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original fiction: Tin Man [5/16] - Diary of a Necromancer
Excuse me, I'm making perfect sense, you're just not keeping up
original fiction: Tin Man [5/16]

Chapter Five

As the days went by, one and two mercenaries in a wayside taproom became four and five and six, and soon enough the merc patronage began to outnumber the countryside regulars, at least in the sort of places that Liane recommended we stop in on the pretext of making my ongoing inquiries. She seemed to have a comprehensive knowledge of such establishments that only grew more detailed the farther north and east we traveled. "My Sharpshaft chapter does mostly long-haul contracts south from Wantrell," she said by way of explanation when I asked her about it. "Down to the coast and back all the time with the caravans..."

We spent one particularly excruciating evening sharing a camp with a southbound gaggle of Pridening, a few of whom dimly remembered me as the eccentric whose dog had nipped one of their Elders on the ankle in an attempt to herd him into the stable when their party had arrived at Tremare for a conference some years before, and when that morning finally came we took our leave of them without one shred of regret on my part. "I wouldn't have believed that if I hadn't seen it myself, but you and the Pridening really don't get along so well, do you," Liane said once we were well out of sight down the road. "Your dog went after them?"

"He wasn't exactly my dog," I said uncomfortably, thinking of how the surprise mix of prize silkhound and mystery opportunist had evaded his questionable employment prospects in Tremare's working kennel by deciding that I looked like I needed a minder. "But you know what they say about feeding stray animals... Or stray mercs, for that matter." She folded her arms across her chest in good-natured disapproval and stuck her tongue out at me.

The next milestone quoted a distance to Roadmeet that finally made it seem like a realistic goal. The trickle of merc traffic had increased to a sighting or two an hour, and then every half hour, and the parties were getting larger. It was almost a surprise, later, to see one lone pair of figures with bows slung across their backs approaching us. Liane broke into a grin and trotted forward to meet them; "Hail, Sharpshafts!"

The man had a topknot in the same general arrangement as Liane's, though farther back on his head, whereas the woman's two braids formed a graceful double-loop in the style that Liane had said the would-be Brightfeathers were beginning to affect. The same sort of grubby sleeveless jerkins as my own merc's uniformed them both, but this woman's seemed to be straining against the blossoming swell of a baby, and losing. "Well met, Guildsister," the man said. "You're from up Wantrell way, am I right? And, wait, don't tell me, a necromancer from..." he puzzled over my fraying plaits, frowning. "No, Pridening's braids are single, but you're not Whiteraven, with only two --" His eyes widened, coming to the inexorable conclusion. "Bless my auntie's frilliest knickers, I never thought I'd see another Tremare in this world. That one last week said that he was the last of you."

"Last week?" Liane said, as I tried to remember how to work my tongue, and the two Sharpshafts looked at one another in perplexity.

"I think he said his name was Sorson. Saw him in an inn back on the East Road; he said the rest of your Guild were gone, and he was heading for Viparring to see if he couldn't sign on with the Pridening out there instead."

"Goddess," I said, feeling faint. "So that's what he's doing. He means to wipe us all out, Guild by Guild."

"I'm sorry?" the female Sharpshaft asked.

"We've met Sorson," Liane said, face gone ashen. "You're probably lucky to have escaped him with your lives. He..."

And she couldn't seem to find the words, and finally I said, "He has some unusual ideas about what's an appropriate use of the Art." I felt too hot and too cold all at the same time, suddenly convinced that Sorson knew all too well of the destruction at Tremare.

"I don't know if I want to think about what happens when a necromancer loses it," the man said, and then looked chagrined. "Sorry. But --"

"You're right to be afraid," I said. "I am. But... I guess it's up to me to try to stop him. If there really isn't anyone else but me."

"Good luck," the woman said, and she looked as if she meant it. The Sharpshafts exchanged cheek-kisses with Liane and we parted ways, a new sense of urgency lengthening my strides. Until I realized, all of a sudden, that I could hardly see the road for the tears in my eyes.

Liane noticed my hesitation and turned back, making a soft noise of concern when she saw my expression. "I've got a handkerchief," she offered.

"I am not going to sit in the road blubbing about this," I said fiercely, more to myself than to her. "What I am going to do is make Sorson wish he'd never heard of Tremare. I think --" And despite myself I did sit down in the road, hugging my knees to try to keep from shaking. "I think if he was in front of me right now I'd even use that Word on him without thinking twice about it. Goddess, what am I doing? I can't do this."

Liane lowered herself to the road and squatted just at arms' length from me, where she could see my face, but said nothing, simply watching me as I blinked furiously and tried to get my breathing back under control. "You didn't see it," I said. "You didn't see what happened at Tremare. Whatever you've imagined about it -- it's worse than you could think. It's worse than anybody but a necromancer could think. Anyone can kill, but he made the dead gone. Completely severed from this world so they could never ever come back. Even the animals. Even the trees." I gulped in a great shuddery breath. "Everyone I ever knew is gone. He even silenced my ghosts." And I heard my voice crack into shrillness as the next thought tumbled out: "The only person waiting for me in the beyond now is Ezric. Isn't that a thought."

"I think you need some sleep," she said. "We could be in Roadmeet by nightfall, I think."

I looked at her, hearing the uncharacteristic quaver to her voice, and realized that between my description and my actions I had her scared nearly out of her wits but she was doing her best not to let on. And failing rather badly. I scrubbed the back of my hand across my eyes and stood up. "Unless I can wake up before all this happened, I'm not sure I see how sleep can do me much good," I said. "I'd much rather use the time running the other way. But... If I'm right that Sorson's going to cause what happened at Tremare to happen to the Pridening... I can't let that happen. I can't. Even if I don't like Pridening," I added inanely. Liane laughed, and I could hear the edge of desperation in it.

We walked, and we walked, and we walked, and as the sun was touching the mountains to the west of us Liane said, "Have you ever been to a city? I mean, a big city?"

"How big?" I asked, and we crested the hill and saw Roadmeet glittering in the dusk below us. On and on and on...

Roadmeet had begun as a simple market-ground at the junction of two of the great roads that connected the interior to the coasts. It hadn't been simple for centuries. Liane's best information was that nearly a million people lived there themselves, and no one had ever even bothered to guess at the transient population. I wouldn't have been surprised to find it was three times that. "I didn't think there were that many people in the world," I blurted out stupidly, cursing myself for a bumpkin even as I heard the words.

"I've seen better," Liane said with a perfectly innocent look. "And it's not so big when you're in it. Think of it as a bunch of particularly singleminded villages that happen to be next to each other and it's easier to understand. You know, a village full of mercs, a village full of wool traders, and so on. We won't even see most of it."

For the first time in my life I was beginning to understand the legendary Seventrails aversion to confinement and walls. "One does begin to question the wisdom of our original plan, if it involves wading down into the middle of that," I said.

"Well, I'm practically down to that Sun-penny I got in my change last week and I know you haven't got much more money," she said with a pointed look. "The constables are always up to their braids in Things around here, if we're lucky they'll want something killed badly enough that we can squeeze an earnest-payment for some backup mercs out of the fee."

I couldn't argue, but I didn't necessarily have to like it. Fortunately Liane was right about the scale of the individual quarters of the city. The neighborhood ceded to the needs of mercenaries, on the eastern edge, wasn't all that much larger than Overwinter or Tremare Falls, and moreover it had grown up outside the original walls, so that it might as well have been a separate town for all the notice Roadmeet proper took of it. I forgot most of my qualms as I became absorbed in Liane's effort to get the reluctant clerk at the local Sharpshaft chapterhouse to stretch their sense of hospitality for a night or two to include the golem and myself -- and even noted, bemused, that the clerk's misgivings about the golem seemed wholly centered around whether he'd have to be bothered with finding a third unoccupied room. (He brightened considerably upon hearing that it didn't eat either.)

"The quickest way of recruiting around here," Liane said, once we'd been sat down in a quiet corner with some bread and cheese to keep us till supper, "is to find a pub with the sort of mercs we want. Have we decided what sort that is yet, or should we just start with the pubs where my friends usually go?"

I spread my hands and admitted defeat. "Military tactics aren't my field," I said. "All I can think of is to throw numbers at the problem. Which means, given our budget, that the more favors you can call in the better, probably."

"We should start with the Merc's Heart, then," she decided firmly. "There are a couple of likelier places, maybe, but I don't know if the Sharpshafts will have covered my bar tabs there yet. Once we've got some prospects scouted we can head for the constable's office in the morning to see what we can do about earning a down payment. Let me do most of the talking, huh? You may have spent time as a diplomat, but I'd bet you weren't doing it over a merc's idea of a round of drinks."

"You'd be surprised," I said. Liane's eyebrows shot up.

"So, your chaste and abstemious manner is just a polite front? I had been wondering where all those rumors you hear about necromancers could get started, with you for my example."

"Most of the Tremare wouldn't have had the imagination to misbehave, really," I said, getting to my feet. "Pridening, now, I've heard stories. But it wouldn't really be quite fair to spread them."

"Oh, spread, spread," she giggled, slipping an arm through mine in a gossipy manner, then seemed to recall herself and let go again. "Right, right, mustn't get too familiar with the boss..."

Actually I found that I hadn't minded it so much as all that, and was rather surprised at myself. "Where is this Merc's Heart?"

"Just up the block, the one with the sparks coming out of the windows," she said, moving to open the door. "Best pub in town if you're any sort of magic type, because they'd rather take your custom and pay the extra insurance. Now, the Owl and Rose, they got all stuffy and tried to crack down, and now nobody drinks in there but the really boring people who actually want to see the floor show. Not my idea of a good time, at all."

At least half the businesses in the quarter seemed to involve pleasures of the flesh, mostly drinking. Extrapolating from the number of alehouses we passed just on our way up the street, I guessed that a pub crawl here could take years. The Merc's Heart turned out to be one of the larger and brighter establishments, and despite what the sparks suggested outright magical brawls were strictly discouraged inside the building according to a notice. We passed through the street-doors and stood in the entryway, acclimating.

"Hey!" the publican called. "If you want to drink here you'll have to disarm, all three of you. Off with the armor or out."

I looked at Liane, and she looked at me, and then we both turned to look at the golem, standing mutely a pace behind us. "Oh, um, he, he can't..."

But the publican had already come to the near end of the bar, and as he opened his mouth to address the golem specifically I saw him catch himself as he got a closer look into the helmet. "I'll be blowed," he said. "Is there anyone in there?"

"No," I said, and flipped the golem's visor back so that he could see the twisting sigils written across the inside surfaces of the empty helmet. "It's a golem." The golem, displaying a hitherto unsuspected sense of the theatrical, offered its hand for the publican to shake.

"I'll be blowed," the publican said again, taking the extended hand automatically, and collected himself, releasing the gauntlet with a puzzled frown and turning suspiciously to me. "But does it drink? Because if it's not a paying customer, it can't come in here and scare those as are. It'll have to wait outside."

It seemed eminently reasonable of him, although I felt strangely naked as I ordered the golem to stand watch in the vestibule. I fancied as I turned away that the decor had needed that improvement. "I hope he doesn't sit out there whining like a dog would," Liane said mischievously. "You get us a pitcher of something and I'll see who's here to tempt with it."

I imagined, given what she'd told me of Sharpshaft's organizational structure, that she had probably worked at least in passing with most if not all of the mercenaries collected in this pub. I went up to the tap end of the bar and used some of my last coins to come by "a pitcher of something." It certainly looked like something mercs would drink to avoid thinking of what tomorrow might bring them, nearly black in the uncertain light.

I turned away from the bar, and Liane wasn't there. Alarmed, I scanned the room and caught sight of her deep in the forest of tables, being swept into a bearish embrace by a caramel-skinned man I felt somehow I ought to be recognizing. "I need those arms to do my job, you know," she was laughing, feet completely clear of the floor, as I hurried over.

"Sometimes I start to believe what Mum says about warp and weft and all that." The man set Liane gently back onto the tiles. "And, um, am I about to get misinterpreted by a jealous admirer?"

"Jealous admirers of mine have more sense than to think I'd ever find a man with a dead mouse on his chin attractive," she chuckled, ruffling his goatee, as I put my free hand on her shoulder to stop her from backing into the pitcher.

"Well met, then, whoever you are," the man said, and stuck out a hand towards me. "I'm Liane's brother Khaleel. My reputation may have preceded me, I'm the obnoxious one with the peculiar fixations who likes to go out of my way to defend my only sister's honor even though I haven't any myself -- Hey, is that pitcher for us?"

Khaleel took the pitcher from me; as he set it down on the marble tabletop I saw frost forming on the sides. His Scaldberry companion immediately lunged for the pitcher. "Do you really need more beer, Flux?" the lone woman at the table said, trying to get it away from him. "Last time you were this drunk you set your unders on fire."

"I am perfectly in control," Flux insisted, wrenching the pitcher free of her grasp, and sent a tide of beer into his own lap when the handle suddenly melted in his hand as he attempted to fill his mug. "Or perhaps not. Bother, now we need another one."

"It's your turn to buy," the last man said. Despite Firetongue's reputation for discipline his waxed mustache was smoldering at the tips. Still shaking drops of bright molten glass off his fingers, the Scaldberry started looking around for a server to hail.

"We're heading west to see if we can clear a whole pack of Things out of the area around Zifran; the motion was raised that it would be a good idea to get insanely drunk one last time before we left," Khaleel explained. "I seconded. Welcome to come with?"

Liane shook her head: "East for us, urgent business. He's..." She glanced back at me. "He's following someone. Someone we really need to catch up to."

The firemages, apparently just now taking real notice that the shape which had provided the ill-fated pitcher was still stubbornly looming behind their associate's sister, craned around to look at me. "Who's the Eldest?" one asked.

"I'm thirty-seven," I said, affronted.

"He's a necromancer," Liane said, in a tone that most would have backed down from. Instead they gave each other all-too-familiar Knowing Looks.

"I do hear that takes it out of you," the second firemage said. "All that hanging around dead people and all. You start thinking you are one."

"Let me see if I can rescue this situation," the woman said, rising with the exaggerated caution of the seriously impaired. "I'm the organizer of this sorry excuse for an expedition; Gale, um --" and she patted at her hair unsteadily, apparently trying to remember what Guild she belonged to; "Gale Skybolt. And who is the distinguished-looking gentleman attending our Miss Liane?"

"Robling Tremare," I said before Liane could answer for me, and watched as all four of the strange mercenaries reacted: Oh, I thought you must be a Whiteraven necromancer... "You've probably heard by now. About my Guild."

"So it is true, about Tremare being...?" The sorceress sank back into her chair, the look in her eyes suggesting it was more than merely the drink unfastening her knees. "I thought -- well, I thought it was too outrageous to credit. And you're all alone now?"

"And my golem," I said. "Although I'm not sure how you'd count him."

"A golem, now," she said, looking around at the area behind me, and glanced into her empty mug as if she were reconsidering its being empty. "Am I too drunk, or not drunk enough? I thought you said a golem."

"The publican made it wait outside." The sorceress looked disappointed, either at having missed seeing the golem or at not getting to see what the pub at large would have thought of it.

"He'd have people accusing him of poisoning the beer if they saw something like that," Khaleel said. "So, do you even know what happened to your Guild, really?"

"That's who we're following, someone who he thinks was involved," Liane said, finally sitting in the chair that her brother had been holding out. "Someone who we already know has done something terrible."

Khaleel looked searchingly at his sister, hearing something of the horrors we had seen in her tone, and let out a long breath through his nose that left ice crystals in his mustache. "I'm still having trouble picturing this arrangement," the coldmage said. "I mean, Liane, and a necromancer." She shrugged, trying to deflect what was evidently some long-standing point of contention between them. "But... Liane, and a necromancer? What am I missing here? You can't even bone a chicken without squirming."

"That was sixteen years ago and I was squirming because Khamearn threw the liver at me," she retorted. "And it's not like all what they say. He..." She lowered her gaze to the tiles. "He has a good heart."

"A necromancer with a heart?" one firemage said with theatrical incredulity. "I suppose he's kind to small kittens too -- right up to when he rips their heads off."

"And then bangs the corpse," the other contributed with an accompanying sketchy gesture. "That'd turn anybody's hair white fast enough."

I felt my fingers tightening against the fabric of Liane's jerkin, trying not to imagine the golem's hands closing around their throats. "We could step outside and see what I'd do with your corpses," I suggested pleasantly.

"Ah, they're just talking," the sorceress said with a dismissive wave that just missed smacking the nearer one in the face. "Couldn't even light a campfire between them in this state. Will someone please buy us another round, and maybe they'll finally do us the favor of passing out?"

Khaleel got up, weaving only slightly, and presently returned with another pitcher. "Look, will you at least sit down?" he said as he reached past me to set the pitcher in front of the firemages. "If my sister thinks you're all right, then you're welcome at my table."

"Actually we have to be getting on with it," Liane said, getting up herself. "We need to stop by the constables' early enough to pick up an easy one." ("No such thing," one of the firemages muttered bitterly.) "Khaleel..." She trailed off, and finally gave him a hearty sock on the shoulder.

"Stop by before you head out," he said with a sad smile. "We may well still be here. Take care of yourselves, Lia-Li." He gave her a peck on the cheek, and then unexpectedly clapped me on the back. "You and your golem look after my sister, huh? I want to be sitting around swapping stories with her when we're all old."

I couldn't think what to say to this, so I simply nodded. Liane took me by the elbow and began wading through the crowd, towing me along in her wake. "Now, we could make the rounds in here for a while longer, or we could head on up the street," she said once we'd got to a space where we could hear each other over the din of conversations. "Or if you're as bored by this as you look, you could just go get some sleep. This hour it gets all tattoos and 'so there I was' stories anyhow -- not that there's not something to be said for the sheer spectacle value of mercs shoving ferrets down each other's trousers... but right now you look like you could even fall asleep during that."

"I could," I admitted. "If you think you'll be all right..."

"Heavens, it's you we need to worry about in here," she said with a twinkle. "Go on, go put the golem to bed."

I fought my way out through the crowd to where the golem waited sullenly in the entry hall. It had evidently spent the interval amusing itself by kicking around in the scattered broadsheets that had overflowed from a shelf under the noticeboard of upcoming entertainments. It made no move to follow me as I pushed open the outer doors, looking between me and the barroom with evident bewilderment. "She'll meet us later -- Well, come along," I snapped at it, and it came along, though its helmet turned back towards the pub once or twice in a distinctly anxious manner. So quickly it's gotten used to watching out for her? But actually, as I thought about it, the tail end of winter had shaded into true spring since I had hired her, Quickening Day already past and closing well in on Flowering Day. In fact... in fact I'd gotten rather used to watching out for her, to having someone around to talk to who could talk back, however much sass as it occasionally came out as. Turning that thought around and around in my mind, I walked back down the hill wondering what in the world Tremare's Elders would have made of any of it.

The room was small and the bed confirmed my sense that Seventrails generally had little to do with this huge uncomfortable city, but it was a room, with a door, and a bed, and I curled up under the blankets gratefully, never mind that my toes were butting up against the footboard. One of my neighbors was entertaining, quite enthusiastically, but after a few moments' muzzy calculation I worked out that at least the appreciative moaning wasn't coming from the room directly on my right where Liane was staying, and felt weirdly reassured. Not your business, but it would be best if she's clearheaded in the morning, I rationalized, hoping that I'd hear her come in before I fell asleep and half suspecting that I wouldn't get to sleep until she did.

And wondering what I would do if I didn't hear her come in at all.


6 responses | moved to respond?
otrame From: otrame Date: April 13th, 2010 03:37 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
This really is coming together nicely.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: April 13th, 2010 10:35 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
and then Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies :)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 13th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)


This is fun.

I have to admit, ferrets down a merc's trousers would be a sight worth seeing.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: April 13th, 2010 10:55 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Yay!

My Muses apparently have a thing for ferrets.. ;)

Edited at 2010-04-13 10:57 pm (UTC)
owensheart From: owensheart Date: April 13th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
*giggle* ferrents down a merc's trousers, love it, what a sight!!
robling_t From: robling_t Date: April 13th, 2010 10:57 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
My Muses are not above the odd bit of self-cannibalism... ;)
6 responses | moved to respond?