Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 21


PART II October, 1540 A.D.


Chapter 16




The dogs of Hekate lived, as she did, in a place between, where time has little meaning. She walked the world at the crossroads, her dogs at her side. There were many crossroads and she could choose to walk any of the roads away from them. She only ever took one way — to the place between, which is not below but is down. The place between there is neither life nor death. The place where everything and nothing is possible, the place of shadows. The place where there is nothing to long for. No want.

Or hunger.

But…although they were not moral dogs, hers partook somewhat of the nature of all dogs, and dogs are by nature hungry. A cat will turn up its nose at food unless it is what it wants, but a dog is always willing to eat. But in that half-world of shadow and nothing that she had kept to, they had, perhaps forgotten that part of themselves, as she had forgotten so much but grief. It had been many years since her faithful hounds had eaten, until the mortal at the gate had fed Ravener. It had been many years too since Hekate herself had noticed food; perhaps that was why. Her power was, in a way, a reflection of her dogs’ devotion; their care was all for her, single-minded, and when she forgot things…so did they.

Yes, there were cults that worshipped her name, in darkness and secret. But that was not the lady of the gateways and crossroads, of the three faces. Such cults worshipped her because she was believed to be powerful in magic. This was true, but they misunderstood her power. And their homage added nothing to her. But the love of her dogs did, and she gave back to them, in full measure. Her needs were theirs; theirs were hers. And now…

They were hungry. She was too. And she was stirred to give back to them what they wanted, even though they did not, precisely, need it.

So she went back to the cross-roads. To the gate that failed. To the great city that even though it was a long way from its former glory, never quite slept. It never occurred to her that she might not get from the mortals here what she wanted. True, she might be forgotten, but when they saw her, they would know her, and remember her. They would know what was owed to her. They would give her food — for her and the dogs. They had always given her sacrifices. It was her due.

So she came to the gate, and passed through it into the world of mortals. And found that having exerted her power at walking unseen and untouched for many generations meant that it was very, very hard now to be seen or touched. A drunk lying in an alley saw her. But he cried in fear, and fervently hoped that she was an illusion. The face he saw was not a kindly one. No one else noticed her. She paused. This could present a problem. She could not take food; it had to be given, sacrificed by a willing mortal. Those were the rules, the ancient rules by which her kind lived. Mortal things for mortal creatures, unless they gave these things willingly.

So Hekate went in search of the man who had fed Ravener, or at least she set her dogs to the task. There was nothing under heaven, or under the earth, that they could not nose out for her if she wanted them to. They sniffed the air and found the scent…their ears perked, and they quivered with eagerness to speed away. Ah, how they loved the chase. She’d forgotten that. Forgotten so much in her anger and bitterness. She had been queen of the hunt long before Diana, once. Now, as then, she loosed them, and followed, fleet of foot and unhindered by her robes.

They ran him to earth, of course. They had the essence of the man, from the well-wishing he’d put on them, and that was far more pervasive than mere scent to Hekate’s dogs. She called them off, as soon as she saw him. They liked him, yes. But they were hunters, and they had been hunting, with him as the quarry. They needed to cool a moment so they might remember again he was a man that they liked, and not the prey to be pulled down.

He was with two men in a rather noisome alleyway. They did not see the dogs, but he did. She stepped back around the corner — there was always a corner where she wanted one — and she called the dogs back to her. That was politeness. He had not insulted her, he had given her dogs respect and well-wishes. She could be polite. Besides, she was curious, and that was something she had not felt in a very long time.

She was almost sure he hadn’t seen her. He’d been busy handing a small pouch to one of the two men. A small, heavy pouch, by the looks of it; that meant money in her experience of mortals and money in dark corners generally meant trouble. They looked like warriors. They carried swords of iron. She willed herself to hear what was being said. It would do little good to her dogs if the only man who seemed to see them was killed; they were hungry now.

“That of course would be the initial payment. A token of our trust. You can check that the rest is held by Isak BenTelmar, at the Rialto bridge. He will give it to you when you present him with the whole amulet. And don’t even think it, Captain. I don’t have the other section of it. You’ll be given that when your side of the bargain is kept.”

It didn’t sound like murder to Hekate. Murder was no stranger to her. Crossroads were a good place for murder, and one of her three faces looked often on death. But the man sounded cool, unperturbed. And she did have some idea of the power he wielded. The other two warriors probably did not. She thought, all in all, there was no cause to worry.

A little later she wondered if she had been wrong about that. He bade the warriors farewell, and walked down the alley to where she stood, her cloak of darkness gathered around her. His hand was on his knife hilt, as if he expected trouble. Trouble — from the place where she stood. It was a steel knife, and her power was stronger over bone and stone. Her people had not had much bronze, and no iron when the Earth-Shaker had broken the gate and flooded her lands.