A cock crowed. Ariadne blinked. The well’s stone ledge was digging into her knees and arms. She shivered in the gray prelude to dawn as she withdrew her arms from the water. The storm had passed, dropping no rain.
Ariadne stood slowly and turned. The courtyard had filled with people watching her, shifting and murmuring. Old women in black. Men in shabby trousers, caps gripped nervously in their hands. Young women with sleepy children. And the RPH victims to one side, lying or sitting on the cobbles. All of them waiting.
“The water.” She cleared her throat and gestured heavily toward the well. “It will help. I hope the purification will hold. . . .”
She saw the old priest in his faded black robe standing above the others on the steps to the chapel, a shadowy phantom against the pale walls. She blinked, bracing herself against everything the Church had come to mean to her—sin and judgment, restriction and abandonment.
The priest finally raised a hand, touching his long gray beard and the rosary tangled in its strands. He walked slowly and carefully down the few steps, reaching out a hand to steady himself on the shoulder of a young boy. He and the boy moved through the others as they stepped back. He stopped before Ariadne, straightening his bent shoulders to look into her face.
Eyes shadowed in wrinkles studied her. “Come into the chapel, my child.” The voice from the ancient face was surprisingly firm and resonant. “Too windy out here for the ill to wait.” He gestured to the RPH victims to one side of the courtyard where the villagers were avoiding them. “Bring them in as well.”
Some of the men moved to obey, helping those who couldn’t walk.
Ariadne hardly noticed. Exhausted and numb, she was led into the chapel, into the musty presence of incense and candlelight flickering over the narrow faces and distant eyes of the few poor icons. Far-away voices howled with sardonic laughter as the saints mutely watched and a long-ago voice teased: “Those gifts of the gods. . . always a price, eh?” But Ariadne was beyond caring, and soon there was not even herself, only the pulsing colored auras of pain and illness, the crystalline lattice pouring out blended healing light until the source was drained.
Hands touched her, touched the husk of her as she hovered in the shadows looking down on it all. She watched them guide her stumbling footsteps out into the courtyard as prone figures on their pallets slept, chests rising and falling smoothly now. Seated men and women were touching their disfigured faces as scaly flakes peeled away to reveal smooth skin. A young girl raised her hands, wiggling her fingers and shouting, “Mother, I can feel them again!” Faces crowded close, mouths and eyes brimming gratitude, fingers moving in blessing, hands offering food, bottles, flowers. Voices repeating, “Ariadne Sancti. Efcharisto.”
Ariadne was spent. She had only the ebbing strength to hold her body upright as it moved woodenly through the crowd, feet carrying her away to the road.
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