by Roberta Gellis
Baen Books August 2001
Bound once by guilt to the Seer Dionysos for refusing to save his mother from being sacrificed to the king of the Dead, bound twice by hatred for her father, who intends to reduce her to a near-mindless automatum, bound thrice by love to Kabeiros, who is trapped in the form of a blind, black dog outside of the Caves of the Dead, Hekate has little choice but to master sorcery. If she cannot free herself of her bindings, she will die. But will her ability to wield magic so anger the gods of Olympus that they will cast her out?
- A TERRIFIED DAUGHTER
- Hekate helplessly watches her mother being drained of spirit and magical talent until she is nothing, a cipher who does not seem even to recognize her daughter. Fortunately Asterie taught Hekate all she knew about creating spells before she is rendered null. Both mother and daughter know that Perses, Hekate's father and Asterie's husband, is evil to the core, but neither of them alone or even together can match his power. Hekate conceals her skill and her own power and trades obedience for safety--but it is not enough. Soon she must flee, with her father's demon on her heels. Can Hekate grow strong enough to save herself and avenge her mother?
- THE EVIL MAGICIAN
- Perses's power in sorcery is unrivaled, but that is not enough to satisfy him. The next step is to rule one realm, then another, and another, to gain access to enormous wealth and an unending stream of victims whose painful deaths will supply him with life force. Then blood magic will make him strong enough to transfer his mind and spirit to a new young body—and live forever. Thus he summons Hekate and tells her she must murder the Queen of Byblos and marry the King. Then through her, Perses will control the King and through him the entire city of Byblos.
- THE BLACK DOG
- In the Caves of the Dead Kabeiros can live as a man, free of the curse that turns him into a blind, black dog in the outer world. But living alone in the dark caves year after endless year drives Kabeiros to offer shelter to the old crone who calls herself Hekate and says her father is pursuing her with sorcerous evil. Kabeiros does not believe so ancient a woman could have a living father who was threatening her, but he will ignore her lies for the sake of companionship. He does not realize he has called truth a lie and that the lie he sees when stripped away to the truth will be more dangerous to him than the sorceries of Perses.
About BULL GOD, the predecessor to THRICE BOUND:
"This is a lavish, rich novel filled with the machinations of the gods,
and the terrible implications that their intrigues have on the world of
mortal men and women. ... Let's hope the world of fantasy can steal
Gellis from romance novels more often." --SF Chronicle
Excerpt from THRICE BOUND
In the instant that she became aware of the tug of her father's will, she felt the change sweep over her. She didn't need to look down at her hands to know they were now twisted and knobby, the knuckles swollen, the skin spotted with the brown patches of old age. Her tunic hung loose on her, sagging over flat, fleshless dugs where a moment before proud young breasts had lifted it. Her head felt oddly light because the luxuriant growth of blue-sheened black hair that hung to her hips had transmuted into scanty white locks. Hekate looked down instinctively to hide her eyes, where a flicker of triumph might be exposed.
That change of form had originally been a punishment for some forgotten misdeed in her first blossoming of adolescent rebellion, but the punishment had been far more valuable to her than simply teaching her that obedience to her father was the easiest path. Some instinct had wakened in her when her father's spell touched her, and when he tried to change her back, she resisted him and remained a withered crone.
Even now as she turned to leave her portion of her father's house—the building that housed the entrance, the slaves...and her—drawn by his will to his underground lair, even now a smile twitched at her lips. Perses had been frightened, the first and only time Hekate could remember doing anything that frightened her father.
The impulse to smile faded. It was sheer good fortune, or perhaps owing to the protection of the Great Mother, whom Perses laughed to scorn, that he hadn't perceived the resistance to be deliberate. Possibly he'd been so shocked by the failure of his restoration spell that he hadn't understood it was by Hekate's own will that she retained the form of the crone. He had struck her, and to conceal his failure had screamed at her that she should wear her disgusting form until the spell wore thin and she could find a way to dismiss it herself.
She had fled, as if terrified—and some part of her was— across the fields that her father's slaves worked and into the forest where she had willed herself back to her natural form and then back to the image of the crone. She had spent a happy day in the woods, calling the small, shy, wild things to her, touching their soft fur, their long ears, even their dainty paws, offering them nuts and berries she had found. When she returned, still in the form of the crone so that her father should not learn how easy it was for her to change, her mother wept with horror ... but as ever Asterie could do nothing for her daughter.
Hekate crossed the long reception chamber and turned left past a heavy wooden door into a small chamber in which another door—surfaced with modeled clay to match exactly the sun-baked brick of the back wall—opened at her touch. The opening revealed a covered walk leading to another building, somewhat larger than that a visitor would see at first. The entryway led to a courtyard lavishly planted with bushes and flowers. To the left was an arch open onto an opulently furnished reception chamber. Behind that, Hekate knew, were the bedchambers. Her skin, coarse and leathery as it was, prickled at the thought, but she turned right where a narrow door, again painted to match the surroundings walls, now stood open onto a dark corridor.
To her right was a solid wall. Hekate stared at it. She was either losing her mind or that was the way she had gone the last time she had been summoned. However, since she had no choice, she turned left and began to walk. Within ten steps a part of the corridor wall suddenly disappeared showing the head of the stairs. Hekate shivered. He—or something he had summoned—was watching and knew where she was. Slowly as befitted her age and infirmity, Hekate began to descend.
Hekate shuddered. Slow pace or not, she had reached the door. Before she could touch it, it swung open.
"Come in, Hekate."
Here there was light enough, in some places too much light for Hekate's comfort—light that deliberately picked out the twisted, tortured forms her father had bound in some kind of stasis—but for the moment she was blinded, unable to see anything. She hobbled forward, hand outstretched, shuffling her feet, bent a little crooked, until Perses bade her stand still. By then she could see.
Perses scowled. "I know you weren't a wizened old hag a quarter candle-mark ago. Why did you change yourself?"
"I didn't do it apurpose, father," Hekate answered in a thin, meek voice. "As soon as your will touches me, I become what your spell put on me, long ago. You can't think I would choose to look this way or feel so weak and full of pain."
He stared at her. "That will complicate matters."
What matters, Hekate wondered. What does he want now?
"Will yourself to be a beautiful woman!" Perses ordered. "Will it, I say!"
Be the woman
. Hekate thought, outwardly obedient, while deep within her will clenched tighter around the old, fragile body she wore. Pain lashed her; her skin burned; a bone snapped in one finger, then another. She screamed, tried to writhe away from the pain, but darkness washed over her and she felt herself falling. "Old, old, old," her heart drummed. Somewhere far away she heard Perses cursing, but she lay crumpled on the floor, clinging to the darkness, and inside it listened to the drumming, "old, old, old."
A blow, another. Hekate was aware of them but felt no pain inside the black blanket. Then nothing. "Old, old, old," the drumming was softer, slower, but steady, perhaps for a long time, but she was not sure. Then the blackness began to soften into gray. She tried to cling to it, but it raveled away like mist rising from a meadow. She allowed herself to twitch, to stir.
"Get up," Perses ordered, and when she labored to her feet, he snarled, "Very well. You can't break the spell when my will touches yours so you will have to accomplish my purpose on your own without my help. This is important to me. I want you to understand that if you cannot or will not perform what I desire, you will be of no use to me and I'll find a way to be rid of you. Do you understand?"
"Yes, father," Hekate whispered, lowering her gaze to the floor. "Why do you threaten me? Haven't I always been obedient?"
Perses stared at her, then suddenly he smiled. Hekate could hear it in his voice as he said, "You'll enjoy this obedience. It will make you a queen."
When Perses let her go she was shuddering with revulsion. He had demanded that she murder the Queen of Byblos and marry the king and threatened to put her under a spell of coercion if she refused. Under the pretext of going to the market to buy herbs to accomplish his purpose, she fled to the Mother's shrine in the forest and from there to the valley of the Nymphae where Dionysos lived.
Under the pale-streaked sky of false dawn, Hekate set out for the caves of the dead. She was well fed, although the Nymphae's cuisine was strange—all made up of nuts, dried berries and mushrooms, bulbs, and roots that Hekate, no mean botanist, had never seen before. Still, it was all delicious, covered with delicate sauces of honey and spices, sweet and sour, hot and tangy. She was well rested also, for the Nymphae had showed her to a sweet-smelling couch of boughs and grasses and told her it was safe to sleep. But it was still dark when one of them came and touched her.
"The other planes are troubled. You must go."
A second said, "Hekate, will your protections go with you or fade with time now that the child will leave us?"
"No," Hekate said. She made a mage light and smiled at them. "The illusions are linked into the power of the earth. Only if there is a shaking so bad that the roots of the spell are shifted from the power source will the illusion fade. As long as the land lies still—as long as the bond between the spell and the boiling below is unbroken—the spells will protect this place."
"Then you have overpaid us for our care of the child," the third said. "Especially since he has given us great pleasure. He is attuned, as no other human child we have known, to growing things."
And then all spoke together. "If he needs more protections than Lady Io can furnish, he will have it."
That promise eased a tight band that had circled Hekate's heart ever since the Mother reminded her of her binding to Dionysos. In truth, although she never failed to visit him, that had been less because of the binding than for a reason to escape Perses' house and eyes and to some extent for the pleasure of watching him grow. Now she was still conscious of a light tether to the boy, but nothing that would impede her.
She washed in the warm pool behind the house of the Nymphae, dressed in the garments she had shed the night before, and ate the strange but satisfying morning meal that appeared at the side of the pool. When she was ready she took up her staff and stood for a moment looking around, but the Nymphae did not appear and Hekate knew enough not to seek them. They had given their promise; they had said all they had to say.
Dionysos did not appear either, for which Hekate was actually grateful. Now that she was leaving him, she discovered that she was more fond of the child than she had realized. A final parting would be unnecessarily painful; there was no more they had to say to each other. Still, Hekate fashioned a tiny spell that would be triggered by Dionysos' presence. "Farewell," it would say in her voice. "Be safe. Take joy in living."
The path was clear and without branches. She was making good progress when suddenly she felt as if a cold and filthy hand were groping for her.
Blackness! Nothingness! I am nothing and no one, she thought. But it was very hard to keep the blankness in her mind and at the same time watch the path under her feet. She ran doggedly, her strength renewed momentarily when another blind groping passed over her. That gave her hope that the hunter hadn't yet found her and, indeed, the seeking seemed to come from another quarter. If the thing had diverted, following her trail to the dwelling of the Nymphae, it would give her a little longer.
Although the illusion that kept curious humans from the valley of the Nympahae would not affect the otherplanar creature, she didn't fear for the plant maidens. First, the guhrt was not hunting them and second, they had thirty poisoned thorn-talons and an untold number of near-sentient root-fibers that could bind or strangle to oppose to the guhrt's one stinger. For a brief moment of bright hope, Hekate thought that they could destroy the creature if it would only attack them, but she didn't slow her pace and the hope didn't last long.
She could feel the brief burst of rage when the guhrt understood that she was not to be found in the Nymphae's valley and two questions jostled together in her mind. Was it by the Mother's favor that the creature had not scented or sensed her exit at the Nymphae's gate? How could her father have been so careless as to allow the guhrt's aura to spread abroad without hindrance? Again she had a very brief spurt of hope that Perses had been too drained by the summoning to work a spell of concealment, but again the hope didn't last long.
Hekate would have shaken her head if she hadn't been running and feared it would unbalance her. Two other, much stronger, possibilities existed than Perses' exhaustion. The likeliest was that he didn't know she could sense the guhrt's aura; she doubted he knew that she was aware of the watchers he set on her. Another likely explanation was that he wanted
her to sense the creature to increase her terror.
She found it was no use to tell herself she would not yield and give him the satisfaction. She was terrified, more and more terrified as the foulness that was part of the guhrt grew stronger and stronger. Despite knowing that the creature could leap upon her from any side, even from ahead of her on the path, she was constantly tempted to look behind her. She could no longer control her breath, which came shorter than it should, nor could she keep her pace to what she could sustain.
Gasping and sobbing, with a spear of pain lancing through her side and her lungs burning, Hekate drove her failing body forward. She burst out of the trees into a clearing. Ahead was a huge arch of utter blackness, from which protruded an ugly tongue of gravel and raw, red earth that was bare of any growth, any softening touch of living green. To go into that blackness ... But it was here! Hekate flung herself over that raw, red tongue and fell sprawling.
At first she could do nothing except breathe. Behind her the clearing was full of foulness, but the guhrt hadn't followed her into the cave. Hekate felt its aura pulse forward as if it were about to do so, and she struggled upright, desperately creating a spell of warding. But the pulse of evil retreated more swiftly than it had come forward, as if something in the cave repelled it. Still it pulsed forward again. Hekeate rose to her feet, murmuring another protective spell and gripping her staff like a club, but the aura withdrew again even more suddenly.
Safe! The idea had barely formed, however, when Hekate became aware of a thread of the immaterial filth of the guhrt sliding along the ground toward the entrance of the cave right along the wall. There was a thin space where the grass of the clearing edged the earth and gravel apron at the cave's mouth and grew almost into the dark. Like the slimy track of a snail, the evil crept into the cave. A second thread stole around the other side, and both squirmed forward toward Hekate.
Hardly realizing what she was doing, she backed away. Inside the cave the threads engorged, grew finger thick, took on a slimy sheen. Hekate stepped back again, and again ... and one foot found nothing. With a small shriek, she fell backward, but she was not swallowed by a deep abyss; she had only tripped into the trough that collected the blood of the sacrificial animals.
Disgusted, brushing frantically at her clothing, Hekate got to her feet on the far side of the trough only to be struck by such an overwhelming sensation of fear and despair that she barely remained upright by clinging to her staff. Wave after wave of the emotions poured into her. She choked on sobs. Tears coursed down her cheeks. Never had she felt such terror, not even when she ran before the guhrt; never had she been so utterly bereft, so despairing, not even in the worst moments of her father's domination when she was a child and had no defenses.
Hekate turned and prepared to leap back over the trough, but the questing ribbons of the guhrt's evil had run together so that there was no way to avoid them. They did not carry the full force of her father's spell, she was sure; the guhrt had to touch her physically to transfer that. However, she was equally sure that the creature had some power of its own, some way of entrapping its prey. If she stepped over the blood trough, she would be little more than dead meat for her father's consuming.
Unable to endure the panic and horror eroding her soul, Hekate gathered them into a tight spear, added the hatred that was now nearly consuming her and flung them out of the cave mouth at the creature that was pursuing her. In the "no place" between the planes, usually lit to Hekate's mind's eye with a soft grey luminescence there was now a dull red aura. When the spear she had cast struck, the red exploded into writhing convulsions followed by a wash of utter blackness; from outside the cave came the squall of a creature surprised by pain. And then the aura of the guhrt was gone.
The sense of slimy ribbons laid out to entrap her was also gone as was the mental stench of the guhrt. Hekate stepped across the trough into the outer section of the cave. The burden of fear and despair that had oppressed her lifted at once. She could still sense the emotions, but they hung in the dark behind her as a threat or a warning now rather than being an active torment. Hekate shivered. She could not remain in the caves of the dead with that sense of coming doom surrounding her.
Perhaps she would not have to do so. Turning her inner sight inward and outward at once, she looked cautiously into the "no place." It was still black and empty. So far so good. She knew she had hurt the guhrt when she rid herself of the building terrors of the caves of the dead. Perhaps she had really harmed it. Killed it or driven it away?
Cautiously, Hekate approached the cave opening. Nothing was in sight to her mortal eyes, but very faintly she sensed the guhrt. It had withdrawn beyond the clearing and well back into the surrounding forest, drawn its power back into itself, too, she thought, but it was still there. She tried to gather her fear and hatred and launch them again, but the emotions were dissipating, unraveling like a weakening spell.
A weakening spell. Hekate turned sharply and looked into the blackness of the cave. If it was a spell, she thought ... but before the idea could form fully the sense of the guhrt grew stronger. Hekate spun on her heel to face the woods beyond the clearing and sent a blast of hatred at the creature. It came no closer, but it did not squall or retreat. The hatred that was her own was not enough; she needed the terror and despair that came from the caves of the dead to drive it back. And even so, she realized, she could not drive it away. It would wait. And sooner or later she must sleep. As soon as she did, it would send out its slimy excresences. Once they touched her, she would be lost.
She saw again those loathesome ribbons, saw how they crept toward her but stopped at the edge of the blood trough. So she could not find shelter in the outer section of the cave. The only place she would be safe from the guhrt was on the other side of the trough—but could she survive the agony of terror and hopelessness induced by intruding into the domain of the king of the dead?
The guhrt was moving again. Hekate again cast out a shaft of hatred mixed with her own fear and terror, but she did not even know if it struck the creature for she was now close to exhaustion. She retreated inside the cave, creating a mage light; since her father already knew where she was, the small magic could not betray her and it took very little power.
She stood teetering on the edge of the trough. She could feel the looming threat of unbearable anguish, but extending her senses did not find an overall aura like that in the secret shrine in the forest. What she felt was more like a thin curtain rising above a knotted cord of magic. But that was a trigger spell she knew—a spell designed and set by a human mage. No trigger spell surrounded the clearing in the forest where the Mother dwelt. And Hekate could not imagine the Mother hoarding her power and releasing her aura only when it was needed.
Would the equally powerful king of the dead need to hoard power? For that matter, could a mortal seize feelings generated by the king of the dead and use them as a weapon, as she had done? The thought of trying to mold and wield the Mother's power turned her cold inside.
Curiosity woke in Hekate. If it was a spell and not a protection placed by the king of the dead, could she follow the spell to the spell-caster? Could she induce or force that spell-caster to stop using the spell or to give her protection against it?
For one moment she gave all her attention to that fascinating thought, letting her awareness of the guhrt ebb. The creature reacted at once, coming as close to the cave entrance as it could. Through it, Perses launched a powerful psychic assault. The blow struck at her should have rendered her unconscious, but the wards she had built and put in place as a protection against the guhrt held. Even so, Hekate's mage light flickered out and she staggered forward, stumbling across the blood trough and several steps on into the depth of the cave.
Again the spell of fear and despair fell on her, but the weight that descended upon her was not enough to crush out a rising tide of rage that beat against the oppression. The cruelty and unfairness of an assault from every side when she had done nothing to deserve such treatment now aroused in Hekate such a fury that it lifted the burden of terror, replacing it with a rage so great she felt she would burst. And it was all Perses' fault! All!
"Perses, I will destroy you!" she screamed into the hollow void and then turned to face outward. "I swear I will somehow make you more helpless than the many who have died as your victims." Tears poured down her face. "Witness my oath, Mother!" She spun back to look into the blackness of the inner cave. "Witness my oath, king of the dead, in whose realm I now stand."
The wordless, soundless acknowledgment echoed through Hekate's being, shaking her to her core. The staff, to which she had been clinging to keep herself upright, came loose from the ground as she started in surprise. She felt the binding take hold of her, and the realization of what she had done sapped away what little strength remained in her. Misery, dread, and desperation fastened on her. She slipped to the ground, feeling her body shrink into the fragile, bent form of extreme age. A last pang of fear that her father had somehow managed to touch her with his will sent her over the edge into the emptiness of unconsciousness.
"Thief!" The voice creaked rustily as if long unused.
Hekate blinked up at a young man, who stood over her, his mouth tight with disapproval. Except for his pallid complexion and his severe expression, he would have been a pleasant sight. He was somewhat fairer than the ordinary Ka'ananite, with long, light brown hair, large eyes of a brown so pale as to be nearly golden, a straight nose, and a mouth that was meant to be generous but was pinched back in displeasure.
She put an arm behind her to lever herself to a sitting position, realizing as she did so that she must have been lying on the ground for some time. She was terribly cold.
"I am not a thief," Hekate said indignantly. "You must see that my hands are empty. You may take my cloak and examine it, and I will show you that my gown conceals nothing."
The young man looked contemptuous. "Don't take me for a fool. I realize that the protection over this cave felled you before you could seize any of the treasures left for the King of the dead. That doesn't make you any less a thief for you intended to take what you could."
"I intended no such thing!" she exclaimed. "I fled here for protection."
"A liar as well as a thief, then. No one comes to the caves of the dead for protection. That offered by the king of the dead is not the kind a sane person seeks, especially those of your ripe years, who seem to cling all the tighter to life."
"It depends on what one is fleeing from," Hekate said, fighting to make sense against the terror and hopelessness that filled her. "I have heard that the king of the dead is a merciful god and does not torment the innocent."
The young man began to look uncertain. "You were threatened with torture?" he asked. "For what?"
Hekate suddenly realized that she could see him because there were several mage lights, but of a slightly more golden hue than her own, which was a pale silvery blue, hovering around them. Hers must have gone out when she ... fainted. With that memory came another, of the oath she had sworn to render her father powerless. She uttered a small gasp, and put her hand to her mouth. The young man's mouth twisted with pity.
"Nothing," she cried, angry all over again. "I had done nothing to deserve such treatment."
The lips firmed again into displeasure. "Of course. No one ever does anything to deserve punishment."
All the while the terror and remorse, the despair, permeated Hekate's soul. She turned her head to look out over the blood trough. No ribbons of entrapment stained the floor, but she knew the guhrt was not gone. It had withdrawn again, perhaps even farther into the forest, but it was waiting. This time, likely, it would let her get well away from the caves of the dead, too far for her to seek shelter again, before it revealed itself and seized on her.
"I was threatened with worse than torment of the body," she snarled. "I was threatened with a binding of the spirit that would reduce me to an automatum, and that automatum would be used for terrible purposes ... for murder and entrapment. The binding would be forever, for the whole length of my life, and worse yet, even death wouldn't release me. What more awful could happen to me here?"
"Who could set such a binding on you?" Doubt showed again in the small creases around the golden eyes. "That is no small spell."
"My father," Hekate replied bitterly, forgetting she wore the guise of the crone.
Doubt vanished. The young man burst out laughing. "He'd be a mighty sorcerer indeed to still be living and be your father." And then he said more gently, "I think you're a little mad, old woman, and that you did come here to steal. I'll have pity on you, though, and ignore your lies since you haven't stolen anything yet. Go home. You'll find nothing in these caves that could make worth while what you'll suffer in seeking for it."
The laughter nearly stunned Hekate. She could feel sweat cold on her body and she was shuddering continually, whereas he could laugh. She could fight the pain inflicted on her, but to laugh ... No, he must be protected against the torment she was suffering.
"I can't go," she cried. "I tell you there's something terrible waiting outside for me. I can't even go across the blood trough. The creature is called a guhrt and it carries the coercion spell. If it touches me, I'm lost. I cannot and will not leave the cave, not even if I die of this agony."
As she spoke, Hekate righted her staff, set it firmly in the ground, and pulled herself upright with its help. The young man opened his mouth to answer her, but his gaze, which had flicked over the staff, fixed on it.
"Where did you get that staff?" he asked sharply.
His urgency drove the lesson she had just learned from Hekate's mind. "My father threw it at me when I couldn't obey him. I had fallen and I couldn't get up."
But this time the young man did not laugh. His eyes still fixed on the staff, he asked, "How old is your father?"
"I have no idea," Hekate answered slowly, remembering now that she looked very ancient herself. "But he doesn't look as old as I."
She was not paying terribly much attention to what they were saying. If the young man questioning her had protection against the spell designed to drive invaders out of the caves of the dead, perhaps she could also build such a spell. The wards would need to be inside, rather than outide.
"Feel under the handgrip of the staff. Is there a hard knot protruding from the wood? Push it upward."
Concentrating more on the spell she was trying to form, than on the young man, Hekate simply did what she was told. She was amazed and nearly lost the thread of her spell when the grip parted from the body of the staff. Hurriedly she initiated the spell, before it could fall apart and lash back at her, but it was not really complete. Still it sealed off some of the anguish, enough for her to focus on the grip of the staff, which was loose in her hand. Instinctively, she pulled on it, and a long, thin knife came out of the shaft. She stood looking at it and then at the man who continued to stare at what she held.
"Then it is my staff," he muttered.
"You want proof I am no thief?" Hekate thrust both pieces of the staff at him. "Here, take it back."
He shook his head. "I didn't say you stole the staff. A long, long time ago I dropped it in a back street of Ur-Kabos. I never knew what became of it."
"It couldn't be so very long ago," Hekate said. "You are a young man—" She stopped abruptly and then continued, "That is, you look to be a young man. Sorcerers are long lived."
For perhaps a dozen heartbeats he didn't answer and then he said, "It takes one to know one, I suppose."
Hekate nodded. She saw no point in lying about that. As soon as he began to think
about what she had said about the guhrt and the spell of coercion instead of concentrating on driving her out, he would realize she must know magic. And she needed the spell of protection he had. He would be more likely to give it to a fellow sorcerer, she hoped.
"Is that how you are able to withstand the punishment of the king of the dead for entering his realm?" he continued.
Hekate slammed the thin knife back into the shaft of the staff and the parts joined invisibly. Then she snorted lightly. "You mean how am I able to withstand the spell you
use to frighten people away from the cave?"
As she said it, Hekate realized that that was the answer. The young man had no protection. It was his spell, so of course it did not affect him. His slight wince told her she had hit her mark and she continued, "What you
inflict on invaders of the caves of the dead is nothing to do with the king of the dead. I know what the aura of a god is, and it is not turned on by a trip spell. Oh, no, I know you. We are of the same kind, you and I, and it is more likely that you are a thief and one of long standing than that I am." She shrugged. "As to how I am able to withstand it, I am accustomed to pain. I endure."
He raised a hand, defensively or apologetically, then sighed and whispered, "Thialuo trouos, panikos, phobos.
The weight of fear and despair was gone as suddenly as it had fallen upon her when she crossed the blood trough. Hekate sagged against the support of the staff, no longer needing to stiffen herself against screaming and beating her breast or writhing helplessly on the ground.
"Since you know the truth, and I can't drive you out, I suppose there's no need to make you suffer needlessly," he said. Oddly, there was a kind of eagerness in his voice and stance, but then he seemed to recognize what he had exposed. His body stiffened, and he added, "But don't think I believe you and trust you. I'll watch you to make sure you steal nothing."
Hekate laughed aloud in the euphoria of relief. "What is there here to steal? I haven't seen—"
She stopped abruptly as one of the mage lights whisked away toward the wall. Immediately glitterings of silver and gold answered to the light. Hekate saw that there were urns and cups and bowls, goblets and gold-inlaid boxes, and other things standing on shelves.
She shrugged, still smiling. "So there are treasures. Well, watch all you like. I'll take none of those. However, I fled with nothing, only what I am wearing. If offerings of food and drink are made, I will take those. If you call that stealing, then I will be a thief, but I can't leave and I don't intend to die of thirst and starvation. I'll settle my score with the king of the dead when he demands payment from me."
Free of agony and able to be aware subtleties, Hekate noticed a relaxation in the young man. She had seen him make himself rigid, but now understood it was not to resist pain but to hold back from something he desired. Her? An ancient crone? Nonsense. But he was now smiling at her.
"I can't argue with that. I take the offerings of prepared food and drink myself, but not the dried grain, fruit, or meat or the sealed flasks of date wine or preserved cheeses. Those are stored separately and someone or something gathers them up on the equinoxes and takes them away with the treasure. The food and open pitchers of beer or wine I use."
Feeling as light and silly as a thistledown now that she had a sanctuary—and possibly even a companion—Hekate said, "Aha, then you are, as I said, a thief of long standing. Do you take the food to feed your hungry wife and children? Would you not be better off doing some work instead of taking the offerings to the kKing of the dead?"
"I have no wife and children," the young man said, his voice suddenly flat, his face expressionless. "I can never leave the caves. I am bound here."
A ten day passed, then another, then a third. Hekate was growing very tired of her confinement. She was beginning to miss the sun and the wind, the sounds of birds and beasts and the activities of people. The caves were not silent, but the many noises made by water were not enough. There was no doubt that Kabeiros sensed her restlessness. His face was always sad now at any time when it was not animated by his interest in what he was learning or by their conversation.
Despite that restlessness and longing for the outer world, Hekate was not quite ready to leave. She and Kabeiros were good friends now, and she had never had a friend before. It would be very, very hard to part with him. Also, somewhere, like a faint aftertaste of something foul, she still sensed the guhrt.
Then one day when she had been sitting for a long time explaining how a trap spell could be used to delay the magical attack of a stronger sorcerer until a more effective spell could be made ready, she found she could not get to her feet when she was done. Suddenly despite the light of the mage lamps, the sparkle of the crystal in the ceiling, the image of rushing waters on the walls, Hekate could bear the cave and her ancient body no longer.
"A pox on these ancient bones," she cried. "I must take them out into the sun."
Kabeiros said nothing for a moment, then got to his feet. "Well," he sighed, "I knew I couldn't keep you forever. I will pack all the food we have in stasis. It will take us two days to reach the other way out of the cave. I hope there will be enough dried meat and flatbread left after that to feed you for several days, until you reach some settlements and can buy or trade spells for food. On the way, you will be able to gather some fruits and berries that ripen in early summer."
There was no expression at all on his face. Hekate limped over and took his hand before he could turn away. "Come with me, Kabeiros."
"I cannot," he said.
"Why not? You have never told me what binds you to this place. Did you anger the king of the dead?"
"No. Not he. Only another sorcerer, but he ... Half the spell was my own. He just twisted it so that ... I cannot leave here."
"Let me try," Hekate begged. "Let me see the binding and try to break it. You will not die, will you?"
"No," he said softly. "I will not die." But he would not meet her eyes nor agree that she should examine what bound him to the caves.
She argued with him and pleaded with him all that day and night while they made ready to leave. The next day, Kabeiros spent some time in the outer cave, rearranging the tribute to the king of the dead and writing a letter, which he left plainly visible in one of the vases, stating that he would be gone for some time. Someone should be told to collect the offerings.
"Who collected them before you came?" Hekate asked curiously, distracted for the moment from the hope that had roused in her. If he only intended to show her the mouth of the cave he should only be gone for four days and return well before the autumn equinox.
"One of the dead," Kabeiros answered. "I would have gone mad in the beginning if he had not been here. He had a funny gift. When he got angry, his hair would burst into fire. I think he could cause fires, too; but there's nothing much in the caves that would burn, so it was safe enough."
"Except you," Hekate remarked dryly. "I can see why his Gift was not widely appreciated."
"Oh, I was in no danger. He was very glad of my company and was careful not to let his fire touch me."
"What happened to him?"
"I have no idea. He went to take the tribute to wherever the king of the dead accepts offerings and he never returned. I had been helping him gathering the sacrifices and ... and I just went on doing it ... but I had no idea for how long."
"Long enough," Hekate snapped. "I need you more than the king of the dead."
He looked at her with such longing in his eyes that Hekate thought he would surely tell his secret, but he did not. Nor did he agree to let her try to undo the binding, although she argued with him and pleaded with him all the way through the passages and chambers they traversed to find the hidden way out. She begged him for reasons; she railed at him for stubbornness, but all he would say was "I cannot."
When they arrived at the cave mouth, it was almost as dark outside as in. Only the faintest gleam of promised dawn showed on the eastern horizon. They had lost the rhythm of day and night while traveling and had walked through the night. Kabeiros set down the pack of food and other necessities he carried, keeping only the roll of furs and blankets he had been using as a bedroll. He touched her gently, then turned away.
Hekate caught at him, crying, "Wait! Wait! You can't leave me without a word, without trying to plan to meet again. We have been friends. I care for you. You can't simply turn away from me."
"I must," he muttered. "I can't bear it. I can't bear parting from you, knowing that I will again be all alone ... all alone ... all alone ..."
"And I will be alone too," she cried, "an old woman alone in the wilderness. Have you no affection for me at all? Don't you care what will happen to me? I need you Kabeiros."
He turned on her a look of bitter reproach. "You could stay in the caves and be safe. We could be together. Some time the creature that watches for you will grow weary or be summoned back to where it belongs. Your father will give you up. Then you could go out. I can't, but you could go out to gather in the forest even to visit the Nymphae and the boy Dionysos you have spoken of to me."
Hekate dropped her bedroll to the floor and sat down on it, pulling Kabeiros down beside her. "Now it's my turn to say ‘I cannot,'" she sighed. "I'm not bound to the caves but to an unwise oath. When I was trapped between the guhrt outside and your spell of fear and despair inside, I flew into a terrible rage and swore that I would render my father, who had placed me in that position, powerless. I have no idea how to fulfill that oath. If he weren't my father, I could simply kill him ... but to shed kin blood would bring on me a worse fate ..."
Kabeiros shuddered. "No, you can't kill him. The ‘Kindly Ones,' unlike demons, do not fear the caves of the dead. What are you going to do?"
"Drain his power somehow. He has a way to suck power from my mother, but that involves his coupling with her."
"She allows it?" Kabeiros asked, mouth twisted with revulsion. "I know lust, but when she knows—"
"There is no lust involved—at least not on my mother's part, I assure you. She hates him—" Hekate drew a shuddering breath "—with whatever of herself is left within her, she hates him. But she is bespelled to obey ... just such a spell as the guhrt carries to set upon me. For all I know she is even bespelled to enjoy their coupling."
"That—that's disgusting." Kabeiros swallowed. "If only the 'Kindly Ones' were more reasonable. Surely Perses deserves killing."
"Yes, but not by one of his blood. Asterie could do it, if we could free her from her compulsions, but I don't even know how to reach her."
Kabeiros frowned. "But what if you don't fulfill the oath? You can stay here and never see or hear from your father again."
Now it was Hekate's turn to sigh. "You can't ignore a binding. It grows tighter and heavier until your body fails and your spirit is broken." She took his hand in hers. "That's why I know I must break your binding, why I don't beg you simply to leave the caves. I would stay if I could. You are the only friend I have ever had, Kabeiros ... and I'm afraid to go alone, Mother knows where ... I'm afraid." Her voice died to a whisper.
He didn't answer, but tears streaked his face.
"How are you bound?" Hekate pleaded. "I beg you to tell me. I will find a way to break the binding, I swear it."
"You won't want to know me if I tell you."
"Kabeiros, nothing you tell me or show me can change what has grown between us. I swear that if you must drink babies' blood if you leave the caves, I'll find some way to supply you. I will not
turn from you. I will protect you no matter how horrible your secret."
He laughed wildly, jumped up, and rushed out of the cave into the pale pinky-blue light of first dawn. And the man Kabeiros was gone! A huge black dog staggered a few steps, shaking himself free of Kabeiros' tunic, then threw up its head and howled pathetically.