Etruscan swan song, p.7
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       Etruscan swan song, p.7

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  Next evening, while Janu was roasting a hare he had just caught, Marcus Fabius finished tracing his plan of attack on wax tablets. He kept thinking about the woman giving birth in the stream so proudly, but most of all he was thinking about the young siren, when suddenly he heard a celestial song. He leapt up and followed the voice, in the distance he could see a figure on the Palanzana Pass gathering rose petals by the light of the moon and carefully storing them in a fold of her filmy robe. By the moon’s rays he could see her splendid face shining brighter than any diamond, brighter than the panel of embroidered gold at her breast. It was his siren, moving so lightly over the silver dew that she seemed to float.

  Marcus crept closer, careful to remain concealed, and when he looked more closely he realised that her bare feet did not touch the ground and, despite being bathed in full moonlight, she cast no shadow. When the girl caught him watching her in amazement she was suddenly transformed and Marcus found himself facing a humpbacked, crippled old crone who advanced towards him with her toothless mouth agape in crazy laughter. She hobbled along leaning on a gnarled ash plant, her sparse white hair wound around her head like a bird’s nest and three owls with dark yellow eyes poked out of the filthy apron she wore knotted over her dirty, worn dress. Before Marcus could say a word the owls started to peck her head and she disappeared into the darkness of the forest.

  As he looked around for her Marcus heard the light sound of feet striking the ground rhythmically as someone danced. He cocked an ear for a moment and then leapt into the undergrowth, shaking the bushes to make sure they hid nothing and then peering through the tangle of branches he saw a shadow dancing in the firelight. Hoping it was the mysterious siren, he ran swiftly towards the shadow. Suddenly he found himself in front of a cave where someone had lit a fire in a circle of grey stones.

  The only person the flames illuminated was an old gypsy with a wrinkled face so roughened by the smoke from endless fires that it looked like a funeral mask. An old rag did duty as a cloak, thrown over his shoulders; he had a long, tangled white beard, as wiry as donkey’s coat and his completely bald head was garlanded with a wreath of bay leaves woven with medlar and hemlock flowers. Moss grew on his bare, hardened feet. He was dancing half-naked under the stars in ecstasy, every now and again he broke off his dance and ran to the fire to brand a goat’s skin with a burning iron hook heated in the flames, only to start dancing again while he watched the skies with feverish eyes. As soon as he realised that someone was watching him the deep shadows under his eyes suddenly became bottomless pits and he tried to flee.

  Marcus was too quick for him and blocked his path. Then saluted him with a raised arm and his usual mocking smile on his thin lips.

  “Greetings to you, old man. Tell me, have you lived in this cave for long?”

  “When I arrived here the earth was still unformed and empty, darkness cloaked the depths and the spirit hovered over the waters.” Replied the old man darkly.

  “What do you mean?”

  “It means that when I came here, your mother and the mother of your mother and the mother of the mother of your mother together with all the generations of sluts before them, were still sleeping in a fantasy world of dreams and it would have been much better for everyone if they had never awakened.”

  Marcus was not at all upset by this impertinent answer, he even seemed amused and went on smiling during the diatribe.

  “If you were younger and in your right mind, a real man, I would have smashed your face to pulp by now, scattered your bones out to dry in the sun and hauled the remains of your carcass into a tree to hang there by its entrails. But I’d be wasting my time with an old fossil like you whose grave lies gaping behind each tree in the forest, there’s no point in blunting my sword’s blade on your tough old hide.”

  “Oh yes, you can see from a mile off that you’re a bold, violent type, always spoiling for a fight, and although you could sully your insolent sword with my poor exhausted body you certainly could never wound my soul. Even were you to tie me up hand and foot and drag me off to a dark cell you couldn’t imprison my thoughts, which would fly off as free as a migrating bird fluttering from bush to bush and soaring from limitless sky to limitless sky.”

  “You‘re so wise old man that I’ll have to pardon you. So let’s start from the beginning again, shall we? Who are you, where are you from? Who do you descend from, where is your native land, what are you doing here?”

  “Every cave is my native land, the human race is my tribe, but I am a stranger wherever I go.”

  “Not more of that! You don’t think you should be a little bit frightened of me by any chance, do you? All I ask is what ocean of pain brought you to these shores.”

  The old man was silent and Marcus began to lose his temper.

  “So you refuse to talk, do you? Plague take you, come, tell me who you are and let’s get it over and done with.”

  “And who may you be, what do you want from me, what hell have you crawled out of? You don’t really think you can frighten me, do you? Or do you want me to throw myself on my knees and implore mercy as if you were a god? Who are you? You’re not brown enough to be a foreigner from the far lands beyond our sea, so if you’re not a common robber, or a more exotic corsair, what other sort of barbarian are you? I don’t think you’re one of those wretches who come here to do penance for their crimes, or one of those madmen who hide here from the rest of the world, living on grass and birds, betrayed by their own minds. But that’s enough! I hate idle conversation, tell me which your true portrait is!”

  “My true portrait, old man?”

  “Of course, someone as proud and arrogant as you, ready to stick his knife into anyone, who kills without thinking twice, doesn’t wander round these forests merely to pick some fresh fruits or gather a bit of firewood. A man who chooses to live here where the sands of time run slowly through the hourglass has to be ready to suffer fevers, hunger, thirst and the immense desolation to then lift his spirit up to the heavens, but you don’t seem to fit that category either, so what are you doing here? I’ve been chasing my shadow under the stars and talking to myself out here for more than three hundred years, but I’ve never seen anyone like you, ready to give even the moon a good kicking.”

  “Three hundred years? “Echoed Marcus. ”So solitude really does turn the brain…”

  “Does three hundred years seem such a long time to you, little man? Don’t you know that you lay dreaming on a goat’s skin for thousands of years, back to the time when the great mammoth roamed the earth and ice still hadn’t covered the land and that you’ve only just come out of hibernation? If I could show you solid proof that this is the truth would you still think me mad?”

  “I realise that you’re not very keen on questions, so I won’t pry anymore, not even into the vexed question of how old you are exactly. But if you’ve lived here so long perhaps you can help me. Have you ever seen a lovely, wild creature like a siren with long hair down to her feet anywhere around the hot spring waterfall? She had a roe deer with her and was playing a strange instrument, her skin shone in its…”

  “....brightness? And did she have black eyes like two pools in the night, skin brighter than the sun, and as soon as she saw you did she leap off, swifter than her own deer, with her skirts flying around her long legs until she disappeared into a crack in the rock and the waterfall of boiling water covered any trace of her with a curtain of grey vapour?”

  “Yes… that’s exactly what happened! So, you know her well, do you? Tell me all about her old man, what’s her name, where does she live, who is she?”

  “I bet you hunted for her all through the light and shade, you would have combed the clouds and the stars to find her, but if she doesn’t want to be found, you’ll never find her. There are seven girls like her here in the forest, their names are taboo, they never reveal them to anyone because merely to say them would be sacrilege. All I can tell you is that you have seen one of the seven priestesses who
are the guardians of the Holy Woods, but if the long-robed maiden you saw had a roe deer with her then she was the youngest of the seven sisters, the one I call Uri to distinguish her from the others.”


  “That’s right, Uri! In my country it means a maiden with eyes as black as the night. Uri is one of the vestals of the tribe of the daughters of Arius. They are wild, mysterious women, mistresses of the magic arts, they know the past, present and future and they never let anyone come anywhere near them. They live hidden in the bowels of the earth, in bottomless caves with secret, invisible entrances. They have lived in these woods since the beginning of time. They have strange habits; they live on fresh milk and distil honeydew from oak trees and feed bears on it from wooden cups that they themselves have chiselled. They know all nature’s secrets and know how to cure the animals they find wounded in the woods with their roots and herbs: mandragora, verbena, mistletoe, rose mallow, nettles and a thousand other plants, and they look after them in their secret caves until they are completely healed and…”

  Marcus sniggered ironically. “By all the gods of Olympus you’ve got a fervid imagination, old man, these sisters are really talented… demi-goddesses who sow the clouds with chick peas and then harvest mushrooms from the heavens. From the way you’re talking it sounds as if these women can work miracles with a few simple roots. Women like that must know where rainbows are born and where thunder dies, they can probably harvest juicy red grapes from a thicket of briars. By all that’s sacred, what’s this fable, old man? You’d have me believe that a tribe made up of women alone have lived in this forest since ancient times?”

  “And what about you, you son of a monkey who hasn’t even lost his tail yet? What do you think you’re doing when you use poppies, clover and elderflowers? Your savage ancestors, revolting monkeys, as I said, had just emerged from the bowels of the earth to swing from the branches of the forest trees and imitate bird song when the divine daughters of Arius already knew how to make honeycomb, taught people how to make bread from spelt flour and how to grill meat over aromatic fires. Many dawns and many dusks were to go by before your hairy forebears picked up a flint and started to chip at it. The priestesses are the fruit of an apparition, the result of a higher decision to promote collective growth. They brought the seeds of flax, barley, lupin with them and all these trees, big and small that surround us and they made the wilderness flower.

  Your wretched life certainly hasn’t taught you the virtue of humility, don’t you know that the whole universe is forever moving and forever still? Everything is equal in nature, there’s no difference between your imposing house, my cave and an insect’s tiny burrow. The wind that stirs the leaves on the top of that tree over there is the same as the one that’s tickling your wiry beard, and when it gets bored with you it’ll go off and whip up the waves on the sea.”

  “What’s all this about insects, winds and monkeys? What are you babbling about, old man?”

  “What you don’t realise is that when the priestesses first arrived elephants still roamed around the forest and men were still lurking in caves, they wore animal pelts, had no weapons and didn’t know how to tame horses. The maidens taught them how to work the magic black rock that drops from the sky like a thunderbolt and they used it to make their first axes and...”

  “Planting trees, sowing flowers and making arms aren’t miracles, old man. And how are these maidens supposed to have got here? Did they just walk across the seas trailing their long arms against the skies?”

  “Be quiet, blasphemer, be quiet, you don’t know what you’re saying…What are you after here on these mountains anyway? Do you think that the transcendent spirit of the maidens is about to fling wide the gates of heaven just so that you can catch a glimpse of mighty Jupiter riding his unicorn or perhaps you think they should revive the red woolly mammoth or the double-horned rhinoceros who grazed peacefully here for centuries?”

  “All I need to believe all this would be to see…”

  “What? A flying donkey? Arius’s daughters work real miracles, not the sort of conjuror’s tricks you’re thinking of. I’ve met several of them since I came to live in these woods and they all work magic, especially the seven vestals of the Holy Woods. I know that each of these marvellous creatures is more beautiful than the next, but just in case you get any strange ideas about Uri, or even if you are only thinking of trying to find her, you’d do much better to dig a grave under that oak tree and bury yourself alive so that its roots can feed on your blood and your remains will lie safely under its branches for all eternity. Take my advice and get away from here as quickly as you can, go away if you don’t want to be thrown into the pool of the Holy Waters, those muddy, boiling waters that flay a man’s flesh from his bones and part his soul from his body. Whatever it is you seek, leave now while you can. Forget you ever saw the fair vestal before all that’s left of you is a bleached skeleton.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Because you shouldn’t dream of coming through here. These forests and all that lives in them, flies over them or burrows under them are guarded by the daughters of Arius. They don’t let anyone cut the trees down, lumber from these forests has never gone to make prisons, scaffolds, gallows or even bird cages. Uri may appear as delicate as a lily bud, more fragile and transparent than a drop of dew as it falls from moon’s eye, sweeter than a basket of strawberries and honey, but in reality she, like all her sisters, are capable of feats you wouldn’t dream of. If she so desires she can turn into a cloud in a blink, and then from cloud to monster, even into a serpent with fiery eyes, and then in a beat of a swallow’s wings she can turn back into the extraordinarily beautiful young girl you encountered. But that isn’t all, she is capable of much more than these simple spells.”

  “Indeed, I have seen her change before my very eyes. In a fraction of a second she became a lame old hag, but I can’t believe what I actually saw because if it were true it would be much more than a simple spell, old man.”

  “These forests conceal thousands of marvels. If you intend to cross this wilderness then you’ll have to learn to digest the thorns in each of its thickets.”

  “Thousands of marvels? How can you possibly think I’m going to believe tales like that, old man? ”

  “Because I never lie. You’re talking to Hanibald from the noble, ancient line of Debora, you ignorant savage. My father was Tobi, son of the Great Mother Debora herself. She could work lead better than a hundred skilled craftsmen and knew a secret recipe to transform dirty water into virgins’ milk and, when it curdled, into precious stones. I was born of her line and as I slept in my papyrus cradle I listened to my mother singing King Solomon’s Song of Songs, in those far off arid lands where the heather and the candid lily grow unaware of the caravans of merchants who struggle through the sands, where the lotus flower born in the waters is ever thirsty. Is that answer enough to your question, you faithless little mortal, or do you want to know more?

  You look at me and say nothing. Perhaps you’re wondering whether once upon a time, many years ago, I was as young and strong as you are now? Certainly, when I came out of my mother’s womb I was happy and grew up with dreams of flying on magic stags. I remember my mother as if she was here beside me: her hands were always full of white jasmine blossoms and when she cradled me in her arms the bracelets around her ankles tinkled softly. Sometimes I can still smell her perfume and I often wake up at night to the sound of her bells. As a boy I was fascinated by the sea and when I went to gather sea fennel on the cliffs I would peer over the sheer drop, lost in dreams. On clear days I thought I could see myriad stars and planets in its transparent depths and I was never afraid of the black gullies with their monstrous mouths agape, ready to devour me.

  As I grew up I, like every other living thing on the planet whether they be man, beast or bird, fell into the furnace of love and in the grip of that fever which obliterates all else, that hot wave that erodes whole mountain ranges, like a crazed
stallion who gnaws his own limbs away to run free, I fled into the desert with the Bedouin’s daughter. Lovely and ardent was she, wide-hipped and with rose-scented burnished skin, the essence of the desert. I played the lover with her for many moons, languishing over her breasts, her hair and mixing my blood with hers, but.... when our wells ran dry I realised that the time for play was past. So I studied the hundred roads I could take ahead and chose the hardest.

  For years I sowed seeds in the arid soil and waited to see the first shoots emerge from its harsh folds, for years I fought the bleak earth with its thistles, weeds and rocks which seemed to pop up over night in the ploughed fields like mushrooms. That earth drank all my blood and was ever thirsty for more. I always sacrificed a tenth of my harvest to the gods, the best ears of wheat, the first wool, the first black figs, the first bunches of grapes, wine, oil and pomegranates. Another portion I distributed among widows and orphans, and yet I was unfulfilled.

  One day as I turned the olive press I felt as if I was blindfolded, I could no longer see the pressed oil. This had already happened to me before while I was pressing grapes and again one morning when I was haggling with some merchants over some sacrificial doves, suddenly I could no longer see the merchants or the doves. Nothing in the world aroused my interest any more, but I didn’t want to give in, the only thing I understood was that I no longer wanted the burden of possessions. I desired to follow the seasons, the majesty of the passing years, to seek a nest in each flower and a flower in each nest to grasp the roots of life in my bare hands. I desired to find death in the wrinkles on my face and in the seeds of each fruit, but how?

  Finally one stormy day I suddenly had an inspiration: the harvesters were fleeing with sheaves of grain on their heads, fleeing before the thunder arrived. I stood, immobile under the pouring rain, trying to understand: were those men really fleeing from the storm or were they running to embrace it? Without waiting for the answer I fled too, I left my beloved garden with its trees of incense, myrrh and aloe and its thousand herbs and spices. I left my tribe, my wives, my children, my house and my camels to wander around the world, a desert monk, seeking the stars under the golden sands. Finally free to contemplate nature, for years I was wracked by thirst as I followed the howling wind that scattered and buried whole caravans in cemeteries of sand as deep as fiery caverns, until one day while I admired an immaculate flower that rose from the mud around a spring like a star, I met the prophet Zoroaster, peace and blessings be on him. I soon became his disciple and his god became my god, the god that is the sun in the skies and fire on earth.

  One day as my divine master, peace and blessings on him, was walking in a pomegranate orchard he went into a trance and received a message from Mithra, the god incarnate of the ancient Persians. The message told of a mountain which was the focus of celestial powers, a reference point for the stars. To reach this holy mountain all we had to do was find the nebulous wake of a certain star. I, Hanibald, who had learned the arts of astronomy and astrology from my divine master, peace and blessings on him, sought and found that star and three hundred years ago, to follow its hairy wake, I left the deserts of Persia. I covered my head with ashes because my hair wasn’t white in those days, clothed myself in sackcloth and with a bamboo walking stick and a brass bowl, struggling with Satan every step of the way, I made my way to this mysterious cradle of nature where the star halted.”

  “You’re not trying to tell me that you’re one of those priest-sorcerers from the days of Zoroaster, are you? And you’re still trying to make me believe that you’re over three hundred years old. Nobody can live that long.”

  Hanibald murmured as if he was talking to himself.

  “O dullard and infidel, are you teased by a spider’s web of years? Stop and think… how long does a fig tree live? An olive? A tortoise? Do you know how long a snail lives? As long as the moon is in the sky everything around us is moving and nothing stays still. Think of heaven and earth which batten each other constantly, think of the squared circle that becomes a dot, the dot that become nought and, if you can, think of eternity. Think that a traveller without a guide like you can get lost in this black forest. Here one night can last a thousand years and more, mysterious time runs its course without seeking your permission and when you leave here, if you ever do, you will find yourself in a time without time.”

  “What are you muttering about, you evil genius? By all the gods how I wish you weren’t so old and infirm, then I could show you a thing or two. I could make a very nice drum from your leathery hide… what secrets does your sick mind harbour behind these ramblings?”

  “Go and hang yourself from the chief executioner’s lintel, you stupid, obstinate, heartless fellow. You’re just an ant who thinks he’s a bull. You want to measure the world by pacing it out when the thing you should be measuring is your spirit. I hope that you’ll soon come to a sticky end in these woods.”

  Hanibald picked a burning brand up out of the fire:

  “The incessant moaning of the north wind can deprive even the powerful eagle of its sight, and once blind it fails to find it way back to its own nest. But a little ant can be maddened by a mere spark from a burning brand. You think I’m mad, don’t you? Perhaps you’re right.”

  “What do you mean? I think you’d better explain, old man, because I’m beginning to lose my patience.”

  “What I mean is that we two are different, when you descend to the fiery depths of your hell, I rise to my heaven. But come with me, come and discover the secret of my madness. During all these years, day after day, I’ve etched all the movements of the heavens on the rough rock, and, day after day, I’ve touched the heart of eternity. But before entering this holy place, little mortal, you must shake off the cobweb which covers your brain just as the wayfarer shakes the dust off his sandals.”

  Despite his eccentricity, his tangled beard and the absurd wreath on his bald head emphasizing the sunken eyes in his corpse-like face, Hanibald inspired respect and obedience. He radiated an immense internal force, a spiritual strength that Marcus had never encountered, so he followed him even as his ironic smile became a grimace of disapproval.

  The monk led the way with a firm step, and the torch illuminated drawings here and there on the rough walls of the cave, endless astronomic maps of the stars. Hanibald moved around the dim cave confidently, proudly showing Marcus one constellation after the other and the spinning planets by the flickering light of the torch. In the midst of that maze of lines and complex signs he unerringly pointed to a precise spot on the rocky wall:

  “You see that bright red star there? That’s Jacob’s star, the brightest in its constellation, it was conceived from the opaque light of our hopes at the beginning of time. It is older than the ancient moon and has been up there since all was chaos, before time chimed its hours with its iron-shod hooves, long before winter invented the spring, long before the forests were lulled on angels’ wings by the gentle glow of the fireflies. Much later, when the earth was born from the vast waters which covered the infant world and soil reared its head in the midst of the first fragile blades of grass, that star was still there, and when you and I and every flower on this mountain will be reborn in thousands and thousands of years time, as the natural cycle of life and death so decrees, it will still be there illuminating that quarter of the heavens.

  One of my divine master Zoroaster’s prophecies, peace and blessings on him who read the skies from his perch on a cloud, claimed that when men will see that star from the east it will mark the miraculous birth of a divine child. The king of a kingdom above all earthly kingdoms, able to resurrect the dead. He will be born to the descendants of Abraham and will be cradled on straw in a manger, adored by kings and beggars both. He will travel over many lands during His brief life and will be counted a stranger in each, mad, a madman in the midst of other madmen, but when He speaks all will be silent, the whole world will stop and listen to Him and His countenance will shine like molten gold. Many will dismiss Him a
s a fanatic, a rabble-rouser, an outlaw preaching to other outlaws and one dark Friday during the spring, when the snows of Lebanon are melting and watering the parched valleys and the red anemones unfurl their petals like drops of blood, that wayfarer King on the way which leads to the temple will be betrayed by a man called Judas; betrayed, sold and.... crucified.”

  “Crucified? A great King who resurrects the dead? And this is all written in that star? What tale are you telling now, old man?”

  “Yes! The Messiah, the King of the Jews, will be crucified! Many will weave him a crown of thorns, many soldiers will be there, Roman soldiers, in their arrogance, faithlessness and stupidity.”

  “Why do you say that those soldiers will be Roman?”

  “Because that is what is written in the stars, can’t you see? On a black Friday they will drag him up to Golgotha and do to death Jesus of Nazareth, who came into this world to cure the blind and the deaf, and when the time comes the whole world will be terrified of night everlasting; the earth will be rent, the seas will tremble, the mountains will vomit gobbets of flame and while frogs, dogs and birds speak the wells will run red blood.

  Can’t you see? It’s all written here in the stars. I understand your amazement, because your clay heart has hardened in the sun’s kiln and is no longer capable of feeling anything, but what use is a voice in the land of the deaf? If you can’t hear the music of water running down to the sea, if you can’t recognise the sound of someone walking towards eternity, then these scribblings of mine will merely look like a child’s drawings on the sand, whereas from this line here to three lengths and a span from this one, thousands and thousands of years of planet movements have been recorded, planets which tell the story of the world.

  You must know that the movement of heavenly bodies determine our lives and deaths. The stars govern man’s life and spirit from the first breath he draws after his mother’s scream and sometimes they shed their petals like blooming roses, fragments of tiny drops of stellar dew that turn into precious stones when they land on earth, treasures which create a connection between man and heaven, to our delight.”

  “So,” Marcus answered ”you believe that the stars are like the gods who keep men below them so that they can dominate them until the end of time and, like the gods, send men whole bundles of pain so that they will be prayed to and asked for succour and what’s more they rain terrible storms and earthquakes on our heads so that we will raise our voices to the heavens and bow down before them, is that right, old man? Do you truly think this or are you just spinning tales?”

  “The stars observe the sky from above, but can you do the same, little mortal? Life isn’t all pain, if we truly want to we can see the marvels of divine nature beyond the firmament, following in the footsteps of the planets. Don’t you know that even the smallest star can make the gods green with envy? They can order the winds to drown the land under the seas, order the waves to ferment in the vortex and inhale the dark sands and then to spit them out and cover every living thing in oblivion. Can you see this rare conjunction of Venus and Jove here? That year these two planets were united in Leo three times. This truly extraordinary event tells the tale of Noah and all his charges on board leaving the ark when it landed on Ararat after the flood. And right under here, look at this triple conjunction which only occurs once in a million years; a second group of celestial bodies narrate the tale of another ark, a mysterious ark that wasn’t built of acacia wood but out of pure crystal, an ark that left a fiery trail as it steered its way through the cosmos and landed here, in the midst of these misty mountains.

  I have searched everywhere for it, even in the crater of the extinct volcano which is now a lake, I’ve waded right round it from shore to shore, where the reeds crowd down to the shore from the woods, where the cries of the waterfowl echo as they lay their eggs and where flocks of wild geese come to rest and preen. Once I thought I had found it on a ghostly boat that appeared out of the lake mists at sunset only to disappear again, swallowed by the dark. On another occasion, down where the iron-rich stream called the red river flows into the lake, I saw a form floating on the water, but it was just a trick of my imagination.”

  “So in all these years all you’ve done is carry out a fruitless search for this mysterious ark?“

  “Fruitless, you say? Certainly I have long sought it and I seek it still, just as my divine Master, peace and blessings on him, taught me. And yet, when the moment comes, I know I will find it even if I am blind. It was thrown onto the earth like a seed and one day it will burgeon into the light. When the wind blows into its golden horn, bears and tortoises will awake from their winter slumbers, the high tides will flood and heavens’ cataracts will unleash their burden on the earth. Cries of wild animals will echo from cave to cave and a lightning bolt that will singe this white beard of mine will be flung from the sea. When the sound of the golden horn wakes the high tide the bears will chase a tiny snowflake and I will finally be consumed, passing from the memory of time to the great void of nothingness. But only when a strong north wind blows ... only then will the firebirds soar into the starry vault... “

  The old man stopped talking abruptly, almost as if he regretted having said too much, and for another instant he bent his fiery gaze on Marcus, then he stooped down and plucked a tuft of maidenhair from a crevice in the wall of the cave, he stared at it intensely for a few moments, almost as if he wanted to count its fronds, then he stuffed it quickly into his mouth. Chewing like a goat, dribbling from tightly-closed lips, he fled bent over like an ear of wind-tossed wheat, he fled seeking his delirium and disappeared into the undergrowth.

  Left alone, a surprised Marcus, found himself repeating the old man’s words almost without realising what he was saying:

  “The sound of the golden horn will wake bears and tortoises from their winter slumbers, they will all race after a tiny snowflake, the woods will stir and even the smallest of creatures will burrow down into the depths of the earth while the firebirds soar...”

  He went on repeating this mantra for a while, without understanding a word of it, and then shook himself out of his dreams and bent down to pick up the engraved piece of leather the monk had dropped next to the fire. He examined it at length without making any sense of the obscure signs, a series of dots which were scattered around a square to form a circle. Finally he decided to go back into the mysterious cavern without wasting time looking for his slave. Once again his torch illuminated the graffiti, the maps of the stars, the mysterious signs, but not content he moved a few paces further into the grotto, as if seeking something.

  Without thinking consciously about it, he penetrated further and further into the cavern, which led to an endless maze of underground tunnels. The torchlight illuminated an infinite web of tunnels hewn out of the living rock, a complex labyrinth of passages and cells seemingly constructed with the deliberate intention of preventing undesired intruders from profaning its mysteries, or of ensuring that once they had ventured in, they would never be able to find their way out.

  He wandered like a seer in total silence, lost in that tortuous underground maze, he ventured on round blind corners as if drawn by a magnet until he came to a lonely, deep, narrow ravine cut into the volcanic rock. Amazed, he wondered who could have had the patience to quarry out so many passages? An underground river, a local tribe, primitive, Neolithic beings seeking a safe hiding place from wild beasts, or did these mysterious tunnels harbour a different secret?

  Suddenly Marcus decided to continue his unplanned journey; he was seized with a desire to see and explore everything he could. Slowly, almost without realising it, he went deeper and deeper into the tangle of tunnels until he arrived in a small isolated room at the end of a long shaft. It almost seemed like an antechamber which led to a narrow path cut into a flow of lava. The tiny path crossed a patch of deep, impenetrable darkness over a wooden bridge and opened out into a cavern with a vaulted, domed roof. There was an opening at the apex of the dome which flooded
the cave with the strange, bluish glimmer of moonlight, illuminating it as if it were a temple. Or perhaps it really was a temple because there was a rock-hewn altar heaped with offerings set in the rear wall; precious oils, perfumes in magnificently sculpted horn chalices, Marcus had never seen anything like it and stood stock still in bewilderment as his fevered brain wondered whether the hole in the dome was part of the architecture of a massive funeral monument. The labyrinth he had come through was not a series of natural caves and tunnels as he had thought but a man-made complex designed to join the depths of the earth to the heavens above. But… whose hand had hewn this vast work?

  He continued to examine the chamber and discovered a small niche hacked out of the rock. He went towards it down some steps which proved to be the entrance to a long corridor. There was a clay oil lamp covered in dust and cobwebs in the niche, Marcus picked it up and blew hard to free it from the weight of time, as he puffed the fleeing detritus revealed a painted warrior. He lit the wick of the lamp with his torch and continued on his way. He made his way slowly down the corridor which had doorways leading off it, but without letting himself be side-tracked he persisted until he reached the main chamber.

  He was almost holding his breath for fear that the lamp would blow out, by now he was used to the dark and felt infinitely calm. When he reached the end of the corridor a huge round boulder blocked the way. Marcus used all his considerable force to push it slightly to one side and open a narrow gap. As soon as the entrance was clear Marcus made his way into the main chamber with his heart beating like a drum, and what he saw took his breath away. The weak light of the oil lamp shone on a fantasy world. The main room was an ancient tomb hacked out of the rock and stuffed full of treasure and precious objects, wealth beyond dreams.

  Overcome by his emotions Marcus paused in the middle of all this magnificence like the burial chamber of some oriental prince. He took everything in, the circular chamber cut out of the rock was rather like a dwelling and magnificent bronze bowls decorated with lions and bulls rested on the ground, carved birds heads adorned andirons and mirrors, incense-burners, candlesticks and vases were heaped in profusion. Holding his lamp up high to throw as much light as possible he spotted a bronze-covered throne richly decorated with chased lions, running deer and entwined flowers. As he made his way towards it he tripped over a sheet of marble balanced on two carved columns, he held the lamp out .... and almost blew it out in shock when he saw her!

  She lay there bedecked with all her jewels, a princess of darkness, the very young daughter of a Lucomone, an Etruscan priest-king. She lay there as if she merely slept, had just stretched out on the richly-embroidered pall. Death had left her fresh young body completely intact. The massive gold buckle that held her cloak together was enough to show her rank, it was decorated with five magnificent lions in a half moon encircled by two entwined wreaths of lotus flowers cleverly set together and surrounded by twelve winged felines girdled in their turn by the same number water fowl.

  Marcus froze, with the lamp almost brushing his face, gazing at her. A woven wreath of immaculate, white lilies adorned the princess’s head. Perhaps the heat from the oil lamp’s tiny flame moved their stamens, but it was not his imagination, they were definitely waving gently back and forth and a heavy scent filled the air, harrowing the Roman’s mind and soul.

  Tossed on a storm of emotions, Marcus could not take his eyes off the girl, and at the same time he was wondering if something or someone had guided his footsteps to this very place, perhaps that superior power which regulates all events, that force that men call destiny. Perhaps. As he looked the body suddenly rose into the air and hovered like a cloud. Stunned, Marcus, stared at the transparent white linen tunic floating in front of him and captured by the unique magic of the moment, stopped breathing. The lilies danced as they floated and emanated their magic scent, more and more pervasive, and as the tiny flame of the oil lamp flickered and threatened to go out everything suddenly disappeared. The whole scene had lasted a fraction of a second, the span of a dream, the time it takes to draw a choked breath. The princess of darkness fell back on her sumptuous pall and disintegrated for good, nothing was left of her, nothing at all.

  The lilies that had adorned her brow had disappeared too, as had the transparent white linen tunic that had been draped around her slender body. The only thing left on the catafalque was a heap of dust with the five golden lions from her buckle scattered on it and, slightly to one side, a double flute. Above the double flute the memory of her, and above the memory the heavy scent of lilies which still tormented his mind and soul.

  The horrified Roman did not even notice that there were other funeral slabs close by where fully armed warriors appeared to be resting from battles they had fought and a funeral urn nestled in a niche surrounded by arms while a bronze bier held other bones in the corridor. As his eyes got used to the dark he made out another treasure hanging on the walls, great, round shields decorated with panther heads, mouths agape and enamel eyes glaring at him, splendidly wrought bronze kraters adorned with strange animals, gryphons and long-necked dragons. The floor was heaped with cups, kraters, bowls and jugs all in the famous Etruscan red earthenware and all decorated with various types of monstrous animals.

  In that unreal atmosphere Marcus, enchanted, studied the marvellous frescoes which covered the walls of the tomb. They showed hunts, scenes from everyday life of labour in the fields, men wrestling and when he turned he saw a mysterious flying object like a transparent sphere poised for flight painted on the wall behind him.

  For the very first time in his life he was overcome by a strange mystical magic and for a moment he forgot his mission, forgot the treasure trove he had found, even forgot the existence of the outside world. In that underground chamber, buried as if by an avalanche, the doughty warrior faltered.

  He was lost in his meditations when the deep sound of running water brought him back to his senses. Coming down to earth again, he pricked his ears and followed the sound, ending up in a deep, narrow gorge, whose tall cliffs were carved from golden tufa rock. The ground was heavily scored by tracks of heavily laden carts and a river of hot water raced and roiled in its bed next to the cart track, then flowed into a sort of underground storage room full of large stone tanks. Between one cave and the next, and Marcus had counted ten so far, a series of narrow passages carved into the rock whose steep walls barely left room for one man to squeeze through, before he reached the last cave he was overpowered by a strong smell of sulphur. Along the path the tufa–rock walls were richly decorated with exotic figures.

  The last cave was particularly rich in paintings of people, plants and decorative themes, all with an oriental air, the like of which Marcus had never seen before. Stylized lions, panthers, leopards, cheetahs, ostriches and monkeys, palms and lotus blooms were all depicted. Fantastic beings and animals, a flora and fauna that told tales of faraway lands and, next to them, mystical beasts; the fantastic fruits of the artist’s imagination, gryphons, dragons, sphinxes and chimeras, winged bulls and lions with men’s heads.

  Rapt in contemplation of those masterpieces which had first been sketched on the walls, then etched into the rock and finally painted, Marcus suddenly became aware of a gleam from behind him, he turned and saw a magnificent bier in solid gold with two huge wings engraved on its sides, as he went towards it he almost fell into a small lake of boiling sulphur water where a column of fire generated in the depths of the earth rose towards the surface with a low gurgle.

  Taken unawares, Marcus had to cling onto the limestone rock to save himself from falling into the cauldron, and backed away in horror once he had regained his balance. Why did the caves and passages lead from the tombs to the these fatal pools of boiling water. His mind reeled with hundreds of unanswered questions until he suddenly spotted a vein of cold water, a stream that cut across the cave and disappeared into a crack in the tufa-rock wall. Without thinking twice Marcus decided to follow the watercourse out into the ope
n air and crawled into the narrow gap where the stream plunged into the rock.

  As soon as he had managed to wriggle his way through the fissure he was swept away into the black bowels of the earth by the irresistible force of the current. During that mad ride down through the rock Marcus was in constant danger of being dashed to pieces on the jagged rocks but, finally, he was catapulted out into the open, battered and bruised but miraculously whole. Dazed and bleeding from an array of cuts and scrapes he peered around, the earth heaving under his feet.

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