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Work in Progress
Working Title: Syria635
My Work in Progress takes place in late Roman/early Byzantine Syria just as the Saracens sweep up from the south and begin their conquest of the Roman East. This excerpt takes place about 30% of the way into the book. Damascus has fallen to the Saracens but the Levantine coast remains in Roman hands. Fifteen-year-old Alex left Damascus on the spur of the moment, hoping to catch up with Mariam, his fourteen-year-old sister. He first thought he would be back home in a few hours, then a few days at the most. Now he is over a week from home and has traveled across the Anti-Lebanon and Lebanon ranges to Beirut. He’s run out of money, not found any clues to Mariam’s passage along the route, and has reason to think Peter, the Bishop of Damascus has sent someone after him. He’s spent the night under a bush and has descended to the shore to stay off the coastal road.
Alex balanced on a rock a few paces from the rhythmic surge and withdrawal of gentle waves. Beyond the south and westward sweep of the shoreline, the crescent-shaped mole of Beirut’s harbor and its overflow of fishing boats glowed in the morning sun. The mountains behind him shadowed the sand at his feet and blocked the warm rays from his back. Shoulders hunched in the stiff wind, his mind churned with the vision before him—Rome’s inland sea, an indigo plain joining Spain, Africa, the Levant, and the capital of their empire to the north. From the mountain overlook, the horizon had resembled a desert mirage in the haze. Hemmed in by Beirut’s wharves and basin—the breakwater, walls, warehouses, and ships—the sea had appeared to be under man’s control. But this expanse hid monsters at depths untameable, unexplorable, and unimaginable. Here was the sea where Jason and his Argonauts sailed and St. Paul thrice shipwrecked.
A tempest of gulls to the south broke through his reverie. As the flock cleared the beach, a young girl emerged from the cloud of wings. She walked, stooped, then walked again in the gentle waterline, calmly looking into the shifting foam, at ease within reach of Leviathan. As she neared, basket in one hand, examining something in the other, Alex jumped from his perch, pulled off his boots, and inched toward the water. The gravel shifted under his toes, his cloak flapping against his thighs. Each withdrawing swell exposed rocky, shallow pools. As the morning shadows receded, the sun picked out small sailing craft bobbing beyond the surf, fishermen braving the sea, as they always had. He watched the girl again. Closer now. She chose a knobby shell and put it in her basket.
Alex surveyed the nearest pool. If a girl could collect food on the beach, certainly he could do so. His insides clawed with anticipation and uncertainty. Rocks and seaweed glimmered in the sky’s reflections rippling along the surface. Pebbles and sand wavered in the morning blaze. A spiked shell winked at him, but he would have to wade in to reach it. He gathered his tunics and stepped forward.
The earth withdrew from beneath his feet. Downward he plunged in a great splash, brine filling his nose, his leg wound flaring. He choked, sputtered, and stumbled, but grabbed the prized object and climbed drenched from the hole, his cloak draining like a scupper. He dumped the sopping wool on the gravel. Soaked leggings collapsed around his ankles, tunics dripping, he cleared the stinging water from his face and spewed what remained in his mouth. Shaking his burning leg, he still clung to the shell.
When he stopped hopping and flinging, he found the girl next to him, basket under one arm, the other hand on her hip, her laughter overwhelmed by that of the gulls swirling above. Scraps of woven bands covered her threadbare cloak and fluttered in the wind. A gust threw back her scarf, exposing a tangle of golden hair and eyes green as the tidal pool.
“What’s so funny?” Alex demanded. The girl could not have more than eleven or so summers, and yet out here alone and mocking him.
“You are. First, you tumble in and now you’re bouncing around like a curlew.”
“I see nothing funny in it.” The breeze molded his wet clothing against his skin, raising chill bumps on his arms and legs. Despite the pain and discomfort, his empty stomach still demanded attention. “What are you collecting? Is it food?” he asked, his neck craning over her basket.
“It’s the murex. But not for breakfast, silly.” She swung the basket out of his reach in feigned protection of its contents.
“What is this, then?” He shoved his spiny catch toward her.
“Yes, that’s murex. And you could eat it, but it is more valuable for the purple dye.” She snatched it from him and added it to her collection. “Here, let me find you something to eat.”
As her golden hair and decorative tapes streamed in the breeze, she set her basket on the wet sand and wrapped her hands in a coarse cloth. Squatting along the edge of a pool, her cloak tucked up around her legs, she pulled a black sphere of three-inch quills from the shimmering sky’s reflection.
She presented the horror to him.
He shrank from the gift. “That’s not funny! I can’t eat that!”
“Of course you can. As long as you don’t mind eating shellfish during Lent. Here, I’ll show you.” She removed a sharpened mollusk from her tunic band and split the creature open, exposing five orange segments attached to the top of the shell. When she’d rinsed it in the surf, she offered him the creamy flesh.
“Fine, I’ll eat it myself.” She popped a segment in her mouth and carved out a second chunk as she chewed.
His stomach clenched and gurgled. “Very well. I’ll try it.” He crossed himself and whispered a prayer of thanksgiving and protection with singular intent.
The girl grinned and handed him the next portion. Braced for an assault on his palette, he found the meat cold and briny but succulent.
“Strange. What is it?”
“Sea urchin. They live on the bottom.”
“They look dangerous.” Alex chewed on another sponge-like segment.
“They are dangerous. Some are poisonous, but step on any of them and you’ll need St. Agathius to survive the pain.”
“Everything out there looks dangerous to me. Can we find others?”
She gave him the remaining portions and retrieved a larger urchin from the edge of a deeper pool. She showed him how to dig out the creamy tissue with her shell-knife and he gobbled it down while she searched for more. After feeding Alex several urchins of various colors and sizes, the girl unbound the rags from her hands and returned her scarf more properly to her head, covering her sun-bleached tangle.
“You’d best stop. You’ll make yourself sick. When did you last eat?” She wiped the knife on her coarse tunic and tucked it away.
“Yesterday morning.” He discounted his single slurp of cabbage soup the night before and the crumbs of the pagan offering. Both better forgotten or denied. It was hard to believe his last full meal, while still in the Lebanon mountains, had only been one day prior. He tossed the remaining shell into the sea, pulled his feet out of the twisted wool bindings, and dropped them on the gravel with his cloak.
“What’s wrong with your leg? That doesn’t look good.”
“Got in the path of a whip. The water made it burn.”
“Well, you look like you’re taking your Lenten fast seriously. Competing with the monks from Mar Elias? You stink like them.” In an instant, she shoved him back into the pool.
Alex thrashed, unable to stand as his tunics weighed him down. “Why’d you do that?” He gulped and coughed while she grinned at him with her arms crossed in satisfaction.
“Because, not only do you stink, but your wound is festering.” She pointed at his calf, glowing under the ripples. Just then the wind billowed her clothing as if she would rise into the air. “The salt water burns but it will help to heal it. Look at my skin. No sores.” She spun in the breeze, like a siren rising from the sea, cloak and bands swirling about her.
Alex sat for a moment, waist-deep in the freezing water as it rushed around his body and tugged him toward the expanse. It was true. Her skin was bronzed and clear, but for an old bruise on her cheek.
She stopped spinning and hugged herself while a shiver passed.
Alex swished his injured leg in the water—in case she was right and not mad. He climbed out of the hole, dripping, his teeth chattering.
“What are you doing here? I’ve not seen you before and your speech is odd.” She crinkled her nose at him.
“I’m on my way to Antioch,” he said, squeezing the water out of his hair. He wanted to be furious at this sea creature before him, but he found he was unable. Even so, he was not prepared to tell her much.
“Alone? And hungry? What happened? Did you oversleep your pilgrims’ departure?”
Alex wrung the hems of his tunics and straightened them at the neckline. It would do him no good for her to see his other whip scars. She’d think him a criminal. He picked up his sodden cloak, shook the clinging sand from his leggings, and hobbled to the boulder where he had left his boots. The sun was warming, so he spread his wet clothing on the rocks. Although his stomach hurt less, it churned with the rich urchins, and this laughing girl might decide to report him to the nearest authorities. He needed to climb back to the coastal road and be on his way.
But his siren was right behind him, basket on hip and green eyes still waiting for an answer.
“I am traveling alone. Thought I might catch up with a group, but need to travel fast.” He sat and brushed the sand from his feet.
“What’s the hurry?”
“That’s my concern.” He shook a stone from his boot and struggled to insert his wet foot.
“Do you have any money?”
“That’s also my concern.”
She looked north, screwed up her mouth, then turned back to him with a huff. “Well, you must not—as hungry as you are. Why don’t you get food at the monasteries along the road?” she said, pointing up the slope with her chin.
“I went to one in Beirut, but it was mobbed with Lenten pilgrims.” And the first place his pursuer would look. When they didn’t find him there, the bishop’s man would guess his direction.
“What are you going to do? You can’t travel far without food—even during Lent.” She shifted her basket on her hip.
“I don’t know,” Alex admitted and pulled on the other boot.
“Can you swim?”
“Of course I can swim.”
She waved her free arm toward the great sea. “Really? Can you swim out there?”
“There? Why would I want to do that?” While he wrapped his still-dripping cloak around his neck, the girl looked him over. “What?”
“Come with me,” she ordered and walked away, scattering gulls in her wake. The wind blew the scarf off her head again and she let it rest on her shoulders.
Alex watched her march up the beach a few paces. At least she was heading north. He could walk with her for a while and avoid the road. He pulled the boots off again, threw them and his wet leg wraps over his shoulder, and shoved off from the rock.
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