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original fiction: Tin Man [14/16] - 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 [14/16]


Chapter Twelve


"There is supposed to be a bridge here, am I crazy?" Liane turned the map upside down, and I peered at it with her, agreeing that for all the world the mapmaker seemed to have believed that a bridge crossed this rain-swollen river here.

"It must have washed out," I concluded reluctantly. "It doesn't look that deep down along there, though, we'll have to try to ford it."

"It's plenty deep," she said. "But it's that or sit here until someone builds another bridge." She took her boots and socks off and splashed out into the stream until she had reached thigh-deep water. "The bottom's solid, anyway," she said, and came back to give the golem and me a hand. Supporting the armor between us, we waded carefully out into the stream, feeling our way across the silty bottom with our toes.

"It's the little things about travel that really drive you out of your mind," I said when we had reached the halfway point only to discover a deeper channel frustrating our course. Liane chortled.

"Now we know why they built a bridge," she said. "Maybe if we veer back to where the road crosses it's not as deep as it looked -- it must have crossed there for a reason, and there wouldn't have always been a bridge."

My trousers had begun wicking water to my unders. I heaved a heartfelt sigh and turned back downstream to the road crossing, careful to keep myself between the deeper water and the golem. Though I had stowed my boots in my pack I still felt as if I were dragging sloshing gallons of chilly water with every step, and I knew that the golem's feet were leaking. Presently I discovered that I was muttering elaborate curses under my breath, mostly along the theme that the worst punishment I could currently think of for Sorson was to imagine him here instead of me.

We came in line with the roadway once more, and from this new vantage I could see fractured planks strewn across the downstream banks and caught against the rocks nearby. "That would be the alleged bridge, I believe," I said.

"I didn't think it was raining that much," Liane said. "They must have really got it upstream somewhere. Ow, there's some of it embedded in the muck over here, look out." She let go of the golem's hand to hoist her foot out of the water to see if she'd hurt it, looking like a chubby dark stork.

The golem shifted its weight to compensate for the sudden absence of Liane's counterbalancing support, and I felt the mud going out from under its feet in an unstoppable squishy progression. The golem flailed haplessly and pulled me down into the water with it, blinding cascade of water filling my arms and legs and lungs as the river poured in through the golem's visor. Up, which way is even up, Lady help me --

Strong hands seized me by the collar and dragged me above the surface and I still couldn't draw a breath. Water in my eyes, water in my ears, no sound and muddied sight and no air anywhere --

I heard the golem break the surface in the sharp return of sound that came with its surfacing, and I could see again, still blurry but only from real water in my own eyes. Liane had the golem around the armpits, straining to hold the waterlogged shell at least far enough out of the water that the helmet could drain. "Can you breathe yet?" she said, and it took me a moment to realize she was addressing me and not it.

"Yes," I said, finding that I could, although my chest felt like a brimming rainbarrel and I couldn't quite convince my left lung that it was really safe to inflate yet. She shifted her grip to allow me to take the golem by its other side, and together we towed it to dryer land on the opposite bank of the river, mailskirt sieving up the duckweed in the shallows as we went.

We laid the stunned and mazy golem out flat on the bank just out of the water and I collapsed into a heap beside it, listening to the water trickling out through the golem's joints. And then sat up, in a panic:

"I have minnows in my feet."

"But you're not wearing your boots?" Liane frowned uncomprehendingly, tracking her eyes towards my bare feet.

"They're in my feet!" Frenzied, I ripped free of my pack and scrambled to undo the golem's ankle-joints. A gout of water poured out of the golem's left leg as I pulled loose its foot and tipped the soggy contents back into the stream, several startled fish plopping down out of the recesses of the toe. "Eeurgh, I can't even begin to describe how that felt," I said once I had got the golem's other foot cleared out and both metal boots reattached. Liane giggled.

"I think we had better find somewhere to stop for today," she said. "You're soaked."

I couldn't even make out whether I had mud in my unders or the golem did. "I don't think we have a choice," I said, wriggling.

The golem had by now shaken off enough of its shock to begin making feeble attempts to rise. Liane went and pulled it to its feet. "We could hope that that building up there has a good roof, or we could take our chances just off the road," she said, shading her eyes to peer up the road towards the pass. "I think we might be better off heading uphill either way; if it's still raining somewhere upstream this river could still be rising." She draped the golem's arm around her shoulders and set off in the general direction of the little structure, leaving me to squish along behind.

The building turned out to be a small guardpost, tidily kept but with no staff in evidence; there was a note in the front window to the effect that the guards had gone into town to see about getting the bridge fixed. "I suppose I'm just as happy not to have witnesses," Liane said, easing the golem into a chair. "Could've dated the note, though." She wiggled out of her pack and dumped it beside the door, and immediately fell to inventorying the post's resources. I let my pack slide to the floor with a unsettling soggy splut and grabbed the first damp bit of cloth I came upon inside it to start cleaning the golem with.

"I hope they won't mind if we get into their supplies, because everything in my pack is soaked," I said. "Even the bread's ruined."

"They shouldn't, out here between towns like -- Will you get out of those wet clothes?" Startled at the exasperation in her voice, I turned from the golem, and she all but ripped the cloth from my hands. "If this is bothering you that much, I'll get it."

"But everything in my pack is wet," I said. She pushed past me and began rubbing the golem down briskly with the cloth.

"Then wrap up in one of my blankets, I didn't fall in," she said, waving absently at where she had dumped off her pack. "You're already shivering. Ick, he's dredged up half the stream with this thing." The golem shot me an unmistakable look of distress as she fingered its gooey mailskirt. "Was this one of your shirts?"

" 'Was' is rather the word, I'd say," I said, watching as she wrung at the shirt before tackling the slimy mail.

"Your priorities are interesting, to say the least. Get out of those wet clothes. Now. Just, um, leave the wet stuff on the hearth, I'll set up a line in a minute."

The thought of being naked didn't really appeal to me under these circumstances, but neither did the clammy feeling of wet cloth against my skin; reluctantly, I undid the bedroll from her pack and retreated into the depths of the chamber to disrobe. The guardpost was a single room, about five or six good strides across and as many deep, glass-walled above the hip except to the rear where a massive stone hearth took up all but a token slit of flanking windows. On a clearer day, the post probably had a view all the way to Pridening. Generous beds to either side accounted for most of the back end of the post; I spread one of Liane's blankets across the bed that looked less-recently occupied, judging from the number of papers and half-read books piled up beneath the other, and began stripping off my wet clothes, thinking as I did that it might really have done to draw a few of the drapes first.

I dropped my shirt and then my trousers to the hearthstone, both landing with damp splats, and realized with a sinking heart that my unders weren't in any happier a state; quickly I peeled them off as well and bundled myself up into her spider-spangled quilt. Liane seemed too preoccupied with the golem to have taken much notice of my brief flashes of nudity, working now at the poor thing's silt-laden joints with an undue diligence. I huddled on the bed and tried not to watch the bizarrely intimate scene, but found after a time that I couldn't not watch, the elusive sensation of her hands moving across my own body too strange and irresistible to ignore. The golem, insofar as I could tell, was rather enjoying it, patiently submitting to the cleaning and even apparently volunteering this or that seam to her attention. I wondered if it felt as itchy as I did.

Not that 'itchy' was entirely how I was feeling by this point, oh no, not now that the worst of the grime had been wiped away and the cloth glided clear over the golem's engraved skin like a silken whisper. Liane braced herself with a hand on the golem's left thigh as she crouched to work upon its legs in more detail and I shivered at the touch, feeling the outline of her palm as warm as if it rested upon my flesh directly. "You've still got a lot of crud all up in here," I heard her mumbling to it as she held aside its mailskirt for a better look.

I clutched the quilt closed at my throat and teetered unsteadily to my feet, a rogue muscle in my thigh spasming at the delicate touch of cloth to metal. "I think --" I squeaked, and stopped to swallow, and tried again; "I think maybe you had better let me get the rest of that. Please."

She turned from the golem and looked at me, and at the way I was breathing, and arched her eyebrows in a look that seemed designed to incite me further; "What, I'm not doing a good enough job?"

"Woman," I grated, "if you touch the golem again I don't know -- I don't know if -- if I can guarantee your continued safety. From me. I can feel everything you're doing to him and it's... it's got me thinking I'm this close to throwing you to the ground and forcing myself upon you."

"Oh," she said. And I got the distinct impression, as we looked at each other, that she had in fact been completely aware of the sympathetic effect her actions were having upon me the entire while and that a good amount of her work had been deliberately calculated to tease. But she set down the shirt that she had been using to wipe down the golem with and turned her back on the both of us, saying only, "I'll just go have the funeral for the bread, then."

"I didn't mean..." I said, but she had already stalked out of the post. The golem looked at me, shifting its weight as if it were just as uncomfortable about the feeling of having mud up its bottom as I was. With a resigned grimace I knelt and set about clearing the remainder of the grime and the duckweed from the golem's mail-draped groin. It helped, somewhat, to be doing the task myself, both distracted by the action and able to anticipate better what my own body would be feeling, but by the time I had restored the golem to a state where at least I no longer felt covered in filth, it had taken on a distinctly slack-jawed air and I couldn't blame it a bit.

Liane returned with an armload of firewood to find me curled up shivering in the quilt on the bed and the golem loitering just inside the doorway, gazing out the only window that I had decided not to draw the drapes over. "You'd probably have been happier if you'd started the fire first," she observed mildly, unloading the wood onto the hearth.

"Suddenly I couldn't stand up another moment," I said. She nodded as if she understood perfectly, and busied herself for a long while with stoking up a good fire and stringing across a maze of cord to pin up our various sopped garments to in front of it.

"I'm sorry if..." she finally said once the laundry had all been hung out and water for tea set over the fire, "It's just that this is so weird. I have no idea what it's really like between you, I can't even exactly imagine it."

"It's been getting stranger since I met you," I said, shifting to face her with the quilt pulled up to my chin. "I don't know if the spell is deteriorating, or I am. I really felt like I was drowning when he went under the water."

She crossed the space between the beds and sat beside me, rubbing my upturned shoulder through the coverlet. "You look part drowned," she said, easing my soggy braids away from my face. "You look like you think you'll never be warm again. Do you want me to..." Ruddy blotches appeared below her eyes. "Do you want me to get in there with you to try to warm you up?"

"I don't think I'll be warm again until the golem is," I said.

"Well, there's a puzzle," she said, looking over at the golem. "I don't think we'd all fit in the bed. Golem? Can you come over here by the fire for us?"

Looking sheepish, as if it thought it ought to have figured this out for itself, the golem obeyed her, coming to kneel on the broad hearth amidst the hanging laundry. I could feel the radiant heat caressing the metal, seeping into my own cold bones as the air within the golem's hollow kettle gradually took up warmth through the conductive shell. By the time Liane's water was ready for tea, I had stopped shivering to a degree where I could at least sit up and take some interest. I gathered the quilt carefully with my left arm to expose as little of myself to the air as possible and took the cup she placed into my right hand, sipping gratefully at the hot sweet liquid. "When did we get rose-hip tea?" I asked.

"It's been in the bottom of my pack, I thought we ought to use up yours before I opened it," she said. Seeming pleased that I'd noticed the difference.

"It's good," I said. She got up from the hearth and came to sit beside me on the bed, arm sliding casually around my waist.

"Since yours was soaked along with everything else in your pack, it seemed like a good time to break it out," she said. "Are you feeling any warmer yet? You seem to be." I shrugged. "Well, we should probably make an early night of it anyway; if we're as close to Viparring as it looks from the map, the sooner we're gone from here in the morning, the better our chance of a hot dinner."

I lay back down, squirming to arrange the cover over myself, and watched, already sleepy again, as Liane poked the fire around into a configuration that the golem could tend during the night without our intervention. With the drapes all drawn against the gathering damp dusk and the fire banked low, the guardhouse settled into a deep gloom, deep enough that at first it didn't exactly register upon me that Liane was now peeling out of the remainder of her own damp clothing and hanging her shirt and trousers up to dry with the rest of everything.

Until, finally, wearing only her violet-dotted knickers, she lifted a corner of the quilt to slide into the bed with me. "Um?" I squeaked.

"Would you rather take your chances that the guards will be back before morning?" she said, and snuggled under the quilt, curling herself to fit against me. "They might be cute, but I'd rather find that out before I ended up doubled-up with one."

"But... After what I said? About wanting to..."

She blinked sleepily at me. "You couldn't hurt me if I asked you to," she said. "I know you don't want me to trust you, but there it is. So go to sleep." She closed her eyes and slithered down a bit farther under the covers, one hand coming to rest upon my ribs.

It's not my mind you have to argue your point to, I thought, but it seemed pointless to try to clarify this with her so evidently determined to be where she was. Hesitantly, I settled myself with an arm around her shoulders.

" 'O, my rarest treasure;' " she quoted into my armpit, " 'the man ruled by his heart / and not his pleasure.' "

"If we're on to poetry, now, what of 'Lady, be not forward / reserve your grace to truest eye / and truest heart's' -- ?" But she was snoring already. I closed my eyes firmly and did my best to empty my mind, and, presently, drifted off into muddled dreams of eels.

###


I crawled up to consciousness with the oddly contradictory feeling of being pleasantly warm and yet somehow chilled by a draft at the same time. I could feel the soft wool of Liane's blanket under my bare belly and the smoother quilt tangled around my left arm and leg... and nowhere else. I opened my eyes, slowly, dreading what I might see. The golem standing stolidly by her side, Liane sat on the low hearth, tending a pot of what looked to be boiling water for tea. When she noticed that I was stirring, she set aside the box of tea she'd been cradling idly in her lap and said, "Interesting place for a tattoo."

"Tattoo?" I repeated blankly. She simply looked at me, expression of purity and innocence slowly being spoiled by an inexorable creeping grin until finally she couldn't hold on to it any longer and folded over her lap in a heaving fit of laughter.

"You believed me," she gasped.

"So it's to be another of those mornings, is it," I muttered, and sat up, clutching the quilt to my throat.

"Just trying to ease the tension," she said, unruffled. "I covered you up a couple of times, but you kept kicking it off, so I gave up. I wasn't trying to look," she clarified hastily. "Although all I can say is, I hope my behind looks that good when I'm your age. All that walking's done you some wonders, I wish you could see it. The guards came through, by the way," she added before I could mount a suitable response to this outrage. "You wouldn't have cared to wake up with either of them, believe me. They'll be back around lunchtime, so I'd rather be going, if you don't mind. Your pack is nearly dry, I got rid of what couldn't be saved and repacked some stuff. And I think I got most of your arrows dried out enough to shoot. We might want to get you a new set once we get into Viparring, though. Thank the Goddess my bowcase is waterproof."

"What are our assets, as of this morning?"

"We'll be living on cheese until we get into town, unless we get a shot at a rabbit or something. But the guards told me that we're close enough to Viparring that we could maybe have made it there last night if we hadn't had to stop. They were a little surprised that we did stop, until I explained what had happened to you."

"And then they laughed, no doubt."

She stood up from the hearth and came to sit with me on the bed, offering me a cup of the tea. "No, actually, they did seem interested," she said, putting her arm around my shoulders and giving me a comforting squeeze. "They're both from Viparring and they both have relatives who are Pridening, so they know how to listen to stories about necromancy without looking like ignorant yokels. You might have got on with them, at that, but they didn't want to wake you up the way you were snoring."

I blinked. "I guess it's been so long since I expected anyone to understand what I do that I'd forgotten that there are places in the world where necromancy is just another job," I said. "And maybe it's different with Pridening to begin with, the Tremare always kept more to themselves."

"I hope we can get to Pridening in time," she said. "Even if they're different, I think you need to be around some people you can really talk to about everything you've been through." She handed me a shirt she'd left on her improvised line, and I squirmed into it under cover of the quilt. "I'm not sure if your trousers really got --" She suddenly clapped a hand to her mouth and bent to take something flat from the top of my open pack, handing it to me gingerly. "Speaking of dry -- I found that in the bottom of your bag and I was afraid even to look to see if the water had got it, because, um... I wasn't sure if it's anything you'd mind if I saw. Because I think I can guess what it is." She had gone uncharacteristically chary of me, waiting to see how I might react.

With trembling hands I unwound the oilcloth and then the tight-woven silk from the hand-broad packet, dreading to think of having yet another sliver shaved from my vanishing past. But even in the state I'd been in, I'd somehow had the wit to do this job well; the silk came away and the pitiful sheaf of images tumbled out into my lap dry and whole and safe. I heard Liane breathing a sigh of relief more than half predicated upon seeing my own. "The Goddess watches over sentimental fools, I guess," I said.

Liane settled onto her knees on the floor before me, trying her best not to look up at me with any sort of expectations on her face. "I know some people don't like sharing, and some people just have real funny ideas of what's appropriate to stick in front of an image-box, but... if it's nothing too personal... Can I?"

"If it means I can put the rest of my clothes on in peace," I said, and handed her the entire small stack. Her eyes went wide at this display of trust, and I hoped that I was right in recalling nothing too compromising amongst the hasty and desperate selection. I saw her check an impulse to begin shuffling through the images then and there, and she rose to her feet awkwardly, holding them in both hands, to take herself over by the front windows where it was brighter. The golem followed her. I looked after it for a moment and then decided to well and truly give up trying to second-guess its motivations from here on out, and got up to dress.

When I joined her at the window, yanking futilely at my massively ratted hair in first one spot and then another, Liane had spread all of the images out on top of the post's little worktable, and she and the golem stood gazing down at the lot pensively. "That's you, right?" she said, finger hovering over one particular infant in a family grouping. "Goddess, you even took being a baby too seriously. Do you need some help with that hair?" she added, glancing over her shoulder at me and raising her eyebrows at my obvious struggle. "Um, brushing it out, I mean, because it looks like you could be all day trying to get through that. I didn't mean, you know."

"I shouldn't ever sleep on it wet," I said, and hesitated, and finally sat at the table's wobbly-legged chair, letting her take the brush from me. "That is me, but how could you tell?"

"I figured you'd be the twin on your father's lap," she replied, taking up the tangled fall of my hair in gentle fingers and beginning to tease out the worst of the snarls. "And anyway, even as a baby you can see you didn't really match the others. I mean, look at that one of you with your Mum and one of your brothers, you just don't have that Seventrails face..."

"That's actually Tanzin Tremare, but I suppose your point still holds," I said dryly. "She came with me to my niece's wedding, and various distant relations kept mistaking her for 'Rehanna's crazy boy who went off to Tremare'. That's why I have an image of Tanzin, the imager thought it was hilarious and made us sit for her. Look at how hard my mother's trying not to laugh." One of the few images I'd had of my mother with a sparkle in her eyes... Liane picked the image up out of the spread to peer at it more closely, apparently in some doubt of my story.

"If you tell me that's a woman, I suppose I'll have to believe you," she said finally, setting the paper back amongst the rest. "Saw her naked, you said?"

"Saw her give birth, in fact." I put my finger to the half-sized image of the coltish young woman being steadied on a boulder by the imager's blade-nosed son, the one small memory I hadn't been able to bring myself to send on with 'Tana's parents --

"Hm. Well. I can see where they made the mistake, she's got your mother's eyes," Liane said mischievously. "So do you, actually, but I probably would have lost my money if I was having to bet on it as a stranger."

"No one's ever said I took after my mother before," I said.

"No one who knew your father, I suppose," Liane said, and I felt her setting the brush to my hair again. "That one image..."

"That one," I said, and almost couldn't summon another word to my tongue, struck too hard by the thought, "that one, he's about the age I am now." And in this image, too, the very unalike twin sons, sunny and shadowed, one face still a snub-nosed boy, one face already sharpening into the man's it would never become; our fourteenth birthday, out on the town with him all to ourselves for once and how we'd pestered when Toring had spotted the imager's shop ahead -- I swallowed and turned the paper over, unable suddenly to bear the burden of hindsight. "I don't know why I kept that one with me... I guess... it's the last image I had of either of them."

The hairbrush clattered to the floor and Liane wrapped her arms around my shoulders from behind as I started to quiver. "It's all right, it's all right, I didn't mean to upset you," she murmured into my hair. "I'll put them away for you --"

"No, leave them," I said, catching her hand as she moved to scoop up the images. "Like you've said... you can't run forever."

One of the images had fluttered off the table with the draft of our motion; now, now that we had obviously come to rest once more, the golem crouched ponderously and retrieved it, the metal fingers holding the fragile paper so delicately I wondered that the golem could even sense that the image was in its hand at all. I held out both my hands, palms up, and the golem laid the image across them, as gently as if it really did understand the gist of the conversation. "I've never seen an image that good before," Liane said.

"I have," I said, regarding the younger self on the paper wistfully. "But hardly ever. I don't think she shared the way she was doing these with very many of the Frozenlights at all."

In anyone else's execution, it would have been an ordinary enough if uncommonly informal image of two young men sitting on rocks on a beach somewhere, so wild-haired they could only be either apprentices to a Guild of some time-consuming educational requirements or gone seriously feral on their vacation, and in my opinion the ill-advised facial hair on both rather suggested the latter. The tall one wearing a shirt, the other somewhat less, it wouldn't have stood out amongst the other images but for the exceptional lushness of the detail, dark and crisp in a way most images only dreamed of. "How old are you there?" Liane asked, craning herself over my shoulder a little farther.

I had to think. "Eighteen," I finally said. "About." I couldn't quite remember when I had hacked my hair off level with my chin like that, but eighteen seemed about right, about when the white had finally grown out evenly enough. "That's Baran. Who had," I added with some asperity, "actually gotten the imager's attention in the first place by hollering, 'hey! Pretty lady in the red! My friend here wants to talk to you!' " Liane snickered. I laid the image flat onto the table, in a ray of sunlight, marvelling as always at the phenomenal clarity of it, the velvety darks warm and rich and subtle enough to pick up the lingering strands of darker brilliance in his hair and the remnant of a mortified flush on my cheeks. "Joke was on him, though, she never let him use the image-box and I think that's what he was really more interested in." I picked up the blurry image of a shaggy-furred dog stretched out on a blanket, his blind-rugmaker markings mercifully obscured by the lack of color. "She let me try it, though. He didn't speak to me for three days."

Liane shook her head, looking genuinely impressed. "All the mercs I've known and all their tall tales, but I never met one who got to do an image," she said. "Of course, of all the mercs I've known, none of them were anyone I'd let near equipment that fragile. So... what happened?"

"Hm?"

"With the imager; how did that turn out? The dog's not on the beach, so I'm guessing you saw her again, sometime?"

I looked away, embarrassed by her sly look of inquiry. "She was old enough to be my mother. But we got to be friends. She designed my sweater." I stood up and gathered up the images, glad and regretful together that I seemed not to have rescued the imager's favorite of all her works when I ransacked my possessions, the more than somewhat compromising image of myself blanketed to my ankles in the snowdrift of my hair and looking altogether too much like Death drowsing in the bed of the Lady of Winter after They had spent the longest night planting the seed of the new year... but then, Liane had been treated to much the same view this morning regardless. "Why do you keep asking these questions of me?"

Her turn to look away, now, and she shrugged. "I don't know, I just... call it morbid curiosity, maybe. Wondering if anybody else has ever managed to... to get close to you. Last night..."

I wrapped the images back up into the silk and the oilcloth and went back to the hearth to stow the packet deep into my rucksack, completely unsure how to address that remark. "Did anything happen that maybe I ought to be knowing about?" I finally asked, trying to remember.

"It's more what didn't happen," she sighed. "I don't know, I guess you've got the right of it anyhow. Even if part of me still wants to say, 'so, what's wrong with me?' " She shot me a defiant and hurt look. "Which I know isn't reasonable, but there you go."

Words seemed out of place, in the face of that look; I came the few short steps and took her into my arms, needing to hold her as badly as her expression said she needed to be held. "If you're faulting me for having manners, I must say it's a first," I said into her hair. "Would you rather I'd ripped your knickers off?"

She laughed heartily, vibrating against my chest. "Maybe I was wanting to see if you would," she said, and then I felt her sigh. "It's... just... I'm not used to men who have any sense. I'm better at saying no, than hearing it. Even when I know it's the right answer." Her shoulders began to shake, and I realized she had burst into tears, trying stubbornly at first to muffle the sound against me but then letting herself sink into great gasping sobs.

"I..." I raised one hand to stroke her hair, and she tilted her head back to look up at me, runny-nosed and proud and already looking as if she regretted having let her control slip even for that instant. "I didn't realize you felt that strongly about it." The side of her mouth knotted itself into what even I could read as a comment on the likelihood that a man would have realized. "I, really, I..."

And there didn't seem to be anything to say, finally; I inclined my head and set my mouth to hers, gently at first but as she twined her arms around my neck in eager response I abandoned myself into the moment, hunger only piqued by a taste -- When I finally forced myself to break away Liane's eyelids fluttered open to reveal a dazed look. "That's not really anything that's going to help my sense of resolve about this," she murmured.

Or mine, I thought ruefully, the curve of her body against mine rousing rebellious thoughts of undone buttons. With a sigh I pulled away from her and turned to fetch my pack. "If we're so close to Viparring that we could have gotten in last night, then we had better get going and see if we can't make it there early enough to have a real rest before we decide how to handle going on to Pridening," I said.

"Beds and hot dinners," she said with only partially feigned enthusiasm, and went to gather up her own belongings, slithering into her jerkin and then her pack as if girding herself for battle. "Had you noticed that the golem's lost his love-bracelet?"

I hadn't, and the very thought startled me, as if it were the final stilling of the air before the storm about to break over my head. "It must have come off in the river," I said.

"I hope he doesn't expect us to go back and look for it," she said. "It's probably washed halfway back to Tremare by now." She pushed open the door and stamped out into the misty air, a stray wisp of hair that had escaped her braids seizing up into a kinked fit even as I watched.

We filled our canteens at the pump at the bottom of the hill and settled into a relaxed pace. Woodlands and pastures had given way on this side of the hill to acres and acres of vineyards and villas all gleaming in the gentle steady sun, and the unexpected news that Viparring was closer than we had thought made this seem the day of all days to take the path at a stroll: the sort of perfect day for a walk in the country, brimming with the suggestion of summer, that could most perfectly be spoiled by the persistent sensation that I had sand in my unders. I tried valiantly to stifle the urge to squirm, but eventually Liane said, "Go ahead and scratch, I've got six brothers."

"It's not me," I insisted, turning my head to glare at the golem. The helmet ducked sheepishly. "He needs a real bath. I need a real bath."

"Well, I wasn't going to say anything..." I chose to ignore this, and she snickered. "I should talk, I'm so grubby my hair itches."

"Mine too." And I frowned, taken aback by a sudden thought; "Did I pick my hairbrush up?"

"I didn't." She turned, but the guardpost was already out of sight. "Sorry."

"It's hardly important," I said, but I had the unsettling feeling that I was nearly to the point of mislaying body parts. The sense of being driven had returned, the strongest I'd felt it, almost a real whisper at the back of my neck and enough for a moment to make me pause in the road and close my eyes, struggling to pin down the hackle-raising instinct that something was terribly awry.

But I couldn't trace out a firm cause, nothing that I couldn't dismiss as my own weary nerves playing tricks on me. I opened myself up farther, straining to taste any disturbances, and found nothing, nothing at all, only somewhere, softly, a vine crying out as a beetle girdled it; normal, perfectly normal, a valley full of birds and bugs and small creeping creatures all doing their level best to interfere with the green bursting life of the grapes blanketing the gentle slopes. Liane looked up at me with a puzzled frown, trying to sort out my expression. "What now?"

"I'm not --"

And an incorporeal blow struck me full in the brain and laid me out on the ground, head ringing so loudly my arms wouldn't even catch me as I fell. Liane scrambled to help me up. "What? What is it?"

"I --" I wiped my hand across my face; it came away bloody. "I think Sorson just heard me." And another shockwave seared across my mind in a brutal surge of naked magic, drawing my spine into a taut bow of pain, and when I could see again I lay with my head in Liane's lap, looking muzzily up into eyes frantic with terror.

I braced myself for a third attack, knowing that it would surely sever me past hope of recall, and it never came. "It's stopped," I said, or tried to say, for I felt my lips moving but only a raspy hiss came out. Liane rummaged in her jerkin for a handkerchief and put it into my hand, gently bringing my hand to my nose.

"Can you sit up? Try to sit up, it'll stop faster. Does it feel broken? -- Never mind, don't try to talk. It doesn't look broken."

With a push, she got me sitting upright and sagging dizzily over my splayed knees with the handkerchief pinched to my nose. Shortly I felt the flow of blood from my nostrils trickling to a stop, and I cautiously lowered the handkerchief. It was soaked through. "I think I've ruined it," I mumbled. It had been a nice handkerchief, too, with tiny violets embroidered in one corner.

"I've got plenty, Mum keeps sending them," she said, and drew my head up with a cautious hand on my chin to examine my face more closely for damages. "What... was that?"

"If I knew, I'd probably be running the other way as fast as my legs could take me," I said. "I think it came from over there --" I scanned the horizon, half expecting to see columns of fire and smoke. All I saw was a great stone keep on the far lip of the long valley, serene in the clear mountain sunshine.

"You're all over gore," she said, and went fishing around for another handkerchief. "I hope we can get to Viparring before Sorson does if only for the sake of getting some of this off of you. You look like everyone's worst impression of a necromancer." She moistened the handkerchief with water from one of the canteens and made a largely futile attempt to wipe my face. "It's all in your hair and everything. I hope they'll even open the gates to us with you looking like that."

"This close to Pridening, they'll have seen far stranger things," I said. One perennial complaint of the villages around Tremare had been the confused and garden-despoiling zombie cows that occasionally slipped away from our students after various lessons. My own family had herded several specimens halfway to Summergrass one year before catching on when one poorly-executed spell failed and the unfortunate animal exploded. At the time, I had rejoiced, because the fright had meant an end to the exploits of Redbelly; the prize bull never went near another of his species with any intentions, amorous or not, ever again. My mother had been furious.

Liane helped me to my feet, and let me lean heavily on her arm when I couldn't quite stand, and presently I was able to say, "I think whatever he's doing, he's done for the moment." My head still rang with echoes and a dim jangling wrongness, but serenity and quiet had lapped back over the valley like a ripple stilling in a pond, the vines and the earth indifferent again to the trifling affairs of human magic. I reached out and curled my fingers around an infant cluster of grapes, trying to re-settle myself within the world. My nose still throbbed sullenly in itchy red counterpoint to the flow of life through the grapes. Is there going to be anything left of me when the time comes...?

The walk into Viparring proper took us most of the rest of the morning, through countryside so green it stole my breath to think of it lying cold and lifeless like the sad lands around Tremare, and as the sun was reaching its zenith we came to the watchtower that marked the nominal edge of the town. "You get beat up?" the gatekeeper asked me.

"Sort of," I said. "I think we need to see your officials; Viparring may be in danger."

"It's been quiet here," he said, visibly skeptical. "We haven't even been seeing many Things out this way. Hear you've been plagued with them back west lately, though."

"Please," Liane said, "it's important. We've been tracking a terrible man and we think he's come here."

He still looked dubious, but he directed us towards the mayor's walled villa, on the high ground overlooking the town. "This town isn't very defensible," Liane noted as we climbed.

"With an Art's main keep nearby, it shouldn't have to be," I said. Trying not to draw the inevitable conclusion that when it had come to it, Tremare's protection had availed its own villages little.

The mayor wasn't in; we had to wait outside in the villa's sunny entry-court, growing increasingly weary and tense, while a runner was sent into town to find him. "I could go to sleep right here," I said, sagging on the bench. Even the golem seemed unhappy, shoulders slumped where it lurked in the outer doorway watching the street. Liane laid her head on my shoulder and heaved a sigh.

"I can't say it hasn't been an adventure," she said. "But I guess there are times when I have to wonder if I did the right thing when I ran away from a nice safe life as a weaver." I put an arm around her shoulders, and she looked up at me and gave a tired laugh. "Goddess, you're a mess. I hope he's impressed, and doesn't just throw us out."

"I've found that in matters like this a little shock value does wonders to convey the gravity of a situation," I said.

"Well, you're shocking, all right. If he doesn't listen -- or even if he does -- what next?"

I hung my head, not wanting to have to answer. "I suppose we need to go up to Pridening and see what the situation might be. Whatever that was, just now... I don't know if it was even necessarily aimed at me."

The runner returned with the mayor in tow, and we both stood up from the bench. "Er. I'm told you need to speak with me? Something about, um, danger?"

He showed us into his office, and we told him our story, and I got the impression that I could have been reciting a market list for all the understanding he was gaining of the situation. I began to wonder whether his position was elective or if his Greenbreeze Guildsiblings had simply fobbed him off on the unsuspecting village under some pretext to keep him out from underfoot while they got on with the winemaking. "Er," he said when I finally ground to a halt in the face of his polite incomprehension. "Quite a story, yes. Well, you've come all this way, the least we can do is put you up while we investigate this, um. Right."

He rang a small silver bell on his desk, and the same minor functionary who had made us wait in the courtyard reappeared. "Find them something in the guest wing, will you? Good man. And, um, show them where the baths are, I'm sure they'll want to freshen up before supper. Ah ha ha, ha, yes. We'll see you at supper, then."

"And how many rooms will you be requiring, sir, miss?" the functionary inquired, all but dragging us from the office. He was looking at the golem as if he were trying not to look at it.

"Two will be sufficient," I said icily. "My golem does not require separate accommodations." Liane stifled a snicker.

"Very good, sir," the functionary said, and led us up and down and up again and into what seemed to be the larger wing we had noticed from outside the villa. Here he showed us to two generous bedrooms, informed us that the baths were just below, suggested we might also wish to avail ourselves of the local laundry, took one last nervous look at the golem, and fled.

"Nice spread," Liane said, coming back into my room after inspecting hers and settling herself on my bed for a surreptitious bounce or two. "So, do you think he believed us?"

"Probably not," I said, "but I hadn't expected him to. If nothing else, we can get a good meal and a good night's sleep before we have to deal with whatever's up at Pridening."

"I could sleep for a thousand years," she admitted, flopping back on the bed. "But I need food and a bath first. I guess I'll see you at supper."

With what seemed a huge effort, she levered herself out of the bed and left. I moved to unpack some of my baggage to sort out what most desperately needed to go to the laundry and stopped dead as I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror: blood crusted in my braids and my hair and all down the front of my shirt, and I had to admit that while I had wanted to make an impression upon the mayor, I looked alarmingly like I had just clawed my way up out of a grave. "This is exactly the sort of thing that gives necromancers a bad name," I told the golem, and went downstairs to find the alleged bathing facilities.

Fortunately it wasn't as communal an arrangement as I had feared; I heard Liane singing an impressively offensive drinking song somewhere in the depths of the premises, but I had all the privacy I could have wished for once I had terrorized an attendant into providing soap and towels and a robe and arranging a hot tub. I couldn't actually recall the last acquaintance I'd had with decently hot water.

I scrubbed away the accumulated filth and gore, wishing it were as easy to scrub away some of the memories as well, and then settled into the tub to soak until the water turned unpleasantly cold and forced me out. I felt, if not restored, at least approximately human again; I had forgotten how good it felt to be clean. Working a borrowed comb through the tangles in my hair, I climbed back up the steps to the room I had been given, wondering where I would find the strength to dress for supper even if I could bring myself to put any of my wretched clothes back on. And gloomily realized that I'd left my trousers down in the baths...

I sat down on the bed to gather my wits about me, and then the light had nearly gone and gentle fingers were touching my shoulder, Liane's voice soft in the dimness saying, "Robling? You've slept through supper. Robling...?"

I stretched, trying to remember where I even was, and struggled up onto my left elbow, sleep-stiffened joints protesting irritably about the conditions I expected them to put up with. "Supper?" I echoed stupidly, still batting at the cobwebs in my head.

"You've missed it," she said, a strange edge to her voice, and made an abortive gesture with something wrapped in a cloth; "I brought you, a... Robling, where did you get that scar?"

I sat bolt upright on the bed, scrabbling to draw the robe closer around myself, but with a quiet unshakable gesture she stopped me, and turned back the robe from my left shoulder to reveal the braided pale scar in all its terrible splendor, too clearly a souvenir of having been laid open to the bone from throat to hip. "That... that doesn't look accidental," she managed to say after a long shocked moment.

"It was a going-away present when my playmates found out what Guild I was leaving Seventrails for," I said, and heard the bitterness in my voice. "Fortunately one of them had second thoughts about the blood and ran for the grownups. It took them a while to work out which barn we were in, though."

"All this time," she murmured, "I thought you were body-shy. Even in your sleep..."

"It's a habit, I've gotten too tired of having to explain myself to people who don't know anything true about necromancy," I said. "I've heard everything from 'did you lose control of a demon' to 'did you feed something your heart to gain power over it'. No one ever thinks that ordinary children could do this to each other."

"Children are heartless," Liane said, laying her fingers flat against my chest. "But your heart's right here where it should be."

And that heart was pounding madly under her fingers, the ground slithering away from under my feet as my wayward body decided of itself to respond to her touch. Obviously, inexcusably, and avidly. I drew in the deepest breath I could, which wasn't very deep, and found all my words flown from me, sinking deep into Liane's earth-dark eyes.

She cupped my face in her hands and bent to touch her lips to my forehead. "I think I understand, now," she breathed. "I think I understand all of it."

"You had better go," I croaked.

She looked into my eyes, and I could tell that she saw how difficult it had been for me to say that, and how little I meant it. And she said: "And if I don't?"

Her mouth met mine, insistent and hungry and through with denials. And I yielded to her, startled, feeling my own traitor hands stealing up to draw her closer to me.

A blur of animal hunger and need then, tumbling off-balance onto the rumpled quilts and surrendering blindly to the burning imperatives of blood. No thought, no reason, only instinct -- When I was at all myself again I realized that I was sobbing into her hair and murmuring, "I'm sorry, I didn't," over and over again, until at last she laid a finger over my lips to quiet me.

Presently she squirmed and announced, "I think I'm squashing the turnover."

"Huh?" I pulled away, and sat up, and she went digging through the lumps and folds she had come to be lying upon until she found the cloth-wrapped object she had been trying to present me with before. She unwrapped the folded napkin, sadly, and showed me the all but flattened pastry inside.

"I thought... you had really better eat something, when you never did show up at supper, I... Well. It's still warm," she offered sheepishly.

I took the crumpled napkin from her and broke off a corner of the turnover, suddenly glad to have a distraction as the changed reality of the situation came creeping in upon me. "I don't deserve you," I mumbled around the mouthful of apples.

"If I hadn't wanted that to happen," she said in the flat merc voice I had only ever heard her use on particularly obtuse drunks, "it wouldn't have. Believe me. So if you're thinking... Don't."

I devoured the rest of the turnover under her critical gaze, still embarrassed by her thoughtfulness but too urgently ravenous of a sudden to pass it up over the philosophical question. When I had finished, shivering now beneath the cloak of my naked hair as I slowly folded up the napkin with the crumbs inside, the only thing I had come up with to say was, "So... what now?"

"It's been a long day," she said, and despite myself I felt my heart sinking as she stood up from the bed. "I don't think either of us is thinking clearly anymore. We can decide what's what in the morning." She began rooting through the rubble of quilts and discarded clothes, and I realized that she was trying to account for all of her hairpins. "But unless you're feeling entirely consumed by guilt, I'd just as soon not go sleep in a cold bed, if I don't have to. So... are you going to throw me out?" She found the last of her hairpins and stood back glaring at me, arms folded across her breasts.

"Stay, if that's what you want," I said, wrestling to fit myself under the covers without having to get up, and thought I saw the barest flash of relief leak past her mask of indifferent reserve as she came to slip beneath my blankets and nestled against me, one hand trailing familiarly across my belly. Encouraging renewed flickers of the desperate bonedeep craving; "Is that..." and to my horror I felt myself blushing, "is that all you want?"

She propped herself up to look at me, one eyebrow tilting higher than the other. "Well, well. And here I thought those Seventrails women were just bragging about their men."

" 'Complaining' is more the word, I should think," I mumbled.

"No, they were definitely bragging," Liane said, and accompanied this with an exploratory contact that made me draw in a surprised and ragged breath. "Hm. Well, we've made this much of a mess of things, we might as well waste the rest of the night." And then, pinning me by the shoulders before I could even open my mouth to respond, "But this time let's at least make it worth denying to the other mercs in the morning?"

I obliged her as best I could, clumsy still from long neglect but gaining surety of myself with her increasingly approving critique. And what she wanted, at last, was the spill of my hair like moonlight over our joined bodies, and I covered my Lady in My mantle of white until she cried out in echo of the note with which She set the world in motion, and called my name as well, and the selfish demands of my own mortal body overtook me, raw astonishing life scouring through me and leaving me hollowed out and fragile and crushingly weary in its wake.

"Have I killed you?" Liane eventually said, shifting her weight against me. I sighed an incoherent non-answer, unable even to drag my eyes open; a tender finger smoothed aside damp tendrils of hair from my cheek, and with some difficulty I worked out how to get enough muscles to act in concert to form the outline of a smile. She settled in closer, with a sleepy contented murmur, and said, "Well, then."

And then, fainter, but still distinct: " 'Night, love."

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Comments
owensheart From: owensheart Date: June 14th, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)
obliged her as best I could, clumsy still from long neglect but gaining surety of myself with her increasingly approving critique. And what she wanted, at last, was the spill of my hair like moonlight over our joined bodies, and I covered my Lady in My mantle of white until she cried out in echo of the note with which She set the world in motion, and called my name as well, and the selfish demands of my own mortal body overtook me, raw astonishing life scouring through me and leaving me hollowed out and fragile and crushingly weary in its wake.

Ok this was actually bloody hot and so beautifuly written.

Great chappie
robling_t From: robling_t Date: June 15th, 2010 08:24 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Yep, that's my Muse, taking a run-up straight for the pr0n and slippingandfallingonherface... again. ;)

Edited at 2010-06-15 08:25 am (UTC)
bovidae From: bovidae Date: June 15th, 2010 02:36 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
-That- was some terrific non-explicit hotness, *very* nice. whoo.

Looking forward to the golem's response the next morning action ;-D

One confusing bit: WTF with the amateur surgery? I know children can be cruel, etc., but I don't understand where they'd get the idea to try to carve his chest open or that doing so would be a comprehendable expression of approval or disapproval. Also, I thought Robling didn't decide to go to Tremare until after the fatal stampede, so that would make him and his wannabe thoracic surgeon peers actually teenagers, not children...?
robling_t From: robling_t Date: June 15th, 2010 08:23 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Well, from the age he is now they're children... ;)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 16th, 2010 12:16 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Feedback

>> "I have minnows in my feet." <<

*laugh* This was amusing, in a disturbing sort of way. That golem is a delight, but also turning into a serious vulnerability.

>>Her mouth met mine, insistent and hungry and through with denials. And I yielded to her, startled, feeling my own traitor hands stealing up to draw her closer to me.<<

Aww! This is so sweet. It was well worth waiting for.
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