The collective murmur of suffering lapped over her as she followed the peasant woman back to the courtyard and the sleepless supplicants. She watched from the shadows as the thick figure with the jug stopped at the first pallet and poured out a measure. The woman moved on to the next blanket, repeating dutifully, “Healing water from the Tiniotissa.”
Ariadne leaned against the shadowed wall, her strength drained, her options narrowing around her, the pursuit closing in. She rubbed her throbbing head. Incense from the open doors of the chapel wrapped suffocating tendrils about her as across the courtyard, the water bearer made her way among the flickering oil lamps.
In silence now.
Ariadne leaned forward from the shadows, ears ringing, the night gone quiet. The moaning, sobbing, coughing chorus had faded away as the supplicants waited mutely, faces raised to the woman with the water.
“It’s a sign, dearie. Go on in and ask Her. The Virgin will take pity on you, too.”
Ariadne startled and turned to face a bent old woman in black, hunched under the weight of a woven basket on her back.
The woman carefully lowered the basket to the ground, fumbling with arthritis-twisted fingers. “If you need an offering, I ask only what you can give.” She indicated her freight of tin votive strips glinting dully in the moonlight, stamped out with shapes for appeals to the healing Virgin. A foot. An arm. A head. A staring eye.
“Don’t be shy, now.” The aged face tilted to give Ariadne a look of motherly concern.
Tears welled and spilled as Ariadne reached impulsively to take the woman’s contorted hands between hers, squeezing them and smiling into her seamed and sunbaked face. The warmth of the sun in the poppies, the cool moonlit song of the spring flowed through her.
The woman gasped and pulled her hands free. She stared at them as she slowly flexed her fingers. Made a tight fist and opened it. Wriggled her fingers.
Her eyes were glinting wetly now, widening as she peered up at Ariadne’s shadowed face. “By the blessed Virgin. . . .” She crossed herself hastily, then bent to her basket to pull out an offering foil, pressing it into Ariadne’s hands. Tears streaming down her face, she ducked her head and hurried with her basket into the night.
Ariadne looked down at the stamped design in the shape of a heart. She gazed blankly at it. She turned numbly and walked up the stone steps into the chapel, into the candlelight and incense and chanting, into the claustrophobic church where the pious narrow faces of the Byzantine saints stared from the walls.
Someone handed her a candle and she moved forward to join the shabby congregation singing responses to the bearded priest in his black robes and tall hat. The walls were lined with offerings—Bibles with jewel-studded covers, gold and silver plate, rich figured silks, painstaking embroideries. Silver and tin-foil strips stamped with their afflicted body-shapes were gummed everywhere to the pillars with wax, along with shreds of infected clothing. Silver candelabra molded from past offerings ringed the chapel in flickering light.
It lapped gleaming over the famous icon in its guarded corner, so encrusted with jewels that the figure of the kneeling Tiniotissa was barely visible. In the dome overhead, a painted image of the Virgin’s elongated features and pale broad forehead seemed to float out of the darkness, distilled into fleshless abstraction, enormous eyes gazing down in remote pity.
Ariadne pressed her offering, the image of a human heart, into the soft wax on the nearest pillar, muttering an incoherent petition, garbled with words from childhood prayers. “Grant me Grace. Clarity. Let me see with your dispassionate eyes. Let me transcend this weakness the flesh is heir to.” Finally she stumbled from the church, breast aching with the unanswered plea.
Somehow she made her way through the sleeping petitioners in the courtyard, but once past the gateway she hesitated, unsure where to go, trembling with weariness.
“Come with us.” A hand grasped Ariadne’s arm from behind.
She spun around, alarm flaring through her exhaustion, legs tensing to run.
No Med League soldier, but a woman in a dark dress and scarf, her surprisingly strong grip pinioning Ariadne’s arm. Another woman stepped up close, smiling in the dimness of the cobbled lane as she raised her hands to push her scarf back. She was young, with a pretty but stern face. A black sash held back her short-cropped hair, the strip embroidered with a white spiral enclosing a staring eye.
Corybant. The women warrior cult.
Ariadne jerked back, too weakened to break free of the woman holding her arm. “Tell them no. I won’t join you.”
The young woman studied her, ignoring her protest. “We hoped the power would draw you here. Those pigs of priests haven’t stolen it all.” The spiral eye flickered in the shadows. “We must stop them. Join us now, freely, before you have no choice.”
Ariadne shook her head. “No. I have important work to do—”
“Now you’ll work with us. Why do you think you were called here? We must destroy the machines of the patriarchy polluting the earth, restore the true power of Gaea.” She jerked her head at the other woman and started to lead the way down the street. Ariadne didn’t dare call out. Who would respond, but worse captors?
The silent woman warrior prodded Ariadne with a knife as she stumbled along, trying to delay, trying to think.
“Here, now, old mother.” The Corybant in the lead had paused as a hunched old woman, limping with a cane, tottered out of an alley in front of them, stumbled, and dropped her mesh string bag. A cabbage rolled out. “Let me help.”
As the Corybant leaned over to assist her, the old woman suddenly straightened in a swirl of ragged skirts, bringing the cane up in a sharp crack against the warrior’s head. She dropped to the cobbles as the woman holding Ariadne cried out in surprise, loosening her grip.
Ariadne ripped free, pulling away from the knife as the stranger, now oddly tall, jostled her aside to confront the Corybant.
“Peter?” Ariadne gasped as a scarf slipped off his head. “Careful, she has a knife!”
“Sit on the other gal!” He dodged a sweep from the glinting dagger, knocked it aside with the cane, then the woman was pulling out another knife and was on him. They struggled, stumbling over the cobbles as Ariadne dropped onto the downed leader, making sure she was still unconscious. A grunt, a muffled oath from Peter, and then a snapping crackle. The Corybant went stiff, then limp, and fell beside her comrade.
“Peter?” Ariadne was still staring in disbelief at this apparition in a peasant skirt and shawl, holding a small black device with metal prongs.
He grinned in the dimness and stuck it in a pocket of the skirt, picked up the fallen scarf, and tied it back around his head. “Better keep the disguise ’til we’re out of town. Come on, let’s get a move on.”
“But. . . .” She caught her breath as he pulled her to her feet, urging her along. “But you promised to leave.”
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