Godwin Olafsen had nothing but the clothes he was wearing and the crippled boy on his back. The boy was his son Sven, who had lost the use of his legs in an accident in Oslo ten years ago. Godwin had sold his shop and come with his wife to Jerusalem in search of a cure. On arrival they had followed the Via Dolorosa on their knees in prayer, but Sven was still a cripple. They had no money to return to Oslo, so Godwin had taken work as a journeyman, although he was a master. Slowly he had established himself, but just months after he had finally become his own master again, the defeat of the Christian army at Hattin had destroyed his fortunes a second time.
“You can set the boy down here!” a woman’s voice called out cheerfully. Godwin looked around bewildered to see who had spoken. Although Godwin was a strong man, he was lagging a bit and had fallen to the side of the column. As he looked toward the voice, he saw a fat woman in widow’s weeds seated on the driver’s seat of a large wagon pulled by two powerful horses. She was patting the empty seat beside her. “You can join me, too, if you like,” she offered.
Godwin did not have to think twice. He jogged over to the wagon, and then turned his back to it so that Sven could sit on the side for a moment. The boy had strong arms, and with the help of the fat widow, he was quickly pulled up beside her on the driving seat. Godwin followed him lithely. “Thank you, good widow! You are the second miracle in a single day. I pray the good Lord will shower His mercies upon you as he has on me this day!”
“Well, well,” the widow answered with a dubious smile. “I never thought to hear the day we were driven from Jerusalem called a day of miracles, but I’m happy to help. I’m Mariam, by the way. Most people know me as Mariam the Pastry Lady—though that sells my other sweets short. I’ll bet your boy here could do with a spot of marzipan.” As she spoke, she smiled at Sven and saw his eyes widen.
Godwin could hear his wife’s voice scolding in his head, “The boy needs a solid meal, not sweets!” But his wife was not here, and he nodded to Mariam. “He would be very indebted to you if you could spare such a luxury.”
“Well, then, take the reins for a moment, and I’ll see what I can dig out of the back here.” She handed the reins over to Godwin and twisted around to dig in the basket nestled just behind the driving seat. This was clearly her provisions for the day, and when she turned around again she had the whole basket on her ample lap. “I don’t know why, but I have the feeling you could do with a bit more than marzipan—or at least your Dad could.” She addressed herself to the still wide-eyed Sven.
“My good widow—please. We have no means to pay you. We were on our way into slavery because we could not pay the ransom, until the good Baron d’Ibelin intervened. There’s no way we can repay—”
Mariam waved Godwin’s protest aside. “You look like a strong man to me, and I’m sure you can make yourself useful with the team and—more important—guarding this wagon when we set up camp. That’s all I ask—oh, and your name.”
“Sven!” the boy spoke up for the first time. “Sven Godwinsen. My Dad’s the best armorer in all Jerusalem,” he declared with fierce pride. “He made the Baron of Ibelin’s sword!”
“Godwin Olafsen,” his father introduced himself more modestly.
“Ah, yes, I think I’ve heard of you,” the widow decided, frowning slightly as she tried to remember. “Didn’t you take over the armory behind St. Mary Magdalene? The one that used to belong to Ibn Adam?”
“Yes, exactly. He made me his heir and we moved in four years ago. I took over the shop and my wife looked after him in his old age.”
“Where is your wife? And didn’t you have daughters?” The widow looked around, confused.
“I scraped together the money for their ransom, but there wasn’t enough left for us,” Godwin explained.
“Good heavens! Here, have some of this!” She handed him the basket and took the reins back. “There’s a half chicken in there and a loaf of bread, and at the very bottom there is some marzipan, as I promised.”
Godwin could not resist her invitation a moment longer. Sven and he had not eaten since breakfast, and that had been scanty. He readily found the chicken and brought it out. Between them, he and Sven pulled it apart and ate the moist flesh from the bones. The bread followed, and then the marzipan. The look on Sven’s face as he bit into the marzipan was so expressive of delight that Mariam laughed out loud. “Well, I can see how to make this young man happy!” she declared with obvious satisfaction.
“Forgive us,” Godwin begged as he wiped his fingers on his hose. “That was the best meal we’ve had in a long time.”
“I can see that,” Mariam quipped, with a smile that assured them she was pleased rather than offended.
“And yourself? You’re traveling alone?” Godwin asked. Now that the growling in his stomach was stilled, the ache in his back was easing, and the surprise was fading, he looked at his benefactor more closely. She was fat and wearing widow’s weeds, but she was not an old woman by any means. She also spoke French with a heavy accent and wore her wimple like the Syrian women did, ending on the top of her head and trailing down her back.
“Femme sole, as you say in French,” she confirmed matter-of-factly.
“You husband died at Hattin?” Godwin ventured, although the woman hardly seemed overcome by grief, as one would have expected had her husband died so recently.
Mariam laughed in answer. “Hattin? If he’d lived to fight at Hattin, he would have been eighty-two! No, he died more than a decade ago. God rest his soul.”
“All dead and buried; two died in the womb, to be precise, and the other two within days. I’m not what you call a good breeder.”
That surprised Godwin, as she looked the picture of health in her hefty way.
“I wasn’t always like this,” Mariam read his thoughts. “When I was married, I was just a wraith of a girl, all skin and bones and not an ounce up here,” she continued, patting her fleshy breasts with an easy familiarity that made Godwin feel awkward. He looked away, embarrassed, but a moment later caught himself sneaking a look at them again. They were quite phenomenal, actually. He cut off the inevitable thought about how exciting it would be to see them naked, and distracted himself by asking Sven if he needed a drink of water.
Sven shook his head. “It would wash away the taste of the marzipan,” he explained, and the adults laughed.
Mariam continued with her story as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “By the time I was ripe for breeding, my husband couldn’t get it up anymore. He was sixty by then, so one can’t be too surprised.”
“You never thought of remarrying?” Godwin asked, calculating that ten years ago Mariam would have been quite a young woman.
“What? And give up running the shop the way I like to? No, young man, I never gave it a moment’s thought. Since my husband died, I’ve nearly tripled the turnover, doubled the profit, expanded my product line, and won the best customers. I was the preferred purveyor to the Patriarch and the palace both. My marzipan delicacies in the shape of the the Holy Sepulcher, St. George killing the dragon, and even the martyrdom of St. Stephen have been praised by high and low—and yielded me a very pretty penny indeed. I had no less than five apprentices in the shop.”
“Where are they now?” Godwin looked around, expecting to see them in a second wagon or at least walking along beside.
“Stupid me,” Mariam declared, “I hired only girls. Cheaper and better workers, I said to myself, and so they were. Good girls, every one of them—and every one of them still a maid under her father’s care. When the surrender came, it was their fathers that decided their fate, and not one chose to head for Tyre.” She shook her head—whether in disgust or despair, Godwin couldn’t tell.
Godwin hadn’t had a choice. If he had, he would have chosen Jaffa, because it was closest and offered the best prospects of finding a ship bound for the West. His ten years in the Holy Land had led him to the very brink of slavery; it was time to go home. “Why did you choose Tyre?” he asked Mariam.
“I’m Syrian, young man. Not just Syrian Christian. My family only moved to Jerusalem from Homs after King Fulk offered incentives to Syrian settlers in order to repopulate the city you Franks depopulated in your first assault. I myself was born in Jerusalem, but my parents, aunts, and uncles were all born in Syria. While most of my apprentices came from Palestinian families prepared to relocate in Ascalon or any of the other coastal cities, I’ll feel much safer behind the walls of Tyre. But I will have a hard time getting started—unless you’d like to try your hand making marzipan, young man?” she addressed Sven jokingly.
Innocently, Sven took her offer seriously and declared instantly, “I’d like that, ma’am!” And then he turned to his father on his other side and asked, “May I, Father?”
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