The Fell Gard Codices


Kate took out her dagger when she heard the fight start north of the round room. She was scared, a little, and also she wanted to be there with Domini killing the nasty cobolds. Why wasn’t the witch-girl going there to cast spells on them? Or sending her new cat to kill them? Kate was a little surprised Paradox and Yune weren’t going there either, since they were big. Well, she thought, Yune wasn’t big, but he was old, which was close. She decided he must have already done all his fighting, the way the old knights at table talked about their fighting days being done. But what about Paradox?

She stopped thinking when she heard footfalls, running fast. Then two of the monsters burst into the round room where they were all waiting. They were skinny, with blue flesh and yellow eyes brighter than a cat’s, and terrible long arms that reached out for her. Before she could scream or stab with her knife one of them had caught her up and she was being held so tight she couldn’t move. And then she was being carried away.

They were out of the torchlight almost at once. It was very dark. She couldn’t see anything. She managed to get a scream out, but the cobold clouted her on the side of her head. After a minute she tried shouting again. The cobold hit her harder. Then they stopped running. Kate saw a light coming behind her. She heard Domini shout her name, and shouted back. This time the cobold gripped her so tightly she almost couldn’t breathe, and she stopped. The wall opened in front of the cobolds. They ran, and ran, and ran. Kate, dizzy and afraid, tried to tell herself that if the cobolds kept running it was because they were afraid too; because Domini and the knight and the rest of them were giving chase. But she didn’t know that. Not really. Maybe Domini and the others were dead.

Kate began to cry, trying to be as quiet as she could so she didn’t get hit again.

She didn’t know how long they ran. It was all dark, except here and there a patch of moss or lichen glowed a little. The cobolds seemed to change direction a lot, and she thought even if she could have seen where they were going she’d have gotten lost. Once they ran through a lot of cobwebs, and it sounded like the sounds the cobolds made — their little grunts, whispers she didn’t understand, the never-stopping quick footsteps — echoed in a big space. They ran on, and turned, and ran more, and then one of them spoke words that seemed made of hisses and screeches, and something else whispered back in a different voice. She didn’t think it was a cobold, and she wasn’t even sure it was speaking a real language. The cobolds muttered to each other and even they seemed unsure. But she didn’t dare shout for help. She figured she wouldn’t get any help anyway. And then the cobolds ran on again, for a fair time, through doors and around turns, and they came at last to a big cave with fires burning in it.

The fires were very bright, and they were white like silver or the First Moon. They danced and jumped just above a pool of water which made a circle in the north part of the cave. The cave walls were dark and slick with water-drops. The ceiling was full of needles of rock. There were lots of cobolds, Kate thought a dozen or more, all standing before the pool and the white fire. They were waiting for them. It was very quiet in the cave. Shadows were everywhere, and always moving.

There was a taste in the air Kate didn’t know but which felt a bit like the incense Deacon Anselmus sometimes used when he chanted a Ring. It was very quiet. It was quieter than it should have been, somehow.

The cobolds brought Kate up to the edge of the pool of water. The light was very bright. She didn’t feel any heat, though. One of the waiting cobolds stepped forward and took her from the one that held her. Kate didn’t struggle or try to get away. Where could she run to? Anyway, the truth was that she was too scared.

The cobold who held her now was the biggest one of them all. He stepped toward the pool, and shouted something. He lifted her up over his head. She got even more scared, thinking he was going to throw her in.

But then there was a ripple on the pool, and the flames shook, and the ripples grew, and there were more of them, and they grew until they were waves rolling over the surface of the pool; and then, at their heart, a shape rose up from the waters.

It looked like a cobold, but Kate knew it wasn’t. It didn’t feel like one of them, any more than an angel felt like a man (she imagined). It was taller, and stronger, and its eyes were brighter. They had inside them the same white fire that flickered over the pool. Its skin was like deep blue rock, and where the skin was darkest, Kate thought she could see stars, as though looking at it was like looking up to an endless night sky. It wore finer armour than the other cobolds: the hide was white, with bones and horn plates over most of it.

The thing stepped forward, and took Kate from the smaller cobold. Then it breathed out a thick blue mist, and the smaller cobold fell. Kate did not dare to move. The creature lifted her like she was no more than a leaf.

Then it stared into her eyes, and Kate felt everything change, beginning with herself.

Her arms felt too long, then too short. She felt sick in her stomach. She felt cold, then warm. She felt her breath going somewhere other than her lungs. It felt a little like waking up, but more like slipping into a dream.

Memories began to whirl about in her head. Eating flawn at table, the taste of custard, the texture of cheese-cake. The way Nurse smelled when Kate was drifting away to sleep in her arms. The dust on the road to Dwarrowcroft, watching the sun slip between peaks, the smell of horses, her father’s household moving (how often they moved) from one manor to another. Watching the show the baron’s boys had put on for her that one time, when they played at being huntsmen, and tracked down the cat which they dedicated to her as Queen of the Hunt, and how it had made her feel when they presented her with its corpse, the warm in her legs, the boiling in her stomach. The pale skin of the clerk teaching her Darvartha, and Wican, and Vitelic, and the history of her lands that had never been conquered by either the Vættir or the Grey Kings; the feel of the words, how she had to move her tongue against her teeth to make different sounds in different languages. Adalbert swinging her around in the air for joy the day after he’d finished his vigil, the dizzy whirl.

All these things were a part of her, in her flesh and in her bone. And they began to change, to slip away, even as flesh and bone began to change. Kate realised then that her body was not something fixed, but that it grew and would decay, and would always change in time, and so she would change with it; and that change was now being forced.

Her arms grew longer. Some of her teeth fell out and the rest grew sharper. Her skin grew darker, and blue.

“Challenge! Weakling, I name you!”

And these changes stopped.

“I challenge you!”

Kate felt herself lowered. She looked back, past the cobolds around the pool, in the direction the voice had come. The cave seemed lighter; or not lighter, but the dark didn’t seem to matter as much. Anyway she saw the tall man, Geoffrey she thought was his name — Geoffrey was also the name of the man who had been her father, she remembered — striding towards the pool, shouting in the hissing language of the underground, glaring at Blæcalx.

(How did she know that name? She understood it. Just as she now understood the language of cobolds and the language of their kin and the language of the deep dark. Blæcalx was the god of these cobolds, the dweller in the fires of the pool. One of his servants had offered him Kate, praying to be made a champion strong enough to strike down her people. But Blæcalx instead struck down the weak servant with his breath. Do you wish a champion, he had said, then I shall make for you a champion.)

Blæcalx set Kate down and roared at Geoffrey, Come!

The big man ran at him.

Kate knew (how did she know?) that it was wrong to interfere in a challenge, and so she crawled to the edge of the pool, and watched. She knew two other things at once. A challenge was a part of the natural order of things, and would show who was strongest and best. Also, that there was something important for her in the fight, and in who won.

There was a mortal girl sobbing, beyond the cobolds, who had made a guarded ring about the pool. The mortal girl wanted to run forward, but a dwarf was holding her back. Kate knew that she loved the girl, but wasn’t sure why, or what love was, exactly. She knew that dwarves were cruel, and all of them ought to be killed.

Geoffrey reached the pool, and ran into the fires without stopping. He roared as he took three great steps to reach Blæcalx, who himself was waiting for Geoffrey. But the mortal man struck quicker than the spirit in the pool had thought. His doubled fists crashed into the side of Blæcalx’s skull. The great spirit fell below the flames. Geoffrey bent to clutch him. But Blæcalx rose somehow, seeming to stand and stride right through the big man.

Geoffrey spun around, and stepped back. Blæcalx reached out for him as he moved, and he stumbled on something under the surface of the pool. He ducked away from Blæcalx but fell to one knee. The great spirit reached out again with his long arms, but Geoffrey threw himself backward, gaining his feet. He grinned like a wolf. “Too slow, rock-shitter,” he said, in Wican.

“You run fast,” said Blæcalx in the underground tongue. The two of them circled about the pool. Blæcalx had a cut on his head from Geoffrey’s first attack, and a black mist drifted out of the wound. But as Kate watched, the cut sealed. Blæcalx was powerful, she knew. She did not see how the mortal could survive.

Then Geoffrey darted forward. He was more nimble than most big men. He tried to get Blæcalx in an arm-grip. Kate had seen Odilo do the same, many times. But Blæcalx would not be caught so easily. He slipped Geoffrey’s grasp. He tried to grip Geoffrey himself, but the big man threw him back.

There was a sharp delicious smell that Kate had noticed several times. Now she saw what it was. Geoffrey was bleeding from his leg and a bit from his side. Blæcalx did not hurry to attack Geoffrey, knowing that the man was weakening. When Geoffrey made a feint toward him, Blæcalx ducked away to take up a double handful of water, with small candle-like white flames still above it, which he threw at the mortal man. The man fell back as the fire burst into a pale splatter of light near his eyes. “Coward,” said Geoffrey in Wican, and then said “Weakling, I name you!” in the underground tongue.

Blæcalx stopped circling. Geoffrey charged him. Blæcalx waited until he was close and then breathed out a thick dark blue mist. Geoffrey stopped his attack and ducked. Blæcalx reached for him with his long arms, but Geoffrey spun off to the side. When he was clear of the mist he took a long ragged breath. Then he leaped at the pool-spirit — but no, it was a feint, and he was shifting to the side as Blæcalx lunged for him. Geoffrey let him go past and then stepped in to hook him under the arms, and clasped his hands behind Blæcalx’s neck. He laughed as he forced the spirit’s head down deeper toward his chest.

Blæcalx writhed, trying to break the man’s grip. But Geoffrey only roared and lifted the spirit up from the water, drawing his head tighter to his chest the while. Blæcalx twisted one way, then another, but Geoffrey had him in too strong a grip.

And then the spirit straightened up, and walked back through the mortal man as though he was not there. As though he was no more than a ghost, unsolid.

But then Blæcalx became a solid thing again, and Geoffrey, whirling, threw himself on the spirit and bore him down into the waters. There were several seconds of thrashing, and Geoffrey roared, and then they were both underwater.

For a moment the waters trembled.

Then they burst upward in a great spray, and the white fires licked up to the ceiling, before dying back down.

Geoffrey was standing, slowly, holding Blæcalx. The spirit’s neck dangled weirdly. His body was beginning to turn to dark mist. Geoffrey glared at the cobolds beyond the circle, his teeth bared in a horrible grin. His eyes flashed, reflecting white fires. He threw Blæcalx down, outside the pool. “I win,” he said in Wican. “I am strongest!” The cobolds were silent, staring at him. “Serve me!” Geoffrey shouted in the underground tongue. One by one, the cobolds knelt. Geoffrey laughed. Kate knelt.

After a little while someone took her shoulders. “Kate?” a voice breathed.

Kate looked up. “Dom-in-i?” she said, sounding out the name like she’d never said it before. She hadn’t, with this mouth. But it was her sister, her gold hair, her round face. Her sister, crying.

“Oh, Kate,” she said, “oh, oh, what have they done to you?”

“Watch,” said the lady knight behind her. “She has claws.”

“I do?” said Kate. She looked at her hands. Suddenly, with Domini beside her, it seemed like the whole thing with Blæcalx had been a dream. But it hadn’t. Her flesh was blue, like a cobold’s. She could see through darkness, like they could. She could smell things. And she felt things differently. She couldn’t say how. But when she stood she found herself hunching like the cobolds did, because that was how her bones were shaped now. “I feel well.”

“Oh, Kate,” whispered Domini. “What shall we do?”

The knight, Amanos, stared down at her, unsure. “Do you know your name?” she asked at last, in Darvartha.

“I am Katherine, daughter of Geoffrey, King of Aurelium,” she said at once. “This is my sister, Domini. You are the Lady Amanos.” She waved a hand, feeling sick. It was hard to say the f-sound in her father’s name, since her new teeth nearly punctured her lip when she tried. “I haven’t been changed that much.” And the th-sound wasn’t right, either, since she wasn’t able to find a properly flat part of her teeth to put her tongue against; they were all sharp, for tearing meat. She didn’t bother to point out how she remembered mortal language, even Darvartha, which she had hated learning because it had six different kinds of words for things — six different genders, they said, but it didn’t have to do with boys or girls, but six different categories for how much life something had in it. Kate wondered now where she fit. Was she people, or was she dar, a bad thing?

“Paradox!” called Domini. “Hochelaga! One of you — change her back!”

But they were shaking their heads as they came forward. “I can do no more healing until the stars align,” said Paradox. “And even then … this is who she is, now.”

“I could change her back,” said Hochelaga. “I mean … if I were a better wizard. I will be able to change her back. When I’m older and I know more.”

“How long will that be?” shouted Domini. “Will she be an old maid of a cobold? Will she be senile? How long do cobolds live? Oak and Holly, you’re useless! Useless!”

“Domini!” said Amanos sharply. To Hochelaga, whose face had crumpled up, she said in Darvartha, “Do you know what it was that Geoffrey fought?”

Hochelaga jerked her head up and down once. Then again, tears running from her eyes. Kate remembered tears, but it was a strange memory. She didn’t think she could cry anymore. “It an,” said Hochelaga, and stopped. She mopped her face with the arm of her robe. “It egregore,” she said. “Leastsmall egregore.”

“Domini,” said Amanos, “have her explain in Wican, and translate for me.”

Hochelaga sighed. “An egregore is a spirit of a group,” she said. “It could be any kind of group. It’s a story, or the way the group … thinks about itself? Like when you’re with people, and you think there’s one more person than you can count. That’s an egregore, that person you can’t find. Well, sometimes, under the right circumstances, when there’s a lot of magic, maybe, you can find them. They can take the shape of a story, like a story that the group tells about itself, or that’s important to the group. A really big story would make a really powerful egregore. A small group makes a small one. So I guess, um, two dozen cobolds? They made that egregore, which Geoffrey was able to kill. But bigger egregores are like legends. They can’t be stopped.”

Domini repeated all this to Amanos. Kate noticed that Hochelaga had stopped crying while she explained; the smell of salt was less. It was strange, the smells around her. It was another world, stronger than sight. She could smell Hochelaga’s invisible cat, if not quite enough to tell where it was; things like that. Amanos nodded as Domini talked. “Then Geoffrey has made himself a stronger story than that least of gods,” she murmured. “Do not tell him.”

“Is it a dire secret?” asked Domini, surprised.

“No,” said Amanos. “But if he understands this, we’ll never hear the end of it.”

Amanos led them to the others, Geoffrey and the dwarves. Geoffrey, speaking with the help of the dwarves, ordered the cobolds to bring forth all their treasures. Kate realised he didn’t speak the tongue of the deep dark, not really. He’d only been made to parrot the right words at the right time to make the ritual of the challenge work. Did that make it a cheat? The cobolds set before Geoffrey an old suit of armour made of metal bands, a dagger, a silver brooch with a gemstone in it, and a lot of gold coins. And then they brought more coins. And some more. Hundreds of them. Geoffrey started to laugh.

“Kingdoms have been built on less,” he said.

“How much of that can you carry?” asked Amanos.

Geoffrey stopped laughing and looked at the pile. He ran his hand through his heavy black-and-white beard. “The question,” he said, “is how much can they carry.” He nodded to the cobolds. “They’re my servants, now,” he said. “So, maybe I should ask … what do I do with you, lady? Eh? Since now I outnumber you.”

Amanos said nothing. Gral spat. Kate hissed.

Geoffrey laughed. “Well, for the moment I’m still stronger with you than without,” he said. “If the boy can heal, then you’re worth keeping around. Let’s go back and wait for the rest of your people.”

They went, Geoffrey first, surrounded by the cobolds. He showed no fear of them. Kate understood why. She felt it herself. The need to serve the strongest one. “I’m not going to,” she whispered as she walked. “I’m not a cobold. I’m a princess. I’m not a cobold. I’m not!

She felt hands on her shoulders and hissed. But it was just Domini. “You’re not,” she said. “We’ll find a way to get you back, Kate. We will.”

“If not,” she heard Gral say, as he thumbed his broadsword and glared at Geoffrey’s cobolds, “I will handle matters.”

Kate didn’t say anything more as they walked. She wondered how she could have been so confused, so blind, when she was carried through the halls before. Every step, it seemed, there were new smells, traces on the air. The stones all around them, a little different everywhere, filled with veins of colour. She could see the top of the ceiling, now, how it was carved into patterns. It was very clever, she thought.

The round room was empty; the others weren’t yet back. Geoffrey had his cobold put the torch they were using back in the hand of the gargoyle at the centre. “Well!” he said. “Now what shall we do while we wait?”

“Have them tell us where they found food,” said Amanos, but Kate heard something.

“Shh!” she said, urgently.

“What’s this?” asked Geoffrey.

“Something’s coming,” she said. “From the north, can’t you hear — oh, no.” The cobolds started to hiss and cry out.

“Fortune and fate,” cursed Gral, who could see in the dark, though not as well as she could. He took out his sword. “Run, clockmaster. I will hold them, so long as I can.”

Geoffrey and Amanos turned as at least a score of goblins burst into the room from the north. “Draw weapons, and follow me!” cried Geoffrey, as he leaped to the attack. But even as his cobolds joined him goblin archers fired a half-dozen arrows into the cobolds. They began to fall. One arrow caught Geoffrey near the wound in his side, and he gasped.

There were too many of them to fight, but there was no time to run. Kate hissed and ran forward. The goblins were everywhere in the room, racing up the walls, jumping at the cobolds, at Geoffrey, at Amanos. One attacked Hochelaga but the cat Concordia Salus, suddenly visible, leapt at its face, yowling. Kate felt strength in her arms. Her long cobold arms. These were her enemies. She knew she could help.

She found a goblin, and jumped at him, swinging her clawed hands. She missed. He swung his short sword at her, and also missed. (It wasn’t that orderly. Everything was happening at once. She smelled blood everywhere. It was very fast but then also very slow.)

The goblin in front of her chuckled. Kate hated herself that she could understand it. Meanwhile the other goblins ran at them, leaping from the walls. Half the cobolds fell in that charge, dead or wounded. At least half. Geoffrey killed a goblin. Kate glimpsed Domini standing over a fallen goblin with Odilo’s axe in her hands.

And then the other goblins put away their bows and joined the fight. The rest of the cobolds fell. Roaring, Geoffrey killed another goblin but was cut again, in his off-hand arm. Amanos struck a goblin down. Kate leaped at the goblin before her, sobbing.

She missed him. Her new arms were not long enough.

Everywhere around her, the goblins closed in.


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