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original fiction: Tin Man [7/16] - Diary of a Necromancer
Excuse me, I'm making perfect sense, you're just not keeping up
robling_t
robling_t
original fiction: Tin Man [7/16]


Chapter Seven
part one


Two more days nearly had us out of the foothills altogether, although in the middle distance another shallower range humped across the horizon. "Pridening's somewhere in those hills," I said, looking between them and the map. Too far still for even arcane senses to tell if Sorson had already beaten us there, however, for which I was almost thankful.

"We ought, if I don't miss my guess for our pace, ought to be able to reach the road by tonight," Liane said, peering at the map. "Ought. But not necessarily will. So don't start getting your hopes up about beds and hot dinners until we see how far we are by this afternoon. I'm not quite sure just where on the road we're going to come out, either. Except that we'll probably be a couple days from Priara at that point."

"You had to mention beds and hot dinners, didn't you," I sighed, folding up the map.

At least it was a nice day. In fact, it was the sort of fine spring day that always stirred in me the urge to tear off all my clothes and go gamboling across the hills shouting for the sheer ecstatic joy of simply being alive. I managed to restrain myself to only stripping off my heavy woolen sweater for what I hoped would be the last time of the season. "Well, at least that's a bit less 'Death's shadow' of you," Liane said, regarding my white shirt. "Shows up how skinny you are, though. The archery's helping, but I can only do so much so fast. Is that thing as much of a mess as it looks?" She reached out and took the sweater from me.

"I would leave it," I said, watching as she folded herself down to the flowering turf and started to inspect the cuffs of the sweater, "but... it has certain sentimental associations. Not to mention the sleeves fit me," I added wryly, thinking of some recent experiences with readymade shirts; it wasn't entirely frivolity that made Seventrails styles run to deep cuffs and stripes below the elbows.

She ran her hands across the faded black wool, fat elaborate braids all punctuated with acorns, and motioned me to sit down beside her in the grass. "One thing you learn growing up Silkshuttle is mending spells," she said, spreading the sweater out across her lap. "Why don't you break out lunch, this won't take a minute."

I sifted through our bags for the bread and cheese and sausage and half-bottle of something that we had acquired the last time we'd stopped for provisions, and then sat watching Liane as she crooned softly to the ragged edges of my sweater. I knew about as much mending magic as anyone would pick up, but apparently any Silkshuttle could probably have sung a new sweater straight out of the raw fleece, judging by her casual display, black strands rebraiding themselves in and out of her fingers in a dance that put the original crafting of it to shame. Not that that was saying too very much, considering how every gnarl of the pattern represented at least three muttered curses about the very idea of making clothing from sheep --

"You're smiling," Liane said, handing me the neatly bundled sweater and reaching for the bottle. "You don't smile nearly as much as you should. It brings out the green in your eyes. What were you thinking about, that made you smile like that?"

I made a showy production of packing the sweater carefully into the bottom of my bag to avoid having to quite meet her eyes. "Friends. Some of the better times at Tremare. A long time ago, before everyone got so worn down from arguing with Whiteraven about Things." I closed my eyes, unwilled memories seeping in. "Whiteraven wouldn't even let me in when I went to them, afterwards. They said whatever'd happened we'd probably brought it upon ourselves, and they didn't want any part of it. I think they didn't approve of the golem, either. But... I think I knew, that they wouldn't help. I think that's why I had to make him."

"I can't help but wonder if it all has something to do with the arguing," she said, and took a long pull from the bottle. "Did this taste this much like cat piss yesterday? Ugh. Why did we buy it again?"

"We didn't, they gave it to us," I said. She shrugged and took another pull.

"Well, wouldn't want to seem ungrateful." She handed me back the bottle and I took a wary sip. It did have distinct undertones of cat piss. "I'd say tip it out, but it might kill the grass. We'd best just finish it off now before it gets any worse."

"Good thing it's a small bottle," I said, and did my best to lower the level a little more. Beyond some remote kinship to apples, it wasn't even clear as to what family of spirits the stuff fell under, besides strong.

"Two old mercs, sitting in the sun, passing a bottle back and forth," she said with a grin as I handed it back to her. "Never where you thought you'd end up, huh?"

"Insofar as I ever gave the question much thought, no," I said. "I kind of liked my quiet boring life. I already had all I ever wanted to see of people trying to kill me from my own brother before any of this started; this hasn't been progress, to my mind." I stopped, slightly lost and trying to work out if I'd been going anywhere, and stumbled over a discarded fragment of thought that had gotten peeled loose by the alcohol like a flake of paint: "I keep wondering if it was just a coincidence Ezric turned up so soon after Obermond --" Without really realizing it I'd gotten the bottle back, and only noticed when I absentmindedly took a drink from it and choked. "Goddess, this stuff is awful."

"I'd like to get the recipe, so I could burn it," she agreed, and drank off the last swallows. "Heavens. We had better sit for a while to see if anything falls off of us before we try to go on." She tucked the empty bottle into her pack and stretched out in the grass with a sigh. "Does the golem have to stand there like that? We can see for miles, it's not as if we're about to be ambushed right now."

I shrugged, unable to think of an argument, and the golem knelt in the grass between us, looking just as happy not to be so much of a big shiny target. "So... how well do you know Sorson?" Liane asked sleepily, pillowing her head on her arms and looking over at me. "Did you work with him much?"

I shook my head. "We knew each other by sight, not much more than that. Even by Tremare's standards he wasn't very sociable. We used to say that of all of us he was the one we'd have been almost happy to --" I faltered, realizing what I was about to say, and to a woman, but the alcohol had me by the neck now, and anyway she was looking at me for the rest of the words; "To have caught with a corpse, just to know he had the general idea of things. I don't know, maybe... maybe, if it was him, maybe someone should have been paying more attention to his state of mind. We might have noticed that he'd snapped. Or maybe not, some of the rest of us weren't necessarily the best authorities on normal behavior ourselves..."

" 'Normal' is what you're used to," she said, shaking her head. "I had one instructor who could be counted on pretty regularly to go running naked through the dining hall shouting that talking spiders stole his unders. Crack shot, though." She sat up again and shrugged out of her jerkin. "Don't tell the Sharpshafts, huh? It's too damn hot to sit around wearing this." She folded it up, studs inward, and laid it across the golem's lap, settling herself comfortably against its knees. I could feel as well as see the golem's mail gauntlets twitching in perplexity, as I tried not to imagine the perspective it was suddenly experiencing of her loose-collared shirt.

"Really," I said after a shocked moment. She grinned over at me contentedly.

"You're just jealous because he fancies me," she said loftily, sitting up and linking her arm through the golem's. "And you think maybe I'll braid the wildflowers for him for our next battle."

"You won't," I said warningly. She let go the golem's arm and looked up at me.

"Ah, right," she said, patting the golem's shoulder, "The man can kill with a Word and he won't even let me pick flowers. Maybe it's frivolous of me, but isn't that what flowers are for?"

I turned away from the force of her scornful gaze, cheeks heating with regret. Steeling myself, I reached out and snapped off one of the bright sun-and-moons in the grass around us, feeling its vision of the silver seedpuff it had intended to become fading away with a last dying curse on my own posterity. "All right, one," I said, offering it to Liane without meeting her gaze.

She took it from me, fingers lingering over mine for a long instant, and I felt her regarding me as the color rose higher in my cheeks. "I'm sorry, Robling," she said softly. "That wasn't really very fair of me, I guess." She turned to the golem and began securing the flower into the cluster of metal roses that anchored its leafy crest, and it felt ineffably like she was braiding the flower into my own hair.

"There," she said, and I looked over at the golem and laughed. Jaunty yellow button snuggled in against the steel petals, the metal helmet slumped in an attitude of unmistakable resigned embarrassment at its plight.

"I think even a flower wouldn't mind so much if it could know it would be giving its life for that," I said. "Not that it's worth it to the flower, but I do appreciate the sacrifice it's made. I'm not sure the golem does, though."

"Nothing wants to die," Liane said soberly, looking as wise and grave as any vision of the Lady of Winter, "but it's not as if there's a choice. So it all comes down to a matter of how. One would think necromancers would know that as well as any merc."

"It's a question of perspective," I said. "I prefer not being the instrument of any more deaths than I can help. No necromancer does, if he's got any knack for hearing it at all. I can't imagine how Sorson can do things like what he did at Obermond. I simply can't imagine it. It would have to be like... being deaf and blind to your own heart."

"I've heard healers say the same sort of thing about pain," she said, eyes distant. "That if you can hear it, you can't see how anyone would inflict it on purpose."

I bowed my head, remembering too much time wasted in arguments with my father those last horrible weeks, his pleading insistence that the living needed me more. "If I hadn't had the brother I had, I might have become a healer," I said. "But I saw what being unable not to hear pain did to my father. I couldn't... I couldn't face that. At least death doesn't go on and on."

I heard her rustling through the grass, and then gentle strong fingers were kneading my shoulders. I stiffened for a startled instant and made myself relax into her touch, realizing that in fact it was something I'd been needing. More than needing, maybe. I sighed deeply and closed my eyes, feeling long-tensed muscles succumbing to a creeping blissful warmth that had little to do with the soft heat of her hands.

When I opened my eyes again, with a dim sense that some time had passed, instead of seeing the ground and the tangled fall of my hair I was looking at a horizontal and rumpled expanse of linen, one cramped arm trapped under my body and the other flung carelessly out, hand cupped negligently around Liane's -- I snatched my hand away, flushing, and sat up quickly, looking around for the sun. It had travelled more than a handspan farther down the sky. "So much for reaching the road tonight," I said as Liane stretched in the grass.

"Anyone who falls that asleep that fast needs it," she said, and yawned. "But I must say, you really can't hold your liquor."

"I do recall mentioning something to that effect," I mumbled, hoping it explained any aberrant behavior I might not even know about. Well, it settles the question that she's got them, anyway, a tiny mischievous voice in the back of my mind suggested.

She retrieved her jerkin from the golem's lap and wrestled back into it, although I noticed that she left the overlapping panels of the front partly unfastened. "We can still get a little farther on by tonight," she said, and picked up her pack. The golem clanked unsteadily to its feet. Its flower had already started to wilt. I pushed myself upright, still feeling wobbly aftereffects from the alcohol, and settled my pack onto my back.

"At least this next part's down for a while," I sighed. Mere foothills or not, the terrain was wearing, and I longed to be out on the promised flats of the road. My fingers still vibrated with the remembered beat of her heart. But if she had noticed my indiscretion, she didn't give any indication of it, striding confidently down the slope with the arrogant swagger of springtime. I followed her at a small distance, trying not to get too far ahead of the teetery golem. And, it must be said, rather appreciating the view; What has gotten into you...?

Liane looked back over her shoulder, just as I was having a particularly uncharacteristic thought about the way she moved, and said, "Is the golem all right? He's usually faster than this on the downslopes."

I turned back to observe it, as she planted her feet firmly and waited; the golem looked wearily down at me with a tilt to its helmet that I had to call bleary. "It's drunk," I said in astonishment. She burst out laughing, and the helmet turned slightly to regard her in an aggrieved fashion.

"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by much anymore," she said, and came back up the slope to slip an arm around the golem's waist. "If he dreams your dreams, he probably drinks your drinks as well. He got really happy whenever the healers in Sarmeng potioned you, too."

"This is really not anything I would have been expecting," I said. "But I'm sorry I didn't exactly believe you before. I wish --" and I bit back the words: I wish Tremare's Elders could see this.

"Do we go on, or do we camp here?" Liane asked, as the golem lurched sideways and put its arm around her shoulders to steady itself. They were nearly of a height, although nowhere close to the same proportions. "We'd be better off if we could at least get to that stream down there, I think."

I looked down the slope to the glitter in a line of scrub that indicated a watercourse and nodded. "We could probably get him down there," I said, taking up a supportive position on the golem's other side. I didn't often touch the golem; it felt entirely eerie being tangled in the lace of limbs, hardly able to tell my arm around its shoulders from its arm around my waist. Not to mention her arm around its waist -- "The important thing is keeping him from falling, because if he does I expect he'll go rolling all the way to the bottom. And that, I suspect, would hurt."

"I'm just glad that he doesn't heat up in the sun like most metal would," she said, and gently encouraged the golem to take a step forward. "How did you manage that?"

I shrugged; the golem's skin-warm steel had never struck me as being particularly remarkable in and of itself, compared to the whole of the Working. "I presume it's inherent to the magic," I said. "He is alive, after his fashion." The golem made a sighing sound and tried to lay its head on Liane's shoulder, a dangerous prospect given its jaggy crest; with an expression between a grimace and a grin she redirected it onto my upper arm.

"Poor baby," she murmured. "Given the life you've been leading, this must be terribly unexpected to him. Can a golem sleep it off like a man would?"

"I would hope," I said, although the possibilities worried me. "Not that he sleeps, but I'm still not exactly feeling myself, so maybe when I feel better, he will as well. Or at least that's my best guess. We'll have to keep watches tonight."

She made a face. "I had got too used to getting full nights of sleep with him to mind us," she said. "But I suppose one night won't kill me. I'll take first, maybe if you can get some more sleep that'll help him."

We made it another hundred feet or so farther down the slope before, with a feeble metallic groan, the golem went completely slack in our arms and in my head. "Goddess," Liane said, as our momentum carried the golem forward to lie prostrate on the ground. "Is he dead?"

I rubbed my forehead, trying to apprehend the sudden absence behind my eyes. "He's still alive," I said hesitantly, sensing a faintest undercurrent of magic yet flowing between us, "but he's... he's lost consciousness, is the only way I can describe it." I shook my head, feeling as if I'd been struck deaf. "I didn't know that could happen. We'll have to carry him the rest of the way, it's not far."

Liane looked at me skeptically. "He must weigh half what you do."

I knelt and laid my hand flat on the golem's back. "Yes, but there's one advantage to his being armor, instead of wood or clay." I bent over the golem's helmet and whispered a rippling phrase of magic to it. Obediently, the armor's major joints parted. I squirmed out of my pack and found a spare shirt to wrap the golem's helmet in. "Arms, or legs?"

I looked up in time to see her mouth snap shut. "Well," she said, gazing down at the disarticulated golem. "I ought to have been expecting that." Diffidently she leaned down and picked up one of the golem's arms. Its hand twitched and she yelped, nearly dropping it. "He's not completely out," she said accusingly.

"Reflexes, I think," I said. "I've had him apart before to fiddle with his spells, and one time he smacked me. The limbs are subservient to the helmet, but when they're not connected they have some residual magic of their own."

"I have never, ever, even imagined anything like this," she said, and took off her pack as well, unrolling a blanket on the ground. "Have you got the helmet and the breastplate? Because I think I can get all his limbs if I wrap them up in this."

It sounded more than fair to me, and I watched as she carefully rolled up the golem's arms and legs in the blanket, put her pack back on, and then balanced the roll against the back of her head across the pack. Helmet under one arm and cuirass under the other, I followed her downhill to the banks of the stream, half-wondering if the golem had foreseen anything like this happening to it when it decided to misbehave back in Roadmeet.

We made a camp in a spot where we had good lines of sight in all directions but were partially hidden by brush ourselves, and then I laid out the pieces of the golem in their proper order, feeling a sudden frisson of fear as I regarded the limp separate components at my feet. If it won't go back together... if it won't wake up... Swallowing hard, I touched right hand to metal forehead and left hand to metal heart and breathed the Words that would knit the golem back together again. And, to my vast relief, veins of blood-red magic flowed between my hands and through the metal, drawing limbs and helmet up into their seatings in the torso. "So it's worked?" Liane asked when I sat back on my heels and sighed.

"He's still out," I said, "but I've done what I can do for now. If he's not back by morning... I have some ideas, but they're increasingly more drastic, and I'd rather give him time to wake up on his own first."

"Get some sleep," she said, settling down on the ground beside the golem. "Should I wake you if there's any change, or would that wake you itself anyway?"

"Wake me if I don't wake," I said, and lay down under the bushes, feeling oddly empty as I closed my eyes into unshared darkness for the first time in two years.

It was surprisingly hard to sleep without the faint watchful presence; I kept opening my eyes at the slightest sound, overworked ears trying to compensate for the loss of my arcane guardian. Most of the noises turned out to be Liane, sitting on the golem as if it were a bench, fiddling about with arrows and feathers and a small steaming pot in some sort of routine maintenance ritual. She had drawn her tattered quilt partway over the golem to pad out her seat, and it looked quaintly as if it were sleeping peacefully in a bed.

And eventually I must have slept, for I thought I saw that the golem sat up, and Liane smiled at it, and they took each other in a passionate embrace that led to ecstatic improbable roistering beneath the golem's blanket. Or mostly beneath. I struggled awake, blinking away filmy visions of pewter hands on gilded skin, but the real scene hadn't changed, an increasingly wilty Liane still tending to her arrows over the tiny fire. "If you're awake, can we switch for a while?" she asked with a stifled yawn. "I'm done-in here."

I ceded the blankets to her and she curled up into a ball, asleep almost instantly. I stole her quilt from the golem and wrapped it around my shoulders against the spring night's lingering bite, and settled myself at the golem's side, staring meditatively into Liane's fire. The quilt smelled faintly of the violet scent she used. I laid a hand on the golem's breastplate, feeling the subtle thrum of the magic that animated it pulsing in time with my own heart, and tried to empty my mind of all thoughts save that the golem should come back to itself.

The stars chased along after the moon, and just as I was beginning to catch myself nodding away from watchfulness Liane stirred in the rubble of blankets and opened her eyes a slit. "No change?" she asked, sitting up and stretching. I shook my head. "Blast. You need sleep more, I'll take a turn."

We switched places again, and this time even worry couldn't keep me wakeful. I slept deeply, dreamless, until the faintest light of a rising dawn flickered and sparked and drew me inexorably up to meet it.

?

I opened my eyes into unequivocal darkness, blanket pulled up over my head. "Golem?" I said hesitantly.

?...

I sat up in a flurry of covers and crawled across the campsite to the golem. "He's coming around," I told the startled Liane. "Or sort of. He's... having trouble finding his way."

"I've woken up there myself a few mornings," she yawned, watching as I knelt at the golem's side and touched my fingertips to its helmet. "What mercs usually do for that is..." And she giggled. "Well, it's stupid."

"What?" I could feel the consciousness of the golem floundering to reidentify with its body, and I couldn't see how to help it. One segmented metal foot spasmed feebly, then the other. "Anything that you can think of that might help, this would be the time," I said.

"Well, what mercs usually do to wake each other up from a bad drunk fast is, we pay the biggest hairiest merc in the camp to..." and she couldn't stop giggling for a long moment. "To wake them up. It's sort of a rite of passage in some circles to have that done to you."

"Too bad we don't have a big hairy merc," I said, deflated and trying very hard to shove away the mental picture that was insisting on forming. Now the golem's fingers were jerking. Goddess, what if it's dying...

"I think I could probably manage the equivalent," she said, blushing in the dying firelight. "But... you'd have to go over there, and promise not to be shocked." She nodded towards the pile of blankets.

"I'm not going to approve of this, am I," I said glumly. She grinned.

"Just don't get up until I tell you to," she said, and gently prodded me towards the bedding.

I rolled up in a blanket with my back to the fire and did my best to block out everything but the gossamer echo of the golem's awareness. Steady... steady... feel your way back into your limbs... Please let that sound not be what I'm imagining it is... I screwed my eyes shut tightly against the feathery patchy touches the confused metal started inflicting erratically across my body, like a warm phantom presence snuggling up familiarly, very familiarly, to my side. And a sultry voice cooed in my ear, with an accompanying hot slurp across my jaw, "Good morning, sweetheart."

There was a tremendous clatter and a lot of riotous giggling as the golem came fully to itself with a flare that blinded me for an instant. "Gracious," I said weakly, blinking away stars. "How did you know that was going to work?"

"He's your golem," she said, unperturbed, and I heard fabric rustling again. "I figured that would be the biggest shock I could give him on such short notice."

"Er," I said. The golem was radiating something that approached outrage. "Well, it worked, anyway. What's he doing now?"

"Standing here looking offended. You can look now, I guess."

"I'm not sure I want to," I said, and sat up anyway. Liane was braiding her hair back up into twin braids, her jerkin hanging open. A scratch across her cheek was bleeding, but she wore a broad wicked grin. The golem had stalked off a few paces, its back to us, shoulders hunched in plain irritation.

"I suppose it really wasn't entirely fair," she said, eyes twinkling, and left off without finishing her topknot. "But in the service of knowledge, sacrifices must be made." The golem twitched moodily.

"You've cut yourself," I said. She frowned and put a hand to her face.

"He got up pretty fast," she said, pulling a handkerchief from her jerkin. I took it from her and bent to dampen it in the stream. "I guess he's got some sharp edges."

"It doesn't look serious," I said, wiping the line of blood from her face and blotting at the scratch. "But I hope you didn't bleed on the golem, he's muddled enough already."

"As if this arrangement could get any stranger," she said. "I wake up sometimes in the night and he looks like he's watching me. Terribly odd feeling. Has it stopped yet?"

"Huh?"

"Bleeding. Is it still bleeding. You're just --" She reached up and wrapped her fingers around mine, gently lifting my hand away from her face. "Is it?"

I blinked, tearing myself away from her dark questioning eyes, and turned my attention to the scratch. It was more of a welt, really, the minute raw triangles torn across its length already spent. "I think you'll live," I said. She drew the handkerchief out of my hand and tucked it back into her jerkin.

"If the golem's himself again, we had better both get some more sleep," she said, dragging her quilt up from the ground. "Does he seem like he'll be cooperative about that?"

I looked at the golem, and it turned around sulkily to face me, looking put out but resigned. "I think he can't not do it," I said tentatively. "Whether he's exactly happy with us or not. I wish there was some way I could... I don't know, apologize to him, or something. Silly of me."

Liane shrugged and stepped over to the golem. "My Mum taught me it's always best to be polite," she said. "So, Mister Golem, we regret that we've had to cause you some embarrassment today. Can you find it in your, um, heart, to forgive us for it?"

The golem hung its head sheepishly, almost exactly like a bashful boy trying not to let on that maybe girls weren't really the enemy after all, and she chuckled and gave it a friendly hug. "He'll be bringing me flowers next," she snickered, and before the ghostly feeling of her arms around the golem's cuirass had faded from my own ribs she had drawn me into a brief hug as well. "Must be fair, after all," she said, beaming up at me. "Wouldn't want you to be at odds with your better half over there."

"Just so he doesn't start picking flowers," I muttered, surprised at all of the parties concerned and most of all myself. Liane laughed and turned herself to sorting out the bedding from the mess I'd left it in.

"It's got chilly again," she observed, pausing with a blanket in her lap. "Do you still trust me after what I just did to the golem? Because I could go over there but then we'd both be cold."

I weighed the options and shrugged. "If you trust yourself," I said, and she chortled.

"I probably shouldn't have licked him," she said, and after a considering look down at her jerkin she pulled it back off. "But it turned out to be the thing he couldn't sit still through. Who'd have thought?"

"One might have predicted," I said dourly. She shot me an amused look and settled into the blankets.

"Gave me a terrible taste in my mouth, too," she said as I joined her amongst the bedding. "Like chewing on coins. Hey, I think we know each other a little better than that," she said when I began to settle myself facing away from her. "I promise I won't lick you?"

Startled, I rolled onto my back to look at her, and quick as a weasel she had snuck under my arm and pillowed her head on my shoulder. "Geep?" I said.

"Can't stay strangers forever," she said, and closed her eyes with a contented sigh. "Warm," she mumbled, and began to snore softly.

I glanced up, across the campfire, and saw that the golem was giving me a now you know what it feels like sort of a look. "Oh, shut up," I told it.

If the Elders could see you now... well, most of them would die of jealousy, probably. She was warm, and it was the sort of a night where that was a welcome thing; I got myself comfortable, sorting out limbs and hair and blankets as best I could without waking her, although she probably wouldn't have woken for much of anything I could have done short of genuinely indecent behavior, and closed my eyes to the unfamiliar sound of her breathing so close to my ear. Oh, I could get used to this on a cold night...

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ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 11th, 2010 04:12 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

*laugh*

I am utterly charmed by the image of a golem getting drunk and passing out.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 11th, 2010 05:52 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: *laugh*

Not your everyday utility golem, no... ;)
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