The Gift: Book One – Voyages Now Available!
48 BCE: While Rome’s cruel cohorts set the torch to Alexandria’s quays and trading vessels, a thoroughly unexpected group of conspirators; a wizened astronomer, a young librarian and a scribe, creep out of the city with a priceless hoard of ancient knowledge. They believe their mission is to save the secrets hidden within for the future and mankind’s ultimate salvation. But what do they actually know of the objects in their care? What neither of the younger conspirators knows yet, is that they are part of a plan already in motion involving deceit, sleight of hand and distraction. They are serving unknown masters and the star-gazer leading them onwards has little light to shed on the coming voyage across the sea or their ultimate destination. Gifts lie waiting aboard their first galley bound North, that will change them both forever. Whether the truth of their conspiracy will be revealed, remains to be seen.
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The eBook, currently 94,000 words, is available now, first through Amazon Kindle and will be offered at a very special introductory price of $2.99 for our loyal readers. It is free for Kindle Unlimited readers. The full series will involve at least three or four books. Reviewers, please request an Advanced Reader copy via email at firstname.lastname@example.org Download your copy here.
Here is a map, included in the book, of the voyages taken by the conspirators during the course of the first book…
An excerpt from the opening…
Alexandria, Egypt 48 BCE
“See them approaching the docks, Simon? Down towards the quay wall… right there.” The bearded man pointed repeatedly, a long sleeve brushed the dark, curly head of the tall youth peering seawards from where they crouched behind the parapet. A bandaged hand shaded his eyes against the early morning sun as it struck out from under the clouds. Darkness still hung off to the west as the city tried to sleep, but a cohort of Roman legionnaires was on the move already.
“Yes, but what are they doing, Harkhebi? Is that… a torch? Torches?” He gripped the older man’s arm in alarm and looked up for confirmation.
“It is. Fire. They don’t need the torches to see the streets.”
“What, then? Why are they bringing fire, now? The siege is won.”
The older man strained to watch the legionnaires crawling about the docks where the fleet lay. He rubbed his greying beard and replied, “I think they mean to torch the docks and the fleet.” he shook his head and pulled Simon up to his feet, telling him, “We must leave the roof now and return. You know we have little time left.” He laid his hand on the younger man’s shoulder and said, “I know I’ve asked you several times already, but is everything prepared?”
“Yes. Yes, the scrolls and parchments are safely gathered into merchant bundles for the caravan. Yesterday as evening approached, Ahkos told me the camels were ready and provisioned. He slipped away to join Demetrius after the moon fell.” Simon looked back to the docks where the first flares of burning tar and hemp leapt skyward from the westernmost ships merchant storehouse. “Has the time arrived, then?” He thought of the months of secret preparations, lies instead of explanations and suddenly being called away from any task he was performing. His meticulous work was becoming more uneven than ever as his focus drifted. Add to that the threat of discovery. The last Pharaoh had decreed that any theft from the Library was punishable by a slow death by strangulation. Now, Simon’s throat always felt dry. This adventure was exciting of course, but he could almost hear his mother’s stern, disappointed voice, all the way from Tarsos saying, that’s not the way you were raised, to become a thief and a liar. Remember your traditions before you lose them.
“It has, young Tarsene, it has. We must be gone. Now.” Harkhebi’s reminder snapped Simon from his own feelings. The two hurried to a tall ladder leaning up from a lower roof. They then descended, through a narrow stairwell, to the dark alley below. The precious burdens they had yet to gather were to be transported secretly, according to an exhaustive plan, by a small caravan, down through all the orchards and farms, deep into the desert and up through the mountains into Marmarica to meet a trading ship waiting near old Ardanis to carry them north to Tarsos and safety. The preparations were known to only four men and the ship’s captain, Harkhebi’s cousin, Cassio.
Cassio had been the one who gave Harkhebi the idea of using the Roman siege and intrigue as cover for a quick departure. He’d recently boasted that he’d been more than able to bring in all manner of goods lately with no one watching the ports at all. Wisely though, they planned to leave from Ardanis instead of the much closer ports near the river’s mouth.
While the Romans set their fires to Alexandria’s docks, the two crept back through a maze of dark alleys to the rear gate of the library annex storehouse. No one, but a fat old tomcat atop a wall, saw them. Harkhebi retrieved a rusty key from within the folds of his dark grey robes and they slipped through the heavy iron-bound wooden gate into the courtyard where two shapeless, cloth-wrapped bundles lay waiting. A two-wheeled hand cart in very poor repair, stood nearby.
Simon, apprenticed for several years now to the master teacher and astronomer, waited near the cart while Harkhebi entered the storehouse. In only moments, he returned with two leather packs slung over both shoulders and gave one to Simon. Simon slung it over his shoulders as Harkhebi carefully lifted each bundle, placing it securely in the cart. Satisfied with the placement, he laid his own pack atop them, then added two water skins from near the gate into the cart as well. Harkhebi put his finger across his lips then gestured towards the gate.
Simon nodded and lifted the cart poles while the older man retrieved two tall, wooden walking staves one of which he stuck down into the cart. They moved silently through the gateway and down the still dark alley. About halfway to the far gate, the wheel on the right began to wobble. When it began to squeal as well, they halted. Using his heavy-soled shoe as a hammer, Simon pounded it back on the axle and pushed a twig into the empty hole where the pin had been. Harkhebi smiled and whispered, “It should hold us past the city walls at least.”
At some distance from them, the first of the Alexandria merchant fleet began burning as the wind rose. Cries from the quay mixed with dark smoke as Alexandria awoke to the destruction of her remaining commerce following the long siege. By the time the flames, fanned by the wind, had found the huge library the two conspirators and their rude cart were outside the city walls. They made their way across the river and then along a meandering goat trail through the trees that led towards a low stone outcropping where a ragtag caravan waited.
Six camels, a ragged driver, his helper and four ponies, looked for all the world like the poorest merchant caravan ever seen near such a rich city of renown and legend. Perfect for the task at hand. Ahkos, the only one of them familiar with keeping the bad-tempered camels under control was first to see the cart and two conspirators approaching from his spy-hole cleft in the sandstone. He whistled twice with his fingers against his teeth. Sharp blasts to catch their attention. The wind had been rising all morning, blowing smoke from the city thick enough to sting the eyes and make it hard to see.
As he stepped out from behind the rocks, he called, “from all the smoke, it looks like you got out at the last possible moment.” He raised his nose and added, “smells like tar.”
The older man stopped a few feet away and unslung his pack. “You were right, Ahkos. They burned the docks and the fleet that didn’t leave port ahead of them. I don’t know how the library faired. How did your night go out here?”
The second caravan driver brought up the line of camels, holding the leather traces looped around his wrist. As he stopped, one by one, the camels turned their backs on the wind and on the men. He called out, “No feather beds out here. No wine either, right Ahkos?”
Ahkos nodded. “It was cold and very quiet. No fire, but we didn’t attract any attention. Oh, except that Demetrius here had to throw rocks all night to keep the jackals off.”
Harkhebi asked him, “How did you accomplish your passage with the Gate Centurion?”
Ahkos replied, looking directly at Demetrius, “that’s where the wine went. He asked what we were peddling and we told him rags, but we had a wineskin we could offer him. You know those bastards are always reaching into your purse.”
Harkhebi smiled and patted his own, slung below his belt, saying, “so he took the wine and let you right through without a second thought. Did he even inspect the camels’ loads?”
“Not at all. The wineskin was hoisted so fast we were through the gate before he gave us another glance. How was your passage?”
Harkhebi said, “Simon had an idea that no one would be watching the sheep gate, and we rolled right through without stopping. I don’t think there was anyone posted to guard it.”
Simon joined them and soon, they had re-packed the cloth-wrapped bundles into the existing “goods” atop the backs of two of the camels, amid much muttered complaint and spitting. Simon hid the cart behind a huge thorn bush under some overhanging rocks, just in case they ever returned.
“How is the hand mending, Simon?” asked Harkhebi. There hadn’t been proper time to clean and anoint the wound before leaving. The young man had just celebrated his twentieth year. Harkhebi thought of his own twentieth year and wondered how someone of those few years could be ready to commit their entire life to a single effort. He added, “this isn’t going to be easy. Are you sure you’re with us to the end?”
Simon looked at the ground and nodded resolutely, replying, “Completely sure. It will be my gift to my father’s memory and to the rest of the world, eventually.” He waved his bandaged fist and added, “I’m ready for anything that comes.” Simon believed that once he’d made a decision, he had to follow it through to the end, even if his partners in crime were still mostly a mystery. It was another of his father’s lasting lessons, to always move forward with purpose, once a direction was found.
Harkhebi said little of his own background or family and always let the gathered accolades of his scholarship make explanations as needed. He had never yet led either his apprentice Simon or his scribe Demetrius astray and his counsel, while usually circumspect, was always to the point and correct as far as they were concerned.
In some ways, they were the least likely of conspirators: An Egyptian astronomer, a scholarly Jew and a Hellene. Simon found Demetrius’ intelligence and quick wit kept even the most repetitious task engaging. Their friendship had grown slowly at first, neither ready to let their defenses down completely. But now, as comrades in a higher calling, Simon found his companionship most agreeable and his often unexpected opinions, very useful. Demetrius also had a facility with several languages that came in handy at times. Yes, Simon was sure that joining this company was going to be the right decision.
Once they’d returned to the camels, Harkhebi took a few moments to review the condition and appearance of his ‘trade caravan’, then said, “we must be off now,” even as the wind shook the sleeves of his robe and pushed its hood up around his face. Ahkos gave each a scarf to wrap around their mouths and noses leaving a narrow slit for their eyes against the sand and dust as well as a personal water flask on a neck cord. Mounting the sure-footed, desert-bred ponies, they plodded off with the wind gusting fitfully behind them, filling their nostrils with the dust and stench of the burning they’d escaped. The camels followed, squawking in complaint from time to time.