Note:  This is the draft version of chapter one that Abigail Hilton is commenting on in Episode 24 of the Fullcast Podcast.  It will have been edited further prior to release.  I have put it here so those interested can see the text we are referring to in that show, and also as a sample for those interested in knowing more about the story as I move toward casting and producing the audio version.  Any comments are welcome, with a preference for them to come via the e-mail posted on this site. –Bryan

Malcontent 

by Bryan Richard Lincoln

  

Chapter 1

They emulate our form, but to excess; arms, fingers, necks slightly overstretched.  Massive heads reminiscent of mythical dragons.  Carnivores.  Thinkers.  Reptilian eyes that pierce your very being. 

–  Grienne the Lost

Misth poured scented water into her thin hands from the bladder sack that hung from her silk belt. She rubbed the cool fluid over her bare arms, her scales glistening green in the soft moonlight. Her heart raced from the long climb. Behind her the trail was wide but steep, an ascent most reptiles would choose to make mounted on a snoutbeast or pulled in a carriage. A flat shelf opened before her, the top of the smaller of two seaside plateaus that stood high over their jungle city. She crossed it, only leaving the trail when it ended with rend earth and open air high over the dark ocean. Her forked tongue tested the stiff wind, and she sensed that she was close to her mate. Grasses tickled her splayed feet as she walked along the rim of the world.

She found Skafth perched in a solitary tree stretched over the black sky like a reaching, clawed hand. He noted her approach with a wave but did not pull his eyes off the devastation far below. The fortress had stood on a sharp finger of rock like a stone sentinel, but now lay torn and tossed, reduced to shadowed chunks protruding from the evening waves. The edge of the plateau, once walled and sharp, had become a descending wedge of exposed roots and mud. Misth waited at the top of the slope, well above the tree’s base but below Skafth’s hunched form several body lengths out over the edge.

She tried to imagine the subterranean grip holding the defiant tree against the constant pull of its own weight. While many reptiles would argue that Skafth was the wisest of them all, Misth could not fathom why he would put himself in such a precarious place. The wind whipped past him, snapping the ends of his white robe. He turned his dark brown head to look her way at last, sorrow in his face.

“This world is too much sometimes,” he said over the air’s wailing.

She watched him.

“I should have done things differently.  I am a fool.”

Misth flicked her tongue in a silent fit of humor.

  “Did you ever wonder why the fortress was built here?” he asked. “After all, the Meeting Grounds and Xavath’s Estates are both on the other plateau. It has always been so, through all of our chiefs.”

“I wish you would come down from there,” Misth said. “Come with me so we can celebrate our victory. The others are feasting and dancing even now.”

“It was for the view. Not for defensive reasons, and not as a symbol of the chief’s power high above the poorest parts of the lower city. It was always for this view.”

He growled.  “This is far from over. It is not yet time to cheer ourselves.”

Misth considered the other eleven leaders of the Night Tongue. It was as if Skafth sensed danger from one of them. She couldn’t fathom such duplicity after all they had been through. The chief was dead! If they began killing each other for control of their city, they would be no better than those they had worked so hard to supplant. She held firm to her belief that they had made things better. “Please come down. For me.”

Skafth ran a hand up the back of his neck and scratched at the black frills that hung there. He stared at her with his one good eye. “There is a light, out on the Ocean. A message I think, though not meant for me.”

“I don’t see anything,” Misth said.

“It would have been visible from the fortress.” He looked down again. “It all seems so small now,” he said. “I only set foot in that dark place once. I was a youngling. The majesty of the halls was tangible enough to press me to the ground.”

“And now it is rubble, Skafth,” said Misth. “And all the evil beings inside it are dead.”

“So are the answers we sought,” he said. “I should have devised a better way.”

“You moved a mountain today.” Misth gasped as the ground shifted under her feet, as if to mock her words. She became more insistent. “The caverns beneath us can still collapse further. No one should be up here.”

“I’ve missed something,” he said.

She hissed in frustration. “You just feel guilty. Many Sekathians died, and not all of them deserved it. We couldn’t warn every last innocent without your plan being discovered.”

“You may be right,” he said.

She paced the rim of the wedge, eyes blinking against the steady, salted wind as Skafth climbed his way down the tree at last.

“I will feel better about all of this if we recover Xavath’s body. I want to be certain he is dead.” Skafth made his way up the slope, his muddied robe stretching taught as he used both legs and arms to find purchase.

“They are still finding bodies.  Even if his is lost at sea, no one could have survived that fall,” she said as she pointed past him.

Skafth was smiling as he reached up to her. “I have always loved your certainty. Tell me, what do you think the light is?”

Misth reached out and took his hand, pulling him up with both of hers. He was cold, as if the wind had sucked the heat from his scales. “Well, it can’t be a ship. Not yet, anyway. Xavath dismantled everything bigger than a canoe seasons ago. How far out was it?”

The ground groaned below them and the world tilted. In a blink, they were on a new, longer wedge that began to slide under their feet. Misth saw the tree topple out of sight behind Skafth, who was pushing her uphill. She turned to run, and felt Skafth’s breath hot on her neck. The new, higher rim was just above them. They were going to make it, she was certain. But as she ran, feet clawing and hands grabbing at anything that would help pull her forward, the sliding gained speed. Skafth gripped her. She was lifted, and sailed through the air. She hit the ground hard, but managed to wrap herself around a tuft of grasses that sat just above the landslide. She turned to look back and saw Skafth reach for her with one claw-trimmed hand and fail. He slid away, rolling end over end in the roiling dirt. His head dropped past the ground line with a determined, predatory grimace, and he was gone.

“No!” Misth screamed. Only the wind screamed back.

* * *

Her mind in shock, unbelieving, Misth’s body took charge and tore across the high plateau. She reached the steep trail down, the air whistling past her. Sharp stones pierced the under-scales of her long feet. She winced at each sting, but made no attempt to avoid them.

A repeating thought filled her mind. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t have happened.   This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t have happened.   This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t…

In a flash of motion, she was pulled skyward, flipped, and pinned facing the ground, a heavy weight sitting on her back. The pressure was sharp and focused, and then it lifted away.

She tried to scramble down the path, but a claw grabbed her arm. “Misth?”

She spun and snapped at the air, a clamping of strong jaws.

“What has you so heated, fellow sun soaker?” The male did not fear her. He was smiling, his scent curious.  His emerald scales were familiar in the nightglow. As Misth forced herself to breathe, to think for a moment rather than fight her way free, she recognized his tall frame and long jaw.

“Let me go, Kithifth!”

His grip loosened, but he still held her arm. “In such a hurry.  Where’s the flood?”

She showed her teeth. She knew if she stopped to explain it, the reality of it would bear down on her with all of its weight. “Skafth fell,” she hissed and pulled her arm free.

He blocked her path. “What?  Fell from where?”

“The top, you hatchling!” She shoved him aside and slipped away. She had to get to the water. Maybe Skafth was alive. He might be broken and dying, washed up somewhere along the beach.

Misth shook the thought away and ran harder. She wouldn’t be able to help him until she found him. She was the wind; blowing down the trail, through the dense jungle, and across the light sand. Not even the waves could slow her.

* * *

Kithifth made his patient way down to the beach, contemplating his odd fortune. If Skafth was truly dead, the Inner Circle would stand at eleven, and there was little doubt that he was the one poised to fill the next vacancy. He had always served the Night Tongue with a quiet grace. He had heard many conversations about his loyalty in private baths and secret meeting houses, the very places that had hosted their rebellion under the very snouts of Xavath’s pompous enforcers.

He had gone to the plateau to tell Skafth of an idea in the vain hope that he could win the favor of his least solid supporter. It had made almost too much sense. The one thing he knew for certain about Skafth’s reclusive mate was that she was sitting on a wealth of old lore, the very thing that Karth and a few of the others in the Inner Circle would love to discover. While Kithifth had little time for such histories, he knew their value. Misth herself might not even realize what she had, as it was Risurrit, her mentor and teacher, who had hidden them away somewhere within his own Preservatorium before his recent death. Few reptiles knew about the stash, and Kithifth was certain that Skafth would be more than receptive to the idea of the Inner Circle uncovering such a treasure, and making his mate rich in the process. All Kithifth desired in return was Skafth’s good will, and perhaps a few called in favors farther down the trail.

But fate, in its strange way, had spoiled his plans while opening him to new opportunities. It all came back to Misth. If he no longer had a need to impress Skafth, he could turn his attention to Karth. He could consider not paying Misth for it at all. If she didn’t know about it, she wouldn’t miss it. If he could get close enough to her, he could learn where it might be.

He found Misth in a sobbing heap on the beach. Her belly heaved and her narrow nostrils flared. She had swum herself to exhaustion. Sand clung to her wet leggings and red rag of a shirt. She looked like a dying animal.

“Get up,” he said to her.

When she didn’t respond, he repeated himself more firmly. “Get! Up!”

She did so, with a little help from him. Her eyes would not focus on anything. Her thin frame teetered as if ready to collapse again. “I couldn’t find him,” she whispered.

Kithifth held her up. “I am sorry for your loss,” he said, cradling her as he spoke.   “Skafth was important to all of us, and he will be missed.” 

She sobbed against him. “I don’t know what to do.”

He rubbed the cold dome of her head. “You don’t need to worry about that. I know why you are afraid. You were a no-one before you met Skafth, but the Night Tongue is quite fond of you, and not only because you were his mate. You will be taken care if. I will see to it myself.”

“Thank you, but that is not what I meant,” said Misth. “I don’t care about anything. I just feel so empty right now.”

Kithifth watched a group of reptiles walking among the shadows along the far end of the crescent shaped beach as he considered what to say. He might not have a better chance at her later. He had to try now.

“I could be even more for you, if you would like.”

She responded with a shove followed by a vicious swipe across his chest. He was glad she was a scribe. Most females would have had the claws to have hurt him. He grabbed both of her wrists.

“It is a fair offer,” he said. “We could help each other.”

“He is barely dead, and you are already trying to use me for…for something. I am morning him, and my world is spinning, but my wits are not so far gone. You disgust me.” Her eyes blazed.

Kithifth spat. Perhaps he should have waited.  “I have offended you. That was not my intention.”

“I know more about you than you think, Kithifth. Skafth never liked you.”

Kithifth swallowed. He knew that he could not control such a wilful creature. Insulting Skafth would do nothing. He could offer her money for the old writings, even pay another so that she never knew it was him who was buying them, but there was a better way. Risurrit was dead. As his sole apprentice, Misth was the only one overseeing the Preservatorium. If she were to disappear, Kithifth could search it at his leisure.

“I wonder what could have drawn Skafth to such a dangerous place,” Kithifth said. She did not react to his threat. Perhaps her wits were gone after all. Perhaps she lacked them in the first place. He would destroy her. If she was too good for him, she was of no use.

“Leave me to my grief, Kithifth,” she said.

“Very well,” he said, dismissive. He left her there, standing in the sand. He would decide what had happened on the high plateau, and by the time Misth had finished grieving everyone would believe she had murdered the great Skafth. One last glance back and he almost pitied her sobbing form. There was a longing, too; a will to dominate her when she was so vulnerable. He let these two extremes dance and parry in his mind as he set about his new task. On the morrow, the beach would be teeming with reptiles sifting through the rubble once more, with Skafth just one more number among the dead. But for now, it would be Misth’s place of mourning.

* * *

Misth spent the night floating in the dark bay, only the end of her snout poking above the water. The salt taste would make any of her kind uncomfortable under normal circumstances, but she was locked in a sort of dreamscape; her body was only a faint, remote input, no more than a tickle under a cascade of pain and loss. She watched Skafth fall, again and again.

It was as if she were poison. Her parents had died when she was a hatchling; after her father disappeared, her mother took her own life. Then her brothers had died, neglected by the city when no other brood absorbed them, the only hope for abandoned hatchlings before they came of age. Misth had been given to Risurrit, and so she had lived. She had learned his craft and learned his ways, and came to meet Skafth at the gatherings of the Night Tongue, which Risurrit had helped to create. Her poison must have taken longer with them, but Risurrit died at the hands of an enraged Xavath, and Skafth was now gone, too. Misth should have been left to die with her brothers.

She was slow to comprehend the net settling over her. It was the intake of water as her snout was tugged under that brought her back to the moment.  She saw light beaming through blue-tinged water, meaning dawn had broken. She was constricted and drowning. Disoriented, and pulling against the impeding strands, she did not know which direction held that vital, life-giving breath. She fought on instinct. Twisting and flailing, kicking and pulling, she was slowing, becoming weak.  She relaxed and gently sank until she settled upon something soft.  The ropes began dragging her sidelong.  The new orientation gave her hope and she pushed off of the sand floor, moving upward until she broke the surface, taking a deep, desperate breath. She heard voices coming from the beach as they pulled her in.

“Murderess!” someone shouted.

“Break her! Destroy her!”

Misth knew them. They were her friends and acquaintances.  Why would they be so angry with her? It took her only a moment to understand. In such a bloody season, she would never get a chance to explain. Skafth was dead. He was more important than she was, to a head. In that moment, hearing the hatred in their voices, she concluded that all of this time, they had merely tolerated her because of him. Kithifth had been correct.  She was a no-one, poison and little else.

The net snagged and tore, flinging her onto the beach. She crawled weakly and aimlessly, too exhausted to stand. She was gathered up by many claws, bound with rope about her legs and arms, lifted, and carried. Soon it became apparent what they were going to do: they would walk her back up to the high plateau and throw her from the same cliff from which Skafth had fallen. A life for a life; the way of the Night Tongue.  She did not struggle. A part of her had contemplated doing this very thing as she had floated in the sea.

Kithifth was there when they reached the summit. He did not speak as she was led to a clean edge, an area away from the landslide but still over the water.  He looked at her with a piteous expression as she was brought to stand with her back to the sky, arms and legs still tied, extra rope hanging loosely.  She hissed at her murderer. He stepped forward, put a hand on her neck, and pushed her so that she fell backward and toppled from the cliff’s edge.

* * *

Kithifth stood and looked down, his people splayed across the hillside behind him. Only he had the viewpoint to see that Misth had become snagged in a nest of protruding rocks and branches part way down the cliff’s face. The cracking sound had been feint against the cheering mob. He quickly determined that trying to get down to her to make sure she was dead would be too undignified, too anticlimactic, to consider. Her body was likely broken, he assured himself. And if not, she would starve hanging there, bound and abandoned. Perhaps not what he had intended, but effective enough.

From the crowd of onlookers, a strong female with a pronounced underbite approached him. He knew her as the broodmother, a title earned from the common reptiles, which helped and obeyed her for reasons Kithifth had never understood. He moved to block her view.

“It is over,” he said. The broodmother had appeared by his side that dawn, soon after he had told the first reptiles he encountered about Misth’s jealous murder of the great Skafth. He gathered his thoughts and spoke to all that had gathered. “Now we may mourn our lost friends. And write songs of our conquest; our rise to greatness amidst tragedy and hope. Sekathians will never be the same.”

The broodmother put a hand on his shoulder. She was nearly as tall as he was, and her arms were undoubtedly thicker. “I am called Oogrith, in case you do not know me. There are ways that I can help you.”

Kithifth took one last confident glance around. He turned and began walking toward home, grinning with pride as the others moved to follow.

* * *

Misth hung twisted in clinging branches. It felt as though she had been split in half: her hip was screaming at her, and her belly felt damp.  The jarring stop in her fall had done two things. The rope binding her legs had popped apart, freeing them, while her neck had been flung back and then forward rapidly, making her dizzy, her thoughts slow. It left her stunned and helpless.

As time passed, she felt a growing rage toward Kithifth. He had managed to kill her, yet leave her helpless long enough to ponder her failure and the ease with which she had been ruined.  This gave her a surge of vengeful energy, but with nothing to unleash it on it turned into frustration.

Forcing useful thoughts into her head, Misth considered and rejected a physical climb back to the top. It was a feat she doubted she could manage in the best of shape. That left a long, slow decent, perhaps using scraps of rope to help lower herself down, bit by bit. A stolen glance gave her a wave of vertigo that promised a thousand thousand falls. Her eyes closing, she did all she that could; she hated and regretted as the sun beat on her battered body. She did not have the strength to save herself.

Her hands still bound, she fought to free the bladdersack from her belt and push it toward her eager mouth. It toppled free and fell out of her sight. She waited long moments, but did not hear it hit the water over the howling winds.

* * *

Kithifth was nearly breathless with anticipation. Where Skafth had been like a wise-one to the Inner Circle, Kithifth, always on the periphery, was a reptile who got things done. Dealing with Misth had been no exception. Kithifth had brought the dreadful news, given a reptile to blame for their loss, and the matter was closed. Already, the Inner Circle had called a meeting and told him he was to attend.

The remains of the day could not have passed swiftly enough.

Oogrith did not leave his side. She introduced him to her most trusted loyalists, be they messengers or gossipers or advisors. It was a lot to remember with his thoughts so set on the approaching evening, but he knew he would have plenty of time to become acquainted with them all.

As the sun set, Kithifth was free to leave the squalor of the lower city and make his way to the Meeting Grounds high on the Upper Plateau. There was only one means to travel from the lower to the upper city, and that was by way of the great lift. The final stretches of the Sekath River ran along the base of the highest plateau before spilling into the ocean. A wide stone bridge ran from the lower city and across before ending abruptly against the wall of the plateau. The lift could carry about two dozen reptiles at a time to the top. It was no longer guarded with Xavath gone. An aged reptile controlled the levers, nodding to Kithifth with respect when he made passage.

Kithifth passed through the wide rock gardens immediately upon exiting the lift. He could see the towers protruding from the far end of the shelf, and soon after the walls surrounding his destination, the Meeting Grounds. He found the gate barred and had to knock to gain entry. Once through a second set of gates, he looked with wonder at the private grounds, an interior open to the sky, a low flat circle at its center, a strong spear throw wide and ringed with stairs, three steps high. Torches lined those stairs, lighting the whole of the grounds. The outer area was flat as well, with shorter towers at each corner. A large rock stood off to one side, against the inner face of the protective wall. This was where he found the eleven members of the Inner Circle.

It was Karth who spoke first. Despite a thin frame and the early signs of sagging skin that would soon turn from green to black with age, Karth was still a very imposing mind. He had always had an impressive knowledge of the short recorded history of their people.  About a dozen generations had come since the mysterious age in which their written records began.  Before that they may as well not have existed.  Karth was among those who believed they hadn’t.

“We must temper our pride in this, our day of rising. We must never forget why we found ourselves united in a cause, or the enormous amount work it took to succeed, or how tragically tenuous life can be. Skafth taught us that last one better than anyone. It was his final lesson to give. The Great Fall was followed closely by a fallen great. Fellow Sekathians, this is the first time in my lifetime that we have lost so many in a single day. It was necessary, I know. Too many inexplicable laws appeared to do nothing more than to test our resolve. We passed that test when we struck down our chief. Now we must rebuild. But still we are tested. We must not repeat the mistakes of others. We must live with freedom from rules except where necessary for our survival. We will not ban fishing when it is fish that we crave for nourishment. We will bury our dead again, where we may visit them and remember them, and no longer cast their dead husks out to sea. Those that fell into the ocean, including our beloved Skafth and his…misguided mate, will be that last to be so discarded.”

His eyes fell on Kithifth, who chided himself for looking away.

“We must be free. We also must not kill our own except in very specific and extreme cases, and under the full judgement of the Inner Circle of the Night Tongue. This must be remembered, for we are not a flourishing tribe as we once were, and every life is a vital part of our very survival.  Remember, you cut away a vile growth in order to heal strong and unblemished, but if you cut away too much, it will never grow back. Use caution in all things, my fellow leaders.”

Karth slid from the rock and gathered his parchment and a hooded cape that had been lying at his feet. Others murmured as he began to walk toward the gate.  He stopped and offered explanation, “I cannot stay to hear your wise words in return for my own, and for that I am sorry. There is something I must do. It cannot wait.”

He paused as he passed Kithifth, gesturing to him with one clawless hand.

  “As I go, I would like to welcome Kithifth as a full member of the Inner Circle, bringing our number to twelve. The vote was unanimous.  Heed my words, young one, and forgive me for having to miss the initiation.”

To Kithifth’s surprise, the others bowed respectfully and did not offer complaint over his exit. He bowed as well, as he did not want to appear to argue when he was about to come to his rightful place among his peers.  Kithifth pondered why Karth might leave even as he listened to the others congratulate him in turn. It was going to be a long, memorable night, full of rituals and oaths, but Kithifth new that in the end he would recall Karth’s curious absence above everything else.

* * *

When Misth awoke, she had forgotten where she was. It was dark, and her pain reminded her before the twisting branches made any sense. She had slept the whole day and into the night. She still lived, but she felt no more able to climb. Seabirds called in the distance and she began feeling the pangs of hunger.

The surf far below created a calm ambience only interrupted by the occasional gust of wind.  The edge of the world alternated between peaceful and harsh.

She slept some more. When she didn’t, she contemplated her life, her cause, and all that she had lost. She was haunted by the memory of Skafth’s expression as he fell, as if he’d had time in that instant to realize how ridiculous it was to die of something so avoidable. His fearlessness had killed him, his odd need to be at such a high, dangerous place when everyone else was celebrating in communal huts and clearings.

Misth stared down at the black ocean. She saw no light, just as she hadn’t from the edge of the plateau. If Skafth had to climb to see the signal, how did he know to climb in the first place? The answer was obvious. He must have known to look for it.

But who was it for? The fortress was gone. There was nothing left.  Could they be survivors from the Great Fall trying to signal that they were stranded out at sea, not aware of the extent of the damage? Wouldn’t she see that from her Cliffside grave? She could not understand it.

The pressure building in her hip, she turned so she was less on her side and more on her back amidst the tangle. She looked up, hoping to let the night sky distract her from her throbbing pain. She was startled to see torchlight, weak against the array of stars. A moment of indecision, and then she cried out.

“Help me! Please help!”

A feint voice came in return, barely audible. The light, to her horror, disappeared. Then it was back. Another muffled call, and she realized that she had been found. Someone was helping her. Someone might listen to her; learn that it had all been an accident and that she just wanted to go home.

She called out as her breath allowed until a rope was directed to where she hung. It did not take long, which meant that at least one of her rescuers knew exactly where she had been pushed off.  Only then did it occur to her that it might be Kithifth returning to finish her.

If it was him, she would find the strength to pull him back over the edge with her.

She caught the rope with her feet, and managed to free her hands enough to hold on, snaking the rope around her legs and slick middle as much as possible. After calling out, she was lifted in a series of painful jerks.

As she came over the lip, biting down against even more sharp discomfort, she was surprised to find only three standing in the soft torchlight. The reptile holding the rope was big, his scales dark green, and the frills falling around his shoulders a deep black. Three rows of short spikes ran from the front to the back of his head, which was bowed to her as he began coiling the line. Misth recognized Triss, small and bony, standing to one side. She was a long-time if not close friend who Misth had seen less and less of the more she became involved in the Night Tongue. The third she knew the best of all, a friend to her and Skafth, and a part of the Inner Circle they had just put into power. “Karth! Thank you, oh thank you!” Karth helped her up, and accepted her embrace before handing her a bladdersack filled with water.

“Thank you for this,” Karth said to the others. “It puts a glimmer of hope into a dark day.”

“I didn’t kill him,” Misth blurted, water running out of her mouth

“I know. Your love for him was a true thing.” Karth said.

“What do I do now, Karth?”

He shrugged. “My instincts tell me that it is not safe for you right now. Kithifth started a vile lie that is still hot in the minds of many Sekathians. If I brought you back and confronted him now, you might end up right back here to be thrown over again.”

“But your words carry more meaning. You lead us now.”

“So does he. Kithifth has joined the Inner Circle tonight.”

“What? How can that be? How can you let him, after what he did to me?”

Karth looked at her, his face sagging in the torchlight. “It is complicated. A void now would distract us from what needs to be done. I can control Kithifth.”

“So he ascends, and I am as good as dead.”

“My calm and steady ways win out more often than not, but only over time, and time you do not have. I will have to hide you for now.”

“But I have nowhere to go. I am certain Kithifth knows about the Preservatorium, and that’s all I have.” Misth grunted in frustration and looked out at the water, wondering why she had bothered to struggle to stay alive on the cold, empty cliffside. Perhaps she could hide in the lower city, apprentice a lesser trade and live alone in the dark for a time. “There was a tree off that way,” she said, pointing. “Skafth had climbed it to be at the highest point that was left. He saw a light out there, a signal that is invisible to us from here.”

Karth stood in silence. Triss and Doroth looked between the night sky and the elder in anticipation.

But it was Misth who spoke. “Survivors of the Great Fall? Why else would Sekathians be out there?”

“Doroth, your spear please,” said Karth. “Take me to the place, Misth.”

“But it is gone. The tree and the land above it slid off the edge. That is how Skafth died!”

“Show me,” he said.

She led them to where it had all happened, Triss worrying over her wounds as she limped, bones grinding in her hip. “Please, Karth. I was above the damage before when the ground gave way. This is not safe!”

Karth ignored her as he held the spear tip to the light. “Too dull,” he said and pulled a mirror from the folds of his robe.

“Help me tie this, Doroth,” he said, and the pair worried over the end of the spear. “Now put Triss on your shoulders and hand this up to her.”

They complied, and Misth saw something she had missed. Triss and Doroth were a mated pair. She was sure of it. How long had it been since she had last spoken with Triss?

The thin female twisted the spear, rotating the mirror as Karth instructed. Misth tried to judge the angle, to imagine where Skafth’s perch had been with it now gone. “A little higher I think. It is hard to say.”

Doroth grunted as he lifted onto clawed toes. Triss stretched.

“Hold,” yelled Karth with excitement. “I see it! It is very bright!”

Doroth’s chest was heaving and the mirror started to sway. “I could stand on something,” he said under strain.

Karth looked out over the water and back before waving them down. “That is enough. Thank you. It is a bit difficult to judge in the dead of night, but I believe it is coming from The Spine, a small island. Do you know it?”

“Can we move from the edge now?” asked Misth. “The slide came with little warning.”

Karth nodded and they left the plateaus edge, finding the main path that lead across the large shelf.

“So who is it?” asked Misth.

“I don’t know who, I only know where. We’ll have to find out.”

“I will go,” said Triss.

“You will not!” Doroth insisted.

“If they are survivors as Misth suggested, then they should not know me as a part of the rebellion.”

“I will not allow you to take that chance,” said Doroth.

Triss showed her teeth. “And who are you to…”

“Stop,” said Karth. “There are many ways to help. Let me think.”

“What is there to think about?” asked Triss.

“For one thing, the signal might not come from Sekathians at all.”

“What?!?” Misth covered her mouth, embarrassed by the outburst.

“Our fallen chief did strange things, much of which involved the water. Maybe he had dealings with another tribe.”

“Other tribe?” asked Triss. “What are you talking about?”

“The land is large and I’ve always wondered if we were alone. It would explain a lot that has confused me of late.”

This went against everything Misth had been taught. There were no other reptiles, not even small communities of them, ever since Sekathia was founded several generations past. The city was older than that of course, but the outer walls had drawn a clear line and made them all one tribe. No one ventured into the wild jungle for more than expeditionary reasons, certainly not to settle anywhere. There were old stories of ships of reptiles lost at sea, but how far would they have to have gone to remain a mystery to this day? You couldn’t hide ships from reptilian eyes, could you?

Karth interrupted her thoughts. “Whoever it is, we must reach out to them. But in light of recent events, and considering the impact of my theory, we need to be certain before I can bring it to the Inner Circle.  I cannot go. If Misth is correct and they are survivors of the Great Fall, I would be recognized.”

Misth looked to Triss and Doroth. Mated, and she had never known Triss to even have an interested male. Misth had been too deep into her books for far too long. Even in the midst of a rebellion, she should have been aware of what was happening in her friends’ lives. It wasn’t like she had a lot of them.

“I’ll do it, Karth” said Misth. “You saved my life. I want to help you.”

“You are hurt,” Karth said.

“I am expendable.”

“No, you are not!” exclaimed Karth, his words so fierce even Doroth took a step back.

He lowered his voice to a whisper. “You owe me nothing. And I was not going to suggest…”

“Let her do it, Karth,” Doroth said. “Who can you trust more than her? Tell me, who would be better?”

“I could go,” Triss offered.

“No!” said Doroth. “Misth is a scribe, yes?”

“She is a Preserver,” said Karth.

“So she worked for the chief, in a way. She supplied him with scrolls and..”

“He speaks true. While the Night Tongue knows me well, many of Xavath’s advisors bought and sold things through Risurrit. They probably think of me as his young helper, and of little threat.”

Karth raised a hand, and let out a frustrated breath. “Very well. I don’t like it, but it does give me time to give Kithifth another clear warning before he is surprised by news of your survival.” He paused. “But first you must be fed, and if you are too hurt to do this, you must tell me. Doroth will see that you eat. Did you bring clothes like I asked?” Doroth nodded. “Good. Triss will find you a watercraft of some kind. I believe there are a number of them near the wreckage site from the body searches. I will return to the city and create a diversion until you are safely away.”

“How do I approach them?” Misth asked, hiding a sudden anxiety from her voice.

“Be cautious. That is all I can say. Dawn approaches. You must leave before the sun gets to high, or you run the risk of being recognized when everyone thinks you are dead. I also fear that if you wait too long, they may be gone. Triss will wait for you on the beach until you return, and will help hide you. Come with information as soon as you can.  If Spine Island is empty, and I was wrong, just come back. Take no risks, Misth. We do not know who they are or if they are friendly. I’m bothered by the secrecy surrounding all of this. I wish it could be me, but it simply cannot. I have too much responsibility. It is a crucial time for the Inner Circle.”

Karth and Triss left her standing with Doroth. She watched them go, and longed to be returning with them.

Suppressing a sob, she looked to the stranger. “Thank you for helping me.”

“We do what we must,” he said.

He looked strong. She wondered if he knew Skafth, but was afraid to ask. “Triss and I were close friends once. Treat her well.”

He nodded.

Doroth pulled a linen shirt and some leggings from a small bag and handed them to her. “These belonged to Triss. She told me you were a similar enough size. You don’t want to introduce yourself covered in blood like you are now.

He turned around as she changed, but as she tried to pull off the scraps of her leggings, she had to ask him for help.

“I have a cut across my middle, but my hip is what really hurts,” she said as he pulled the new leggings on her as gently as he could. The shirt was much easier to replace. “I don’t suppose you could come with me, at least as far as the edge of the island?”

“I wish I could, but my will is not my own.” He turned and considered her for a moment before he handed her a small pouch pulled from the same bag as the clothes. She opened it and found strips of cooked wildbird meat. Her tongue flicked at the aroma. “Eat slowly,” Doroth said. It was all she could do not to swallow it all whole.

“It was very wrong, what was done to you. You are brave,” he said. “Do you need to rest or shall we find out if Triss has found you a boat?”

She took a deep breath. She could do this. She could solve this mystery and then maybe she could salvage some small bit of good out of Skafth’s needless death.

“I am ready,” she said. “But I think I need you to help me to walk. The trail down to the beach is very steep.”

She put her arm around him. Doroth carried a strong male scent and though they walked slowly, she was certain his breathing had not been so rapid a few moments before.

***