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original fiction: Tin Man [8/16] - 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 [8/16]


Chapter Seven
part two


By morning we were holding each other loosely, her face tucked into my neck. The thought crossed my mind as I roused from sleep that it would be fitting but too uncharitable to serve her as she had served the golem. Besides, she'd probably like that too much. She was lying on my arm and I couldn't see a way to get it back without waking her.

I lay for some time considering the problem and imagining that I could see the sun creeping farther up the sky every moment, and soon enough the inexorable sensation that my arm was falling asleep forced me to shift her. "Garf blurboo," she mumbled into my throat. "Enh?"

"It's morning," I said.

"Don'wanni't'be," she said, and tried to nestle farther into my collar. "Wan'slee."

"I thought mercs were legendary for their ability to sleep in the saddle and wake up instantly when there's trouble."

"'S'no'trouble," she pointed out stubbornly. "Too early for trouble."

"It's nearly noon," I said. She sat bolt upright and peered around blearily.

"Oh, hardly," she complained. "Not more than an hour after dawn if you ask me. But now I am awake, damn you. I was having this dream..." She blushed and scrubbed her hands across her face, possibly trying to erase whatever she had seen in the night. "If I thought you were the sort who could just call it a romp, you'd have been in trouble, believe me."

"Eh?"

"Never mind." She stood up and went to rummage in her pack. "If you feel like occupying yourself for a while, I could do with a wash."

"So could I," I said, rubbing a hand across my stubbly jaw. "Don't be too long."

"I'd ask you to join me but the golem would have a fit," she said with a saucy wink, and disappeared behind a bank of greenery. Somewhere off to the side the golem made the sound I had come to recognize as its equivalent of a heartfelt sigh, a great rattling scrape of the joints in its shoulders.

"You had better not be getting ideas," I told it, and turned to breaking the camp. I had just finished securing the bedrolls when I heard Liane clearing her throat noisily.

"Um, you can't see through this thing's eyes, can you?" she asked.

"No," I said, surprised. "...Do I want to know why you're asking?"

"Probably not," she said. "But could you get him to back off? He's making me nervous."

"Why is he -- oh. Golem! Come over here and stop, um, staring. Or whatever." If the damned thing had had a mouth it would have been grinning. It clomped up to me and stood regarding me with a defiant tilt to its helmet. "Sorry. He's um, not quite... he seems to have gotten the wrong impression from somewhere. Can't imagine where," I added acidly, and heard her chuckling. "I wish we had time to stop long enough for me to go over his spells thoroughly. I think he's interpreting something more literally than he should. Or less. Or something. Ideally, I'd have made a record of the spells to look at so I don't have to dismantle him every time to find what needs adjusting, but I've been overwriting them in bits and pieces along the way anyway and it probably doesn't bear much resemblance to the way he started out."

"I thought you said you don't remember how you made him," she said.

"Not specifically," I clarified, "but I know roughly how it should have gone. A golem has... a purpose. And you have to define what that is. I think I might have written in more latitude for interpretation than I ought to have when I was crafting that spell."

"So what was his purpose meant to be?" she asked, coming up beside me still wringing water out of her hair.

"That's the part I don't entirely remember," I said ruefully. "Vengeance. Protection. Battle. He's a guardian. But I'm not sure how he's come to see the task, anymore. The way he acted in Roadmeet -- I don't know if that was for my sake or yours or his. I Work more by intuition than logic sometimes, I probably made a mess of the spells. And I don't know what the fact that it's another Tremare I'm after has done to his picture of the world. He's meant to have some loyalty to Tremare as a whole."

"This could be a problem," she acknowledged. "Would it stop him? From...?"

"He's my golem," I said. "That's his heart. What I need him to do, he'll do. Um..." I paused over my pack, examining the wretched camp-knife I'd been reduced to shaving with since losing my dagger. It looked as if it had finally gotten to the point where it would refuse to hold an edge for even that long. "I don't suppose you've got a knife that's better than this, have you?"

She assessed me, rather too minutely I thought, and then produced a little blade with a snapped-off point; "Yeah, you've gone straight past 'raffish' to 'scruffy', I guess," she said, handing it to me. "Pity Tremare's mark doesn't allow for a beard, it seems like it would make travelling a little easier on you."

"Tremare don't travel much," I said. "Or at least not like this. Not as rough as a combat mage. Although sometimes I wonder why I'm bothering with looking Tremare anymore."

"Those Sharpshafts we met might not have mentioned seeing Sorson if they hadn't recognized your hair," she pointed out, and I inclined my head in acknowledgement. "And anyway I kind of like it, it says you're not just another merc on the road expecting a fight."

I shrugged, embarrassed, and went to the stream to take care of my business. I wanted a real bath, and to wash my hair, but neither one was practical, so I made do with a cleaner shirt and a thorough enough brushing to at least get some of the bigger dirt out. "I'm bored, are you still doing anything I can't watch?" Liane eventually whined from the ex-campsite.

I paused, brush to a stubborn tangle, and considered it; "Can't stay strangers forever," I said wryly. She crashed through the bushes and plopped down onto the grass, looking at me.

"That is the mark of a decorative Guild," she said, eyes travelling the full length of my hair. "Even Silkshuttle wouldn't ask that of anyone. And we use our hair in some of our spells."

"It was longer," I said, absorbed in the tangle, "but it wasn't suitable for travelling." And it wanted cutting again before it started dragging in the dirt every time I sat down. I finally got the snarl sorted out and laid the brush across my lap, looking at her. "And... we do too. For the golem... the writing-brush is made from the Master's own hair. And there was a lot of writing to do."

She regarded me, as I took up the braiding of the sidelocks, and soon she asked, "So how long was it before?"

I flushed, remembering my inordinate vanity over the sleet-straight spectacle of excess that marked me as having the arrogant leisure of a sorcerous Guild's full protection, and tapped my ankle. Her eyes went completely round.

"I would have liked to have seen that," she said, shaking her head in astonished incredulity. "You must have looked like Death Himself when you let it all down. Except for the eyes, of course. No wonder those Pridening remembered you as 'the eccentric'."

"It wasn't that remarkable," I said. "You've likely only ever seen the necromancers who enjoy travelling. We had an Elder who'd never left Tremare's walls since he entered, and never in all that time even cut his; compared to that I was the picture of restraint. For one thing I didn't look like a gigantic ermine's tail like he did," I added snidely, and she cackled in delight.

"Or even worse, a skunk?" she suggested. "Like the one Pridening apprentice with the pimples who was going white down his part already? So... what is it, about your Art, that does that?"

I tied off the third braid and started on the fourth, considering. "Healers go gray early too," I said, "but why with us it's usually so young and so all-at-once, I'm not certain. Maybe it's the gulf between healing the sick and raising the dead, with healing at least there's already another life working with you. Instead of fighting you. But in any case they say that if you're not stark white by the time you've served out your apprenticeship then you're never going to be very good at the Art, because you haven't the proper feel for it."

"Were you?" she asked shrewdly.

"Long since," I said, and went to fasten the fourth braid with the sole surviving clip of a once-matched set, a small and cunningly hinged cylinder that had long served admirably, with its three vanished mates, to keep even my stubbornly fine hair decorously confined. I felt the clasp give way as I pressed it closed; reflexively I opened my hands, losing most of the braid in the process, and stared numbly at the two halves of silver lying in my palm. "Damn it," I said hollowly. "My mother gave me these."

Liane picked one of the feathergrass-patterned curves from my hand and held it up to her eye, peering at the broken hinge. "I can't even see how this went together, much less guess if it's fixable," she said, and dropped it back into my hand. "I'm sorry."

"It's only a thing," I said, but felt a catch in my throat, remembering how my mother had made herself come into the forbiddingly un-Seventrails keep to see me blessed as a full member of Tremare, how she had sat quiet and watched the Elders plait my white hair into such a different style from the one she and my father had woven for me on the day I came of age, and afterwards wordlessly pressed the set of tiny clips into my hand, silent acknowledgement of the path I had chosen for myself. And of course she had chosen a very Seventrails design so I couldn't help but remember who I'd been, every single day that I wore them. With a sigh that wasn't, quite, a sob, I shoved the broken halves deep into my front pocket. Liane was holding out a scrap of narrow ribbon to me.

"My Mum sends me packets of these all the time," she said, and I took it from her fingers without meeting her eyes. "It's not the same, but... It ought to hold a knot even in that cornsilk, there's some magic in the weaving. Does that stuff even curl in the damp? No? You're lucky, you should see mine in the summer, I can hardly even comb it. If I'm babbling you can stop me, you know," she trailed off, going flushed. "It's just... I'm trying not to think of that being longer and it's not really working. I shouldn't have come over here, I'm sorry --" She leapt to her feet and fled back through the bushes, leaving me to wonder just what notions had been playing through her mind as she watched me rebraiding my hair. Death and the Lady of Winter, likely, and I found myself flushing: He covers the land in His mantle of white -- you might as well have been propositioning her, twit. And a long-buried voice was whispering soft wicked delight that she had been flustered by the display. I told the voice to get knotted and went back to the campsite.

"I didn't mean to..." I said to her hunched shoulders. "Whatever it was." And she laughed.

"You can't help your looks," she said cheerfully, and shouldered her pack. "Are we ready to be off?"

But she still wouldn't look at me, and didn't for most of the morning. We traded inane conversation about rabbits and cheese and the probability of rain clear through to lunchtime. Finally, as we sat nibbling at the last of the bread and sausages by the track of an eroded gully, I plucked up my courage to ask, "What did you mean before, about my looks? I mean --"

She giggled and bowed her head in visible embarrassment. "I saw your brother and I guess he must have been a beauty before he got his nose flattened for him, but you're selling yourself cheap if you're comparing yourself to him and thinking you come up short. You're kind of plain, but it's good plain, it's quality work. I bet you had Frozenlights or even Cleverhandses following you around begging you to sit for them and you never even knew why, didn't you?"

I coughed uncomfortably, the distinctions between more than a few of the many subtleties of Frozenlight's mutable braids flitting across my mind without my even willing them to, and Liane gave me a knowing smile. "You're not so ordinary as you seem to think, you know," she said. "If you would only smile more often..."

"There hasn't been much to smile about lately," I said. She glared at me through narrowed eyes and then uncrossed her legs.

"Just for that, I think I'm going to have to take it upon myself to make you smile, every so often," she said, and launched herself at me, fingers expertly finding several ticklish spots even as we were tumbling to the grass. I whoofed in surprise, caught between wanting to fight back and not wanting to fight back. She had some dirty tricks, presumably from childhood roughhousing with her six brothers, and she quickly had me laughing helplessly under her assault, unable even to predict the direction of each next attack, the only resistance I could muster coming when she started to untuck my shirt with the apparent intention of blowing a raspberry on my stomach. Only then did she seem to recall the relative dignity of our positions and relent, sitting back on her heels to evaluate her handiwork.

"Much better," she said approvingly. "You almost look human now." She grinned down at me where I still lay heaving for breath, and I grinned back, and the oddest look stole across her oakleaf-in-autumn eyes for an instant before her grin turned sideways and she looked away. "I suppose we can't just sit here enjoying ourselves all day, though."

"I can't get up," I laughed, and did anyway, straightening my disordered clothing. One of my sidelocks was undone again. I replaited it hastily, noticing it wasn't the braid with Liane's ribbon in it, and decided that the noon heat warranted an infraction of strict observation, pulling the side braids back and using them to tie up the rest of my hair in a loose short braid off my neck. "It won't stay for very long, I know," I said to Liane's curious look, "but so long as there's no one around to see us, it's too hot for long hair today."

"That's almost the Frostwing style," she observed. "Never let my brother Khaleel see you doing that, the last place you want to be is in front of a Coldfire who thinks you're a Frostwing. Makes you and the Pridening look like dear old chums. I once had to put up with him and our Frostwing brother Khazaran arguing for a solid week about a Word's vowels. I kept telling them, if it works, what's the difference?"

"With some of our Words, quite a lot," I said. "Look at the golem, I suspect half of his problem is my grammar." The golem's helmet cocked at me snidely. I glared at it. "Oh, you know I'm right, you wretched pile of tin." Liane giggled.

"Now, now, boys, don't quarrel," she said, linking one arm through the golem's and the other through mine. "It's bad enough that Guilds have to argue, I can't bear to see the two of you starting to snipe at each other too. Friends?"

I looked at the golem, and it looked back at me, about as contritely as it could manage. "I think so," I said, and she let us both go. The golem turned its helmet to look at her, and I got the distinct impression that it was disappointed. Heavens, but it's getting attached to her, isn't it... I rummaged through my memories of classes and books and rambling philosophical discussions but couldn't recall much of anything on the subject of golems suddenly thinking that they knew better than their Masters what was supposedly good for them. Lucky me, I'm probably the first necromancer ever to have his own golem decide it likes somebody else better. How embarrassing.

But at least it didn't seem to have any inclination to turn violent about it. I tried to put the matter from my mind as the gully we were following turned into more of a defile, eroded ever deeper as it descended the hill, and our footing became less certain. Roving eye or not, the golem still suffered from its usual trouble with less than perfect terrain, and it fell some paces behind us before the gully was joined by another and widened out further. And the golem seemed inclined for once to stay back there. I wondered if it was trying to sort matters out in whatever passed for its mind; I rather hoped so.

"The golem's sulking, isn't it," Liane eventually asked, as we were coming out into a flatter area with a bit more scrub and the golem still hadn't caught us up.

I looked back over my shoulder, and was forced to concede that sulking wasn't such a bad description of the golem's apparent mood. "I think it's feeling kind of hard done by right about now," I confessed. "Last night seems to have put some ideas into its head that I'm not sure it knows what to do with."

"He'll work it through eventually, though, right?" she asked, sounding as if she rather doubted this herself. I shrugged. "Bother. What do you do if he doesn't?"

"I haven't the foggiest," I admitted. "I'm not really entirely sure that I could terminate the spell even if I needed to, come to that. I have a general idea how it's done, but... at this point it would be like losing a limb. It would take a certain effort of will to separate us, and I'm not sure that I could come to the task undivided enough about it to succeed at an unMaking. Unless... unless he really did go mad, and became a danger." I cast a wary glance back at the golem, but it was still plodding along with its head hung low, looking more demoralized than simply concerned for its balance. "He doesn't seem bothered in that way yet, but I'll admit to being worried."

"That would be the last thing we need, on top of everything else," she agreed. "Pity we can't just find him another cute golem and let nature take its course, that's what usually works when a merc gets in a mood like that. Probably do him a world of good." She looked back over her shoulder at me and I realized that I had stopped walking. "What, was that too far out of line?"

"I don't think golems are male or female," I said blankly. "I only call it 'him' because you started to."

"He's a 'him'," she said with conviction. "And I don't think you could have made him any other way if you tried. So do y'think we should introduce him to a nice cast-iron stove or something? It'd do wonders for his outlook, I bet."

"I am not having this conversation," I said in disbelief. Liane snickered.

"You'll never make much of a merc with an attitude like that," she said. "Maybe it's you I should be introducing to the cast-iron stove instead."

"Really -- !"

"Oh, come along, I'm only teasing," she said amiably.

"Well, don't."

She arched an eyebrow at me. And said nothing. Only the faintest of smirks.

"I am not," I growled at the eyebrow. "But I don't care to discuss the subject in this context, all right? Leave the golem alone." I risked a glance back and found that the golem had suddenly taken an unhealthy interest in the conversation. I scowled at it.

"All right, so you're not the sort to have gone jumping the Flowering Day fires with just anyone who asked, I've noticed that, but... Oh, never mind. I suppose it's just as well, anyway. Considering."

"Considering what?"

"You know." Liane shrugged, obviously regretting having wandered into this line of conversation. "Tremare."

For once I found myself caught by surprise at the thought. "Oh," I mumbled, taken aback. She reached out and took my hand.

"I didn't mean to bring it up," she said. "Just -- kind of got me thinking. About... men. Nature taking its course. How you said you didn't have a family, but... you never said anything about not having any kids."

I felt myself blushing to the neck. "I was never sure," I said, slowly, "but... Tremare's last apprentice... he wasn't quite grown yet, but... He would have been tall." But when I thought of the boy's mother I could see only her everpresent shawl, floorlength net of scarlet hiking up in the back as she bent over her equipment --

I looked down as I realized that Liane still held my hand linked in hers, and still she made no move to let me go. "Look, speaking as your friend now, I think that what you really need is to get this over with and then go somewhere warm," she said. "If I have to drag you there myself. Have you ever been to Jareza?"

"Not that I recall," I said, and she smiled.

"I went through there once with a caravan, and they called me a pale-skinned barbarian. I'd love to see what they'd make of a ghost like you."

I regarded the milky-tea fingers laced though my pale ones, and realized that I would like to see what they would make of us in Jareza, surprisingly much so. Oh, if the Elders could see you now, I thought bemusedly, trying to imagine her in something other than the jerkin that effectively obscured whatever shape there may have been to her already compact body.

Lying in the warm sun by an ocean, watching the gulls dance in the wavelets at the water's edge, and nothing between her tawny skin and the sun -- I jerked my hand out of hers, unnerved at the sudden notion. "Should we really be thinking about things like that?" I asked as she looked up at me in startlement.

She shrugged. "Can't work all the time," she said pragmatically. "Even mercs daydream about what to do after the job. Sometimes it's all that keeps you going, on the rough ones. And I think..." she trailed off, looking up at me through her lashes. "I think for you this has been one of the rough ones. Even what I've seen I haven't liked. It's been, what, two years, you said? Since?" I nodded stiffly, and she took my arm again, more firmly, and wouldn't let me pull away. "You can only run away for so long, you know. Eventually you have to find something to be running to. Or you get like those mercs you see hanging around in caravanserais with the eyes like they can't remember the way back from inside. And I wouldn't like to see that happen to you," she finished in a whisper.

"I thought I was supposed to be the philosopher," I said, and she ducked her head, abashed.

"It's a typical merc speech, hang around them long enough and you'll hear it again and again. But I thought since you're new to this maybe you hadn't heard it yet. Anyway, what about it, are you going to promise me that you'll try to learn how to have fun? You know, music, parties, dancing girls kind of fun? They have some really remarkable talent in that line out towards Jareza." I laughed despite myself, and she let go of my arm. "Oh, the dancing girls touched a nerve, huh? Well, if you can still remember how to laugh, you might have a chance yet." And she executed a few impromptu steps that the jerkin rendered largely irrelevant, then stopped in a suggestive pose to peek over her shoulder at the effect any of this was having.

"I didn't realize Sharpshaft trained jesters as well as archers," I said. She made a face.

"All right, then, someday I'll have to do it for you in the proper dress..."

And as an image of 'proper dress' drew itself vivid and surprising across my curiously willing mind, I began to realize two things: first, that she was giving me a look that suggested some sort of an answer I wasn't sure I was ready to give, and second, that I was sensing distress from the golem behind me. The mad thought went through my mind that it was jealous, before I recalled myself enough to turn and see the flare of its red aura. All trivial concerns driven from my head, I threw off my pack and started fumbling with my bow, just aware enough to see from the edge of my field of vision that Liane was doing the same. If I survive this I'm going to have some stern words with myself --

Liane finished stringing her bow and vaulted up the side of the hip-high defile, arrow already on the string and shimmering with blue fire before I had even found my bowstrings. Fingers trembling, I wrestled the string into the lower notch and bent the curved wood back, trying and missing and trying and missing to catch the second loop around the upper arm of the bow. I knew learning this was a mistake --

An arrow whistled over my head and I looked back, ready to abandon the bow, in time to see the ginger-tabby housecat with a mouthful of atavistic sabers impossibly dodge Liane's shot, twisting sleekly out of the arrow's path. It paused for but a moment to sniff at the spent arrow before it gathered itself, tailtip twitching in awful parody of playfulness --

To spring at me --

It must be hungry, I thought, rooted to the spot. They'll even ignore magic if they're hungry enough -- Through suddenly viscous air I watched entranced as the startled golem reached out too late to intercept the Thing's misdirected charge and missed by a wide margin, clawing after nothing --

Above me I heard a Word spoken, a Word foreign to me but recognizable to a kindred sorcerous ear as a magic of cold and ice. A comet of frost streaked over my head and took the Thing in mid-leap, a great arc of raw magic discharging back along the arrow's trail and making my hair stand on end for an instant as tiny motes of snow fell around me from the frozen air. I heard the golem running towards a snapping tumbling crunch sliding down into the gully even as I fell flat under the sagging weight of the Thing, and then pain-stars stole my sight for a precious moment as my head thudded into the ground. One breath. Two. Three...

I sat up, cautiously, and shoved the frost-rimed body of the Thing away. "Liane?" I staggered to my feet and caught a glimpse of bright metal amongst the scrub at the base of the bank. Not moving. "Liane?" Slipping in the hoarfrosted scree, I fell to my hands and knees, urgency driving me onward in a crawl regardless.

The golem stood over her crumpled snowshrouded body, projecting a ferocity I hadn't known it capable of. It made a sound uncannily like a growl as I approached. "Golem, stand down," I said.

The golem refused to back away, and I looked up at it in amazement. It was trembling, the metal crest that topped its helmet shivering with a sound like a thousand steel crickets trapped in a bucket. "Golem, stand down. It's me."

Some, only some, of the tension went out of the golem -- if there were a man inside the armor I would have said that he had suddenly let out a breath he'd been holding too long. It stepped one pace back from Liane's body and stopped there, and I half expected it to fold its arms across its chest as it regarded me impatiently.

I knelt beside her in the already melting snow and turned a clinical eye to the damages. Whole, nothing missing, only... stopped -- The impulse to say I've seen worse bubbled up in my throat and I choked it back down with a strangled giggle, trying to force myself into a calm and proper frame of mind, into the appropriate frame of mind for a necromancer confronted with death --

I loosened her jerkin, trying not to feel the sickening lack of volition in her muscles as I moved her, and felt a momentary surge of panic as I reached for my dagger and it wasn't there. Oh: right. I saw a knife at Liane's belt and drew it from its sheath, and with one swift motion, striving not to flinch, I drew the blade deep across my left palm, gritting my teeth against the pain as blood welled red and fast.

I opened her collar and laid my bloody left hand on the bare skin over her heart, and spoke an insistent Word. Come on; come on; you remember how to beat, see how my heart does it? It's not so hard, just give it a try --

Her chest rose, and fell, and rose again, and under my hand I felt a flutter and then a second and then a deep, steady rhythm settle and hold. The golem squealed metal-on-metal and went over backwards, tearing my attention from Liane. Oh, not again, you stupid --

"Mm?" I looked back at Liane and her eyes were open, blinking bewilderment back up at me as she took in the situation. Her eyes tracked from my face to my shoulder, down along my arm to where it disappeared into her clothing, and back to my face, a baffled look setting in. "Er?"

I sat back quickly, suddenly thinking what this must look like to her and feeling my ears go hot. She propped herself on one elbow, looking around fuzzily. "Wha? I... oh. Oh," she said, and I saw comprehension returning to her features. She blushed a muddy crimson and put a hand to her mouth. "I almost accused you of something," she mumbled.

"Necromancers get that a lot," I said wearily. "Do you think you can walk?"

"Sure," she said, staggering upright and shifting her collar back into place. "What's happened to the golem?"

I looked over at the golem; it was sitting up now, helmet turning slightly from side to side as if it had been momentarily stunned. "I'm not quite sure," I said, "but I think it may have fainted at the sight of blood."

Liane whooped merrily and went to help the golem up. "I knew coming with you was going to show me more than anyone's share of things I never thought I'd see," she said, and came back to offer me a hand up. "Are you all right?" she asked when I didn't take it.

"Nothing being ten years younger and somebody else wouldn't fix," I sighed, and forced myself to my feet. "I need a bed. Or a bath. Or not to be here in the first place, I haven't worked out which yet."

"I think you're braver than you want to let on," she said, chuckling. "Most necromancers I've heard of would have left me here. Or worse."

"How could I have done that?" I replied, and looked around for my pack. "I don't know how to get to Priara."

She laughed again, and picked up my pack and her miraculously unbroken bow, and set off downhill along the line of the gully, whistling. I looked at the golem, and it looked at me, and if it had been human I would have sworn it was thinking, women.

"You do still need to be seen by a healer, you know," I said when I had caught up to her some ways along. She handed me my pack and sagged just a little.

"I had been hoping that a show of bravado would keep you from getting the wrong idea about a merc's perspective on death," she said. "It's sort of in the job description that we're supposed to be able to laugh it off. And really I don't want to think about it too closely or I might not be able to do what I have to do. I've worked through worse pain, anyway."

"Without burdening you unduly with the technicalities... I must insist." She gave me a rebellious look, but apparently I had managed to assemble a grave enough face that she was convinced of the futility of any argument on this point.

"All right, then," she said, and waved round at the deserted landscape, "if a healer falls out of the sky before we get to Priara, I'll see them. Will that do?"

"How far are we still from Priara?"

She shrugged, and I could see that one shoulder had a catch in it, unconscious avoidance of pain. "Couple days, maybe. Look, if we can get back to the main road there's people all the time, we might even come across someone who can help if we don't find a crossroads or a village first. I will be fine. Nothing's broken, nothing's bleeding, I'm just a bit frostnipped here and there. I've seen people get up and walk away from worse." And she turned her back on me and marched smartly down the dry gully, effectively closing the argument.

"Just remember, whatever happens, you followed me," I called. "I didn't ask you to be here." Another shrug. "Aah, I give up..."

That drew a chuckle, and it was the last sound I heard from her for the rest of the afternoon. We still hadn't reached the road by the time the sun dipped down into a space in the mountains behind us. She had, incrementally, slowed to a dragging shamble, and I wasn't sure she realized it yet. I wasn't doing much better. Not for the first time I bitterly regretted any number of the things that seemed to have conspired to lead me to this point. When Liane suddenly stopped in her tracks I nearly ran right over her, too absorbed in remembering how to keep moving my feet. "Are those horses?" she said.

I squinted in the gathering gloom. Further below, sprinkled in a fold of the land, a few animals that certainly looked like horses were wheeling and braking in unnatural patterns around a few smaller upright figures. "One can only hope," I said through gritted teeth.

"I think..." And she turned to look at me, for the first time in hours, and I could see the strain written under her eyes, "I hate to admit it, but... I think it would be a good idea to see if those are people who have a healer with them. Does that seem likely, that they would?"

I considered the scene, as Liane put an arm around the golem's neck to steady herself, and said, "They may know who around here would. Let me see if I can get their attention --"

I mustered what little strength I had left, after this long, long day, and whistled a soft Call to the horses. One by one they stopped their ragged dance, ears pricking, and to the consternation of their small handlers I soon had most of the band trotting obediently up the hill towards us. A lanky youth of maybe fifteen followed after on the only saddled horse, yelling furiously first at his charges and then in panic at his own mount when she too succumbed to my Call. "Here, you, what do you think you're doing?" he squawked indignantly when he spotted us, hand drifting to the spear holstered to his saddle.

"We're in need of a healer," I said, absurdly heartened to see the barley-blond coronet of a Seventrails. "Please, the rest of your family is nearby?"

He stared at me, this strange grim man wearing the hair of a necromancer who had nevertheless commandeered his horses with a familiar spell, and gulped visibly before opening his mouth to say, "Our healer's me Gran. They're over the next hill, by the river. Who --"

"I'll need to borrow one of your horses," I cut him off. "Would any of these mind having me?"

Now completely beyond speech, he pointed a trembling finger at a bay mare standing docilely to his right. Naked, but reins were the least of my worries at the moment; I took off my pack and handed it to the golem, and the bay stood stone still as I mounted with as much dignity as I could manage. With the golem's assistance I half helped, half hauled Liane up behind me. "Which way?" I asked the boy.

He made a vague gesture back the way he'd come that didn't really narrow it down much. "Who are you?" he squeaked.

"I wish I knew," I said, and released the rest of the horses. They immediately spooked and scattered. With a yelp the youth reined his horse back from mine and around, whistling frantic Calls that only seemed to upset the band further. Even allowing for regional drift his inflection could have been better. "Golem," I said, steeling myself against one last drain on my fading resources, "follow me as fast as you can, but be careful."

This was, so far as I could think, the first time the golem had ever seen me on a horse; it was looking up at me suspiciously, as if it had some dim anticipation of what was about to happen. Liane settled herself against my back, making a strange small noise that cut right through my already fraying nerves. "I hope that hill's not as far away as it looks," I muttered, and twining my fingers in the horse's long dark mane I whistled a second spell that meant, go.

Her ears flattened in utter outrage, but nevertheless the horse went, in a bonerattling lollop that made Liane hiss in air through her teeth and try her best to choke me from the bottom up. A redhot pain grew between my eyes as we far outdistanced the golem. I'll make it up to you later, I thought insanely, eyes tearing, as the fire in my skull rose to a crescendo and we crested the second gentle hill to see, down near the bank of a smallish river, a mushroom-ring of gaudy cylindrical tents.

We caused a sensation, descending upon the camp on one of their own horses and tottering to a stop in front of the structure patterned with the colors of a healing Guild. "Excuse our rashness," I said as calmly as I could to the first onlookers to recover enough of their senses to approach, "but could someone help her down? She needs a healer now."

A man who looked to be some close kin to the boy on the hill stepped forward and all but picked Liane up off the horse's back. "I can stand, I think," she protested when it looked as if he meant to carry her bodily into the tent, and with some obvious reluctance he set her on the ground. Her legs wobbled, but held.

She stood there, and stood there, and eventually it dawned on me and the stranger both that she was not going to enter that tent without me. He held out his other hand to me and I took it gratefully, slurping off the horse with very little grace but at least not quite falling. "You must be some kin to us, no one else would have the nerve," he said, and then called out, "Mam! Company!"

I let go my hold over the horse; it didn't help as much as I was hoping it would, but the pain in my head at least was attenuating as the golem plodded valiantly on trying to get to me. A diminutive elderly woman had appeared in the doorway of the tent. "Which one's the patient?" she said, looking from Liane to me. Liane raised a hand. "Hmph, wouldn't have been my guess. Come in, then."

I closed my eyes, as I stepped past the tentflaps, knowing what I would see when I opened them, and not wanting to know. Not wanting to remember. It didn't work; somewhere, deeper than memory, a Seventrails tent, the tent of a Seventrails healer, still smelled like home.

And so I forced myself to open my eyes, to look around at the entirely too predictable sorts of decor, especially at the rug I was about to trip on, and I found that I wanted, very much, for a great number of years never to have happened. The healer was already settling Liane into a nest of rugs and cushions and blankets, and for a wonder had even managed to get her out of her jerkin. "You're her, um...?" the healer said, looking up at me, and it was a long moment before I realized that this was something I had to address.

I cast about for some coherent way to characterize our circumstances, and finally I said, "I'm responsible for her."

The healer shrugged, as if it made no nevermind to her whether we were related or wedded or master and servant, and said, "You may as well stay, then. It'll do her good to have someone she knows to hand." She looked back down at Liane, who had already slid into what I hoped was only sleep. "Why don't you sit here and undo her hair, she's probably already got a roaring headache and that would help."

Scandalized, I glanced over at the door, and found that the flaps had been lowered to block out the curious mob outside. Well, I suppose if the healer tells you to, I said to myself, and gingerly lowered myself to the rugs. Even that action brought back too many unwanted memories. The healer had set her hands to Liane's forehead and heart and now sat, head lowered, eyes closed, feeling her way around the injuries my Art could only suspend.

Slowly, I drew the hairpins one by one from Liane's topknot and set them nearby on her discarded jerkin, trying not to envision how I was going to explain this to her later. The healer made me do it -- I could see faint traces of my blood on her shirt and at her throat. Sublimely embarrassed, I untwisted her braids one from the other and spent a long fruitless moment trying to undo the first tie before becoming frustrated and gently pulling both small ribbons off still knotted. Her hair stubbornly stayed plaited even without them. Battling weariness and pain and something that I didn't want to identify for what shreds remained of my sanity, I unwove her braids with the lightest touch I could apply, until at last her hair spilled in a tangled brown fan across the rugs. She did look more comfortable, or perhaps the healer's work was beginning to have an effect.

"You can let go of her now," the healer whispered, I couldn't have said how much later. I blinked, wondering if I'd been dozing and deciding I hadn't.

"Hm?"

"The spell. Whatever that spell is I feel that's been keeping her alive. You can let go now, she's going to be all right. Interesting work, by the way, I'd love to know how you did it."

"I wish I could explain," I said, and let go a long, shuddering breath as I finally let myself relax, my heart settling back into its own rhythm as the Word dissipated. Liane stirred but didn't wake. With a soft noise of concern the healer reached out and took my left hand, and I observed dully that it had started bleeding again with the breaking of the spell.

"I would hazard a guess that that was what necromancy looks like," the healer said, and traced her finger along the cut, closing it without a mark. "In which case I don't think I want to know what happened to you two. Now, get some sleep, or I will make you sleep. Morning's soon enough for explanations."

The golem came in through the tent-flap, then, and for a moment the healer looked ready to retract that last, but then she shrugged and walked out of the tent, leaving the three of us alone. I felt a twinge of guilt at having run her out of her own home, but presumably someone here could take her in for a night, and I would have drawn the limits of hospitality at the golem's toes myself. The golem positioned itself to one side of the door and watched stolidly as I arranged a place for myself to sleep near Liane. I thought it looked a little resentful at having been left to bring up the rear while the humans got to do the exciting things, but then decided I was imagining it.

It had been more years than I could remember since I had lain down to sleep in a Seventrails bed. It felt strange and yet all too natural. Too much like I would wake in the morning and at least the last few years would have been erased, an insane swarm of nieces and nephews and general hangers-on would wake me up by stepping on my head and I could flee to the refuge of Tremare's solid walls, duty to whatever occasion done. I pulled a soft woolen blanket up as far over my head as I could and still get some air, and closed my eyes determinedly, positive that I'd never manage to fall asleep under the weight of so many memories. But for once my tortured body got in the last word, and tent and memories alike vanished almost immediately.

Almost.

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Comments
owensheart From: owensheart Date: May 4th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Poor Liane I am glad she is going to be alright.

Great sotry.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 4th, 2010 08:35 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Weeeell, for whatever measure of "all right" that involves still being stuck in this story with him... ;)
eileenlufkin From: eileenlufkin Date: May 9th, 2010 04:04 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Tin Man

I'm really enjoying this.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 10th, 2010 05:45 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Tin Man

Thanks!
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