Steven Saylor

Last seen in Massilia

Ubi tu qui colere mores Massiliensis postulas? Nunc tu si uis subtigitare me, probast ocassio.

— Plautus, Castina (963–964)


'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 toad.'

'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…'

'But, father-in-law-'

'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 semicircular 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.'

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