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original fiction: Tin Man [2/16] - Diary of a Necromancer
Excuse me, I'm making perfect sense, you're just not keeping up
robling_t
robling_t
original fiction: Tin Man [2/16]


Chapter Two



Obermond turned out to be three weeks' walk, considering the golem's pace, and by the middle of the third the persistent clammy mist had sunk me into the foulest temper that I ever remembered being in. Even the golem was making rusty noises of discontent. Liane, to her credit, seemed not to notice the pace or the conditions and remained in good spirits, a circumstance which I found increasingly annoying. Her insistence on frequent archery lessons did little to improve matters.

"You're far from the worst shot I've ever seen," she said kindly after one arrow hit a tree two trees over from the tree she'd marked for me to shoot at. "At least you hit a tree. I've seen people can't even do that at first."

"This is pointless. And it's dangerous. What if I need to attend to the golem and instead I'm worrying about trying to get off a clear shot?"

She went to fetch my arrow from the tree and came back, straightening the fletching. "I thought you said that the pursuit of knowledge was your life's work?"

"Knowledge, not -- not tricks. Not physical skills. I'm beginning to feel like once you've broken me you'll try to shoe me."

"I guess I have been going at this like you're a raw Sharpshaft trainee who wants to be there," she conceded, with the barest hint of a grin. "Look: how about starting from what you do know, and working from there?"

"And what do I know that would apply to this?"

She handed me the arrow. "Well... the golem's attractive to Things, how does that work?"

I considered how to explain it in terms that wouldn't take several days to fill in background for; "He's... tasty, I suppose is the best way to put it. Things want magic, they'll usually gravitate towards it even in preference to flesh if they can get it; I've managed to make him too fascinating a target to pass by."

"That's what I thought, it sounds almost like how I make an arrowhead want heat. Do you think... do you think you could make your arrow want the tree? Or the tree fascinating to the arrow?"

I rocked back onto my heels, staggered at the idea. "I suppose it might be possible," I said, shaken. "I never really thought about how that sort of spell worked before. But --"

I looked at the arrow, trying to imagine it needing the tree so badly that it strained against the separation. Right there... you were made to fly right there... Meditatively, I ran my left thumb across the blade of the broadhead until it had tasted of my blood, and then put the arrow to my bow and loosed. It flew straight and true to the mark blazoned on the treetrunk. "Well," I said, amazed, and the tree exploded.

We both stared for a moment and then, as the burning shrapnel began raining down, flung ourselves headlong onto the ground, trying to cover our heads as best we could. After what seemed like a week I finally couldn't hear the sizzling of flaming brands hitting the damp ground, and I peeped out from beneath my arms. Liane was doing the same.

"You'll have to teach me that one sometime," she said, blinking out at the shattered stump.

"I think I made it want it a little too much," I said. The golem had a branch caught up in its elaborate metal crest and didn't seem to know or maybe care that the branch was burning merrily away. I stood up and went to rescue my creation.

A gentle plucking at my hair made me turn; Liane held up a twig and said, "You've got leaves. In your hair, I mean."

"So do you." I reached out and picked the skeletal leaf from her braided topknot, and handed it to her; and I thought, perhaps, that her cheeks darkened subtly before she turned away and began beating out the fires amongst our gear.

"You said," I tried to collect my suddenly scattered thoughts, "you said that you made your arrowheads 'want heat'. How is that so, if they make things cold?"

"They make things cold by making them not hot," she said, looking pleased that she knew something that the professional mage didn't. "They want heat so badly that soon there's none left in what they hit. And don't ask me where the heat goes, because it takes about a week to explain and I don't understand it in the first place."

I blinked, long-disused memories suggesting unexpected parallels; "Come to think of it, my oldest brother spent nearly a year burning holes in the rugs trying to get his brands cold enough to work with. We had a lot of unhappy cows until he managed to get the spell right."

"Half of why the 'Brightfeather' crowd wants to leave Sharpshaft is from always being snickered at that our firemagic is just coldmagic done wrong," she said, grimacing. "And some of that's from firemages. Is it the same way for necromancy? Not that I'd guess anyone would dare, but --"

"No schools really go out of their way to argue with necromancers," I said. "Only healing begins to overlap, as an Art. Most of our quarrels are procedural. Pridening necromancers, for example, why it always seems to take five Pridening to do anything but put the water on for tea... That only takes four." She giggled. "You think I'm kidding. You'll see..."

Towards suppertime we finally got our first sight of our destination from the crest of Obermond Pass. "This almost looks too normal," Liane whispered, frowning down at the idyllic scene. And I was inclined to agree with her, gazing out across the perfect ordinariness: just a simple farming valley, dotted with barns and haystacks and fluffy black sheep. At least, I hoped that they were still sheep. Peering through my spyglass I could see villagers down amongst the thatched roofs in the walled town, conducting their perfectly ordinary business.

"What don't we see?" I asked aloud as it struck me. Liane's brow furrowed as she studied the deceptively peaceful landscape.

"No one's outside those walls," she said, nodding. "Not even a shepherd. So... are they hiding inside because it's safer? Or is that what we're meant to think?"

"Unreasonable suspicion has come to seem more and more reasonable to me anymore," I sighed. "But we won't learn anything if we don't have a look."

"And I've been merc'ing long enough to know," Liane suddenly grinned, "that if you don't take the risk, you don't get paid..."

Closer in, a stillness lay over the air. The sheep were still sheep, to the eye, but unkempt and ragged, as if no one had dared venture to bring them under shelter for some time. They looked blankly up at the golem as we passed, and it looked blankly back, and I nearly laughed, wondering which party would win in a battle of wits between them. Probably the sheep.

A feeling of Tremare magic prickled me as we came up to the closed gates. Hope and dread rooted me to the road for a moment, and Liane shot me an inquiring look. "Necromancy," I explained abstractedly, grasping after the traces. "Tremare necromancy. Somewhere --" I shook my head. "I don't know, I'm almost past trusting myself, I could be imagining it." I hadn't seen or felt another Tremare in more than two years, and I almost wanted to be imagining that I thought I heard one now; the quiet slide over the edge of madness suddenly seemed easier to confront than whatever inescapably concrete truths a living Guildsibling might represent.

The gatekeeper's porthole opened at a third sharp rap and a slow-witted-looking face peered out. "Yuh?"

"We've heard..." I could see my own reflection in the glassy eyes, all distorted nose. "We've heard Obermond might be needing some assistance."

"Nuh. Fine. Go." The porthole started to close. Quicker than a human could be, the golem's left hand shot out and blocked it from shutting firmly. The gatekeeper stared at the gauntlet uncomprehendingly.

"It would really be a good idea if you would at least find someone else we could talk to," I said gently.

"Huh." The gatekeeper vanished from the porthole, and, shuddering, I let the golem release its grip on the door. The first time I had tried forcing the golem to act, I'd woken up in a ditch three days later with a raging headache that hadn't gone away for a week, and the golem hadn't been very happy with me for a good while afterwards; I could mesh with it more smoothly now, but smooth wasn't the same as easy.

"What else haven't you told me about him?" Liane asked, looking from me to the golem.

"Probably most of it, but don't be expecting me to do that again unless I absolutely have to," I said, rubbing my left shoulder. "I wish I'd been able to make him smarter to begin with --"

A different face appeared in the porthole and I took a step back, registering the Tremare braids before other details filled in. "Sorson?"

"Oh," Sorson said, eyes sliding straight past me and seizing upon the golem. "It's you." I had an unsettling feeling as he regarded my construct that if I were to turn and walk away he probably wouldn't notice until it started to follow me. "Come in, come in -- will someone open the gate, thank you..."

With tremendous objections from the rusting chains the gate creaked up just far enough for the three of us to duck under, although for the golem it was a near thing. Sorson stood with one foot still up on the gatekeeper's stepstool, looking us over.

"That's a fine bit of work," he said, still peering at the golem. "You've quite outdone yourself with this one. Interesting choice of materials; where did you come by the suit?"

"I..." The avid fascination in Sorson's eyes made me draw up short, hesitant to get distracted into telling him the complicated story standing here in the square; "I found it. At the Keep."

"Wouldn't have known we had a set that stylish about. But then, so many odd corners --" Sorson seemed to visibly take a grip of his manners, attention shifting belatedly to Liane. "And I have the unexpected pleasure of meeting Robling's...?"

"Bodyguard," Liane all but growled. Sorson blinked, looking as if he were trying to reconcile this with his conception of how the world was arranged and it wasn't quite squaring.

"Of course, of course. These days... But you both look done in, there's a room or two left at the inn. Whichever." He was frowning. I couldn't tell if he disapproved of whatever conclusions he was arriving at or if we'd simply interrupted him at something he'd much rather be doing.

There was, in fact, one room left at the inn, their second-best (Sorson predictably occupied their nicest); I had, I admitted, made far sketchier accommodations on my journey, although the innkeeper and his staff didn't seem much brighter than the lackwit at the gate. Somewhat to my surprise Sorson excused himself directly once we'd accepted the key, without actually providing much in the way of information regarding the situation in Obermond, or how he had come to be here, or whether he knew about Tremare at all. Securely in possession of the room, I stationed the golem outside in the hall and bolted the door to confer with Liane.

"Is he always that... I don't know, it seemed as if his fletching could be glued on better. If you don't mind me saying so." She shuddered, gazing down into the courtyard where Sorson had paused to hold an animated, on his side, conversation with a townsperson.

"You should see him on a bad day," I said absently. "Would you be all right on your own for an hour or so? I mean, go out and try to see what you can see; I'll be doing the same here."

"Looking for...?"

I shrugged, not quite knowing. "Anything strange. Anything that seems as if it might be relevant. Avoid Sorson if you'd rather; he's probably here following the same rumors, not to mention that I've always found talking to him is a bad use of time anyway. I'll meet you downstairs at supper."

When she had gone I rebolted the door and took a moment to assess the room. Wooden floor, wooden beams, wooden rafters running up into the thatch -- the entire building, saving the chimneys, whispered in remembrance of life, even to the furniture in the rooms around me. More than enough to Work through...

"Golem," I said, and heard it stir on the other side of the door. "None enters here until I tell you. Guard."

Squeaks and creaks told me that the golem had risen to watchfulness. Satisfied, I settled myself onto the floor in front of the bed.

Blood for the Working, of course, my blood, a bright shallow slash of red to Call forth from the bare oak planks beneath me an answering echo to the life which sprang in my veins. And the long-dead lumber awoke to my Words; into my mind came tumbling all that the inn's walls and floors and rafters had seen in the last weeks and months, all in a flood, and long, long before the inn had shared everything I had asked of it, I came to wish I'd never posed the question...

The room had grown cold and so had my stomach. I rose stiffly from the floor and scrubbed at the drying-brown smears on my fingers with my other thumb, dimly surprised to see that my hands weren't trembling; I felt somehow as if they should be. Instead... instead I was calm, icy calm, and I managed to get all of the loose gear packed back into our bags before my knees went out from under me and I sank back to the floor, shivering uncontrollably. It was a long, long moment before I could crawl over to unbolt the door.

"Golem," I croaked, and it rattled in to assist me to my feet. "Take our things and come when I call you. Until then, stay here. Let nothing stop you from coming to me."

The golem suffered me to load it up with everything that Liane and I had been carrying between us, and stood impassively in the center of the room as I slipped into the hallway and closed the door behind myself. I hoped that it had absorbed its entire command.

I found Liane downstairs in the taproom, just sitting down to a table. "This town is dead," she complained when I came over to her.

"You have no idea." I pulled her back up from the chair. "Do you know any firemagics?"

"Only enough to do a campfire -- do I want to know why you're asking?"

"Sorson's lost his reason." I hustled her toward the door trying not to look as if we were hustling, for all the notice that the blank-eyed inn staff took anyway. "He's done things to these people -- some of them I wouldn't have guessed were possible, actually -- do you know what happens when you try to animate something that's already alive?"

I jerked open the door, abandoning all pretense of normal behavior, and Sorson came through it and said pleasantly, "Do share your findings, Robling. I've been needing another professional opinion about my results."

It's almost easier when it's only teeth, I thought, staring frozen at this hitherto annoying-but-reasonably-tolerable colleague of mine. Teeth and instinct instead of brains and magic -- "One should say it would be improper to discuss such matters before an outsider to the Guild," I said aloud.

"I suppose you're right," Sorson said, with a sigh that made Liane twitch beside me. And reached for the mercenary's elbow --

I drew my dagger, wondering even as I did so what I had in mind, if anything. Sorson regarded this with bemusement. "Really," he said, looking more offended than threatened.

"He's very tired," Liane interjected, reaching up to prise the dagger from my fingers. Startled, I let the icy metal slide from my grasp, and before I quite knew what was happening the mercenary was offering the blade to Sorson, hilt-first.

"He's not usually like this," Sorson said, still staring at the outstretched blade as if he'd never seen the likes of either of us, and gingerly he took the blade by the hilt. "I'll see that this gets put somewhere until he's had the chance, to..."

Sorson's eyes widened, and he looked again at the dagger in his hand. "Well," he said peevishly as frost rimed his fingers.

I pushed Liane past Sorson and through the courtyard doorway, hollering for the golem to follow. We took off running towards the town gates. Behind, splintering wood and great crashes told me that the golem was on its noisy way to join me. "Will Sorson die of that?" I asked Liane when we collapsed beside the gatewheel to gulp in air. In amongst her heavings for breath she managed to muster a shrug.

The golem came into view at the far end of the square, shedding a trail of debris. I guessed that it had gone right through a door in its urgent need to return to my side. "Golem! Come open this gate."

Metal shoulders braced to the portcullis mechanism; slowly, too slowly, the wheel engaged and chains drew taut against their fastenings, the golem visibly straining despite its fantastic strength. Liane squeezed under as soon as there was enough of an opening and reached back to help me through.

"Wait!" I grabbed her arm as she made to run. "The golem can't make it under the gate yet. Golem!" I called through the slowly widening opening. "Give me her bow!"

The gate stopped rising, and in another moment the half-moon of Liane's reinforced bow-case slid under the teeth of the portcullis. I ripped it open and scrambled through the lidded compartments for the bowstrings with her. "Can you make half of a cold-spell?"

She frowned at her bow, trying to slip the second end of the string into its notch. "I don't follow you."

"The only thing that can help these people now is fire. Can you make an arrow want heat and not let it go?"

"It would be sloppy form," she said, but I could see the gist of my thinking coming across to her. She took up an arrow, whispered to it, and fitted it to the string; "That thatch?"

I nodded, and she let the arrow fly into the reeds of the nearest roof. For a few instants, as we looked nervously between the thatch and the slowly rising gate, her improvised spell didn't seem to have worked. But then I saw a wisp of smoke rising from the dun feathers at the arrow's tail, and it burst into bright flames. Between one blink and the next the thatch itself had caught.

"There's a new trick," Liane said, and then set to firing the other flammable areas she could reach from this spot. The gate had finally opened far enough to admit the golem's rigid torso. I reached under and helped it to pull itself through.

"This is the part where we run," I said, and we did, the golem clattering after. We didn't stop running until we had reached the partial cover of a crumbling sheep-shelter at the northern edge of the valley.

"I have a terrible stitch," Liane gasped, falling to her hands and knees in the scattered straw.

"I think," I swallowed hard and tried again, "I think this is good enough. They won't be --"

The walls swirled and I found myself sitting down hard on the packed earth floor. "Hey?" Liane said, reaching out in reflexive alarm.

I shook my head, which was a mistake, and waved her off. "I'm getting too old for this," I mumbled, wondering if I could manage not to vomit.

"If we can stop here, I'll make some tea," she said, sitting back on her heels and looking around at the ramshackle shelter.

"The golem's got it," I said, and glanced back towards the burning town to see a plodding bulky figure outlined against the flames, coming up the track to the shed. "What I really need is to sleep for about a week," I added after some consideration.

"I do regret having lost that bed," Liane agreed wistfully. "Was it... I mean... we couldn't have done any differently. Could we?"

"Re-animation calls the spark of life back into flesh which remembers what it was to be alive," I said. "But apply those same magics to flesh that still has its own life in it... and it scrambles the lifeforce that's already there. I didn't know that could be done, really, it's not anything I'd ever have thought to try. Much less on people. I never imagined -- I've seen too much anymore that I never imagined, though." And was he following the rumor... or leading it?

The golem clomped in and stood stolidly as Liane rummaged through its burdens for the cooking equipment. "If we can, we should stay here until we can go back and make sure that we did the job," she suggested. "And anyway you look kind of... gray."

"We both need rest," I agreed. I felt gray; I felt old and tired and desperately in need of some peace and quiet and normality. I wanted not to have seen or ever imagined possible what had happened to the people of Obermond. I especially wanted never to have known Sorson. But as the light failed, the fires burning on the slopes below could not but remind me. The air stank, a gritty and sickeningly appetizing combination of woodsmoke and searing flesh that I suspected would linger in the valley long after we left.

Liane brought me the tea and busied herself trying to render the corner of the barn with the most remaining roof more habitable. I sat staring numbly at the golem, wondering if I should unburden it in case we needed to fight, or whether it was better to be prepared to flee on a moment's notice. In the end I opted for the latter, since that didn't involve trying to stand up. In less time than I would have thought, Liane was standing over me, looking pleased with herself. "That was fast," I said, looking over at the neat bedding and trying to calculate whether I had the energy left to make it that far.

"If I had a horsehair for every camp I've made and broken in my career, we'd be riding to Wantrell," she said gruffly, although the hint of a smile played about her lips. "This is far from the least I've ever had to work with. So, is the golem fit to stand watch so we can get some sleep?"

I noticed as I settled myself that she had laid out our places so that, lying down, neither of us could see the ruddy glow of the flames, and I wondered if she had done this consciously or not. It certainly wasn't coincidental that she was between me and the open side of the barn. I rolled up in a tight tuck in my blankets, trying to strike a balance between screening out some of the worst of the smell of burning and getting enough air to breathe at all, and found, to my irritated consternation, that I couldn't get to sleep. Liane was already snoring. In the starlight the golem was only a dark lump at the gap in the wall, patiently vigilant as always and even from the set of its shoulders a trifle bored by whatever it perceived. And I tried to convince myself that it was only the golem's lurking presence that gave me such a dreadful feeling of being watched...

###


"Papa fix Kitty?"

"Child... Kitty's gone to Heaven."

"Kitty go?" The little boy tightens his grip on the limp fur. "When Kitty come back?"

"I can't fix this Kitty. Not this time. I'm sorry."

"I want Kitty!"

"Kitty's dead, love. We have to make a pyre for her. I'll find a bit of cloth, and --"

"I WANT KITTY!" Fierce determination creasing his dirt-streaked face, Ezric thrusts out the kitten to me. "Make Kitty come back?"

I jerked awake, seeing at first only straw and an unfamiliar evening-blue patchwork stitched over with a starscape of glossy silk spiders and shimmering webs. After some thought I recognized this as Liane's grubby but apparently cherished quilt, tucked in considerately around me. Above me the sun shone straight down through the ragged thatch. "It's Gatherday," Liane said from her perch on a fallen roofbeam. "You looked like I shouldn't try to wake you any sooner. Did you know that the golem twitches when you dream?"

"No," I said, fascinated despite myself. "What does he do?"

In answer she held out her hands and jerked her fingers as if she were thinking to make a fist but stopping halfway through. "It's kind of irritating to listen to after a while, I'm surprised it doesn't wake you up."

"I'll have to remember to oil him. Is the town still burning?"

"It stopped this morning, most of it anyway. There's still a lot of smoke but I think it's from smoldering, not open fires. I went out yesterday and -- There were lambs. They seemed normal, so..."

"We can at least get something into ourselves before we leave," I agreed reluctantly. Considering we'd set fire to Obermond's market along with everything else, her suggestion seemed positively reasonable compared to the thought of having to tackle a whole adult sheep in the name of supplementing our dwindling supplies.

"I want you to try to shoot one," she continued, giving me a penetrating look. "You need the practice. And if you say 'but they're so cute,' I swear I shall leave you here. I still think you were missing those rabbits on purpose."

"The rabbits had an unfair advantage," I said stiffly, feeling my face grow warm; "They hopped."

I strung my bow (an operation that I was getting better at, though the sight still made Liane snicker behind her hand) and stepped past the golem into the sunshine, pulling on my gloves. If one didn't look in the direction of the smoking ruins of Obermond, the valley seemed peaceful. Farther down the slope, smaller black fluffs frolicked amongst the larger grown sheep. They were cute. I gritted my teeth and went to find a good vantage point.

Most of a quiver of arrows and a goodly amount of accidental hair-pulling later, I finally managed to maim a lamb badly enough that it stopped frolicking for long enough to let me hit it with a more solid shot. "I'm not sure if I should count that or not," Liane said from the gap in the wall of the shelter as I carried my victim triumphantly up the slope.

"It's dead, isn't it?" In fact it wasn't, not yet, but it finally expired in my arms as I made to lay it down in the straw strewn across the floor. I knelt there looking at it.

"I must say, you've been wreaking havoc on my conception of necromancy," Liane said, looking from my face to the poor wretched lamb with three broken arrows sticking out of its flank.

"It's not all dungeons and torture," I said. "It's not any of it dungeons and torture, not when you're doing it properly. We study life, we don't take it." And I shivered, thinking of Sorson. "What happened down there... isn't supposed to happen." I had a tremendous urge to make the lamb get up and frolic again, and I knew that I could, and I knew that I had to eat it instead; suddenly I felt ill.

Liane took the lamb from my sight and went to the corner of the barn that she had cleared for a hearth. "Go out and... do... something," she said, waving a hand over her shoulder in my general direction. "I'll see to this. You need some air."

I put on my coat and wrapped myself in it, although the day was fine, and went out around to the uphill side of the shelter, away from the sight of Obermond. There I found a scattering of hip-tall boulders, and at the base of one of these I settled myself, looking upslope to the sky over the valley's lip and trying not to think about anything. I could, faintly, feel the sheep wandering around the pastures below. They didn't seem to notice anything was amiss. They just went on frolicking and eating, mostly eating, toothy lower ovine jaws closing over blades of grass and shearing them off as the grass -- I dug my fingers deep into the turf and drew a shuddering breath, trying to get hold of myself. I hadn't heard grass screaming since the earliest years of my apprenticeship and this was a bad time to start hearing it again.

At least you can hear it, the thought bubbled up from the darkness where I had been trying to keep such thoughts safely stuffed. At least it's alive. Fragments of fearful memories jarred too far loose to shake away so easily, today, I laid my head on my knees and gave myself over to shameless weeping until a soft voice said, "It was only one lamb."

I looked up, wiping my eyes with my sleeve. Liane was looking down at me with a baffled expression, a plate of something fragrant and steaming in her hands. "It's not that," I said. "It's... everything."

"Partly it's how long you've slept," she said, and held out the plate. "When was the last time you ate anything?"

I took the plate and stared at it. With the last of the rice she had turned the lamb into a sort of ragout, unidentifiable shreds swimming around in a thick sauce. I took a bite, because her manner wouldn't permit me not to. "Good," I said, and it was, and I still hated myself for it.

"And I am going to stand here until you finish it," she informed me. "Whatever may still be down there, it isn't anything either of us should face on an empty stomach. And you still look kind of peaky, if we have to fight I don't want you going all lightheaded on me. I nearly lost half of a caravan once," she added in a slightly different tone, "when the firemage who was supposed to be watching our rear got into a state over some bedpartner and didn't eat for a week, and then passed out right off her horse when we got into some trouble and we actually needed her to do something for us. So you'll understand if I'm somewhat attuned to the issue." She squatted down and watched as I pushed the last few bits of food around on the plate. "If it's not too rude of me to ask, if you're this sensitive, why did you go for necromancy and not healing? Seems like, I don't know..."

"Healers can't do anything about death," I said brusquely, and handed her the plate. "There, satisfied?" I had actually left nearly half of it, but she took the plate from me and stood up.

"I think I'm going to go down and see if I can't get some of the crud off your golem," she said. "He's shedding splinters out of his mail parts whenever he moves. Can I do that? I mean, would it --"

"He needs it," I said. "Just try not to get inside as you work."

"Would that spoil the spell?"

"No, it..." I paused, trying to think how to put it. "It tickles," I finally said. "In my head. It tickles. I'm not -- We don't usually work with golems quite this way, or for this long; I'm still not entirely sure of all the consequences of the spells I made him with. You said yourself that you saw him moving when I slept. But he's waterproof enough, and he is getting rather disreputable; he could use a going-over. If that's how you want to spend your afternoon."

"I'd be happy to," she said, turning towards the shed. "I've been itching for a closer look at him. All right, then; try not to fall asleep again out here, it looks like raining later."

I watched her back, as she picked her way through the boulders, and when she had gone about fifteen paces I called out, "Thank you. For --" I frowned, trying to find the right words, as she looked back over her shoulder to me. "For cooking. And..."

"Putting up with you?" She grinned.

"Something like that."

"No extra charge," she said, and disappeared into the barn.

###


When I came back into the shelter, no traces of the lamb remained; "I was half afraid you would try to buff the golem with the lamb's pelt," I said, and Liane sat back on her haunches from where she had been attending to the golem's left knee and displayed a grubbied square of embroidered linen.

"I buried it," she said, nodding towards the downhill slope. "My oldest brother went Coldfire, he always complains how no one keeps rooms warm enough; I do have some idea of the sorts of things that you have to do to accommodate the side effects of magic."

"Thank you," I said, meaning it. "Is that my golem? I'd hardly recognize him."

I wouldn't have, either, if it weren't mine; copper-thorned briars and engraved butterflies glittered across the curving metal planes in the rays of the lowering sun, remnants of long-gone enamelling dotted here and there on the bare steel wings and spectral petals like some sort of exotic disease, and she had managed to coax some of the persistent dirt out of the rose-leaf mail at its armpits and crotch. "Did I tickle you too badly?" Liane asked. "I really had to dig at some of the joints."

I shook my head. In truth, it had been an odd and unexpected experience, rather like being undressed by a ghost. I hadn't realized before just how much information I had been receiving through the golem's ersatz senses. "He looks good," I said.

"I assumed that the brown stuff on the inside is supposed to be there," she said, sitting all the way down in the dirt and looking up at the golem. "I suspect it's even part of the metal, am I right?"

"It is now," I said, sitting down beside her. "It's the main spell." Written in blood, my blood, over and over until it covered every inch of every piece of the inside of the armor --

"That must have taken you a while to do," she said. "Some of that writing's tiny."

"You were making a study of it?"

"You never said I couldn't look inside."

"Well," I said indignantly, and she laughed and gave me a friendly shove.

"It's my job to be nosy. Or 'detail-oriented', as Sharpshaft's teachers would put it. And then to ask rude questions like where did a golem get a love-bracelet?" She fixed a considering stare upon the narrow braid of hair round the golem's left wrist, the scattered strands of silver and even darker colors amongst the white effectively forestalling any attempt I could have made to claim it as my own. "I've been sitting here all day trying to imagine..."

"I've sat up nights trying not to imagine," I said. "Although I presume... I must have had something to do with it." Tremare's last apprentice-candidate, just admitted before I left for the winter and barely sixteen years old, had had hair of just about the glossy auburn that I saw a few strands of here and there against the paler background...

Perhaps to distract me from visibly horrific thoughts, perhaps just out of a sense of needing to be polite since she'd brought the matter up, Liane pushed her own right sleeve back to display and put irrelevant names to several bangles of widely varying intricacy, including one unusual six-stranded braid that she explained dismissively as a graduation good-luck token from her brothers. "Not that I, you know, well, maybe once but I'm pretty sure it was only a joke really. Mercs can have a nasty sense of humor. So, um, what about you?"

"I didn't have any sisters," I said, confused, and she burst out laughing.

"All right, then, be mysterious." We sat regarding the golem in silence for a few moments, and then she said, "You must have had brothers, I know Seventrails travel in herds."

I laughed, momentarily surprised out of my gloom; "Eight of them. I don't know how my parents kept us all in shoes. Especially with these Seventrails hooves on all of us," I added, glancing ruefully at my boots. And then, feeling the darkness slide down across my face again: "We... My family... the prairie north of Tremare was where we always overwintered."

"It'll be dark soon, we ought to plan on heading down there first thing tomorrow and then putting this place far behind us." She scrambled to her feet. "Are you ready to be moving again?"

"No, but I need to be gone from here." I shivered, and found when I wrapped myself in my blankets that it hadn't exactly been from the cold.

###


We approached the still-half-open gate of Obermond with irrational caution. "Can you tell if there's anything alive inside?" Liane whispered as we stared at the portcullis. "Or..."

A curious impulse seized me, then, and before I had quite thought about it I had trilled out a long rising whistle. A raven soared up and over the gate and fluttered down to land on my shoulder. "Only the scavengers with wings seem to have turned out for this occasion," I said calmly, as Liane boggled.

"You're showing off now," she finally said, leveling a cocked stare at the bird where it sat looking back at her with a dignified air to its beak.

"I suppose I am," I said, and whistled at the raven again. It shook its head, blinking away the spell, and flapped off awkwardly to land on the top of the gate, where it began an indignant tirade.

"I didn't think that necromancy included that sort of magic," she said suspiciously, giving one last glance up at the raven as we squeezed under the gate.

I shook my head. "Seventrails spell. For guiding cows, really, but it works on anything that's not very intelligent. Ravens don't always fall for it, in fact. But I nearly got it to work on one of my brothers once." She snickered.

We pulled the golem under the gate and turned around to bear witness to what we had wrought upon the village of Obermond. Most everything burnable seemed to have burned, only stone shells remaining of what had been a town. I couldn't tell, at first, where the inn had been. We picked our way across what had been the square, trying not to look around at what the ravens were so fascinated with, and eventually Liane said, "I think that cellar must be the inn's; look how it's got that ramp from the outside." She took a deep breath and let it out again. "Would there be anything left to tell us if Sorson was caught in that?"

"I wouldn't dare to hope for anything so conclusive as a body," I said. "But I don't need one to tell if he's not here."

Borrowing one of Liane's throwing knives for a moment to prick my left forefinger, I sat down, crosslegged, on the ash-covered paving stones outside where I judged that the inn's side door had been, and tried to clear my mind of petty worries and the insidious smell of char that I had almost stopped noticing. Come to me, I Called, letting a drop of bright blood fall into the dust. All you who ended here: come to me. Show yourselves to me.

The ghosts of Obermond rose around me in a silent mist. Men, and women, and children. And looking into their remembered faces I saw that none of them were Sorson. When I was sure that he was not among the parade, I released the shades gently and exhaled, shuddering.

"From the look on your face, the answer is bad," Liane said.

"If he's not here, the probability is that he got out altogether," I said, getting slowly to my feet and brushing the ashy dust from my coat. "Which raises the question of what did become of him. If he hasn't just crawled up the road a little farther than I thought to Call and died there..." I frowned up at the surrounding mountains, wondering if the usual sorts of considerations applied here.

"The only thing I can think of to suggest is to head up towards Roadmeet," she said, and I started, not expecting the response. "Unless you have some specific reason to think he'd avoid it?"

"I don't even have a clear picture of where it is," I said. "Why Roadmeet, in particular?"

Liane shrugged. "It beats going back towards Three Mountains, anyhow. And maybe by then we'll have scraped together enough cash to hire ourselves some backup. I would feel a lot safer with a few extra mercs around me, right about now. Can we get out of this place?"

The best road, indeed the only road, out of Obermond that pointed in the general direction of Roadmeet was the northwest road, a tributary of the great South Road that cut across the countryside all the way south to the ocean. It went out of our way, but in this rough country it seemed to offer the quickest way down into the lowlands, where we could travel faster. With a mixture of relief and remorse we turned our backs on the ruins and set our feet to the rutted road again. I regarded the incurious sheep warily as we walked, wondering if any of them had seen Sorson and knowing how pointless it would be to try to get a straight answer out of them about anything that didn't involve grass.

At the lip of the valley we stopped, to consult maps and to allow the golem to catch up to us on the slope. It didn't care much for inclines, and it was having some trouble keeping its footing in the heavily eroded dirt. "I wish I'd given more thought to the inherent design problems of armor," I said wistfully, watching it struggling valiantly up the hill.

"Mm," Liane mumbled in absent acknowledgement, intent on the map. "Do you suppose that we're here, or there? This isn't big enough to have Obermond named on it, but this looks like the road we came in on."

She spread the map out on a boulder, and I bent over to peer at it with her. "We came up this way," I said, putting a finger on the map at a name I recognized and tracing along the line of the road. "So if that's this, then we're here." I glanced down the northwest side of the pass, where the hills became more gentle until they eventually shaded into rolling plains, and saw a transient glint in the scrub some hundred feet below. "What's that?"

"Hm?"

"I thought I saw something metal. At the side of the road."

She already had a throwing knife in her hand, peering down into the brush. "That's not enough cover to be hiding anyone," she said, resheathing the knife. "But wait here for the golem."

She scrambled down the slope and began to poke about in the bushes, as I looked nervously from her to the golem. By the time I heard her call out in triumph the golem had joined me on the ridge. "I think you had better come down here, I don't know if I should touch this."

I picked my way down through the weeds to where Liane stood with her feet planted carefully astride a shiny metal object. A dagger. An acorn-pommeled dagger, bright brassy outlines of oak leaves dancing down the blade right to the one large nick that I had cursed on many a morning in the past two years... I stared at it.

"I suppose," I said, words coming slowly, "this tells us something. But what..."

I squatted and held one hand out barely above the dagger, straining to hear some sign, any sign, that the dagger was more than what it seemed to be, and felt nothing, the metal inert and ordinary. With a shrug I picked it up and returned it to its sheath.

"This is about where something would land if it were thrown from the ridge," Liane said, squinting upward. "If he took off running when he noticed the fire, he might have stopped here and realized he still had it. At any rate... He got this far."

"And he's not here," I said, "so this is as good a direction as any. Assuming he'd bother to follow the roads..."

"An assumption," she said, "but one we may as well make. Well, I didn't have anything better I was going to do, I guess." She wriggled to resettle her pack and clambered back up to the roadway, then leaned down to give me a hand up out of the brush. "Have you ever been to Roadmeet?"

"Not that I can recall, which is not to say no," I said. "I've been all over everywhere with my family, but some of it was when I was very small. If Roadmeet was a place we went, I don't remember it."

"You'd remember Roadmeet," she said, with an odd look that suggested a secret she didn't want to spoil held back a fuller exposition upon the subject. "You'll know we're getting close when we start seeing mercs..."

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Comments
morgynleri_fic From: morgynleri_fic Date: March 22nd, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Still want to know what happens next, the plot is moving along nicely, as well as making me ever more curious just what happened to the rest of the Tremare. And now, if Sorson had anything to do with it, or just went mad from whatever happened. *waits sorta patiently for the next chapter*
robling_t From: robling_t Date: March 22nd, 2010 04:03 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
{Muse gives Innocent Look and goes back to thrashing at other projects...}
morgynleri_fic From: morgynleri_fic Date: March 22nd, 2010 04:23 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
*bribes muse with donuts and chocolate*

So far, this is the sort of thing that I grew up devouring voraciously. Well written, sucks me in, makes me want to know what happens next. And it has the bonus (from an outside point of view, anyway) of being in chunks that keep me from being cranky if interrupted from my reading, because eventually the reading interrupts itself.

Shall have to spend a day reading it a second time once it's all up, though. Because it's already at a point where I'm thinking this would be a great book to read again (and again, and again... and oops, the spine on the paperback is broken).
robling_t From: robling_t Date: March 22nd, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
and again, and again... and oops, the spine on the paperback is broken

One of the distractions Muse has been about lately was signing up for a Lulu account... >;)
owensheart From: owensheart Date: March 22nd, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
I cant wait to find out what happened to the other Tremare.

Very interesting story.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: March 22nd, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
{tries to remember if that's actually IN here somewhere...} ;)
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