The deep voices of a hundred men filled the courthouse, and the stone walls of the courtyard echoed their words and the air filled with a deep resonant vibration of their maleness. Miri immediately felt like a fish out of water, but for some reason, that feeling challenged her soul, and resurrected her determination to claim back her son from this den of patriarchs.
Her strength returning, she became aware of the men about her, and marked out the pompous, the obsequious, and curmudgeonly for none could be trusted, and followed the lines of attention, noting the suns about which the lesser planets revolved. Vitalis, she noticed with great confidence, was well respected, for many greeted him whether they admired him or not. She immediately knew the husband of Constance by his dress and the supporters who took every opportunity to slap him on the back and wish him luck. And to her dismay, she watched as scribes were dispatched between the magistrate to her adversary. There did not seem to be much sense of urgency to proceed, and Miri was struvk that the court had very little concern for the plaintiffs waiting their turn to appear outside in the sun.
Suddenly the buzzing of voices changed in pitch and attention turned from their small circles and groups to the entrance of the courthouse. Miri and Sidonius exchanged glances as they could sense a change in the self-centered gravitas of the proceedings had been set off balance. The sudden clanking of Legionary armour stopped Miri’s heart and held her breath. They had come for her! Her right hand immediately shielded her heart, and her knees threatened to give out.
Like a swarm of bees, a cohort of Praetorian Guards swarmed the entrance and spread about the courthouse searching the men for arms, and sorting them out into groups flanking one side of the courtyard or the other, and then establishing a cordon securing and emptying the central area. Miri and Vitalis were searched and pushed back with every one else, and was pressed against the very man whom she was suing.
“You are Miriam?” he whispered.
“Please, I ask you, drop your suit! My wife adores your son and he has cured her tears!”
“He is my son!” hissed back Miri.
“I am willing to allow you to see him as his nurse!”
“I am his mother!”
Their conversation was interrupted by trumpet blast and a herald cried out in a thin and irritatingly penetrating voice:
“The Emperor of Rome! Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, Pontifex Maximus, Pater Patriae…”
“Yes! Yes! I am sure they all know my various titles!” interrupted a rather unprepossessing man in his fifties. Claudius! His white hair was trimmed in a peculiar porridge pot haircut which accentuated his protruding elephantine ears. His face shrank from the hairline to a receding chin which all served to create the impression he was in actuality a human mushroom. “Is this the dais?” he asked of no one in particular. “Who is the magistrate?”
“I am!” replied the Magistrate nervously. It was well known that no one who opposed the will of any Emperor lived long enough to continue their opposition, and that any slightest annoyance of the Pontifex would result in a charge of treason.
“I thought that I might hear your cases today!” announced Claudius, “If you would be willing to step down, that is!”
This was said in a most charming and respectful manner, for Claudius prided himself in republican ideals, but the true nature of his command and the incredible power of his office, could never be opposed without fear of ending one’s career. The magistrate acquiesced immediately. Members of the Imperial Court arranged themselves about the courtyard, and the clerks quickly set up their desk near the Emperor.
“And what is our next case?” asked the Emperor.
“Sidonius Sardinius of the harbour town of Phoenix.” replied the head clerk.
“And with what is he charged?”
“Nothing!” replied the clerk.
“Nothing?” demanded Claudius, “Then why is he before the court?”
“He is bringing a charge on behalf of his sister Miriam against Constance of Arles!”
At the mention of her name, and intense pain arose in Miri’s womb. She was now about to be brought before the very man who had been hunting her down since she had fled the Delta.
“You have brought a domestic case before the Emperor?” asked Claudius, his ears reddening.
“Excuse me, your majesty,” replied the clerk, “but you asked what was the next case!” he nervously searched through his papers on his desk for another more serious case, but there had been no murder or treason committed in his jurisdiction. “I think perhaps I might have a more interesting case here..” He was almost ready to pop out of his own skin as he knew he had nothing with which to honour the Emperor.
“Never mind!” said Claudius with great irritation, “I will hear this case!”
“Who is presenting the charge?”
“I am!” called Vitalis and he stepped out into the court, holding up his papers. “Vitalis of Arles!” He bowed before the Emperor.
“And you are the brother of this Miriam?”
“Orator!” replied Vitalis.
“I would like the brother and sister brought forward that I might see them!”
Miri was rooted to the spot. Sidonius gently unglued her from the floor and guided her forward and they stood beside Vitalis before the Emperor. As her eyes met his, the fear was more than she could bear, and he recognized the fear and within that moment, Miri was afraid she had given herself away. He smiled benignly, but the very kindness he may have intended, seemed to be merely the pleasure of a Lion presented with a sacred lamb. She smiled back weakly, but she recognized the reaction of a man who had for a moment given in to lust, and she suddenly regained her composure, knowing she still had a tile to play. His eyes passed on.
“And the defendant, Constance?” asked the Emperor.
“Her husband is here!” replied the clerk.
“Invictus Incintatus,” called out the husband of Constance.
“My nephew had a horse of that name!” said Claudius, which produced a ripple of laughter from the court.
“And this Constance?”
A buzzing in the imperial court took away Miri’s attention and she glanced away for a moment. Staring across the atrium at her was Herodias! Miri was in shock, and an evil grin passed over her arch rival. Without taking her eyes from Miri, Herodias pulled the sleeve of Antipas beside her, and pointed at Miri. Antipas nodded at Miri in recognition, and Miri quickly looked away.
“And why is your wife not here?” asked Claudius.
Herodias leaned forward and whispered to a member of the Praetorian Guard, and he left his place and spoke to his captain. They both stared across the hypostle at Miri and the captain nodded at the whispered words of his subordinate. He moved to approach the Emperor.
“She is indisposed, my lord,” replied Invictus. “This matter has taken a heavy toll on her health!”
“He has scored a sympathy point!” whispered Vitalis, but Miri was following the path of the captain of the guards.
“And what is the nature of the complaint?” Claudius asked Vitalis.
“Akivai, the son of Miriam, was taken from the sea by Constance in the mistaken impression that her was, in fact her own son, returned from the dead!”
“Miriam, Miriam!” said Claudius, as if recalling some idle item, “The name is Jewish, is it not?”
Miri was afraid to reply.
“It is, Imperator!” replied Vitalis. “We have quite a large Jewish community here!”
The Praetorian captain had reached Claudius and waited for the appropriate moment to interrupt the proceedings. Miri glanced quickly over at Herodias. Her rival gloated. Miri was feeling as though she was a mouse between the paws of a cat
“And is the child here?” Claudius asked.
Invictus cleared his throat, for he had no desire to present Akivai to the court. “He also has been quite sick. The physicians have confined him to bed!”
“Then we shall bring him here!”
“He is quite contagious!” said Invictus quickly.
“Indeed?” asked Claudius. “Still, I should like to see the child confront both mothers!” he turned to Invictus, “Is the child capable of speech?”
Before he could answer the Captain of the Guards interrupted the proceedings.
“Caesar!” he called out, and startled Claudius who jumped and reached for his dagger. The soldier pointed to Miri. “This woman is wanted for treason in Judea!”
Miri could not believe she had delivered herself into the clutches of the Emperor, but both Sidonius and Vitalis, as brave as they were, shrank away from her despite themselves, and she stood alone and exposed.
Claudius was immediately intrigued. The combination of dark beauty and danger cast a spell over him.
“And how do we know this?” he asked, not taking his eyes from hers.
“Herodias has identified her as the wife of Chrestus, a terrorist crucified in Jerusalem during the reign of Antipas Herod!”
“Is this true?” asked Claudius.
Antipas pushed forward. “It is her husband who they say arose from the dead, and will return to destroy Rome!”
“Is he a God then, that he can return to life at will?” asked Claudius.
“She is the woman Agrippa seeks!” interrupted Herodias.
Claudius was more than intrigued.
“Clear the room!” said Claudius, “This is not for ears of the idle!” he now took command of the room with a determination and authority that was as swift as it was unexpected. “And bring the child!”
Against protests, the locals were all removed with the exception of Vitalis, Sidonius and Miri and Invictus and his orator. The court had changed, and now, Miri faced her arch rival Herodias, who would do everything within her power to destroy Miri on the spot. Miri knew she would be dead before the sun set.
“So,” said Claudius, “You are the Magdalene!” Claudius pointed at Sidonius, “and this man is a Jew as well!”
“He is a fellow traveller who came to my aid!” said Miri, “We met in Sardinia!”
“You are lovers?” asked Claudius.
“He is a loyal citizen of Rome!” said Miri, hoping to avoid Sidonius being implicated in her crimes against the Empire.
“That was not my question,” said Claudisu snidely.
“We are not lovers!” said Miri firmly.
“Very well!” said Claudius, “Remove him!”
Sidonius was seized. “Keep him for later inerrogation!” The guard led him away.
“You may leave as well!” said Claudius to Invictus. The orator bowed and walked from the court with his papers.
Claudius weeded out members of the court by ones and twos, until only his personal aides, the chief clerk of the courts, Antipas, Herodias and Miri were left in the great hall hemmed in by the Praetorians.
“Shackle her!” commanded Claudius, and she was seized and and her wrists clamped into iron manacles.
“So you are the woman who will bring about the destruction of Rome?” asked Claudius.
Miri was taken aback by the question.
“I am what I am!” she replied, falling back on a pat reply, her mind racing with no direction.
“You have heard of the Sibyls?” asked Claudius.
“They are priestesses,” replied Miri, “In the temple of Apollo.”
“The Sibylll is a prophetess,” said Claudius, “Priestess in the Egyptian sense. I believe in your country priest and prophet are not always mutually compatible, but the Sybill of Cumae is both. There is a story about the Etruscan king, Tarquinius. As he camped by a sacred grove, his attention was captured by an old woman who reverently carried nine scrolls in her arms. He asked her what they contained that she carried them with such care. She replied they contained the prophecies of the Sibyl, and Tarquinius asked if he might read them. She demanded three hundred gold pieces for the privilege. Tarquinius, was outraged at such a demand and denounced the woman a fraud and refused to pay the woman. Thereupon the old woman threw three of the scrolls into his campfire, turned again to the king and asked three hundred gold pieces for the remaining six. Tarquinius thought the woman made and refused to pay the sum, asking her why he would pay the same price for only six scrolls, to which the crone answered by throwing another three scrolls into his camp fire. Again she demanded three hundred gold pieces, this time for the final three. Knowing if he pressed her again, she would throw the final three scrolls into his fire as well, Tarquinius finally agreed to pay the sum, warning the woman that any sign of fraud would result in her death. Upon receiving a chest of three hundred pieces of gold, the old woman handed the scrolls to him.
The very first line he read, written in Greek, was, ‘Curiosity killed the Cat.’
He laughed at the joke and looked up. But the woman had disappeared with his chest of gold. Knowing she would not get far carrying so much gold, he ordered his men to search for the crone, but she was not to be found. He had been waylaid by a witch of the woods. He threw the scrolls into his campfire, angry that he had been separated from his gold by magic, and, as he was close by the Oracle of Apollo in the town of Cumae, he determined to ask the oracle where the woman who had tricked him had taken his gold that he might win it back.
Of course, when he arrived at the temple, there, he found the old woman who had robbed him was the Sybil herself, and when she greeted him in the hypostyle she held in her arms the scrolls he had condemned to the fire.
‘You should not throw away, that which you have gained,’ she said, ‘without learning of its true value!’ And as he opened the first scroll, he was amazed for the first line now read, ‘In the hearth of Hera, shall your fate reside! Heed the one who tends your fires, and set your feet upon the path to Rome!’
I myself have read that line!” said Claudius, “The three surviving scrolls of the Sibyl were taken to the Capitoline temple of Rome, and are the most sacred books of Rome. These oracles are regularly consulted by a body of ten special priests, fifteen during the reign of Tiberius, for any consul would be a fool not to seek prophetic guidance in major policy decisions. However, as the Sibyll destroyed six of the original collection of nine oracles, the meaning of the Sibylline prophecies has always been open to interpretation! But nonetheless, I have committed it to memory!”
Claudius stood up and came within a cubit of her, then turned to Antipas and Herodias. “You are sure this is the same woman who you knew in Tiberias?”
“The same!” declared Herodias. Her glee was barely held under control.
Miri frowned. “None of this makes any sense!” she blurted out, “How can one woman threaten the Empire of Rome?”
Claudius stared into her eyes, as though he might see the divine behind her eyes, and she sensed his curiosity, and in the same moment his vulnerability, and it was that which threatened her the most. He would kill her without a moment’s thought, merely to secure the illusion of his own security. She looked away before he did in order to give him command, but only a moment before his own resolve was about to collapse. He regained his authority, and pride increased his confidence.
“Polybius,” Claudius said without looking at the freedman who served as his aide, “Do we have the copy we made of the Scroll of Lilith?”
Miri’s heart stopped for a moment at the mention of Lilith. She sensed she was standing within the unsprung steel jaws of a cruel trap, but could think of no way to escape.
“We do, Your Eminence,” replied Polybius, stepping forward and bowing.
“Bring it, would you?” asked Claudius. “Both versions!”
Polybius left the hall, and Claudius turned back to Miri.
“You are aware of the Scroll of Lilith?” he asked.
“No, replied Miri.
“It is a Hebrew document. I acquired it while Agrippa was a guest of Livia, and had a Jew from Alexandria translate it for me. It was zealously guarded by Agrippa, and I replaced his copy before he noticed it was missing. The Jew who translated it to the Greek told me it is of great antiquity.”
“What has this to do with me?” asked Miri.
“What indeed?” said Claudius, “First, allow me to recite the passage from the Sibylline Books. It is the last refrain, and you may recognize the passage!” He paused for a moment, “…Or not!”
He cleared his throat and took a dramatic stance in the manner of a Latin thespian.
“After the Eagle crosses the northern shores, and the Bear returns to its cave, the Wolf of the North shall descend upon the Lamb and devour the Fish. But a son of the Demeter and Prosperine of the East, a descendant of the first child of Zeus shall shatter the Tower on the Seven Hills, vanquish the Beast as the Woman of the Alabaster Jar enters her House with her Chalice!”
Polybius fluttered into the hall, carrying a leather case bulging with documents. He sorted through the scrolls as he hurried through the collonade.
“I have it!” he called to Claudius.
Claudius sighed. “Very well! Bring it forward!”
Claudius did not take his eyes from Mir as he undid the ribbon wrapped about the scroll.
“The Scroll of Lilith!” he announced.
“We have never heard of this Scroll,” said Antipas, and for some reason he seemed worried about its contents.
“No, Agrippa took it from his father Aristobulus, before his grandfather eliminated his sire. Aristobulus received the scroll from his mother, Mariamne, the last of the Hasmoneans. He has never revealed its contents to anyone, nor shown it to any but his wife, Cypros. He is unaware that I have a copy. As far as he knows, he and his wife are the only people alive who know what is written here!”
He unrolled the scroll.
“Do you recognize this?” asked Claudius, and held the scroll for Miri to see.
“No,” replied Miri slowly, but she did recognize the names in the list.
“This first name,” said Claudius, pointing to the top of the list.
“Lilith!” said Miri. “It appears to be a list of generations of women!”
Claudius brightened, “Indeed! And you see the women here? You see that name?”
“A Moabite, if memory serves me!” said Claudius, “Rachel was a Moabite wasn’t she?” he asked Antipas.
“Of course!” he replied, but he was now wary of the proceedings. Herodias however, was becoming impatient.
“I would like to see it!” she snapped, then realizing the temerity of her interruption, added meekly, “If that is alright with you, Claudius!”
“Of course! Of course! Come, come!” he beckoned. Herodias took the scroll from the Emperor, but frowned as she gazed at the document. She was not used to reading Hebrew and the script was all run together with no break except at the end of each page. She thrust it back at Claudius.
He seemed pleased Miri could read it and not Herodias.
“You have your brother’s intensity!” said Claudius. “Would you prefer the Greek?”
“Yes!” she snapped.
Claudius motioned to Polybius, and the freedman handed Herodias the Greek translation. She ripped the ribbon from the scroll and unrolled it, and her eyes ran up and down the list.
“There is also a list on the back!” said Claudius to Miri. “It is after the other on your copy,” he told Herodias and she rolled the scroll further to reach the second list.
He turned the Hebrew scroll over, The opposite side had an equally long list as well.
“The first name is Eve!” said Miri.
“So do you see the connection between this list and the Sybilline verse?” asked Claudius.
Miri frowned. “You think Eve is Demeter and Lilith is Prosperine, but is not Prosperine the daughter of Demeter?” asked Miri.
“Mere technicalities!” Claudius dismissed her argument with a wave of his hand. “It says ‘the Demeter and Prosperine of the East.’ Different regions see the gods and goddesses in a slightly different guise! And so it is here! Do you see the names at the end of these lists?”
“Yes!” said Miri, “But I don’t see what…”
The last name in both lists are the names of your grandmothers. Your mother’s dam was from the House of Lilith, and your father’s, from that of Eve!”
He pointed to Miri.
“You are the first union of the House of Eve and the House of Lilith! Demeter and Prosperine!”
Miri felt the world slide sideways. Though she did not want the scrolls to point to her, there was a sense that indeed some truth to Claudius’ claim, though she was doubtful about her being a threat to Rome. Her thoughts were shattered by the cries of a voice she knew well.
It was all she could do to stop from calling out to him, but if what Claudius was saying was true, both she and her son were in great jeopardy. The little boy struggled in the arms of a Praetorian, and he suddenly saw Miri, bit the man’s arm, and broke free of his grip.
“Aema!” Thankfully he had called out in Aramaic as he rushed toward her.
“Your son?” asked Claudius, his eyes narrowing. He reminded her of a crocodile.
Thankfully, Akivai knew only a little Latin. He had not paid as much attention to her lessons as she would have liked and now she was thankful for it.
“Your Excellency!” interrupted a Praetorian.
“What is it?” asked Claudius irritatedly.
“There is a Praetorian without who has a warrant issued by you and wishes to present himself!” The Praetorian handed Claudius a warrant. The Empeoror recognized his own hand.
“Send him in!”
The Praetorian saluted, and Miri gasped as Maximinus entered the hall in full dress armour, polished and shining, the moon and stars embossed upon his breast plate. Resplendant in brass, iron, leather and deep red cloak and plume, he marched strongly to the centre of the auditorium, and saluted.
“Hail, Claudius!” he shouted in military style. “I, Felix Ursus Maximinus, am your servant!”
“Maximinus!” said Claudius, recognizing the Praetorian. “I already have the woman in custody!” he said with some amusement.
“I beg your forgiveness, Your Excellency, but I apprehended this woman and her children…”
“Children?” asked Claudius, “She has more than one child?”
“Indeed, Caesar! Twins! A boy and a girl!”
“A girl?” asked Claudius, “Do we have this girl in custody?”
“Regrettably, no,” replied Maximinus, “We were shipwrecked off the coast of Gallia, and both children were drowned!”
“Drowned?” asked Claudius, “Then who is this?” he asked, grasping Akivai by the shoulders.
“That is the son of Invictus Incitatus and his wife Constance!” Maximinus replied.
“Yet he called out to this Miriam when he was brought in!”
“Maximinus approached Claudius, as if in confidence, and pretending to speak in low tones, he still whispered loud enough that Miri could hear his words.
“I lost her in the storm, and she was brought ashore by the local priest of Diana, and Constance, a woman of great charity, employed Miriam as a nurse for her son. Unfortunately, the loss of her own children caused her to place an unhealthy affection for their son, and she became convinced he was her own son returned from the dead!”
Claudius frowned. He turned to stare at Miri.
It was time to act.
She fluttered her eyes erratically and allowed herself to drop to the floor. She lay unmoving, and Caludius called for Xenophon, his Greek physician. Miri lay unmoving, breathing as slowly and lightly as she could, allowing her muscles to relax. She slowed her breathing drastically.
“What is the child’s name?” Claudius asked Maximinus.
“Merovee!” said Maximinus. He had already rehearsed the name with Akivai, and allowed the boy to pick his own name. Akivai had decided to name himself after Meroway, the land his mother had chosen as sanctuary before Maximinus had captured them. The Latin form of the name the “W” came out as a “V” as in Merovee.
“Your name is Merovee?” Claudius asked Akivai.
“Certe Caesar!” said Akivai in broken Latin, and Claudius laughed.
“Call in the boy’s father!” he told the Guard, “We shall return the boy to his mother!”
Invictus was led back into the hall, and he followed the guards nervously.
“Your son shall be returned to you!” said Claudius.
Relief crossed the man’s face.
“There is one thing!” said Claudius, as Invictus held his hand out to Akivai. He closed his hand about the boy’s hand and faced the Emperor fearfully.
“He has recovered quite quickly from the fever from which you mentioned he was suffering!”
“Yes!” said Invictus desperately, “Yes he did!”
“It does not pay to lie to the Emperor!” Claudius admonished him.
“No, Caesar!” said Invictus, desperate to leave.
Claudius waved him away. Xenophon had been preparing a mixture of ammonia salts and applied it to Miri’s nose. The vapours irritated her nose and throat and she choked on the ammonia and began to cough. No longer able to feign unconsciousness, she brought her hand to her brow, and sat up. Xenophon helped her to a chair.
“Merovee?” she asked looking about for Akivai.
“He is with his mother!” said Claudius sternly. “Are you capable of speaking?”
Miri nodded, still feigning weakness.
Claudius addressed the congregation.
“Due to the emotional trauma that the prisoner has suffered, I shall continue her interrogation at a later date. We expect that the citizens of Arles should provide us with lodging and sustenance, though the Guard and I shall, of course set up camp in the field beyond. This court is adjourned!”
Herodias moved to protest, for her desire for blood had not been satiated, but Antipas held her back from speaking in protest. Claudius had noted her movement and her desire.
“My dear friends!” he said to Antipas and Herodias. “Your service in discovering an enemy in our midst shall not go unrewarded! Though Lugdunum has a special place in my heart as the place of my nativity, I know that the mists of Gaul have chilled your oriental bones. I shall hereby allow you to resettle in the town of Gades on the Iberian peninsula which will be far more suited to your dispositions. I shall extend a pension for your upkeep there, along with whichever retainers, slaves and freedmen you may desire to have accompany you!”
Herodias, realizing they were being removed even further from the seat of power in Rome could barely stifle her displeasure, but Antipas bowed gratefully to the Emperor and, though suffering a humiliation greater than he deserved, thanked him for his benevolence. “Posides,” said Claudius to another of his freedmen, “See to their arrangements would you please, and ensure they are given a military escort!”
Posides bowed to the Emperor and then motioned politely to Antipas and Herodias as to follow. Led away under guard, the tension between Herodias and her husband was bound to explode into violent argument once they were out of earshot of the Imperial Court. Once the Herods had been removed from the hall, Claudius turned his attention to Maximinus.
“You have done well, Maximinus,” said the Emperor .
“Thank you, Your Eminence!” replied Maximinus.
“Your last epistle mentioned a huge crocodile! Was it also lost in the storm?”
“No, Caesar!” replied Maximinus, “It is aboard a merchant ship in the harbour of Massilia!”
Miri’s heart fluttered. Surely he could not mean the Magdalene had been spared? Maximinus studiously avoided her questioning gaze and made eye contact only with Claudius.
“Excellent!” declared Claudius excitedly, “You will have it shipped to Lugdunum, and I shall examine it there on my return. I shall save it for my triumph in Rome!”
“Your triumph?” asked Maximinus. “Though Caligula had been awarded a triumph for battling Posiedon, he could not imagine what land Claudius would conquer in order to be awarded a triumph by the Senate.
“We are going to Britain!” Claudius announced excitedly. “The die has been cast! Now that I have the Magdalene, nothing will stop me from fulfilling the Prophecies!”
Miri was placed under lock and key in a slave cage. Her heart, though rent asunder by her change in fortunes, was warmed by the thought that Akivai had escaped the clutches of the Emperor, and she hoped Sidonius would keep Sarai safe. Her mind was a tumbril wheel of speculation, and the noise of her thoughts drowned out almost everything around her. Night fell, and the world settled into a somnolent silence broken only by the occasional laughter from a nearby taverna, and the hoot of a night owl somewhere in the forest beyond the town. She had been blindfolded before she had been placed in the cage, but it was removed as she was set in a dark courtyard.
She fell into a fitful sleep, marooned in a dreamland maze haunted by her children whom she could hear crying but could not reach. The sound of hobnailed boots on flagstones penetrated the dark purgatory of her visions, and the clanking of an iron lock being opened brought her back from her somnolent desolation.
It was Maximinus. The moment the cage was opened she threw herself wordlessly into his arms, but he pushed her away. He was accompanied by six other Praetorian Guards.
“Do not touch me!” he whispered harshly, “The emperor wishes to speak with you! Anything you say to me will only increase your peril!”
He turned her roughly about, and under guard and with a Maximinus and another Praetorian gripping each arm, she was escorted to Claudius’ apartment. He was alone in the room, and was pouring a glass of wine when the guards entered.
“Ah,” he said, as though she were an expected gust, “So nice of you to join me! Would you like some wine?”
Miri did not answer, but her lips and throat were terribly parched, and her thirst must have been evident. He poured a seconf cup for her.
“You may release her now!” he commanded to Maximinus and the other guard, and they let go of her arms. Claudius accidentally spilled a little wine on her dress as he passed her the chalice. She had trouble holding the goblet with her manacles, but Claudius was not about to unlock her.
“An excellent wine! The growers around Lugdunum grow even finer vintages than the oldest families of Campania, though it may be blasphemous to say so!” He smiled at his witticism. Miri drank thirstily at her wine, and the liquid soothed her throat and upon reaching her belly, vapourized and filled her with its comforting warmth. Because of the manacles, wine spilled from the goblet onto her chin, neck and breast. The wine tickled as it trickled between her breasts.
“Oh dear, you have spilled some!” said Claudius in a mockery of concern. He lifted a corner of his toga and patted her chin, wiped her throat and, abandoning pretense, slipped his hand inside her dress and squeezed her breast. He tweaked her nipple hard and smiled.
“Do you know why I have brought you here?”
He fondled her as he spoke.
“I can guess!” she said fiercely.
“For the sake of the Empire!” he said, He offered her wine from his cup and she turned her head away, but he grasped her hair and twisted it tightly and brought her back to face him. He brought his cup to her lips and forced the brim between her teeth and tilted it back. The wine splashed down her neck, breasts and stomach, and she was forced to drink to keep from drowning. She pulled away from the Emperor, but he called out to the guards, and they held her fast.
“Now,” he said with the pleasure of a snake wrapping itself about a mouse, “Perhaps you would like another glass?” He poured another cup.
“No!’ gasped Miri, “No thank you!”
“Ah, so modest!” he approached her with the flagon. “I insist! Just one more!”
He pressed the jug into her mouth, and she opened her mouth just to save her teeth from breaking, and he poured wine into her, not caring how much was spilled. The red stain on her dress fascinated him, and he passed his hands over her body to spread the stain wider.
“Throw her over that table!” he commanded the soldiers, and they pushed her face down onto a table spread with food. “You two spread her legs!” she was bent over the table, her manacled hands stretched over her head, and each thigh held by a soldier. Claudius lifted her skirts, and ripped thecloth apart, exposing her back. He dumped the rest of the wine onto her, and grabbed her ass, and dug his fingernails into the flesh.
“A feast fit for a king!” he declared and bit into the fleshy part of her buttock.
“Not enough seasoning!” He emptied salt onto her behind, and it stung the scratches from his fingernails, and as the salt dissolved in the wine, it dripped between her buttocks and burnt her anus and labia. She growled.
“Needs oil!” said Claudius, and he emptied a flagon of olive oil over her, and began to rub it into her skin. “Grease the pig!” he shouted, then bent over he, pushing his groin into her exposed backside. He bit her ear hard. “Say it!” he whispered. Miri groaned. “Say ‘Grease the Pig!’” his hand reached into her groin and he stuck two fingers into her. “Say it!” He pulled hard, and she cried out in pain.
“Say, ‘Grease the Pig!”
He tugged again, pulling against her pubic bone. “Say it!”
Grease the Pig!” she cried between clenched teeth.
“Grease the Pig!”
“Louder!” Each time he spoke his finger pulled hard inside her.
“Grease the Pig!”
She began to shout the phrase over and over despite herself, hoping that it would appease Claudius, but it excited him, and he pushed his cock between her cheeks and, lubricated by the olive oil, grabbing her by the shoulders, began violently fucking her from behind. She stopped reciting the phrase and he slapped her across the back “Say it!”
“Grease the Pig!”
“Fuck the Pig!” commanded Claudius, “Fuck the Pig!”
She screamed “Fuck the Pig!” and knew if she wanted the rape to end, she would have to keep up the shouting, and her desperation forced the vile phrase from the bottom of her Soul.
“Fuck the Pig! Fuck the Pig!” And the irony of the chant suddenly hit her, and she directed the cry directly at Claudius. He was the Pig. She was fucking a Pig! And in the middle of the rape, all she could see were two huge pigs humping each other covered in their own excrement. Within moments, Claudius was spent, and he shuddered with his own perverted ecstacy, and thrust hard against her, and she threw up over the food on the table. He pulled out of her and staggered back to a couch.
“Hang her upside down!” he called out, but the soldiers hesitated.
“Hold her by the ankles!” he commanded.
Four men, including Maximinus held her naked upside down, swinging her head a finger’s breadth above the floor. Her hair, sodden by wine, oil and vomit brushed the remains of the food knocked to the floor, and inches from her face, was the remains of a suckling pig, an apple in its burned and roasted mouth, its eye sockets hollow and empty stared back at her, as if it was her own reflection in a mirror.
“Tie her to the wheel!” commanded Claudius, and to her horror, they carried her to a giant cartwheel attached to the wall, studded with iron pyramids facing outwards, and, though they were pointed, they were too broad to penetrate the skin, but sharp enough to cause pain as she was bound to the wheel. The wheel had only four spokes, set like a “X”, and her ankles were bound tightly to the two uppermost spokes. She felt great relief as her manacles were unlocked, but her wrists were immediately and roughly fastened by leather thiongs to the two remaining spokes. Naked and spread-eagled, she hung exposed to the men who had helped Claudius rape her.
“Bring some water for a bath!” commanded Claudius, “And have someone clean this mess!” He stood up, and walked over to her. He was naked. From her vantage point, she could really only see his scrawny legs, and his flaccid penis dangling between them. She shuddered with revulsion.
He walked over and patted her groin.
“Good! Good!” he muttered as he pushed his wasted semen into her vagina. “We’ll keep you upside down for a bit to ensure the seed has entered the womb!”
He toyed with the wheel, moving it back and forth.
“Why are you doing this?” Miri demanded hysterically.
“Once the semen has settled in, we’ll turn you upright!” He patted her pudenda. “You’re disgusting!” he said in an eerily amiable tone, “I’ll have someone clean you up, and then we’ll talk!”
Miri became a fixture in his bedroom. He called her his wall hanging. He kept her on the wheel, and with her helpless, he raped her several times a day. Each time, his attacks became more violent, and she was covered in bruises and cuts. She realized the wine had served as blood during the first assault. On the final assault he sacrificed a lamb before her and daubed her with its blood before he raped her. So that she would not die from her upside down position, after binding her crotch tightly with linen strips to prevent his semen from draining from her prematurely, he had her turned right side up for most of the day while he went about his business hearing court cases and tending to Imperial business.
“It seems I have been wasting my time!” he announced upon returning one day. “You have a daughter! Much more fecund than yourself!”
“She’s too young!”
“I thought as much!” he said triumphantly. “Until your answer, I had heard only rumours! My men are out searching for her now!” they were alone, and he poured himself a glass of wine. “Sarai, I believe! Maximinus swears she was drowned, but I have it on good authority you splashed ashore with a young girl!”
“Leave her alone!” growled Miri, “You have done your worst to me! Why would you want to seize her!”
“Why indeed?” sneered Claudius. “Have you seen yourself lately? You’re getting on you know! The chances of you bearing me a child are quite slim, but your daughter on the other hand…”
“You’re a disgusting pig!” blurted out Miri.
“I’m the Pig?” he walked up to her and stared into her eyes. “On the contrary, it is you who is the Pig! All you are is a piece of meat hanging on the wall! Your only use to me is to father the son of the Prophecies! The one who will bring everyone on earth under a single new world order! Do you not see it? Do you think it a coincidence that Varus under orders from Augustus sacked your village and killed your parents, and every child under two years in it? Do you think it is a coincidence that Agrippa sought you out? Do you think it is simply the vagaries of the Fates that every Emperor and pretender to the throne since you were born has sought your company? You are the Mother of God. A son will be born from your womb and rule the world!”
“I had my doubts about an invasion of Britain until you came into my Court!” But I knew then that the Eagle will cross the northern shores, and that I shall fulfill the last of the Sybilline Prophecies. You are the daughter of both Eve and Lilith, Demeter and Prosperine, and I, I have traced my family back to the beginnings of Rome itself! The child you bear for me will be the son of the line of Zeus and Demeter and Prosperine, and rule both the Great Above and the Great Below!”
“Perhaps I shall not conceive!” said Miri pointedly.
“That is why I am hunting down your daughter! She carried your blood and is still both of Lilith and Eve, as all you descendants shall be! It is she, I think, who is the Chalice! I am told she has gone North in the company of a Celt, and this pleases me! I shall follow her with my legions for the tale is that her destination is also the Isles of the Britons. I shall kill two birds with one stone!”
He sipped from his glass.
“Meanwhile I must keep my investment in you secure. You are to be walled up in a cave in the mountains until I return! I have commanded the masons to enclose a small cavern occupied until yesterday by a Buddhist monk. Unfortunately he died by falling upon a legionary’s sword. You will be released from the wheel and placed inside that cave with only a small slit through which the guards will pass you food and water. I shall release you from your bondage on the day you deliver my child!”
“And if I do not?” asked Miri.
“Then I shall release you when I have found your little Sarai, and I shall impregnate her before your very eyes!” hissed Claudius, “So if you wish to spare her the matrimonial ceremonies you have already undergone, then you will bear me a child!”
He turned his back on her.
“Maximinus will serve as your gaoler,” Claudius said nonchalantly, and Miri’s hope soared despite the fact he had helped Claudius rape her. Claudius turned to face her. “I shall see you in nine moths!”
With that, he left the room.
Claudius supervised the sealing of the Magdalene into her crypt. He personally accompanied her into the small cavern. He examined the small cell with great satisfaction. He tested the bed, and patted the wooden table.
“Two chairs?” he asked the contractor who had appointed the room.
“In case she gets lonely,” said the contractor, and Claudius smiled.
“Yes, of course!”
Miri was bound only by a loose rope.
“I would like a lamp!” she said.
“Over there!’ said the contractor pointing to a small clay lamp on a single shelf.
“And some writing materials!”
“Let’s not get too greedy, my dear!” said Claudius, patting her hand as if she were some young wayward wife. “I’m not made of money you know!”
His humour was completely misplaced, and Miri ignored it.
The contractor brought the lamp from the shelf and placed it on the table.
“I’ll light it for you, now if you wish!”
“Thank you!” said Miri and sat upon the chair facing the opening to the cave.
The contractor dipped his torch to the wick in the lamp and it flared up. He left to fetch the stones to finish the wall
Finally, it was time to go and Claudius stepped out of the room, and stone by stone, the wall was sealed up.
The stones of the double walls were cemented with concrete, and after the opening was closed, the space between the two walls was filled with concrete. There was a niche in the northern corner of the wall that allowed her to sit and defecate through a hole a handsbreadth wide into a bucket that could be emptied from the outside, and there was a slightly larger hole just above her head through which food and water could be passed. The scraping and voices on the other side of the wall finallystopped and Miri was left in silence. A deep heavy silence, that muffled everything in the world beyond. The longer she sat, the more attuned to her own breath and heartbeat she became. Every movement, every rustle of her clothing, and the squeaking of her chair became loud and obtrusive and she longed to shut it out.
She lay down on the wooden cot and fell into a deep and heavy sleep.
When she awoke, the lamp was out, and a small amount of light filtered in from the slit high in the wall. She slid a chair over to the wall, and stood upon it, and peered out through the slit. The wall was so thick, she could see neither above or below, nor left nor right, but to her great relief, she could stare out at the bright blue sky.
“Is anyone there?” she called.
There was no answer, and she bent to step down from the chair.
“Miri?” called a voice. It was Maximinus.
She immediately stood up and stuck her head to the slot.
“Where are you?” she called out.
“I am here on the other side!”
“Climb up where I can see you!”
Why not?” she asked.
“I am ashamed before you!” he replied, “I stood by like a coward while you were raped!”
“There was nothing you could have done!”
“I should have slain Claudius on the spot!”
“Give me your hand!”
Maximinus held back.
“Give me your hand!”
Finally his hadn reached into the slot, and she grasped it quickly and held it fast. His hand, once joined with hers, held her fast, and through an effort of will, his face appeared in the opening. His eyes were filled with tears.
“You are forgiven!” whispered Miri. “What news of Sarai?”
“Martha lost her in the crowd, and as she searched for her, she saw her being led from the square by a beggar!”
Though she could not imagine greater desolation, the news cracked Miri’s heart. “Have they found her?” she asked, torn between the desperation of an unimaginable fate at the hands of a vagrant and the joy that she had been spirited from the clutches of the Emperor. How could one child suffer so horribly between the two extremes.
“It is more than I can bear!” she whispered to Maximinus and pulled her hand away.
“Wait!” said Maximinus, and she scrambled to reach his hand, but he had withdrawn it.
“A man in the crowd told Martha, the beggar had given her this to give to you!”
Maximinus dropped a heavy metallic object into her hand and she held it up to the light.
It was Yusef’s signet ring!
“Thank God!” she cried, “Thank God! Thank God! Thank God! Dear Mother, thank God!”
“It is her grandfather’s ring!” said Miri, “God forbid that I should ever be released from this hell!”
“I have brought you supper! Said Maximinus, and he proceeded to feed bread and cheese through the slot.
“Do you have any dates?” Miri asked.
“They don’t grow here!” replied Maximinus.
“Yes, yes of course!” said Miri.
The next day, Maximinus brought her dates. He remained outside her cell day and night and left only to relieve himself or to fetch water from the spring.
“I feel as though I am a priest,” he said one day as he handed her an apple. “Attending the shrine of the goddess!”
“That’s nonsense!” declared Miri, “I am a woman like all other women!”
“Not all others!” said Maximinus, “There are people here to see you!”
“Do I know them?”
“I don’t think so,” replied Maximinus, “They are here for you blessing!”
“My?” asked Miri.
“Blessing!” repeated Maximinus, “They have climbed this mountain to bring you offerings.”
“But am I not under guard?” asked Miri.
“The soldiers here are not averse to letting in the pilgrims for a small fee, and they were not those involved in your defilement, and bear you personally no ill will! Besides, there is no way for you to escape! There is no need for high security here, though I doubt they will let a dagger pass through the slot!”
Miri pressed her face to the slot.
“Then let them in!” she commanded Maximinus.
The first day there were twenty pilgrims and the next forty. Each one wanted to come to the opening in the Earth and ask special courtesies of Mari of the Underground. Some were from the Oppidium of Ra, renamed for Diana and then the three Maris. There were a number of penitents who had adopted Yeshua’s cult, and they all asked her to intercede on their behalf to Yeshua for blessings and she gave it freely. She was buoyed by the great exstacy she could deliver to the faithful by a word, and she was grateful for the light she could bring them from the darkness because through their faith in her, they brought the light into her black world. They empowered her with their belief, and instead of wasting away in her cell, she grew stronger. And they brought her all sorts of food and clothing, so much, she had to pass gifts back out to Maximinus after the shrine, for her crypt had become a shrine, closed in the evening.
So bright was her soul, she no longer needed a lamp inside the cell. She could see everything within it day or night, as though it was lit from within. Whether a miracle or a trick of the senses, she could look about the cell, and know where each object lay. If she was thirstu, she could walk to the table and pour water into her cup. And such a fine cup! Gold and silver with lacings of gold beads and precious stones, a gift from a grateful lord whose wife had come to Miri to seek a child, and conceived that very night a beautiful son. Though the Emperor had sought to seal her in a dungeon, the faith of the people had turned it into a palace. She wanted for nothing.
Each day became a blessing for she knew if Claudius returned and she had no son to give him, he would tear open her sanctuary and sacrifice Miri’s daughter before her. It was a thought she could not bear, and it brought back eerie echoes of barely submerged memory, that only her visitors could vanquish. She dreaded her time alone, and urged Maximinus to allow pilgrims to enter until she fell exhausted into her cot. She had eased her burden at the slot by sliding the table against the wall and placing the other upon it, so she could sit while she administered to the congregation outside. The second chair she pushed against the table so she could step upon it to ascend to her perch by the slot.
The slop bucket outside the lower hole had become a nuisance, because air entered through the lower hole and exited through the slot, so Maximinus employed a young boy to carry away the waste the minute it fell into the bucket and replace it with another, scrubbed and spotless, filled with perfumes and rose water. Such was his eagerness to perform his duties, she had to tell him to replace it because she was not yet finished at the toilet.
“I must be warping his little mind!” said Miri one day to Maximinus, “He must be developing some rather strange fixations!”
“He is blind!” said Maximinus, “He is a little slow, and cannot learn much! Your toilet has given him an honourable occupation!”
There was a short silence.
“And the fuller pays him for a full bucket!” Maximinus added.
“Then I shall drink more water!” said Miri with a laugh.
Miri awoke with a start. Someone was sitting in her chair!
“Erishkigal!” whispered Miri.
Well, well! What a cosy little prison you have, my dear! Sneered Erishkigal, “Hardly worthy of the Queen of Heaven!”
“What are you doing here?” asked Miri.
“Inannna!” admonished the goddess of the underworld, “How terribly rude of you! Aren’t you going to offer me something to drink?”
“No!” said Miri.
“Then I’ll have to help myself!” said Erishkigal, picking the goblet disdainfully from the table and peering inside. “Reaaly, dear, you should get better help! This place is getting to be such a sty!”
She stopped and covered her mouth coquettishly, “Oh my! I have made a faux pas, haven’t I? You are quite the Pig I hear!” Erishkigal made a snuffling pig noise and and excited squeal. “My, my, how the mighty have fallen! Do you know why I am here?”
“No!” said Miri.
“Your eggs, dear!” said Erishkigal, “Or shall I say egg? Yes of course, the singular is so much more descriptive of one. One egg! Your last one! I have come for it! It appears the little piggy rutted a little too early to catch the very last teeny weeny little bitty egg inside your soon to be barren womb! No more jiggy-jiggy for the little piggy!”
“Get out!” hissed Miri.
As soon as you deliver your egg, dear sister, for every egg not fertilized is mine!” Erishkigal glided over to Miri and clamped her fingers about Miri’s rear and pulled her closer. “Give it up, sister!”
And the egg, stuck against the wall of her womb, her last one sloughed away from the lining, and she felt the warm heat of blood oozing between her legs.
“No!” whispered Miri, but it was too late. Her last true cycle had finished.
“It’s hot flashes for you, honeybun!” said Erishkigal gleefully.
“Why are you so mean?” asked Miri fretfully.
“Mean?” said Erishkigal, pantomiming a broken heart and invisible tears, “I’m not anything! I just am!” She shook a small vial containing Miri’s menstrual blood and her last egg and in a puff of mist, and a flutter of wings transformed into an owl and flew out through the window.
Miri tucked a bandage between her legs and lay wearily on her cot, her thighs sticky with blood, and allowed the silent tears to flow down her cheeks.
The next morning, Martha appeared at the slot.
“Miri!” she whispered hesitantly, for she had not appeared for the first few weeks of Miri’s incarceration.
“Martha!” cried Miri, “Give me your hand!”
Martha reached in gingerly, for she half expected to grasp an emaciated buzzard-like claw, but Miri’s skin was soft and oiled, and smelled of sandalwood and frankincense.
“Thank God!” Martha whispered and kissed Miri’s hand. “Dear sister! Thank God! Forgive me for not visiting you! I could not face you inside this hole, but I heard from the Christians you were ministering to the faithful!”
“It is not a ministry, Martha,” said Miri softly, “More of a glorified comfort station! But tell me, what have you been up to? Have you news of Yusef or Eleazar?”
“Yusef, they say, has fled with Redbeard to his native soil and taken the Chalice with them!”
“The Chalice?” asked Miri.
“Yes,” whispered Martha, “That is what we have taken to calling her, for safety’s sake! The walls have ears they say!”
“Is she safe?” asked Miri.
“I have no way of knowing!” said Martha, “But I think for us, no news is good news!”
“And Akivai? Is he safe?”
Constance and Invictus have taken Merovee further North. After knowing about Claudius’ interest, they packed up their household and gone deeper into the Black Forest.”
“Can you reach them?”
“I can send word within a fortnight. One of their freedmen returned to Arles to close the sale of their property.”
“Send this to them, for Akivai..” Miri dug into her pocket.
“Merovee!” corrected Martha.
“Merovee!” whispered Miri and placed Yusef’s ring in Martha’s hand.
“Tell him that his Mother shall always love him!”
Martha did not return, and Miri worried about her niece. She had no sense that Martha had died, but her absence bothered her terribly and she complained through the slot to Maximinus about it.
“She is in the same boat as you, now, I’m afraid,” replied Maximinus.
“She has been arrested?” asked Miri in alarm.
“No! No! Nothing like that!” said Maximinus quickly, “She is surrounded by worshippers!”
“She must hate that!” said Miri, knowing Martha’s practical nature would be appalled by an act of veneration directed towards her.
Maximinus laughed. “As a matter of fact, she sets each supplicant a task such as sweeping the street of Tarascon by the temple, or pruning unkempt trees, weeding the garden, that sort of thing!”
“But how did this happen?” asked Miri.
“Well, it’s quite a tale!” said Maximinus, “It seems that the traders I hired to carrying Sobek to Lugdunum...”
“Our Sobek?” asked Miri.
“The very same!” said Maximinus.
“And this Tarascon, what does the name mean?”
“It is Celtic I think for the Stone of Tara!”
“The dragon?” asked Miri, her heart racing.
“How did you know about the dragon?” asked Maximinus.
“It is a long story to tell, Max.”
“I should like to hear it!”
“Perhaps later. For now we’ll hear your story.”
“Very well,” replied Maximinus, “You are right about the dragon! There is, in fact, a swamp outside the town called the Marsh of the Dragon, and it is beside that swamp that the traders stopped at a taverna. After hearing from the locals the legend of the swamp and the dragon Tara, they bragged they had actually captured a dragon. The locals, a very practical sort and prone to disbelieving anything an outsider could tell them, demanded proof that the traders had actually captured a dragon.
‘We have it outside, in the circus wagon!” the traders boasted, and immediately the taverna emptied, and the traders pulled away the cloth over Sobek’s cage. Because Sobek was taking a siesta, he didn’t react at all to the cloth or the crowds for he has long since gotten used to both, though a boy who was with the traders told me later, he saw the tiniest slit open between Sobek’s eyelids.
They demanded proof the animal was alive, so the traders called for a live chicken, and the locals complied, bringing an unfortunate pullet squawking and struggling for dear life. And the traders opened Sobek’s cage, and still he didn’t react. One of the brighter of the bunch, and none were long on brains, suggested they remove the ropes about the beast’s legs, but still Sobke remained still. The same enlightened scholar who suggested untying the legs then suggested perhaps the dragon should have its leather muzzle removed, and the others, recognizing his superior reasoning did just that. Door open, free as a bird, his great mouth unhampered by restraints, Sobek decided it was time for lunch.
Anyway, he launched himself at the chicken and with one great snap of his jaws, chomped down on the chicken, and the man’s arm up to the shoulder. Once he had his grip on the unfortunate yokel, he twisted seven times, snapped the man’s arm from its socket, and ripped it completely from the man’s body! Everyone scattered except for the screaming man with only one arm, and Sobek, seized the terrified victim and slipped into the waters of the Swamp beside the road, and disappeared leaving behind only a few small ripples.
After the shock of the attack wore off, the relatives of the slain man (He bled to death) demanded retribution from the traders, and they, realizing they had lost the Emperor’s star attraction for the Victory Games for the Triumph of the Battle of Britain, beat a hasty retreat back to Marsellia. They stopped for a rest at Arles, and there, in a taverna, told their tale. No one believed it, and the traders left the next day. But soon, word came back from Tarascon that livestock and children were disappearing in the Marsh. It was, they said the Dragon Tara, emerging from her sleep of a thousand years, and she would accept only the blood of a virgin in payment. Now, there had not been a virgin sacrifice for some time in Tarascon, and everyone had assumed the need for it had passed, but evidently their laxity in sacrificing virgins had come to a head. This kind of talk resulted in a great furry of deflowerings and quick marriages in order to avoid being chosen for the age old ritual of strangling a victim in the bog.
The ritual itself was rather gruesome, and not only required strangulation, but the victim’s veins had to be opened so the blood would attract the great dragon, and ensure it would find the intended meal. Of course no one wanted to volunteer for the position, but everyone talked of nothing else. It was this talk which reached your Martha in the Three Maris, and from the description, she knew immediately the dragon could be none other than Sobek.
She walked to Tarascon and offered to capture the dragon.
As she was somewhat older than most virgins, the villagers were skeptical, but no one in particular wanted to turn down her offer in case the lot as victim fell to someone they knew. So they offered her old bronze armour, lances and poles, hatchets and rusted swords, but she refused every offering, saying she needed only the protection of God, a goat, and a hundred cubits of hemp rope. The latter the villagers supplied, and they pointed the way into the Marsh, and alone, she and the goat walked into the mist. A day went by and the villagers anxiously peered down the road leading from the swamp, but no sign of Marth was ever seen. The matter soon found a small shelf in the back of almost everyone’s head until, one sunny morning, after the fog lifted, Martha appeared on the road, leading Dobek as a child leads a lamb on a leash.
The town was overjoyed! They danced and they sang! And composed a song about the exploits of Martha, of how she came form the sea to save them from the ravages of Tara the Dragon. After a day of drinking, some of the young men, emboldened by wine began to make sport of the crocodile in the same way that they teased the bulls in the festival. They leapt over it, and soon began somersaults and acrobatics on the animal’s back. Sobek, full from eating the goat wanted nothing more than to spend the week digesting the goat Martha had given him, and was goaded into a rising ire by his tormentors, and lashed out with his tail, and soon the villagers armed themselves and the contests turned into a full scale assault on the crocodile.
Martha had already fallen asleep and was not there to defend the poor animal and during the night, the villagers had hacked the crocodile to pieces. Martha was livid the next day and harangued the villagers for killing the crocodile so cruelly, and told them she had come to the villagers to end needless death, and here they had only added to it. She swore she would never again return to Tarascon again, but the villagers, afraid that there were more dragons in the swamp, asked their Savior to stay with them, and they would do as she commanded. They set a place for her upon the very Stone of Tara, where they brought the harvest offerings, and swore they would follow her as long as she could keep the dragon at bay.
From what I am told, she saw an opportunity to convert the pagans to the ways of God and she rejoiced, and accepted their entreaties. She is now Priestess of Tarascon!”
Miri was overjoyed. The irony of her practical niece becoming a Priestess delighted her, for now she could tell an entire village the best way to prepare lentils, or harvest barley, or clean the hearth, or any of the many day to day chores she so dearly loved. Tarascon, imbued with Martha’s love of continence and hard work, would not be able to help but be a better place. Or at the least, a lot tidier place.
She found Maximinus to be a very pleasant companion. Each day, he brought her fresh food and arranged for the supplicants to prepare their pleas ahead of time to speed up the blessings, and then sat down to speak with her in the evenings about their lives and news from outside the cave. Over the months, she realized she loved him dearly and deeply, and longed to pull down the wall between them and hold him in her arms. One day, as she spoke with him, in the middle of a pleasant daydream of making love to Maximinus, she heard the ominous clank of armour and military step.
There was a muffled discussion of a number of authoritative voices, and then the soldiers withdrew.
“Miri!” called Maximinus, “Are you awake?”
“Yes!” she called and scrambled up to the slot, she slipped her hand into his for reassurance.
“What is happening?”
“An envoy from Claudius! He wanted to know if there was a child!”
“No!” replied Miri, “No, there is not!”
“I am glad!” whispered Maximinus.
“Did he mention Sarai?” asked Miri.
“I asked of the child and he said it is none of my business, but if they had found her, I am sure the Emperor would not hold such news back! It would be proof of his omnipotence! But when I asked if you could be released, he replied ‘Not until the child is found!’ He realized he had answered my first question and turned about and marched back down the mountain!”
“Any news of Eleazar?” She asked.
“No,” replied Maximinus, “though I’m told Sidonius has now converted to your husband’s cult, and is considered to be an elder in the congregation!”
“Has the whole world gone mad?” asked Miri, “Turning ordinary people into Gods and priests?” She thought for a moment, “Or is it me?”
Her question resonated within her very Soul. From that day on, she was never alone. Even when it was quiet beyond the wall, apparitions kept her company. Angels, demons, even the dead came to speak with her, and the only time that she seemed to be calm was whenever Maximinus spoke to her from beyond the wall. She spoke lucidly with him, but night after night told him of every secret she carried within her soul, and related inceidents from her past according to which ghost had visited her that day, be it Yeshua, or Setem or Mermaat, Germanicus, Suzanna, or any of the host that shared her path and passed on to greener fields.
She was sinking into a deep blackness, and she could not drag herself from it. Though the faithful pilgrims still gave her reason to remain lucid, she found it harder and harder to make sense, and her desperation was causing her to hold on to hands passed through to her longer than was comfortable, one day she whispered “I am going mad!” to a supplicant and fell to the floor.