Extract from Pieces of Hate

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

Gabriel dreamed of the last time he was truly alive.

After all he had been through – the exotic places, the violent encounters, the disappointments and victories – this memory should have been a bland speck in his seas of experiences. There was just him, and some trees, and the man with a snake in his eye. But the image was important, because it was the last time he could remember having any sense of excitement or hope for the future. Then he had been a man with a family; now, he was barely even a man. It stood out from all his other memories as the moment when his soul had been corrupted by three simple words:

Feed your hate.

* * *

The fallen oak was Gabriel’s favourite place. He often came here from the village, seeking time alone to think, muse on life, watch nature go by. The forest went on for hundreds of miles in every direction, and though he had seen much of it, he had never found anywhere to match this place and the atmosphere it gave him. It was a part of the forest marked by the past, and rich with it. The trees that still stood around the clearing were scarred by strange symbols and sigils, evidence of old, old magic. Beneath the fallen oak lay a smooth flat rock, split in two by the tree when Gabriel was a child. He could still remember that storm, when the greatest bursts of lightning and thunder seemed saved for its very last breath; the moment the great tree had been struck. Some said the stone was a sacrificial altar. His wife often claimed to dream herself to the clearing at night, watch events unfold, bear witness to ghastly sacrifices. But for Gabriel it was just another left-over from old magic. It was sad and broken now, but still imbued with some ethereal power, rich from the pain that must have soaked it over the centuries. A bush grew from the moist places underneath, fat roses hanging like drops of blood always ready to fall.

Gabriel absently nudged one of the roses with his foot, and this was where his recollection froze. Every time he dreamed or summoned the memory whilst awake, this was the point at which everything changed. Perhaps it was as he noticed the man with the snake in his eye approaching through the trees.

Or maybe it was the precise moment when his family was being butchered.

The swaying of the rose came to a halt. Gabriel looked down at his swinging feet, felt the cool moss on the old bark beneath him, and his hand crawled for the knife at his belt. A second later he looked up and understood why he was reaching for the blade.

He slid from the tree and landed beside the split rock. The knife was in his hand. The man stood at the edge of the clearing, swaying slightly as if mimicking the rose bush, inviting Gabriel to kick him as well. Gabriel was suddenly aware of his own breathing, fast and shallow with shock. Not fear, not yet. A stranger travelling through the forest was not unusual. But this stranger… there was something about him, something wrong, something that Gabriel had never seen before. A myth that he had only heard of in tales, whispered at night when fires kept darkness at bay.

The old man was a conjurer. Around his waist, a belt of tiny bones. Across his shoulders, a black pelt filled with tricks and charms. And in his eyes, the look of a snake.

“Who are you?” Gabriel asked. “Do you need shelter? Food for the night? We have little, but what little we have we can share.” You’re so trusting, his wife said on those occasions when he brought a stranger home. But none of the travellers had ever given them trouble. In truth Gabriel liked listening to their stories, and if it weren’t for his family he would have once become a traveller himself. He had always known that there was more to see than trees and the spaces in between.

The man shook his head, and the light reflecting from his eyes seemed ancient. Dirty, Gabriel thought, dirty light.

That was when he smelled fire.

He glanced away from the old man and back over the fallen oak, in the direction of the village. Above the forest canopy, heavy black smoke rose lazily into the sky, as if the wood itself were bleeding to the heavens. The sight of it seemed to alert his other senses; he tasted smoke on the air, smelled burning flesh within the tang of flaming wood. And finally he heard the screams.

“No,” he said. He leaped the oak and readied himself to run through the forest.

“Too late,” the old man croaked. Gabriel was not certain whether he heard mockery or sadness in that voice.

“My family,” Gabriel said, but something made him pause and look back.

The conjurer shuffled sideways for a few paces, his movement grotesque and animalistic. He never took his gaze from Gabriel’s face. When he came within reach of an old beech tree he tapped at a sigil with his knuckles. It must have been carved into the tree centuries ago, but the old man touched it without looking, as if he had put it there himself.

“Feed your hate,” he said. Then, with something that may have been a cackle or a cough, he turned and disappeared into the forest.

Gabriel ran. The words stuck, but subconsciously. Right then all he knew was the fear, stench and cries of the dying village.

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