Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 23


She needed to know more. She had exerted her will on him, and he had answered. But it meant little to her. Where was Ferrara? And he seemed to have no ideas of the worship or sacrifice that a god required. Was owed.

Well then. She would make her demand more…forceful. Not so as to harm him, but to compel him to give that which he was not aware was his responsibility.

Her command: “My dogs are hungry. Feed them,” was interrupted by the arrival of a group of men. They had a hint of the prowling pack, in the way they walked.

Antimo took one look at them and said something half under his breath. She could feel his desire to be barely noticeable, to be small and ordinary, exerted.

It was the wrong message for this pack. They liked that type of prey. They surged forward. Of course they did not see her.

“You’d better gather your skirts, lady,” said Antimo, “and run. This is more than your dogs can deal with.” He brought a blade into his hand and turned to face them.

She drew her cloak of darkness around herself and her dogs. And him. Her power might be lessened, but it was not gone. Oh, no. “I am still Hekate,” she said. “Let them dare to approach.”

*   *   *

The moon had lit the alley, moments before. Now Antimo found himself in darkness so Stygian as to make him wonder if he’d just gone blind. He knew he wasn’t alone in it because of the cursing at the mouth of the alleyway.

“Black as hell in there.” said someone. “I could see him a moment ago.”

Then a second voice, tinged with uncertainty and the fear he himself had felt just a few moments before: “It’s a trap. Let’s get out of here, boys.”

That was followed by the sound of their blundering departure.

This was not what Antimo had expected. These gangs were something of a feature of the back streets of Constantinople, the blues, greens and reds — descended from the long ago supporters of various chariot-racers, he’d been told. Now they were a law unto themselves, each absolute in their own districts. The emperor was too weak and too disinterested to rein them in. So the merchants hired guards, and paid for protection, or paid the gangs to be the protection. Decent citizens locked their doors and tried to stop their sons from becoming involved.

They were the sort of thing Antimo was normally good at avoiding. He’d have heard them coming, if it hadn’t been for this odd woman. Hekate? The name brought vague associations of witchcraft to mind. Antimo kept clear of magic and its practitioners as much as possible. Of course many were frauds, but he had reason to know that some weren’t.

But this woman and her dogs must be the real thing, and, compared to what he had seen, powerful. He was not a superstitious man, or one who believed he had much chance of Christ’s favor, but he muttered a prayer anyway. Whether it was the prayer or the fact that the gang of greens — this was their territory — had gone hunting elsewhere, the darkness lightened.

“I think we will take this way,” she said. There was a narrow, twisty path between the buildings he had not noticed earlier. She and the dogs led, and despite his first rational idea, which had been to run the other way, his instincts led to him to follow her along it, and into the wider thoroughfare beyond. A lamp set in a window-sconce to show its owner’s wealth and power shone out into the street, and he could see her clearly now. That was definitely gold she was wearing around her neck and in hoops from her ears. Heavy necklaces hung with black uncut stones, gleamed. And yet…he knew that she was probably a lot safer in the back alleys than he had been.

He took a deep breath. “Lady, you said your dogs were hungry. As it happens I have the makings of my own supper here. I could give it to them.”

She nodded, regally. So right there he took the piece of bacon and the bread and soft cheese out of his pouch, cut them up and fed them to the dogs. He kept the onion. It was a habit of his, when he carried money, to put humble food on top of it. Exploring fingers tended to recognize the shape of onions and feel of bread, and give up without finding the hidden section below that.

The dogs — having wolfed down all that there was to be eaten — looked hopefully at him. The bitch, who had been more wary before, went as far as to lick his hand. “That’s all I have, red-ears.”

“They are called Ravener and Ripper,” she said, and turning away, began walking. The dogs followed almost instantly, without being called…and then they were gone.

He really wasn’t sure just where to.

He couldn’t find the narrow gap between the houses she’d brought him out of, either.

Antimo didn’t like being out of his depth, he didn’t like uncanny things, and he didn’t like things with the heavy smell of magic about them. But he liked her dogs. And he had come to no harm — in fact, thanks to this woman, he had avoided harm.

“All’s well that ends without needing to clean your blade,” he muttered to himself, and decided to forget the woman for now. Whatever her business with him — well, it seemed mostly to have been done when he’d sacrificed his dinner for her hounds. He had done good work for Ferrara and his duke tonight. He would find something else to eat, to go with that onion.

*   *   *

It had been a very long time since Hekate had last thought of anything but her sadness. A very, very long time. Much had changed, it seemed. She was unsure about it all; she did not like, in the least, that she had actually been forgotten. She did not like these streets where killers hunted with impunity. But her dogs liked the man…and he had given to her what she was due, a sacrifice, though he had not known why. All in all, this encounter had left her feeling…unsettled. But somewhat less deeply wrapped in her grief because of it.

And more awake than she had for a very long time indeed.