Updates:  Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books

William Myrlhigh fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

Chapter Twenty-Four 

       Tiddles crouched in the brush, trying to remember something about forests. What was it? Ah, yes, he hated forests. For one thing, there were too many trees; for another, they were all much too tall. Nothing but the Tower had a right to be so tall. In comparison, the grass had not bothered him much.

       He hadn't been able to see anything in the plains, but he had been consoled by the fact that nothing could see him either. In the forest he was still blind, but everything else could see. He crawled into and under a thicket of brambles, squirming like the lizard he wasn't, in hopes of concealment. He wanted to consult the tablet, only it was hard to have a chat with his intelligent artifice while he was being chased.

​       He held his  breath, and the woods were silent. Maybe he had lost them. Tiddles carefully slid the tablet free of his pack, cursing the frays and tears in his clothing as he did so. And dirt! And mud! Why?! He pulled the tablet free and hissed.

       "Why didn't you warn me there were people nearby?"

       "I'm not omniscient. I do have other places to be you know."

       "That doesn't make sense! You live in my backpack."

       "Be careful about raising your voice. They're right here."

       Tiddles' jaw snapped shut on his reply, too late.

       "Who's in there? We have you surrounded." The voice was so close Tiddles felt as if  the man was standing over top of him. 

       "We know you have the Skree. Bring him out and we can all be friends."

       In his smallest voice Tiddles spoke into the Tablet. "Show me a spell that will get us out of this. Now."

       The Tablet was silent a moment, then a sigil appeared in the clay, and below it the caption, "Missile Mancy, don't try for more than one, you're not strong enough."

       Tiddles memorized the sigil and rolled onto his back. The brambles were thick enough, and blanketed with enough dead leaves that he could not see out. That was good, as the inverse was also true.

      "He's my pet," Tiddles said in his most manlike voice, which was analogous to that of a girl in her nonage. "I don't want to lose him."

       "A pet? I've never heard of it." Yes, Tiddles could just about pinpoint the source, could see in his mind's eye where the man stood in relation to him. He opened his eyes to see the Mondial, calling up his Wizard's Sight, and the brilliant web of magic that composed and encompassed the world became visible to him. This was a necessary precursor to casting most spells.

       "I saw those rags he was in," another man added. "They looked like man clothes on a monkey. I've seen it in the Jongluer's Fair. You going to a fair, man? Maybe we could make a deal with you."

       "That's right," the first one said, "We'll make a deal. You come out and pay us the bounty, as much as your Skree would be worth in Mondane, and we'll go off without seeing a thing. You can keep your monkey."

       Tiddles knew about monkeys. He had read about all the many varieties of ape that dwell in the rimward mountain range of Dadaea. They were hairy, filthy beasts that flung their own fecal matter as a manner of showing displeasure. Tiddles was not a monkey, and he had other forms of matter he could fling.

       With the force of his will and the play of his hands Tiddles formed the sigil in the air floating at an acute angle to his body. Mancy Missile; a violet bolt no bigger than a finger burst from his hands and rocketed through the brush. There was a thump, and a shout.

       "Coitus! He shot me! The bastard shot me!"

       A moment later an arrow thudded in the loam not a hand's breadth from Tiddles' skull. Tiddles aimed, calmer than one might expect, and let loose another violet bolt.

       "Ah! What is that? Kord's blue balls!"

       "He got you too?"

       "Telly, yeah, he got me. What in the earth!"

       Tiddles rolled. Two more arrows pierced the thicket. He wasn't strong enough. If he had the power of a man, even a prentice, he would have had the advantage over both of them. Nearing the edge of the thicket, he fired another missile over his shoulder, then rolled to the side. Their exclamations told him he had missed, and when two more arrows struck approximately where he had been, he let out a high pitched scream of terror. It was not hard to do.

       He listened to  them pushing around the thicket, coming to him. They thought one or 'both' of him had been struck. Hands pushed the concealing brambles and detritus aside and a face appeared in the gap. Tiddles fired. The face jerked and fell down into the thicket.

        "Telly!" The other man dragged him free. Tiddles had drawn near enough to the open now to see what he was shooting at. His ability to channel the Mondial was already at its limit, but  he could manage one more.

       A thin violet bolt punched the man's temple, snapping his head back. He went down with his friend in his arms. They were woodsmen, by the look of them. They had come upon Tiddles by chance, a crossing of paths. He was feeling very proud of himself. As he emerged from the brambles in his ruined robe, covered in grass and leafy crumbles. He felt all of four feet tall.

        Two grown men he had defeated. Now what to do with them? They looked almost peaceful, resting on one another like that. If all men reacted to the sight of him this way it was going to be a long, difficult journey to Skreeholm. Why was there a bounty on Skree? Pests, Black had said. They think I'm a pest, like a wolf or a crow.

       Leaves crackled behind him. A branch was swung. 

       Tiddles fell into darkness.

       There had been a third.


                                                                                               *       *       * 


       It began in the rimward mountains of Dadaea, where the roots of stone drew up the water out of the porous spongerock that was the foundation of most such ranges. This water gathered in pools that became lakes when mixed  with  the melt and runoff of the ice in the highest reaches, and it all ran downhill from there. In Dacallum they called  this river the Maiden, because of a woman of legend who had drowned herself in protest over the war that had stolen her love. Down from the heights and into the Boundless Plains it ran, where they called it Gotha Shai, water with teeth, named for the hungry, snapping reptiles that made it their home.

       Where it ran near the southern edge of Petronia, it was called the River Lumly. Men do not know why.

       Bawn and his two charges had come out of the woods to cross the river at its nearest ford. There was a bridge here, but it was broken. One walked onto what amounted to a stunted stone pier, and then stepped into the smoothly running water. The shattered blocks and struts of the old bridge served as a raised highway where one could walk with the river only at one's shins. 

       There was no one about, so Bawn went first to test the way. He shifted his immense weight this way and that, feeling which blocks were loose and doing his best to settle those that were. He was inwardly pleased with himself, though his physiognomy never departed from the decidedly grave. He enjoyed having the two children around. It gave him a pleasure to teach them which he had not experienced in years many and long. He did not yet grieve for the time when they must leave him, when they would hate him from afar. They had traveled together a handful of months, long enough that the plains and much of the Keepholds would have already experienced the first frost. He would care for the young ones as long as they needed him, and then he would set them free.

       Bawn rose lightly out of the water, onto the platform that had once been the opposite end of the bridge. He turned.

       Aric was laid on his side on the ground, as if sleeping. Kerrigan was standing rigid, her arms at her sides, a long and curved knife at her throat. The man behind her was dressed all in white, and a milky aura surrounded them both as if they stood in a soft, translucent pearl.

      Bawn froze, all his inner strength for the moment turned toward clamping down on an anger that could shatter kingdoms. Rage would not serve him here, only control.

      He had seen this man once before, in Ten Towers. One of a pair of assassins, the man's partner had been clad in black. Bawn had put it from his mind. He was deathless, and it was of no moment that many wished him dead. That had been before there was anyone he cared for.

       "They say you are a man who cannot break word," Shiro said. "I have a deal for you. Will you bargain?"

       
                                                                                               *       *       * 


       Tiddles awoke with a sore head and a dry mouth, tied to the back of a mule. He kept is eyes shut, and tasted the air with his forked tongue. He listened to the creak of leather, and the breathing of the men and their animals. Three men, and a mule, and a horse. The clop of hooves was muted by the loose quality of the road dirt. Tiddles was patient, and he faded in and out of consciousness, never jerking or opening his eyes. His thoughts were foggy, as if he balanced upon the very edge of sleep. His hands were bound in a sack behind his back.

       Through snatches of conversation, Tiddles gathered a few facts about his captors. They were related, or two of them were. The third man, Slame, was not a man but a boy, and the son of Demarra. It was their mule that he was strapped to. The first man was Daub, and he was more reserved than the other two. A business aquaintance, or a distant relative. He smoked, as wizards do, though the leaf smell was of an unfamiliar kind.

       They had come out of Tamor; whether city, town, or region, Tiddles had no guess. They were going to Mondane, the mining city. They spoke back and forth about what he had done, about the purple bolts that had come out of the brush. They had beaten about the bush in search of his master, and finally come to the conclusion that Tiddles had been alone all along.

       "What if he's a wizard, in disguise like?"

       "No such thing as wizards," Demarra responded.

       "But that was magic! What else was it, if it wasn't magic! It was nothing, then?"

       "I'm not sure what it was. There's no such thing as wizards, though. None of this magic talk will have us anywhere. We'll be laughed at. Don't say a word again when we get where we're going."

       "And a talking Skree, that's not real either," Slame said sarcastically.

       "Didn't say that. We've got one of those on the saddle. Can't just skin it. We'll fetch a real price once the Guild sees."

       "If there's no magic, then why do you keep looking at it like that?" This was in an undertone, and Demarra wouldn't answer.

       They camped for the night beside the road. They set Tiddles against a tree, his feet and hands still bound. When the aroma of cooking meat reached him, there was nothing he could do but open his eyes and look imploringly at the rabbits cooking on an improvised spit.

       "Ah, so he's awake is it?" Daub said, by far the more alert of the three. The father and son went rigid, and turned their heads slowly. Tiddles took his chance.

       "I warn you, should you not release me, and treat me fairly, the consequences shall be dire. I am a wizard of the 4th order, not that provincial dullards such as yourselves would have any understanding of that rank. Because of your ignorance, I grant you a reprieve. Unbind me, and you will face no punishment for your crimes against me in my disguise."

       Slame's eyes had expanded so far that they appeared ready to leap free of their orbits.

      "Telly," Demarra breathed, "what do you think we should do?" He looked from one companion to the other, then something occurred to him. The gaze he cast upon the Skree was that of a fond father who had caught his young child in a lie. "Hey now. You're a wizard, you say? Then how come you won't magic yourself out of them ropes. Should have the power, shouldn't ya?"

       "I give you this one chance, out of the goodness of my spirit, to prove your worth to me. I could indeed 'magic' myself out of these petty fetters, but I will only do so when my patience is at an end. Should my full power be revealed I will have no choice but to flay each of you in agonizing turn. I give you this chance, but I assure you, my magnanimity is not boundless."

       The father looked nervous again. The son seemed on the verge of loosing his bowels.

       Daub rose up and approached the tree. He held a leather strap in his hand, dangling freely. He tied it around Tiddles snout.

       "If your voice wasn't so squeaky, maybe you would have had me." He muttered, then returned to the fire.

       The men settled down. Tiddles whined in the direction of the meat until there was none. They went to sleep. Tiddles did not. His  head was still throbbing, and the ropes chafed. His robes chafed. Everything chafed. The meager magics available to him spun in an endless loop through his beleaguered mind. All of them required his hands except the most fundamental Mancy, that of calling up his wizard's sight, but the sight could not help him here.

       A true wizard, of course, would have not needed the use of his hands. But Tiddles was only a prentice, and a weak one at that. He was a failure. He was not a man. He was only a Skree. 

       His last thought as he finally drifted back into unconsciousness was the realization that the tablet had been left behind. A fluttering heart, terror, then darkness.

       Far away, in a patch of thorns covered by dead leaves and fallen needles, a face appeared in a thin rectangle of clay. Lips formed, and they brought forth a word.

       "Fiddlesticks."


                                                                                               *       *       * 


       Three days they spent on the road, give or take. Tiddles was allowed sips of water at the beginning and end of each sojourn, and on the second day he was allowed a small ration of old, tough jerky. His throat was so dry that he nearly choked in swallowing it. They took to blindfolding him, and his wrists were so chafed by the ropes and the leather of the sack around his hands that he was losing scales. He was in constant pain, and his headache was not improving. He spent as much of the day as he could asleep, but it was growing more difficult all the time. The motion of the mule, the feel of grass and bark when he was put down for the night, and the smells of forbidden food languishing on his tongue; these were his three days.

       On the fourth day, they came to Mondane. It was far from being considered a large city, or grand. It was, however, the busiest in Petronica. It had been built deliberately, at need, over the past two millennia. It was a city with a purpose; a city that had been razed and rebuilt on many occasions after one disaster or another. Through fire, avalanche, or Skree plague, it yet remained very much itself. It was a mining city built at the foot of Skreeholm, its fingers delving far into the rocks, with tunnels that at their oldest had stood since the end of the last age. The veins of tallo running throughout the deep places were seemingly inexhaustable, as long as the mines continued to expand.

       Mondane was disjointed, consisting of the main city with its tens of thousands and the satellite towns that had developed around the mines themselves, in the clefts of Skreeholm. There men worked and lived a fortnight at a time before returning to their homes and families in the city. It was  simpler, sometimes, than navigating the dangerous stairs and passes that were the only egress from the rifts where tallo was most plentiful. Many of them had no families to return to. It does strange things to a man, breathing so much tallo dust, the metal flakes settling in the skin and in the lungs. Many die, and they do it for the pay they cannot keep. The Hanses that control the operations profit in every case.

       Tiddles was covered in a cloak, and bound tightly enough that he had no hope of moving so much as an inch from his position. He could not see them passing through the market quarter, or arriving at the office of the Taiven magistrate. The Taiven's paid the largest bounties for Skree.

      He smelled the menfolk passing near him, heard the voices with their foreign sounding accents. Black had not had an accent. The woodsmen were mostly intelligible. The Mondane folk were almost impossible to understand. He caught every other word. 

        The two men went into the Hanse building, leaving their young one behind to guard their prize . Heavy, warm smells, animal musk and mud, and the humans beyond; Tiddles could smell something frying nearby. His tongue flicked out. Eel? He was very hungry.

       His captors soon returned. He was removed from the back of the mule, as a bundle. He could have been a sack of bunched garments, or a dead version of himself. A dead Skree would have drawn not a glance.

       It was not rough handling, but casual, as if he really was a cord of firewood. Doors opened and shut, footsteps echoed on hardwood. The scents changed. There was saffron burning here, like incense. And everything smelled clean. Tiddles was almost reminded of home.

       He was laid in a small empty room alone. The cloak was removed. Voices modulated in the other room. He could not understand them. After some minutes, the door opened, and a man entered the room where he was bound. Tiddles couldn't guess any more from scents and sound alone.

       A soft, precise voice spoke. "....tell... me... speak."

       Tiddles caught only a fraction of the words. The dialect was too strange, and yet he knew what was required of him.

      "I speak, and I count, and I'll do a little dance if you give me a hat and a stick."

       Tiddles, as one might imagine, was not in the best of moods. There was a pause, and then the man laughed.

       "It is rare, very rare, this thing they've brought me." The blindfold was removed , so Tiddles could look upon the face of the one who spoke. It was chubby and old and home to wispy eyebrows and trailing hairs, nearly invisible upon his cheeks.

       "Wait a moment while I go pay these fine gentlemen." The man disappeared, and Tiddles was able to absorb something of the room he now occupied. It was not large, but it avoided cramped by a fair margin. One of the walls was packed with books, and a small desk and chair occupied a corner. On the desk was a set of half burned candles, a few scraps of parchment, and a variety of quills.

       He heard the woodsmen leaving. When the man reappeared, he came at Tiddles with a knife.

       The Skree squealed until he felt his bonds being cut, then he quieted.

       "You speak as if you've come out of the histories. Ancient philologists dream in that form of Valanthian. You're quite lucky that you were brought to me."

      Tiddles discovered that he no longer had any difficulty understanding the man. "Who are you?"

       "Ah. Excellent question." The man stepped away, allowing Tiddles to sit up. "I am Forman Allfellow, if you please, and I am the foremost bookkeeper of the Hanse. It's far more important than it sounds. Accounting is taken very seriously in the merchant guild."

       "I'm Tiddles."

       "Truly? Is that your Skree name, or is it something foisted on you by a master who had a sense of humor?

       "The second one."

       The old man was quiet for a moment. "And it was your master who taught you how to speak?"

       Tiddles dipped his snout in assent.

        "Are there others like you, others he kept, or that you have met? Will anyone come looking for you here, or in the woods where you were found?"

       Tiddles did not know what to make of this man, whether he was friend or full of deceit and malice that made him only appear so. He had never had the practice of manipulating people, or how to slip false hoods into the skeins of half truth. He was not about to try now with this stranger who held the reigns of his future. Tiddles answered each question truthfully, and Forman nodded with a pensive air.

      "You must be hungry. I dout those woodsmen treated you well."

      "You aren't going to skin me?" Tiddles asked plaintively.

       "No, little fellow. I will stuff you. But not until you've lived as long a life as you naturally can. You are in no danger from me or my household, or from the Hanse. You are a specimen of the highest worth to me."

       Tiddles decided that this was about as much as he could hope for. He followed Formen to a kitchen where he was plied with meat and bread and cheese. A proud feast it seemed to him, though it was only scraps from yesterday's supper. He had not eaten so much or so well since leaving the tower.

      Forman was afforded utmost respect by the various servants, but he ignored them all as he watched Tiddles with an interest inexhaustable.

       "It won't do to have you kept here. Too much stir in the offices and the clerks. I'm sending you to my personal man. Do I have your word that you will not attempt to flee? Good. There's no one else in Mondane who would spare you except to bring you to me hoping for a reward in any case."

      Tiddles didn't argue. Soon two men came with a chest between them large enough for one of his size to sit in without difficulty There was a blanket folded along the bottom.

       "I should rather you were not seen in public, you understand."

       Tiddles did not see how he could misunderstand and was shortly ensconced in darkness. There were bumps, at first, as he was carried out of the Hanse, but the carriage ride was relatively smooth. He fell into a comfortable doze and knew nothing more until the lid of the chest opened. He was blinded by light. A young woman, plainly dressed, helped to lift him out

       "Thank you," he told her, and she squealed, fleeing the room.

       "Oh," Tiddles said to no one, taking in his surroundings. It was a child's bedroom, with an undersized, freshly made bed, burnished wood floors, and many toys. Wooden puzzle boxes, and carved figures of men ready for battle; of these things there were plenty. Also a King's board, which Tiddles recognized as only a little different than those the wizards used to play. It was a sort of centerpiece, with a table of its own, and a high stool, and a man's chair. Tiddles examined it for a time, wondering why the girl had been so frightened, and what he was supposed to do now that he was here. He had found a hospitable home in a hostile city. Would he exchange his old master for this one? A prentice again? This man was not a magician. At the moment he saw Tiddles as a curiosity only. Should he reveal himself as something more? The wizards kept a tight hand upon the movement of Mancy outside their Tower. Eldritch knowledge was not disseminated. Tiddles wondered how many like him wandered in Mythopoeia, who knew a little but not enough to draw the Towers' ire. Certainly he could be of some use to this bookkeeper who loved oddities. Then he might be allowed enough freedom to seek his own kind again.

       Did he even want to seek his own kind? They spoke no language that was his own. They shared a body, not a culture. If this could become a home to him in truth, it might be that Tiddles was better off with humans than what he might find in the tunnels of Skreeholm.  What welcome would be his, he simply did not know.

       There was a single window in this room. It looked onto an atrium, a garden surrounded on four sides by the elegant arms of the main house. It was not a bad place, or did not seem so. Not at all.

       The sunflower was dimming, its vast sidereal petals darkening its face. The day had ended, and on came the cold of night.

       



© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl