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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


The Novel of Ancient Rome

Steven Saylor

St. Martin's Griffin


Chapter 1

As they rounded a bend in the path that ran beside the river, Lara recognized the silhouette of a fig tree atop a nearby hill. The weather was hot and the days were long. The fig tree was in full leaf, but not yet bearing fruit.

Soon Lara spotted other landmarks—an outcropping of limestone beside the path that had a silhouette like a man's face, a marshy spot beside the river where the waterfowl were easily startled, a tall tree that looked like a man with his arms upraised. They were drawing near to the place where there was an island in the river. The island was a good spot to make camp. They would sleep on the island tonight.

Lara had been back and forth along the river path many times in her short life. Her people had not created the path—it had always been there, like the river—but their deerskin-shod feet and the wooden wheels of their handcarts kept the path well worn. Lara's people were salt traders, and their livelihood took them on a continual journey.

At the mouth of the river, the little group of half a dozen intermingled families gathered salt from the great salt beds beside the sea. They groomed and sifted the salt and loaded it into handcarts. When the carts were full, most of the group would stay behind, taking shelter amid rocks and simple lean-tos, while a band of fifteen or so of the heartier members set out on the path that ran alongside the river.

With their precious cargo of salt, the travelers crossed the coastal lowlands and traveled toward the mountains. But Lara's people never reached the mountaintops; they traveled only as far as the foothills. Many people lived in the forests and grassy meadows of the foothills, gathered in small villages. In return for salt, these people would give Lara's people dried meat, animal skins, cloth spun from wool, clay pots, needles and scraping tools carved from bone, and little toys made of wood.

Their bartering done, Lara and her people would travel back down the river path to the sea. The cycle would begin again.

It had always been like this. Lara knew no other life. She traveled back and forth, up and down the river path. No single place was home. She liked the seaside, where there was always fish to eat, and the gentle lapping of the waves lulled her to sleep at night. She was less fond of the foothills, where the path grew steep, the nights could be cold, and views of great distances made her dizzy. She felt uneasy in the villages, and was often shy around strangers. The path itself was where she felt most at home. She loved the smell of the river on a hot day, and the croaking of frogs at night. Vines grew amid the lush foliage along the river, with berries that were good to eat. Even on the hottest day, sundown brought a cool breeze off the water, which sighed and sang amid the reeds and tall grasses.

Of all the places along the path, the area they were approaching, with the island in the river, was Lara's favorite.

The terrain along this stretch of the river was mostly flat, but in the immediate vicinity of the island, the land on the sunrise side was like a rumpled cloth, with hills and ridges and valleys. Among Lara's people, there was a wooden baby's crib, suitable for strapping to a cart, that had been passed down for generations. The island was shaped like that crib, longer than it was wide and pointed at the upriver end, where the flow had eroded both banks. The island was like a crib, and the group of hills on the sunrise side of the river were like old women mantled in heavy cloaks gathered to have a look at the baby in the crib—that was how Lara's father had once described the lay of the land.

Larth spoke like that all the time, conjuring images of giants and monsters in the landscape. He could perceive the spirits, called numina, that dwelled in rocks and trees. Sometimes he could speak to them and hear what they had to say. The river was his oldest friend and told him where the fishing would be best. From whispers in the wind he could foretell the next day's weather. Because of such skills, Larth was the leader of the group.

"We're close to the island, aren't we, Papa?" said Lara.

"How did you know?"

"The hills. First we start to see the hills, off to the right. The hills grow bigger. And just before we come to the island, we can see the silhouette of that fig tree up there, along the crest of that hill."

"Good girl!" said Larth, proud of his daughter's memory and powers of observation. He was a strong, handsome man with flecks of gray in his black beard. His wife had borne several children, but all had died very young except Lara, the last, whom his wife had died bearing. Lara was very precious to him. Like her mother, she had golden hair. Now that she had reached the age of childbearing, Lara was beginning to display the fullness of a woman's hips and breasts. It was Larth's greatest wish that he might live to see his own grandchildren. Not every man lived that long, but Larth was hopeful. He had been healthy all his life, partly, he believed, because he had always been careful to show respect to the numina he encountered on his journeys.

Respecting the numina was important. The numen of the river could suck a man under and drown him. The numen of a tree could trip a man with its roots, or drop a rotten branch on his head. Rocks could give way underfoot, chuckling with amusement at their own treachery. Even the sky, with a roar of fury, sometimes sent down fingers of fire that could roast a man like a rabbit on a spit, or worse, leave him alive but robbed of his senses. Larth had heard that the earth itself could open and swallow a man; though he had never actually seen such a thing, he nevertheless performed a ritual each morning, asking the earth's permission before he went striding across it.

"There's something so special about this place," said Lara, gazing at the sparkling river to her left and then at the rocky, tree-spotted hills ahead and to her right. "How was it made? Who made it?"

Larth frowned. The question made no sense to him. A place was never made, it simply was. Small features might change over time. Uprooted by a storm, a tree might fall into the river. A boulder might decide to tumble down the hillside. The numina that animated all things went about reshaping the landscape from day to day, but the essential things never changed, and had always existed: the river, the hills, the sky, the sun, the sea, the salt beds at the mouth of the river.

He was trying to think of some way to express these thoughts to Lara, when a deer, drinking at the river, was startled by their approach. The deer bolted up the brushy bank and onto the path. Instead of running to safety, the creature stood and stared at them. As clearly as if the animal had whispered aloud, Larth heard the words "Eat me." The deer was offering herself.

Larth turned to shout an order, but the most skilled hunter of the group, a youth called Po, was already in motion. Po ran forward, raised the sharpened stick he always carried and hurled it whistling through the air between Larth and Lara.

A heartbeat later, the spear struck the deer's breast with such force that the creature was knocked to the ground. Unable to rise, she thrashed her neck and flailed her long, slender legs. Po ran past Larth and Lara. When he reached the deer, he pulled the spear free and stabbed the creature again. The deer released a stifled noise, like a gasp, and stopped moving.

There was a cheer from the group. Instead of yet another dinner of fish from the river, tonight there would be venison.

The distance from the riverbank to the island was not great, but at this time of year—early summer—the river was too high to wade across. Lara's people had long ago made simple rafts of branches lashed together with leather thongs, which they left on the riverbanks, repairing and replacing them as needed. When they last passed this way, there had been three rafts, all in good condition, left on the east bank. Two of the rafts were still there, but one was missing.

"I see it! There—pulled up on the bank of the island, almost hidden among those leaves," said Po, whose eyes were sharp. "Someone must have used it to cross over."

"Perhaps they're still on the island," said Larth. He did not begrudge others the use of the rafts, and the island was large enough to share. Nonetheless, the situation required caution. He cupped his hands to his mouth and gave a shout. It was not long before a man appeared on the bank of the island. The man waved.

"Do we know him?" said Larth, squinting.

"I don't think so," said Po. "He's young—my age or younger, I'd say. He looks strong."

"Very strong!" said Lara. Even from this distance, the young stranger's brawniness was impressive. He wore a short tunic without sleeves, and Lara had never seen such arms on a man.

Po, who was small and wiry, looked at Lara sidelong and frowned. "I'm not sure I like the look of this stranger."

"Why not?" said Lara. "He's smiling at us."

In fact, the young man was smiling at Lara, and Lara alone.

His name was Tarketios. Much more than that, Larth could not tell, for the stranger spoke a language which Larth did not recognize, in which each word seemed as long and convoluted as the man's name. Understanding the deer had been easier than understanding the strange noises uttered by this man and his two companions! Even so, they seemed friendly, and the three of them presented no threat to the more numerous salt traders.

Tarketios and his two older companions were skilled metalworkers from a region some two hundred miles to the north, where the hills were rich with iron, copper, and lead. They had been on a trading journey to the south and were returning home. Just as the river path carried Larth's people from the seashore to the hills, so another path, perpendicular to the river, traversed the long coastal plain. Because the island provided an easy place to ford the river, it was here that the two paths intersected. On this occasion, the salt traders and the metal traders happened to arrive at the island on the same day. Now they met for the first time.

The two groups made separate camps at opposite ends of the island. As a gesture of friendship, speaking with his hands, Larth invited Tarketios and the others to share the venison that night. As the hosts and their guests feasted around the roasting fire, Tarketios tried to explain something of his craft. Firelight glittered in Lara's eyes as she watched Tarketios point at the flames and mime the act of hammering. Firelight danced across the flexing muscles of his arms and shoulders. When he smiled at her, his grin was like a boast. She had never seen teeth so white and so perfect.

Po saw the looks the two exchanged and frowned. Lara's father saw the same looks and smiled.

The meal was over. The metal traders, after many gestures of gratitude for the venison, withdrew to their camp at the far side of the island. Before he disappeared into the shadows, Tarketios looked over his shoulder and gave Lara a parting grin.

While the others settled down to sleep, Larth stayed awake a while longer, as was his habit. He liked to watch the fire. Like all other things, fire possessed a numen that sometimes communicated with him, showing him visions. As the last of the embers faded into darkness, Larth fell asleep.

Larth blinked. The flames, which had dwindled to almost nothing, suddenly shot up again. Hot air rushed over his face. His eyes were seared by white flames brighter than the sun.

Amid the dazzling brightness, he perceived a thing that levitated above the flames. It was a masculine member, disembodied but nonetheless rampant and upright. It bore wings, like a bird, and hovered in midair. Though it seemed to be made of flesh, it was impervious to the flames.

Larth had seen the winged phallus before, always in such circumstances, when he stared at a fire and entered a dream state. He had even given it a name, or more precisely, the thing had planted its name in his mind: Fascinus.

Fascinus was not like the numina that animated trees, stones, or rivers. Those numina existed without names. Each was bound to the object in which it resided, and there was little to differentiate one from another. When such numina spoke, they could not always be trusted. Sometimes they were friendly, but at other times they were mischievous or even hostile.

Fascinus was different. It was unique. It existed in and of itself, without beginning or end. Clearly, from its form, it had something to do with life and the origin of life, yet it seemed to come from a place beyond this world, slipping for a few moments through a breach opened by the heat of the dancing flames. An appearance by Fascinus was always significant. The winged phallus never appeared without giving Larth an answer to a dilemma that had been troubling him, or planting an important new thought in his mind. The guidance given to him by Fascinus had never led Larth astray.

Elsewhere, in distant lands—Greece, Israel, Egypt—men and women worshiped gods and goddesses. Those people made images of their gods, told stories about them, and worshiped them in temples. Larth had never met such people. He had never even heard of the lands where they lived, and he had never encountered or conceived of a god. The very concept of a deity such as those other men worshiped was unknown to Larth, but the closest thing to a god in his imagination and experience was Fascinus.

With a start, he blinked again.

The flames had died. In place of intolerable brightness there was only the darkness of a warm summer night lit by the faintest sliver of a moon. The air on his face was no longer hot but fresh and cool.

Fascinus had vanished—but not without planting a thought in Larth's mind. He hurried to the leafy bower beside the river where Lara liked to sleep, thinking to himself, It must be made so, because Fascinus says it must!

He knelt beside her, but there was no need to wake her. She was already awake.

"Papa? What is it?"

"Go to him!"

She did not need to ask for an explanation. It was what she had been yearning to do, lying restless and eager in the dark.

"Are you sure, Papa?"

"Fascinus . . . ," He did not finish the thought, but she understood. She had never seen Fascinus, but he had told her about it. Many times in the past, Fascinus had given guidance to her father. Now, once again, Fascinus had made its will known.

The darkness did not deter her. She knew every twist and turn of every path on the little island. When she came to the metal trader's camp, she found Tarketios lying in a leafy nook secluded from the others; she recognized him by his brawny silhouette. He was awake and waiting, just as she had been lying awake, waiting, when her father came to her.

At her approach, Tarketios rose onto his elbows. He spoke her name in a whisper. There was a quiver of something like desperation in his voice; his neediness made her smile. She sighed and lowered herself beside him. By the faint moonlight, she saw that he wore an amulet of some sort, suspended from a strap of leather around his neck. Nestled amid the hair on his chest, the bit of shapeless metal seemed to capture and concentrate the faint moonlight, casting back a radiance brighter than the moon itself.

His arms—the arms she had so admired earlier—reached out and closed around her in a surprisingly gentle embrace. His body was as warm and naked as her own, but much bigger and much harder. She wondered if Fascinus was with them in the darkness, for she seemed to feel the beating of wings between their legs as she was entered by the thing that gave origin to life.

The next morning, when the others began to wake and stir, Larth saw that Lara was back in the bower where she usually slept. He wondered if she had disobeyed him. Then he saw, by the look in her eyes and the smile on her face as she woke, that she had not.

While the others broke camp and made ready to depart, Larth called Po to his side. The youth was uncharacteristically slow to respond and kept his eyes averted while Larth spoke to him.

"Before we set out this morning, Po, I want you return to the place where you killed the deer yesterday. Rake the earth and cover any traces of blood on the path. If blood was spattered on leaves or loose stones, throw them in the river. This should have been done yesterday, but the light was fading and there was much work to do, skinning and roasting the deer. Do it now, before we set out. We can't leave blood on the trail."

"Why not?" said Po.

Larth was taken aback. Po had never used such a surly tone with him before. "Blood will attract vermin and predators. Blood on the trail may offend the numina that reside along the river, no matter that the deer freely offered herself. But I needn't explain these things to you. Do as I tell you!"

Po stared at the ground. Larth was about to speak again, more harshly, when he was distracted by the arrival of the metal traders, who had come to see them off.

Tarketios stepped forward. He made a great show of offering Larth a gift. It was an object made of iron, small enough to hold in the palm of one hand, with an opening at one end and a very sharp point at the other. It was a spearpoint made of iron—a very useful thing for bringing down the next deer that should cross the river path. Tarketios made it clear that he expected nothing in return.

Larth's people possessed a few crudely fashioned knives and scraping tools made of iron, but nothing as finely wrought as the spearpoint. He was very impressed. He showed it to Po. "What do you think of that?" he said. Before Po could answer, Larth reached for Po's spear and took it from his grasp. "You're the best hunter among us. You should have this. We'll let Tarketios show us how to fix the point to the shaft."

While Po stood dumbly by, Larth handed the spear and the iron point to Tarketios. Tarketios smiled at both men. The sight of his perfect teeth made Po's fingers twitch. With a small hammer and nails, Tarketios set about fixing the point to the shaft. Larth watched him work, fascinated, and took no notice of the deep red blush that spread across Po's face.

When the work was done, Tarketios handed the spear back to Po. The new point was heavier than Po had realized. The spear tilted forward in his hand and the iron point struck the ground with a thud.

"The balance is different," said Larth, laughing at the younger man's consternation. "You'll have to learn how to aim and throw all over again. But the new point should allow for a cleaner kill, don't you think? You won't need to throw as hard."

Po hurriedly shifted his grip and held the spear firmly upright again, grasping the shaft so tightly that his knuckles turned white.

A little later, as the salt traders were getting ready to depart from the island on the rafts, Tarketios approached Lara. He led her to a secluded spot. There were no words they could share to express what they were feeling. For a while they simply touched and held each other, then drew apart. In the same instant, each read the intention of the other: to offer a parting gift. The moment of shared understanding and the likeness of their intentions made them both laugh.

To Tarketios, Lara offered the most precious thing she could: a small clay vessel with a cork stopper, filled with pure white salt.

Tarketios accepted the gift, then set it aside. Over his head he lifted the leather strap around his neck, along with the amulet that hung from it. It was strange because it had no discernible shape; it appeared to be nothing more than small lump of unworked metal. But it was a metal such as she had never seen before, very heavy in the palm of her hand, and of a most unusual color, a pure yellow like the light of the sun. The only work that had been done on the metal was a small piercing that allowed it to be hung from the leather necklace.

Tarketios placed it over her head. He uttered something, naming the thing he had given her, but the word was only a strange sound in her ear. Lara had no way of knowing how precious the little lump was; it was the only metal that never tarnished. But by the look in Tarketios's eyes, she could see that he treasured it, and that by giving it, he honored her.

Although she did not yet know it, already he had given her another gift. A new life was quickening in her womb.

The sun was well up in the sky by the time the little band set out. Upriver from the island, the hills to their right receded and the river made a sweeping bend around a low, flat promontory. The first landmark they came to was a little path that led to some hot springs near the river. In cooler weather the springs were a favorite place to make camp, but not at this season.

Larth was settling into the rhythm of the walk when he suddenly remembered the task he had assigned to Po before they set out. He looked over his shoulder. "Did you clean the blood from the path?" he said.

By the look on Po's face he could see at once that his order had been ignored.

"Go back, then, and do it now!" he said, exasperated. "We won't wait for you. You'll have to run to catch up with us."

Without a word, Po stopped in his tracks. He let the others pass him. He watched as the band continued onward, until the last straggler disappeared from sight.

The spear in his hand seemed to quiver. He looked down and saw that his hands were trembling. It was one thing to act on impulse—to see a deer and instantly spring into action, to cast his spear and then stab the creature until it was dead, with hardly a thought until the deed was over. To do what he was now contemplating was something altogether different.

Po remained standing on the path for a long time. Finally he turned and headed back in the direction of the island, running at a steady trot, hefting the spear in his hand and judging its weight.

The terrain along the path steadily rose as the band proceeded upriver. Several times, at places which afforded a view, Larth paused and asked Lara, whose eyes were better than his, to look back the way they had come. She saw no sign of Po, or of anyone else on the trail. The sun began to sink, and still Po had not rejoined the group. Larth grew fearful. He should not have sent the youth alone. Because Po had disobeyed him, anger had clouded his judgment.

But just as the group stopped to make camp for the night, Po appeared. He strode toward them at a steady pace, not rushed or out of breath. Instead he seemed calm and relaxed.

"You took your time!" said Larth.

"What was the hurry? A man can't get lost, following the river path."

"You did as I told you?"

"Of course."

Larth's eyes had weakened, but he retained a sharp sense of smell. He looked at Po more closely, especially at his hair and his hands. They were very clean—unusually so. "You have the smell of the hot springs on you."

For several heartbeats, Po did not answer. "Yes. I stopped to bathe in the springs."

"You even washed this." Larth touched the youth's woolen tunic. It was freshly rinsed and still slightly damp.

"I felt . . . the blood of the deer on me. You said to cover all traces. The numina along the trail . . ." Po lowered his eyes. "I felt the need to wash myself."

Larth nodded. He said no more.

The place where they camped was near a high, steep hill. From past journeys, when his eyes had been sharper, Larth knew that from the summit of the hill a man could see a great distance. He found Lara and told her to come with him.

"Where are we going, Papa?"

"To the top of the hill. Quickly, while there's still daylight."

She followed, puzzled by his urgency. When they reached the top, Larth took a moment to catch his breath, then pointed in the downriver direction. The sinking sun was in their eyes. It cast a red glow across the land and turned the winding river into a ribbon of flame. Even with his poor eyesight, Larth could discern the hilly region near the island, though the island itself was hidden. He pointed toward it.

"There, daughter. Where the island lies. Do you see anything?"

She shrugged. "Hills, water, trees."

"Something moving?"

She narrowed her eyes and shielded her brow. Silhouetted against the red haze of the sunset, she saw a multitude of tiny flecks of black above the island, slowly circling and riding the wind, as bits of cinder spin above a fire.

"Vultures," she said. "I see many vultures."

Later, while the others slept, Larth remained awake, as was his habit. He watched the fire for a while, then rose and walked stealthily to the place where Po lay. The youth was sleeping by himself, away from the others, as if he wanted to keep his distance from them. His spear lay close beside him. To take it, Larth had to be very careful not to wake him.

By the firelight, he looked very closely at the iron point. Even in the hot springs, it must have been impossible to scrub every bit of blood from the hammered metal. In tiny, jagged fissures, traces of blood yet remained.

He returned to Po and stood over him. He pressed the spearpoint to the youth's throat and gave him a kick.

Po stirred, gave a start, then was instantly awake. A bead of blood appeared around the spearpoint pressed to his neck. He gasped and gripped the shaft with both hands, but Larth exerted all his strength to hold it steady.

"Speak in a whisper!" he said, not wanting to wake the others. "Remove your hands from the spear! Put your arms at your side! That's better. Now tell me the truth. All three of them—or only Tarketios?"

For a long time, Po did not answer. Larth saw his eyes flash in the darkness and heard his ragged breathing. Though Po lay very still, Larth could feel the quivering tension of the youth's body transmitted through the shaft of the spear.

"All of them," Po said at last.

Larth felt a great coldness descend upon him. Until that moment, he had not been sure of the truth. "Their bodies?"

"In the river."

My oldest friend, fouled with blood! thought Larth. What would the numen of the river think of him and his people now?

"They'll flow to the sea," Po said. "I left no trace—"

"No! At least one of the bodies must have grounded on the riverbank."

"How can you know that?"

"Vultures!" Larth could picture the scene—blood in the water, a corpse amid the rushes, the vultures circling overhead.

Larth shook his head. What a hunter the boy must be, to stalk and kill three men! And what a fool! Could the people afford to lose him? Could they afford to keep him? It was in Larth's power to kill him, here and now, but he would have to justify his action to the others. More than that, he would have to justify the action to himself.

At last, Larth sighed. "I know everything you do, Po. Remember that!" He lifted the spearpoint from the youth's throat. He let the spear fall to the ground. He turned away and went back to his place by the fire.

It might have been worse. If the boy had been such a fool that he killed only Tarketios, then the other two would surely have come after him, seeking vengeance. They would have taken the news back to their people. The knowledge that one of the salt traders had done such a thing would have spread. The consequences and recriminations could have continued for a lifetime, perhaps for generations.

As it was, only the numina along the trail would know, and the river, and the vultures. And Larth.

He gazed at the fire and wished, more fervently than he had ever wished before, that Fascinus would appear to him that night. Fascinus could put in his mind the proper thing to do. But the fire died to darkness, and Fascinus did not appear.

It would never appear to him again.

That night, except for the vultures, whose gullets were stuffed with carrion, the little island in the river was deserted.

As long as Larth lived, the salt traders never camped there again. He told them that lemures—shades of the restless dead—had come to dwell upon the island. Because Larth was known to possess a deep knowledge of such things, the others accepted what he said without question.

As winter turned to spring, Lara gave birth to a son. The birth was difficult, and Lara very nearly died. But when her suffering was most acute, for the first and only time in her life, she had a vision of Fascinus, and a voice in her head assured her that she and her child would both survive. All the while, she clutched the lump of gold that hung from the necklace around her neck, and the cool metal seemed to absorb her pain. In her delirium, the gold and Fascinus became one and the same. Afterward, she told her father that the numen of the winged phallus had come to dwell in the gold.

Shortly after the birth, in a simple ceremony near the salt beds beside the sea, Lara was wedded to Po. Though he knew better, Po claimed the child as his own. He did this because Larth told him he must, and he could see that Larth was right. Po would never be as wise in the ways of the numina as was his father-in-law, but even he could sense that his act of violence on the island demanded an act of contrition. By accepting the son of the man he had killed, Po made restitution to the lemur of Tarketios. He also appeased any numina which had witnessed and been offended by the blood he had deliberately shed.

Over the years, Lara's memories of Tarketios grew dim, but the gold amulet he had given her, which she now believed to house the numen of Fascinus, never lost its luster. Before she died, she gave the amulet to her son. Her explanation of its origin was not true, but was not a lie either, for Lara had come to believe less in her dim memories than in the fanciful stories she had invented to take their place. "The gold came from the fire," she told her son, "the same fire above which your grandfather saw Fascinus on the last night we camped on the island. Without Fascinus, my son, you would never have been conceived. Without Fascinus, neither you nor I would have survived your birth."

Fascinus inspired conception. Fascinus safeguarded birth. It had another power, as well: Fascinus could avert the evil eye. Lara knew this from experience, because after her son was born, she had heard other women whisper behind her back, and had caught them looking at her strangely. In truth, they looked at her with curiosity and suspicion, but she interpreted their gazes as envy. The gazes of the envious, as her father had taught her, could cause illness, misfortune, even death. But with Fascinus hanging from her neck, Lara had felt safe, confident that the dazzling luster of the gold could deflect even the most dangerous gaze.

As the amulet and the story of its origin were passed down to succeeding generations, it was left to Lara's descendents to ponder the exact role played by Fascinus in the continuation of the family line. Had the winged phallus itself emerged from the flames to impregnate Lara? Had such an instance of intercourse between numina and humankind ever occurred before, or since? Was it because a numen had fathered her child that the other women had been suspicious and envious of Lara? Had Fascinus made a gift of the gold knowing that Lara would need it to protect herself, and to safeguard his own offspring?

The gold amulet, its true origin forgotten, was passed down through the generations.

Many years passed. Larth's warning of restless lemures on the island in the river was forgotten, and the salt traders once again camped there. Still, the island and the surrounding area remained nothing more than a stopping place. Deer, rabbits, and wolves roamed the seven nearby hills. Frogs and dragonflies dwelled in the marshy lowlands between the hills. Birds passed overhead and saw below them no sign of human occupation.

Elsewhere in the world, men built great cities, made war, consecrated temples to gods, sang of heroes, and dreamed of empires. In faraway Egypt, the dynasties of the Pharaohs had already reigned for millennia; the Great Pyramid of Giza was more than 1,500 years old. The war of the Greeks against Troy was two hundred years in the past; the taking of Helen and the wrath of Achilles had already passed into legend. In Israel, King David had captured the old city of Jerusalem and made it his capital, and his son Solomon was building the first temple to the god Yahweh. Further to the east, migrating Aryans were founding the kingdoms of Media and Parsa, forerunners of the great Persian empire.

But the island in the river, and the seven nearby hills, remained unsettled by men and overlooked by the gods, a place where nothing of particular importance had ever happened.

Copyright © 2007 by Steven Saylor. All rights reserved