Ephesus, August 5, 38 B.C.
Marcus Bassus gripped the side of the skiff and stared at the dark river. Its placid surface reflected the half-moon’s light while masking the turbulent undercurrents far below.
“We must jump now, Marcus.” Hippolytus said.
Despite the warm night air, Marcus shivered as he studied the shrouded shore fifty feet beyond the boat. The lost artifacts they sought tonight hid potent and mysterious dangers. Despite the risk to his life if he was caught, he heeded their siren call.
But I’m a scholar, not a thief.
He took a deep breath and glanced at his mentor standing in the bow. Like Marcus, Hippolytus was stripped to his loincloth, his skin blackened with ashes and pig fat.
For the third time, the small boat neared the eastern shore of the Cayster River north of the city of Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia. At the earlier locations where they sought to disembark, rocks, fallen trees, and tricky currents made the approach too dangerous. They were behind schedule.
Water splashed as Julianus, their local guide, rowed to keep the bow pointed into the swift current. Moonlight glinted off a medallion peeking above his tunic. The same Oracle medallion hung from Hippolytus’s neck.
“Come on, boy,” Julianus urged. His mangled nose lent a nasal tone to his voice. “This is damned hard work.”
Marcus had met the man only yesterday. Julianus, whose muscled arms bulged as he heaved at the oars, said little beyond reporting the local conditions. Hippolytus said the man was obtuse, even for an Oracle.
Turning to the water, Marcus sought to calm his fears, reminding himself he often swam across the great Nile River canal in Alexandria. Still, the unknowns ahead fueled his anxiety.
“Did you hear me?” Hippolytus urged, pointing his finger at Marcus. “It’s time.”
Pulse racing, Marcus scooped his leather bag off the bottom boards and flung it over his back before rolling over the boat’s side. He gasped as the icy water shocked him. His darkened skin blended with the inky river, and he swam against the current until Hippolytus joined him. Hippolytus waved to Julianus, who then maneuvered the skiff downstream toward the harbor at Ephesus.
With long frog strokes, Marcus swam alongside Hippolytus toward the ominous shore, where he feared soldiers waited to hack him to pieces. Soon enough his feet touched the rough river bottom, and the two invaders crawled through the shallows to a narrow strip of beach.
He scurried across the sand into the shadows of the muddy embankment. With each step, he expected an arrow from an Amazon huntress, the sworn protector of the goddess Artemis. His heart pounded in his ears, drowning out the river’s soft moan. He tripped on a tree root but reached the bank and surveyed the marsh ahead. Neither sound nor motion reached his senses. His heartbeat slowed.
The serenity of the celestial glow only deepened his sense that a dark destiny was hanging over the river and land.