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By Roberta Gellis
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-31834-9
Chapter OneIn 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. She could have sworn she had walked much farther when the corridor had opened to the right. She looked down the stairs. They were unlit, steep, uneven ... dangerous.
As she looked, the door behind her swung shut and she was in darkness. The temptation to form a mage light flicked at her, but because of the watcher, she fixed her mind on regret, thinking "too weak," stretched a hand to the wall and began to feel her way from step to step. She had long been aware that her father could scry her, or summon some otherworld creature to watch her, but she was not certain how deep that scrying or the creature's seeing went. She had never been able to discover whether it could read her surface thoughts as well as her position and expression.
At least neither scrying or summoned slave could read below the surface; her mother had assured her of that, but Asterie was not sure whether he or his creature could read thoughts at all. She feared he could but knew he couldn't reach into the back of the mind; Hekate had proved to herself that she could safely bury her satisfaction there.
Slowly, step by step, she felt her way down the stairway that curved steeply along the side of a natural sinkhole. From far below came a faint echo-moving water? her own steps? As far as Hekate knew, no light had ever exposed those black depths.
Under her hand the smooth baked brick of the wall changed to rough-dressed stone. Hekate hesitated. The pull of her father's will intensified. Soon it might become pain. Fear made her heart clench. Hatred and a despairing resistance kept her still, clinging to the wall, panting for breath. The pull grew no stronger. Hekate waited, letting her breathing ease, clutching her tiny triumph to her.
The crone's pretense of weakness had a second advantage in addition to reminding Perses of his failure; it increased the time before she had to face him. And a third. Hekate swallowed. Before she'd worn the guise of the crone, Hekate had begun to dislike the way her father looked at her. She tried to assure herself that he wouldn't violate his own daughter, and truly she had never believed he lusted after her. What he wanted was almost more foul. Coupling was a doorway to binding a person close enough to enslave her or suck out her power.
A stab of rage almost tore through the fear and submission Hekate kept in the forefront of her mind. It was through coupling that Perses had seized and subdued her mother. Asterie hadn't always been the near-mindless shadow she now was. Bit by bit, from a whisper here, a word from there, a sad sigh and headshake, Hekate had learned that before she married Perses, her mother had been a strong sorceress with an unequaled ability to create spells.
Asterie could still create spells, although she could no longer cast them, and in secret, when Perses was busy with his own sorceries or when they could escape to the mysterious shelter of the shrine in the forest, she had taught her daughter all she knew. But that was in years past. As Hekate matured, Asterie faded until she scarcely seemed to know her daughter and would pass her when they met in a chamber without a word or a sign of recognition. At first Hekate had stopped her, spoken to her, embraced her, but of late she had given up trying.
The stair ended. A corridor darker, if possible, than the stairway was an emptiness before Hekate's extended hand. She hobbled forward slowly, favoring the aches in her knees and back. A few steps brought her outstretched hand into bruising contact with a wall. Hekate hissed with pain and frustration. Doubtless Perses was laughing. No matter how careful she was, she met that wall too hard. Perhaps he had some way of moving it.
She wondered, feeling her way along the wall to the right, whether he hoped she would break a bone. The form of the crone was no illusion; in it she was truly old and had all the ills great age brought with it. Unfortunately, since she had not lived the years the shape betokened, she had garnered no wisdom to go with the appearance. Her mind was her own; it held no more and no less whatever her form.
If that was a disadvantage while she was the crone, it was advantageous when she took on the third form natural to her and didn't reduce her to a childish fool. Hekate paused, leaning on the wall and breathing hard, keeping the fore of her mind filled with fear and her awareness of a pounding heart. That should please Perses and divert him if some image of the blonde, barely nubile maiden she could also be had been exposed.
She had discovered that form by accident. Staring into a still pool that reflected her image, she had wondered what she would look like with blonde, curling hair instead of the shining black curtain that hung to each side of her face. And the image was there. Hekate had sat, blinking at it, wondering how it had formed without a spell of illusion being cast. And then she'd touched the hair, and it did curl. Her new form was no illusion.
Shape-shifter. She had realized then she was a shape-shifter, that her father's spell might have decided the form the crone took, but the change into that form was her own doing-and that was why Perses' restoration spell could not dismiss it. Remembered terror over that knowledge pulsed through her again and she did not fight it. Let Perses feed on the fear. As long as her panic bound his attention and his vanity accredited that fear to himself, he would not learn the secret.
Magic was accepted, if grudgingly, by the rulers and people of Ka'anan. Magic was useful; spells could make building bricks light, could heal, could ward against thieves-if one could afford the price. Moreover it took training and study to learn magic, and most spells were not quickly or easily cast, the sorcerer being vulnerable and thus controllable before that casting was complete.
Gifts like shape-shifting were another matter entirely. They benefitted only the person Gifted and required no preparation. A man who could change into a wolf could tear out your throat before you could find a defense; a woman who could change her form could steal, cheat on her husband, do gods knew what. The Gifted were anathema, an abomination; if discovered they were sacrificed to the king of the dead.
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 candlemark 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.
Hekate tried twice. A stick skidded across the floor and hit her shoulder. She put her hand on it, realizing as she reached out that the pain was gone. Perses had not been able truly to break the bone, only to inflict pain. To hide the relief she felt, Hekate concentrated on the stick he had thrown at her.
It was all twisted and knobby, the wood so old that wear had smoothed it like oil, but without grease. One end was pointed, sharp enough to prick her hand, but the knob at the other end had an odd shape that fitted into her palm. What was more, the twists and bends could be used as handholds. Setting the pointed end into a crack in the stone-paved floor, Hekate climbed the stick to an upright position.
"Very well," Perses snarled. "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. "Why do you threaten me? Haven't I always been obedient?"
He made no reply to that, just staring with a very faint upcurve of his lips. Hekate clung to the staff that supported her, heart pounding again. No, he couldn't read her deepest thoughts, but he didn't trust her either. He felt something, sensed her resistance enough to make him uneasy.
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."
Hekate kept her eyes down. The last thing she wanted was to be a queen, particularly under her father's direction. She didn't wish to imagine what he would require her to do to and demand from the people she was supposed to rule. Studying the floor by her toes, her eye was attracted by a dull sheen. It was the tip of the staff, well dug in between the stones of the floor, and it seemed to her that the mortar, stained black with years of wear and spilled effluvia, was lighter where it rested.
"Every woman wishes to be a queen," Perses insisted. "Isn't that so, Hekate?"
"I don't desire power," she murmured.
Perses laughed aloud. "Then what I have planned for you is perfect," he crowed. "You'll have the trappings, the gowns and jewels and the fawning of many subjects, but you won't need to make decisions. I'll make those."
"Yes, Father," Hekate said. Since it had been her experience all her life that Perses tried to make all her decisions, this was nothing new, and Hekate's toneless voice carried no resentment.
"The queen of Byblos must die," Perses said sharply. "And you will take her place."
For a long, breath-held moment, Hekate made no response. Her tongue had frozen as solid as her heart. The queen of Byblos! She had thought her father had designs on the ruler of the town near their homestead, Ur-Kabos, but apparently he intended to start at the top. And then her brows knitted.
Excerpted from Thrice Bound by Roberta Gellis Excerpted by permission.
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