Authors: Sharan Newman
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For Ann Cecile Bergman,
A gift of love and joy
A trade road, somewhere south of Limoges, France. Thursday, 15 kalends April (March 18) 1148, Feast of King Edward the Confessor. 24 Adar 4908.
Far-flung dove wandered to a wood.
Stumbled there and lay lame…
A thousand years she thought would bring her time,
But all her calculations failed.
Her lover hurt her heart by leaving her
For years; she might have died.
She swore she’d never say his name again,
But in her heart it burned like fire.
Solomon nudged the corpse with the toe of his boot.
“Still warm,” he said. “Hasn’t been here more than a few moments, I’d say.”
“I don’t see a wound.” Solomon’s friend, Bonysach, knelt for a closer examination, then leaned back suddenly. “Think he had some kind of disease?”
“Looks healthy enough.” Solomon knelt, too. “Apart from being dead, that is.”
He ran his gloved hands over the limp body. “Wait! See here, an arrow went straight through his neck! It must have come out the other side. Amazing! I’d have thought only a crossbow would have that much force. Poor fellow must have run on until he choked on his own blood. Whoever shot him probably thought he’d missed.”
Bonysach looked up. “Then it’s likely that no one will be looking for him, right?”
Solomon considered. “Probably not,” he admitted. “Although they might be tracking him by the blood stains. But I don’t hear any dogs.”
Bonysach drew his knife. “Then he’s ours to claim. Let’s get him gutted and cut up before he spoils. There’s enough meat here to feed us all for a week.”
Solomon paused. “I don’t know, Bonysach. You know how lords are about deer poachers.”
“That’s why we have to hurry.” Bonysach started to cut into the animal.
“Stop! Stop this at once! How can you do such a thing? That animal is unclean!” The third man in the group cried out in horror. He had refused to approach the body and had stayed on the path, holding the horses.
“It won’t be when I’m done, Yusef,” Bonysach told him. “I’m cutting out the sinews and taking only the parts the law allows.”
“But it hasn’t been ritually slaughtered!” Yusef pleaded.
“Yusef!” Solomon answered. “The damn thing bled to death; isn’t that good enough for you?”
Yusef shook his head. He could see that the other two wouldn’t be swayed by any argument of his but he intended to take the matter up with the elders of the
when they reached Toulouse. If they ever did. He looked into the dark forest, expecting it to erupt at any moment with knights or monsters. His neck prickled, anticipating the slice of steel at his throat.
Solomon continued with the work of getting the best meat from the deer before the hunters showed up. Of course, if he’d been a holy man, like Yusef, he would have cut up the venison and given it to the peasants in the next village they came to. Or he would have passed it by with eyes averted. But they had been living on dried fish and stale bread for too many days after a winter of famine. His body craved real meat.
His friend, Bonysach must have felt the same way. He was a respected Jewish merchant of Toulouse but the lure of fresh venison was too strong. His stomach overruled his conscience.
The path they were on was a main thoroughfare south through Burgundy to Provence. One could tell its importance by the beaten earth, devoid of plants. But it was still only wide enough to ride single file and the forest was encroaching on either side. This was one reason Solomon had dared take the time to cut up the deer. It was clear that the local lord wasn’t fulfilling his duty to maintain the roads through his land. That meant it was unlikely there would be anyone patrolling it to challenge them.
“Hurry!” Yusef snapped, looking over his shoulder. “We shouldn’t have let ourselves get so far behind the others. I don’t want to camp alone in this forest. Who knows what’s lurking in there?”
The other two made no objection. As the day ebbed and shadows lengthened, the tangle of vines around the trees seemed to have faces hidden in the brush. A branch hanging over the path shook as if someone were preparing to leap onto them. Yusef’s packhorse shied as they passed under it, causing the man to drop the lead line.
“Our troubles are starting already. Impiety is always punished,” he muttered as he dismounted to retrieve the line. “What if that animal wasn’t really a deer?”
“What else could it have been?” Bonysach asked sharply. “Anyway, we weren’t the ones who shot it.”
“I think it was something evil,” Yusef shuddered. “Put there on purpose to tempt you. You’ll open that pack and find it writhing with snakes, mark my word.”
He mounted again and they all set off at a quicker pace.
“What if the deer was divinely sent?” Solomon suggested after a moment of thought. “The Holy One may have taken pity on us. He may have decided that we’d mortified our flesh on salt cod soaked in beer for long enough.”
Yusef grunted his doubt that Solomon was worth a heavenly gift.
Solomon glanced at Bonysach, trying to smile, but the dark silent woods were pressing on his spirit. Despite his attempts at lightness, he couldn’t prevent a shiver from running down his back.
Bonysach only gave a tired sigh. He was older than the other two, nearly sixty, and long days in the saddle wearied him more than he would admit.
They rode on in silence.
“Praise the Holy One!” Yusef suddenly cried. “We’ve found them!”
The path had widened to a clearing where a scattering of tents had been pitched and cooking fires started.
“Solomon! Bonysach! Yusef! Over here!”
Solomon turned to find the speaker. He grinned when he spotted his old friend, Aaron, from Toulouse.
“What are you doing on the road so early in the season?” he asked when he had reached Aaron’s camp. “The best fairs aren’t until after Pesach.”
“I’m not going much farther,” Aaron answered, pulling his cloak more tightly across his chest. “This far north and I’m already freezing. I just have to deliver a pair of horses to the archbishop of Bordeaux. He promised to pay on delivery and I need the money now.”
“You might have to wait, then,” Solomon commented. “He’s probably already left for Reims. The Edomites are having another of their councils and the pope has summoned all the high clerics to attend.”
“Perhaps,” Aaron said. “I’m not privy to the archbishop’s itineraries. As long as he left someone who can pay me, I’m not waiting on his return. As soon as I make the delivery and get the rest of my payment, I’m heading back to Toulouse and I won’t go north again until the last of the storks have flown over. If the weather isn’t warm enough for them, I know I won’t be able to bear it, either.”
“Poor thin-blooded Aaron!” Solomon laughed. “I’m going to be in Toulouse a while before I head farther south. I hope you return before I leave.”
Aaron’s expression turned serious.
“How far south were you planning on going?” he asked.
“All the way to Almeria,” Solomon told him. “My uncle Eliazar has an investment in a ship due there next month. He wanted me to pick up his package to save the cost of a middleman. Why?”
Aaron shook his head. “You haven’t heard? Almeria was taken by the Christians last autumn. The Spanish and the Genoese.”
He seemed about to say more, but instead pressed his lips together as if biting back a sudden pain.
“Things are getting more dangerous south of the mountains,” he went on. “The Christians are pushing farther into Saracen territory and the new rulers in Al-Andalus are pushing back. Between them, Israel is being squeezed out.”
“The Edomites and Ishmaelites have been at each other for centuries,” Solomon said. “We’ve always managed. Uncle Eliazar’s goods were on a Christian ship from Alexandria. So I’ll have to pay import fees to the Genoese instead of the Muslim lords. They’ll probably be higher but we’ll survive.”
“Perhaps this time we won’t,” Aaron insisted. “Hundreds of our people have fled north to Narbonne. More have taken passage for Cairo. Face it, Solomon, whoever wins, we lose.”
“Aaron!” Solomon was exasperated. “I’ve just spent the past week enduring Yusef’s constant preaching on how each time we ignore one of the commandments we bring disaster on the Jewish people. I don’t need to hear more tales of calamity. Has Toulouse become dangerous for us, too?”
“No.” Aaron seemed almost sorry to admit it. “We get along well enough with the people there. Of course, our count has gone off with King Louis on this insane expedition, leaving his young son in charge. That could be a problem.”
“Only if the boy decides to close the taverns,” Solomon said. “Look, Bonysach and I have come by some fresh venison, not ritually slaughtered but properly butchered. Do you want to dine with us?”
“Well.” Aaron looked at the ground. “I might just come by and give it a sniff. I have a skin of good wine from my sister’s vineyard that I could share.”
“It would be much appreciated,” Solomon told him. “Come early. When the scent of the roast starts rising, you may not be able to get through the crowd.”
Solomon poked at the meat as it turned on a makeshift spit. There was a satisfying sizzle as grease dripped into the fire. For the end of winter, the animal was well supplied with fat.
The aroma rose on the evening breeze. As Solomon had predicted, there was soon a ring of men around them, many with trenchers of hard bread to hold their slice and catch every drop of the juice. Despite his warning that the deer hadn’t been properly slaughtered, Solomon noted several other Jews waiting among the Christian traders.
It should have comforted him to know that he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t observant. Instead he felt uneasy, as though he were personally responsible for leading others into sin. Well, he told himself, it wouldn’t be the first time.
He lifted the meat from the fire and let it slide onto a brass platter one of the traders had loaned them. The juice ran in rivulets through the carvings. One of the men held out his bowl to catch any drop that might spill over the edge.
Solomon felt the change in the air before he saw what had caused it. A silence began at the edge of the group and rolled to the front where the first man had just speared a slice of venison on the point of his knife. He looked up at the massive horse and the massive man in chain mail riding him. Very carefully, he set the meat back on the platter and backed away. The other men were already moving toward their own tents.
Solomon didn’t even glance at them, although he could feel the warm moistness of the horse’s breath on his neck. He took a piece of the meat and set it on his trencher bread. He then picked up the bread, took it over to the camp chair next to his tent, and calmly began to eat it, tearing off bites with his teeth and letting the juice run down his chin and onto the bread.
“I don’t mind an unexpected guest,” he said, finally acknowledging the horseman in front of him. “But it is customary to leave your mount and your sword outside the dining hall.”
The warrior’s foot left the stirrup with amazing speed as he kicked the bread and meat from Solomon’s hand.
“You stole my
deer!” he roared. “Prepare to die!”
He dismounted and drew his sword.
Solomon stood, still holding the long meat knife. He saw a man about his own height, but built solidly, with bowed legs that bespoke more time in the saddle than on foot.
“So.” Solomon shook his head sadly. “You are the idiot who used a yearling for target practice and then didn’t bother to follow him to find out what damage you’d done. What kind of knight are you? Who is your liege lord?”
The question was barked out like a battle command.
“The count of Anjou,” the man said before he’d thought. “Not that it’s any of your affair.”
“No,” Solomon agreed pleasantly. “But it is strange that you’d be so far from home and alone.”
By now the man realized that he hadn’t wandered into a small camp of peasants that he could intimidate. There were ten or fifteen men around him and several of them were clearly guards hired to protect these traders. His wasn’t the only sword out now.
“Th…that’s not your concern, either,” he stammered as he remounted his horse. “Since I am on an important errand for my lord, I don’t have time to punish you as I would like. Be sure that I won’t forget this insult.”
The man rode off down the path, pretending not to hear the laughter that followed him.
“It’s like you try to face down a man in chain mail,” Bonysach said to Solomon. “But you never think of the consequences. What if he returns with friends?”
“I doubt he has any nearby,” Solomon answered. “He may not even have a lord. Did you note his gear? The leather is worn and his cloak is threadbare. He was probably poaching, himself.”
“His horse is old, too,” Aaron volunteered. “Probably can’t go above a trot.”
“I almost pity him,” Yusef added. “What’s he going to eat tonight, now that you’ve taken his meat?”
someone shouted. “The venison!”
The dripping grease had caused the fire to flare up, enveloping the remaining hunks of meat. Solomon wrapped his cloak around his hand and grabbed the spit, pulling it out. The venison burned like a torch for a moment and then died down.
“Barely seared,” one of the traders pronounced. “Slice it up!”
Solomon looked at Bonysach, who nodded.
“Might as well get rid of the evidence,” he said. “Just in case our friend there has friends of his own after all.”
The men descended upon the meat. Solomon looked over at Yusef who was gnawing on the last of the fish, having first washed his hands and said the blessing. A few other men were sitting with him. They radiated pious disapproval. Solomon watched them a few seconds, then shrugged and returned to his venison, washing it down with a cup of Aaron’s wine.
“Have more.” Aaron filled the cup from his wineskin. He sat down next to Solomon.
“Do you want some meat?” Solomon asked.
Aaron sniffed the venison wistfully but shook his head.
“I need all the blessings I can get right now,” he said. “I can’t risk even a minor transgression.”
Solomon knew Aaron wanted him to ask what the trouble was. He sighed. Why did people think he cared about their problems? But Aaron was an old friend, like Solomon still unmarried in his early thirties. And his sister made very good wine.
“So, what trouble are you in that you can’t risk a mouthful of venison?” Solomon forced himself to ask.
But Aaron didn’t immediately unburden himself.
“You’ve been to Córdoba, haven’t you?” he asked instead.