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 bet midrash 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 sancnos 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?”
“Avoi!” 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.
“Many times,” Solomon answered, confused by the sudden question. “We do business there with Yishmael, the pearl merchant.”
“So you know his daughter, Mayah?” Aaron continued.
“Aha!” Solomon thought.
He nodded. “A lovely girl, if somewhat sharp of tongue.”
“Really?” Aaron asked sharply. “She spoke most civilly to me. And she is well-educated both in Arabic and Hebrew, they say.”
“They are right,” Solomon answered. “Her French is also quite good. Am I to understand that you have an interest in Mayah?”
“I have discussed an alliance with Yishmael,” Aaron said.
Solomon almost started to say that Yishmael liked his boys younger, but he took pity on his friend.
“I thought a mere Cohen wouldn’t be good enough for Yishmael,” he contented himself with commenting. “He would prefer a nasi for Mayah with proof of direct descent from King David.”
Aaron smiled. “She is beautiful enough to be a queen,” he said. “But her father still seemed to look kindly on me.”
“Well, congratulations then!” Solomon finished his wine and stood.
“Well, there is a—” Aaron began, but Yusef chose that moment to interrupt, dragging Aaron off to help decide a debate on the age of a horse one of the traders had just bought.
Solomon wished he’d thought to refill his cup. He finished his slice of meat, savoring the flavor. A moment later, Bonysach joined him.
“After this meal, I’ll sleep well for a change,” he pronounced. “Two more days to Moissac, another day or so going upriver and then I can eat Josta’s cooking again. This may just hold me until then.”
Solomon winced at the name of the town. Bonysach noticed and apologized at once.
“I forgot what you went through in Moissac,” he said. “But that was all a misunderstanding and at least your partner talked the abbot out of having you hanged. A pity he decided to return home instead of making this trip with us. What is his name again? Something foreign.”
“His name is Edgar and it’s just as well he decided to turn back. He was too worried about his family to be of any use,” Solomon said. “He said he’d try to join us later. Anyway, he can’t help with this. You know it’s not a brush with the gallows that makes me dread going to Moissac.”
“Yes.” Bonysach was one of the few who did. “But you aren’t likely to run into that monk. Don’t look so ashamed. Many of us have family who have turned Christian. At least your Uncle Hubert came back to us, even if his brother didn’t.”
“All the same,” Solomon growled. “Even the chance that I might see him makes my stomach as tense as a bow strung on green wood.”
“Then I suggest you stay away from the monastery and spend your time in places a monk wouldn’t be likely to go.”
Solomon felt his muscles relax a bit. “That, Bonysach, is an excellent suggestion.”
* * *
So, two nights later, Solomon found himself soaking up to his waist in a large wooden tub. He ducked his head under the warm water. The first thing he had done upon their arrival in Moissac was go to the bathhouse. After almost three weeks of sleeping in a tent or fleabag inns and washing in cold streams, a real bath felt like the first garden of Heaven. And definitely not a place to find monks. He soaped his hair and beard and ducked again.
Fingers slipped through his matted curls and tugged him to the surface. Solomon grabbed at them.
“Ow!” The woman twisted her hand away. “You didn’t have to be so rough…at least not without paying.”
Solomon wiped the water from his eyes. The woman standing beside the wooden tub was wearing only a yellow bliaut with no shift underneath. He was sure of this because she had laced up the sides so loosely that he could see her skin from thigh to neck. Her long brown hair was also loose and her eyes were rimmed with dark kohl to make them seem larger and more appealing.
“I’m sorry, Englesia,” Solomon said. “But you should know better than to catch me unawares.”
She shook her head. “Always expecting an attack, aren’t you?”
“That’s right,” he answered. “It keeps me alive. So, what are you doing here? You usually wait for me to come to your room. Anyway, I heard you had married.”
Englesia smiled. “I did, a blacksmith. But he’s gone off to make horseshoes for the count’s army.”
“Didn’t he provide for you?” Solomon climbed out of the tub and reached for a linen mantele to dry himself.
The woman knelt to help him, working her way up from his feet.
“He left a bit,” she said. “But, well, you wouldn’t believe it, but all Miro’s muscles turned out to be in his arms. I hadn’t counted on giving up that much. So I decided to return to my old trade for a while. Just my special clients, of course.”
She ran a soft hand up his thigh.
“That’s too bad, but I can’t help you.” He looked down at her. “Englesia, get up,” he insisted. “I’m not looking for company tonight.”
Solomon was aware that his body was giving his words the lie. He pushed Englesia away.
“I came with a group of more than twenty men,” he told her. “I’m sure you’ll find many eager to purchase your favors. I have other plans.”
A flash of anger passed across her face. Then she laughed.
“Whoever she is, Solomon, I’ll wager she won’t give you as good a game as I can.”
Solomon pulled on his tunic and hunted around for his hose. “Perhaps not, Englesia,” he said as he put them on. Last he buckled the sheath for his knife to his left arm. “Or perhaps I’ve just grown tired of playing by your rules.”
He lifted the curtain and stepped into the passageway, letting the drape fall behind him. He was almost to the door before she stepped out. For a moment, she seemed about to come after him but then she shrugged and entered another cubicle from which the sound of splashing could be heard.
Solomon cursed himself all the way back to the inn. What had made him turn her down? Englesia had always given good value, even a bit extra. Could he have suddenly become squeamish about bedding married women, even whores?
He shivered, although the night was mild. It was this town, he decided. Moissac was the place where a few years before, he had been accused of murder. The true culprit had been found eventually, but Solomon wasn’t about to forgive those who had assumed his guilt, nor the man who had encouraged them.
He walked faster. Maybe he should have taken Englesia’s offer. It would have kept his mind from the memories. All he could see now was the face of that hateful monk.
He reached the inn.
“Wine!” he shouted to the woman just entering from the door to the cellar. “A pitcher full to the brim and no water.”
He flung himself onto the bench in the corner. If he couldn’t allow himself to ease his body with a woman tonight, then wine would have to do.
* * *
Yusef came for him the next morning. He found Solomon still rolled up in his blankets, the wine cup overturned on the floor beside him.
“What a mamzer!” he exclaimed in disgust as he pulled the covers from Solomon’s face. “This is what happens when you refuse to stay with your own people. Get up at once. The boat is loaded and we’re leaving whether you’re sober or not.”
“Yusef.” Solomon’s voice was icily calm. “If you don’t lower your voice I shall cut your tongue out.”
He sat up unsteadily, wincing as he opened his eyes. There must have been wormwood in that wine. He couldn’t have drunk enough to feel this bad unless he’d been poisoned.
He looked down at himself.
“At least I’m dressed,” he commented. “Help me with the bedding and we can go.”
Yusef just looked at him with revulsion.
“You can’t even make it down the ladder,” he said. “I don’t know how you got up to bed.”
“Neither do I.” Solomon stuffed the blankets in a leather bag and picked up his pack. He let out a mighty groan.
“Just don’t speak to me,” he warned Yusef. “And if I stop suddenly and bend over, get out of range.”
“No fear about that.” Yusef grunted. “You’ll be lucky if 1 don’t leave you sprawled in the street. If it weren’t that your disgrace would reflect on the rest of us, 1 would.”
“Good Yusef.” Solomon put a hand up to block the sunlight as they left the inn. “I know 1 can rely on you. Maine de esvertin! I can’t stand this town!”
Yusef suppressed a retort and sighed instead. Solomon was right in believing that he was dependable. No matter what Yusef thought of Solomon’s behavior, he believed that the man was still a member of the community and deserved protection. Also, even though Solomon thought it was a secret, Yusef knew why he loathed Moissac so much. Bonysach had told him about the monk. It was this that made Yusef sympathetic, despite his own inclinations.
In Solomon’s place, he would have felt the same.
The river Garonne joined the Tarn at Moissac. From there one could go all the way upriver to Toulouse. It was slower but safer and somewhat cheaper than the road, although every town seemed to have a toll to get past it and the bargeman had to keep a constant watch for floating mills in the middle of the river, attached to the banks by ropes that could knock a man or a barrel over the side.
Solomon was in no danger of going in. He lay flat on his back, his face covered by his felt hat.
He felt someone kneel next to him. A moment later his hat was lifted and a round, good-natured faced stared down at him.
“Are you able to take food, yet?” he asked Solomon. “We have some egg broth that would do you good.”
Solomon stared up at him blearily. “Who are you?”
The man grinned. “Arnald of la Dalbade,” he told Solomon. “Some call me Arnald Barleysilk.” He indicated his frizzy light brown hair. “My father, Vidian, is a salt merchant in the Cité of Toulouse. I was in Moissac to see my friend, Victor, who’s a monk at the abbey. Do you need any salt?”
This was more information than Solomon could handle in his present state. He tried to focus on the man’s first question.
“Egg broth,” he repeated. “Yes, I think I’d like some.”
He pushed himself up onto his elbows. The man helped him to sit.
“If you give me your bowl, I’ll bring it to you,” he offered.
Solomon felt for his pack.
“Thank you…Arnald,” he said, handing him the bowl.
Solomon looked around. The river was wide here, with mostly forest on either side. He spotted a fish weir and a well-worn path, but no sign of a village. He wondered how long he had slept. His mouth felt like a freshly tanned hide but his head was clearer and his stomach not so rebellious.
Arnald brought back the bowl and gave it to Solomon.
“It’s not very warm,” he said. “The coals we brought on board this morning are almost spent.”
Solomon took a sip. Tepid and bland, just what he needed.
“Thank you,” he said.
He took a longer drink. It felt wonderful on his parched tongue. Over the edge of the bowl, Solomon realized that Arnald had sat down next to him and was watching with interest.
“Umm,” Solomon began. “I’m grateful for your care, but really not up to conversation at the moment.”
Arnald smiled. “Of course not. The innkeeper told me that you emptied three pitchers last night without even a crust to sop it. And that was the raw red from last fall. You must have a great grief to drown!”
Solomon put down the bowl to see this man better. Was he simple or just very young? Was he impressed by Solomon’s capacity for drink or the depth of his assumed sorrow? Arnald was looking at him with an expectant smile. Did he think Solomon would confide in him on the strength of a kind gesture?
“If I had troubles,” he told Arnald. “Then I must have drowned them. Apart from anger at my overindulgence, I feel fine. How far are we from Toulouse?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Arnald apologized. “I could ask the boatman or one of your friends.”
“No.” Solomon finished the broth. “It’s not important.”
He forced himself upright and squinted around the boat. Yes, the other Jewish traders were standing in a cluster next to the pile of bundles they had brought. He could see his bags among them. Good old Yusef!
He managed the three steps to the group.
“I’m in your debt, Yusef,” he said.
Yusef shrugged. “I’ll consider it a mitzvah,” he said.
“Very well,” Solomon accepted that. “I shall repay the community in your name.”
“I’d rather see you praying with us tomorrow morning,” Yusef answered.
His eyes dared Solomon to refuse.
Solomon noticed that the other four men were waiting for his reply. He gave in.
“I will be there,” he said. “But you’ll have to help me with the words.”
“Do you also need tallit and tefillin?” Bonysach asked.
Solomon heard the doubt in his voice.
“Actually, no,” he answered. “Unless they’ve been stolen from my pack.”
The men looked at him in surprised approval. Solomon smiled at them. No need to mention that he was bringing them as a gift for his Uncle Hubert from Abraham of Paris. Hubert wouldn’t mind his using them. Now he just hoped he could remember how.
Solomon looked around the barge. As planned, the group had hired it just for themselves and their goods. The horses had been left in Moissac until their return. Fresh ones would be found in Toulouse. The only Christians on board were the boatmen, and Arnald.
Seeing that Arnald was now busy asking questions of the bargeman, Solomon leaned closer to Bonysach.
“What is the Edomite doing with us?” he asked.
Bonysach looked surprised. “The salt merchant’s son? He told us you were friends,” he said. “He said you had asked him to join us.”
Solomon shook his head. “Never saw him before. He says he was at the inn with me last night.”
Bonysach nodded. “The state you were in, you may have become sworn brothers. What possessed you to try to drain a vat by yourself?”
“I don’t know,” Solomon admitted sadly. “I’ve been to Moissac several times since my encounter with my…with that monk, but somehow, this time, the shame of it hit me like an anvil on my back.”
The older man’s face softened and he patted Solomon on the shoulder.
“The shame is not yours, my friend,” he said. “But his.”
“You know we aren’t angry with you for your behavior,” he continued. “Not really. It’s only that we fear that you spend too much time with the Edomites. We all have to live in a world of idolaters and unbelievers. It’s the Law alone that keeps us safe. I think you enjoy flouting it.”
“No,” Solomon answered earnestly. “I respect the Law; I just don’t see the need to observe it rigorously. But, Bonysach, I have never denied my faith. Nor have I doubted it. No matter what happens, I will die rather than be ‘blessed’ in their filthy water. I promise you.”
Both men were silent a moment, remembering those they had known who had been martyred or forced to convert in the past two years. When King Louis had decided to raise an army to fight the Saracens, it was the Jews who were the first victims.
Bonysach shook himself. “Enough of misery. It’s a beautiful spring day. We are safe and I, at least, am going home to my family. You’ll stay with us again, won’t you? Belide asks after you often. She’s seventeen now, you know.”
“Belide seventeen!” Solomon feigned shock. “The little girl with the skinned elbows and dirty face? I do feel old.”
Bonysach looked him up and down. “Despite your current condition, you aren’t decrepit, yet.”
Solomon started to back away. He suspected what was coming.
“My friend, Abraham the vintner, says you need a wife,” Bonysach went on.
“Oh, no,” Solomon interrupted. “It’s Rebecca, Abraham’s wife, who feels I should be married. She has tried to match me to most of the eligible girls from Paris to Rouen.”
“Those are French women.” Bonysach dismissed them with a wave. “You know the women of Provence are more beautiful, more educated, more able to manage your business while you are gone and passionate enough to provide you with many children to carry on in your name.”
“Bonysach!” Solomon was honestly shocked. “You can’t be talking about your own daughter!”
“Believe me, I know Belide,” Bonysach said. “She’s ripe for marriage. But dutiful and pious,” he added quickly.
Solomon was horrified and said so.
“Bonysach, you’d sacrifice your own child to see to it that I don’t turn Christian? How can you even consider such a thing?”
Bonysach held up his hands in protest. “She doesn’t feel it would be a sacrifice,” he said. “Anyway, we both know that marriage won’t stop a man who wishes to leave the faith.”
“Old friend,” he answered. “My head aches still from my excess last night. This is far too much for me to wade through now. But I know you can do better for your child than a man who eats and drinks with infidels and is never home more than a few days in a year.”
Bonysach shrugged. “Actually, I do have a few other possibilities. It’s Belide herself who wants the chance to reform you.”
Solomon rolled his eyes. “Will someone save me, please, from infatuated young women who think I can be redeemed!”
The other men turned to stare at him. Solomon lowered his voice.
“I know you’re a doting father, Bonysach,” he said. “And I’m sure Belide is all you say and more. You must make her believe that I am a lost cause. She would weary of me within a year.”
His friend gave a relieved grin. “I agree, Solomon. My wife has tried to tell her the same thing. Josta’s fond of you, of course, but doubts you’ll ever be domesticated and doesn’t want Belide to waste her youth trying.”
Solomon grinned back. “Give Josta a kiss for me with my thanks. And tell Belide that I have a pair of amber earrings that will be perfect for her bridal gift.”
Bonysach moved onto speak to one of the other traders. Solomon collapsed against the pile of bundles in relief.
Arnald had been listening with interest. He came over and plopped down next to Solomon.
“You don’t know what you’re giving up,” he said. “Bonysach is very rich and Belide is even more beautiful than he said. It’s a pity she’s Jewish.”
“How do you know Belide?” he asked suspiciously. “Is she why you wanted to travel with us?”
Arnald fidgeted with a rope end, unraveling the twine.
“Oh, I see her in the market,” he said. “We sell little cones of salt there. I help my mother at the stall sometimes. Belide and I have been friends since we were children.”
Solomon turned to him. “Look, if you took advantage of my state last night to wriggle your way onto this boat and ingratiate yourself with Belide’s father, then you’re not only mad, you’re in serious danger of having to swim the rest of the way to Toulouse.”
“No! I…” Arnald looked over Solomon’s shoulder. Bonysach was deep in conversation at the other end of the barge. “I do like her. But nothing more than that. My father would kill me if I took up with her.”
“So would hers,” Solomon pointed out.
“Yes, I know.” Arnald was sweating now. “It was you I wanted to meet,” he explained. “Belide said you were used to Christians, that you understood our ways. She thought you might be willing to help us.”
Solomon’s eyes narrowed. “Who is ‘us’? And what sort of help for you to do what?”
“Didn’t Aaron talk to you?” Arnald asked.
“Aaron? The horse trader? We talked a bit, but he only spoke of his marriage plans.”
“Yes, yes, oh good!” Arnald relaxed visibly. “Then he must mean to tell you the rest when he returns.”
He got up. “That’s all right, then.” He brushed the back of his tunic. “I know you’ll be willing to help, now that we’ve met. You’re not afraid of anything. Say, captain!” He stopped the boatman as he passed. “Will we be home by sundown tomorrow? My mother worries, you know, if I walk home in the dark.”
He sauntered off to the other side of the barge.
Solomon was too stunned to reply.
Copyright © 2003 by Sharan Newman