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.

Вы читаете Roma.The novel of ancient Rome
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