'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 about. 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 1 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

Вы читаете Last seen in Massilia
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату