It was a real page-turner. I really felt that I was right there with Avielle and Etienne. The characters are very compelling, and I was able to picture everything. I think it would make an excellent movie.Suzanne Present
Release date: April 12, 2020
Publisher: Whispering Legends Press
Print pages: 222
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Mary Ann Bernal
Holy Roman Empire
The Roman Empire had fallen, but remnants of its might and power laid scattered throughout all of Christendom. High upon the hill, overgrowth covered the ancient floors of a magnificent villa whose walls had long since crumbled. An esteemed soldier received the land from Julius Caesar as payment for years of faithful service. His descendants lingered after the legions had returned to Rome to defend the Empire against the invading barbarians. The decision to stay saved the bloodline for generations until a contagion destroyed what warriors could not. Word quickly spread that death awaited visitors to the palatial estate, isolating the fertile land and deeming the region uninhabitable.
As the leper population grew, they were ultimately expelled from the city by its terrified inhabitants. When the lepers claimed the mountain top, the citizens did not protest, since the poor creatures no longer threatened the populace. These lepers built a community and welcomed the afflicted with open arms. Over time, sick rooms were built to care for those in dire need. Soon after, Benedictine monks built a chapel, and timber cottages dotted the hillside. Courageous loved ones visited their diseased relations, bringing food and medicinal herbs. Abbeys and local churches distributed alms to the lepers to lessen their impoverishment. While not ideal, they were better off than most.
Avielle sat upon the old Roman wall that overlooked the city, watching the influx of travelers arriving for the trade fair. The chapel bell rang softly, a call to prayer, to praise God for His mercy, but Avielle was not in a pious mood. She had spent enough time on her knees, praying for the Lord to spare her father, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. She was thankful to Brother Dacien for the comfort given to him at the end.
It was during the burial when Avielle felt the Lord’s presence and paid heed to His words, to study the healer’s craft under Brother Dacien’s tutelage. Her uncle gave his permission willingly. What better place to keep his ward occupied? An alehouse was not a suitable setting to learn a trade. Uncle Rolf would not put her virtue at risk.
The lepers waved to Avielle as they approached the chapel. Her smile lifted their spirits, and her words were soothing. The community felt fortunate to have her in their midst, but Avielle was at a crossroads, unsure of her purpose. The brightly colored tents erected below depicted a world of opportunity and adventure, and love, while the people she cared for embodied misery and death.
Uncle might let me sell ale at his stall, Avielle thought.
She walked through the city gates, choosing the main thoroughfare that led to the market square where preparations were underway for the festivities. Her cousin had finished constructing their stall and was adjusting the vibrant awning when she came upon him.
“Filbert, you are quite the craftsman. Uncle will be proud.”
“What do you want?” asked Filbert, somewhat tersely while fiddling with the cumbersome fabric.
“Why would you think that? Can I not visit my cousin?”
“If you are not assisting Brother Dacien, you are usually stirring up mischief somewhere, like the time you overturned the baker’s baskets, and the dogs ran off with the loaves. You are fortunate he was agreeable to flagons of wine as recompense.”
“I was in a hurry, and did not see him, and I did repent.”
“My father will not permit you to serve anyone, whether here or at the alehouse. Nor will he approve of you roaming freely through the streets alone,” Filbert said in a softer tone.
“You forget I am no longer a child!”
“I have not forgotten, and neither has my father. And if you do not wed soon, you might have to take the veil if your healing skills fail you.”
“There is no one to wed. If my father had not died…” Avielle said as she turned her head so Filbert would not see her watery eyes.
Filbert kept working, mumbling beneath his breath when he cut his finger, becoming concerned by his cousin’s despair.
“Avielle, what is bothering you? Do you no longer wish to care for the lepers? There will always be a place for you here. You are kin. Tell me what upsets you. My father gives wise counsel if you prefer speaking to him.”
“I beg forgiveness,” Avielle said. “I did not mean to burden you. It is hard to explain.”
The cousins sat in silence at the back of the stall, mindful of the congested street. It did not take much effort to separate the newcomers from the local inhabitants by the way they dressed. The luxurious multi-colored fabrics denoted wealth, a sharp contrast to the drab woolen tunics worn by most citizens. Filbert held Avielle’s hand, a hopeful gesture to put her at ease. They laughed at the sight of a young lad chasing an errant pig that knocked down a merchant in its path. The man shouted at the boy as he brushed off the dust and went on his way.
“I did not know your father very well. My childhood memories are of a talented minstrel who traveled to far-off lands much to my father’s displeasure. I was too young to be of much use at the alehouse. When I next saw my uncle, you were with him, a quiet child, not more than six summers. If your father sent messages to my father, I was unaware. It was the sickness that brought you and your father back. He wanted to be buried where he had been born. If it were not for Brother Dacien…”
“We would have been outcasts, roaming the land until my father perished,” Avielle interrupted. “I am grateful to you and my uncle for offering me succor, and for being agreeable when Brother Dacien suggested I learn the healer’s trade. It was my wish to give comfort to those poor creatures who had the same ailment. I truly believe it was God’s will.”
“But after witnessing such sorrow, you are disheartened. Your memories of your father are of laughter and joy, which is a minstrel’s purpose,” Filbert said. “You have seen many cities, have tasted different foods, and have entertained Kings. Will you serve Brother Dacien, or would you seek a healer’s position in a noble’s household? I cannot envision you living in a nunnery, but living with a husband. Is this what troubles you?”
“You are wise beyond your years, dear cousin,” Avielle said. “Is it sinful to want the life I once had? I grow weary of death.”
“Spend as much time at the fair as you can. Be among the revelers. I have friends who could accompany you.”
“I will heed your counsel and speak to Brother Dacien,” Avielle said as she jumped off the ledge. “Tell uncle the fault is mine for keeping you.”
Avielle embraced Filbert before she left. The heaviness in her heart had abated for now. Taking part in the festivities would brighten her day. She walked with a lively gait, smiling at the passers-by, humming her favorite tune.
She saw him standing in front of the silversmith’s dwelling. Avielle assumed he was a merchant by his clothing. He appeared somewhat older than she was but not as old as her cousin. He was pleasant to look at, which was what she did, staring boldly, and blushing when their eyes met. She held his gaze and did not move.
“I did not mean to stare,” Avielle said.
“It pleases me you did. I am called Gideon, and you are?”
“Avielle, and this city is my home.”
“I am not from these parts. Would you be willing to show me your city? I would be forever in your debt.”
Avielle felt the heat rise in her cheeks. He was near enough to touch. She wanted to share a meal, to be in his company, to discover his true intentions, but suppressed the urge to behave inappropriately. Besides, it was presumptuous on his part to make such a request. What would uncle think? And Brother Dacien. Neither of them would give their consent. And Filbert would defend her honor.
“I would like that, Gideon.”
What are you doing? She thought. He could be a brigand or worse! Withdraw your offer, you dolt!
“You are most kind, my lady,” Gideon said. “But I do not wish to detain you. Until tomorrow, at midday?”
Avielle hesitated, unsure of what to do next. Should she recant her proposition? Surely, he would understand? But she was intrigued. And she wanted to go. Why? What made him different from the men she had met before? She might be innocent, but she was not naïve.
“At midday, by the pond,” Avielle said just as Gideon was about to speak.
Avielle smiled before hurrying away, leaving him standing in the busy street.
Gideon did not continue his journey until Avielle was lost from his view. He reached the Jewish quarter without incident, thanking the God of Abraham for his safe deliverance. Despite being persecuted throughout the ages, his people were skilled healers, lawyers, merchants, and teachers. Gideon had amassed a small fortune selling exotic spices at local markets along the River Rhine, but money lending became his principal livelihood upon his father’s death.
While most members of the Jewish community refused to conceal their religious beliefs, Gideon did not openly disclose his lineage. He was born and bred in Mentz, but he had rarely stayed in the city after he came of age, fancying the traveler’s anonymity whilst preferring to be mistaken for a Christian. But his father’s passing changed everything as he took possession of his childhood home.
No one in Gideon’s community was aware of his blasphemy. If his father had known, he had taken his son’s disgrace to his grave. And now it had become tiring to maintain the ruse. He would have preferred to stay at one of the inns or even at the Abbey’s guest quarters, but appearances deemed otherwise.
The merchants had secured rooms in the buildings surrounding the synagogue, which he avoided, fearing an unplanned meeting with the Rabbi. Gideon had always resented the bigotry. He wanted to be treated like everyone else, to be accepted for the person he was and not condemned because of the God he worshipped. Early on, he knew he had to choose between Christianity and Islam. The Latin West and Islamic East despised the Jews, but the Christians worshipped the God of his people, and Gideon was more comfortable living among the disciples of Christ.
Gideon recognized traders from Mentz and shared pleasantries before finding the proprietor and his assigned room. He thought of Avielle as he reclined on the bed, his tired bones appreciating the rest. She was unlike any of the women he had seduced, believing her youthful appearance probably added to the mystique. Bedding her had been foremost on his mind, but that was no longer his intent. Avielle was of age to wed, yet she was not a Jewess, and with his freedom curtailed, setting up a household in Mentz required the Rabbi’s blessing.
You are getting ahead of yourself. Do not be in such a hurry to change your life. You just buried your father. I think a drink is in order.
Gideon slipped out the back entrance without being seen. He knew the ins and outs of the city streets after years of trading and found his favored tavern in record time. Rolf was serving flagons, and the table in the backroom was vacant. A perfect end to an interesting day.
Brother Dacien was grinding herbs while Avielle tore linen strips used to cover the disfiguring sores. While she tended to her father, the thought of becoming infected did not cross her mind. She truly believed God protected her from the pestilence. Unfortunately, she no longer assumed she was invincible and dreaded the day her suspicions were confirmed. Years might pass after exposure before the appearance of untoward signs, which had happened to her father. They were uncertain as to where and when he became afflicted, and by all accounts, she should have been stricken at the same time. Avielle felt like a condemned prisoner, anxious for death to end the suffering.
Two men lay dying in the adjoining rooms. Brother Dacien did his best to ease the pain, but neither would see another full moon. Those who were able tended to the animals and gardens. With the aid of the priests and other benefactors, the small community was self-sufficient. The only drawback was not being able to go to market day or fairs or feast day celebrations. While ostracized by the city inhabitants, they did receive compassionate care, and they called Brother Dacien a saint, and Avielle was an angel.
“Is there something you wish to tell me,” Brother Dacien said. “I sense you have been despondent.”
“How?” Avielle whispered.
“Your eyes speak the truth through your smiles. You have chosen a hard life for one so young. I understand if you want to leave.”
“I do not want to leave, not yet, Brother Dacien. If I have your permission, I would like to partake in the fair, but I would be here all morning, just the afternoon to visit the stalls and be back by nightfall, so there is no need to worry. I can seek permission from Uncle Rolf if you wish.”
“There is no need.”
Brother Dacien opened the small chest sitting on the table, retrieving a coin that he put in Avielle’s hand.
“Consider this a gift for everything you have done for those less fortunate. I am sorry it cannot be more.”
“I am at a loss for words. I do not expect payment. It is I who should be paying you for teaching me the healer’s craft,” Avielle said. “And it is almost midday. Do I have your permission to leave?”
Brother Dacien nodded his approval and smiled as Avielle bolted out the door.
The market square was exceptionally crowded. Stalls filled with an assortment of goods lined the streets. There were fabrics of varying colors and texture. Leather belts, footwear, pouches, gloves, and tunics adorned the stands. Beaver, fox and sable attire enticed prospective patrons wishing to display their prosperity. And a collection of nightwear and undergarments embarrassed many a maiden.
Not to be overlooked, the local tradesmen spruced up their stands, covering the tables with a dyed cloth and often giving demonstrations of their handiwork. Carpenters carved toy wagons for children, and silversmiths designed rings and bracelets before awestruck onlookers. Candlemakers, cobblers, and tanners had their fair share of enthusiasts, but it was the glassblowers and embroiderers that had the biggest audience.
Savory smells carried by a summer breeze tantalized the senses as a pig roasted on a spit and loaves baked in an oven. There were meats, venison, poultry, and fish, and spices from the Far and Mid-East, blatantly coveted by both rich and poor households.
Avielle did not tarry as she was late. She bypassed the beverage area, not wishing to come upon her cousin or her uncle, lest they restrict her freedom. The cluttered streets were hard to maneuver; her steps hindered by the buffoons and minstrels. She did stop briefly to enjoy the fire-eaters and jugglers’ performances, regretting her decision when she reached the pond, and Gideon was nowhere to be seen.
You are not that late, Avielle thought as she sat on a stone and gazed at a pair of swans building a nest. She saw the meadow where children danced to the minstrels’ tunes. Closing her eyes, she envisioned her father playing his flute while she hid quietly in a corner, behind the casks of ale. By the evening’s end, he would carry his sleeping daughter to the stables where they slept, leaving at first light before the castle stirred. There were hardships, but Avielle did not mind, her father’s love sustained her. Before her mother fell ill, they lived in a village, but her father was often away. Those were happy memories, which were starting to fade.
The Abbey bells were ringing when Avielle saw Gideon.
“Pardon my tardiness. I do not know how I would have found you if you had not been here. Pray stay,” Gideon said without taking a breath.
“Until the sun sets,” Avielle said, gesturing he sit beside her.
The only men Avielle had conversed with were her cousin, uncle, and Brother Dacien. They had accepted her as she was, not caring about what had happened in her past. Now, facing this stranger, how much should she share? One thing for certain was not mentioning the leper community, which would sever the relationship before it started. Did she want a relationship? And what did Gideon want?
“I was born in Mentz,” Gideon said, breaking the silence. “My father recently died. I have inherited his responsibilities, and fulfilling those duties has taken me to many places. It is tiring sleeping in inns, and I have protested in the past. It can be quite lonely. Then I saw you, a jewel like no other, a precious gem in a city of wood and stone.”
Avielle had never been complimented and did not know how to respond. Should she be alone with this man? She refused to think he was not sincere.
The splashing sound of pebbles hitting the water was a brief distraction, which Avielle welcomed. Laughter intermingled with the music carried by the wind prompted her to stand up and take Gideon’s hand.
“Do you dance, sir?” Avielle said, pulling him to the field.
Gideon stopped abruptly, held Avielle by her shoulders, and looked directly into her eyes. He said, “Do not fear me. I mean you no harm. I should have chosen my words more carefully. I meant no offense.”
Avielle felt her eyes water. She could not stop, her body shaking. Her pent-up grief expressed itself in front of this stranger, but she did not turn away when he held her close, assuring her all would be well. His patience was notable, his kindness heartwarming.
“I recently buried my father, and I am a ward of my uncle, and I do not want to take the veil,” Avielle said. “You are the first man I have been alone with, and I am…”
“Hush, little one,” Gideon interrupted. “All will be well; you have my word.”
Fortunately, the merrymakers paid no attention to the peculiar couple heading towards the city proper. Anyone would venture a lover’s tiff if they noted Avielle’s watery eyes. The sun was setting, which made her anxious as they walked in silence to the city gates.
“I owe you the truth,” Avielle said. “I am learning the healer’s craft at the lepers’ hospital. Brother Dacien is my master, and my quarters are next to the sick rooms. I have my uncle’s blessing. My father died from the disease. Brother Dacien and I have faith in the Lord and do not dread becoming infected if that is His will. There is no need to go further. I can walk the rest of the way myself.”
“It is getting dark. I will escort you to your quarters. I am here for the fair and would spend as much time together as I can if you are agreeable.”
“I am,” Avielle whispered.
Brother Dacien was leaving the chapel when he came upon Avielle in the company of a stranger, someone not from these parts, who looked familiar.
“Brother Dacien, this is Gideon, and he was kind enough to see me safely home.”
“The night has its dangers,” Gideon said to Brother Dacien. “I am a merchant from Mentz, and I met Avielle at the fair. With your permission, I would like to invite Avielle to partake in the festivities. And I could find someone to join us should you so wish.”
“I trust Avielle, and if she trusts you, then so shall I,” Brother Dacien said.
“I will come tomorrow at midday.”
Avielle stood quietly next to Brother Dacien but did not speak until Gideon could no longer hear their words.
“Do not be angry. We met by chance, and he was especially kind when my grief overtook me, and I cried, much to my dismay. When I could speak again, I told him about my father and being here, and he still wanted to bring me home and see me again.”
“I know your father taught you fighting skills, but his strength is against you if you need to defend yourself.”
“Brother Dacien,” Avielle interrupted. “While I do not know much about him, I sense he is lonely. His father is dead, and we share our grief. I think we both need to see the beauty and enjoy the Lord’s blessings.”
Gideon was unsettled by what had transpired between him and Avielle. Her confession did change his perspective about not only their friendship but also about his recent choices affecting his life. While he might have wanted to ravish her at the onset, he would not have taking her innocence on his conscience. He did admit being uneasy amid the lepers and was relieved when he did not run into anyone having the disease.
The Rabbi was another matter. He was the reason for Gideon’s delay. Gideon was not aware that his father and the Rabbi had been arranging a suitable marriage, signing a contract on Gideon’s behalf without his knowledge. A family of means, the Rabbi had said, influential, with a beautiful daughter; I should remember her because her brother and I were taught Hebrew together. And they lived on the same street.
Gideon did not remember any of them, and he did not want to. He was angry because his father had not discussed taking a wife or anything else for that matter. Gideon had stayed away, and he had not read any of the messages, and only found out about his father’s passing when one of the Rabbi’s friends had tracked down his whereabouts, which was not an easy task. The man was already buried by the time Gideon came home.
Breaking the contract was problematic. There were reputations at stake, and Rebecca would be humiliated. He might be denying his religious beliefs, but he did have a conscience. He had enough guilt to contend with!
They would wed upon his return to Mentz, after the fair. His coffers would never be empty, his father-in-law would see to it.
How could Gideon explain why he stayed away. How could he tell the Rabbi he was not willing to give his life to the God of Abraham as his ancestors had? Pretending to be a Christian kept him from being persecuted. Gideon had no misgivings denying his Jewish faith.
Avielle was a glimmer of hope, someone to lose oneself in until the inevitable happened. She was just as unblemished as Rebecca, and he wanted to see her again. He desired a friend more than anything, and something stirred inside him when he comforted Avielle. It was as if they were kindred spirits, belonging together until the end of days.
The Rabbi would leave him be, for the duration of the fair, and avoidance was no longer necessary. Gideon’s colleagues had already set up their workplaces at the money exchange, freeing him from using his assigned quarters. But Gideon could not stay in Avielle’s dwelling either. Brother Dacien would never permit it, nor would he tarnish her reputation.
Rolf might have a place for me, Gideon thought.
The alehouse was overflowing with patrons when Gideon walked through the door. Filbert was sitting at his preferred table, which was fortunate.
“We have lamb stew,” Filbert said.
“I am famished. And bring some ale for I am parched.”
It would be hours before the place emptied, but Gideon was hopeful he could sleep in the attic or even the stables; it did not matter where. He wanted to drink away the day, like most of Rolf’s patrons. He rarely drank in excess, always wishing to be in control, but not this night. Gideon wanted the escape even if it was fleeting. He was facing a life he had spent too many years trying to avoid.
I cannot endure a martyr’s death, Gideon thought as Filbert put his meal on the table.
“Join me, my friend,” Gideon said to Filbert. “Tell me what has happened since my last visit.”
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...