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Authors: Steven Saylor

Last Seen in Massilia

BOOK: Last Seen in Massilia
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Critical Praise for Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa
Series Featuring Gordianus the Finder

“Saylor presents a vivid tableau of an ancient city under siege and an empire riven by internecine strife. Readers will impatiently long for the next book in what stands as one of today’s finest historical mystery series.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Last Seen in Massilia

“Saylor’s scholarship is breathtaking and his writing enthralls.”

—Ruth Rendell,
The Sunday Times
(London) on
The Venus Throw

“Saylor provides historically accurate portrayals while never losing grasp of a captivating plot. His mysteries evolve with intelligent turns and vivid imagination.”


The Seattle Times
on
Rubicon

“Saylor rivals Robert Graves in his knack for making the classical world come alive. The puzzle is subtle, the characterizations vivid, the writing sublime—proof that the mystery can be a work of art.”


The Oregonian
(Portland) on
The Venus Throw

“Engrossing…Saylor’s understanding of the rich complexity of Roman life has a universal ring.”


San Francisco Chronicle
on
Catilina’s Riddle

“Saylor impeccably re-creates life in Imperial Rome…. An intriguing mix of historical accuracy and tense drama.”


St. Louis Post-Dispatch
on
Arms of Nemesis

“The stories are admirably varied—some are extensive mysteries; others offer short, sharp slices of life. All are marvelous reads in themselves and marvelous reflections of ancient Rome.”


Booklist
(starred review) on
A Gladiator Dies Only Once

“Gripping…a combination of Hitchcock-style suspense and vivid historical detail.”


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
on
Roman Blood

Additional Praise for Steven Saylor

“A vivid and robust writer, Steven Saylor invests his books with exquisite detail and powerful drama.”


The Philadelphia Inquirer
on
A Mist of Prophecies

“As always in Saylor’s historical fiction, the interaction between the powerful and the ordinary is a great strength, as is the evocation of an ancient city: he does here for Alexandria what he has already achieved for Rome…. Saylor evokes the ancient world more convincingly than any writer of his generation.”


The Times
(London) on
The Judgment of Caesar

“Fast-paced action, a deeply realized main character, and accessible history make this series first-rate on all fronts.”


Booklist
(starred review) on
The Triumph of Caesar

“Saylor is not the dry-as-dust type; he offers us sex, violence, duplicity, and a worldly acceptance of the varieties of human behavior—there’s an unpretentious lightness of touch in everything.”


The Boston Globe

“Readers will escape with pleasure into this lush, meticulously portrayed world of ancient Rome.”


The Christian Science Monitor

“Saylor puts such great detail and tumultuous life into his scenes that the sensation of rubbing elbows with the ancients is quite uncanny.”


The New York Sunday Times Book Review

For my sister, Gwyn,
THIS BOOK

Ubi tu es qui colere mores Massiliensis postulas?
Nunc tu si uis subigitare me, probast occasio.

—P
LAUTUS
,
Casina
(963–964)

I

“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 road.”

“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 semi-circular 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!”

“Who?”

“The traveling singer. After you went to sleep, I stayed up to listen. He sang about this place.”

“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 around. 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 I throw the dice. Otherwise, I don’t imagine the gods take much notice of me.”

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