The Greentongue came to know him as their Dragon, and after them the Reedtwisters, and the Slingmakers, and the Palescale clans. Most of them still called him Robewearer, but never with derision. There was respect now, bordering on reverence. For each tribe he had performed a miracle, healing crops, clearing a nest of predacious spiders, opening a passage blocked by a quake in a generation past. It was beginning to be said that though he was not a dragon, the spirit of the mountain was working through him, giving him the powers of one. It was a way for the Fatetaster's to make sense of what was happening; a way to pretend his true name would not cost them much.
Tiddles was bringing the tribes together, and though many resisted the blending, more were drawn to it once the first steps had been taken. These were small tribes, eager for a chance to strengthen themselves, eager for a leader in a cycle when their Fatetasters could no longer assure an ample harvest. The fish were not swimming in the rivers, and Skree became afraid. Word spread far from the Greyscales warren that Destroyer of Worlds was gathering the lesser tribes into one nameless mass beneath him. Ten thousand was not so many of their people, not when the great clans could number ten times ten thousand, but some of what was said of the Destroyer could not abide. He was teaching the sacred language, or having it taught, to any willing to learn. This was not the way Fatetasters apprenticed, and worse, his students called him ‘Dragon.’
The elders of the great tribes debated among themselves and, against all expectation, reached a decision. They summoned the Destroyer, and he came.
Tiddles entered the main chamber alone, though dozens had asked for the privilege of accompanying him. He had decided this was something better accomplished by himself, and that bringing an entourage would make him appear presumptuous. In contrast with his first Fatetaster meet, his entrance did not go unnoticed. Watchers caught sight of him, and of his robes, while he was still traversing the passages that led to the huge cavity where they waited. Their chirping and whistling communication died away as he entered, replaced by the low susurrus of scales.
Water dripped from the sullen fangs of rocks, falling upon the squamous elders in the dark and then oozing to the floor. The roots of Skreeholm stretched down to the bedrock of the world. The water followed those tendrils to a basin so still and deep that not even magic breathed; to where the serpent that once had birthed the world reclined in dreamless majesty, the roots of the mountain mingling with the roots of Iffenthal itself. Or so the Skree believed.
Tiddles allowed his thoughts to be drawn to that eternal quiet, to the sleeper among the roots, and the sleeping moon above. The Tower of Sorcery, a column of black steel that seemed to pierce the vault of heaven, was no more than a single claw of one of the nine dragons of myth. Skreeholm was reputedly the body of one of them, the husk of a body covered over in earth and grass. It was his home, his source. These other Skree had always felt it, but he was just beginning to understand.
Hustled toward the center of the gathering, larger even than the last he had attended, Tiddles was surrounded, confronted by a score of angry Fatetasters. The most august, most honored, had the task of confronting him. More hung back in hissing rings. Tiddles didn't recognize any of them.
"You say you are the dragon?"
"I have been called that," Tiddles allowed.
"You claim it for yourself," accused one, then another. "You lie!"
"I accept what I have been given." It wouldn't do to be too specific, Tiddles thought.
"You are making old tribes into new," another voice intruded. "What gives you that right?" This elder, lean and cool, was missing his left hand claw.
"I am not making new tribes," Tiddles answered, letting the others fall out of focus. "I am uniting them. I will unite all of the clans, all the tribes, in time."
This was greeted by a few outraged trills, but mostly silence. Fatetasters are patient and considerate as a part of the nature of their art. They bickered with each other; it was not the same as giving in to anger or rashness. What he said had stunned them.
"You are an outsider," the maimed elder said, "and you don't understand our ways. You can be forgiven your transgressions only if you give up this blasphemy. You are not a dragon. There are none. You are a man pet, and it has made you strange."
"The water seeps down from above," Tiddles said loudly enough for the outer rings to hear. "It creeps through the rocks to join the darkness below."
There was an irritated buzzing, a rattle in the throats of the Skree.
"You would lecture us," the maimed one said, "we who are so much wiser than you?"
"There is poison above. I have been to its source in the human city beside the mountain. The poison creeps through the stones; it contaminates the water, the groves, the fish. It killed the Fatetaster of the Greyscales.
"He was sickly," one of them suggested.
"The sickly will be the first to suffer," Tiddles said, "and the hatchlings."
They knew the truth of his words, they could smell it. There had been a scent of this poison on the crops and in the river for cycles past. They could not deny what he said without knowing their denial as a lie, but neither were they willing to accept his resolution.
* * *
The one-clawed Fatetaster regarded him without malice, though there was much of that in the gazes and guttural clicks of the other Skree. They did not understand the creature before them, who had been raised by men to be something not quite like they were; who was not a Skree, not a dragon, not anything they knew.
"What do you seek in uniting tribes?" he asked. "They will die together or apart, if the poison is as terrible as you believe."
"I know what you feel," Tiddles said. "I know your refusals already. But the Greyscales will follow me, and now others as well. I came today to tell you that your tribes are free to come with us when we go."
"There is nowhere to go. There is only the mountain."
Tiddles summoned a light; weak, but blinding to the Skree around him. "I go up world, to find a new Skreeholm. Come with me if you want to live."
He turned, moving swiftly between the gaps in the ring while the other Skree flinched from the light. He had lowered the day lids of his eyes already, so it pained him only a little.
He took advantage of their surprise to make his way back out of the chamber, weaving through the rings of blinded Skree. Two attempted to bar his way. His claws ripped open the jaw of the first and tore lines across the chest of the next. He ran then, reverting to the gait of an animal to better navigate the passage on all four limbs. Magic was pouring furiously through him, and Tiddles was deep in another warren before his fear of pursuit subsided. He didn't know what the elders might have done to him if he had stayed after his announcement, perhaps nothing. He couldn't allow himself to stay in a place where he would be in their power. The two he had scarred were unlikely to seek retribution. It would require another meet because it was a conflict between tribes, but they were too wary of him now.
Eyebright was waiting for him where they had agreed. "What happened?" Her eyes roved for signs of wounds. His temperature was always so high it was difficult to tell if he was hurt.
"What I guessed," Tiddles said. "I outraged them, and all the clans and tribes will hear of what we do. Tell Bigheaded to begin preparations. We are going to the surface in three sleeps."
Eyebright chirped her alarm. "Three? We are not ready, many will not go."
He touched his snout to hers, a gesture he had observed in other Skree. He wasn't sure that it was appropriate, as he didn't desire her for a mate. Skree looked like reptiles to him, but he needed her loyalty. He held there a moment before drawing away.
"They will follow us," Tiddles said.
"You are the dragon." Eyebright said.
The party he had travelled with was spread throughout the neutral passages. They were about fifty in number, many of them his students who had been willing to learn Draconic. There was a brief exchange with each of them as Tiddles travelled, and they would skitter away to spread news to their home warrens. Eyebright went ahead of him to find Bigheaded and deal with the Greyscales. Tiddles had not made his intentions to reach the surface public, but many of them had guessed already. His students did not question him. They had all accepted that he was something different than they, something more than Skree if not yet a dragon. The ritual he performed every morning at Magnus' insistence had lent a weight to his presence, and it infected those around him, bending them to his desires. At the same time, the weaknesses of character he had experienced as a Prentice in the tower, his deference and diffidence, an inclination toward inaction, had melted away, leaving only the mineral hardness that had been always at his core.
When he told them they would go up, the tribes that had gathered behind the Greyscales went. They were afraid, and a few did refuse, but the Skree move as a mass, so when most were convinced, all were. They knew that the mountain was dying. To ease the transition, Tiddles made sure the exodus began with the closing of the sunflower. It would not do to have their first glimpse of the upworld result in blindness.
The ruins of Mondane welcomed them.
"Are there menfolk here?" Longtooth asked him.
"Yes," Tiddles said. "They are mean and few. We will deal with them when we are many."
By the middle of the night more than a thousand Skree had risen from the tunnels, shielding their eyes against the pain of the star flowers and the moon. The folds of the mountain concealed them, and Tiddles organized small bands to enter the city among the foothills and scavenge. Food would be scarce, but there would be scrap metal and tools they wanted that the humans had left behind. The groups were instructed to stay together, large enough to discourage any stray humans from culling them for their skins. There was no one left to pay a bounty, but he doubted the habit of exterminating Skree had been lost.
They brought him twisted fragments, scraps and refuse; belt buckles and blacksmith tools, dinner knives and nails, boots and horse shoes. The Skree had always used nets and weir to catch fish, rocks and bones to cut and skin. It wasn't difficult to find takers for the knives and nails, and the usable tools were distributed among Bigheaded's students.
When dawn came, there was an air of anticipation among those already arrived. The forerunners of the exodus had been those most eager for a new life. Most of them had never seen the light. They shuttered their eyes, and waited. Tiddles warned them not to look up.
* * *
The sunflower breached, the first rays of its great fire appearing on the northern sea far away, soon spreading to encompass all of Mythopoeia. Tiddles felt the stir of pride as his tribe endured the dawn. There was a response, certainly, but not a panic. Some had been afraid it would burn them. Instead, their remarkably versatile eyes adapted, and the world was revealed in more detail than they had ever experienced in the realms below. Both to their natural sight, and to their second sight that could capture the bleeding warmth of a fish beneath dark waters, a new richness was revealed. Quite apart from the terror and pain many had expected, Skree all along the mountain were trilling with pleasure and surprise.
Tiddles led them down to a section of the city composed of large abandoned tenements. The Skree, accustomed to the warrens, had no difficulty packing themselves into the buildings, story after story, with the basements being the most prized for their dark, damp cool. They would travel again when the day flower closed, moving south to a forest Tiddles deemed a good place to settle. If they could not sustain themselves there, they would continue searching. It was unlikely they would be able to grow their traditional crops wherever they went, though countless caps and bundles of spores had been brought to try. The Skree tribes had many experienced farmers among them, and they would have to learn how farming was done above the surface. Some of the younger Skree were too enlivened by the sun to sleep, so he allowed them to set out in a band and patrol for humans. They were warned not to sojourn far from the tenements.
Tiddles slept near the entrance of one of the buildings, finding himself exhauseted from the mental strain of monitoring so many lives other than his own. Magnus woke him an hour before sunclose, so that he could check on all the buildings, and visit the remaining Skree who would have come out of the mountain during the day, and were doubtless hiding among the folds and foliage of the mountain face. He slipped out a window, regretting the state of his robes and thinking he might find a suitable replacement in the city before they left.
All was quiet as the sunflower dimmed, but his tongue caught an oily, bitter tang in the air. He followed it to one of the last occupied houses, and there he found straw had been scattered around the building, soaked in lamp oil. It was so long since he had been around the conveniences of men that the scent did not immediately strike him as dangerous. Then he smelled smoke, and a hand of flame curled its fingers around the far corner of the first floor.
He watched as men came from the same direction, moving quickly. A moment more and a fearful keening emanated from inside. The Skree had smelled the smoke, and were waking in confusion and fright.
For a moment he stood uncomprehending, and then men came around the side of the building.
"Look it, this one inna dress!"
“Maybe he's a lady Skree."
"Bash 'im in already!"
Tiddles had kept one of the knives the scroungers had brought. With a sterling silver handle and a pearl inset in the pommel, it must have belonged to a man of wealth, or a noble. That was why he kept it, but its blade was as long as his forearm, keen and free of wear. As the stranger approached him casually, club rising for a swing, Tiddles drew his dagger like a short sword from beneath his robes, and plunged it upward into the man’s crotch. The man went down so abruptly that the knife was lost inside of him. Tiddles stepped clear of the body, and the pair of humans that had followed the first looked at him dumbfounded. They hadn't seen the knife, only their companion collapsing in front of the Skree, now screaming and convulsing on the dirt.
The Skree within the building were escalating into a panic. Fire was spreading quickly and it was something most of them had never experienced before. Blinded by light and pain, they fought each other to escape the heat. They could have escaped through the windows in the upper story, some would, but the animal fear of the unknown had crippled their ability to reason. They pressed down into the cellar where the smoke had not contaminated the air, where it was still cool. A Skree's instinct is to flee danger by moving deeper into the warrens, not by going up into the light. They piled on top of one another, crowding until those at the bottom were threatened with suffocation.
Tiddles climbed up the shirt of the closest man and bit him in the throat. He forgot about his sword and tried to pry the lizards jaws open with his fingers. Tiddles tore out his windpipe and spit it away. Blood sprayed as they separated, and Tiddles experienced the death with a distant and reptilian calm. He drew the man’s sword and spun with it. It was too heavy for him to wield, but he managed to throw it at the last human. It didn't cut, bouncing off of the brigand’s stomach, but this one had seen enough. He turned and fled.
Tiddles went to all fours to pursue him, catching him before he had gone ten paces, and scaling his back as if it was a normal incline in the warrens. He dug his claws into the man’s neck and pulled them toward himself.
Two more bandits had helped set the blaze, and they came around the other side of the building, drawn by the screams.
"Lady's icy cunt." the woman said. She was covered in leathers, her hair tied into a tight tail.
They saw three dead and a blood soaked Skree in loose robes, his claws black with fluids. The Skree looked at them with its head tilted like a bird's, half their size and terrifying. They both decided to run. There was something wrong about this Skree.
* * *
The Skree were waking in the other houses. Those who had elected to remain awake through the day were rousing the others. As they came into the street, they saw the fire and the bodies. They saw the Robewearer standing before the conflagration, hissing in a language stranger than their own. Singed and frantic Skree, those lucky enough to have escaped the house, were hiding in the alleys. They did not understand.
Tiddles spoke to the flames, but elemental magic was not something he had practiced. He commanded the fire to clear the doorway, and a path inside. No Skree appeared out of the smoke into the burgeoning night. The survivors were all trapped in the cellar, and Tiddles didn't have the strength to reach them. He tried to enter the building, and the fire nearly consumed him. It had spread too quickly and was too hot. Beneath its crackle and roar, the moaning of the support beams as they were consumed, he could make out the cries of those he could not save. They had followed him out of the mountain, and been rewarded with a horrible end. Rage filled him as it never had before, and a grief far different than he had felt for the loss of his home, or for Cornelia's death. These were his people, and they were his responsibility. He had failed them.
The skree came out into the dying day, their eyes adjusting more easily to evening than they had to morning. Tiddles removed his robes and threw them into the flames from which no more of their brothers and sisters emerged. His snout was doused with blood, and more had dried in long stripes along his arms and claws. There was a wax tablet strapped to his belly, and no one questioned it.
Hundreds of Skree were dead or wounded. Tiddles had never imagined that the scattered bandits would antagonize so large a number of Skree when they had nothing to gain by doing so. His anger froze a crystal memory of the fire he would never lose. We are animals to them, he thought. We are rats.
Coolhands approached him. It wouldn't do to have their leader standing too long in defeat, gazing into flames. He was wary, however, as the scent of the Destroyer was stronger than he had ever known it to be.
"We must move quickly," Coolhands said. "We are in danger in the open."
Tiddles emitted a rapid clicking noise that male Skree make when they are about to kill each other, and females when their hatchlings are threatened.
Coolhands backed up.
"Did you know," Tiddles asked, "that when this city was well they put a bounty on our skins?"
"We know that," Coolhands said cautiously.
"We can't leave," Tiddles addressed the crowd. "I will not force those wounded or grieving to travel. We will stay until they are healed, and we will make the city safe until then." His voice raised, magically amplified and deepened so that all of them could hear. "We go into the city tonight to kill the humans. We will take their food and water, their weapons and their Tallo, and we will skin their men to hang the hides as warning to the others. We are many and they are few. I will lead you, and they will never think of us as rats again."
This was not the way of the Skree. They had squabbles, not wars. Resources under the mountain were too precious to waste on large scale conflicts. When they had seen the fires and the dead, their thoughts had turned not to revenge, but to home. But the Destroyer would not have it. He had brought them this far, and somehow that small form burned hotter than the flames to their eyes. His anger touched them, his will warped them, and they would follow. He was slathered with the blood of humans, as they would be soon.
The Skree that had gone as day scouts had returned. Some of them had been attacked, and humans had followed them back to the tribes. The bandits who had set the fires had doubtlessly believed that the building had held all of the Skree in the city.
Tiddles armed his hunters with knives and slings where he could, the rest would do with stone and claw. About a thousand would go with him; the rest would continue to aid the exodus out of the mountain. There were thousands more who would arrive this night.
Four groups went out. Tiddles led one, and Longtooth, Bladetail, and Growler led the others.
They knew where some of the camps were already, and Magnus helped him track them. The tablet whispered directions into his chest.
One group was bedded in the second story of an inn. Tiddles would enter alone, and manage anyone who was keeping watch. The Skree surrounded the inn, their night adapted eyes like so many red candles in the shadows.
Tiddles scaled the wall without difficulty, his claws finding easy purchase in the old wood. There was a deck on the second level, empty, and he signaled for more to follow him. Smoke seeped out of an open shutter. It was a bitter sweet smell that Tiddles recognized as an opiate. The old man he had lived with in this city had used it to ease the aches of his bones. This would be simple.
He made his way among the tangled bodies, eight in this room alone. The guard was probably on the stair, or in the floor below.
He saw a woman, tall and dark haired. Her face soft in sleep and lovely despite the signs of wear. Odd feelings stirred in him, she was like Cornelia. He had not found a way to explain to Eyebright that he was only attracted to human women. Probably, it was one of his master’s last jokes on him.
"Leave this one alive," he told his hunters. They looked at him nonplussed, but would obey.
He pointed to where they should stand as they had planned. A Skree can move quietly enough to escape the notice of a cave spider, and their eyes can catch the heartbeat of a fish beneath black waters. This was simple.
Tiddles placed his knife against the artery pulsing in the throat of the man who slept beside the woman that had caught his eye. He chirped.
The attack was swift and thorough, one man survived long enough to break a hunters leg and shout. The woman awoke in darkness to red eyes and steel.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
I met a good Skree once,my father wore him
about his waist
They came out of the trees that day
those weren't the good ones
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
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