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The Unquiet Thralls - part one


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“How often must I tell you Bez?  I’ve shown you this time and again.  Before the second quenching, and before I bind in the thralls, see, you got to keep folding the base metal.   First you keep folding it for three full days and nights.  That’s when its light and then its dark, three times.  Follow me?  You can keep track of that by looking out that window over there.  See it?  And no stopping. Heat, hammer, fold, hammer again, repeat.  Only after that do I forge weld the edging and bind the thralls.”  The blacksmith paused, seeing if his words would sink in.



“You don’t eat, for the gods’ sakes,” he continued.  “You don’t sleep.  Far as I know you don’t custard.  We’ve shared the images more times than I can count.  I cannot understand why this so confusing for you.”  The master blacksmith grunted in disgust and wiped his dirty hands on his even dirtier leather apron.  In frustration he looked down at the plans and pages of alchemical notes sitting atop his work bench.  “May the Voiceless One deliver me from all simpletons.”  He said under his breath.


Bezalel, being mute as most thralls are, stood unblinking, gazing without expression at his master.  Telchar examined his thrall’s features for another moment, wondering as he sometimes did whether there could be more going on there beneath the surface.  Maybe more than any crow suspected.  He’d seen hints at odd times, the merest suggestions, that maybe, maybe…but whatever.   Speculation was meaningless if the godsdamned thrall couldn’t follow his simple instructions.  He decided to make one more attempt at instructing through the psychic link he’d established with his thrall.  In his experience, it was a fool proof way to communicate instructions to thralls.  And it worked.  At least, it worked for him in every instance except this one.  He could not make Bezalel understand that the blade’s metal must be set first before the captive thrall was bound and the enchantments could be placed.


Telchar concentrated hard, forming a moving mental image of the folding process.  He picked at it, cleaned it up, condensed it to the bare essentials, then added the image of Bezalel going through the motions.  When he was satisfied with it, he looked Bezalel in his unblinking eyes and thought in that certain way, twisting his mind, sending the moving images into the thrall.  Bez blinked, but gave no other sign that he’d received, much less understood, the instructions.  


And that was the rub.  Telchar was certain the instructions were getting through.  For some reason, though, the thrall continually failed to complete the work.  Bez would succeed in separating the soft iron from the pig, and then stop.  Stop and just stand there, looking at him as if waiting for something else.  


Finally, satisfied that he had done the best he could, Telchar made a few quick handsigns that sent Bez back to work.  This time, hopefully getting the process right.  


This had to work; it was his big chance.  After so long apprenticed, he’d gained the freedom to strike out on his own.  Open his own workshop, accept his own commissions, hopefully win a large contract from one of the influential fighting companies that served the Lord of Shadows.  He had exactly eight more days to complete this order and firmly establish his place in the hierarchy of blacksmiths.  Problem was, these new, higher end thralls just didn’t take to the old bindings as they should.  Everyone was clamoring for the high level enchantments, super strength and all that.  A few smiths so far had realized some success, but not many, and, so he’d heard, their gear wasn’t lasting any longer than his.   If he could manage to figure out the problem and fix it, he would be an instant success.   However,  if he couldn’t start delivering he’d be out of business quicker than he could blink.  Getting this order finished and delivered was the first, most important step in securing his future.  


He could see it now, the vision unfolding before his eyes.  He would start out small, see, crafting a only a few weapons for some carefully picked, well placed crows.  Just a few they’d be, but oh such fine, unparalled examples of his craft.  Quality unsurpassed.  Those influential crows whom he chose to provide with his wares, why, they’d instantly see his worth, his mastery.  They’d tell their friends how one of Telchar’s swords had saved their arses in some scrap or other.  Unburdened some warlord’s shoulders of the weight of his oversized head.  You want to win, they’d say, you want your blade to cleave straight through someone’s guts and not get all hung up on a stray rib, why then you go to my mate Telchar.  Worth his salt and then some, he is.  Not as old maybe, nor as experienced as that hamfisted oaf of a blacksmith Dartel down the road.  But oh my yes is he good.  Best in these here parts, they’d say.  And thank the Voiceless Lord he’s with us and not making weapons for Baron Harkness.  


By then, he’d be picking and choosing his commissions.  Why, they’d be begging him for the honor of doing work for them.  He’d write his own checks then, he would.  He’d be more in demand than the best scented girls from Enid’s House of the She Wolves.  


But first, he thought with an inner sigh, he had to get this order done, and done well, done and out the door.  Without the final payment for that, he wouldn’t be keeping this shop for much longer.  Duke Gord, that tyrant, wasn’t cheap when it came to renting a spot in his free trade emporium.  But it was the absolute best spot for trade in any land under the Lord of Shadow’s dominion.  This was the place where Telchar would make his mark.  


So much riding on this order.  So much, and only his own broad shoulders to bear the load.  And if the Duke weren’t enough to worry a poor dwarf just trying to make his way in the cruel world, well, lets just say that getting your start in business, even for a dwarf as skilled with his hands as was our Telchar, sometimes you have to deal with the less savory characters in the world of finance.  The sort that expected to be paid back exactly on time, as verbally agreed (nothing on paper for this lot, oh no).  Or else something unfortunate might just happen to those skilled hands of yours.  Very regrettable.


He rustled through the notes on his work bench, trying to find his place again.  The alchemical squiggles danced before his eyes until he could hardly separate one symbol from another.  Working with his hands, working through his hands in some quasi spiritual way that he really couldn’t express even to himself, had always been Telchar’s passion.  He was at home working with metal.  Ha, that was a good one.  His home was, in fact, where he worked with metal.  Sleeping on a cot right there against the wall opposite the forge.  Nice it would be, he thought, for keeping him warm in winter.  Though in summer’s heat, as now, it was just the least bit uncomfortable.  It also tended to scent the air of the shop with that lived in odor.  Gave it some character, he thought to himself.  But that only showed his dedication to his craft, it did.  And anyways, once he’d made a name for himself, once they all learned to appreciate his skills at the forge, he’d be able to afford a nice cottage.  Maybe even a villa over on Caelian Hill.  Ah, he could almost see it now.  


But alchemy and binding the spirits of thralls was all the rage these days.  If you wanted the absolute best enchantments, you simply could not avoid it.  And that meant straining his overworked brain through six dimensions trying to make sense of book after endless book recording the arcane ramblings of some overfed navel gazing  greybearded wizard-alchemists.  Tough going for someone who had only a grudging acquaintance with the written word.  I mean, words were there.  You’d find a lot of them if you looked in the right places – like these books.  But that didn’t mean you had to like them.  And he’d be thrice damned and thrown into the void before he’d hire some snot nosed apprentice from the mages academy to read to him.


He had just puzzled his way through a binding that claimed it would increase a sword wielder’s strength ten fold – unless it conjured a few giant flesh eating snakes at his feet to swallow him whole (could go either way from where Telchar was standing) when his door swung open with such force the whole shop shook.


Don’t know why he bothered opening the godsdamned door at all, some detached corner of Telchar’s mind thought, as the tall figure crashed in through his front wall.  After that decidedly inauspicious entry, the figure stood – easily twelve feet tall if he was an inch – blank look on his face, as if wondering how he’d gotten there, or trying to remember why he’d come.  Or maybe in vague surprise that he hadn’t brought the roof down on himself.  


Everyone knew these Champions weren’t the brightest of crows.  Trying to divine what one might be thinking at any given moment was either absurdly simple, or impossible for any other sentient creature, depending on the circumstances.  On the battlefield, for instance, you’d be pretty safe assuming thoughts along the lines of kill crush rend blood blood soak in blood I kill everything.  In this particular instance however, recognizing the behemoth and also, with a slight cringe, recognizing the two pieces of the axe he held in his huge hand, Telchar felt he could probably piece together the thoughts making their painstakingly slow way through the mush between the giant’s ears.  Neither Telchar nor the thoughts were happy.  


“Lilli axe you make break”, the Champion began helpfully, his deep voice reverberating off the remaining three walls.  He stepped forward with plenty of menace.  Fortunately Telchar had already gotten himself up to speed on this point.  He’d considered getting up to actual speed, out the door in fact, or out the wall in this case, since the doorway was rather poorly defined just now.  But Telchar dismissed that thought quickly.  One hundred percent customer satisfaction was his motto.  Actually his motto was payment up front before work begins.  But he knew how to deal with dissatisfied customers.  He’d gotten quite a bit of experience at that recently.  This wasn’t the first broken item to return his shop in the past few weeks.  Generally in the hands of people whose first, and only, response to disappointment was violence.  


So...dealing with the insufficiently satisfied customer.  You had to bluff, see.  Play it off as not so much a defect as just bad luck really.  Blame the circumstances, the weather, the gods, anything except yourself.  Because it wasn’t your fault, was it.  Your work was perfect.  It wasn’t your fault the misuse its owners put the poor sword through after it left your shop.  Offer to fix the piece, at cost of course, no extra charges.  That’s right, for you I’ll throw in labor costs free, gratis like.  Though I do have this important commission in hand just now, from His Lordship.  You understand.  I’d have to take on extra staff to get that done at the same time as your repair.  So while you’re waiting for the repair, sir – and let me tell you sir, it will be as good as, no, better than new it’ll be, I guarantee it - while you’re waiting sir let me show you this positively beautiful shiny new mace.  Right over here sir.  Why it’s a perfect fit for your hand.  And the balance!  Just feel that.  Could have been made just for you, its that good a fit.  And knowing your unfortunate situation as I do sir, why, I’ll make you a deal of this mace.  Yes, that I will.  Its yours for cost plus 10%.  For one of my best customers, I can do no less.  No, no, no, please, don’t thank me sir.  It’s the very least I can do.  


Telchar broke off this train of thought when he realized his feet were no longer in contact with the ground.  In fact he was quite a long ways up, higher than your average dwarf usually gets in a lifetime.  The view from up here really was astounding.  Everyone looked like…no, wait, those were ants.  He must be getting lightheaded as the pressure from the giant’s hand around his throat cut off most of his air supply.  


He felt himself moving, opened his eyes again.  He could see nothing but face.  Huge eyes that now looked dangerously focused, a nose with nostrils large enough to shove cows up, mouth you could probably drive a wagon through, and from which spewed, like a tornado in a sewer, the most foul breath he’d ever experienced.  You couldn’t even imagine breath this foul.  Midden heaps must have their agents hire Lilli as a consultant for advice on getting that decaying wyvern poorly made socks smell just right.  The pungency didn’t so much bring tears to his eyes as create a waterfall.   His tears splashed into the Champions cavernous mouth as he spoke.


“Lilli axe Narg head break.  Lilli kill Narg with stick.”  The Champion held up his other hand in front of the dwarf’s face, exhibiting a tree branch as thick around as Telchar’s chest.  Partially congealed blood slowly dripped down from one end.  “You fix Lilli axe.”  The giant started to push Telchar away and towards the ground, none too gently either, then seemed to reconsider and quickly pulled him back.  Telchar wondered if he’d gotten whiplash.   Apparently the giant felt the need to offer a few parting words of wisdom.  “Lilli want axe fix.”


The pressure on Telchar’s throat was suddenly gone.  He took a deep breath that was wasted when the ground slammed into his back.  When he could breathe again, the Champion’s face once more filled his field of view.  The only thing he felt he had to be thankful for was that the giant couldn’t bend down far enough to impose his toxic exhalations on him again.  


“Lilli come back for axe,” he said.  “Lilli get good axe fix”.  The Champion flung the two-piece axe down beside Telchar, barely missing his arm, and stalked out the wall.


After a difficult moment, Telchar picked up the axe pieces and placed them carefully on his work bench.  All his alchemical papers were gone from the table top, scattered around the room.  Most  seemed to have been trodden on by Lilli, and were now covered in gory footprints of a distressing color.  Probably for the best, he thought.  If one of those bindings went wrong, he’d have someone like Lilli in here menacing him with giant snakes and demanding recompense for his missing toes. 


Telchar carefully examined the axe blade itself,  its cross section along the line of the break.  He checked the visible patterns in the steel, tested its strength, examined the pins connecting it to the haft.  That he didn’t find anything wrong was no real surprise.  This was the fourth broken weapon to be returned to him this month, and he was confident that in no instance had his metalworking been to blame.  For all his faults, and he tended to be honest with himself at least, he knew the physical aspects of his craft.  No, the problem was the same here as he’d begun to suspect in the other cases.  Bindings.  Those damned bound thralls.


He got out his spirit lens and examined the pieces.  Yep, the thrall was gone.  In fact it looked as if it had fought its way out.  But he had made sure the binding was perfect this time.  It had been one of the new fangled ones, using a wild but still reputedly reliable thrall.  But still a simple example:  nothing should have gone wrong.  Yet it had.  


He had to figure out how to make these new high-powered bindings work, or he was out of business.  And probably out of his skin once Lucky Sam got wind of things.  His loan was due next week, and he owed Lucky Sam more money than was healthy.


He noticed belatedly that the sound of hammer ringing on steel had stopped.  Bezalel stood staring at him, sword blade left to reheat in the fire.  Telchar felt something tickling at the edges of his thoughts.  But he didn’t have time for this.  He angrily motioned Bez back to work and retreated to his cramped office in the back room.  He’d take it from the start, recheck all his formulas, go over every step in the binding.  He must have done something wrong.  The answer had to be there somewhere.


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