Livia carefully disentangled herself from the blankets, gathered her clothing, and began to dress. It would have been MUCH warmer to pull her clothes under the covers and dress that way, but that would risk waking Scrounge, and she treasured these few moments of twilight privacy. It passed for privacy, anyway. Most of Scrounge's collection of undead and non-living followers were aware of her, and watched her with decaying eyes, empty eye sockets, or crystal lenses as appropriate.
Livia made her way to the remains of the previous evening's fire, and when it was rearranged to her satisfaction, she turned to the metallic man that crouched next to it. "Twelve-oh-three, firelighter, here, mark," she said quietly. The Atlantean incendiary golem, whose serial number ended in 1203, watched her movements and shot a short burst of fire into the pile of wood and charcoal Livia had built. Livia watched long enough to make sure the fire had started properly, then set about making tea from the wintergreen leaves she had gathered the night before.
1203 was the prize of Scrounge's little army, though he was almost as proud of the bone golem he had recently acquired. He claimed to take little pride in the collection of miscellaneous zombies and skeletons he had assembled along the way, but those two made him gloat. Those two, and the flesh golem, and of course 642 the brass golem, which had started the collection.
The tea was brewing nicely, and the smell made Livia wish there were some sugar to add when it was time to drink it. Meat was easy to come by, now that Scrounge had finally found a skeleton that was a decent archer, and water was not a problem, and it usually took little effort to determine if a corpse on a battlefield had any clothing she wanted. But sugar and salt and spices meant digging through packs, and her tolerance for that was just not very high. She wished she could give the job to the undead, but they lacked the equipment to differentiate between salt and dust.
Livia heard Scrounge cough, and looked over to find him sitting up; Cob the imp bounced out from wherever he had disappeared to during the night. Livia collected the remains of the previous night's supper from the bone golem that had been guarding it, and set it on the fire to warm. She added bread to the list of things she wanted but hadn't seen for a long time.
Scrounge waddled over to the fire, stirred the stew, and then threw a haunch of rabbit to Cob. "Eat it fast, and then get airborne and see what is happening," he said.
Cob caught the food with one claw and made a rude gesture with the other. "As Thou wishest, oh most opulent Master," the imp replied, then grinned and tore into his meal. He was finished in seconds; he scampered up the bone golem and launched himself skyward.
Scrounge decided the stew was warm enough and poured most of it into his bowl. "And how is the lovely Livia this morning?" he asked; Livia cringed. Scrounge's grammar was probably better than hers, and his vocabulary was certainly greater, but his Orcish accent still hurt her ears. Livia was trying to learn Orcish just to avoid hearing him speak Common.
"The same as I was yesterday, Boss, give or take a day," she answered, and Scrounge grinned. It had taken them a while to arrive at "Boss"; Livia refused to call him "Master", and he would not allow "Scrounge", or whatever his real name was. She knew he was Clan Grimm, but she had never heard him use any given name but "Scrounge". "Any idea where we are going today?"
Scrounge shook his head. "Higher ground, probably. It depends on what Ichabod comes back with."
Livia nodded, stirred the stew one more time, and poured what remained into her bowl. Gods, but she wanted some salt...
Mid-morning found them on a high ridge, watching a battalion strength battle between Atlanteans and Necropolitans. As always, Scrounge spent a great deal of time wishing the Atlanteans would lose; he had no real political leanings, but he liked the junk the Atlanteans left behind so much better. Techo-magic interested him far more than either the straight necromancy of the Necropolitans or the pure technology of the dwarves. Scrounge watched the battle eagerly though a spyglass; Livia relaxed with the sun on her face; Cob followed Livia's example, and the collection just stood and waited silently.
Scrounge suddenly thrust the spyglass at Livia. "There," he said excitedly. "On the near side, and a bit to the north. Do you see it?"
Livia stood and put the glass to her eye. “Dragonflies. Up against bloodsuckers and screeching terrors. And that means?"
"It means, foolish woman, that they are too busy fighting to realize that they have drifted over the woods, and that if one of the 'flies goes down, Scrounge and company will have an excellent chance to salvage it. Up. Ichabod; you have to keep an eye on events while we march." The imp made a rude noise and rolled to his feet.
"Boss, you know that nothing functional survives when those things burrow in from two hundred feet up," Livia said. "On the other hand... You might just have more luck than any three people are entitled to; look there." She returned the glass to Scrounge and pointed.
Scrounge muttered something in Orcish that might have been, "By Sharborg's rancid underclothes"; Livia decided she didn't want to press for a translation. "Cob!" Scrounge shouted. "D'you see that 'fly that is headed almost straight for us? I think the pilot is badly wounded, maybe unconscious; with luck, the fly will soft land. Help it, if you can. And then get back to us and guide us to it."
Cob measured the distance with his eye and made a double handed rude gesture at Scrounge. "Certainly, oh most glorious Master who would never think of requiring me to perform supernatural feats of endurance and death-defying acts of valor. Or do I have you confused with my last master, the one I poisoned?"
Scrounge bristled. "Move it, imp, or I'll have your heart for dinner," he growled in Orcish. Cob didn't understand Orcish, but Orcish conveys threats VERY well. Cob's eyes got VERY large, Livia giggled, and Cob took off.
Marsden Fehr concentrated VERY hard on breathing in and out. First one of the screechers had hit him, and then he had been tagged by one of the poisonous bloodsuckers. He had slammed both the lift and pitch controls forward, and then the world had gotten gray, and it wasn't getting any better. He knew he was probably going to die from the poison, and he couldn't do anything about that.
On the other hand, if the poison didn't kill him, he had to get the dragonfly back under control or he would barrel into something at top speed, and that would kill him anyway. So he had to try to land. He pulled the pitch lever back to neutral, and eased the climb back to something that he hoped was close to hover. He started to lean over far enough to make a guess of his altitude and realized that he would only fall off the 'fly. He eased back on the climb a little further until he was sure he was descending, and prayed very hard that he wasn't descending too fast.
There was suddenly something sharp at his throat. "You can't see squat, can you, Bunkie?" asked a strange, squeaky voice. "If I tell you how to find a clearing, you think you can ease this bug into it?"
Marsden nodded, fought back a wave of nausea, and then croaked out, "Yes."
"Let's get level, right? Increase the lift slowly until I say to stop. A little more... Good. Now some forward; not a lot, we don't have far to go. Now turn slowly right... that's it... straighten out... kill the forward... looks good, now lose the lift REAL slow... easy... easy... ten feet, flare or whatever... down.” The 'fly's feet hit the ground; it wasn't level, but the legs compensated automatically. "Now shut it down." Marden did as he was told, and the 'fly went quiet. "Good job, Bunkie. It's been a pleasure flying with you." And then something crashed into Marsden's head, and he fell to the ground.
"Did you have to dump him so hard, Cob?" a woman's voice asked. "He was nearly dead already; he didn't need a concussion on top of it." Marsden tried to open his eyes and found he was blindfolded.
"How'd I know the Boss would want him alive?" Cob, owner of the squeaky voice that had guided Marsden to a landing, replied. "For all I knew I was going to get to eat him this evening.”
"Right," the woman said. "Oh. You're awake. Don't try to talk; I'll tell you the basics, and then you can ask questions if you still need to. You have woken up, so you have probably beaten the poison; that's good. You can't see, because when the idiot imp over there dumped you off of the dragonfly, you landed on your head, and the bandages are covering your eyes. You should be able to see when I change the bandage tomorrow. My boss wants you to be healthy, and after that, we'll see."
"My name is Marsden Fehr, Apprentice Aerial Crossbowman,"Marsden replied.
"And my name is Livia, pleased to meet you,"Livia answered."I'm going to pretend I don't understand that name and rank garbage you just threw at me, and advise you to get MUCH smarter very fast, because that attitude will NOT play for my boss, and then the imp WILL get to eat your heart, or whatever seems appropriate. Right?"
Marsden thought about that. "I have rights as a prisoner of war."
Livia chuckled. "Yeah, well, Scrounge isn't fighting a war, he's just being Scrounge. As far as he's concerned, he saved our lives, and that means he owns us. It's an orc thing.”
“But... He seems to trust you. Can't you escape?" Marsden asked.
Livia snorted. "Right. I run away, and I'm one little girl alone in the big bad wilderness with no idea of how to get home. This way I get food, clothing, and someone else fights the monsters. I could do worse."
"We could both escape," Marsden continued. "We could get away easily on the dragonfly..."
Livia chuckled. "You take a lot for granted, don't you? Rest. Heal. Learn the rules, then try to play the game. You've been as good as dead twice already today, the way I see it; why go for three?"
"It is the first duty of a prisoner to escape," Marsden said primly.
"Yeah, right." Livia held a cup to his lips. "Drink this; it will make you feel better."
There was no trace of light leaking through his bandage when Marsden woke again; he squirmed until he found a sharp bit of rock, and then began to work on his bonds as quietly as he could. Once his hands were free, he lifted the bandage away from his eyes and took a look around. One eye was still swollen shut, but the other worked well enough in the full moonlight. He gritted his teeth as he repositioned the bandage to keep it out of his good eye, and knew he had re-opened a wound in the process.
There were no sentries in sight, and the only sounds were those of the river some ten yards away. There was a mound of blankets that seemed to be occupied by two people in the woods just behind him, and no sign of anyone else, including the imp.
They were camped on the inside of a riverbend; the dragonfly was standing on the sand between him and the water. He considered trying to find a weapon, and decided that his best hope was to escape as quickly as possible. He scuttled to the dragonfly as quickly as he dared.
It didn't look like the idiot barbarians had hurt his treasured vehicle, and the fuel gauge showed that the Magestone in the 'fly's belly still held at least three quarters of its original charge. Marsden climbed into the saddle and looked around once more for sentries; he wondered if Scrounge, Livia, and the imp were the whole of their company. He opened a storage hatch and pulled out a large driver with a lanyard, and hung it from his wrist; it would give him an edge if the imp showed up.
Marsden took a deep, painful breath and concluded that a better plan was not going to occur to him. He turned the main power switch, waited a few seconds while the 'fly came to life, and then pushed the lift control to full. The wings started to beat, accelerating with every cycle until the legs began to straighten as the weight came off of them, and then they were airborne... and then the display went black and the 'fly settled back onto its legs as the energy of the wing flywheels was spent against the air. Marsden glanced at the fuel gauge and saw it was as black as the rest of the instruments.
"I saved your life twice," said a harsh voice with a hideous guttural accent. "And you repay my hospitality by attempting to steal my prized possession. Have you no shame? Have you no honor?" The speaker was an orc wrapped in a blanket who stood a few yards away; Livia stood beside him in a blanket of her own.
"It is the first duty of a prisoner to escape!" Marsden shouted. It sounded silly, and he knew it.
"You were not a prisoner." The orc continued. "You were a member of the household of Scrounge of Clan Grimm. A chattel member, but a member nonetheless. And now you have betrayed me. Derrick, get him down from there." A pair of huge hands grabbed Marsden from behind and set him on the ground but did not let him go; Marsden realized the hands were made of something very like ivory colored concrete. A bone golem? Marsden shivered.
Livia came closer. "Idiot," she hissed. "What did I tell you? Now give me that driver." Marsden hesitated, and the giant hands began to squeeze a bit; Marsden gave her the driver. Livia gave him his belt and the sheathed knife that hung from it in exchange; the knife was securely tied into its sheath.
"Since you have violated my hospitality, and wish to leave, you are free to do so," Scrounge said after Livia had returned to his side. "Your army is that way." He pointed. "If you try to return, Derrick will tear you limb from limb. And after you have a short head start, these two," a skeleton archer and a zombie hound stepped out of the shadow of the wood, "will give you some incentive to hurry."
"Me, too, Boss," shrieked the imp as it landed on the saddle of the dragonfly. "I still think I should have gotten to eat the choice bits already."
Scrounge nodded. 'So Ichabod will follow you as well. I would suggest you hurry." The giant hands went slack, and Marsden charged off into the woods.
Livia waited until Cob returned and then waited still more for him to fall soundly asleep before she slid out of the covers as she had done every morning for so long; it felt strange to think that this was the last time. She loaded the dragonfly with fresh Magestone, and filled Marsden's pack with enough for another full load; Scrounge had always been good at keeping his metal golems fed. She climbed into the saddle of the 'fly, wrapped herself in a spare blanket, and waited for the first trace of light.
She stared at the controls in the moonlight and prayed to every god she could think of that she and Scrounge had come to the right conclusions as to their functions, and that the 'fly was as smart at stabilizing itself as they thought it was. The big rotary toggle was main power; the joystick was pitch and roll; this lever was lift, and this paddle was rotate.
The first light of false dawn appeared, and Livia turned the power switch with a "thunk" she heard over the river. She counted through ten very slow breaths, then shoved the lift lever all the way forward. The wings responded much faster than they had for Marsden with his exhausted Magestones, and the 'fly was above the treetops in seconds. She bumped the "rotate" paddle to the left, and the 'fly began to circle slowly to the right.
There was something moving in the forest, much closer than it should have been. Livia twisted in the saddle and considered the terrain. The battle had been there, there was a pass through the ridge there... The Necropolitans were doing a night march to get through that pass as soon as possible, and Scrounge's camp was dead in their path. If they didn't start moving NOW, they would be overrun...
She couldn't help doing a bit of experimenting with the other controls on the way down; she might never get a chance to pilot the 'fly again. She landed where she had started, except that she had turned the 'fly to face the firesite. She could see Scrounge sitting with his back to her, his shoulders wrapped in a blanket. She looked for Cob and found him still sleeping off his night's exertions. Livia shut down the dragonfly and ran to Scrounge's side.
"There's a company of Necropolitans, maybe more, on the way here. We have to pack up and get out NOW, or they'll overrun us," Livia told him.
Scrounge looked up incredulously. "You came back. You were free. Why did you come back?"
"Didn't you hear me? I said..."
"And why did that make a difference?" Scrounge seemed genuinely confused.
Livia took a deep breath. "Because I realized that if the only way to keep you alive was to stay with you, I was stuck." Scrounge thought about that, and began to grin. "But the dragonfly is MINE. Got it?”
Scrounge nodded. "As you wish. Partner."
January 31, 2002
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