Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 32


She was moved to a generosity of her own. She moved her power and set it lightly on his shoulders. “Hekate’s blessing goes with you. You will walk safe and silent in the darkness. It will cloak and hide you. And at the crossroads, the moon will light the right pathway for you, if you call on me.”

He seemed taken aback, perhaps at the generosity. “I can help you to get out.”

Now, she was touched. He did not need to do this thing, to offer safety to her, as he understood it. And he was not offering, thinking he would gain carnal favors of her. He did so because he — he liked her dogs. And thus, her. And he would do both of them a kindness.

But of course, he still did not know to what he spoke. “I am Hekate,” she told him, gravely. “I choose my path.”

*   *   *

Antimo Bartelozzi did not know what insanity had overtaken him. He’d seen enough sad sights and victims, and indeed, beautiful women, for the lifetimes of ten men. He’d never let that impair his judgment or distract him from his task. Why was he telling her all this? And offering to get her out of here? Had he been poisoned and was he in some kind of hallucination? That might be why her image was so strange. She seemed for an instant, to be the night itself. He shook his head, desperate to clear it. He wanted a goblet of wine. Badly and right now. But she wasn’t going away. She wasn’t, somehow, the kind of woman you could brush past, or merely excuse yourself, saying you had to get on with things. “Um. Can I offer you a glass of wine?” he said, awkwardly.

She nodded regally. “That would be acceptable.”

*   *   *

Libations and sacrifice at the crossroads were her due. It had been many years since anyone had done so much for her.

“We could go to the taverna on the corner I suppose. Just…ignore anything they say to you. It’s not really a place for…ladies.”

*   *   *

It was at a cross-roads. It also reminded her why she had always had the sky as her temple. Darkness was not something that She of the Night disliked. The stale smoky dimness of this place was less appealing. No one saw her, or her dogs. There were other women in the place. One of them even attempted to come and sit in the alcove near the back of the smoky room that this Antimo had led her to. Ripper growled, and she backed off, looking a little confused. “Two goblets. Of the good mavrodaphne,” said the celebrant to the servitor who came to ask what he’d have. He must be a celebrant, who had come to enact the ancient sacrifice and act of making a libation. That strengthened her, slightly. It had been many years since she last had had any true worship from humans.

“Two? You want some company, mister?” asked the servitor.

“No,” he said, his voice seeming harsh, almost angry for a second. The servitor looked at him, as if seeing him for the first time. It was possible, considering the magic Antimo wove about himself, that this was true. He did not see Hekate at all, but that was how she desired it.

He brought the two goblets, and set them in front of Antimo. Wooden goblets, as appropriate. Antimo pushed one across the table to her.

Was that it, nowadays? No prayers? No songs? No respects?

“It’s surprisingly good wine,” said Antimo, reassuringly. “Taste it. I know it seems hard to believe coming from a place like this.”

She did. It was indeed good wine. Rich and full of fruit, full of the summer. It was the first thing that she had tasted for many generations and it brought back a flood of memory. She had always been associated with the fruits of fertility. With harvest and the birthing. There had been feasts under the harvest moon, and the best wine offered…

*   *   *

It wasn’t really a whine. Just a sort of well, what about us? comment from Ripper, accompanied by a nose against his elbow.

“Gently hound. I could have spilled that,” said Antimo. “I wouldn’t eat here myself, but dogs have a tougher digestion than most people. I suppose it is unfair at least from your point of view, eh?” He called the servitor over again. “I’ll have two bowls of stew.”

“Two. To keep the other goblet of wine company, mister,” said the fellow. “Well, you’re paying.” He brought two shallow bowls of meat and vegetables from the black pot hanging on a chain at the fireside. Antimo set them down. Hekate’s dogs didn’t even wait for them to get to the floor. Hekate did not say she wouldn’t have said no to the food herself. She did not, strictly speaking, need it. But this was the closest she had come to being part of the mortal world for a long time. Antimo seemed content to sip his wine, however. So she did likewise, working her magic on it.

“You will take some of this wine with you on your travels. Pour some out at the crossroads and call on me.” And then feeling a little odd — perhaps it was the wine after so many years, she stood up. “You must come back. My dogs and I will wait for you.”

This time, he made the pledge. “I will.”

She swept the night around her like a cloak and called Ripper and Ravener to her, and went out, to the third way. To her place.

*   *   *

Antimo sat looking into the gloom at the empty seat. What was all of this about? Why was he doing this? Was it all some kind of hallucination? But the bowls, when he picked them up, were empty and so — when he reached across and took it — was the crude wooden goblet. Only…it was no longer just a crude wooden goblet. Someone had carved into it, with artistry that was plain even in this poor light, a frieze around the body of it. A complicated scene of the chase, by the looks of it. Antimo quietly slipped it into his cotte, put a copper down to pay for it — or for the servitor’s pleasure, and left. Someone was complaining about how dim the taverna was.

He was a little afraid. He’d often been scared and in real danger, and he was used to controlling that fear. But this, this was something different and alien. He remembered the silky softness of the dogs ears and was somehow comforted.

He left town the next day as planned. But he had a wineskin filled with the wine from the taverna.

*   *   *

Two days later, at dusk, he left the group of cattle-buyers and struck out on the back roads. He was seeking a port to find a ship to take him back to Ferrara or, as his master had instructed, at least as far as Corfu, that he came to the crossroads.

The other three travelers had all stopped a little further back and were eating a simple supper. Antimo was a little wary about them. They were chance-met companions of the road…apparently. But two of them were even more vague about where they came from and where they were going. The other man was a farmer heading for the coast to buy a horse. He’d had a good harvest, and never owned a horse before. There were bargains to be had down at Echinos. He spoke of it as if it was the big city and not just a coastal village.

Antimo told them he was going to relieve himself. When he got to the crossroads, on the spur of the moment he pulled out the wineskin and spilled some out onto the ground “Hekate.”

The moon peered over the lip of cloud and seemed to brighten the left hand path.

“What did you say?” It was the young farmer.

He’d plainly overheard exactly. “Hekate. It’s…its an appeal for good luck and wise choices on a journey. An old superstition from my village.”

“Oh. I thought she was the witch-goddess of the underworld.”

The last thing he needed was a witch-hunt. “No. Just an old superstition about crossroads. I’m going to walk on a bit.”

“Oh. Yes. I don’t like those fellows. I’ll be getting along too. We can’t be that far from Echinos.”

Antimo noticed that he lingered a moment behind and spilled a little out of his wineskin onto the ground too. And that the other two had also got to their feet and were hastening to gather up their things and go after them through a dusk that was thickening, and shadows that seemed darker than usual. He and his companion quickened their pace; the road ahead seemed brighter, lit by moonlight that made the shadows behind all the darker.

He expected at any moment to hear the footsteps of the other two catching up with them. And, truth be told, felt for his knife, expecting he might have to use it. The farmer had been a little too open about the money he carried with him, and Antimo had a pack that might contain, well, anything. He didn’t want a fight; the farmer would certainly be useless, and two against one were never odds he liked.

But somehow, they must have taken the other track.