Tiddles awoke in the warm womb of the earth, surrounded by an alien hush. The hush was punctuated by a chittering, chirping noise that should have been language. The Skree hissed and clicked and twittered, and he understood none of it, all the while knowing he should have comprehended it perfectly. He would have, had he never been taken above.
They called him Robewearer, for the obvious reason, and were discussing whether they should leave him alive or press his snout into the drowning pool. It would be small for him, but they could hold him down. It would disturb the bones.
Eyebright spoke against killing him. Any female opinion would have been respected, as it was really their pool to use and hers more so than most. She had drowned her entire clutch in the year of the poison fish, because they had been unfit. No one could accuse her of being stayed by mercy.
“He is Grey Scales,” she said to them, “one of us. Give him back his people and he will remember his voice.”
“He is too different,” Growler said, “men have made him theirs. It is better to return him to the mountain, so that his scales can be worn again by one more worthy.”
Eyebright spoke with the deliberate focus of the assured. Her gaze unsettled the others. “He is to be one of us,” she said, “that is why we found him. That is why I brought him down from the above. He is different, and we need him. I have seen it.”
Eyebright's name was twofold. It referred both to the extraordinary yellow of her eyes, visible even in their lightless home, and to her occasional flashes of insight. It was a name given to a seer, and they were loath to gainsay her when she was so set.
Tiddles was spared, and when his eyes opened they instantly adjusted to the darkness of the warrens. The Skree are at home beneath the earth, and when light is absent, they see the heat of living bodies as clearly as if it was the sunflower that illuminated them. His sense of smell intensified, so that he could differentiate the ones he was familiar with by the crisp variations in their scents. By the hints of moisture on his flicking tongue he could guess which tunnels led to the river.
With gestures and birdsong they led him through the winding passages until they opened onto a chamber of hanging teeth. There was a pool fed by a gentle rill from a crevice in the wall, and all around it fungal pods sprouted. The pods were crunchy and ambiguously pleasant, filling him quickly. They gestured that he should remove his robe, and he shook his head, a motion they found perplexing. Still, Tiddles clung to it, and they accepted that he was not willing to lose it, though it was strange to them and carried the potent odors of the above.
Tiddles was a novelty for the first few cycles, but he was neither particularly interesting nor communicative, and soon became comfortably forgotten by all of those who did not look after him. He was placed with the hatchlings, for he was more dumb than they. Even Eyebright moved on.
Tiddles tried to learn. His head was full of languages the Skree had never encountered. It did not take more than a few cycles of sleeping and waking for him to begin to pick out patterns and phrases. He was exposed to nothing else, and his minders slapped his snout whenever he used human words. Recognizing what others said proved to be no problem at all, but there was a more significant stumbling block at hand. He couldn't imitate the sounds they used to form their phrases. At best he garbled it; mostly it was just impossible. He had never realized that Corneus had altered his vocal folds so that he could speak like a man. Now, he could not return to the language of his people. With practice he could master a few almost phrases, but he would never hold a real conversation. The Skree who watched him and the hatchlings joked that he sounded like someone who had eaten poisoned fish. Pallor Spiders sometimes left them on the river bank for the unsuspecting. They were not always fatal, but they burned the insides.
Mastery of the language being out of his reach, Tiddles applied himself to learning whatever else they put before him. They showed him how they farmed the fungus, along with translucent cricket-like insects for food. They showed him how to pick out the darting forms of fish beneath the river, though they were scarcely warmer than the water. In return, he presented them with a new method of weaving their baskets and weirs from the grasses and fibers they smuggled from the above. They treated this contribution as if it had come from another hatchling, trilling supportively and setting it aside.
Sleep cycles did not give an accurate measure of time, and Tiddles soon lost track of how long he had been in the warrens when they took him with the hatchlings to be named. There was an official they referred to as a Fatetaster that was responsible for naming all the young ones in the tribe. Hatchlings were given temporary nicknames by their minders when it was necessary, but it was ill luck to do so. Hatchlings often died well before their naming, whether it was a spider, or a sickness, or a fall that did them in. Mothers laid clutches for a reason, and it was not healthy to become attached.
Tiddles recognized the sigils that marked the edge of grey scale territory. They were similar to what mancers used, though less elegant. He wondered where they had learned them.
The Fatetaster was hobbled and molting, trailing flakes of dry skin, going among the hatchlings with pleasant twits and chirps. Tiddles understood only the tone. His whole attention was focused on the walls of the Fatetaster's chamber. There were patterns of warmth; signs bleeding on the stone. Marks carved into the stone had to be read with the hands. They were large and precisely placed so as to not pass unnoticed by any strangers entering a territory. These signs were not only carved; they glowed with the irrepressible light of mancy, a lambency visible only to those trained in its use. It was all draconic, short phrases Tiddles recognized as names, hundreds of them in tight chains bound to each other. The entire Grey Scale clan was on his wall.
All that became secondary.
"Do you know what I am saying?" Tiddles asked. Draconic was less diverse than Skreelan in its vocabulary of sounds, but it was one of the mantic languages all prentices were made to learn if they wished to train in the Tower. When he spoke, the minders froze and the hatchlings appeared bemused. He felt instantly that he had committed some kind of transgression, something far more serious than the usual slap on the snout.
"I know you," the Fatetaster said, more at home with the warm rustle of words that was Draconic than Tiddles imagined he ever would be. "I remember when you were taken from us."
He followed with a sharp command in Skreelan that sent the hatchlings scurrying away and the minders eyeing Tiddles distrustfully before they followed.
"I'm sorry," Tiddles said, "they call me Robewearer here, but my name is Tiddles. Something was done to me so that I can’t speak Skreelan, but I can't tell you what a relief it is to find someone I can talk to."
"I said that I know you," the old Skree said. "I remember when you were taken from us. The day your mother died was one of rejoicing for many, because they believed that you would never be born."
Tiddles didn't know how to respond to that.
"It was my duty to dispose of the bodies. Men had broken our warren, and mending would only begin with the cleansing of the ones we lost." The Fatetaster approached no closer, crouching as a Skree would, while Tiddles stood like a small grey man. "Your mother’s body had been opened, and you were gone. I told no one, because I feared the truth of it. Destroyer of Worlds was alive."
"What?" Tiddles said.
"That is the name I gave you while you were still in the womb. The scent was so strong it could not be kept secret. It was confirmed by the body, a meeting of Fatetaster's. Your mother, Egg of Desolation, was nearly banished after she became pregnant."
"Why?" Tiddles was reeling. Before this moment, he had known nothing about his origins except that Corneus had rescued him from the humans that killed his family. "What had she done?"
The Fatetaster twittered in the Skree equivalent of a laugh. "Before I became what I am, my name was Wiseclaw. My mother was Softooth, my father, Littlehorn. You understand that names are important to us, but for most of our race, they are merely descriptors of our more obvious characteristics. Others have layered meaning. Eyebright has bright eyes, and she sees clearer than others. There is a touch of magic in her sight and in her mind. She might have been a Fatetaster if her temperament suited it. Your name is Destroyer of Worlds. Many did not want you to be born."
"What about my father? Is he alive?" Tiddles had heard no mention of him. There was one Skree at least who should have supported his mother.
The Fatetaster's claw shot out to scratch the wall of names. There was violence in the gesture, and despair. "Search this for your father’s name; it is not there. Egg of Desolation was shunned. She was feared by the males of her generation. We watched her, and there was no male. One day she showed the signs of being with clutch, but there had been no male. And there would have been no clutch. You were the only egg she carried. I am not sure that you were an egg."
Tiddles had been raised among mancers. This was not the most outrageous origin story he had heard by far, but it was different when it was your origin. "What was I then?" he asked.
"I do not know," the Fatetaster said. "You are Destroyer of Worlds, and you have returned to us from the lands of men. I will bring you before the body, but they will not know either."
This didn't sound like the sort of thing Tiddles wanted to be a part of. "Won't they kill me?" he asked, though he knew he was going to go regardless. He was a prentice mancer, and he had learned to need to know. Not knowing is how circles of binding were left incomplete and how potions turned to poison, but he preferred to survive the learning experience.
"They cannot," the Fatetaster said, "for they will not know how your name is to be fulfilled. It may be that you are the savior of this world, and by killing you, we destroy it. The only danger greater than destiny is trying to stop it. Destiny can be shaped, if you are careful and strong, but it cannot be stopped."
"Great,” Tiddles said. "So when's the meeting?"
Tiddles was no longer housed with the hatchlings. His days and nights were spent at the Fatetaster's side, and his mind bent toward better understanding of Skreelan. Though it was well established that he could not speak it, the body preferred to host its meetings in their native tongue rather than that of dragons. It would serve him best not to be left in confusion. When he spoke, it would be with the authority of mantic tongue. The Skree did practice magic, though in an informal fashion. They did not cast spells; instead, what magic they had came naturally. Fatetasting was clearly a magically enhanced process, and the thermal vision they all shared was not a trait found anywhere else in the animal kingdom.
For mancers, working magic without the many plied protection of spells and sigils was akin to heresy. Not only was it dangerous, it was forbidden. Because man had been created without any innate Talent of his own, he had been forced to invent ways to bend the Mondial to his will, whereas other creatures merely followed the warp of its weave. The Skree had Talents, though many of them were subtle and could pass for gifts common to the animal kingdom. To them, it was wizardry that appeared criminally dangerous, and mancers mad with it.
It was nine sleeps until Tiddles was to be presented before the body for judgement. The Fatetaster, Wiseclaw, taught him the rudiments of their sign language so that he could navigate the neutral passages between clans on his own when needed. Compared to sigilmancy, it was a child's code, and he memorized it easily while keeping his main focus on Skreelan and any details Wiseclaw would spare him about the body and its members. There were thousands of Skree, though there had never been an exact census and Tiddles suspected exaggeration. Even so, the thought gave him pause. Given that there would be but a handful of Fatetasters for either hundreds or thousands of skree, the population beneath the otherwise uninspiring mountain range of Skreeholm could outnumber all of mankind in the three kingdoms, and possibly the fief lands as well. It was hard to believe there were so many. If humanity had any idea, they would think of them as real threats instead of nuisances. Tiddles had seen belts and shoes made of tanned Skree skin in the city of Mondane, where he had acted the role of the pet for a useful scholar. It hadn't occurred to him then what those skins represented; that those were his people, and that they were here, afraid, beneath the mountain. Or that there were so many.
Tiddles pressed Wiseclaw for a more exact estimate of the total skree population. All he could win in response was that there were as many of them as there were "scales on the hide of the first mother."
It was three sleeps of travel to reach the body, three sleeps puttering though the ways, crawling beneath hard bites of stone, and climbing over slick causeries of rock that gleamed in the poisonous light of incandescent molds. It was everywhere different, and everywhere the same; crevice, interstice, and dark, insects scuttling out of the reach of their claws, the murmurous shiver of rivers in the deeps, and black lakes thick with hungry silence.
Fish ran under the mountain twice a year in great numbers, once going to the sea, and once returning from it. They mated in the ocean, then carried their eggs upstream. It was not the day for that now, so fishers were few, and they used the river warrens to travel most of the distance to the meeting. The clans were territorial, but the rivers were common ground. The Fatetaster's had decreed it so.
The body met in a vast, flat cavern that stretched half a mile in every direction, and never more than a few man heights high. No Skree was allowed in the body without good reason, so Tiddles was one of but a few non-Fatetasters in the chamber. Most of the other guests were in training for the position, or had brought grievances that needed to be heard by the assembled. A low hiss was begun near the center, and picked up and spread to every corner. It meant the body was meeting, and silence wanted.
Tiddles was near the periphery with Wiseclaw, unable to see or hear what was transpiring in the center. Theirs was an unimportant tribe, with no more than three hundred members, and under normal circumstances they would not be heard from. Wiseclaw pushed through the loose crowds that formed either to pass back word of what was being addressed or to ignore it and attend to business of their own. Fatetaster's rarely had news from each other outside of the body, and this was the prime opportunity for the sharing of gossip and stories and advice. The Skree varied in size, from two feet to four standing, longer when they took on the pose of true lizards and you could count the tail. Tiddles was on the taller side, but there were others more sturdy. A few clans appeared heavy and slow with muscle, a few so delicate they were almost insects. Their temperatures belied their moods, though some Skree simply ran hotter than others, Tiddles himself was one of those.
Approaching the center, it could be heard that more than one issue was attempting to win precedence. One clan was bemoaning the loss of many hatchlings due to a sickness in their crops, another accusing theft, and a third outlining a territory dispute. In the background there was an undercurrent of concern over the events of the day Tiddles had been brought below. Mondane had been destroyed by some unknown force, the men were gone, and the air tasted wrong. The body was avoiding bringing discussion of this to the foreground. Many of the lesser tunnels had collapsed that day, though no more than a handful were lost to it. Some Fatetaster's complained that their Talents had resisted them since then, and naming had become more difficult, as if fate itself was growing confounded.
At first it seemed they would not pass into the center. The press of bodies was too thick, and none were willing to relinquish their place. Each time it seemed they would not go on, Wiseclaw persisted, and the Fatetaster's nearby would flick out their tongues to learn who it was that was accosting them. Their body language expressed disdain, until they caught a hint of Tiddles peculiar scent. They would move then, fear in them mingled with confusion, and the pair could go on. Somehow, they found themselves nearing the center, so that the arguments came to them clearly, and when Wiseclaw whistled, he was heard by all that needed to hear.
Conversation stopped. What he had done was incredible disrespect to the body.
In that brief interval between affront and anger, Wiseclaw seized the attention of the body with a painful whistle and the proclamation, "Here is the Destroyer of Worlds!"
Tiddles, who had not been sure where Wiseclaw had been going with this but had been rather sure it wasn't where they had gotten, said,"Um, hi." He said it in low Valanthian, which the servants of mancers, the children of the tower, were wont to speak in. He was comfortable in it because he had spent so much time with them, particularly the ones that amounted to Corneus' harem. That had been one of the few benefits of humanity thinking him cute, fit for pet or plaything. He'd spent a lot of time being cossetted by women.
It wasn't a language the Fatetaster congregation expected or appreciated. There was a round of disapproving clicks and tweets. One of them separated himself from the pack, a shriveled and elderly Skree with barely any heat in him, and addressed Wiseclaw.
"Why do you name him so? Why do you insult us?"
Wiseclaw was gently pressing Tiddles forward, a circumstance that pleased him not greatly. But he had been announced now, and there was nowhere to run that was not stuffed with highly interested skree.
"I'm sorry for the offense," Wiseclaw said." This one is named as well as I can name him, would you do better?"
There was a flash of anger from the pale elder. This was a direct challenge to his competence. "Let us see." He approached Tiddles, nearly snout to snout, and his long tongue flicked out. Then his head snapped up in surprise.
"Who was your mother?" he demanded.
"Egg of Desolation," Tiddles was increasingly unable to ignore the weight of the attention that was settling on him. Everywhere, there were eyes, and beyond them many times as many ears all bent to this exchange. There were hushed tweets and rattles. The ones who had met him on his way to the center were the most interested of all.
"My name is Little Whale," the elder said, "and I have named thousands of hatchlings, and etched their spirits in the stone. I have passed down those names again when they were meant to live once more. I heard of your mother, but did not meet her. There has not been one scent like yours upon my tongue. I will not name you."
There were protests at this, and other elders stepped forward to examine Tiddles. Their anger was forgotten in the presence of the puzzle he presented.
"Why do you wear this?" One asked him, poking a clawed fingertip through a hole in his robe.
"Because it is mine," Tiddles said. "I like it."
"It isn't worlds, “another said," it is nations. Destroyer of Nations."
"Heart of Hopeless Love."
"Eater of Dragons."
They spoke over one another, not so much arguing as obstinately adhering to a reality they knew to be true despite competition. Tiddles turned his head back and forth, surrounded and uncomfortable as a dozen Fatetasters moved around him, sensing and prodding.
"Remove the robe," one said, "the man scents are interfering."
"I won't, "Tiddles said. “That is my limit."
"Enough!" Wiseclaw and Little Whale spoke almost in the same moment, looked at one another, and pretended as if they were each the only one to say anything. But it was Little Whale the others listened to.
"Move away from him. I accept the naming."
"Whose?" many asked.
"My own," Little Whale said." I have been considering it. He will be the End of Fate."
There was a pause, broken by Wiseclaw’s amused titter. "That is another way of saying what I said."
Little Whale hissed him down, a big sound from one so small. It filled the spaces that were not filled with Skree. "It is more precise than yours. This one has no fate of his own, and so he has many fates and is a breaking of the pattern wherever he goes; an ending to the fates of others, a destroyer of their personal worlds."
There was a low pitched commotion around them as word spread of what had been decreed. There had never been a naming such as this, and if it were a true one, there might be none like it after. What was a Fatetaster without Fate? What was a flame without fuel?
"Now," Little Whale said, "what are we going to do with him?"
Little hands and little mouths
And eyes like gemstones in the dark
Rustle, slink; And slender
That sign upon the stone, their mark.
-Hollen the Bard
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
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