Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 01
Burdens Of The Dead
Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, Dave Freer
Under the harvest moon, at the crossroads between east and west, a woman stood weeping. Year upon long, weary year, she came, waiting for her answer. Others had their answers, but never she; her child never returned, neither in person nor in word. She looked constantly to the north, to the place where the Earth-Shaker had opened the gate and drowned her land and her people; but not to the south, where he had killed one of her children and held hostage the other. The Earth-Shaker was deaf, or gone, faded into the half-dream of the forgotten. Her child remained his captive. Others were gone too, her brothers and sisters of old, gone, forgotten, faded into shadow. Only she did not fade; only she remembered. There might be nothing left to her but the waiting, yet still, she would remain until the appointed hour wherein she might, might have word. She would wait until that hour had faded too, she would be there until the hours when the worlds touched were over once more, steadfast as stone, sorrowful as grief itself. The dogs at her side waited, patient and faithful. Every now and again one leaned against her and she put a hand down to caress the silky red ears. She drew strength from them and they gave it to her, willingly. She had no other worshippers now.
She stood at the great crossroad, looking at the gate that had failed, until moonset. And then, as the red fingers of bloody dawn slid across Anatolia, she turned to choose her way. As always, looking at the crossroad, she took the third way. That, then, and always, was her choice.
The dogs followed Hekate down.
She was their goddess. They were all she had.
September, 1540 A.D.
Near Corfu, in the Ionian Sea
Benito and Maria stood together, leaning on the stern-rail of the Venetian galley, looking back at Corfu. The island was beautiful, with Mount Pantocrator rising out of the sea toward the wintery sky, and tiny white-painted hamlets stark against the green of her lower slopes. Maria held onto Benito, just as the magical island they were leaving clung to her, and she to it. Their lives were too entangled and confused, rather like her own. She was a Venetian canaler. They were not known for their subtlety or layered complexity of conflicting relationships, or to have conditionalities to their love or hatred. Yet here she was in a tangle of them. She loved so many; Benito. Alessia. The Mother’s Goddess’s island Corfu, and even her winter-time lover, Aidoneus, Lord of the Dead. She loved each of them with a different part of her, and each with a “but” appended.
And all of them wanted all of her. She felt pulled and stretched in four directions, and where would that end except in her being pulled to pieces?
* * *
Benito Valdosta, former canal-brat, thief, trouble-in-human-form, son of the most notorious mercenary condottieri in all of Italy, grandson of the Old Fox, the duke of Ferrara, and of late, hero of Corfu and now its acting Governor-General, looked at his wife gazing back at the island they were leaving and felt both small and saddened. It was tough for a man to compete with a god and a goddess for his wife’s attention. But if that was what it took, he’d have to do it. He didn’t take kindly to sharing her with either the cult of the Mother Goddess or the Lord of the Dead. But those were the terms by which he still had her at all. He’d take those terms and having her, any day, over the alternative. Benito might not like compromise — but he was used to it.
And now, to complicate things further, the Venetian Republic needed him again. The republic whose justice had sentenced him to death — and whose people had carried him on their shoulders. He’d have turned the summons down in a heartbeat, except it had come from Doge Dorma, to whom he owed…nearly everything. And they needed him, those people of Venice, the people who had carried him on their shoulders, the solid, tough, plainspoken canalers and sailors. Maria’s people, even if she now claimed to be an islander and a Corfiote, needed him. They needed him because he had a real grasp of the evil they faced. He’d briefly seen the face of it when he had killed Caesare.
“Why are you looking at me like that, Benito?” asked Maria.
There was just a touch of an edge to her voice. She too was under strain; how could she not be? He’d come…oh, worlds away from the selfish little canal-dwelling half-thief he’d been, someone who would not have seen it, or have resented it, or have railed against what was taking her from him. Part of him still wanted to rant, swear, demand that all this end now, but — it couldn’t and it wouldn’t. Benito had learned to look for the greatest good, even when the greatest good required his own, personal, sacrifice. Well, there was no point in having a plate-throwing argument at this stage; trying to explain all that to Maria at this point might well send her into a tirade of and what do you know about sacrifice and don’t you care about me anymore. “Trying to store up every detail of you in my mind, every chance I get,” he said. “I’m going to miss you horribly every time you go back there. If I can’t be with you, at least I want a picture in my mind that’s better than any artist can make. They could never do you justice, anyway.” He’d never asked too much about her relationship as the bride of Aidoneus. That was ground, his instincts said, that he needed to keep off, if he was going to keep his relationship with the woman he loved.
Venice’s Casa Vecchi had a long history of keeping strict borders between these things. With its men away for the better part of their youth, and marriage being limited to one of the offspring from each noble family, to keep the family fortunes intact, they had to. It was said that Venice survived on the patience of her women. Maybe it survived on everyone turning a blind eye at the right time.
No, compromise wasn’t in the least appealing to Benito, but that was the way it would have to be. Was he becoming a politician? Maybe. There were times when he preferred the honest thief he’d been.
She smiled, though, and the temper was staved off. He’d made a wise choice. “You’re all smooth tongue, Benito. I’m not some tavern wench that you have to sweet talk.”
“Not all of me is smooth tongue. Or at least that’s what I’d have said to one of those tavern wenches.” He ducked.
“You’re impossible!” He’d drawn a small snort of laughter from her. A victory. Laughter eased the strain from, her face, from the muscles of her neck and shoulders. “And we can’t go to our cabin right now. What would they all think?”
Benito laughed back. “They’d think I was keeping up my reputation and they’d be very jealous.”
“You’re impossible,” she said again, “But, just for that reputation…if you just wait a little bit, see.” She looked back toward Corfu. “I want to fix it in my mind too.” She twisted her fingers into his. “You promise we will come back?”
“I thought your Mother Goddess went a bit further than just shores of the island?” he asked, wishing he’d bitten his tongue as soon as he said it.
“She does. Although that is her strong place. But it’s not just that. Kerkyra” — she used the local name; she spoke Greek now nearly as fluently and as fast as the locals — “is the place where I became…me. More than just Caesare’s girl, or Umberto’s wife.”
“You’ve always been that to me,” said Benito softly.
Her eyes were slightly luminous and soft now. He’d said the right thing again. “Yes. But not to everyone else, or even to me. I am now. And I will always love this place for it. For the joy and the pain. I…Once I knew you were Casa Vecchi longi, it was hard for me to believe that too.”
He caressed an arm. “I was always just Benito. The poor kid off the canals you kept out of trouble.”
“Kept you out of trouble?” That brought back a slight smile to her face. “I don’t think that can be done.”
He shrugged. “Kept me from destroying myself then. But look at the island and enjoy it, and make a picture of it in your mind to hold. I can’t hate it — in fact, I owe a debt to it. It gave me something, or rather a pair of someones that I needed, too.” He did not add ‘for eight months of the year’ which just proved that he too could learn some tact. “And yes, we will come back, right on time, provided your Goddess will deal with storms or pirates other things I can’t control. I’ll see that you get there. You gave your word.” He hoped that would be enough, to show her that her word meant as much to him as his word.
She looked in silence, drinking it in with her eyes, but she kept her fingers entwined in his. She still had the strong hands of the woman who’d poled her boat in all weathers along the canals of Venice, but she’d spoken the truth. There was far more depth to her now.
“You know, you’re right,” she said after a long silence.
“I need to go and write this down at once,” he said, grinning and not moving. “What about?”
“The Mother…I talked to Belmondo.”
She must have felt him tense. “I know. He was a terrible governor.”
“He was just weak.” Benito would not speak as kindly of the man’s wife, but he did acknowledge that the high priestess had also been weak, when the island, and her cult, needed strength. They had that now. They had Maria.
“Yes. But he is very knowledgeable. He has many books,” she said with all the respect of the recently literate. “He says statuettes of the Mother have been found in many places. In Spain. In Outremer. Old, old symbols, from before the Greek Gods that he knows so much about. But he also said that we could not be sure that they were all the same, or if they were just the same idea. Fertility…fertility, has always been very important to every people.”
“So is the result of it. And I hear the sound of ours, awake and wanting us,” said Benito, vaguely aware that he’d just heard something important but not quite sure what it was. The pursuit of that thought however was lost in the task of parenting a young child. They could have had servants, a wet-nurse to see to ‘Lessi’s needs. But that did not sit well with Maria, and truth to tell, it didn’t sit well with him, either. It was her child, and she had strong ideas about what being a mother meant. She wanted to hold and care for her, and so did Benito. She was a piece of his heart. They both were. And he would give both of them everything it was in him to give, at whatever cost.