The challenge was here. My sister had read the “dollheads” challenge and asked what happened next, so when I was thinking about robots (and I hate robots) I wanted to find a way to make one in Bucklepunk world.
A familiar would have warned her before the man was in sight of the house. He'd come up the streambed, hopping one stone to the next, balancing in an imaginary duel. She didn't recognize him, but his fancy dress said he was official.
Abigail and her daughter Susannah had hidden in the burnt-out shell of their house, made not a sound as he wandered through the yard, poked at the garden, the foundation, the pottery shed, the wires she'd run to the mill to siphon power from the waterwheel. After a tense hour he left, back the way he'd come, towards the mill.
"We need a familiar," said Abigail.
"It would give us away," said Susannah.
"Not if no one recognizes what it is," said Abigail.
Always the familiar gave witches away. It followed too close, or looked at someone with just a bit too much perspicacity. Well, Widow Martin was having none of that. Now her beloved black cat was dead in the disaster that had befallen her house, she could start over.
The wires to the waterwheel were still alive, but they couldn't bring her dead familiar back to life. She had already tried that, affixing them to the dead cat whilst they were quiet. When the wire had hissed to say the waterwheel was running, her cat had not sparked to life.
"What is that burning hair smell?" Susannah had asked. She was collecting nuts in the yard.
"Just the cat," said Widow Martin.
"You're desecrating the corpse," Susannah said. She was trying to get the squirrels in the yard to eat out of her hand.
Abigail Martin was not going to eat her familiar, not even a leg. Not even if it had been a rooster.
One did not eat one's familiar. One buried it proper. "It's just an animal, now the soul has fled," she said.
"So it was in life, it is in death." The girl was half witch already.
"If my plan works, he will be in life again," said Abigail. Surely raising the spirit of a familiar and replacing it in its own body was hardly wrong at all.
She ran a string through the cat's nose and put it in the creek. The water ran hard enough to drive the meat off the bones, but not enough to wash the bones downstream.
Several days later, she dragged it up again. The little fishes in the water had done their work well. Nothing was left but bones and cartilage.
Eyes she had aplenty, so she inserted those first. She ran wires through the spine down to the tip of the tail, so it could swish again. Wires ran through pulleys down the back legs; tiny wheels fit in the knees and feet.
Susannah stayed out of the workroom. She was training the squirrel.
"Rodents make poor familiars," said Abigail.
"A squirrel is not a rat," Susannah said. "People think they're cute, on account of their tails. Penemue will go unnoticed, the way a larger creature couldn't."
Abigail didn't recognize the demonic name, but didn't look it up, either. If the rodent could be taught to bring nuts to the house, it might get them through the winter.
She tied the string of wires together into a large knot in the skull of the cat. When she was done, ceramic armour fleshed out the body and hid the wires. Demonic symbols shimmered red and black on the clay. A long fine loop of wire connected the cat to the lines that ran from here to the waterwheel.
The wire hissed back to life.
She watched the cat. There was nothing.
"Perhaps you'd like to try a squirrel," Susannah said. "Penemue has friends. With all your experience you'd be up and running in no time."
The clay turned white, and the glaze hardened, but no life animated the cat's limbs.
It was a disappointment to have to do a ritual to bring Metathiel back to his body, but she'd run out of non-witchcraft options. She'd sent Susannah to bed. The squirrel had run back to its nest in the black walnut tree in the yard. It wasn't a real familiar; it just liked the seeds Susannah gave it from the stores.
"Metathiel?" she said when she was done.
The cat twitched, the spirit acclimatizing to its new body.
"Metatron." The floor shuddered.
Not quite right. "I charge you to guard this domicile," said Abigail. “Let’s see how you do with that.”
Many hours later, the bone and ceramic cat still stood, at least. "Someone is coming."
Susannah was in the garden, coaxing her squirrel to tend the lavender.
The same smallish man again walked toward the house, moving across the streambed without a stick. Abigail came out the burnt-out side of the house to greet him.
"Your neighbor has complained about you stealing from his mill," the man said.
She glanced back at the garden, but Susannah appeared to have had the sense to hide. "Surely we can make a trade," she said.
"You have nothing he wants." The man was her age at least. He had a very large forehead, probably cursed. "He claims you're a witch, messing with things you don't understand."
She gestured behind her at the cat, now sitting on its haunches. "If I didn't understand, how did I do that?"
The man made a face, part apology, nothing he could do. "Just a warning, for now."
"Not witchcraft -- science," said Abigail Martin. A scientific familiar should be above scrutiny. "It’s not even an animal. It’s powered by the wheel downstream.”
“It’s not connected,” said the man.
The wires had fallen loose, and yet the cat turned its head.
“But perhaps I should take a closer look at this science, before I render judgment.” The man turned and walked off back downstream.
Susannah poked her head out from the foundations of the house. “Sure you don’t want a squirrel?”