MORNING SUNLIGHT STREAMED THROUGH open shutters. Ariadne had forgotten to close them when she’d finally stumbled up from her uncle’s workshop the night before. The branches of the Judas tree stretched into the breezeless heat already baking off the wall. She rose and leaned out the window to blink over the tiled rooftops straggling down steep terraces, clustering around the whitewashed double loaf shape of the church.
Her ears were ringing again. Below, the church bell was ringing, too, echoing through the dead air. She remembered it was Good Friday. The earth lay gasping in the rainless unseasonable heat, groaning under the weight of the shimmering sky. Pressure mounted, shivering waves of tension building below.
Ariadne pulled the shutters closed. Reaching for her crystal pendant, she traced the ancient serpentine caduceus pattern she’d laboriously etched the night before—a double helix, also the modern image of DNA—coiling around the crystalline lattice.
She closed her eyes, but couldn’t find the cool clarity of the stone. She was still lightheaded, the ringing in her ears getting louder. Etching the spinning-tunnel pattern into the crystal hadn’t eased the tension shrilling through her with the dizzying visions—just the opposite. She could feel the cataclysm looming over them all.
Ariadne threw on a blouse and skirt, slipping the Tinos crystal into her pocket and buckling on sturdy sandals. She needed to get out into the open, climb toward the lingering patches of snow at the mountain peaks, away from the suffocating pressure and heat.
She slipped through the deserted sitting room, peering into the kitchen to see the remnants of breakfast on the table. Relieved, she hurried out to the yard, hoping to avoid questions. But once outside she faltered, wincing in the glaring light. The dizziness attacked again, with the wild ringing in her ears, the very ground shifting beneath her feet as the thick air quivered with the mounting forces of imbalance. Groping for the wall of the house, she strode blindly along it, tripping over hens huddled in a tense cluster against its base. Nearly running now, she made it around the side of the house.
“Ariadne, wait! Damn—” Agitated cackles and a whir of flapping wings. Peter burst around the corner and grasped her arm. “You are one hard person to guard, Despoina!” He puffed out a breath. “Where are you going? Demetrios is worried, too. You’re still feverish, you should be resting.”
She tugged against his grip. “Let me go.” The ringing in her ears was driving her mad. She had to get away. She tugged again, and this time he released her arm. She strode down the dirt track, not caring where it took her, fleeing the goading church bell as it echoed off the blazing rocks.
“Ariadne.” He kept following.
She hurried ahead past a cottage, a black-clad woman in its yard struggling with a bleating, kicking nanny goat. The woman straightened, clutching a milk bowl the frenzied animal had kicked over, crossing herself as she stared at Ariadne.
Peter caught up. “Things are getting crazy.” He rubbed his temples, wincing. “Even the goddamn goats are going nuts on me. . . .” He shook his head. “Ariadne, we need to talk.”
“Please. I need to be alone.” She pushed past him, fleeing down the path, possessed by an urgency she was beyond explaining. She rounded a terraced switchback to join a wider dirt track winding into the village. But there she was stopped again, blocked by a procession of men coming downhill. They were carrying the traditional straw-stuffed dummy of Judas on their shoulders, to be placed atop the bonfire that would be lit at midnight. A scatter of hounds trailed them, darting back and forth, whining and howling.
One of the men cursed and kicked a dog lunging under his feet. “By the Virgin, what’s wrong with them?”
The man next to him shrugged. “Another tremor coming.”
“But they’ve never been so—”
They saw Ariadne. They didn’t pause, but cast uneasy glances as they hurried past, crossing themselves.
“Ariadne, damn it! Demetrios says there might be a quake coming.” Peter, still following, stopped short to stare after the procession. “What the hell?”
“Don’t you recognize yourself, young foreigner?” A cracked voice behind them, and snorting laughter. “It’s the scapegoat, all the ills you men and your gods have brought upon us, only you won’t name him true any longer. You’ll sit him on that big stick between his legs, as if it’ll do any good! He’ll burn all the same.”
The old woman must have followed the procession down the hill. Her uncovered head was a wild gray frizz, face and neck baked brown and deeply lined. She wore a faded red blouse embroidered with designs of flowers and swastikas, snakes and birds and spirals in clashing colored yarns, and a loose skirt cut off raggedly just below the knees to reveal skinny, sinew-corded calves and sandaled feet like gnarled wood. Amulets and a small leather bag hung over her chest, a larger pouch strung around her hips. One veined hand gripped a twisted olive-wood staff.
She gave Ariadne a gap-toothed leer. “Send your man away, we don’t need a fool along. I’ll take you to the place. She’s calling.”
Peter towered over the birdlike old woman. “No one’s taking her anywhere. She’s sick, and she needs to rest.”
Ariadne was arrested by snapping eyes in the wreckage of the ancient face. She caught a sharp breath as she saw an embroidered dark cloth tied around the crone’s throat—a spiral enclosing a staring eye. Emblem of the Corybantes, the woman warriors.
She licked dry lips. “Who are you?”
Again the gusting laughter. “Doesn’t matter. I’m only a vessel. You’re the one. You’ve been looking for the place, haven’t you? The heart of the mountains?”
“You’re the midwife.” Ariadne couldn’t seem to look away from the black eyes probing hers.
“No bringing forth without a little pain. But I know the ancient ways to ease it. Come, now—Earth’s laboring, She’s crying out. Men are all fools, don’t listen to them.” A clawlike hand grasped Ariadne’s wrist, tugging her up the track. “We must hurry.”
“Wait a damn minute!” Peter grasped Ariadne’s other hand. “You can’t just go running off into an earthquake.”
“Fool!” The crone turned, rapping Peter across the forearm with her stick. “Can’t you hear Her in travail?”
Ariadne turned back to him, raising a hand. “It’s all right, Uncle knows her. I must go.” She left Peter muttering and shaking his head as she turned with the old woman, following the source of the visceral ringing cry up the track into the mountains.
The first physical tremors started when they were halfway up the ravine. The dirt track had given way to a narrow trail climbing stony switchbacks above the village, then to a steeper goat path.
Following the surprisingly nimble, knotted old legs through an inward fold of the rising mountains, Ariadne looked down to the stream making its way past the broken rock foundations of a ruined settlement. High above it on a craggy bluff, the square tower and blank window slits of a centuries-abandoned Venetian fortress frowned down. On their side of the stream, above the precarious path ledge, natural caves honeycombed the limestone cliffside. Vanished hermit-monks had built plastered walls to seal their entrances, and outside one black-shadowed doorway a few bright scraps of laundry lay spread over the rock. When Ariadne paused to point at the cave—“Your home?”—the crone only nodded and prodded her on with the staff.
The pathway narrowed again as they climbed. They were forced to wade up the stream bed itself, slippery stones shifting under the foaming snowmelt from the peaks. The ravine sealed off all but a thin strip of blue far above, sheer cliffs closing in so tightly Ariadne could touch both sides with her outstretched fingers.
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