S Lynn (robling_t) wrote,
S Lynn

original fiction: Tin Man [1/16]

Okay, here we go, really going to do this...

All writers have one...

The manuscript in the trunk.

And many of them are in there for good reason. "Not any bloody good" is one, to be sure. "Not bloody good enough" keeps others mewling in that dark, waiting for the writer's skills to develop to a level that might let this old thing or that finally evolve the thumbs to escape.

"It's just not... it" is the problem child. The one that someone might be looking for, but who? The one that knows what it is and wants to go off into the world to prove itself, regardless of what the conventional publishing wisdom would say about its funny-shaped head.

And now that the internet has knocked most conventional publishing wisdom into a cocked hat...

Updates every Monday.*

Chapter One

In fact the golem didn't look like much -- it looked like an old suit of armor because it was an old suit of armor, stitched through with magic until life pulsed warm to the touch in metal skin. The mercenary was still regarding it warily, looking rather as if she were trying to decide whether the job on offer was worth enough to her to suffer having to be seen in public with either of us. "I thought necromancers were, you know, that you usually Work with... dead things. Not metal."

"Our Art is the study of life," I said stiffly. "There isn't that much of a difference between bringing back the dead and wakening something that was never alive in the first place, once you're asking the right questions." And if her next question is how 'summoning demons' ties in with that philosophy, I'll file a complaint to her Guild.

It wasn't; instead the archer gave a little shrug, as if she hadn't really been invested in the question in the first place, and stuck out her hand to shake on the deal. "Why not, I guess I've worked with stranger people. Either of you have proper names, then?"

"Robling. Robling Tremare." And at this her eyebrows finally got away from her and crept up into the look I had grown entirely too weary of over the past two years: Oh, I thought you must be a Whiteraven necromancer, I thought I heard that your Guild were all gone, and by the way, what really happened at Tremare, anyway...?

But she had manners, and she didn't say any of the things that too many people had been saying to me anymore. "Liane Sharpshaft. Town Sharpshafts, not backcountry," she added pointedly, as if the distinction had some dire significance. "I can Work most of the Sharpshaft coldmagics, although I'll admit to being rusty on a couple."

"What, and with all the opportunity to practice these days?" She favored me with a tired smile. Preposterous warped Things such as my current quarry had been making quite the extraordinary nuisance of themselves, in recent years; mercenary fighters and mages were growing entirely too rich at the expense of more reasoned scholarship on the phenomenon, but just now I found that I couldn't be above taking advantage of the booming market for pest-control services myself. The pursuit of vengeance for my Guild, in and of itself, lent me purpose, but it didn't pay the bills.

"Golem." The dented helmet creaked round until the empty briarcane filigree of its visor regarded me. "This woman will be helping us in our next battle; if she asks you to do anything, I would have you do it, do you understand?" The helmet turned to look at her, then back to me, and slowly, unmistakably, the golem nodded assent. "All right, then, he seems to have grasped that well enough."

"Ought I to shake his hand as well?"

"If you like," I said automatically, and wondered then what point there could be to the gesture; but Liane had offered her hand for the golem to shake, so after a moment's evident puzzlement it held out its own hand to mirror her, and she seized it in a brief decisive grip that I swore I almost felt myself. "To business, then," I said.

The citizens of Three Mountain Pass had asked me to help them stop a particularly unpleasant Thing from menacing their area -- my qualifications for the job, apparently, being primarily that the golem and I had encountered the Thing in question on our way into the town and lived to report on it, even if I had woken up ten days later in the custody of the town's healer (whom I'd already heard was going about town getting herself bought drinks for recounting her story of the day the "metal man" had dragged its mangled Master into the town's busiest pub). Getting past that initial meeting was however more than anyone else had accomplished so far against this Thing, so the townspeople were willing enough to overlook the minor detail that I wasn't of a Guild generally known for producing mercenaries, or indeed for any significant degree of military aptitude whatsoever.

They'd even acquiesced meekly to the I-thought-unreasonable demand that they at least find me some help, and agreed to forgive the local debts of any real mercenaries who were willing to go out with me after the Thing. Of the small infestation of mercs loitering here with the caravans they were escorting through the pass, only this one archer had been bored or crazy enough to follow up on the request. And I couldn't but wonder if the rest perhaps had the right of it...

"If the Elders could see me now," I muttered into my scarf as we lay in the brush at the top of a ridge, watching the golem potter mindlessly back and forth on the road below.

"Not fitting into their usual idea of you, huh?"

I snorted. "This is about as likely as the thought of my ever having been content to spend my life wrestling cows to the ground with my bare hands like the rest of my family. I can't even believe I'm out here, really."

"That's life for you," she said. "My parents wanted me to marry my third cousin and take over the weaving franchise; I told them I was going down to the pub and here I am. Most mercs' stories sound a lot like --"

I held up a finger to halt her, alerted by a mindhaunting ? of alarm from the golem below. It was fidgeting from foot to foot at the edge of its comfort-range, straining to decide between staying near me or going out to intercept the Thing it had scented. Sticky red magic flared in a vivid aura along the metal limbs, irresistible delicious-smelling provocation to any Things in the vicinity. And one had smelled it now, enraged squeals echoing through the mountains --

The Thing bounded into view, closing on the golem with a terrifying singlemindedness, and suddenly I began seriously to reconsider the feasibility of my rudimentary battle-plan -- I hadn't gotten a good look at the creature when we'd met before, and now that I was getting one I wished I'd decided to forgo the opportunity. It looked like a pig, or as if it had once been a pig, but few pigs that belonged in this world were the size of cows, and none that I knew of should sport such a jawful of carnivorous razors. How do all those teeth even fit into its mouth when it closes -- does it ever close --

Even that mouth, however, wasn't nearly large enough to take in a whole man, and the ferocious snapping charge only left the Thing snarled in the golem's mailskirt, teeth wound up in the metal net. Plate-sized trotters clattered at the golem's steel thighs as the Thing scrabbled to find enough purchase on the metal to brace itself and pull free.

The golem raised a fist and clouted the Thing about the ear. I doubted that there was much of a brain inside that skull to rattle, but it looked affronted that its prey had dared to fight back. It growled around its mouthful of mail and redoubled its effort to untangle itself, the golem now struggling to keep its footing with every yank.

The golem hit it again, this time on the other ear. A man's skull would have been crushed by the blow, but the Thing only growled again, albeit with somewhat less conviction. "Do you see anywhere you could shoot it that it would even notice?" I asked Liane, rather in doubt of the possibility myself.

For answer she grimaced in concentration and then breathed a Word of magic to the head of an arrow. A puff of blue fire blazed and settled around the broadhead blade. She nocked the bespelled arrow, took aim... and shot the Thing neatly where its balls would have been if it were a normal beast. I couldn't tell from my vantage if it was so equipped, but the shot certainly got its attention: it jerked free of the golem, yowling indignation. Blue fire began spreading up its hinderparts as it thrashed on the ground, trying to dislodge the arrow.

The golem laced mailed fingers together and brought its clubbed hands down on the top of the Thing's head, and that, finally, seemed to get the point across; with one final convulsion, the creature went limp in the dirt. After it hadn't moved for some moments, I scrambled down the ridge into the road and drew my dagger to slit the Thing's throat. Only when black-red blood had stopped pumping into the wagon-rutted earth did I let go the breath that I felt I'd been holding for days.

"So that's it?" Liane said, slipping and sliding down the slope to join me. "You prop him up, and bait him like a fishhook, and then you stand there watching while you hope he manages to hit a Thing somewhere that will knock it senseless?"

"...Pretty much." It wasn't very Heroic, when one thought about it. But it had got me this far.

"Sounds like a good way to get yourself killed, you ask me."

The golem was busily working at extracting the most spectacular of the Thing's outsized tusks, to take back to the crossroads village as proof that we'd bested the brute. "Getting myself killed is the least of my worries," I answered absently, wondering if there were much of anything I could do to help the golem along. Maybe a rock --

The archer balled her hands into fists and planted them on her hips, regarding me with the sort of look that suggested she couldn't quite make out whether I was being serious about that or not but if I was she didn't approve. "I've met some mercs who had an attitude in my day, but that's a first," she said.

"I'm not really a merc," I said. The golem got the tooth free and held it out to me, a spiral of ivory larger than my hand; shuddering, I took it up with a corner of my scarf and dropped the gory object into a coat pocket, where it lay against my hip like a chunk of brick.

"No, I imagine it would be a bit different for necromancers, wouldn't it," she said. "Provisions will have been made, and all that. Hmph. Sort of thing gets the rest of everyone around you killed, I wouldn't be surprised."

"No, that's Pridening necromancers," I said, turning my back on the corpse and starting up the road. "Tremare work alone. Usually. Not that I seem to have any choice in the matter anymore if we didn't," I sighed.

"Can't be easy, having a thing like that happen to you," she acknowledged with a tilt of her head, trotting to keep up with me. "You and him really the only ones left?"

"So far as I know," I said. "Although... I made him afterwards. To look after me while I try to find whoever did it. If there is a whoever to find; I still haven't found that out yet."

A shrug, now. "Good luck," was all she said.

The citizenry of the crossroads accepted their deliverance with subdued grace, slightly embarrassed to have a complete stranger show them up for cowards. The Sharpshaft excused herself with unseemly haste the moment she had the writ forgiving her debts in her hand, presumably to go abuse their hospitality a little further before her caravan departed. For myself I'd rather have been on my way, but the hunt and the battle had consumed most of the fleeting winter daylight, so, reluctantly, I steeled myself to one last night stuck in this unremarkable puddle of a town and its even less remarkable inn. At least for once I hadn't any worries over funds.

It was too late to do anything worthwhile with the rest of the night and too early to reasonably go to bed; at a loss, I ended up in the inn's taproom, huddling over an uninteresting supper in the darkest corner I could find and trying my best to pretend that I didn't belong to this flashily conspicuous golem hovering attendance at my elbow. For the most part the room at large was ignoring us quite obligingly, since two mercs had drifted in and colonized the taproom's piano; even the novelty of a golem was little competition for the plumpish sorceress who kept striking colorful sparks of magic off the keys as her fingers hammered away in counterpoint to her partner's. The piano wasn't exactly in tune, but their four-handed duet was coming off competently enough, or at any rate not quite so badly as to drive listeners to flight, and the quietly appreciative portion of the crowd most focused on this entertainment actually seemed to be growing gradually as dark drew in and other mercs who weren't staying with their caravans settled down to roost for the night.

I had just begun contemplating the merits of making an early night of it after all when I realized that I was no longer alone in my corner; a stubby man clutching the most current in what looked to have been a series of ales stood on the other side of my table, peering uncertainly at me. "You're the necromansher, aren't you," he said, slopping the glass in a gesture to indicate the twin braids at each side of my face, the Guild mark of Tremare. "You killda Thing. Lemme buy you drink."

"Actually I was just --" But he had plopped himself down on the end of my bench already, meaning it would take considerable acrobatics to get out past him. I tried, for the form of politeness if nothing else, not to grimace at him.

"I knewa necromansher once," he said, grinning familiarly at me. "Whiteraven School necromansher. Nishe fella. You Whiteraven?"

"No, I'm Tremare. If you'll excuse --"

His eyes went wide and he rocked back until he was nearly in danger of falling off the bench altogether. "Tremare's gone, mister. Heard one fella sayin' they all killed each other 'n burnt up the neighbors."

"What?" The golem shuffled warily beside the table as I drew myself up to the full menacing extent of my height: the stubby man swallowed visibly and with a now-trembling hand reached out to set his glass carefully onto the table.

"Awrigh', you Tremare, don' kill me?"

"I'm not going to hurt you," I said, backing off to give him the space to consider. "Just... I need any information you could give me."

A rolling shrug as the man fought to dip up words out of the tide of ale inside him. "Fella said he had it off a fella 'n a pub in Obermond swore he was there, but that's mercs an' their stories. 'S all I know, honest --" And tumbling onto the scrubbed planks of the floor, he scrambled away from me as fast as his sozzled brain could move him. I subsided back onto the bench and laced my fingers across the back of my neck, considering. Not much of a lead, but --

"What's the commotion?" I looked up; the archer Liane stood beside my golem, closer than it would ordinarily let people stand, studying me with a look of grave concentration. "You look like... you just heard something you're not sure you wanted to hear."

"I think I have to find a place called Obermond," I said. She took a seat on the opposite bench.

"I'm not sure exactly where that is," she said, "but I know I've heard the name enough around this town to guess it's not very far from here. Is this... something to do with what happened to your Guild?" I nodded. She propped her chin on her fist, looking at me, and at length she said, "You know, if you mean to keep after this, you really ought to at least consider hiring a bodyguard, even one merc, just to keep you out of trouble. The golem doesn't seem very smart about that."

"He isn't," I said. The helmet turned to regard me with a tilt that gave it an air of being faintly insulted. "But it's been hard enough covering my own expenses, much less paying a merc's salary. Unless you know anyone who's crazy enough to work on credit, I don't think --"

"I would," she said. I looked at her. "Well, I would. The caravan I've been escorting is so dull to travel with that right about now I'd pay you just to get away from them. I don't care if you spend your nights baying at the moon and fornicating with zombies, it couldn't be any worse than another three months listening to Zaranta Sparkflower going on about the Good Old Days."

"I begin to see why you went with me this morning," I said, rolling the idea around and coming up with no insurmountable reasons why it might not be worth at least giving her a chance as a travelling partner. Anyone would be a better conversationalist than the golem. "I suppose we could give it a try, at that. Would you be willing to come with me as far as this Obermond place and decide there if the arrangement suits us?"

"Deal," she said, and held out her hand to me again. She had a crushing grip. "Have you got a room here? I've been staying in the back of one of the wagons, I don't think I want to oversleep and wake up halfway to the coast..."

"Second floor, third on the, um -- well, the golem will be outside the door, he'll let you in." She rose from the bench. "Wait, I think I had better make sure that it understands you'll be with us for a while. Golem," I said, and it turned its attention to me as I slid out from behind the table. "Attend. You are bound to this woman as you are bound to me; obey her word as you do mine, protect her body as it were mine own." I placed my hands on Liane's temples and bent to touch my lips gently to her forehead. "Let her be under our protection now, you are so ordered."

Lights swam within the thorny cage of the visor. Slowly, ponderously, the golem turned to Liane and bowed. "Well," Liane said.

"How seriously he'll really take that, I have no idea," I admitted. "A proper binding would be done with blood, but that seems a bit excessive at this stage, perhaps."

"I prefer to keep my blood inside me, anyway," she said, eyes crinkling with a smile. "Whenever it's practical, at least. I'll just run and get my stuff, then. I could be a while, I'll try not to wake you..."

I watched her threading her way out through the crowded room, wondering at myself for having yielded so readily to the idea of hiring a mercenary, even one that was willing to risk the uncertain prospect of my finances. It's a change, anyway, I thought finally, turning to drag my weary bones towards the stairs. I'm almost glad the Elders aren't here to have to explain this to, though...

It wasn't much of an inn -- bed, small table, chair, and this far from what I considered civilization a washbasin rather than proper plumbing -- but given a few of the arrangements I'd had to make overnight in the past two years, just the facts that it was dry and relatively warmer than outside made the room seem decadently indulgent. The golem took up a watchful post in the hallway outside, settling in beside my door with perhaps only the ghost of a long-suffering slouch. I suppressed an urge to try to explain to it that there wouldn't have been space inside tonight anyway what with the new merc having to fit herself and all her belongings in, and shut the door without locking it, hoping that the golem would have sense enough to remember to let Liane in if she did really turn up again.

The bed looked better than I would have thought, the exertions of the day suddenly catching up to me in a rush, and after some short consideration of what would come across as 'decent' in the morning with a stranger in the room I put out the lantern and burrowed into the blankets, sighing gratefully as it gradually sank in to all the various reaches of my body that I was off my feet at last and reasonably warm even if perhaps still not as warm as I might have liked. Out in the hallway the golem's awareness was a steady reassuring anchor in the darkness behind my eyes. Not quite enough, never quite enough, to keep me awake, though, unless there was need of my attention, and I let even my perception of the deep bond between us fade, trusting in the golem's judgement to keep me safe until the morning...

And dreamed, fitfully, of Tremare, Tremare as it was, the austere peace of ancient brick and quiet deep roots of oak, those beloved of the Lady of Winter and Death Her lover standing together in the great hall as truly would rarely have happened in life, and all looking at me as if they expected something. I am not your best, I told them, and in return they answered, But you are what we have.

I woke with a start, feeling movement in the bedframe, and for a long fuzzy moment thought that I was back at Tremare and the rest of it the dream, old dog or older friend shifting beside me in sleep once more. But it turned out to be the merc, curled up in a ball between two layers of the bedclothes and just about in complete possession of the topmost warmest quilt by now. Feeble light suggested a murky dawn outside, the drear chill of the interval between New Sun and Brightening Day thankfully behind for another year but full on into a blustering Wind Moon that had been giving me earaches. The temptation to steal part of the quilt back and settle in until lunchtime was very, very strong, especially since with the merc in the bed I was finally close to being warm enough, but a regretful look at the tiny window confirmed the foolishness of that thought, and reluctantly I nudged Liane awake. "Blmph," she muttered, and tried to roll up further in the quilt.

"Time to go," I said. One dark eye came unglued and then quite rapidly the other, peering blearily at me as if white-haired me was something rather outside the normal range of what she would have been expecting to wake up with.

"Oh," she said, her eyes coming visibly into more focus. "New job. Right. Well, then. Good morning, if one can call this morning."

"Ordinarily I wouldn't," I said, yawning as I watched her unwind herself from the quilt, "but if we're to have much chance of catching up to whatever's going on in Obermond, we had best squeeze as much distance out of the daylight as we can."

"Sensible thought," she agreed, and heaved herself to her feet. She had flung the quilt over my legs as she discarded it, and I really, really wanted to pull that warmth farther over myself and sink back down into irresponsible dreams... I turned back the covers with a sigh, bracing myself in the morning chill. The merc had her bags on the table, rooting through them; when I stood up she paused to look over her shoulder at me in muddled morning incomprehension. "You are tall," she said, still not sounding altogether awake. "Let me guess, that crack about the cows yesterday had more than a little to do with having Seventrails in your family, am I right?"

"My mother was Seventrails all the way back to the Founding," I said, stooping over my own baggage. Since the age of sixteen there hadn't been any point in even trying to be cryptic about my long-legged antecedents, déclassé though some would consider the trade Guild and those who followed its demented lifestyle. "I still have nightmares about the cows sometimes. If I start screaming about a bull named Redbelly, wake me up, will you?" She snickered.

"If you'll wake me up when I'm having nightmares about warp setts."

Trying to dress in that meager a space while maintaining any small measure of dignity between us proved somewhat awkward, and we were both a little flushed from accidental transgressions by the time either of us was fit to go out, Liane looking rather tickled to see just how clear the blood could show through my ridiculous skin. "Next time we'll plan a bit better," she said.

"I wasn't exactly expecting to take on an employee when I took the room," I said, and noticed that amongst her baggage on the table were both a hard-shelled case that presumably held the short composite bow I had seen her using yesterday, and a naked longer bow and its quiver. "Were we expecting someone else, too?" I asked, frowning at the second bow.

"Oh," she said, and held the bow out to me. "I had a thought; since you were just, kind of, standing there watching your golem work... I thought maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea to see if I couldn't teach you a little about how to shoot a bow. Since you don't seem to have considered the possibility," she explained wryly. "This is just a rabbit-shooter, really, but it'll do for lessons until we work out how strong of a draw you could manage."

"I've never been much for the physical Arts," I said dubiously, taking the bow from her; it wasn't strung, of course, not left overnight like that, but the wood felt light and springy, and I had to admit that she had a serious point about how ill-equipped I was to do much to augment the golem's efforts. If all else failed I could probably use the shaft for a club, anyway. I slung the bow and the quiver onto the outside of my pack and lifted the assemblage onto my shoulders, making sure I wasn't going to trip over the addition. Liane studied me for a moment or two and then moved to make adjustments until we were both content.

"Well, no one would ever take you for a Sharpshaft even if you took up our braids, but it's an interesting combination," she said. "Now, do we have time for breakfast, or should we head straight out and eat as we go?"

"We had better take the time," I said reluctantly. "It could be the last solid meal we'll see for a while."

We collected the golem and went down to the taproom, which to my surprise had already been taken over by a small swarm of mercs despite the unnatural hour. Liane's face fell when she saw the gathering; "Aw, no," she muttered under her breath, looking as if she were scanning the room for someone she didn't really want to see.

A merc with the braided topknot of one of Liane's Sharpshaft Guildsiblings spotted us hovering uncertainly in the doorway and pushed her chair back from the table, saying, "You didn't think we wouldn't come around to see you off, now did you?" Every head in the room came up and swung round to focus upon us. Liane shrank back behind the golem.

"I told you last night not to make a fuss," she said. The other Sharpshaft shrugged.

"If you're going to sneak off and stick us with your brother, you can bet we're going to do our best to get what revenge we can on your way out --"

" 'Stick', I like that," said the young man with a masculine version of Liane's features. He was sitting at the bar, eating cold noodles with his fingers. "I'm every bit as qualified as she is to be minding your lot."

"You even failed Firetongue's half-cooked idea of a military-tactics course, fizzlewit," Liane said, smacking him affectionately across the back of the head. "Robling, my brother Khavran Firetongue. Little brother," she added sternly, fixing him with a glare obviously meant to convey the importance of the distinction. "What is there to eat around here at this hour?"

Someone produced a harried-looking tavern-boy who had been trapped in a corner frantically scribbling to keep up with the mercenaries' already lengthy drinks bill. "M'lord firemage, m'lord necromancer.... Miss Sharpshaft." Liane narrowed her eyes at him, but apparently decided getting into it with a mere laborer about whether Sharpshafts followed an Art or a trade would be even more demeaning. "I'll, ahm... I'll go see what they haven't already eaten." He fled into the kitchen.

"Khavran will have to do, I suppose," the other Sharpshaft said, as Liane set her pack down on the bar and wriggled onto a stool beside her brother. "But I hope this one --" she jerked her head in my general direction -- "appreciates the sacrifice we're making."

"All this sentimental outpouring over one mediocre Sharpshaft who wears mens' unders," Khavran said, rolling his eyes in disgust.

"I do not," Liane spluttered, as I felt my entire face go hot. Mercs... "Now look, my brand-new boss is blushing, is this any way to make me have to start on a job?"

"Figured he'd find out sooner or later," Khavran replied too cheerfully.

"This is business." This time the glare looked real. "Not that you've got the sense to know the difference."

"Hey, I'm not the one who's been itching for the caravan-master since Sassareng," he said, and as she reached with seeming intent for one of the small knives at her belt he shrugged and added, "Not that he's not a looker. Lucky Khaleel isn't with us on this one, two idiots is more than I feel like apologizing for."

"Another brother," Liane explained, seeing the blank look on my face. "There are six of them, altogether; but I shan't burden you with the details. Especially not the details about Khaleel, we don't have that kind of time." The tavern-boy reappeared with a tray of miscellaneous breads. Liane helped herself to a nut-sprinkled bun and stuffed most of it into her mouth, chewing noisily and glaring at her brother. "Well, eat something, Robling, isn't that why we're enduring this rabble?"

I took a roll that turned out to have a large and surprisingly tasty chunk of sausage embedded inside it, and hastily moved to appropriate several more before the mercs denuded the tray. One later proved to be a cheese roll instead. Liane had collected to herself her own trove of buns and sat gnawing her way through them grimly, ignoring the rest of the mercs as they reached around her to get at the tray. Throughout this bizarre excuse for breakfast the golem stood at my elbow, contemplating the room with placid indifference and receiving mostly placid indifference in return, although one or two of the more alert-seeming mercs kept glancing covertly in its direction. "If I'd known that mercs have better manners about golems than most people, I'd have started choosing some different company much earlier than this," I remarked to Liane as she was devouring the last of her piled breadstuffs.

"I'll admit I've never seen another golem like that," Liane said. "But really, as 'strange' goes, walking armor doesn't rate, to a merc. Half of these are just waiting to react to it in case it's something that'll go away once they've sobered up anyhow."

"You mean you see it too?" Khavran said, an edge of alarm on his face. "I didn't want to say anything, I thought I was losing my mind. That's coming with you on this new job of yours? Whoo, you are crazy, Lia-Li, darling. I'll take the caravan any day."

"You didn't have to room with Zaranta," Liane replied, and slithered down from the stool. "Look, everybody," she said, clearing her throat awkwardly, "it's been grand, really, but I'll catch up with you back up in Wantrell next fall, Lady willing -- remember, you only get to look back on things and laugh if you survive first, right? Great, I'm going, come on --" She plucked at my coatsleeve and reflexively I followed, trailing out into the relative safety of the inn's front vestibule, where she let the door of the taproom close behind us and sagged back against it as if to hold her associates trapped securely inside. "Ouch," she said, squeezing her eyes shut. "Sorry you had to put up with all that. My brother is an ass."

"It's reassuring to see that you've had enough value to them to be missed," I said. "I mean, in regards to our own arrangement; you're not sneaking off from your company because you're not good at your job, or something."

"No, I'm sneaking off because I'm too good at my job, and I'm tired of having to be everybody else's brains as well as my own," she said. "It'll do them some good to have to work things out without me for a while. I do hope you don't turn out to be the helpless type? -- But you probably wouldn't have got this far on your own if you were, I guess. Golem or not. What is he good for, really? Just, I mean, just so I can plan better. How smart is he, even? You know; what sort of orders could I expect him to understand?"

"He's..." I frowned, guessing. "A little smarter than a dog. I think. He'll try his best to do what's asked of him, generally -- Things are really his specialty, though, he can get confused if it comes to fighting with people. He's been told he's not supposed to and some of the ethical subtleties are apparently beyond him."

"Sounds like a potential liability," she said, abstractedly, as if she were merely storing this for future reference.

"It has been, on occasion," I said, and pushed open the door out into the street.

Across the way two firemages, a Firetongue and a Scaldberry, sat on the porch steps of one of the town's more reputable-seeming pubs, scowling down at something bright stuck between cobbles in the street; from the looks of things they'd been asked to take a dispute outside and now they were taking turns trying to melt a coin, an endeavor that would likely take them all morning if similar contests I'd seen were any guide -- then again, they looked relatively sober, so the degree of finesse required might not be so out of reach for either. The Scaldberry looked up from his observation of the other's fierce concentration just long enough to give Liane an absently friendly wave. She waved back and hustled me down the street towards the market, remarking parenthetically, "Pleasant enough fellow to work with, but he will affect that we call him 'Dank'. Bit theatrical for my taste."

Though it was early, the sun still not visible above the mountains, the market evidently came awake even before dawn to service the needs of the earliest-departing caravans and their accompanying personnel and escorts; Liane whisked through the stalls muttering calculations and stopping here and there to add various provisions into our loaded baggage. I became so absorbed by her display of mercenary acumen that when she suddenly stopped and pivoted on her heel to face the permanent structures at the edge of the market I almost wanted to ask her if we needed anything else, just to see if I could figure out how she was doing it. "While I'm thinking of it, I need to check myself out at the relay-post," she announced, and without exactly waiting to see if the golem and I were following she crossed out of the market proper and vanished into a doorway in a jingle of bells.

Inside the relay-post I had to sidestep to avoid trampling a chicken that had decided it was too early in the season to be out scratching in the yard. Indeed, the shop smelled strongly of chickens, with an undercurrent of baked goods and turpentine and the tang of some odd chemical I thought I could almost place. The golem's helmet turned to regard me as if it were rather expecting an explanation would be forthcoming about the chicken, if not the smells. Liane was hanging half over the counter at the rear, idly kicking her dangling feet against the boards as she strained to see what was going on behind the window in the partition. "I asked her to see if there was anything for you, as well... just in case," she said, settling back down onto the floor.

"There wouldn't be," I said flatly. "Even if I'd had any particular reason to have come here... there isn't really anyone I'd expect to be needing to find me."

Her face rumpled. "Right. Sorry. It's kind of a... strange idea, to try to keep in your head all the time. Guilds don't usually just... whatever even did happen, with your Guild. I mean, some of the rumors I've heard...?"

I almost laughed, looking at her solemn you-can-trust-me face all too obviously a cover for ravening curiosity. "At least you didn't come out and ask me if I did-for the rest of my Guild," I said with a sigh. "Which I have been asked to my face, more than once. But I have it on good authority that I didn't have anything to do with it. I wasn't even there. I..." I trailed off for a moment, memories still raw and jangling. "I was filling in for Tremare's envoy to Whiteraven for most of that winter. And when I rode home... everything was dead. Dead and... gone; gone away, beyond Calling back to the world." I closed my eyes, trying not to remember in my bones the awful shuddering blankness from Tremare-Outlier to Tremare-sur-Mare, the encompassing swath of empty villages and barren countryside centered upon Tremare's great Keep. "All I could Call to me with any of my magic were... tatters. Wisps. It had even torn away the ghosts that were there before -- I think... I think I went off my head, when I saw that. The next thing I remember at all clearly is waking up and finding I'd made the golem." And finding also a hair-fine scar along the veins of my left wrist that I still had no slightest recall of acquiring (or, too possibly, inflicting); I shivered and couldn't help but wonder again whether I had blocked out the memories I had blocked out because they were even worse than what I did remember.

She looked the golem over, and finally gave a shrug of acceptance; "If that's the kind of Work you can do when you're out of your head, you're way ahead of most of us," she said. "I knew a Scaldberry once who couldn't even not boil his beer once he'd had a couple. And don't even ask what he was like between the blankets. He was not very popular by the end of the trip."

"One imagines," I said dryly, and was spared from any further digressions down this line by the reappearance of the Frozenlight-braided postkeeper from behind the partition, shuffling through a packet of letters.

"That's, um, twenty-six and a half for your brother's share, if you want to send it now," she said to Liane, handing across the packet. My mercenary went rummaging through her pockets and began forming a pile of coins and miscellaneously imprinted Guild-notes on the countertop. "Hadn't you better look at it first?" the keeper said gently, eyes twinkling.

"Right," Liane mumbled, sorting out a heavier dark envelope from the rest and folding back the flap. "Goddess, he's ugly, isn't he." She tilted the envelope so that I could see the image inside, a stiffly-posed lightportrait of herself and her brother Khavran in the warm sepia and cream shades of one of the most commonly seen imaging techniques, the one that every Frozenlight artisan I'd ever known, imager or not, refused to admit involved practically no real magic at all. "It's for our Mum," she explained sheepishly. "It was his idea. She likes to know that we're doing all right out in the big bad world, every so often. Oh, not that 'Brightfeather' rubbish again, sweet Lady," she sighed, setting the image back down on the counter to flip through the rest of her letters. "If they can't even secede properly without our help doing it --"

She tucked one of the letters straight into a pocket somewhere inside her jerkin without even opening it and riffled quickly through the rest, apparently finding nothing else that needed her immediate attention or a reply for she ended up stuffing most of the loose papers into a pocket on the outside of her pack. Several others she tore up with a grimace. "Honestly," she snapped as she stamped over to the wall where a huge map of the area hung. "There's keeping the under-thirtys abreast of Guild business, and then there's boring them dead before they ever get to have a say in any of it. How do Elders stand it all?"

"I wouldn't know, Tremare's Elderhood threshold was forty," I said blandly. Liane glanced over her shoulder at me with one eyebrow raised, then turned back to peer up at the map. Abruptly she wiggled out of her rucksack and set it on the tabletop to dig around in it.

"Maybe it's clearer on one of these," she mumbled, more to herself than me, and began unfolding one after another of an impressive collection of maps. "I knew I should have asked. But you know Frozenlights, she probably doesn't even know where she is now."

"I've known a few Frozenlights," I said. "And a few that even had some sense. But then, if we're questioning whether she's got any sense, I wouldn't have thought this town was big enough to keep up any Frozenlights. Much less imagers."

Liane shrugged, looking faintly embarrassed. "You really haven't been hanging around with many mercs, have you. Any town with enough merc traffic can support an imager, believe me. We're a vain lot. And we can be trusted to be stupid with our money when we've got it."

"I'd have called it thoughtful, actually," I said. She turned a murky color that might have been a blush.

"Well, you know, it's always good to rub it in to Mum and Dad that I'm alive and prosperous, no thanks to them. In fact I should probably be employing you, by the looks of you," she added with a wry twist of her mouth, eyes flicking to the frayed black sweater-cuff peeping out past my coatsleeve. "One doesn't mean to be cruel, but you really don't look like you've been doing very well at the merc thing so far."

"It's not my natural inclination," I said. "Tremare's... Tremare was more of a scholarly Guild, even for necromancy. If more mercenaries were called on to raise zombies, or even teach kids how to read..." I spread my hands in a gesture of defeat.

"The zombies would probably be a big hit on the merc circuit, as a party trick if nothing else. But I can see where you've gotten stuck having to go way outside your range," she said. "I mean, the golem, he's impressive, but he's not like being able to walk into the constable's office and say 'I can drop big flaming rocks on stuff'. Sorry, Mister Golem --" She turned to give it a conciliatory grin; it was over by the notice boards, gazing serenely at the layers and layers of travel advisories and messages and unclaimed images as if it genuinely understood what it was looking at. "Huh, look at him. Can he actually read?"

"I'm not exactly sure. He seems to recognize a few words, but he might have learned them like learning to distinguish between faces. What would be more useful," I added crossly, "would be if he could write. But I don't think he thinks in words. If he really thinks."

"I've known people like that," she chuckled, and turned her attention back to the wall map, soon stabbing a finger up at a dot nearly hidden by the stylized ripples of the surrounding mountains. "There's Obermond. All right, then, that would be..." She spread her hand out across the span between Three Mountain Pass and Obermond, lips moving silently with numbers, and then looked over her shoulder at me; "I don't suppose you're still Seventrails enough that you remember how to ride, if your golem's found an ad for horses over there?"

"I can ride. The golem can't." Her face fell.

"Blast. Well, I guess I've been coasting along in the backs of wagons too long myself, some walking will do me good. And my bottom," she added mischievously, with a look that might have been directed at my legs. "On foot, then, well, that looks like about two weeks' walk." She dug out the map on the bottom of her own stack and began transferring details onto it. "About..."

* For certain values of Monday. Copyright S Lynn, although if I couldn't sell it why you'd want to steal it... For external application only, Canadian contestants must answer skill question to receive prize.
Tags: fiction:tin_man

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