Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 22


He was a creature with bone within him, of course. Steel knife or no, she could kill him without effort — but that would rather defeat her purpose. She allowed him to approach, and he peered into her corner, into her shadow.

He seemed rather taken aback to see her there with her dogs. He plainly recognized those. “Lady. I…”

If she’d been a man, by his posture, he would have had that knife out and thrusting. Well, if the bitch Ripper had not growled at him, which she did. But she was not what he had been anticipating, not at all, and the presence of the dogs he knew set him further aback.

He gathered himself. The hand was still ready, but he had plainly decided to talk, or at least talk at first. “Your dogs, lady?”

She nodded. It had been eons since she’d last spoken to anyone.

“I’ve met them before. I thought they looked too cared for to be strays.”

She was indignant. That startled her into speech and nearly into action. “Of course they are not stray animals! How dare you!”

He seemed to have missed the threat, or at least the indignation, and was reaching out the back of his hand to them toward be sniffed, and Ravener, the faithless hound, was wagging his tail. “I’m glad. Dogs need people.”

That was true, too, she had to agree, and she softened to him a little, a little. Well, she needed them and they needed her. “They are mine, and mine only. They may wander afar, but they always return to me and always will.”

He looked at her, and then at them, his face inscrutable. Reaching a decision suddenly, he said: “This is not a good part of town, Lady, dogs or no dogs. There are people here that’d kill them for stew, let alone what they’d do to you. Let me escort you back to your home, or at least a better part of town. I mean no harm. Ask your dogs,” he said with a smile.

“I am Hekate,” she said, putting him firmly in his place. Harm? Him or any other mortal? The Earth-Shaker Poseidon had not been able to harm her. He had destroyed all she loved. Taken her children, yes. But not harmed her.

All that plainly meant nothing at all to him. And he was absent-mindedly petting her dog. “Where do you live?”

*   *   *

It had been alarming enough to realize that he was being watched.

Antimo had always known — a prickling at the back of his neck — when he was being spied on. He’d learned to act on those instincts. And paying off a captain of Alexis’s mercenaries was not a good time to be watched.

He’d come back this way to kill the watcher.

And found firstly that she was a woman. A very odd looking one. Antimo had an eye for detail. He had no interest in women’s fashions, but he could describe precisely what they were wearing.

He’d never seen anything quite like her robes; they looked like something he’d have likely seen on an antique vase, and who wore that sort of thing, even in Byzantium? Well…the women did wear a sort of all-enveloping garment that wasn’t a cloak, sometimes, but not the fashionable ones. Nor did women wear what — in the moonlight anyway — looked like the gold and jet jewelry that she was wearing; heavy, simple, somewhat crude by the standards of Constantinople, where the goldsmiths prided themselves on the delicate granulated-gold work even the least-skilled could produce.

Then, there were the dogs. A man might walk abroad with dogs to protect him; a woman, never.

There might be whores working this alley. But they weren’t wearing gold, or being guarded by red-eared dogs. These dogs liked him…but he knew, instantly, by their posture that these ones would defend her, or die trying, even against someone they liked. But who was she, and what was she doing here, watching him? She seemed to think he’d know who she was.

“We came to seek you out,” she said. “I am She of the Gateways and these are my hounds.”

If that was a name for some particular district here, he didn’t recognize it. Could there be a Great House here known as The Gateways?

Her hounds… They were hunting dogs of some kind, he was sure, looking at them again. Some breed of coursing hound that he just did not recognize. Strange looking animals. Hungry ones, too, by the way the one was sniffing at his bag. She looked at him through slightly narrowed eyes, plainly waiting for a response. Unfortunately, he had no idea what she expected. So he smiled and patted the sniffing dog again. The other had also come forward, stretching its head and nose towards him. Yes, he knew that one too, the female, more suspicious than her brother or mate, whichever he was. The fur on her back was still slightly raised, but that was almost a wag of her fur-feathered tail.

“Who are you?” she asked, as the second dog came closer.

She’d just said she’d been looking for him…how could she not know his name? But he spoke, without meaning to. “Antimo Bartelozzi, of the city of Ferrara.” As the words came from his mouth, he started. What was he doing? He never gave his name, his actual name, when he was out working, let alone where he came from. What had come over him?

*   *   *

This was all something of a rude shock to the guardian of the crossroads. Firstly, the mortal did not know just who he was speaking to. She had been sure that once she spoke her name, he would know her for what she was! That even if he did not worship her, he would at least know to give her respect and her due!

She had no grasp of how many eons she had been mourning. Time had not touched her, and as a goddess the changes of such things as language were of no consequence. She knew, vaguely, that she had no true, direct worshippers except the dogs now, that she only retained her power of that and because in between, nothing decayed, not even grief. And the loss of power given by worshippers had meant little to her in the face of her terrible grief.

But to be forgotten, completely?

Oh, she had said that to herself, made it all part of her litany of mourning, but deep down she had not believed that she could ever be forgotten. Not really. Certainly not here. To find that she really was…