Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 13
All together, like ants swarming a hill in their queen’s wake, the crowd climbed the hill with the old man.
His steps grew more labored. He left more blood behind on the stones. Luman saw the old man lose two large toenails when his foot struck a step at a bad angle.
And then, a few steps from the top, the old man collapsed.
Weeping erupted from the crowd. Luman feared they might riot, and in defense of his own life as well as that of the priest, he pushed the mob back.
“Let him breathe!” he shouted.
Sarah Elytharias must see his actions. What would she think of them?
What would the pilgrim think?
He knelt beside the old man, feeling his feeble breathing scarcely disturb the air and watching his eyelids and blue lips flutter.
“You’re almost home,” he said to Father Tarami. “Drink this.”
The old man shook his head.
“Come now.” Luman smiled as gently as he knew how. “Even our Lord took a cup of wine at the end. Or the beginning, as it were.”
The priest’s eyes opened and his chest heaved. Luman feared he was suffering a heart attack, but then the old man’s cracked lips split into a grin and Luman recognized laughter for what it was.
“Mixed with gall,” Tarami wheezed.
“Yes, well, once you’ve tasted this, you might wish you were drinking vinegar, too.”
Tarami’s smile grew wider, revealing bleeding gums and sores on his tongue. Luman put an arm under the old man and raised him to sitting position, allowing him to slowly drain the contents of the cup.
The mound-climbing crowd stared.
Missourians, clustered around the front door of the Basilica, beneath its sculpted vine, thick with cooing doves, watched with wide eyes.
Luman tucked the cup into one of his many pockets and lowered himself onto his knees. “I would carry you as the Cyrenian, but I think you will not have it.”
Tarami turned and knelt. “If you would accompany me, I will not turn you away.”
They finished the climb together. The combined crowd of Cahokians and Missourians widened the aisle to accommodate both of them. By the time they reached the Basilica door, where Mother Hylia stood waiting, Luman’s knees hurt. The cooing of the doves overhead sounded like a taunt.
How had this old man crossed the entire city?
And how far had he come before that? Luman thought he had heard someone in the crowd mention Oranbega, but that was hundreds of miles away.
The rubble left by the beastkind assault a few days earlier had been cleared away, but the damage to the rood screen and the pews was still very visible. Father Tarami ignored it, as he ignored the people clustered to either side of the nave, and focused on the altar in the apse.
His movements became more vigorous, each knee forward reaching farther than the one preceding. Luman found himself racing to keep up.
As the two men approached the altar, Luman held back. The assembled crowd seemed to hold its breath; Luman had rarely heard a more complete silence, despite the hundreds of people crowding the nave.
Abruptly slowing again, the old man stretched himself out on the paving stones in cruciform shape, arms extended to his sides, feet together and straight back, and face pressed to the floor. He lay there long enough that Luman was beginning to wonder whether the old man had arrived at his destination and there died, but abruptly he moved, raised his face slightly from the floor, and kissed the stone.
Crawling forward, he kissed the stone of the altar, too.
Then dragging himself up, Father Tarami stood on his two feet. He wobbled unsteadily and he sucked air into his lungs with a look of surprise on his own face, but he remained standing.
To Luman’s astonishment, the crowd broke into song:
Crown of iron, heart of flesh
Shaker’s Rod and feet of clay
Lord of harvest, ere you thresh
Send a light to guide our way
Chariot rider, god of war
Mankind’s father, son of peace
Shelter us from foes of yore
From all trial grant surcease
Should he imitate the pilgrim and throw himself on the floor? Should he kiss the altar? If he did, surely others in the crowd would follow him. Would the priest himself regard that as presumption?
But Luman did neither of those things, and the moment passed.
A metallic ringing harsh as thunder cracked the air inside the Basilica, and Maltres Korinn stepped into view from the apse. He leaned on a black wooden staff with a metal horse’s head at the upper end and a metal cap on the bottom; it was the staff whose noise rang so loudly. Korinn had been the Regent-Minister, but after siding with Sarah Elytharias during the tumultuous events on the night of the solstice, he had emerged as Vizier. He still wore black and carried the staff without other sign of office, except that if anything his facial expression had become even more dour.
“Zadok Tarami,” Korinn said.
The old man spread his arms wide. “I am returned from my journey.”
“You are summoned to the throne.” Korinn looked to Luman. “You’d better come too, Imperial.”
Sarah was good at keeping her composure, but to Cathy’s experienced eye there had been signs of increasing agitation as the pilgrim Zadok Tarami had crossed Cahokia and ascended the Basilica. Those signs would have looked like anger on another person–narrowed eyes, less mobility in the mouth, the twitch of a jaw muscle. In Sarah, they betrayed cussedness, and mentally digging in.
Which suggested she felt the need to dig in.
Maltres Korinn was shrewd enough to limit the priest’s ability to make further spectacle. He neither chained nor dragged the man, but simply descended one mound and ascended the other with as little ceremony as possible.
With them came the Imperial wizard, the man with eyeglasses and a long coat.
At Sarah’s instruction, Cathy stood to one side, with Yedera the Podebradan. Sarah stood directly in the open doorway of the Temple of the Sun; on her left hand stood the eight slaves who had once been Alzbieta’s palanquin bearers, and now that she walked on the earth like a normal woman, still followed her around as a bodyguard; on Sarah’s right stood the spell-less Polite wizard Sherem, Alzbieta herself, and, once he’d regained the height of the mound, Maltres Korinn.
Cathy didn’t know the logic of the arrangement, though she noticed that it made an array of twelve people.
Zadok looked small even beside the Imperial wizard, who was a man of average height. The two men stood, breathing hard from their climb.
Sarah said nothing.
It was a raven that finally broke the silence with a single baritone croak.
“You’re Elytharias’s daughter,” Tarami said. “God has told me of your coming.”
“The goddess told all Her children,” Sarah said slowly.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Tarami said. “You’re the answer to my prayers, as I can be the answer to yours.”
“What prayers?” Sarah asked him.
“Surely, you pray for knowledge. You pray to know what you should do in this situation, and you are surrounded as never before by a bewildering confusion of conflicting information.” Tarami smiled. “The fact that you are the daughter of Kyres Elytharias doesn’t give you any great gift of inborn knowledge, does it? And one thing you will learn, if you haven’t learned it already, is that being Kyres’s daughter means that there are many people who are very willing to tell you lies.”
The wizard looked as if he’d been struck.
“You’ve been traveling, priest,” Sarah said. “How’s the weather in the rest of the Ohio?”