LAST SEEN IN MASSILIA (Chapter I)
“Madness!” I muttered. “Davus, I knew it was a mistake to leave the road. Shortcut indeed!”
“But, father-in-law, you heard what the man at the tavern said. The road to Massilia isn’t safe. The Massilians are all shut up inside the city, under siege. And Caesar’s troops are too busy laying the siege to bother with patrolling the road. Gaulish bandits are running wild, waylaying anyone who dares to take the road.”
“A Gaulish bandit might not be entirely unwelcome at the moment. At least he might give us directions.” I studied the bewildering prospect around us. Gradually we had made our way into a long, narrow valley, the cliffs on either side rising in imperceptible degrees around us like stone giants slowly lifting their heads, and now we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by sheer walls of pale limestone. A stream, almost dry at the end of a long, dry summer, trickled through the narrow defile, its rocky banks shaded by small trees. Our horses delicately picked their way around jagged rocks and gnarled tree roots as thick as a man’s arm. It was slow going.
Early that morning we had set out from the tavern. We had taken the tavernkeeper’s advice to abandon the flat, wide, finely wrought Roman road almost at once. As long as we used the sun to stay on a southerly course and moved in a generally downhill direction toward the sea, we couldn’t possibly miss Massilia, the tavernkeeper had said, especially with so many of Caesar’s troops camped before it. Now, as the sun began to drop behind the western cliffs of the valley, I was beginning to think the fellow had played a nasty joke on us.
Shadows deepened among the boulders. Tree roots, wildly splayed over the stony ground, seemed to quicken and quiver in the dim light. Again and again, from the corner of my eye I imagined thick clumps of snakes writhing amid the rocks. The horses appeared to suffer the same delusion. Repeatedly they snorted and shied and tested their hooves against the knotted roots.
Not knowing how we had entered the valley, I was equally uncertain how to get out of it. I tried to reassure myself. The sun had disappeared behind the cliffs to our right, so we had to be traveling south. We were following the direction of the stream, which meant we were probably headed seaward. South and seaward, just as the tavernkeeper had advised. But where in Hades were we? Where was Massilia, with Caesar’s army camped before it? And how could we exit this hall of stone?
A band of lurid sunlight lit up the highest reaches of the eastern cliffs to our left, turning the chalk-white stone blood-red. The glare was blinding. When I lowered my eyes, the deepening shadows around us seemed even darker. The bubbling water in the stream looked black.
A warm breeze sighed through the valley. Sounds and sights became deceptive, uncertain; in the stirring of the leaves I heard men moaning, snakes hissing. Strange phantoms appeared among the rocks—twisted faces, tormented bodies, impossible freaks—then as suddenly vanished back into the stone. Despite the warm breeze, I shivered.
Riding behind me, Davus whistled a tune that a wandering Gaulish singer had performed at the tavern the previous night. Not for the first time in the twenty-odd days since we left Rome, I wondered if my imperturbable son-in-law was truly fearless, or if he simply lacked imagination.
Suddenly I gave a start. I must have pulled on the reins and expelled a noise of alarm, for my horse stopped short and Davus drew his short sword. “Father-in-law, what is it?”
I blinked. “Nothing….”
“It was nothing, surely…” I gazed into the murk of boulders and low branches. Amid the fleeting phantoms, I thought I had seen a face, a real face, with eyes that gazed back—eyes that I recognized.
“Father-in-law, what did you see?”
“I thought I saw…a man.”
Davus peered into the gloom. “A bandit?”
“No. A man I once knew. But that would be…impossible.”
“Who was it?”
“His name was Catilina.”
“The rebel? But he lost his head ages ago, when I was a boy.”
“Not so long ago—thirteen years.” I sighed. “But you’re right, Catilina was killed in battle. I saw his head myself…mounted on a spike outside the tent of the general who defeated him.”
“Well, then, it couldn’t have been Catilina you saw, could it?” There was the slightest quaver of doubt in Davus’s voice.
“Of course not. A trick of the light…the shadow of some leaves on a stone…an old man’s imagination.” I cleared my throat. “Catilina has been much in my thoughts these last few days, as we’ve drawn closer to Massilia. You see, when he decided to flee from his enemies in Rome, this was where Catilina intended to come—to Massilia, I mean. Massilia is the end of the world—the end of the road for Roman exiles, anyway—a safe port for all the bitter losers and failed schemers who’ve seen their hopes destroyed in Rome. At Massilia they find a welcome—provided they arrive with enough gold to pay their way in. But not Catilina. In the end, he chose not to flee. He stood his ground and fought. And so he lost his head.” I shivered. “I hate this place! All barren rock and stunted trees.”
Davus shrugged. “I don’t know. I think it’s rather pretty.”
I gave my horse a kick and moved on.
By some magic of the hour, the gloom around us seemed not to deepen but to stay as it was, growing neither lighter nor darker. We had entered a twilight world where phantoms whispered and flitted among the trees.
Behind me, most unnerving of all, Davus whistled, oblivious of the phantoms around us. We were like two sleepers dreaming different dreams.
“Look, father-in-law, up ahead! It looks like a temple of some sort….”
So it was. Abruptly we left the maze of boulders. The stream curved away to our left. The stone cliff to our right opened in a great semi-circular curve, like a vast limestone amphitheater. A thin waterfall trickled from the overhanging summit. The wall was riven with springs. Ferns and moss grew out of the stone.
The ground before us was flat. At some time long ago the space had been cleared and made into a vineyard. Tottering posts marked regular rows spaced well apart, but the vines, thick with leaves and heavy with dark grapes, were now madly overgrown in a wild tangle.
Surrounding this vineyard was a peculiar-looking fence. As we drew closer, I saw that it was made of bones—not animal bones but the bones of men, arm bones and leg bones nailed together and driven into the earth. Some of the bones had rotted and crumbled, turning dark brown or almost black. Others were bleached white and perfectly intact. Two limestone pylons marked a gateway in the fence. The pylons were carved with reliefs depicting battle scenes. The victors wore armor and crested helmets in the style of Greek seafarers; the vanquished were Gauls in leather britches and winged helmets. Beyond the gateway, broken paving stones choked with weeds led to a small, round temple with a domed roof at the center of the vineyard. I was transfixed by the strangeness of our surroundings. The gloom around us lifted a bit. The little temple seemed faintly to glow, as if the pale marble blushed in the twilight.
Behind me Davus sucked in a breath. “Father-in-law, I know this place!”
“How, Davus? From a dream?”
“No, from the tavern last night. This must be the place he sang about!”
“The traveling singer. After you went to sleep, I stayed up to listen. He sang about this place.”
“How did the song go?”
“A long time ago, some Greeks sailed past Italy and Sicily and arrived in these parts on the southern coast of Gaul. They founded a city and they called it Massilia. The Gauls welcomed them at first, but then there was trouble—battles—a war. One of those battles happened in a narrow valley, where the Massilians trapped the Gauls and slaughtered them by the thousands. The blood that drained from the bodies made the soil so rich that grapevines sprang up overnight. The Massilians used the bones of the dead to build a fence around the vineyard. And the Gauls still sing a song about it. That’s the tune I’ve been whistling all day. And here we are!”
“And the temple?”
“I don’t know about that. Built by the Massilians, I suppose.”
“Shall we have a look? Perhaps an offering to the local deity will help us find a way out of this accursed place.”
We dismounted and tied our horses to iron rings in the pylons, then walked up the broken pathway. The vines shivered, animated by a warm gust of wind. The sky overhead was underwater blue, streaked with coral tints of pink and yellow. We came to the steps of the temple and gazed up. Sculptures in relief decorated the entablatures that girdled the roof, but the paint on the marble was so faded that it was impossible to discern the images. We mounted the steps. A bronze door stood ajar on frozen hinges. I turned sideways and slipped inside. Davus, on account of his size, had to squeeze through.
Despite small apertures near the ceiling, the light was very dim. The encircling walls faded into darkness. I had a sense of having entered a murky space with no perceptible boundaries. My eyes were drawn to a pedestal in the center of the room. There was something on the pedestal, a vague, unfamiliar shape. I took a step closer, straining my eyes.
A hand gripped my shoulder. I heard the slither of steel drawn from a scabbard. I started, then felt warm breath in my ear. It was only Davus.
“What is it on the pedestal?” he whispered. “A man? Or—?”
I shared his confusion. The amorphous form atop the pedestal could hardly be the upright figure of a god. It might have been a man squatting on all fours, watching us. It might have been a Gorgon. My imagination ran riot.
A burst of sound suddenly echoed through the temple—a sputtering, tittering, hissing noise.
The sound came from the doorway behind us. I turned around. Because of the light beyond, I saw only a silhouette. For a moment I imagined a two-headed monster with spiky limbs was barking at us through the open doorway. Then I realized that the barking was suppressed laughter, and the two heads belonged to two men—two soldiers to judge from their dully glinting helmets and mail shirts and the drawn swords in their fists. They were squeezed together into the breech, clutching each other and giggling.
Davus stepped before me, clutching his sword. I pulled him back.
One of soldiers spoke. “Pretty, isn’t she—the thing on the pedestal?”
“Who—?” I began to say. “What—?”
“Listen to that, Marcus, the old one speaks Latin!” said the soldier. “You’re not a Gaul then? Or some Massilian who’s slipped the noose?”
I took a deep breath and drew myself up. “I’m a Roman citizen. My name is Gordianus.”
The soldiers stopped their tittering and disengaged from one another. “And the big fellow—your slave?”
“Davus is my son-in-law. Who are you?”
One soldier put his shoulder to the door and pushed it open another foot. The screech from the hinges set my teeth on edge. His companion, who did all the talking, crossed his arms. “We’re soldiers of Caesar. We ask the questions. Do you need to know more than that, citizen Gordianus?”
“That depends. Knowing your names might prove useful the next time I speak to Gaius Julius.”
It was hard to see their faces, but from the ensuing silence I knew I had stumped them. Did I really know their imperator well enough to call him by his first name? I might be bluffing—or not. In a world turned upside-down by civil war, it was hard to know how to judge a stranger met in a strange place—and surely there were few places stranger than this.
The soldier cleared his throat. “Well, citizen Gordianus, the first thing to do is to have that son-in-law of yours put his weapon away.”
I nodded to Davus, who grudgingly sheathed his sword. “He didn’t draw it against you,” I said. I glanced over my shoulder at the thing on the pedestal. In the greater light from the doorway, its shape was more defined, but still puzzling.
“Oh, her!” said the soldier. “Never fear, it’s only Artemis.”
I frowned and studied the thing. “Artemis is the goddess of the hunt and of wild places. She carries a bow and runs with a stag. She’s beautiful.”
“Then the Massilians have a strange idea of beauty,” said the soldier, “because this is the Temple of Artemis, and that…whatever it is…on the pedestal is the goddess herself. Would you believe they brought that thing all the way from Ionia when they migrated here five hundred years ago? That was even before Romulus and Remus suckled the she-wolf, or so the Massilians claim.”
“Are you saying a Greek sculpted this? I can hardly believe that.”
“Sculpt? Did I say sculpt? Nobody made that thing. It fell from the sky, trailing fire and smoke—so the Massilians say. Their priests declared it was Artemis. Well, if you look at it from a certain angle you can sort of see…” He shook his head. “Anyway, Artemis is who the Massilians worship above all the other gods. And this is the Artemis that belongs to them alone. They carve wooden copies of that thing, miniatures, and keep them in their houses, just like a Roman might keep a statue of Hermes or Apollo.”
Peering at the thing on the pedestal, tilting my head, I discerned a form that might possibly be perceived as female. I could see pendulous breasts—several more than two—and a swollen belly. There was no refinement, no artifice. The image was crude, basic, primal. “How do you know all this?” I asked.
The soldier puffed out his chest. “We know, my comrade Marcus and me, because we two are stationed to guard this place. While the siege is on, our job is to keep this temple and the surrounding grove safe from bandits and looters—though what anybody would take I can’t imagine, and you can see for yourself how the Massilians have let the place go to ruin. But once the siege is over, Caesar doesn’t want Pompey or anybody else to be able to say he was disrespectful of the local shrines and temples. Caesar honors all the gods—even rocks that fall from the sky.”
I peered at the soldier’s ugly face. “You’re an impious fellow, aren’t you?”
He grinned. “I pray when I need to. To Mars before a battle. To Venus when I throw the dice. Otherwise, I don’t imagine the gods take much notice of me.”
I dared to touch the thing on the pedestal. It was made of dark, mottled stone, shiny and impermeable in some places and in other places riddled with fine pores. Riding through the valley, I had seen phantom shapes, illusions of light and shadow, but none had been as strange as this.
“It has a name, that sky rock,” offered the soldier. “But you have to be a Greek to be able to pronounce it. Impossible for a Roman—”
“Xoanon.” The voice came from somewhere within the temple. The strange word—if word it was, and not a cough or a sneeze—boomed and echoed in the small space. The soldiers were as startled as I was. They clutched their helmets, rolled their eyes, and rattled their swords.
A cowled figure stepped from the shadows. He must have been there when Davus and I entered, but in the dimness we both had failed to see him.
He spoke in a gruff, hoarse whisper. “The skystone is called a xoanon, and xoanon is what the Massilians call the images of Artemis they carve from wood.”
The soldiers exhibited sudden relief. “Only you!” said the one who did the talking. “I thought—I didn’t know what to think! You gave us a start.”
“Who are you?” I asked. The man’s face was hidden by the cowl. “Are you the priest of this temple?”
“Priest?” The soldier laughed. “Whoever saw a priest dressed in such rags?” The cowled figure, without answering, stepped past him and out the door. The soldier pointed to his head and made a gesture to indicate that the man was mad. He lowered his voice. “We nicknamed him ‘Rabidus.’ Not that the fellow’s dangerous, just not right in the head.”
“Does he live here?”
“Who can say? Showed up in camp not long after Caesar began the siege. Word came down from on high that we were to leave him alone. Comes and goes as he pleases. Disappears for a while, then pops up again. A soothsayer, they call him, though he doesn’t say much. As strange as they come, but harmless as far as I can tell.”
“Is he Massilian?”
“Could be. Or could be a Gaul. Or a Roman, for all I know; speaks Latin. He certainly knows a thing or two about local matters, as you’ve just seen demonstrated. What’s that he called the lump on the pedestal?” The soldier tried to duplicate the word without success. “Anyway, why don’t you and your son-in-law step out of the temple. It’s getting so you can’t see your hand in front of your face in here.”
We followed the soldiers onto the porch and descended the steps. The soothsayer stood outside the gate, where there were now five horses tied to the pylons.
“So, Gordianus of Rome, what’s your business in being here?” asked the soldier.
“My immediate business is to find a way out of this valley.”
He laughed. “Easy enough. Marcus and I will escort you out. In fact, we’ll escort you all the way to my commander’s tent. You being on a first-name basis with ‘Gaius Julius,’ maybe you’ll feel more comfortable explaining yourself to an officer.” He looked at me sidelong. “Whoever you are, I don’t mind saying I’m glad you turned up today. It’s slow out here, so far away from the action. You two are the first visitors we’ve had to the temple. Are you sure you’re not looters? Or spies? Only joking!”
We readied our horses. The soldiers did likewise. The soothsayer conferred with them for a moment. The soldier called to us over his shoulder. “Rabidus says he wants to ride alongside us for a while. You don’t mind, do you?”
I watched the cowled figure mount his swayback nag and shrugged.
The soldiers led the way to a narrow cleft in the stone wall. The opening was impossible to see unless viewed straight on. I doubted that Davus and I would ever have found it by ourselves, even in broad daylight. A rocky path led between sheer limestone walls so close I could have touched both sides with outstretched arms. The passage was deep in shadow, almost as dim as the interior of the temple. My horse began to jerk in protest at being ridden over rough, unfamiliar ground in near darkness. At last a vertical slash of pale light appeared ahead of us. The path descended, dropping like a staircase.
We emerged from the fissure as abruptly as we had entered it. Behind us rose a sheer cliff of limestone. Before us was a dense forest, brooding and dark.
“How can we ride through that wilderness at night?” I asked Davus in a hushed voice. “These woods must go on for miles!”
A voice startled me. It was the soothsayer. I had thought he was ahead with the soldiers, but suddenly he was alongside me. “Nothing in this place is what it appears to be,” he whispered hoarsely. “Nothing!”
Before I could answer, the soldiers doubled back, edging out the soothsayer and hemming Davus and me in on either side like sheep to be herded. Did they really think we might try to escape into that deep, dark wood?
But the forest was not as vast as it appeared to be. We rode through the enveloping gloom for only a moment, then suddenly emerged into a vast clearing. The last glow of twilight illuminated a landscape of endless tree stumps. The forest had been razed.
The soldier saw my confusion and laughed. “Caesar’s doing!” he said. “When the Massilians refused to open their gates to him, he took one look at those thick city walls and decided an attack by sea might be advisable. Only problem: no ships! So Caesar decided to build a navy overnight. But to build ships you need big trees—cypresses, ash trees, oaks. Not many such trees in this rocky land; that’s why the Massilians declared this forest sacred and never touched it, not for all the hundreds of years they’ve been here. Gods lived in this wood, so they said, gods who’d been here since long before the Massilians came, gods so old and hidden in the gloom that even the Gauls had no names for them. The place was rank and wild, powdery beneath your feet from so much rotted heartwood over the years, with cobwebs the size of houses up in the branches. The Massilians built altars, sacrificed sheep and goats to the unknown gods of the forest. They never touched the trees for fear of some horrible, divine retribution.
“But that didn’t stop Caesar. Oh, no! ‘Cut down those trees,’ he ordered, ‘and build me my ships!’ But the men he ordered to do the cutting got spooked. They froze up, couldn’t bring down their axes. Stood staring at each other, quivering like schoolboys. Men who’d burned cities, slaughtered Gauls by the thousands, scared Pompey himself out of Italy—afraid to attack a forest. Caesar was furious! He grabbed a double-headed ax from one of the men, pushed the fellow out of the way, and started hacking at the biggest oak in sight. Wood chips flew through the air! The old oak creaked and groaned! Caesar didn’t stop until the tree came crashing down. Everyone fell to chopping after that. Afraid Caesar might come after them with that ax!” The soldier laughed.
I nodded. My horse seemed glad to be away from narrow, rocky places. He had no trouble picking his way between tree stumps. “But if this wood was sacred…I thought you said Caesar was making a point of respecting the Massilians’ holy places.”
The soldier snorted. “When it suits him!”
“He has no fear of sacrilege?”
“Was it sacrilege to cut down an old forest full of spiders and mulch? I wouldn’t know. Maybe the soothsayer can tell us. What do you say, Rabidus?”
The soothsayer was keeping to himself, riding a little ways off. He turned his hooded head toward the soldier and spoke in a hoarse, strained voice. “I know why the Roman has come here.”
“What?” The soldier was taken aback, but recovered with a grin. “Well, tell me then! You’ll save us the trouble of torturing him to find out. Only joking! Go on, soothsayer, speak up.”
“He’s come to look for his son.”
The strange voice emerging from the faceless hood chilled my blood. Wings fluttered in my chest. Involuntarily, I whispered the name of my son: “Meto!”
The soothsayer reined his horse and turned about. “Tell the Roman to go home. He has no business here. There’s nothing he can do to help his son.” He rode off at a slow pace in the direction from which we had come, back toward the last redoubt of the forest.
The soldier grimaced and shivered like a dog shaking off water. “There’s a weird one. Not sad to see the back of him!”
Davus tugged at my sleeve. “Father-in-law, the fellow really is a soothsayer! How else could he have known—”
I hissed at Davus to silence him. For a mad moment I considered turning back to pursue the hooded figure, to see what else he could tell me. But I knew that the soldiers, for all their joking, would never have allowed it. For the moment, we were their prisoners.
We ascended a small hill. At the summit the soldier halted and pointed straight ahead at a distant hilltop ablaze with campfires. “You see that? There’s Caesar’s camp. And beyond that lies Massilia, with her back against the sea. She’ll open her gates to us, sooner or later. Because Caesar says so!”
I looked behind us. A sea of tree stumps shone white beneath the rising moon. The soothsayer had vanished into the night.
LAST SEEN IN MASSILIA Copyright © 2000 by Steven Saylor