This is a revised version of an opening submitted back in July 2018. See if you agree that this is a stronger version. The title of the original submission post was called “Subjectivity”.
Title: Lost Scrolls of Archimedes
Language: US English
Synopsis: Stolen Archimedean scrolls hold power to win wars and change the world. Young savant, Marcus, with dreams of the scholarly life, comes to possess the scrolls, bringing tragedy, torment, and love into his life. A race against oncoming war, Alexandria’s destruction, and exploitation of the scrolls’ awesome powers is on!
Text: 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.
“We must jump now, Marcus.” Hippolytus’s intense tone betrayed his typical relaxed manner.
Marcus shivered despite the warm night air. Like the shrouded shore fifty feet beyond the boat, the lost artifacts he sought tonight hid potent and mysterious dangers. And yet, he heeded the siren call, even at the risk of his life.
But I’m a scholar, not a thief.
Marcus took a deep breath and glanced over at his mentor standing in the bow. Like Marcus, Hippolytus had 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, rocks, fallen trees, and tricky currents had made the approach too dangerous. They were now behind schedule.
The sound of a splash brought his attention to the boat’s other occupant, Julianus, as he worked to keep the bow pointed into the swift current. Moonlight glinted off a medallion peeking above Julianus’s tunic. The same Oracle medallion hung from Hippolytus’s neck.
“Come on, boy,” Julianus urged, his voice nasal, the consequence of a mangled nose. “This is damned hard work.”
Marcus had met the man only yesterday. His muscled arms heaved at the oars. Except for reporting the local conditions, Julianus said little. Hippolytus said the man was obtuse, even for an Oracle.
Turning to the water, Marcus sought to calm his fears, reminding himself he’d often swam across the great Nile river canal in Alexandria. Still, the unknowns ahead continued to fuel his anxiety.
“Did you hear me? It’s time.” Hippolytus’ words were urgent, even threatening.
Pulse racing, Marcus scooped a leather bag off the bottom boards and flung it over his back before slipping over the boat’s side. He gasped as the icy water shocked his body. His darkened skin blended with the inky river, and he swam against the current until Hippolytus joined him. Julianus then pointed the skiff downstream toward the harbor at Ephesus.
With long, frog strokes, Marcus swam alongside Hippolytus toward the ominous shore, where soldiers probably waited to hack him to pieces. But 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 toward 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 pounding heart thumped in his ears, drowning out the river’s soft moan. Tripping once on a tree root, Marcus reached the bank and surveyed the marsh beyond. Neither sound nor motion reached his senses. His heartbeat slowed.
Though the moon’s cool light glowed overhead, Marcus sensed a deeper shade of darkness hanging over the river and land. Ahead lay the path to the target, the Temple of Artemis, known as the Artemision and destination for thousands of religious pilgrims. To the right, a mere mile away, shimmered the lights of Ephesus.
Marcus extracted a rope and grapnel from his bag and handed it to Hippolytus, who coiled the rope over his shoulder, careful to avoid the grapnel’s sharp hooks.
“You sharpened this?” Hippolytus asked, examining the iron claws.
“Yes, before you got up this morning,” Marcus replied in a low voice.
In his scouting report, Julianus said that one hundred priests and servants slept in the building, while scores of armed men guarded the temple’s vast riches of art, gold, and sacred writings day and night.
Marcus glossed over the count of priests and guards, as the only number he cared about was the Temple’s sixty-foot height, near his tutor’s limit for tossing the grappling hook.
To the southeast, lights burned at a few of the houses crowding the slopes of Mount Pion. Atop the mountain, the city walls began. At this distance, they were invisible to the soldiers walking their rounds on the massive fortifications.
“Let’s go,” said Hippolytus. Crouching, he stepped off into the marsh.
Marcus slipped in behind his mentor, his bare legs chafing against the dry reeds and cattails they trudged through. Beyond, he glimpsed the silhouette of the looming, but empty, stadium standing midway between the swamp and Ephesus. Julianus reported that in April, the holy month of Artemision, the stadium and city had teemed with people.
Halfway across the field, Hippolytus mouthed a fierce whisper. “Horse patrol.”
They dove into the mud. Hoofbeats thudded on the soft ground, and as they grew louder and closer, the smell of horseflesh mixed in with the earthy scent of decaying grass. Mud slipped between his lips as he pressed his body deeper into the wet ground.
The rider gave a low order, halting his horse. A palpable silence set in, and time slowed to a crawl.
Then the horse snorted, and the clopping of hooves resumed, receding into the distance.
Several minutes passed before Hippolytus whispered new orders. “We need to move a little to the south.”
Marcus spat the bitter mud from his mouth. “That will take more time. And what about those houses near the marsh edge?” At least the houses were unlit.
“It’s either that or capture.” Hippolytus started off into the reeds.
He moved in behind his tutor, and they crept south.
As they sneaked along in the night, the door of one house creaked open. They dropped to the ground again. Marcus heard splashing and a deep sigh of relief.
After several moments, he raised his head and stared at his face reflected in a moonlit puddle. Like his skin, his blue eyes and sandy hair were black and murky. He ducked when the door creaked again.
Hippolytus resumed a crouch. “They’re gone. This way.”
More time lost. Will the ship at the river mouth wait?
Editorial comment: This is a very much polished and refined version of an earlier submission back in July of last year. It has been professionally copy-edited, according to the author, and all of the issues that I brought up in the previous version have been dealt with. In common with the previous theme of subjectivity, I’d still find things to pick holes in.
There have got to be better ways to phrase this
Julianus urged, his voice nasal, the consequence of a mangled nose
for example. I’m surprised a copy-editor didn’t pick that up as awkward.
There’s an ambiguity of pronouns in Marcus had met the man only yesterday. His muscled arms heaved at the oars. If Marcus is the subject of the first sentence, we assume he is the subject of the second sentence unless otherwise advised. But he’s clearly not—it’s Julianus’s arms heaving at the oars.
Hippolytus avoids the grapnel’s sharp hooks and then asks if Marcus had sharpened them. You’d assume that he spiked himself on the hooks first, and then (“Ouch!”) asked Marcus if he’d sharpened them.
It seems a bit of a stretch to me that Mud slipped between his lips as he pressed his body deeper into the wet ground. I mean, can’t he keep his mouth shut?
However, I think this could be looked at on its own merits by an agent as is, without any further editing. I don’t think it’s ready for publishing, but it’s pretty much there as regards a showcasing of the story’s merits as a saleable book. Well done.
Thanks for posting.