by Joanne Anderton
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
There was always a moment of dizziness where the power of her staff was all that maintained the connection with her physical form. It was an invitation for release, a brief and dangerous knowledge of what it would be like to disperse into the ether and be as one with all things.
A temptation to search for loved ones lost, in a place that would never let them go.
This moment had claimed more than its fair share of the unwary, and become an easy escape for those who knew of its dangers but feared the physical even more.
The oak was smooth beneath her fingers, and warm, and it shone through the mist like a candle behind a frosted window. It was a lifeline tied close to her heart, whose pull would guide her back to the surface. When she was done.
Robin gave herself a body. This was another of the things she wasn’t supposed to do; scrying into someone’s dream was bad enough.
She became a white dog, short furred, long, and lithe.
Her physical connection to Jenny’s body created a path to the woman’s dream. Robin followed it steadily, nose to the insubstantial ground. Slowly, the fog began to dissolve, and Robin stepped with silent paws into Jenny’s sleeping mind.
A baby’s cry drifted through the evaporating mist. Weak at first, it grew louder the further Robin walked. Colours crept their way into the haze, and as they resolved into images, the baby’s cry struggled and was silenced. A woman started weeping and the cries began again.
Finally, the mist cleared, and Robin found herself in a small room. Sunlight the colour of blood dripped in from a single window onto a threadbare carpet. A cot sat in the centre of the room, its white-painted frame shining in the crimson light. The air was thick with dust. A woman stood over the cot, her face obscured by hair.
Robin edged forward. Within the cot lay a baby, naked and bawling. There was no mattress or blankets, so the child lay on the harsh, metal frame, and cried. Its face was red, its mouth far too large for its tiny body. It kicked the cot, punched the air with vehemence, and cried louder and louder.
Slowly, her arms shaking, the woman reached into the cot and picked up the baby girl. As she lifted it the hair fell away from her face, and Robin recognised Jenny. Great tears were running down her cheeks, and she shook her head even as she held the girl in her hands. Her mouth twisted and contorted, but she spoke no words.
“You do not deserve her.” A voice hissed from the shadows of a dark corner, and Robin crouched closer to the floor.
The baby began to scream, and Jenny wrapped a hand around its tiny neck.
Robin sniffed and searched the room. There was one corner too dark for her canine eyes to penetrate. It smelt musty, mouldy and sweet. Like carrion.
Jenny shook her head again but still her hand tightened, and the baby’s scream dwindled into a sickening gurgle.
“You can’t help it. You can’t stop it. You will never be a mother.”
The baby’s face turned a ghastly blue, and she went limp in Jenny’s hands. Jenny clutched the body to her chest and wept, yet, an instant later it was gone and a new baby lay crying in the cot. Still sobbing, Jenny grasped the metal frame. It all began again.
Robin peered into the dark corner. As the new baby’s cries grew louder, a figure stepped out of the shadow. Wrapped in a dark cowl it extended a bony, crone-like claw.
“Do you see, you little slut?” It stood above its victim and gloated. “All you can do is kill it. Over and over...”
Robin growled; it was time to intervene. She leapt forward and snapped at the dark figure. The hissing voice gasped, and snatched its hand back, while Robin landed cleanly and faced her adversary.
“A dog?” The voice laughed a little too loudly. Robin snarled, and stalked slowly forward.
“There are no dogs in this dream!” Desperation robbed the voice of its hissing, inhuman mask, and Robin realised she was facing a woman.
“Get you gone!” The woman extended both of her arms, and the entire setting rippled. For a second, Jenny stopped strangling the baby girl and glanced over her shoulder in horror.
If Robin could have grinned, she would have, but as it was she continued her steady walk.
“Impossible!” the woman cried, and staggered back. She flexed her control over the dream again and again, but Robin remained unchanged. The room wavered. Jenny grasped her baby to her chest and ran to hide in a corner.
The black cowl fell away from the woman’s face, and Robin found herself staring at a skull. She bared her teeth in irritation. Such a coward to hide behind a death mask.
With every step she took, Robin denied the witch control over Jenny’s dream and stripped her of her power. The cot disappeared and Jenny herself dissolved. All that was left was an empty room with a single window, dirty carpet, and a lot of dust.
The witch slumped against the corner, her skull-face gleaming red in the bloody sunlight, her bony hands shaking as they lay useless in her lap.
“You cannot be here.” The empty eye sockets stared at Robin. “There are no dogs in this dream.”
Tears began to fall from the hollow eyes, and Robin stopped mere inches from the woman’s hands. She sat, and stared up at the tears.
“It isn’t fair,” the witch whispered, and a light, tinny melody floated its way through her deconstructed dream. “I didn’t do anything wrong. He died, so why should hers live? Why is she any better than me?”
Slowly, Robin turned her head, and looked up at the window. A set of wind chimes sung in an invisible wind. The chimes were hooked into a crudely crafted smiley-face, and tears of blood were running from its happily curved eyes.
The hackles raised along Robin’s back, but she stood calmly enough and made her slow way out of the dream. Behind her, the woman remained slumped against the wall, her skull-face staring thoughtlessly at the window. Robin hoped she would remain incapacitated for long enough.
Once outside the dream, Robin began to run. She followed the pull of her staff through the mist, and leapt toward its light.
* * *
The mist receded gradually, until nothing remained but a faint trace of smoke beneath the mirror’s surface. Released from its otherworldly damp, Robin raised her eyes and watched Jenny wake. She lay still for a moment, and slowly turned her head.
“What was that thing?” she croaked, and coughed to clear her throat.
“Your attacker.” Robin forced herself to remain calm, pushing the rage down into a dull ache in her chest. She needed to focus, to do what the goddess required of her.
What she had agreed to do.
“Attacker?” Jenny struggled to sit up. Robin stood and after a few minutes had helped her to her feet.
“Another witch,” Robin explained. “One who couldn’t bear to see you happy. One who used her power to infiltrate your mind, and tried to convince you to kill your child.”
Jenny looked aghast. “Who would do that?”
Robin ignored the question. “You need to rest,” she spoke tightly. “In a few minutes your husband will return. I’ll think you’ll find they didn’t need him for as long as they first thought. Be with him, and sleep. Your dreams won’t hurt you, not after tonight.”
“How do you know that?” Jenny’s voice was shrill.
Without answering, Robin blew out the candles and collected them from the floor. She packed her mirror away, shrugged on her coat, and moved the furniture back to its original position as quickly as she could.
It felt good to be moving, to be doing. Activity could stave off the fear.
Her staff gripped tightly with one hand, she collected the small figurine from its place on the couch. Gently, she handed it to Jenny, who stared at her in bewilderment. People always asked Robin for help, always needed it, but none truly understood the nature of her work. In the end, they could never accept what needed to be done, could not take responsibility for their justice. So Robin took that burden for them.
“Just get some sleep, and trust me.”
As she turned, Jenny reached out and grasped her arm.
“What did you do?” she whispered.
Outside, the clouds had cleared, and a bright moon lit the street with far greater effectiveness than the streetlights.
There was always a bright and full moon, no matter the time of the year, the weather, anything. Robin knew she was no longer alone, as she had known from the night Hecate’s justice caught up with the witch that had taught her. The night Robin became the goddess’ newest tool.
She knew what blood looked like in that moonlight, what a lifetime’s worth of death looked like in just one night. How long you could stay alive as everything you had ever done, every pinch of pain to devastating loss, was visited back upon you. Three times over. If the goddess wished it.
No one was outside of the rules.
With her staff in hand and her dark coat concealing the white gown, Robin followed the sound of tinny music to Jenny’s neighbour’s porch and found its source hanging from an awning. A set of crooked chimes and a painted smiley-face. Their silver was strangely dull in the bright moonlight.
The door was unlocked, of course, because She had arranged it. So Robin could do Her work. A dark hallway stretched into the house, and Robin walked quietly inside. On her way, she passed three rooms, and she peered into each in turn. The first held a wooden chest of drawers, a small bed, and a peacefully sleeping child. Moonlight lit the smile on his small face. In the second room, Robin found a tall white wardrobe, a host of stuffed animals, and another sleeping child. The moonlight lit a small stuffed rabbit she held tightly against her chest.
Inside the third room she found an open window, and an empty, white-painted cot. A gust of cold night air carried the sound of wind chimes.
It took her breath away. A third child. A dead child. Why do people take their suffering out on others?
Robin turned away from the darkened room. The calm allowed her no sense of sympathy.
A door, painted black, was almost hidden in the darkness at the end of the hallway. Robin pushed the door open.
A circle of dark green candles was laid out on the wooden floor, their flickering casting frantic shadows on the walls. A figure, dressed in a black gown with a hood that covered her face, sat in the centre. Her hands were exposed, and clutched a poppet-doll. Robin only needed to glance at the doll to know that it was made in Jenny’s image, from its shoulder-length hair, to its carefully stitched green eyes. A lock of human hair, platted with a single black ribbon, was wrapped around its waist.
The figure groaned, and lifted a hand to push back the hood. The woman from the bathroom, the one who had stood over Jenny and watched her scream, glared up at Robin.
“You?” Her thin mouth twitched into a sneer. Heavy lines creased the edges of eyes that looked at Robin with unrestrained malice.
For a moment, Robin wavered beneath that hatred. How could she have missed it? Stood right beside the woman and not felt it? How much trouble, how much heartache could she have saved?
With a deep breath, Robin pushed her doubts down. She did not have the time for them. And, after all, it was not her place to question. She was the hands of a goddess, nothing more.
Robin stepped forward and raised her staff. With a sharp movement she cut a hole in the woman’s circle, and stepped inside. The woman’s eyes narrowed as Robin repeated her movement and resealed the circle.
“Just what do you think you’re going to do?” The woman laughed harshly. “How can you hope...?”
Robin did not let her finish. She pointed her staff at the woman, and she stopped speaking. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in panic as she clawed at her frozen throat with a desperate hand.
For a moment, Robin wished she could look away. Wished she did not have to meet those frightened eyes or watch that scrabbling hand. But then she remembered Jenny, remembered the face of a child strangled by its own, sobbing mother.
And Karin, her sister, her beloved little sister, dead for so many years.
Robin could bring them justice. She would see them avenged.
“I don’t care what happened to you.” Robin’s voice was deeper, brought down by the calm that had settled over her in the moonlight. “Whatever tragedy befell you is irrelevant. No witch has the right to harm others.”
Robin raised her staff above her head, and spun it in a great circle. The candle flames leapt high, burned with intense heat for a moment, and settled back on candles that were suddenly red.
The staff in her hand began to glow, and she pointed it again at the terrified witch.
“Every one of us knows the rules. That which you have sent out, is now returned to you threefold.”
The woman gaped at Robin and released a gargled, horrified cry. The candles burned brightly and the lock of hair around the doll in her hands snapped. The poppet fell useless to the ground and the woman collapsed backward.
Slowly, the flames retreated, and the air grew calm. Robin looked down at the unconscious witch, and shook her head. The woman had made her decision; stood at the crossroads and chosen poorly. They were all aware of the consequences.
“Hecate,” Robin whispered as she turned and opened the circle. “Your will is done.”
Her legs heavy with sudden exhaustion, Robin walked into the hallway. She clutched her staff with shaking hands. At each room she stopped and stared at the little corpses lying still in their beds. At the slack, expressionless faces. At the stuffed rabbit, dropped on the floor.
A great shiver ran through her, but forced herself to stop, to stand still and watch. Each time she followed the goddess’ will, each time she aided those who needed her help, she forced herself to see the result of her handiwork. See the consequences of Hecate’s justice.
Robin’s stomach churned alarmingly as she left the house, and walked back across the street. She scrambled into her car, placed the staff on the back seat, and rested her head on the steering wheel.
No one was outside the rules, whatever their reason. She had been warned against it, again and again, warned that the goddess she had chosen was a harsh mistress. Seen it first hand. Smelled it. Felt it on her fingertips.
But it did not change a thing. The good she could do for those who had been wronged outweighed the fear. And surely, the knowledge that she had brought them justice when no one else could, would sustain her when her actions finally came full circle.
Robin knew that every time she took vengeance in the goddess’ name, the act would be returned to her. Threefold.
Copyright © 2007 by Joanne Anderton