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original fiction: Tin Man [9/16] - 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 [9/16]


Chapter Eight
part one


Moonlight, moonlight through the smokehole, and a woman's shape against it, I couldn't see her face. "One can return a favor;" and gentle fingers began undoing my braids...

I opened my eyes, groggily, to full day and an acute feeling of being fourteen again and intensely aware of the utter lack of privacy in Seventrails life. In front of me Liane was sitting up, holding her head on with one hand and looking about her in some befuddlement. "I dreamed that I was being chased by a giant chicken, and it was pecking my head," she said, illustrating with a gesture.

If I turned I would surely see my parents still asleep behind me, just their heads sticking out of the blankets, one classic Seventrails wheat and one ruddygold spun with silver. I rubbed my eyes, almost surprised to feel the braids of Tremare at my temples. "Good morning," I said, relieved to hear my voice steady. "Assuming it is still morning."

"I've woken up a lot of weird places in my day," she said, gazing about at the tent and its furnishings, "but this sort of thing hasn't been one of them. What would I see if I walked out that door?"

"Depends on how long it took them to round up the horses again," I said, sitting up. "They may throw us out straightaway, if I put them to too much trouble."

"I wish I'd been in more of a position to appreciate that ride," she said. "But it seems to have done the trick. What did these Seventrails think of you?"

"We haven't had much chance to talk yet," I said, and decided that my legs could be persuaded to hold me up if I tried to stand. I wasn't right. I went straight back down into the cushions, face first, narrowly missing Liane's lap.

"Am I to take it that I'm not the only one who had a bad day yesterday?" she said, watching as I struggled and finally managed to get partially upright, sitting on my heels and bracing myself against my knees with my arms.

"It wasn't anything I'd want to repeat soon," I said. "Or ever, for that matter. But I might feel entirely different after some breakfast. Even if it means oat porridge, which it probably does." She made a face. "Believe me, you can't hate it any more than I do, it's a Seventrails staple and it's the thing I miss least. But for once I'm hungry enough I'd eat it gladly. Come on, we may as well face up to whatever damage we've done them and see if they're still disposed to share a meal with us."

She stood up -- much steadier than I -- and bent to pick up her jerkin, pausing at the sight of the neatly laid out hairpins and ribbons. She scooped them up, shrugged loosely into the jerkin, and began marshalling her hair back into its topknot. I still didn't trust my feet; I knelt in the cushions, watching her, until she had finished, and she came over to offer me her hand.

"How do these tents stand up without poles?" she asked, looking around for one last glimpse as we headed for the tentflap. "Magic?"

"Engineering," I said, and the golem pulled aside the flap. There were people outside. Waiting for us --

my mother, with the ashes of mourning still between her eyes, and seven of my brothers, as i stepped from the tent into the sunshine for the last time, and looked not at my mother but at Ezric, his hair cropped short for what he had done to us, to her, to me. and the party from tremare waited silently while i reached up with my right hand, and unpinned my coronet of braids, and slowly, painfully, defiantly, combed them out with my fingers, until my hair fell free --

I shook my head sharply, feeling Tremare sidelocks and the long rustling back, and tried to recall myself to where and when I was. Sorson had been with that party, I suddenly recollected, only a few years older than me but already with brilliantly silver streaks in his dark hair. Liane was tugging at my arm, and I realized that I'd stopped. "I just thought of something," I said.

"Fine, but our adoring public awaits," she said, and pushed me out the door into the crowd.

The tiny healer was at the forefront of the group, and I got the distinct feeling that she was the one in charge of this family of Seventrails, blood, breeding and braids be damned. "I've been having to treat a kicked-in head in my son's tent because that creature of yours wouldn't let me in," she announced, glaring up at me. "I know you arrived in quite a state, but really."

"It can be overprotective when it's not sure of a situation," I said. One gray eyebrow went up.

"Hmph, well, I suppose that would be a sensible way to build a creature," she conceded. "Not that I would, but you must think you had your reasons. And I could even forgive you for scattering Tederic's practice group, since he probably learned more from rounding them back up than he would have otherwise." The lanky youth of last night blushed the same scarlet-on-snow blush that I knew all too well from the inside. "But if I don't have your story out of you soon, young man, I'll run you off myself. Who taught you Seventrails magic?"

She would probably have called a Guild Eldest 'young man' just to be contrary, but it was still an odd feeling to be on the other end of for the first time in ages. I turned out my right palm, showing her the faint jagged scar every born member of Seventrails should rightly be expected to sport, and saw the startled recognition in her eyes, perhaps recalling offspring of her own being taken out amongst the new foals of a child's sixth spring and sworn one to the other with the sharp edge of stone -- "My mother," I said.

The other gray eyebrow went up, and she examined me with a critical eye before saying, "Huh. I guess you're certainly tall enough. And the Sharpshaft figures into this where?"

"I'm, um, I'm his bodyguard," Liane said. The healer favored her with a look that just missed venomous.

"And doing a bang-up job of it," the healer said. "But I'll see someone finds you breakfast anyway. -- Your name, young man," and the ferocious look was back on me.

"Robling of Overwinter," I snapped, at the end of my own patience, and had the satisfaction of seeing the healer start at the designation of the nominal town, its loss with the rest of Tremare's environs surely a well-established rumor on the droving circuit by now. "Born to Rehanna of Overwinter and Torington Loyalheart, and I won't bother bogging you down with the rest of my lineage because it's been all but irrelevant for the last two years anyhow. But if you'd rather I did start unburning my dead --"

"No, no," the healer mumbled, looking shaken. But she recovered quickly; "Is -- was your Mam the Rehanna who had that bull Redbelly?"

I hung my head and started to laugh helplessly. "I'm never going to escape that damned bull," I said, putting a hand to my eyes. "In fact, Ma'am, I could probably do a better job reciting Redbelly's lineage than mine."

"I may hold you to that," the healer said, but finally she was smiling grudgingly. "All right, then, off with you; Tederic, go and see if your Mam will make these two something to eat, will you, love? And I'm holding you responsible for them, boy, you should have been able to override that spell."

Tederic gulped, blushing even redder, and came forward to escort us to another tent, saying in a frightened whisper: "Gran's not usually like that, but I think you scared her. She doesn't like anything happening to the stock."

"I understand completely," I said. "And I do apologize for the trouble I've caused you; it was... unavoidable."

"You looked half dead," he said, forgetting some of his reticence as curiosity set in. "Were you dead? -- I mean, you're a necromancer, right?"

"I wasn't dead, but she was," I said, nodding at Liane. "That was why we needed to see your Gran in such a hurry. I can't keep that up for very long."

Beside me I felt Liane stiffen and stop. "You could have just said that," she said in a strangled gasp.

"Would it have helped?"

"Well, no. But... you idiot." And she bit her lip, clearly unable to decide whether there was anything else she could say about the matter that would have any real meaning. Tederic was watching this exchange in utter confusion.

"I'll get my Mam," the boy said, and ducked into one of the tents.

"I don't want you doing that again," Liane said with a stubborn jut of her chin.

"Which part of it?" She gave me an exasperated look.

"Going to that kind of trouble for me. Just leave me dead if it'll get you to Sorson quicker. It's your mission, not mine."

"I told you, I don't know how to get to Priara," I said.

"Yes, but, oh, dammit," and I watched in astonishment as her eyes welled up and she started to cry silent unwilling tears. For a moment I was too startled to do aught but wonder if she was about to hit me. When she didn't, I took a gamble and reached out to gather her into my arms. Tederic and his Mam came out of the tent a short while later to find us like this, Liane sobbing rackingly into my shirt and me doing my baffled best to soothe her. They had, at least, the sensibility to let her dry up on her own before Tederic's mother cleared her throat gently.

"Come on inside, love, everything looks better after breakfast," she said, taking Liane by the elbow and leading her into the tent. Tederic looked at me.

"I'd say 'you'll understand someday', but the truth is I still don't," I told him. He snickered.

"My girl's the same way," he said. "And that's what they do always tell me. I knew they were lying. Come on, I know enough to know that we don't want to go in there right now; one of my Aunts can find you something to eat."

"She's not exactly 'my girl'," I said as I followed him to another tent, wondering why I seemed to be addressing this question so much all of a sudden. "We're just travelling together. She's a bodyguard of sorts, at least theoretically."

"I expect you'd have needed bodyguards like this if you've come all the way from Overwinter," Tederic said, eyeing the golem. "Did you walk all this way?"

"Well, where we haven't been able to get lifts from people with wagons," I said. "The golem can't ride."

"Huh," he said with some contempt. "If you really are Seventrails, you'd have made one that could."

"I didn't have the choice," I said. "And I haven't been Seventrails for a long, long time."

"You sure looked it last night," he said, and pulled aside a tentflap. His eyes, I noticed as the light struck them from this new angle, were green, the same familiar honey-hearted green like white-wine grapes in sunlight that had been the puzzlement of many a blue-eyed Overwinter girl round about Brightening Day every year -- I shivered, and stepped into the gloomy interior of the tent.

Tederic's aunt was the first woman I'd ever met who out-Seventrails'ed my own mother, two inches taller than me in her boots and with a fearsome tiara of colorless-fair hair that must have swept the ground if she ever let it loose. Her twilight eyes were kind, however, and she accepted this transfer of the healer's charge with a sunny good humor. "I've already started lunch," she said. "I hope you weren't expecting porridge."

I coughed and allowed as how I was willing to forego her undoubtedly exquisite porridge, and she chuckled and sat me down with some stew, out of the way of a rambunctious pack of assorted children who seemed determined to tear up the rugs down to the bare ground with their wrestling. I ate in silence, the children's poor excuse for entertainment stirring up unexpectedly bittersweet memories of getting my own face mashed into sundry rugs and cushions and the occasional cowhide for variety.

The children eventually spilled out of the tent in a seething froth of limbs and washed up at the feet of the golem. Through the open flap I could see it suffering their fascinated attention with a resigned and tragic dignity, until one of them worked up the nerve to kick it in the shin. "That will be quite enough," I barked, staggering to my feet. They scattered to the winds, yelling like I was coming to murder them. I stood rubbing my leg, surprised at how much that had hurt; this is getting to be more than an inconvenience... The creeping irrational fear that I would wake up someday trapped inside the armor flitted across my mind as I regarded it glittering silently in the sunshine.

The sight of Liane emerging from a tentflap and hurrying across the campground headed apparently for the riverbank woke me from my reverie; I had actually taken two steps towards the open door before it occurred to me that I might on balance be better off staying out of her path for a while yet. But does she want a bath, or does she mean to throw herself in? an insidious thought burrowed in past my indecision. Sudden panic propelled me out of the tent.

Oh, you have got it bad, you old fool, I thought, looking around frantically for her, and then struck by the sheer audacious oddity of that notion I stopped in my tracks and turned openmouthed to the golem, a dreadful unwanted realization washing over me: "Oh, no. No." The golem looked back, impassive as always.

When did I start falling in love with her?

I walked towards the river, trying desperately not to look as deranged as I felt, and found that the Seventrails as usual hadn't bothered to choose a discreet bathing area. Many fair shapes and one dark one congregated in the water, indiscriminate thicket of limbs splashing unselfconscious under the warm sun. She seemed to be getting on with them quite well; I could see her giggling as she lifted an arm to compare her skin to that of a curious youngster.

"I thought you said she wasn't your girl," Tederic said shrewdly, coming up beside me and following my gaze.

"She's not," I said, turning away brusquely. I felt suddenly as if I needed to lie down. Or scream. Neither seemed practical. I settled for following Tederic to the hillside above the camp and trying to show him how I had wrested control of the horses from him. It seemed to have already been decided that I was to stay until the group broke the camp the next morning; Tederic's parents had agreed to take us in for the night. I wasn't looking forward to it, at all.

Tederic's girl greeted him most enthusiastically when we headed back to the pasture to secure the horses for the night. Watching them, I couldn't but be afflicted by the thought of catching myself starting to act as undignified over Liane. I tried to smile pleasantly when they remembered that I was there and Tederic introduced me to the girl with the exaggerated politeness of someone with the sense of having made a fool of themselves in front of a guest, but I could only guess if it was coming out as anything resembling the appropriately generic disapproval of an elder for youthful overeagerness. They didn't seem to take it for anything more than that, anyway.

Tederic's birth-family was gathering in their tent for supper, a milling mob that seemed to include at least two grown siblings with the beginnings of families of their own. It was the first time in years that I had walked into a room and not automatically been the tallest person there. In the middle of a knot of Seventrails women Liane looked half-grown, a dark stocky changeling amongst the rawboned giants. I hung back near the tentflap until they had swept her along into a grouping far to one side of the circle and then allowed the oblivious Tederic to plop me down on the opposite side of the tent with him.

Food started circulating, and for a while everyone was kept too busy to do much but to juggle bowls and munch contentedly. Soon, however, as bellies began to fill conversations picked up here and there around the tent, quickly becoming a din. I could see Liane through the crowd, laughing easily with the Seventrails women. From the gestures and accompanying lascivious expressions, tonight's topic was buttocks. I hunched my shoulders gloomily and tried to keep my eyes on my bowl.

But I kept being looking at her, looking at her smiling and saying words I was glad I couldn't hear, and my eyes would not stay on the admittedly unpicturesque meal. Once she glanced across the space and met my wayward eyes for an instant, before dipping her head with an embarrassed giggle and looking away to the other women with an emphatic shake of her head. I bowed my head over my bowl, thankful for once for the dimness of a Seventrails tent and the ubiquitous fairness of Seventrails skin that meant my furiously flaming cheeks wouldn't attract much particular attention.

"We haven't seen anybody new in weeks, of course they're talking about your bottom," Tederic said innocently, and gave a resigned shrug. "It's what women do, isn't it?"

I hadn't even considered that possibility. I hunched even farther over the bowl and tried to disappear into it, wondering if it were physically possible to blush so hard that your head exploded.

"I think you're getting good marks," he added mischievously. "But you keep saying she's not your girl so maybe you don't want to hear that."

"Dear Goddess," I mumbled. Just then the focus apparently switched to the merits of Tederic's bottom, for someone jerked a thumb more in his direction and his girl (whose name had already escaped me) rose from the clutch with an indignant declaration of ownership and stalked over to claim him, scattering stew and cushions everywhere. I took the opportunity to slink out of the tent in the confusion.

Still suppertime, the commons was deserted, shadows of families dancing across glowing tent walls all around the circle. The rising moon played silver light upon the too familiar scene. I stood irresolute for a long moment, and then turned towards the riverbank, with perhaps a half-formed notion of throwing myself in. Somewhere along the way this became an awareness that the past two days had involved a lot of contact with horses and I could do with a wash.

I came to the wide place in the river that the Seventrails had been bathing at earlier and slipped into the surprisingly tepid water, leaving the golem to hold my clothes. I wished I'd thought to find soap. The golem stood on the bank looking back towards the camp with an air of resignation about being made to serve as a valet; I sat in the water, regarding it under the moonlight, and wondered idly what it would do if I asked it to do my wash as well. The water was cool, but not quite cold enough to provide much of a physical distraction to a mind that kept dragging itself back round to that curious choice for dinner conversation; whoever would think that they'd spend their time talking about bottoms?

Whoever would think that'd they'd spend any time talking about my bottom? I spent some moments craning my neck when I rose from the water, but their fascination eluded me. Must be a reflex.

I slipped back into my trousers and boots and then froze with my shirt in my hands as I heard footsteps approaching through the grass first at a fast walk and then at a run. With a whoop someone barreled past me and splashed down into the water, fully clothed. After a brief interval Tederic's head and torso emerged from the water. He was laughing a laugh that matched the rode hard put away wet look in his eyes, and one of his braids trailed loose down his back. "Whoo," he said, when he saw me standing paralyzed on the bank. "Women, huh?"

"That serious?"

He considered this, and I saw one hand steal over to twist at the braid of fine-spun Seventrails gold upon his other wrist. "Yeah. Yeah. Is that a battle scar?"

I realized that I was still holding my shirt and hastily pulled it over my head. "After a manner of speaking," I said.

Tederic clambered back up onto the bank, dripping. "I've heard necromancy's a dangerous job," he said. "Have you seen much action?"

"More than I'd like."

"Bet you must have, walking all this way. Anything good?"

And I thought of Obermond, and shivered. "No, " I said. "None of it was good."

"Are you on some sort of... assignment? For your Guild, or something? I mean, coming all this way, mercs don't --"

"I'm not a merc," I said.

The young man stared at me, visibly caught between desperate curiosity as to what I could be if not a merc and the dawning realization that he might not want to know, and finally, pinning up his wayward braid, he turned and began walking back towards the camp. "Come on, we'll be crawling over everyone if we don't get back and get bedded down."

I followed Tederic back to the tent, although what I really wanted to do was to run screaming into the night. I just hope they remember they have guests... Somewhat to my surprise I found myself lumped in with the unpartnered adolescent brothers; Liane had apparently chosen to help mind the puppy-pile of miscellaneous smaller children in the middle of the tent. Just out of my reach, but not out of my sight. The lanterns were extinguished, for all the good it did under the bright full moon, and soon noises of settling and shifting gave way to faint sounds of breathing, soft snores -- and damn it all, one furtive pair of lovers somewhere in the back of the tent. At least they had the grace not to carry on too loudly with strangers present. The golem seemed to be regarding them and the scene in general with some curiosity.

I could see the back of Liane's dark head from where I lay; I closed my eyes, blocking out the sight of her, and wished that I had eyes on the inside of my brain that I could close as well, because she was still there. I rolled over onto my face and tried to think of something to distract me from my own rampaging thoughts. Unfortunately the only thing that came to mind for some reason was an old Tremare mnemonic exercise that bore a little too much resemblance to the recitation of Redbelly's record that I had declined to give the healer earlier. Still, it was better than what I had been going round and round on; I gritted my teeth and tried to remember whether the best way to quicken withered seeds was a certain very long Word or a cow named Blossoming Sands out of Redflowers, and eventually something resembling sleep overtook me.

And I was visited, in the false quiet of my own skull, by a parade of visions some of which I wouldn't have thought I knew how to imagine. And they all at the very least involved her face. I half-woke several times with the feeling I was being bitten all over by ants -- but the ants were inside. I roused to enough wakefulness once to see the golem standing beside the tentflap in the moonlight, looking down upon me... no, looking down upon her, over with the children. Yes, Robling, you have been on the road far too long...

I closed my eyes once more, thinking that surely by now I would be too weary to dream, and Ezric said, "You two can't hide her from me forever, y'know."

I bolted upright in the blankets, still seeing a vivid afterimage of my father's amber head bowed helpless over the silent forms in the bloody dust, a thunder of hoofbeats dying in my ears as I gasped in the stuffy air and blinked furiously against the vision. Around me Tederic's family slept, a semiwashed carpet of humanity smelling faintly of horses and cattle and childhood. That's it, I have to get out of here before I lose what's left of my mind, I thought, grabbing for my pack. "Golem," I said in the loudest whisper I dared.

And it looked straight at me, and then it looked to Liane, and it settled itself more firmly in the uncertain footing of the rugs beside the door. Not again. Not again. Not AGAIN... "Fine," I hissed, and stepped past it under the tentflap.

The night wasn't cold enough to be bracing, or refreshing, or any of those things that might have done some good; it was only faintly damp with mist from the river and alive with an unholy racket of frogs. I started walking briskly towards the river, towards Pridening, under the luminous moon, and before I had gone fifty feet a hot familiar pain was growing between my eyes. I clenched my teeth and kept walking. Maybe the Pridening can help me to unMake this blasted thing...

I splashed across the shallow ford, hoping that putting running water between me and the golem would muffle the echoes of the spell somehow, or that the golem would finally come to its senses and follow me as it grew too uncomfortable itself. Neither happened. I staggered on, another fifty feet towards the road, and the dazzle in my head threatened to drown out the moonlight, sending me finally falling to my knees blinded by tears of pain and frustration. I wish someone had told me this could happen.

At least my head hurt too much to think complex thoughts anymore. With trembling fingers I undid my bedroll and rolled up roughly in a blanket under a bush, not particularly caring if a Thing did come along in the night and eat me. It even, rather, seemed preferable.

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Comments
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 11th, 2010 05:44 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Thoughts

Wow, poor ... everyone, I guess. They have really got themselves in a fix.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: May 13th, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Thoughts

And that's only their personal lives going to hell, much less the rest of their worries... ;)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 13th, 2010 08:38 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Thoughts

Yeah, when some freak is destroying souls for personal aggrandizement, that's pretty deep.
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