"My name is Elsa."
"Your name is Cornelia." Tiddles said, his claw resting on her arm. "You are my pet."
Elsa was secured to a wooden post in the Skree's main camp. The lizard folk moved smoothly around her, offering curiosity and passing on, knowing that this human belonged to their leader and accepting that he made plans they were not expected to understand. She turned away from him.
In a few days the Skree had purged the bones of the City of Bandits. They had died by the score that first night, and more the next. The Skree were quick learners and would not be caught unawares in daylight again. They kept watch and dispersed their numbers over a large area. The remaining human squatters of Mondane had fled.
They could not stay in the city much longer. It was the source of the poison that was killing the mountain. Many Skree were already showing signs of weakness, but a fortune in weapons and usable materials had been scoured from the abandoned homes and businesses. Tiddles had been instructed Bighead and his acolytes in rudimentary forge craft. The tablet contained the sciences of lost ages, and Tiddles availed himself of conversations with it whenever he was alone.
"When you accept your name, you will be given the freedom of a member of our tribe." Tiddles said.
"Demon," she said under her breath.
He pressed his snout briefly against the top of her skull, as he would a hatchling. Elsa did not cringe from him, which was an improvement. In the light of day she did not bear such a strong resemblance to the original Cornelia. Tiddles master, Corneus, had called all of his bed slaves by that name. Tiddles couldn't entirely explain what he was going to do with her; neither letting her go nor killing her would satisfy. He wanted her in a way that was hard for him to explain. He wanted to own a human as he had once been owned, but keeping this one bound unsettled him the longer it went on. He left her to visit someone whose discomforts gave him no disquiet.
From each of the camps, they had culled a single victim to be used for information. As Tiddles was the only Skree capable of speaking as a man, it fell to him to interrogate the prisoners.
The bandits were chained at the edge of the poison, where the stench and taste from the crater was strong enough to gag the younglings who ventured there. The prisoners suffered from the proximity. Their skin had yellowed, and their eyes become bloodshot. Magnus had explained that it would not necessarily kill them, but left long enough, they would become monsters more than they already were. Tiddles was fascinated by the process.
The night was orange with burning buildings. Small fires started in the past few days had grown, and Tiddles had let them. No one would live safely in this place for many lifetimes.
"Snake!" a prisoner called. "King snake!' The others barely stirred.
"Good evening, " Tiddles said.
"Free me or kill me," he said. "You won't have any more help."
"The city is clean," Tiddles said. "I'm here to tell you it's over. If you know the lands we visit next, perhaps you would want to be a guide."
The prisoner laughed at him.
"That is for all of you," Tiddles said. "Agree to guide me and you will be free."
The man laughed until he coughed blood. "Snake. King Snake wants a man to help him. You're nothing but a boot waiting to be made."
"Me," another said, weakly. "Take me."
He was burly, hairy, heavy-lidded. Blood stained his nose and the corners of his eyes, and flesh hung loose from his muscles.
Tiddles unpinned his manacles with a small hammer.
The man sprang at him and held him in the dirt. Tiddles nipped at his arms, but the pain didn't matter. He was crazed, and his strength was tremendous. Despite his withering, the poison air had not weakened him at all. There were many Skree nearby, but they were too shocked to act, or else expected one of their kin would act first, so none did. For several moments, the combatants struggled on the ground beside the pool. The man had to work with his whole body to keep Tiddles claws at bay, and he was still being scratched by his feet. He pressed his forearm over Tiddles throat, trying to crush it. Tiddles tried to cry out and red flames erupted from his open jaws, scorching the skin from the man's face.
Tiddles was free, and his assailant was rolling in agony.
The Skree, awed, were silent.
"Kill these humans," Tiddles said, his throat raw. "I'm finished with them."
Not willing to approach the prisoners, the Skree pelted them with stones until they were dead. Tiddles walked away without watching the end. He was proud of how easily his Skree had taken to the sling, and he was working out a design for a miniature crossbow with Bighead. The lizard folk were naturally clever craftsmen with inhumanly nimble fingers, and there were many resources and ideas above that had never been guessed at below the mountain.
In the Tower, Tiddles had learned about the mythologies of men. The bandits believed their souls would wander as ghosts after their death, before finding their way into a new body, a new life. That was false. Most sparks were not strong enough to maintain any kind of coherency after death without the intervention of a greater power. When a man died, his spirit dissipated into the mondial. It would be born again, after a fashion, but not in the sense of true reincarnation. It was a cycle of dissolution and concretion, much as stones could be broken down into sand by water, then crushed into stone again by the weight of earth and time. The Skree did not bury their dead, they ate them, and used their bones and sinews to create threads and tools for the use of the tribe. It was a policy borne out of the pragmatism of resource scarcity. You couldn't make everything out of fungus grown in the dark.
Practical concerns, esoterica, brought Tiddles out of the moment of crisis, calmed the frantic beating of his birdlike heart. It was time to leave the curse of this place behind. They would seek out a forest to settle in so more of his people could be brought out of the mountain when they were convinced life was possible in the above. As weeks dragged on, the mountain would become more dangerous, until not even the most ingenious Skree could eek out life from its shrivelled bounty.
Bighead found him as he walked. "They say you breathed fire," he said. "Eyebright is telling everyone."
"It's time for us to leave," Tiddles said. "A day at the most."
"What of the forges?" Bighead said. He had been taller than Tiddles before they came above. The dragon had grown.
"Put what we can in the wagons and sleds, leave the rest." The bandits had kept horses, but the horses made difficult handling for the Skree. Most of them were still living on the edge of panic, another reason it would have been helpful to have a human with them.
Tiddles returned to Elsa a few hours later. He saw that she had been fed. "Elsa," he said, and she looked up sharply. The tension in her body was like an animal poised to flee. Tiddles was ashamed. He had done this to her out of a twisted sense of symmetry and his anger at the countless human atrocities against his people. He did not want her as a pet. No thinking creature should be treated that way. "Elsa," he said. "I am going to have you freed. No one will harm or detain you, and we will give you some food if you ask. You can go your own way or come with us, with me. It will be your choice."
"What?" she said. "What?"
Tiddles didn't know what else to say to her, so he gave instructions to the nearby Skree about her care and left.
The sky was a horror to the Skree, a vast empty cavern beyond all reason or imagining. The city and the folds of earth at the base of their ancestral mountain had been a reprieve against its enormity. Tiddles had to counsel them against their fear, travelling at night, for the bravest among them would cower before the dawn. Their numbers protected them from predators. No natural beast would approach the migration of thousands of lizardfolk, and the few huntsmen that scouted them sought no trouble. They passed through a few hamlets, scavenging all they could use, but leaving the humans unharmed who did not resist. What they brought with them was on their backs. The few beasts of burden that would cooperate pulled wagons loaded with pillaged tallo and tools.
Tiddles destination was not far, but the mass moved slowly. They were cautious, and the territory was unfamiliar. They would have been quicker in crevice and cramped tunnel than in these rolling foothills. Tiddles continued to use Eyebright and Bighead to disseminate information. Clusters of attentive Skree had grown around them, recognizing that they were one step removed from the dragon that led them. If he had not breathed fire to kill that man, it was possible much of the mass wouldn't have been able to leave the poisoned city. It had been the Skree equivalent of a miracle, and it had won him faith.
Amongst the streams of tooth and scale, a woman walked alone. She had a holiness about her as well, for she was a mystery to them. The dragon had spared a single human in the poisoned city, and they were to feed her as she needed it, give her what space she required, and otherwise let her to her own business. They didn't understand her when she spoke, and she didn't understand them, so they moved around her and gave her deference she didn't recognize. She wore a dress she had pilfered from a noblewoman's manor and didn't say much, but sang and laughed to herself as the days wore on. Skree gathered around her when she did, arrested by the alien tonality of her voice.
The forest was a league deep. It wouldn't be enough to house the entirety of their race, but it was more than sufficient to provide a base for those that followed him already. They were grateful for the canopy, and eyed the trees with great appreciation for their size and strength. No mushroom grew so tall or straight in the gardens of the deep.
As they settled, finding a way to feed themselves sustainably became an immediate priority, even above thoughts of defense. The mountain had trained them to survive in scarcity, to use resources well and sparingly.
Tiddles asked Magnus for advice, and he was quickly apprised of every edible plant in Petronia, and the uses of those that weren't. He explained what he could to Eyebright and Bighead, and they spread the information further. Because they were one step removed from the dragon, Skree followed them as if they were the most respected elders. There were few Fatetaster's among those that followed the dragon, but these few where practical. They took to dealing with Eyebright, who was less off putting than the dragon but held the prestige of being his ostensible mate.
Spores had been carefully preserved during the journey, and ditches were dug to plant the root cakes. The ditches were covered by woven branches and leaves, while streams were mapped and diverted. It was a relief to the Skree to have these tasks to occupy them, bringing almost the normalcy of their underground gardens. It distracted them from the shards of sun and sky that glowered through the gaps in the canopy. Squirrels and small birds proved delicious diversion for those who weren't so occupied.
Tiddles did not speak to Elsa again until she came to him. He was alone in a clearing, performing the nightly ritual that Magnus had taught him. Skree observed from comfortable distances, obscured by shade and briar.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
He dropped the knife he had been using to draw sigils. "I thought you were gone," he said.
"Gone where?" She looked like a rumpled young countess.
"I don't know," Tiddles said. "You're on your own. You are free."
"I have nothing," she said. "You killed everyone I knew and then you captured me."
"Sorry," Tiddles said.
Elsa laughed at him. "What kind of demon are you?"
He shuffled his feet.
"I don't care about the men you killed. They were bastards. But I cared about my friend. She slept in the same room I did, and you," her hands balled into fists, and she wavered. "Why me? Why did you keep me, not her?"
"What was her name?" Tiddles said.
"Anna," she said, trying not to cry.
"You looked like someone I used to know." Tiddles picked up his knife. "I'm sorry. We had been attacked, and I was angry." He turned to finish drawing lines in the earth.
"That's it?" Elsa said. "That's all you have for me?"
"You're alive. You can stay with us or go. Bad things happen in war, and I made a mistake."
"What mistake?" Elsa moved to cross into his circle, but Skree were instantly crouching in front of her, blocking the way. She spoke over them. "Killing her or keeping me?"
"I'm not sure." Tiddles stood erect. Light slipped from his claws as he drew further sigils in the air. Elsa stepped back, shocked into silence. This was another order of miraculous from a Skree that talked and stood like a man. The words that followed pressed against her mind, but could not enter. The Skree watched in reverence as magic filled their leader, flashed, and vanished.
The circle he had drawn in the ground was dusted with ash, and motes like pollen in sunlight crowded the air about him.
"Demon," Elsa whispered.
"Demons come from the Far Realms," Tiddles said. "They are creatures of chaos and despair. Their realm is often referred to as the thirteenth mantle, though it is not a mantle at all in the technical mantic sense."
"What?" Elsa said.
Tiddles stretched his body, bending his long clawed fingers back and forth, seemingly stiff. "If you are going to stay with us, " he said, "then I am going to educate you, so you can be useful."
"I won't help you," Elsa said.
"Your choice." Tiddles left the clearing and went back inside the camp. His onlookers followed. After a long beat, Elsa went after him as well.
Tiddles met with a group of older Skree. Elsa guessed they were older, being larger and leaner, with hints of excess skin around their jaws. Several of them were in the process of molting, and they all had duller scales than the other Skree. The group ignored her even to within a few paces, close enough that she could look over their shoulders to see the map they had gathered around. It was easy to recognize Mondane, the city at the base of a great mountain. Beyond that, she knew little. Elsa had always considered herself quite well spoken, but she had not been taught letters or figures.
"Elsa, do you know this area well?"
She jumped at Tiddles voice, and all those reptilian eyes were suddenly upon her. They never blinked, but their forked tongues slipped in and out of their snouts with regularity. He was pointing to a blot of green on the map.
"Is that where we are?" she asked. "I've been in this wood before, and there isn't much to say about it."
"No other bandit groups?"
Elsa shrugged. The band she'd traveled with had been living off the wreckage of Mondane for weeks. Before that, it was refugees on the road fleeing the city. The forest was good for hiding if someone was after you, but there was so much wrong in the world since Mok's folly, you had to rob a noble to get any attention. Elsa had never robbed a noble. She preferred not to rob anyone. A little stealing could keep her afloat when it was needed. The men of her band hadn't had the same qualms. You didn't always get to choose who you survived with.
"What about these settlements?"Tiddles talons tapped a few small dots on the parchment.
"What are their names?" Elsa said.
"Evenbend, Gartendall, and Bolderick."
"Bolderick was burned," she said. "The other two are both Falling house."
"What does that mean?"
Elsa took a few steps back, crossed her arms, started to walk away, didn't have anywhere to go, turned around a few times, and finally leaned against a nearby tree. Tiddles trilled at her, and returned to his conversation with the elders.
"I'm not going to help you," she said, and the forest ignored her.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
William Myrl high fantasy books, young adult fantasy books
In truth he was three things, also none
a man, a skree, a dragon, and the son
of war far older than any, all or one
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