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

Вы читаете Roma.The novel of ancient Rome
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