The Fell Gard Codices

Part 3, Chapter 17: Worduse

September 5th, 2011


It was a disgraceful wordwar, thought Amanos, but at the end of the argument Sir Hugh agreed to allow their wounded into the hollyoak godshouse, along with his own. “If an attack indeed comes,” he had said, according to Surere.

In her own skullsdark Amanos agreed with his doubt. Better prepare for the war that does not come, than come to a war unprepared, she reminded herself.

Leaving Hugh, she went to the space between the hollyoak godshouse and a small cottage where awaited her mismatched reserve force of stagman, goblinkin, girlwizards, and more. The deerladies were brewing their bubbling potion in their ironpot, and the air was smokeflavoured, rich and strongspiced. Ulric watched, dreambound. Geoffrey was laughing and joking with the men in Hugh’s reserve nearby, who themselves seemed to be hanging on his every word. “What’s he saying to them?” Amanos asked Surere.

“They’re wordwounding each other,” Surere said. “They’re joking with him about his fornication with the huldrawoman. He’s telling them it is a tragedy, because … because now he will not be able to fornicate with the townswomen, as they, having seen his manhood, will fear the size of it.” She shrugged. “I admit, my words don’t catch his humour.”

“Some causes are hopeless,” said Amanos. Surere regarded her, browraised.

“Mylady,” she said, “we are humble shadowplayers, and yet I feel —”

There came a cheer from the north. Geoffrey tilted his head, grinned wolflike, then came to Amanos and said, “Aura reports her liegelord has returned. All six elves and the ladywizard —” he spun as more noise came from the north. After a moment Amanos heard the shortword Wican tongue come from the air beside Geoffrey — and why did the elemental not speak Darvartha? she wondered; but perhaps it was a function of the worduse of the wizard Scaeva, that had summoned her — and the big man said: “There are goblins, attacking.”

Amanos wished she could lead a horseback charge against the goblinkin; but this was not that sort of war, and her honourduty was otherwise. “Let’s go,” said Geoffrey.

“We wait,” she said.

“For what?” he demanded. “We did not know where the swordblow would land; it’s come in the north. Let’s fight!”

“And if there’s more?” she said. “We wait. Few warriors can fight at one time before a narrowarch, anyway. Wait.”

Geoffrey made a noise deep in his throat, and turned to glare north. Amanos toothtore her cheek. Sir Hugh was of her mind, as well, for good or ill, she noted.

“Sybil,” she called. The name strangesounded; but the girl came. Amanos had Geoffrey tell the girl to ask Hodekin again if he would fight goblinkin, or if he would rather walkforth southward. Hodekin’s answer, as before, was that he held no kin; that these goblins would kill him, and he they.

The wizard Tilde stumbled toward them. She began to speak quickly, Geoffrey and Surere translating: goblins had closefollowed, hobgoblins after them. Gryselde was seeing to the defense in the north. The woodshield that covered the arch was ready at need; but the elves and other bowmen were quickfiring, and for all their warshrieks the first goblins had retreated. Then the hobgoblins had come down the hall. Now all was confusion.

Sybil had been translating into Ibia, for Hodekin and Monoloke; now Hodekin grunted, and said something. Sybil said it in Wican and then Surere in Vartha: “Hobgoblins will bow to goblins,” she said. “It is inbuilt in the language they share. Goblins have commandwords. The confusion will not last.”

“Aura!” cried Amanos. No answer. She looked about. They must hear this at the north, she thought. She longed to bring the word herself, to enter the wargame, the bloodshed. But no. “Geoffrey,” she said. “Run. Tell them. They must strike now to throw the goblins back.”

Geoffrey grinned again, and ran. He was fast, longstriding.

Words came from the air. Surere said: “There are many of the hobgoblins northward, and the goblins are retreating back through them. The elfarrows are keeping them from the threshold.” Amanos grunted. “Mylady,” said Surere, “is this … well, it is strange, isn’t it, a knight of Shivartha defending a hollyoak town?”

“I have done nothing of highworth yet,” Amanos said. She shook her head. “A rightwise trueknight does more than what they are oathbound to perform, shadowplayer. They do what is just, and nobleseeming.” Surere nodded.

“These are brightminded words,” she said.

“Is it so?” murmured Amanos, staring northwards. Did she hear swordclashes? No; still only arrowflights, and goblinscreams. “I will tell you, Surere. I fear I am no longer a knight of Shivartha. I have seen my colours degraded. Through a windowarch, while standing in Fell Gard, I saw it. Was it a trueseeming, I wonder? So I bethought it.”

“A true thing may also be a show, Lady Amanos,” said Surere, “and so a falseseeming, for all its truth. We shadowplayers know this.”

Amanos turned to her; but Geoffrey returned as she did. “The hobgoblins still, ah, millabout in the hall,” he said. “There is a door there, some fortyfoot north and east of the cavemouth; they tried to reach it, for shelter, and the elfarrows drove them back. But there is another passageway, say eightyfoot past the cavemouth. Beyond the elven darksight. The goblins seem to have backfallen to there.”

“Retreated,” murmured Surere. “There is no such compoundword as backfallen.”

“That’s one, then,” said Geoffrey. “Did I hear you name yourself Surere?” The word meant, literally, ‘love.’

“Indeed,” said the shadowplayer. Geoffrey wolfgrinned.

“After the swordplay,” he said, “you and I must sharespeech, woman. I’ve surere of my own, if you wish it.”

“Will they attack northward?” asked Amanos. “Will Gryselde push against the goblins?”

Geoffrey shook his head. “Too many hobgoblins. No moonslight down the hall, too.”

Amanos considered the options, toothtearing her lip. “There may be a way,” said Surere. “If light —”

“One comes,” interrupted one of the male shadowplayers (Narhedi, his name was). He pointed, airwards. Kwangrolar was flying toward them at great speed.

A moment Amanos was slackjawed at the sight of a flying man; she felt a deep boneache for the freedom of flight. Then the glumm was by them, speaking quickly. Sybil and Hochelaga began to pepper him with questions but Geoffrey roared them silent. He told Amanos: “The orcs come with an arrowshield they made of treetrunks. The eastwardens have barred the door, and are retreating, but the orcs will breakthrough soon.”

“An arrowshield,” muttered Amanos. “Describe it.”

Geoffrey spoke with Kwangrolar. “A tenfoot tall, maybe a twelveinch thick,” he said. “Some arrowflights punch through, but not hard enough. They shoot overtop, but cannot aim well.”

“The fallback position is no help, then,” murmured Amanos. “The passageway should be abandoned … is there just one screen?” Geoffrey spoke to Kwangrolar, and nodded. “Bowmen in the woods can strike from the sides,” said Amanos. She looked again to the east. “Or …” she said to herself, eyeing the towertop above the woods near the easthall. A perfect hardpoint to defend; a wonderful place for a bowman or two. “Geoffrey,” she said, “have Hochelaga go to Sir Hugh. Tell him all this orcmatter. Tell him also I will require the stonetower.”

“That’s a freeholding,” he said. “Not his to give.” He spoke to Hochelaga, who ran off.

“Go to the tower,” Amanos told Geoffrey. “Tell whoever dwells there we’ve need of it. And invite Sir Hugh’s men to move their position back, so our archers will have a freefire field.” Geoffrey shrugged, and ran off. “Surere,” she went on, “have Kwangrolar tell the bowmen to retreat into the forestcave, and spread about. Be ready if I send Aura with more word.” She did this, and Kwangrolar flew away as Hochelaga returned.

“He wordspeech he will no insend his reserve yetnow,” the girl told her. Amanos nodded.

“I understand,” said Amanos. “Nor I, quite yet.” No; not yet. She stared northward. Though it seemed the fighting went well there. If need be …

“Are you a chessplayer?” asked Surere.

Amanos thought of the magic board, the mandrake. Like and unlike war. “Some,” she said.

“One must sacrifice, at times,” the shadowplayer said.

“We’re not at that point, yet,” said Amanos.

“No,” Surere agreed. “But King Soromapatha may have been.” Amanos stared at the shadowplayer. “Consider also the pawn,” Surere said, “that must advance square upon square, unnoticed, to become queen.”

“I don’t understand,” said Amanos. “And who are you to tell me the king’s mind? Wait.”

Geoffrey was coming at a run. “The freeholder won’t open the towerdoor to us,” he called. “Should we cut her down, force our way in?”

Amanos looked north. “Take me to her,” she said. “Tell Aura to follow also. I’ll speak to the freeholder. Surere, you come with me; the rest, stay. Tell Tilde that if Sir Hugh should demand, she has command in my absence. Quick now.”

She led Geoffrey and Surere to the tower at a run, passing briefly into the darkness of the forest. A knot of frightened swordsmen watched them; Hugh’s men, illtrained townsfolk, hiding behind treetrunks about a hundredfoot straightaway from the cavemouth. They had their woodscreen for the archway; Amanos cursed, and told Geoffrey to tell them not to use it — the orcs would just batter through it, and the men that held it would risk arrowwounds. Leaving him to argue with the swordsmen, she went on with Surere to the tower twenty feet or so south. A small onestory stonehouse extended away from the towerbase; a silvermaned woman awaited their coming at a door.

“Greet her fairly,” Amanos said to Surere as they drew near.

“Thank you; but still, I’m afraid the tower is mineown,” the woman said in passable Darvartha. Amanos stopped a tenfoot away, and bowed to her.

“I am the Lady Amanos, and I strive to guard your town,” she said. “Orcs approach. Your tower would be a useful vantagepoint for our bowmen.”

“I am Yllaria of the College Wintergate,” said the woman. “I’m afraid I have many highminded doings in that tower, that would be disrupted by the careless.”

“We will not be careless,” said Amanos. The woman laughed, not cruelly.

“I think we have not time for me to teach you not to be careless,” she said.

“I ask your help in protecting your home,” Amanos said.

Yllaria sighed. “I understand,” she said. “Yet I must refuse.”

“The Wicans say ‘sages must have their secrets,’” Surere said.

“Why, that’s true, you know,” agreed Yllaria. “But the other side of that is that sages know that it’s dangerous to look into secrets. You never know what you’ll find. Or else they wouldn’t be secret.”

Amanos was about to argue further, when the eastwardens ran into the cave. She turned. The cavemouth was not far to her left, fortyyards or so. She watched John and Diccon and the others set themselves in the woods, ready to fire at the narrow treeless space before the arch. Yune ran towards her, accompanied by Kwangrolar, as Gral set himself to the left hand of the arch and Alkahest the right. A sound behind her: Geoffrey was running up, headnodding.

“They will leavebe the shield,” he called.

“Tell Yune and Kwangrolar to go to Tilde and the reserves,” said Amanos to Surere. “I’ll join them shortly.” To Yllaria, she said: “You must let us into the tower, or I fear you and all the town will regret it, and that soon.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” the old woman agreed. “One is sad for so many things in one’s life, you know.”

Amanos shook her head. She could have Geoffrey fight his way in. There were young men behind Yllaria; but she and he together could overcome them. Would that be an action of a trueborn knight? Ah, that was a jestingsick thought: was she trueborn?

No, nevermind that. Nevermind any of it. They were not at that point, not yet.

“I wish you joy of the orcs,” said Amanos, as a howling came from the easthall. She drew her sword as Yllaria slammed her door. Geoffrey drew his blade also. She started to lead him back to the reserves, and then the orcs ran into the cave.

A dozen of them, blueskinned, some arrowpierced. The leader had a huge arrowshot screen of hidebound treetrunks; the beast threw the shield aside, and screamed wordless rage as it ran straightahead. Toward the tower, toward Sir Hugh’s men, toward her. Hugh’s men fired arrows; most missed, and the orc did not flinch at the ones that struck it. “Geoffrey, come,” Amanos said, and ran to meet the orc.

It drew a massive greatsword and swung at her as she approached it. But she was too fast. “Varthaaa!” she screamed. Her sword chopped into the muscles of the thing’s torso. It screamed, and then Geoffrey was on it also, his sword cutting deep into its side. Its dark blood sprayed them both, but it did not fall.

Instead it howled and lashed out with its sword, just as Amanos hacked again at its stomach. Her sword drove through its guts and scraped against its spine. But its own sword smashed into her right shoulder, and she could hear her collarbone and shoulderbone snap as blackness claimed her.

A moment later she was opening her eyes. Surere was kneeling over her. What had happened? Why was she on the ground?

Amanos gasped and sat up. There was no pain. She touched her right shoulder with her left hand. Mail links were snapped and bent, but the flesh was unbroken. “How —” she said. She looked at Surere, who smiled.

“We will speak later,” she said.

“You’re a veilpriestess,” Amanos said, awed. “Travelling with players — then what you said about sacrifice —”

“Your friend is in trouble,” said Surere (Mam Surere, thought Amanos, she is a priestess). Amanos looked where she pointed. Geoffrey and the dwarves were fighting an orc. Both Geoffrey and the blueskinned thing were bleeding copiously. As she watched, Alkahest stabbed it from behind through a kidney and Gral drove his broadsword up through its bowels and at the same time the orc was swinging its sword which struck Geoffrey in the skull. The big man fell as the orc died.

“Geoffrey!” she cried.

The dwarves picked up the fallen man, and ran toward her. Elsewhere — where were the rest of the Eastwardens? “The hollyoak priest John commanded they flee,” said the veilpriestess. “The orcs were too fast.”

“Then where —” she began; but paused as a trumpet blew. Sir Hugh’s five men nearby ran toward the sound. To the north. “Hugh commits his reserve,” she muttered. “To where, though?”

A high-pitched voice in midair began speaking quickly in Wican. Amanos froze, then remembered Aura. “Five orcs went that way,” said Mam Surere, pointing north. “As many are going south.” Amanos nodded. She thought she could hear them, now, crackling through the brush. The northern orcs would be approaching Sir Hugh’s manor; no wonder he’d ordered his men to battle.

“Tell Aura to send our reserves to join Hugh’s fight,” she said. “I’ll meet them at the manor. The dwarves should bring Geoffrey to Ulric, then go to the manor also.” She waited, headnodding, as the priestess translated. When she was done, Amanos began “Now, for you —” and then paused. The veilpriestess was staring past her at the cavemouth.

“What are they?” Surere whispered.

Amanos spun, to see small manlike things in overlarge greyblack cloaks spilling out from the hall. “Darklings,” she muttered. “Aura!” There was no answer; of course, she’d just sent the sylph to the reserves. “Strings and shadows,” Amanos cursed. “Surere, go to Ulric! Warn the town! I’ll find our reserves!” And the folk in the tower can suffer, she thought, as she ran northward.

Despite all, she could not help but think: a veilpriestess. It should not have been surprising. It was said they travelled with shadowplayers, and slipped parables into their plays. They were the random factor in the hierarchy of the Perfects. Their strings were cut, so it was said, and they could help free others from the curses of flesh and destiny. If so, then what Surere had said, of pawns and queens …

Is there hope for me yet? she thought. She was surprised to find that the sudden possibility frightened her; like a ghost, pulled back to its body and life anew.

Then Amanos reached the manorhouse, and banished these natterling thoughts to concentrate again on war.

The thick pinetrees made archery difficult; four orcs were among the treetrunks, sheltered from arrowflights, howling at Hugh’s men. One orc, bristling with arrows, lay dead on the clearground between the manorhouse and its outbuildings — henhouse, granary, latrines. Two men were crumpled near him. Sir Hugh had his company gathered in two lines before the manorhouse, a row of pikemen and a row of archers. Amanos noticed that to her left, as she approached, the treeline turned south. There was a cottage just past it, at an interesting angle. One of the orcs heard her, and turned.

Good. The terrain had inspired her. She had a plan.

“Here’s where we see how thoughtless you are,” she muttered. The blueskins had not yet recovered their throwingspears; that was a start. One of them barked an order. They chased her, howling. Amanos broke left, racing around the beasts. She burst out from under the trees, racing for the cottage — whose walls would screen her from the archers. Hugh’s men watched her run. “Shoot!” she screamed to the Wican archers. “Shoot them, damn you!”

She was almost surprised when they began to fire. A rain of arrows struck the orcs. All of them were hit, twice, three times, one of them four times —

— none of them fell.

“Strings and shadows,” whispered Amanos again, drawing her sword. And then as the orcs reached the shelter of the cottage again she cried “Varthaaa!” And charged them.

Everything happened at once.

She struck down the largest of them, that had four arrows in him.

She took a swordblow on her shield.

Another on a plate of her armour.

Driven back a step, she was knocked out of the way of the last orc’s strike.

Then they were on her again. Again her shield saved her, she dodged —

— a sword drove into her side. She gasped, and pulled away, swinging her sword weakly.

It was as though all her pain, her fury, was gone. She struck one of them, and opened a cut on its arm. It struck back, a backhanded swordblow that caught her in the stomach and knocked her flat.

At least, she thought, I have killed two of them. She looked up at the orc as it raised its sword.

She thought quickly, briefly, of her life; of the window, where she had seen her degradation; of the veilpriestess. I cannot die, she thought. There are too many unknowns.

The thought seemed, suddenly, utterly beautiful. And she thought, yes, what I seek is in Fell Gard somewhere, and that is not revenge, that is not power, that is —

— absolution?

She did not know what the thought meant. But as she was about to die, it hardly mattered.

There was a sudden yowling, and winged Concordia Salus flew into the face of the orc closest to her, its horn scouring its cheekbone. That orc fell back, but the other two stepped forward. Someone shouted Ibia words — Tilde?

One of the orcs turned and drove its sword deep into its companion’s brainpan.

The last orc howled, and went to attack its former friend. Amanos turned on her side and halfraised herself and stabbed it in the stomach. It died.

Amanos lay back, staring at the surviving orc, which growled at her. Was it her ally, then? Tilde came running, shouting in Ibia. The orc muttered something in the same language, and turned away. Amanos stared at it.

“Magicspell,” said Hochelaga. “Friendword.” She pointed to Tilde, who mimed raising a hat. Amanos tried to stand, and fell back groundward. She did not want to think of Hochelaga, she did not want to think of the ghost the girl had dispelled when she had first met her.

“Darklings,” muttered Amanos. She was hurt everywhere. No broken bones, that she could feel, but her side was bleeding freely and she did not know if something inside her stomach was damaged. Others had followed Tilde and Hochelaga; Hugh and his men, Hodekin, Hwitwic. The rest of the reserves. The girl Scholastica helped pull her to her feet. “Hochelaga!” shouted Amanos, her head awhirl. “Tell Hugh — darklings to the south. I will show him —”

She hobbled ahead. She wanted to put that spot of ground behind her, her blood in the dirt. The thoughts she’d had. Absolution. For what?

It was nonsense.

For what crime did she need absolution?

Before the others began to follow her, beautiful naked creatures came running from the woods.

She froze, remembering that strange song the day before. She had not been moved, then; duty was stronger than the call of seduction. And now — now, they were not singing, but were frightened. No-one knew what they were saying, or doing; Hugh was ordering his men to attack — no, not to attack, some wanted to and he was standing before them bellowing.

“Feardriven,” said Hochlega. “Darklings —” There was a sudden burst of speech from midair. Amanos cursed herself that she had not better disposed of her translators. Hochelaga looked shocked. “Northwards fallfail,” she gasped. “Williamsong?”

Amanos was already running.

It hurt her, every step. She had never felt the weight of her armour more.

She was failing, every moment that passed she was failing worse.

She reached the cauldron south of the church. Ulric was there, with Surere and the cervidwen. One of them had healed Geoffrey: “Something’s happened!” he called as she approached. He took another look: “What’s happened to you?

“Tell me,” she said.

“The singer,” he said. “We think. There was a song, he sang, near everyone froze. Now —”

She saw. Strange men and women were running past the northwardens, toward the church. Their leaders had shields on which flying falcons were painted.

Behind them, goblins and hobgoblins came running.

And then, behind her, she heard the howling of orcs. The mortals to the north stopped as the last of the blueskins burst from the trees.

Amanos knew it was all done, then. Whether she wished redemption or no, for whatever reason, it made no nevermind. There were too many, of too many kinds. Enemy mortals; goblinkin; orcs; darklings. Well, she would fight, so long as she could.

Off to the west, the water began to churn as something arose from beneath the surface.


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One Response to “Part 3, Chapter 17: Worduse”

  1. Perfidius the Rogue

    Now we’re in the thick of it. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next. Oh yes. 😀

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