Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 13

 Chapter 10


 Hekate was, now and again, aware of the reach of Chernobog. After all, the people who lived along the northern fringe of what was now the Black Sea were the also descendants of the few survivors of the cataclysm when the gate had failed. Their blood had been diluted by many new immigrants and invaders, of course, in the long years since, which made the contact faint and far. Even the women no longer worshiped her, and that, too, diluted the sense of that dark power. Still. It was a shadow on her already shadowed world, and from time to time — like now — it troubled her.

She lifted the old bone harpoon, and felt its weight — far more than it should have been — in her hands. Not as heavy as it had been in days gone past but…heavy. There was still virtue in it, still some power, even if she had not been able to stop the Earth-Shaker, his tritons and their terrible conches with it.

Oh, she had punished them. They had suffered for her wrath and desperate anger, but she had not been able to stop them, and still the sea had poured in through the tear Poseidon had opened in her gate, flooding and destroying the fertile plains around the great lake that had once nurtured so many…so many.

It was lost and gone, both her people and her love. And why should she do anything to aid these, these thinned-blooded creatures who had deserted her?

Only the dogs remained, ever faithful. She lowered her harpoon, and Hekate turned back to the broken gate. Night had come. This was her time, and she walked the shadow-paths between spirit and mortal, seeing both, heeding neither. She walked through the streets of the city that those survivors had build on the edge of the chasm the Earth-Shaker had made, that the sea had torn deeper and wider, and, because of what she was, gates and walls and locked doors did not stop her. The city was still busy with the normal traffic of the night — whores, drunks, thieves and murderers. Hekate ignored them as if she did not see them, just as they did not see her or her dogs, because she willed it so.

All of them passed her without even a hint of recognition, her and the dogs…except for one man. He was not the kind of man Hekate, or anyone else, might have noticed. Of intermediate height, and very plain features, he radiated “ordinary” so effectively that even an old goddess was barely aware that he was there as she walked past. And then…

One of her dogs trotted after him and nosed his hand. He stopped. His hand instinctively went out to scratch it behind the ears. He plainly both knew and loved dogs and was not in the least afraid of them.

“Hello red-ears. You’re out of luck tonight. I haven’t got anything to give you, boy.” He sounded genuinely regretful about it.

Hekate stared, startled, as she had not been in a very long time. Looking closely now, she realized the man was using very powerful magics. She was, in one of her aspects, mistress of those. He had about him a “don’t notice me” enchantment of such power it was unlikely that anyone would even remember his passage, not even goddesses — or at least not goddesses who had not focused their power and will on him. As she would not have, had it not been for her dog. Now that she looked, aware of the enchantment, he was not quite as ordinary or nondescript as he wished to be seen as. And he could see and, more to the point, interact with her dogs.

She stayed in the shadow, where her power was strongest, watching. She was both a little angry and very surprised. It had been years since anyone had seen her dogs, and then only when they were very close to death. This man showed no signs of that being the case. She could always make it so…

But he petted Ravener, now scratching around the ears, and under the jaw. Her dog leaned up against his hip, quite as if his name was Faithful and not Ravener. His sister looked on, not knowing quite what to make of this.

He plainly saw the other dog too. “Looks like you have a whole litter of brothers and sisters, red-ears,” he said conversationally to Ravener. “I wonder just what your mother was associating with. You’re not like any breed of dog I’ve seen before.”

The dog slowly, gravely, wagged his tail.

The man sighed. “There are always too many strays. I wish I could take you home, boy, but home is where I seldom am, even if I could take you along. Mind you, you look too well nourished for most strays. I’d probably be stealing someone’s rare breed of hunting dog.” Then, he chuckled a little. “Although that is not likely in this part of town, eh? Still. You look like coursing hounds to me. Could be you’re out on a run, and you’ll go back to chopped steak in a gilded bowl.”

He held out his hand, back upward, for Ripper to sniff. The bitch, Ripper, held off from being petted but the growl died in her throat and her ruff went down. Ah. He was using powerful magics there too — on her dogs! Hekate shifted her grip on the harpoon, torn between outrage and growing, if reluctant, curiosity.

He straightened up, gave Ravener what was plainly a farewell pat on the head. “Go well, dogs. I’d better be about my business.”

Hekate was almost startled enough to drop the harpoon. That was a powerful good-wishing he’d given her hounds. And, she realized at last, he’d not been trying to bespell them. His beguiling was altogether unconscious. He just liked them and had been reaching out with his power to bring them closer to pet, as any lonely man might. He’d sought to give love, not entrap or bespell her holy creatures.

She almost called after him. Briefly she was distracted from mourning her lost children and her lost land. Here might be one —

But the scent of the sea carried by an errant night breeze brought it all back to her, and she turned away from him, her head bowed beneath unbearable grief once again. She would wait, and weep for them and then, when the dawn came to the great crossroads, she would choose her way — between east and west, life and death.

And as always, she would take the third way.

And her dogs would follow her down.

*   *   *

Antimo Bartelozzi went on his way, observing, making notes, looking for information to use in what he was sure would come, and come soon — his master and Venice moving against Constantinople. There was a little nostalgic smile on his lips. He had a soft spot for dogs. He’d not had one of his own since his childhood, and the lack of a faithful companion sometimes gave him an ache. He usually found one to pat, and even the most vicious of guard-dogs would come to him. This was useful in his line of work, granted, but it didn’t alter the fact that he liked them, for themselves. And he often wished that his life had room in it for — not just one, but a pack. Dogs were happier in a pack. Come to think of it, so were humans, more often than not. And while he did not much care for human packs, dogs, now…

Old age and a peaceful retirement were not something he’d ever thought much about — neither were things he was likely to enjoy. Spies and assassins rarely got there. But he would like a nice quiet place in the mountains with a few dogs, if it ever happened.

It was…a lovely thought.