If I hadn’t almost died for Josef’s stolen lamb, I never would have met the Persian or learned of Suleiman’s lost scroll.
Josef stopped me just outside the market in the Israelite quarter of Samaria City. The afternoon heat transformed the stench of the livestock pens into acrid steam, and even though I wore a linen gown, sweat trickled down my back.
Josef dragged the toe of his frayed rope sandal through the road dust and refused to look at me as he muttered, “Mistress, my lamb was taken from her pen this afternoon. I was away. My wife did not see the thief.”
I tensed, looking to see if anybody in the narrow street could overhear us, but the bawling from the sheep pens drowned out our conversation. Reassured, I glared at him in a way most disrespectful for a young, unmarried woman. Sixteen is not young when you have yet to bear children, Leah’s voice whispered in my mind, but I ignored it. I had a lot of practice doing that.
“What do you expect me to do?” I hissed, although I knew what he expected—for me to find his lamb. I also knew my neighbors might kill me if I tried. Even so, longing parched my mouth. The mystery beckoned to me like a stream of fresh water to a woman lost in the desert.
“Mistress Peninnah …” Josef’s lips puckered with distaste around my name, as though we weren’t fellow Israelites, clinging to our identity beneath Persian rule. “Without the lamb, my daughters will starve next winter. I will have to sell them into slavery to save their lives.”
I wished he hadn’t mentioned his children—they offered too good an excuse to do what, in spite of everything, I wanted to do.
“Fine,” I muttered. “Allow me to accompany you home and extend my condolences to your wife.”
His shoulders slumped in relief, even as he glanced around to make certain no one had overheard. “Come,” he said, and shuffled quickly down the street.
I followed him along the dusty paving stones, belatedly remembering that I was supposed to be rushing home with a handful of spices for tonight’s mysterious dinner guest. Although I hoped he had nothing to do with my disgracefully unmarried state, I was desperately afraid he did. I was glad enough to delay my return to what used to be my father’s house, even if I had to endure Leah’s scolding later.
As we walked, Josef hunched his shoulders, as though I were the hot east wind blowing out of the desert to wither his crops. I gritted my teeth, and even though I knew it would make no difference, I tried once more to clear away the rumors that had fogged my name ever since my reckless childhood. Hastening my steps so that I was only a hand’s span behind him, I murmured, “I’m not a witch, Josef.”
He cringed and walked faster. I kept pace.
“I consult no devils, cast no spells. I look and I listen and I remember things. That’s all.”
Josef shuddered as though he could feel sorcery tainting his ears. He didn’t believe me. Nobody did. Why think that a young woman’s talent for uncovering secrets was the result of observant eyes and a very good memory when it was more tantalizing to believe she dabbled in forbidden arts? Why admit the shame of those secrets, when it was so much easier to pick up stones and crush the truth with the speaker?
I dropped back a step, feeling nervous again. When I dared look at the faces of the people passing us, I could see how their eyes glided over me, then slyly crept back to stare when they thought I wasn’t watching. I ducked my head and hurried on.
Josef’s mud-brick hovel was one of the humblest spots in Samaria, a lowly position indeed, since the city itself was a mere speck in the sprawl of Artaxerxes III’s Persian Empire. I glanced up toward the roof, where Josef’s wife and two daughters sat spinning, but he hurried me around back to the sheep pen. He wanted me to keep his family from starving but not to contaminate them with my presence.
The sheep pen, built from more mud bricks, made a rough square against the back of the dwelling. A hole in the house wall provided the only entrance—the family treated the lamb as dearly as its daughters, allowing it to sleep and eat with them.
I stood next to the pen, drew in a deep breath, and plunged into the mystery.
Josef’s wife sat on the roof facing the street, making it unlikely the thief had entered through the front door, so I bent over the pen wall, searching for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. Bits of straw poked out of the hardened mud, and the bricks were cracked, covered with the dust of their own disintegration. On top of the wall I found fresh scuffs—someone had climbed over in a hurry, scraping his sandal on the way. Just below the marks, a snagged thread clung to the brick.
I inhaled sharply as I plucked off the scrap of blue, my fingers telling me that it was too soft and fine to come from a garment worn by Josef or any of his family. But I had recently noticed someone in a bright blue tunic. I closed my eyes, recalling the market I had visited earlier, walking in memory the cramped streets of tiny shops, collapsible booths, and animal pens. And there he was, as vivid in my mind as in real life.
Pleasure rushed through me, making my heart pound and my cheeks flush. This—the delicious triumph of setting my mind against a problem and conquering it—was why I risked new accusations of witchcraft to come with Josef. After endless days of keeping my mouth shut, of trapping my mind inside rounds of spinning and cooking and other household chores, the mental exercise was as intoxicating as old wine.
“Josef!” I called.
He jumped, bumping into the house wall where he had been lurking, pretending not to be waiting to see me summon a demon.
I placed my hands on my hips and shook my head, but I was too delighted by my own cleverness to be upset. “Your lamb is at the market. Bring a witness who can identify the animal as yours.”
The Israelite quarter has its own market—very important because of our strict dietary laws. No pork, no shellfish, no meat sacrificed to foreign gods. That last restriction eliminates all meat sold in the common bazaars, since the various temples do a brisk business in leftover sacrifices. We Israelites have our own temple and sacrifices, of course, and for those who lack flocks, Ucah son of Udel sells sacrificial lambs—guaranteed perfect and pleasing to Shema, the god above all gods. But it was sometimes hard for Ucah to come up with enough flawless animals to satisfy demand.
Ucah stood in front of his pen full of bleating merchandise, bartering with a customer while keeping a sharp eye on his scraggly wife as she culled purchased lambs from the flock. I compared her ragged gown to his fine tunic—dyed an expensive bright blue—and decided that the man deserved his looming humiliation.
Keeping out of Ucah’s line of sight, I led Josef and his friend Reuben, who had originally sold Josef the lamb, to the back of the pen. “Your lamb is in this flock.”
Josef leaned over the fence, squinting anxiously. Astonishment transformed his sunburned face. “That’s her! That’s my little treasure. I see her birthmark.” Finger shaking with excitement, he pointed at a pure white lamb with a single black spot on her muzzle.
Reuben nodded. “I recognize her.”
Josef looked at me and his face paled. “How did you know?” he whispered. “How could you possibly have—” Fear choked his voice and he stepped backward.
Danger darkened my sky, but I kept my face and voice calm. “I found this caught on the bricks of your sheep pen. It matches Ucah’s new tunic, which I saw him wearing earlier this very day.” I held out the blue thread, fighting to steady my hand. The shadows of falling stones seemed to flit before my eyes. “You watched everything I did, Josef. You know I committed no sin.”
Josef shook his head. “Can so much knowledge come from so small a thing?”
“He who has eyes to see, let him see,” I responded, quoting a well-known proverb.
Still Josef hesitated, his eyes wavering between me and his precious lamb. Then he snatched the thread and took Reuben’s arm. “Let us confront this thieving son of a donkey.” They hurried off without glancing back at me.
“You’re welcome,” I muttered. The thrill of fear left my gut, replaced by sour disappointment. Had I actually hoped this time would be different? That instead of fear, my talents might inspire gratitude? I clenched my skirt into fistfuls of wrinkles and thought that I would do anything—anything at all—for the chance to use my talents openly, for a way to inspire admiration instead of fright.
Although the sharp delight of triumph was gone, I wanted to see Ucah accused of his theft. Watching the smugness disappear from his fat face would soothe my hurt. I made my way through the market crowd to the front of the pen, where I pretended to survey the flock for the perfect sacrifice.
I didn’t have to pretend for long. Josef and Reuben hopped the fence and pushed through the sheep, making for Josef’s lamb.
Ucah, warned by the bleating of the disturbed sheep, abandoned his customer and leapt into the pen himself. “Out, thieves! I’ll have the governor’s guards on you.”
Josef, clutching his lamb against his chest, spun to face him. “You dare call me a thief? When my lamb, my stolen lamb, is here among your flock?”
Ucah stepped backward and flung out his hands in a gesture of innocence. “You are mistaken. I personally inspected and purchased every one of these animals. I assure you, friend Josef, that is not your lamb.”
“It is,” Reuben said. “I sold Josef that lamb, and I’ll swear to it before Governor Sanballat’s court.”
Ucah’s face paled, and he took another step back, bumping into the fence. “Now … now that I think about it, I do remember there was something suspicious about the man who sold me that animal. He had a treacherous look in his face. Take your lamb, friend Josef. I will not even ask for her purchase price.”
Josef thrust the lamb into Reuben’s arms and strode forward until he stood nose to nose with Ucah. “If you bought the lamb from the thief, why was a thread from your tunic caught on the bricks of my sheep pen?” He flourished the scrap I had given him, his other hand reaching for Ucah’s throat.
Ucah thrust him away and vaulted the fence, moving with surprising quickness for such a plump man. But not quick enough. As his sandals hit the ground, Josef lunged after him, grabbing the neck of that new blue tunic and slamming his enemy back against the fence.
Ucah gasped for breath as the fabric pulled tight against his throat. His eyes raked the crowd, desperately seeking salvation. His terrified gaze fell on me, and understanding flashed across his face.
Too late, I realized my foolishness in staying. The Israelite quarter of Samaria City is small, and nobody has forgotten the girl who knows too much. I turned to flee, but the curious crowd penned me in like one of the sheep.
Ucah wrenched free from Josef’s grasp and pulled in air. “Witch!” he shrieked, leveling an accusing finger.
The crowd immediately knew who he meant, and they shrank back until I stood alone in a ring of hard-packed dirt. I tried not to cower, but my heart beat so quickly I feared those standing nearest would hear its thunder.
Ucah turned on Josef. “She told you, didn’t she? She used her dark arts.”
Josef stepped back, fear twisting his face.
Ucah flung out his arms in wide appeal. “O my friends, O my neighbors. It is true that I have broken the Law. I stole this man’s sheep, and I do humbly repent.” He gripped the neckline of his tunic and, with a mighty effort, tore the fabric down to his waist. He fell to his knees and heaped handfuls of dust on his head, wailing. “I feel the weight of my sin, and yet, O my brothers, what is a small theft in comparison to what she is? An abomination!”
I shook my head, but my tongue had turned to lead. I imagined the sharp pain of stones striking my body.
Ucah scrambled back to his feet, the pieces of his tunic flapping around him. “You, Josef, are as bad as she is, for you sought her evil knowledge.”
“I never did.” Josef snatched his lamb back from Reuben and hunched protectively over her. No help would come to me through him. All around me, faces leered in terror, in disgust, in glee that I was finally getting what I deserved. Fear paralyzed me, so that I could neither run nor speak.
Satisfied that he had cowed his accuser, Ucah turned toward me. “We will deal with Josef later. First, we cleanse ourselves of the witch.” He picked up a rock the size of my fist.
I dropped to my knees, throwing my arms over my head, my numb lips managing a strangled prayer: “O Shema, deliver me.” Breathless with terror, I waited for the stones to rain down.
“Stop!” The word rang out in the arrogant tone of a prince.
Peering up, I saw the crowd motionless, some of them with arms raised, rocks clutched in their hands. Beside me stood a young man wearing a linen tunic and leather vest, trousers puffed above the knee, and a short, embroidered cloak draped over one shoulder. The clothing was travel-stained but finely made, and although his face was beardless, he was obviously a Persian nobleman.
In a cold voice he said, “Explain yourselves, before I report you all to the governor for rioting.”
This man had power and held no prejudice against me. I could have kissed his feet, but instead I found my voice. “My lord, I am falsely accused of witchcraft by that base thief.” I pointed at Ucah, whose face flushed purple.
Before he finished sputtering, someone else pushed through the crowd—Josef, the lamb clutched in his arms. My mouth opened in astonishment as he knelt beside me and said, “Forgive me, my lord, for daring to speak in your presence, but what this girl says is true. That man stole my lamb, and when I accused him, he claimed we found it out by witchcraft.”
The nobleman’s eyes narrowed as he looked from Josef, to Ucah, to me, and back to Josef. “How did you discover the truth?”
Fear again chilled my heart. The Persian code forbids witchcraft as strictly as does Israelite Law. If this man believed Ucah’s lies, I might still be doomed. But Josef held true.
“I saw my lamb in his pen. She has a birthmark, as you can see, my lord.” He pointed to the blaze on her nose. “Also, I found a scrap torn from the thief’s tunic.” Miraculously, he had kept hold of the thread, which he now offered to the nobleman.
The Persian compared the thread to Ucah’s now-ruined tunic. “It matches. I see no grounds for suspecting witchcraft. The theft, on the other hand, is clear.”
The crowd was too afraid of Persian power to protest this verdict. Two husky men grabbed Ucah and forced him to his knees in front of our strange judge.
The Persian declared, “This man should be taken before the governor. I believe the sentence for sheep stealing is to lose a hand.” He looked down at Josef and me. “Unless you prefer a different justice?”
I glanced at Josef, but he buried his face in the lamb’s wool and wouldn’t look up. I said, “My lord, it is written in Israelite Law that a theft should be repaid four times over.”
Ucah groaned, more distressed by the threat of losing so many sheep than he had been worried for his hand.
The nobleman nodded. “Let it be so. You two,” he pointed at Ucah’s self-appointed jailors, “see that this man is allowed to take three more sheep of his choice.”
Josef, bewildered but happy, staggered to his feet. He cast a single look at me, and I knew that was all the acknowledgement that would ever pass between us. He had preserved our lives with the story he had told the Persian, but he would never dare so much as look at me again.
I was safe. For now.
But someday, this scene would end differently—after weeks or months or years, I would look when I should turn away. I would open my mouth when I should keep silent.
And there would be no one to rescue me.
As Josef left, I remained on my knees, looking up at my rescuer. He appeared a little older than me, with an aristocratic, angular face and the proud bearing of a soldier, but he was too thin. Fine lines of weariness radiated from his eyes, and I wondered if he had been ill.
The sternness of judgment faded from his expression, and I realized that he returned my gaze curiously. I lowered my eyes, hoping he wouldn’t find my staring disrespectful.
“You don’t look like a witch,” he said.
My eyes flew back to his face. He was almost smiling, and as my gaze met his, I felt an answering smile tug at my lips even as a blush warmed my cheeks. I was not used to attention from men so young or handsome—all the ones in our quarter had been warned away from me.
I should have addressed him in his own language, but I was still shaken, so my words spilled out in the common tongue of Aramaic. “My lord, you saved my life. If I can serve you, please command me.”
He shook his head, dismissing my thanks. “A King’s officer’s duty is to keep peace in the streets. Get up—you are too pretty to cower in the dust.” He reached down to help me, and his cloak swayed, revealing the tunic sleeve rolled up and pinned beneath the stump of his left arm.
I averted my gaze, but I couldn’t keep pity from my face. Since the Persian Empire’s humiliation at Thermopylae by the infamous three hundred Spartans a century earlier, the Great Kings had not ceased swatting at the Grecian states, which eluded them like swift and pesky flies. The wars left too many men maimed in body and soul. An amputated arm keeps a man from striving for honor and glory, and as the son of a noble house, my rescuer no doubt counted honor and glory dearer than life.
When he saw my expression, the young lord stiffened and withdrew his offered hand. The almost-smile faded, and he spun away.
I reached out impulsively, an apology on my lips, but before I could speak, a high, clear shout halted my rescuer mid-stride.
“My lord Danesh!” A man dressed in clothes nearly as fine as the nobleman’s ran up to us. “You disappeared. I feared some evil had befallen you.” The speaker glared at me as he said this.
I stared back. From his high voice and soft cheeks, I guessed him to be a eunuch slave, and the long, narrow shape of his eyes suggested he was Egyptian. I tensed and scrambled to my feet, not wanting to remain kneeling before him.
Israelites have a strained relationship with Egyptians, for we can never forget that our ancestors were their slaves. The Prophet Moses won our freedom with a series of terrifying signs from Shema, beginning with the transformation of the Nile into blood and ending with the supernatural execution of every first-born son. Although I doubted the eunuch knew the stories we remembered so well, his hand clenched into a fist, and he stepped between me and his master.
“I am well, Memucan, as you can see,” Danesh replied, his irritated tone breaking the tension.
“I told you he would be,” a lively voice added. A girl who looked about my age strode up, balancing pastries in each hand. “Have one of these, both of you. They’ll sweeten your dispositions after a long search. Have you found the man you need?”
I stood forgotten outside their circle, brushing the dust from my skirt and covertly surveying them. Their group puzzled me. Memucan must be a slave, yet he chided his master like a parent to a child. The girl wore fine clothes like her companions, but her skin—sunburned dark copper—made her appear more a laborer than a lady. Danesh confused me most of all. He dressed like a nobleman but traveled a foreign city with little escort. He had broken up the riot with the fearlessness of one born to power, but used that power to rescue an unimportant girl. And he was clean-shaven—I could not imagine what would cause a Persian lord to destroy his beard, the prized outward sign of manhood.
With no more reason to linger, I stepped away. I regretted that I could do nothing for the man who had saved me, and that I had hurt his pride.
“You spoke of Israelite Law. You are a Jewess?”
I turned back to my rescuer, gratitude keeping my irritation in check. Outsiders never understood the insult of identifying us with those rebels in Jerusalem. “No, my lord. The kingdom of Israel split nearly seven hundred years ago, just after the reign of our greatest king, Shelomoh—Suleiman, as he is called in Aramaic. Those in the southern kingdom call themselves the Jews of Judea. We remain the true nation of Israel. Of course, we are also Samaritans and loyal subjects of King Artaxerxes,” I added, lest he think I was ignoring the authority of the empire.
Danesh dismissed my history lesson with a flick of his hand. His voice was cool, all friendliness gone. “You may still be able to help, since it is Suleiman who occupies me. I have been entrusted with an ancient scroll, supposedly sealed by Suleiman himself. I wish to have it examined by an expert who can tell me whether that is true. Do you know of such a man among the … Israelites … of Samaria?”
A lump of grief blocked my throat, and I swallowed hard before I answered, “Once I would have said you seek my father, but … he died two months ago. He was the most learned Israelite in Samaria City.”
“I grieve for your loss,” Danesh said politely. “Can any other man equal your father’s knowledge?”
I hesitated, staring down at my hands. No other man in the city had shared my father’s interest in ancient Hebrew texts. To find a male expert, Danesh would have to travel outside the city to the temple on the Holy Mountain, or else go south to Jerusalem. But, if I dared, I could offer myself.
My father had no living son, and when he discovered my remarkable memory, he taught me to assist him in his scholarship. He saw my talent as a gift from Shema, and as a result, I could read and write Aramaic, Persian, and Hebrew. I could also recite vast amounts of Israelite history and Hebrew poetry. I had not loved the ancient texts as he did, but I was confident that I could at least identify whether or not this scroll dated from Suleiman’s reign. But I dared not hope Danesh would believe my claims, not without immediate proof.
Clearing my throat of its sudden dryness, I said, “There is one other, not as learned as my father but still acquainted with these matters. If my lord wishes, I will bring this person to an appointed meeting place.” If I presented myself with tools in hand, the Persian lord might allow me to look at the scroll, rather than laughing and walking away.
Danesh frowned. “I would rather seek this man myself. I have little time to waste. Can you not tell me his name?”
I avoided a lie as delicately as a dancer in the spring festival. “It is a relative of my father’s who is shy about public displays of knowledge. However, I am certain I can argue your case successfully.”
Danesh’s single hand tapped impatiently against his thigh, but he directed, “Come to the Inn of the Brass Rooster tomorrow, at the eighth hour.”
I bowed. “I will, my lord.”
Danesh nodded, dismissing me, and I turned to go, my belly a tight knot of emotion. Relief at my escape, nervousness over my deception, and delight at the chance to exercise my normally useless knowledge combined to make me breathless.
I walked slowly enough that I heard Memucan protest, “My lord, why do you share our private business with a strange woman? Probably she has gone to recruit some charlatan to play the part of a scholar.”
Humiliation burned my face, and I nearly spun around to give that Egyptian the sharp side of my tongue. Before I could do anything so foolish, Danesh snapped, “The charge of the scroll is mine, Memucan. I will speak to whom I will speak.”
I imagined the high-voiced eunuch pursing up his mouth in indignation, but before he could retort, the girl intervened, her voice smooth as oil on ruffled water. “Should we trust her less than the other strangers we have consulted today? We have made fruitless inquiries all over Samaria. If she can help us finish our business and be on our way to Damascus, I will kiss her feet and sacrifice in her honor at all the shrines in my father’s house.”
“I will keep my word to you, Leila,” Danesh said, and then I was out of earshot.