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original fiction: Tin Man [6/16] - 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 [6/16]


Chapter Six



I woke in the gray of dawn having passed a fitful night, rousing several times to wonder why I wasn't hearing faint snores and then remembering where I was. Liane had gotten back some good while after I had finally dozed off, a fact I knew because she had given the golem a sloppy kiss on her way into her room. Despite her relatively late night the archer looked fresh and ready and overall much better than I felt when we reconvened in the hall. "I've got some leads, but we're going to need ready cash," she said, locking her door.

"Try not to get overly familiar with the golem again," I said. "It woke me up."

She blushed to her hairline. "Oops. I was, I had a couple, you know. Won't happen again."

"See that it doesn't," I said. "Look, I don't mean to be irritable about it, but... it's a strange experience. I don't know if it's because I've told him to take special notice of you or what, but when you touch him, I can feel it."

"That must be odd," she said wonderingly. "Does that happen when anyone else touches him?"

"Not nearly so much."

"That's something, anyway," she said, and clumped down the stairs.

The constable's office already had a rabble of mercs hanging about in the waiting area, in various stages of assembling parties of either the adventuring or drinking variety. We had to wait in a line to see the officer who kept the records of what needed doing and who was willing to help do it. "One suspects that some of these never even went to bed last night to get here this early," Liane complained. "Damn it, I hope we can find something, I lined up a couple of my friends who'd be willing to go with us if we could at least pay off their bar tabs."

The gathering reminded me of the roomful of mercs where I had met Liane. A thought that had been bubbling at the back of my mind since sometime in the night began to crystallize: any job she could find here is bound to be safer than going on with you -- in the fourfold name of the Goddess, you don't even want to go with you. I pondered the thought as the three of us crept incrementally closer to the desk, Liane increasingly fidgety and the golem looking bored.

She was looking at me, and wondering if she had picked up on the trend of my thoughts I opened my mouth to broach the subject -- but we were at the desk, and the constable was looking at me expectantly. "Um," I said, swallowing hard.

"We don't get many necromancers here," he said, peering at my braids. "In fact I think you're the first one I've seen. So what is it you're looking to take on?"

"Something that pays well," Liane said. The constable started to run a finger down a page in his ledger.

"Liane --" I said, and the constable looked up again.

"How good is that metal man in a fight? We've got some Things up in a valley two days from here, nobody else's been able to dig 'em out. Double going rate?"

"We'll do it," Liane said, sticking out her hand.

I grabbed her arm and forced it down. "Not we," I said.

She turned to me, mouth hanging open in shock. "Huh?"

"I said: not 'we'. I'm still in charge here," I think, "and you are not going on this job with me."

"You're firing me?" In an odd, deflating tone.

"If that's what it comes to, yes. Go west to Zifran with your brother if you want to," I suggested, amazed at the unkindness I heard creeping into the words as I spoke them. "All this is getting to be too much to ask of you; maybe... it would be better if we called it a day."

She stared at me for another moment, mouth still hanging open, and then she closed it and turned on her heel. I expected a biting retort about me and my family and Tremare and my family's herds, but she seemed to be beyond speech. I watched her topknot as the crowd swallowed it and felt a sudden rising tide of dread. When I turned back to the constable he was still staring after her in some bemusement. "I hope for your sake that she's not the vengeful sort," he said.

"I need to find a merc with greater range than an archer."

He rummaged through his books. "Got a coldmage who hasn't said he's busy yet. Scorch Coldfire -- Sounds like a poser to me, but what do I know, I'm not a merc. He's, umm..." he scanned the crowd. "Over there, the green trousers. Good Goddess, those are remarkable. Scorch Coldfire?" the constable called, and the coldmage in the ugly checked trousers came over to the desk. "This gentleman and his golem have expressed an interest in the Moltwing Pass incident, and he's looking for some heavy backup; if the two of you can come to an agreement on the details, report back here and I'll show you the maps."

"Golem, eh?" Scorch said, eyeing it curiously. "I can't think if I've ever seen a necro merc'ing, much less with something like that along. Why would you need me?"

"Because I want to get this over with as quickly as possible," I said. "I have some urgent business out east and I wouldn't be taking time for this job at all if I didn't need the funds to make the trip. And there may be a longer-term assignment in this for you if we can get along. Usual split?"

"Whatever," he shrugged. "I've got a range of about a half a mile maybe, no flashy storms though. Deal?"

"Good enough," I agreed, and we shook on it. His hand was burning cold. "Golem?" The golem turned to look at me, and I had the impression, somehow, that it disapproved of the situation. "He's coming with us; listen to him, but stay out of his way, his magic can splash."

The golem gave Scorch what I couldn't but think of as a dirty look, but it nodded. "All right, if that's settled, where's the map?" Scorch said.

The constable made a note that we were on our way to the pass and pulled out a huge volume of maps to show us the route. The valley, little more than an interval between passes really, lay about a day and a half's walk to the northeast; I made notes on my own map and the constable took the book away again.

"These Things were big," he warned. "Really big. The reports kept getting exaggerated, of course, but they all agreed on the big. Take care of yourselves. And if there are any survivors in the valley, be sure to tell them we'll be on our way soon."

"Once we've done all the hard work," Scorch said, echoing my own thought.

"We can't be everywhere at once," the constable said unapologetically. "This is the fifth incident this week within a three day ride of here and I've already lost too many officers in the last few months to be able to send anyone who isn't as crazy as a merc anywhere near a live Thing anymore. Begging your pardon, sirs, but you are crazy. And I thank the Goddess for it, or we wouldn't be able to get any traffic through here at all. Good luck."

"Helpful fellow," Scorch remarked dryly as we headed out for the northeast road. "So, like I said, I've never seen a necro merc'ing before; what sort of magic do you do? Summoning demons, making zombies, that sort of thing?"

"There are no such things as demons," I said. "Not that I've ever found evidence of, at any rate. And zombies aren't worth the trouble for the most part, a man with a sharp stick is more use. I have my golem, and I can raise the dead. And kill with a Word, but I'd rather not have to. And that's the extent of what I know that's applicable to combat."

"Ah," he said, somehow managing to squeeze facile understanding and a certain breezy contempt for the cloistered Academician into the one brief syllable. "How have you made it this far?"

"I wasn't intending to become a merc," I said. "But circumstances seem to have forced me into it for the moment. I hired another merc for a while, but... it wasn't working out between us."

"Yeah, subcontracting's rough," he said. "So what's this urgent business you have?"

I thought for a few moments, trying to decide how much detail would be appropriate, and eventually said, "I'm following someone. A Tremare who's... gone over the edge."

"Mm, nasty," he said understandingly. "Friend of yours?"

"Not exactly. But... this has to be taken care of, so it's ended up as my responsibility."

"Guild business, huh," he said, with a disapproving twist of his lips. "Isn't that always the way, to get stuck having to follow up on somebody's lousy idea of 'responsibility'... I try to avoid that sort of thing myself. All in all it's much safer being a merc than the Elders' errandboy. Especially Coldfire's Elders..."

Scorch proceeded to clutter the air with thumbnail sketches of the various failings of his Guild chapter's Council members. When next I looked over at the golem I found that it had taken on a pronounced slouch. Oh, concentrate on the job at hand, you sentimental nitwit, it's not like she's even pretty or anything...

We stopped for our midday meal in the shadow of a shrine to the Lady of Ripening, a solidly done rendition gravid with the promise of summer and looking perhaps only a bit too top-heavy in Her stance on the pediment. "Now that's a bottom," Scorch said in a tone I presumed from him passed for being impressed. "You could crack walnuts in that. -- Sorry, sir, didn't know if you're a believer or what."

"Not in particular," I said. "Or at any rate if She hasn't struck me down by now She either isn't there or She has a very peculiar sense of humor." At this he laughed heartily.

"I come from back west," he said, "you know, the farm parts where they still hold the really old ways? And I'm telling you, the sight of a roomful of Coldfire Elders naked on a Gatherday is enough to make an unbeliever out of anyone. I imagine a bunch of skinny old necros would be the same, huh?"

"Rather," I said, trying not to think of any of the occasions when such gatherings had taken place at Tremare. We hadn't as a whole been sociable enough to bother for the most part, but every so often it was unavoidable. Naked in Her sight, my eye. Voyeuristic tart.

The blasphemous thought made me feel a little more cheerful. And I had a sudden recollection, for the first time, of being naked to my hair in a chilly candlelit space, stars above me and the inanimate armor lying at my feet. It was so different from the way Tremare usually practiced that I wondered in bemusement if it hadn't been more prayer than spell.

We made good time, this first day, and as dusk settled into the mountains I was beginning to get a bad enough headache to call a halt for the night in the hopes that a little extra sleep would help. We found a sheltered hollow well out of the way of the path and settled in with a small fire, Scorch grumbling wistfully about being out of the city and away from a more civilized dinner than the sorts of portable things one found oneself eating on the trail.

"I mean, if we'd even thought to bag a rabbit or something," he said, looking back through the trees to where a few specimens of same foraged for their own suppers, and all of a sudden he looked over at me as if a thought had finally dawned on him, although I half suspected that he'd been working his way round to it on purpose; "Do you know how to use that bow?" Scorch asked, nodding at my baggage.

"Sort of," I said gloomily, unable to see a way around what was coming, and unfastened the quiver. Scorch watched in bemused interest as I strung my bow and picked through the arrows for one with decent fletching.

"I never saw any of us in the magic business who knew how to shoot a bow before," he said, trailing along after me as I picked my way into the brush. "Except Sharpshafts, but they don't really count. Now, a sword, yeah, I can understand that, but, I dunno, if you're going to do your killing from a distance anyway, why not use magic? It's so much... cleaner."

"If you really want rabbit for supper tonight," I said through gritted teeth, drawing the arrow back to my cheek and sighting, "I'd advise you shut up and let me work."

He fell quiet and stepped back, and I squinted along the arrow, trying to pretend it wasn't pointing at an innocuous bundle of fur that hadn't ever done me any wrong. It was a good clear shot, the rabbit blithely nibbling at a blade of grass oblivious to our presence, and I pulled back the arrow a fraction more and loosed --

The arrow thudded into the turf just beside where the rabbit had been, as it took fright and sprang away, and I lowered the bow as Scorch let out a derisive hoot. "I guess now I know why I never see anybody but Sharpshaft with bows," he said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.

"It must have heard us," I said. "You've certainly been making enough noise." I stalked back to the campfire and rolled myself up in my blankets, not particularly caring at this point what he thought of me for doing it or that I hadn't actually eaten yet. And for a wonder he let me be, shuffling around in his bags for what seemed an inordinately long time, but eventually settling down in his own place to sleep himself.

And he snored.

###


I struggled through a night of blurry phantasms and finally woke sweating in a chilly dawn mist to find Scorch already awake and regarding me speculatively. "I've heard necros were bad travelling companions because of the nightmares, but they never said they were about that," he said in a tone entirely too cheerful for the hour as I collected myself and unwound from my bedding. "She sure sounded like something, though. Was she pretty?"

"What?"

"Right, I guess you'd probably have a different idea of 'pretty' than me anyway," he said, unflappable, and tossed me the bag I was looking for. "You awake enough yet to get going?"

It apparently wouldn't have mattered to him if I wasn't, for he had already shouldered his pack and turned back towards the road, launching presently into the first of a string of anecdotes concerning his idea of pretty and how it never seemed to coincide with the insight required to see what a winning character he had. I had long since drawn the private conclusion that this was at least in part due to his utter inability to shut up about it by the time we came in sight of the milestone that marked the pass we were searching for.

We halted where the main road over the pass met a higher track leading farther up the mountain to catch our breath and get our bearings. Below, farther away than I would have liked, the golem still labored to climb the dusty incline. Scorch squinted down the hill at it. "He'll be a moment, won't he? Let's go up higher and see how good a vantage we can get."

Leaving the golem trudging up behind, we scrambled up to the crest of the ridge. Below in the pocket-sized valley, two loosely feline Things lounged in what passed for the village's central square, grooming pie-pan paws with bathtowel tongues. A third curled asleep in someone's fenced pasture, heaped mound of gnawed carcasses bovine and not bovine at its side. "From up here I could frost 'em all," Scorch said, nibbling on his mustache.

"Without even checking if there's anyone still alive in the houses?" I grabbed at his arm as he went to raise it to direct his spell.

"I'm not going down there and get my butt bit off," he said nonchalantly. "You wanted someone who works best from a distance, didn't you?"

I opened my mouth, and stopped there, words scattering before the look in Scorch's eyes. "I won't..." I managed after a moment.

He was genuinely baffled, and looked at my hand on his arm as if it didn't belong to me, but was simply something preventing him from completing an impulse. "Hey, our job's to get those Things out of there, he didn't say anything about how," he said.

"I won't," I said again.

"Suit yourself," Scorch said, shrugging off my suddenly nerveless hand and turning back down the track.

"If you don't stop," I said, unable to control the quaver in my voice, and raised my bow, "I'll stop you."

Scorch snorted and kept walking. "I saw you miss that rabbit, old man," he said. "If you don't have the heart to do what needs to be done here, you'd never be able to shoot a man in the back, even if you could."

"I'm not old," I said, and drew back the bowstring. Scorch made a rude noise. "One last time, Scorch: stop, or I'll have to stop you."

"So stop me," he said, and stepped from the track out into the road proper, raising his arms. I closed my eyes, and opened them, and loosed the arrow. It took the coldmage under the left shoulderblade, not too near the spine: a perfect heart-shot. He was dead before the body even fell to the road.

"Damn," I said, and sat down hard on the stone-ridden turf, trembling.

I had managed to get hold of myself by the time the golem finally plodded up to meet me, and together we descended into the valley and did what was needful, though I was weak and shaking and sick with Words by the time I was through. "I am really an idiot," I told the golem, still wincing over wounds more self-inflicted than not as a villager and her young family gratefully shared their meager supper with me.

The golem was far too polite to say anything, of course, but somehow I got the impression that it agreed with my self-assessment. "Why are you an idiot?" the woman asked in its stead.

"He probably did this to impress a girl," the older of the two daughters observed maliciously, glaring at her sister. "Like when Marly went out to pick a fight with them because you told him I'd kiss him if he won --"

"It wasn't anything to do with a girl," I snapped, startling her into silence. "The merc I hired yesterday wanted to get rid of your Things by freezing the whole valley and everything in it. I had to... I had to stop him."

The girls reacted to this idea with wide-eyed alarm, drawing back a fraction in their seats, but their brother seemed less concerned for the ethical nuances of the situation; "So did you stab him in the guts?" he chirped, demonstrating my presumed method with his spoon.

"Your technique's all off," I said absently. "And no, I shot him."

The boy's eyes went even wider as he stared at the bow harnessed to my pack, apparently only now really seeing it as a separate object. "I didn't know necromancers knew how to shoot," he said.

"You don't know very much at all about necromancers, I suspect," I said unkindly, and stood up from the bench. "Thank you for your hospitality, Ma'am, but I have to get back to Roadmeet."

"Are you sure?" she said, rising with me. "I mean -- it's late, and Roadmeet's so far away, and..."

I looked at her, at the look in her eyes, and saw that she would offer me herself, or her daughters, or her son if I were so inclined, if only I wouldn't go. "I have unfinished business there," I said gently.

Her shoulders sagged, but she unbarred the door and held it open for me and the golem. Outside it had started to drizzle. "You're sure...?"

"Yes," I said. "I'm sorry. I'll send -- I'll tell them it's safe now to send you some help."

And as I stepped out under the lintel into the wet dusk, I heard the elder daughter snickering, "I told you it was about a girl."

"It's not about a girl!" I shouted, but the door had already closed, and all I got for the effort was a faint rolling echo, as if the hills themselves mocked me. Slouching deeper into my collar against the rain, I started the miserable trudge back to the city.

###


I turned my bloody proofs in to the constables, and collected the bounty, and headed for the Merc's Heart with the intention of getting blind drunk. I wasn't quite sure how long this procedure would actually take, in this frame of mind, but I hoped not too long. I instructed the golem to wait outside, and I pushed through the doors, and inside at the half-empty bar sat Liane, perched on a stool with the wreckage of a good start on blind drunk already scattered on the counter before her. It occurred to me, fleetingly, to ask her how one best went about it.

She looked up, when I didn't close the door right away, and then returned to her current ale, which was mostly gone. "You're letting the draft in," she said.

I let the inner door close behind me and warily approached the bar. "You're still here."

"No one's been going the direction I want to go." She took another long draught of the ale. "Are you bothering me for a reason?"

I bit my lower lip, while she looked up at me with faint amusement, and finally I said, "I'm an idiot."

"I've noticed."

"I meant --"

"All right, all right; apology accepted. You got any money?"

"Why?"

"You never did pay me, and I can't leave until I settle my bar tab. I think what you owe me should just about cover it." She set the last empty mug on the counter with the rest and waved the barman over. "Hey, Frantsa, you won't need to bill this to the Sharpshafts after all, I got it covered."

"You got quite a lady there, mister," Frantsa said, taking up the empties and scribbling some figures on a slate. "Good thing you came in to get her before she drained us dry."

I paid the total, which was indeed impressive, and helped Liane down off the stool, somewhat surprised that she could walk at all after so much alcohol as that. "You always drink like that?" I asked as I herded her out of the pub.

"I have six brothers," she said, as if this explained everything, and upon reflection I supposed that it did. "But I think that very soon I shall be wanting to throw up, and I'd appreciate it if you could walk me back to the chapterhouse where I can do it in private."

As she said this she swayed, and I found myself almost colliding with the golem as we both moved to catch her. She giggled and threw an arm around each of our waists. "So gallant you both are," she said, resting her head against my shoulder, and then suddenly the amber eyes were gazing up at me with a sparkle of walleyed mischief. "But do you have to always be so proper to a lady? There's more to life than good manners, y'know."

"You are... really drunk," I said, feeling a blush starting on her behalf, and she slid her hand under the golem's mailskirt, where its bottom ought to have been. The sensation felt entirely too much like a pinch.

"Mercs are supposed to drink up their pay," she said, growing less distinct as the sudden transition from sitting and drinking to standing and moving began to catch up to her despite all her evident practice at outrunning it. "And game and whore, too, but I'm no good at cards. And the whores here are exorbitant. Whups, I knew that last drink was one too many --" She slid to her knees before I could catch her and retched noisily into the nearest gutter. "Damn, I thought I could make it back this time..."

The golem knelt, tenderly, and gathered her into its metal arms, lifting her as if she weighed less than a child. She giggled and threw her arms around its neck. "One of these days I'm going to have to see what's inside this armor of yours," she mumbled, burying her face in its gorget, and then I heard a faint but unmistakable snore.

The golem looked at me, and I looked at it, and I couldn't think of a word to say. "I suppose we take her back to her room," I finally managed, hoping that her Guildsiblings were used enough to their members being brought home in such a state that we wouldn't attract undue attention.

In fact the clerk did no more than nod sympathetically when the golem and I bore her into the lobby, which made me wonder how many times she had already arrived here in similar style in the past few days. A key hung prominently round her neck on a ribbon turned out to match her lock, when we reached her door and I gingerly began to search her; I took this bit of foresight for some further indication that being carried home flattened was an ordinary enough happenstance for mercenaries in this city that there were some accepted conventions to it. Her room didn't look as if she'd been spending much if any time in it, though.

I threw back the quilts on the narrow bed, and the golem laid her down, more gently than I would have thought it knew how. She roused to partial wakefulness as I was pulling off her boots. "'Z'a goo'star'," she mumbled, wriggling to make room in the bed, which there wasn't. "Hm?"

"Good night," I said, and covered her with the quilts. She made a discontented noise but almost immediately started to snore again.

The golem had knelt in the narrow space between the footlocker at the foot of the bed and the door, gazing towards the bed in an attitude that I would almost have had to call reverential; it was clearly not going to let anyone in or out of the room this night, including me. I'm really going to have to have a look at it when I get the chance, I thought, and opened the footlocker to see if there were any extra blankets. There were, and an extra pillow, and I prepared myself to spend another strange and uncomfortable night here on the floor of Liane's room, wondering vaguely exactly where I had lost control of the situation.

###


Why am I not in a bed? I remember promising myself a bed. Somewhere nearby I could hear the sound of someone trying to be discreetly sick. "I didn't mean to wake you," Liane said miserably as I stirred.

"Is it morning?" I desperately hoped that it was, and that the golem had come out of that odd mood. I ached all over.

"I think so. Or maybe afternoon. I'm not sure what day it even is, to be honest." She pushed the wastebasket back under the bed and sat down, shoulders hunching in an image of perfect wretchedness. "Have you been there all night?"

"That's what my back is telling me." I sat up, wincing, and glanced at the window: sunny and fine, and probably not really midmorning yet.

"I'm sorry." I stood up, rubbing at the worst of the kinks in my neck. Her eyes followed me up, and she nibbled her upper lip. "I -- I don't... I might have said..."

I waved her off, not quite trusting my voice just then, and checked around for the golem. It now stood at attention in front of the door. "I know you weren't in your right mind," I finally said.

"It's a good thing my brother's already gone, or he'd be getting even more of the wrong idea from this," she said sheepishly. "But your reputation's probably made, if any of the mercs saw you. I've been fighting them off the whole time. Thanks, for... you know. Not taking advantage."

"I'm a necromancer, not a necrophiliac," I said. She guffawed explosively and clapped a hand to her head.

"Don't make jokes, it hurts to laugh. Was I that far gone? -- I guess I was, I don't even remember getting here. Did you carry me up those stairs?"

"He did," I said. She squinted along the bed at the golem.

"Oh, right. I guess I owe him my thanks too." She stood up, shaky as a newborn foal at first, and picked her way carefully over to the golem. "Thank you, Mister Golem, for rendering assistance to a lady in distress. I am most humbly appreciative of your efforts."

I couldn't be quite sure, afterwards, but I thought I saw a spark of light flash within the visor, just for an instant. "I'm sure he's pleased by your manners," I said. "And now if he would just get out of the way, we can both be out of here and about our business."

She looked sidelong at me with an expression I couldn't exactly read. "I thought you said you controlled him," she said.

"I certainly used to think so," I said, glaring at it. The golem didn't move. "Dammit, do I have to take you apart again? Golem, get out of that doorway."

The golem still didn't move. I drew back in shock. "I take it this is new?" Liane said.

"I don't know what's going on," I said, and sat down on the room's one chair to stare at the golem. "He's been acting so strangely..."

"Maybe he's growing a mind of his own?"

"That's absurd. There isn't even anything inside his head, for Heaven's sake."

"You said yourself, you didn't know all the consequences of the spells you made him with. Maybe over time even a golem can develop a sense of autonomy."

"Fine time for him to do it," I muttered, a sense of genuine panic beginning to grip me. If the golem decided to throw a tantrum in this confined space --

"I suppose," Liane said, sitting down on the footlocker, "that we may as well find some way to amuse ourselves until he gives it up. I think I've got a deck of cards in one of my bags."

"I don't have time for this." I buried my head in my hands. "I finally have some real idea where to find Sorson and here I am stuck in a room the size of a closet."

"What are you going to do when you do find Sorson? Do you think you can take him?"

"I'll have all of Pridening to help, if I get there in time," I said, not raising my head. "They won't want to see what happened to Tremare happening there. They'll help."

"And if you're not in time?" she asked quietly.

I didn't want to think about that. I didn't want to have to wonder how much of a start Sorson had on me, or how long it had taken to do what had happened at Tremare, or at Obermond. I didn't want to be the one who had to find him. "I don't know," I admitted.

"You're going to need all the help you can get..."

"And now I'm out of time to look," I said, wondering even as I spoke the words why I was suddenly so convinced I needed to be out and off right this minute. "I wish I hadn't paid that bar tab, I could have had a small army of mercs for that."

"Well, you've got one merc for it, anyway," she said, and I heard her stand up. I peered through my fingers to see her briskly gathering up her gear.

"You are not coming with me," I said, sitting upright and giving her a withering stare. "I'm insane to be thinking of going myself. I refuse to put anyone else in danger."

"Fine," she said, slinging her pack over her shoulder. "Then I'll just follow you on my own time. You can't stop me from doing that."

"I'll bet I could," I said hotly, but a noise made me look away from her; the golem had turned and opened the door.

"Well, what do you know," she said. "He agrees with me." And she stepped out into the corridor behind it, leaving me to stare in astonishment.

I must have bound it to her too tightly. I picked up my pack and trailed after them into the hall. That's all I need, for it to start following her orders and not mine...

###


"So, I find Khaleel, and I say, 'I think he fired me.' And he just -- looks at me, and says, 'oh, it's like that, then?' And I said, 'like what?' But he just started to laugh. I'm telling you, Golem, I will never understand men." Liane clapped it on the shoulder, making it ring hollowly, and jogged forward a few steps to where I paced ahead, brooding. "He's not much for giving advice, but he's a great listener," she said, quirking a grin. "You should rent him out."

"I'll never need money that badly," I said through my cupped hands, pinching the bridge of my nose between my forefingers in a futile attempt to ward off an incipient headache. "Did you realize that I can hear every word he hears?"

"Yes," she said serenely. "I was enjoying the way your shoulders were shaking as you tried not to scream."

"I thought that the part about your brother's first date was particularly gratuitous."

"I had to live through it, so there. Anyway, I believe that you've suffered enough, so I'm done now."

We walked on in silence, blessed silence, for some time. "Where did you find your brother?" I finally asked.

"Just at his chapterhouse. They were too hung-over to get going yet. But he wouldn't let me go with them. His exact words to me were, and I quote, 'and I'm not just saying this because you're my sister, but he's made a dreadful mistake, and he'll be back.' "

"Presumptuous of him."

"Truth be known, those firemages were too damned annoying anyway. Although they did apologize to me for insulting you. So, how did you make out on your adventure?"

I stopped dead in the road, and thought about it for nearly a minute, and said, "I'm not going to talk about it."

"I heard part of it from the Coldfires," she said. "I heard who you hired instead of me. And I heard in the pub that you came back in without him."

"What part of 'I'm not going to talk about it' didn't you understand?" I started walking again.

"I also heard," she persisted, "including from every Coldfire at the chapterhouse, that people had been avoiding working with that merc because nobody wanted to be the one within his range when he finally went all the way crazy. Robling --" When I wouldn't stop she took hold of my arm and spun me around. "You could have gotten yourself in a lot of trouble going off like that. You didn't even check his references, did you."

"I handled it, didn't I?" I shook off her hands and pivoted away, meaning to stride off, but found the golem suddenly square in my path and had to bring myself up short. "What else matters?"

"Quite a lot," she said in a small, soft voice unlike anything I had heard from her before. Startled into turning back to look, I met leaf-bronze eyes haunted with concern, concern for a friend, concern for me --

"I had to," I heard my own voice saying. "He wanted to --"

"Wanted to what?" she prompted gently as I caught myself and snapped my mouth shut. "Robling, I'm a merc too, I know how wrong things can go. What did the Coldfire try to do?"

"He wanted..." The bronze eyes were regarding me steadily, unafraid, and it struck me suddenly that she did know how wrong things could go, because she'd been in the similar position herself. "He wanted to destroy the whole village, just to stop the Things. Just because it was easier. And there... wasn't anyone there, all of a sudden. In his eyes, I mean. I had to..." I trailed off, uncertain of what came next. "Thank you for teaching me to shoot," I finally mumbled.

"I knew you would need to know that someday," she said quietly, and put her arms around me as I started to bawl. For a long moment I had all I could do to stay on my feet, more concerned with finding my next breath and not getting a hairpin in my eye. Her hair smelled like violets.

She shushed me, as one would shush a balky horse, until finally I could breathe again and I stepped quickly away, embarrassed. "Um," I said.

"Every merc's had to stop somebody who was overstepping the assignment sooner or later," she said, rummaging inside the overlap of her jerkin and handing me a handkerchief. "From what the Coldfires were saying about him, I think they'd have thanked you. -- You have one of my hairpins stuck on your sweater."

"Huh?" One of her braids had come down; she picked a shining twist of metal out of my collar and made a stab at reconstructing her hairdo. It wouldn't cooperate, and with a mumbled obscenity she pulled it all down to start over. She hadn't let me see her hair free before, the sudden shocking intimacy of the gesture taking me aback; unbraided, it was shorter than I would have expected from the size of the topknot, the riot of undisciplined curls only just brushing her biceps. Too quickly she had it all gathered up into a tail at the crown of her head and regimented into two braids, which she wound round each other into a tight intricate knot and pinned.

She took the handkerchief back from me, spat on it, and rubbed a small round on the golem's breastplate clean, and in this improvised mirror she inspected her handiwork. "And that," she said triumphantly, "is one Guild's solution to the hair-in-the-bowstring issue. I thank you for being such an appreciative audience."

"I didn't mean to," I said, feeling myself blushing. "I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking."

"Good, you think too much sometimes," she said, a naughty glint in her eyes. "If you're ever going to be much at this merc business, that's one thing you'll have to teach yourself, how not to think too hard about what you're doing."

"And if I don't want to be much of a merc...?"

"It's up to you," she shrugged, "but I think it would do you some good to ease up on the reins a little sometimes. You've been through enough already, no sense riding yourself so hard all the time. You know, let yourself look at pretty girls, pick flowers --"

"Tremare don't pick flowers," I said.

"-- go dancing... Well, all right, forget the flowers, then, but whatever, find yourself a way to keep from going crazy before you get where you're going, or you'll be in trouble when you do get there. It's the fine art of leading the merc life. Which you are, for now, whether you mean to keep on with it as a life or not. You're already enough of a merc that your first thought after a bad job was to go out and get plastered, wasn't it?" I nodded uneasily, and Liane grinned. "Well, there you go, you're starting to listen to your instincts. I can't say that they'll always work out for the best, but you'll probably have more fun while they're getting you killed." She winked.

"And I suppose you're just the person to teach me?"

"The instinct part," she agreed cheerfully. "You've already got the 'getting yourself killed' part pretty well in hand, I think..." I rolled my eyes in annoyance, and she laughed.

We had left the main East Road some while before, cutting across steeper country in the hopes of picking up some time on Sorson by rejoining the Road after it had done meandering down into the lowlands near a place called Priara and straightened for the stretch to Viparring. I was, I admitted shamefacedly to myself, rather glad that the golem had been so inexplicably stubborn about its attachment to Liane, for it turned out that she knew this countryside much better than had the fool who had drawn up my map.

The only drawback to our tactic was that we were skirting most of even what little passed for civilization in these reaches, and it meant a lot of sleeping completely rough under the stars. The drafty barns and noisy inns of the earlier portion of our travels together began taking on an unwarranted luster in my mind by the time we had finally descended to territories that might more properly be termed rolling plains than hills and once more started seeing the odd fellow traveller or distant farmstead. This was the sort of landscape that I remembered entirely too well from my peripatetic childhood in the Guild of Seventrails, the sort that no matter the actual particulars always managed a depressing similarity of character that kept one from being entirely sure what part of the world one was even in at any given time. I could have come through here myself at some point and I'd never have been able to say it for sure today.

The evening of Flowering Day saw us on a hillside between pockets of habitation, looking down wistfully into the warm spring night at the bonfires dotted across the hills, occasional distant echoes of laughter reaching us on our height from the festivals below. "Pity we couldn't have stayed in that last village another night, of all nights," Liane said from her nest on the other side of our campfire, hunching moodily in a blanket as she regarded the next valley. "I could have pictured blessing the fields with that blacksmith. Even if he was looking at you like he had some hopes about which side you'd wear your flower on --" I coughed, and she turned just far enough to look at me slyly, eyes glittering in the firelight. "If Tremare 'wear flowers' at all, which I sometimes have trouble picturing."

"I can't speak for the rest of the Tremare," I said, "but there were too many people down in Tremare Falls that I didn't particularly care to see at a party." The first glimpse of Leaf Moon marked the traditional beginning of the droving season, but the local Seventrails custom had always been to wait for the town's sun-festival. "I'd usually spend the night in bed with the dog. -- Not that way, I mean..."

She was giggling. "I know, I know what you meant. Poor thing. We should have stayed another night in that last village; I think that one daughter of the miller's would have been willing to make it up to you for those other parties." She regarded me with an arched eyebrow as I tried, startled, to follow her.

"What, the redhead? Oh, you're kidding. Sweet Lady, I had nieces her age. I had a grandniece her age. You have got to be kidding."

She shrugged in the blanket and looked back down into the valley. "Well, she was looking just as hard as the blacksmith was, anyway. Can't say I know why; lure of the unfamiliar I guess."

"And here I thought you were starting to like me." She giggled again.

"I will allow that whatever you've been doing on the road all this time has done wonders for your figure," she said. "You may be comparing yourself to those great Seventrails horses they call men, but you're built more like a racing hound. Which has its points."

"If one likes knackered-out old racing hounds who wouldn't be allowed into a race," I said. She sighed.

"All right, I was thinking maybe but you're in a mood, never mind," she said. "Good night, then." She rolled up into the blanket and soon I heard the soft even breathing of sleep. I envied her the knack. I lay on my back, looking up into the velvet spring night, and thinking unformed thoughts I wasn't sure I remembered how to think I finally closed my eyes to the scattered crystal stars. And I slept, and I dreamed that the golem knelt at my head where I lay nude on a cold stone floor under a roofless sky, and placing its hands lightly at my temples the golem bent to touch its visor to my forehead and whispered, "Wake."

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morgynleri_fic From: morgynleri_fic Date: April 19th, 2010 10:56 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
*sits down to wait for the next part* This story gets more intriguing with each chapter. Want more. *does her impression of a slightly-less-than-patient cat*
robling_t From: robling_t Date: April 19th, 2010 11:23 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
The maddening part is gonna be that the next two chapters are both too long for single LJ posts, so there's a stretch of story that's technically meant to run together that will end up spread across the better part of a month instead... >;)
owensheart From: owensheart Date: April 23rd, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
THis gets more interesting with each chapter.

great work.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: April 23rd, 2010 10:13 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Seems to be holding people's interest, anyway... ;)
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