The Exodus Quest

PROLOGUE

The southern shore of Lake Mariut, AD 415

The plaster had dried at last. Marcus scooped up handfuls of dirt and sand from the floor, smeared them across the fresh white surface until it was dulled and dark and virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the wall. He held his oil lamp close to examine it, added more dirt where needed until satisfied, though in truth it needed the eyes of a younger man. A last walk through the old, familiar passages and chambers, bidding farewell to his comrades and ancestors in the catacombs, to a lifetime of memories, then up the steps and out.

Late afternoon already. No time to waste.

He closed the wooden hatch, shovelled sand and stone down on it. The crash and scatter as it landed, the swish of robes, the crunch of his iron-shod spade. He began to hear in these noises the distant chanting of a mob. It grew so strong, so convincing, he paused to listen. But now there was only silence, save for his heavy breathing, the hammer of his heart, the trickle of settling sand.

Nothing but the fears of a solitary old man.

The sun was low in the west, tinting orange. They usually came by night, as evildoers will, though they were growing bolder all the time. He’d seen strange faces in the harbour that morning. One-time friends muttering amongst themselves. People whose diseases he’d treated without thought for his own safety looking at him like contagion.

He began to shovel again, faster and faster, to quell the panic before it could overwhelm him.

He’d thought they’d be able to ride it out. Their community had survived many previous pogroms and wars, after all. He’d imagined, foolishly, that their ideas would prevail in the end because they were so much stronger and more rational than the pious cruel nonsense of the so-called right-thinking. But he’d been wrong. It was human nature, when fears were stirred, that reason lost all power.

Poor Hypatia! That beautiful, wise and gentle woman. They said her lynching had been ordered by Pope Cyril himself. Epiphanes had witnessed the whole thing. A mere boy; too young for such a sight. The mob led by that sanctimonious monster Peter the Reader. No surprise there. They’d torn her from her chariot, stripped her naked, dragged her to their church, cut her flesh from her bones with oyster-shells, then burned her remains.

Men of God they called themselves. How was it possible they couldn’t see what they truly were?

The sun had set. The night began to cool. His pace slowed. He was far from the prime of youth. But he didn’t stop altogether. The quicker he finished, the quicker he could set off, catch up his family and fellows in their quest for sanctuary near Hermopolis or perhaps even Chenoboskion, depending on how far this madness had spread. He’d sent them on ahead with all the scrolls and other treasured possessions they’d been able to carry, the accumulated wisdom of centuries. But he himself had stayed behind. They’d grown lax these past few years. It was no secret they had an underground complex here, he knew; not least because absurd rumours about their wealth and hidden treasures had found their way back to him. If these villains looked hard and long enough, they’d every chance of finding these steps, however well he buried them. That was why he’d plastered up the entrance to the baptism chamber, so that some small fraction of their knowledge might survive even if the underground complex itself was discovered. And maybe one day sanity would return, and they could too. If not