“The Basket”

Polyxeinos made his way through the marketplace, keeping to the shade cast by awnings, as the relentless sun beat down upon Alexandria. His contact said that the man he needed to meet would be at the eastern edge of the market, one of the larger one’s in the city’s Jewish Quarter, likely engaged in instruction. The Greek man shifted his cloak slightly to cover the handle of his pugio as he noticed the gaze of a Palmyrene guard standing nearby drift over him, moving steadily and casually among the stalls until the small structures thinned out near the eastern wall of the square.

He saw a small circle of young men dressed in simlah and me’il being lectured to by an older man with a well-coiffed beard and a zizit laid over his shoulders. Polyxeinos kept to the edges until the older man’s lecture appeared to be over — he had no way of telling aside from body-language, as the entire group spoke to one another in Aramaic — and the young men rose from their seats, slowly dispersing into the outlying streets in twos and threes.

“Gamliel?” He asked as the older man packed up a few scrolls into a satchel.

“Yes?” The Jewish man replied, casting an evaluative gaze upon Polyxeinos, who stood in the shade of the surrounding buildings.

“My name is Polyxeinos, Kiya sent me,” the Greek man continued, taking a few steps forward and pushing the hood of his cloak back to reveal his shaven face and close-cut ebony hair. “She said that you were knowledgeable and…amenable to aiding one like me.”

Gamliel cast his gaze to one side of the market, then the other, before lowering his voice some. “Come with me,” he said as he slid the strap of the satchel over his head. “The marketplace has many eyes. And many ears.”

Polyxeinos followed the older man through the curving streets of the Jewish Quarter until they arrived at a home that, while not palatial, was finely kept and not a pauper’s hovel. Within, Gamliel handed his satchel off to a servant and requested wine be brought as he and Polyxeinos sat down within the main room.

“How is it that Kiya thought that I might assist you, Polyxeinos?” Gamliel asked.

“She said that you were wise, thoroughly educated — both in letters and common knowledge — and of less than favorable disposition toward Palmyra.”

The Jew’s face darkened some and he shook his head slightly. “Yes…ever since that woman, Zenobia, took power and seized Aegyptus out from underneath Tenagino Probus we have had nothing but trouble.”

The servant returned carrying a platter laden with a carafe, two goblets, and an assortment of figs and grapes. He laid it upon a table in between the seated men before retreating from the room. “But, my own views upon the current rulers of our city does not answer how Kiya thought that I might help you, sir,” Gamliel said as he poured wine for both himself and Polyxeinos.

The Greek nodded and accepted the goblet, regarding the dark liquid within for a moment. “Aurelian has already retaken Byzantium, I am sure that you have heard,” he said, pausing to take a drink of the wine.

“I have.” Gamliel nodded his head. “And such news pleases me.”

“Then I would guess that you would consider it a boon to know that the new Imperator has agents all throughout these lands, seeking whatever can be found that might aid the reconquest of the lost territories now held by Zenobia and her son.”

“Are you such an agent?”

Polyxeinos spread his hands in a gesture of ambivalence. “I am but a priest of Apollo, who walks the path of the wise god’s instruction.”

Gamliel chuckled lowly. “A magician, eh? I thought the Romans did not trust magicians…”

Polyxeinos crooked an eyebrow. “And the Jews do…?”

A broad smile broke out on the older man’s face. “My friend…nay, my colleague…I have made the pilgrimage to the hekhal, I have called upon the secret names, I have seen the Messengers of the Lord in their Chariots. My people have prohibitions against the malevolent use of…power, this is true. But, even one of our greatest kings in ancient days, Solomon, called upon spirits to manifest his will. We fear magicians much less than the Romans do.”

Polyxeinos considered Gamliel’s words for a moment, before raising his goblet in a small toast. “It seems that Kiya was not wrong, you may be just the man that I am looking for,” he said after taking a drink. “I have heard rumors that a sacred object, once prized by the mystikoi of Eleusis, was brought here long ago, soon after the city was remade in the image of Alexander. A staff. Do you know where something like that might be kept?”

Gamliel stroked his beard thoughtfully for a long moment. “Unfortunately, I, myself, do not,” he said finally. “But, I know of a man who might. Baruch, leader of the ebyonim here in Alexandria.”

“The ‘ebyonim’?” Polyxeinos asked.

“‘The Poor Ones,’” Gamliel explained. “A small sect of my people, followers of a Nazarene teacher named Yeshua. Most of them were stamped out more than two centuries ago by a zealous Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus. Those that survived fled Judea and settled either here — in metropolitan Alexandria, where most faiths and philosophies are welcomed — or in the wilds of Aegyptus. Baruch is the leader of the city’s small group, which can be mostly found around the necropolis outside the city walls.”

“Why the necropolis?” Polyxeinos asked with furrowed brow.

Gamliel shrugged a shoulder. “They believe that their prophet was the promised leader of our people — the ‘Anointed One’ — and that he was crucified by the Romans for claiming to be king over the Jews, that he died and rose again after three days in his tomb. So, they haunt the cemetery to be closer in spirit to their Yeshua.” The Jew waved a hand dismissively. “There were many back then who thought that this rabbi or this soldier was the Anointed One and would lead us out from bondage under the Romans. I am thankful that such zealotry and rebelliousness was easily handled by the Roman prefect of the time and the true King of Judea, Herod. Otherwise we might have lost something truly important, like our Temple.” He said the last with a grave nod of his head.

The Greek nodded his head. “And this Baruch might have information regarding the object that I seek?”

Gamliel gave an uncertain nod of his head. “He is most likely to have it, I would think. He and his Poor Ones see much and find much, being that they are little more than mendicants. And their knowledge of the tunnels and chambers of the necropolis rival most anyone else. If you are to find the aid to Aurelian’s victory in Aegyptus that you seek, Baruch is the one with whom you should speak.”

 

*    *    *

 

The first time that Polyxeinos had approached the camp of the Poor Ones at the edge of the necropolis, he had done so just near dusk. This Gamliel had advised him: though pacifistic, the Poor Ones were often the victims of harassment by the Palmyrene guards and other citizens. A stranger approaching their camp might cause them to flee or hide. With the setting sun behind their camp, bathing him in its ruddy light as he approached, they would be able to see the Greek and assess whether or not he was a threat. Though the ebyonim had regarded him with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity, when he showed that he had no interest in abusing them, they treated him with as much hospitality as they had within their means: which was offering him water and old bread.

Baruch had turned out to be a quiet and serious man, his hair long and hanging in dreads, his beard unruly and groomed only with the occasional pass of the man’s fingers through it. Like all of the Poor Ones, he wore a simple long shirt that hung to his knees, this had at least been washed relatively recently. The first time he that he met with Baruch, the leader of the Poor Ones had asked that Polyxeinos recover a scroll that the Librarians had confiscated from them two years prior.

“A scroll?” The Greek had asked, uncertain of the request.

“Yes, yes,” the unkempt Jew said. “It was a work containing the teachings of Yeshua, our prophet and teacher. It was taken from us by those rapacious scholars at the Library. Return it to us and I will lead you to what burials of the ancient mystikoi that I know.”

A full turning of the moon passed before Polyxeinos was able to return to the Poor Ones’ camp with their beloved scroll in his possession. It had taken him that long to ingratiate himself to the scholars of the city’s renowned and ancient Library, to afford him access to the stacks, and to locate the scroll as described to him by Baruch. Both the leader and his followers howled with joy at the sight of the scroll when Polyxeinos removed it from within his cloak, snatching it out of the Greek’s offered hand and dancing around him with it held high, all while the Poor Ones sang praises to him, to their long-dead teacher, and to the god of the Jews.

When the rejoicing was done, Baruch handed the scroll over to his second-in-command and bade that Polyxeinos follow him into the rapidly approaching night. They strode across the sand and dirt that covered most of the land outside of Alexandria’s walls, heading north from the camp of the Poor Ones until they passed a low wall that encircled a space that looked like any other out there in the wilds. A low, squat structure rose up black against the darkened horizon, beyond which Polyxeinos could just barely make out the sound of the Mediterranean’s waves crashing upon the shore.

“Why do you search the catacombs for the ancient seekers?” Baruch asked as the duo stopped near the entrance into the earth, the structure built from mud-bricks, and he quickly lit a torch that had been left there.

“I seek an object left by them, a sacred relic.” Polyxeinos guarded his vision from the sudden flaming of the torch with an upraised hand, following behind Baruch as the men descended into the catacombs.

“What kind of relic?”

“It will be in a basket of some fashion,” the Greek man said absently as he gazed at the loculi as they passed them. “A kiste.”

“And in the basket?”

“That is for me to know,” Polyxeinos said softly but firmly, eliciting no more questions from the man.

They wound their way through the stone-hewn tunnels under the earth, passing hundreds of corpses in various states of decomposition. Though many of the halls simply smelled of must and dirt and ancient bones, Polyxeinos had to hold his breath on more than one occasion as they passed a particularly fresh body whose meager allotment of myrrh did nothing to cover the fumes. Baruch led him to three separate chambers where the Jew claimed he come across the signs of one of the mystikoi. The first chamber had the remains of some of the initiates of Eleusis interred within its loculi carved into the rock, the second chamber had only pottery shards with some of the Eleusinian’s symbols and nothing more. Finally, in the third chamber they found the bodies of two initiates and a stone box on the floor, carved to appear as if it were a woven basket.

“Here. This must be it!” Polyxeinos said, brushing past Baruch to pry at the lid of the kiste. The leader of the Poor Ones watched silently as the Greek man strove to open the box. With a grunt and a heave, Polyxeinos finally moved the stone lid, peering into its dark interior for a long moment before slipping his hand in. “Ah, ha!”

“What is it?” Baruch asked cautiously, watching as the Greek man withdrew his hand from the box, a curved object held tightly in his fist.

“The Sickle of Demeter,” Polyxeinos said softly, reverently, as he gazed at the curved, metal blade in the light of Baruch’s torch. The description that he’d given to Gamliel had been a ruse, a protection in case the Jewish magician had sought to acquire the relic first.

“What is so special about it?” The Jew asked quietly after another silent moment.

“The stories say that it can grant boundless harvests or spread an unstoppable blight among crops, that it determine a man’s fate, and that it can even call back the dead from Hades’ halls,” Polyxeinos replied. There came the sound of scraping behind him, causing Polyxeinos to look over his shoulder to see Baruch standing with his flaming torch in one hand and the ancient femur of one of the interred corpses in the other.

“What is this?” The Greek man asked with a disbelieving chuckle as he stood and turned to face Baruch.

“Such power…one such as you cannot be allowed to wield,” the unkempt Jew replied resolutely. “Only one devoted to the Lord can be expected to withstand–”

His diatribe was cut off as the point of Polyxeinos’ pugio sank into the flesh of the man’s throat, having flown quickly from the Greek man’s hand. Polyxeinos crossed the small chamber gripped the handle of the dagger, tearing it left and right sharply before twisting it as he removed it from Baruch’s throat.

“My apologies,” the Greek said to the dying Jew, cleaning the blade of the pugio on Baruch’s long shirt even as the man’s own blood began to stain the front of it. “But I do ever so hate self-righteous proclamations.”

He sheathed the dagger and tucked the sickle into his belt, hidden beneath his cloak, before bending and snatching the torch from the stone floor of the catacomb. He had a weapon to deliver to the Imperator that might just secure the reclamation of the lands stolen by the Palmyrenes and thus had no time to spare.

As the light of the torch slowly dwindled in the distance down the length of the stone-carved tunnels of the Alexandrian catacombs, Baruch’s fingertips scrabbled vainly at the stone surface of the floor before a single, wet gurgle erupted from him as his life slipped away there in the dark, surrounded by the dead.

Nicholas Egelhoff © 2015

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