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.
She could taste the urgency in the air. The shrill scream of blocked pressures ripped through her bones. Panting, she followed the midwife through the churning current, slipping over wet stones and nearly going under before she caught the staff the old woman stretched out to her from a steep bank.
Dripping, she climbed onto a narrow ledge. She didn’t need Cassandra’s guidance now to follow the source of the silent scream. Its eddies pulled at her, jagged waves of energy shivering up her spine from the laboring earth.
The stone path trembled in its throes. It rippled beneath her, and Ariadne nearly fell back into the roaring stream. Cassandra cried out, teetering on the brink. Ariadne caught her wrist and pulled her back against the rock face.
The tremor subsided. They leaned together against the wall, panting.
“It’s happening much faster than I thought,” the crone managed. “She’s worse this time. The pain. It’s not right. I can feel the dark force of it, pushing so hard, too hard, ripping and rending. . . .” The hoarse voice trailed off, staring eyes gone flat and blind.
“Come. I must try.” Ariadne gently touched her shoulder, somehow in the maelstrom finding the key she’d lost. Her connection to the earth forces—her Link. Its currents crackled through her, spinning her inward to the center of the whirlpool.
Cassandra clutched her staff and glared up at Ariadne. “Oh you see now, do you? You may have the touch, but you’re still a young fool. Too proud, too proud,” she muttered, tracing a looping design with her stick on the rocks. “Listen to me, I’m old as the rocks, and I’ve seen all of it. I’m nothing. You’re nothing. Only a vessel for Her power—the Goddess.” Her staff pounded the earth.
“I have to go.” Clutching her pendant newly engraved with the twining helix, Ariadne pushed past her.
“Wait, you fool!” A talon hand gripped her wrist. “You don’t know anything of the Way! The old ways, the wise ways. . . .”
Cassandra ripped the crystal from Ariadne’s grip, peering closely at it, snorting and then releasing the pendant. “It’s more than just stones, you know.” She waved a hand around them at the rocky ravine, the plunging torrent, the blazing sky, and fixed her fierce eyes on Ariadne. “The Mother’s alive. She holds us all, beast and human, to Her breast. You have to taste life to know Her power—the salt, the sweat, the rot. Not this bloodless tinkering.” She flicked a finger at the crystal, and Ariadne could feel a cry reverberate down her spine.
Ariadne pushed past her, the agony of the blocked and building quake forces screaming through her, ringing in her ears. She scrambled up the cliff from the stream, panting, climbing toward the last traces of snow in the cool high air. Another tremor shook the earth as she clung to the mountainside. The pangs were coming faster now.
A silent voice called her. “Come!”
She peered over the flank of the mountain where a slope dropped into a worn, narrow cleft. A curving shelf where rounded rock flanks closed together led to a gaping cave. Its shadows pulled Ariadne inward.
Even as she shuddered, she was scrambling on hands and feet over the scarred rock face, skidding down the sheer drop in a scatter of loose stones as the mountain shook again and the old woman shouted behind her, “Wait! I must guide you—”
But Ariadne knew the way. The power surged through her, coiling down the crystal’s etched double helix to blaze out in a glory of white consuming light. She stumbled blindly into the dark cave, the invisible waves carrying her deeper as she crashed against a wall, fell and crawled forward to come up hard against a column of cool stone. She hugged its thick base and a pillar of fire whirled her down.
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