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wo days later, just as the sun was dropping below the horizon and we had begun to move again, some merchants travelling in the opposite direction to our group warned us that a large band of thieves roamed nearby. The merchants had only narrowly succeeded in evading them. Our company had proceeded only another mile before we saw, in the distance, a contingent of riders. Jacob was foremost in helping to organise us all to resist an attack as best we could. In the event, the robbers, if it was they whom we had seen, passed on without coming very close to us at all. I breathed a sigh of relief and offered up a prayer of thanks. Then I saw her, at the very rear of the company, where Jacob had placed her for safety. Yet my children and I were, if not at the very front, then certainly nowhere near the back. I watched as Jacob approached her and put an arm around her.
Suddenly her eye caught mine, and she smiled. Yes, the bitch couldn’t resist it. She tilted her face towards him for his kiss.

Am I a bitch, too? Yes, a bitter, jealous, resentful, unwanted one. You would have been, too, I assure you.

Soon we were under way again. Gradually, my anger, which had never before burned quite so fiercely, subsided to some extent, and a new determination rose up in me, which soon hardened into absolute resolve.

We were encamped once more, with the sun beating down upon our tents, and I, in spite of the heat, had walked quite a way from the group, scouring the ground in pursuit of my resolution, when, glancing up, I saw it.

At first I was able to see right through the box, then it became solid. It was tall, with a strange sort of lamp on the top of it, and stood in the midst of a few withered bushes. A narrow door opened and three people came out. The old man had long, flowing silver locks and a sharp stare, which I found a little unnerving as he walked the few paces across the dusty ground to where I stood. The boy had curly, red-gold hair and well-cut features, and will one day be quite a good-looking young man, if I’m any judge. He reminded me a bit of my son Zebulun. The girl was small and dark, and most unsuitably and outlandishly garbed. Why, her legs were quite bare! A measure of maidenly modesty would, I thought, give her a much better chance of securing in due course a husband of decent character. Mind you, the raiment of the old man and the boy, though not immodest, was some of the most extraordinary I have ever seen as well.

Yes, I know. You want me to get on with the actual tale. But just have patience, will you? All good storytellers put in some description and a modicum of comment, don’t they? I’m only doing my best to make it more interesting. I’d like to see you do better, if you suffered as I do with my eyes!

Where was I? Ah, yes…

‘My good woman, would you be kind enough to enlighten us as to our exact whereabouts, hmm?’

The old man’s countenance had undergone a complete transformation. His eyes were kind now, and he was smiling in an engaging manner. He could have charmed birds from a tree.

‘You are lost?’ It was obvious that they were, of course, but their manner of arrival had been unusual, to say the least, and I thought a question from me might encourage him to expand upon it.

I was mistaken. ‘I’m afraid so, my dear.’ His smile had waned a little.

I shrugged, and then enlightened him to the best of my own knowledge. ‘I am Leah,’ I added, thinking that I might as well introduce myself.

‘Leah?’ Was that recognition of my name I detected in his voice? I was all but certain that it was.

‘I am wife to Jacob,’ I told him, watching him closely. But he had recovered himself, and waved towards his two companions. ‘My grandchildren, John and Gillian,’ he explained.

‘A fine boy, and a pretty girl,’ I responded politely.

The old fellow’s eyes were on the plants I held in one hand. ‘Mandrake,’ I informed him, moving the assortment behind my back and thus out of his sight. ‘I would brew a fertility potion as a gift for my barren sister. I was always mightily better at preparing herbs and suchlike than she is.’

‘A kind thought, indeed.’

Was that a touch of sarcasm there? As I wondered exactly what this old sage could possibly know about my sister and I, he beamed at me. ‘Might I prevail upon you to offer us the merest refreshment?’ he enquired. ‘I wouldn’t presume to ask, except that my grandchildren and I are already somewhat parched.’

They stared at him, as if surprised, I thought. But I couldn’t refuse, and anyway my curiosity was quite aroused.

‘The sun will soon bake such pale skin as theirs and yours. Come, we shall hasten to my tent.’

‘My dear lady, you are consideration itself.’

Jacob was with Rachel (naturally), and my children were playing somewhere, so just the four of us shared freshly baked bread and a drop of the wine I make myself (I’m rather pleased with the last batch, incidentally - a goblet or two and nothing matters much to you any more). I watered the wine down for the two children. At one stage I made a point of excusing myself to fetch something or other, then stood slightly to one side of the tent entrance and listened intently. They didn’t talk very loudly for most of the time I was absent; in fact I’m fairly sure that the old man told the children to lower their voices quite early on. A wily old bird, the Doctor. Oh yes, indeed. I caught something about Kleptons, whatever they are, and some mention of a queen who was dominated by her favourites. A little later, the girl did exclaim once: ‘I can hardly believe she’s really a relative of Jesus, Grandfather!’ This was in a tone so awestruck that I wondered who this Jesus could possibly be. I had certainly never heard of anyone of that name, well known or otherwise. Was the child referring to me as being related to this person? Perhaps, or perhaps not. It was only an isolated remark I had heard, after all. But there had been something in the way she had said it…

Consumed even more by curiosity now, I picked up a pot I had left outside the tent and went back inside. I was followed in almost straight away by my sons Issachar and Zebulun, already two strapping young lads, and I immediately suggested that they take the Doctor’s grandchildren off with them to play a game. When the four had gone I glanced at the Doctor, to find him already regarding me with a shrewd look that made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.

‘I suppose you’ll want to begin preparing that potion for your sister, hmm? Don’t let me delay you any further, my dear. Indeed, I shall help you with it. It’s the very least I can do in return for your hospitality. I should tell you that I, too, have some knowledge of herbs and plants, and their use in beneficial - and other - concoctions. My parsnip elixir was much praised once upon a time. Oh, yes, I assure you.’

‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly allow a guest to undertake, or share, such a task,’ I told him hastily.

‘Nonsense, my good woman. Nonsense.’ Even as he spoke, he was sifting through the plants, mandrake and others, which I had earlier laid inconspicuously to one side. I had been certain that he hadn’t seen me place them there. He held one of them up and gazed at it keenly. ‘Ah, now that is a most unusual ingredient. Most unusual. Are you working to a recipe of your own devising?’

I looked at him directly. ‘Nothing is too much trouble when your sister is as dear to you as Rachel is to me,’ I replied, ambiguously.

‘I’m sure that’s very true.’ His smile was unwavering.

‘Who are you?’ I demanded. ‘As I recall, you introduced your grandchildren, but not yourself.’

‘I do believe you’re right.’



artwork by ANDY LAMBERT
used with permission
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