “Then play your music, alongside the prayers of the prophet of Urthona; the spirit of the living imagination will hear, and give his follower power.”

“This we tell you to gain our revenge, on you and her, for our cousin’s death,” said the second. “Go now; and bring about her death, or else raise her up, and lie with her.”

“Your words have turned bitter to me,” he told them.

“We are dragons,” they answered. He left them in the hall.

Ulric was mumbling his prayers beside Enheduanna, who was still as grave-mould. William sat, and took out his harp. He stared at the strings, that glittered in the single torch yet burning.

Were the dragons right?

He could not let her die. Could he?

Dragons were masters of art. And they were wise. If they had done this — if they had told him what they had told him — purely for revenge, then revenge was what they would have. What pain would he cause for himself and Enheduanna?

No-one knew what they had told him, he realised. He could, in fact, do nothing.

And then, of course, there was also the matter of Gryselde.

No, never mind that. It was not relevant. He sighed, and drew closer to Enheduanna.

Say that the dragons were right. Say that they were correct in everything. Still they were cold, as they themselves had said. They did not know the heart of a mortal man from the inside. They did not know by what means he wrought his art.

He brushed the strings of his harp. It was not right, he felt, to say that art came from pain. But it came from wisdom, which perhaps was inseparable from pain, as much as it did from talent or knowledge of form. So he believed.

Let be what would, he decided. Let him suffer, let the dragons have their revenge. He would outlast it. And from the pain he would work a lasting art, and maybe it would serve, in part, as a monument to the murder of the dragon; to all their sins.

“Speak louder,” he said to Ulric. The old man glanced at him, surprised; but his chant grew more powerful. William listened, caught a rhythm in his words that the old man himself may not have known was there — fourteen syllables, iambic, therefore breaking down into ballad metre — and began to play.

And Enheduanna’s wounds began to vanish before his eyes; and before long she awoke with a little gasp, and looked at him, smiling. “You have brought me back,” she said.

And he to her, smiling: “The prophet here has healed you,” he said. “But I will take your praise.”

And may you never know my true name. He glanced quickly over to Gryselde, who was observing them. And may she never know what I know, or think that I know.

Else I must see her dead.


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