She exited by the door at which deliveries were made and alms distributed, and started up along the familiar street. As she had learned to do as a child, she kept her eyes down, watching where she was going rather than looking at the people around her. She had almost made the northern entrance when her way was abruptly blocked. People were piling up around some sort of obstacle, and someone was cursing. She glanced up timidly, and by pure chance her glance led between the backs of the people ahead of her to a little donkey that had collapsed under a heavy burden. Its huge eyes connected with hers as it struggled to right itself. Its knees were already bloody, and its nostrils were wide and red. The eyes were full of despair. It did not understand why someone was beating it when it could not go another step.
Beth could not stand it. In that split second she saw herself in the donkey’s wide, uncomprehending eyes as the Nubians fell over her. She gave an inarticulate cry and shoved the youths ahead of her aside. “Leave her alone!” she shouted furiously at the man with the cane. “Leave her alone! Can’t you see she can take no more?”
Such a spirited defense of a stupid donkey aroused laughter from the surrounding crowd, but Beth didn’t care. “Stop it!” She put herself between the donkey and the man beating it and stared him in the eye, even though he was a man and she nothing but a worthless girl.
The donkey owner was old, with an ugly wound on his face. He was filthy and stinking and his clothes were little better than rags. He had overburdened the donkey and was now venting his anger at its collapse because he had so little. “Get out of my way or you’ll feel this cane yourself!” he shouted at Beth, shaking the cane over his head.
“No! I’ll buy the donkey from you!”
“You?” the man scoffed, but he also let his arm drop so he wasn’t threatening her, clearly interested in any way to turn a profit out of this catastrophe.
The only thing of value Beth had on her was a gift from Eschiva, a belt with little silver weights at the ends. She unbound this and shoved it in the mule driver’s face.
The man snatched the belt from her with his filthy hands and narrowed his eyes as he inspected the silver balls. Although they were hardly worth a fortune, the donkey was finished anyway, so he closed his fist over them, then bent to remove the heavy panniers from the donkey. With an audible grunt, he hefted these over his own shoulders. He muttered something about “stupid females” as he turned away, and the crowd dispersed, leaving Beth in the street with the dying donkey.
The donkey looked at her with its big brown eyes, which still did not understand what was happening. Beth put her hand on its neck and felt the fluttering pulse under its sweat-damp hide. Now that she was squatting down beside the poor beast, she could see that she was bleeding from a half-dozen cuts opened by the cane. Her haunches were covered with scars of earlier cuts as well. Her knees were bleeding, and her bony rib cage was heaving up and down. The donkey was dying, and there was nothing Beth could do for it. She didn’t even have a way of getting it out of the street.
Then she felt someone beside her. A shadow fell over her, and a moment later another hand joined hers on the donkey’s neck. It too stroked the neck in a gesture of comfort and sympathy, and it was a black hand. Beth gasped and drew back, instantly terrified. But as she looked up, her eyes met a familiar face. “Dawit!” she exclaimed. “Where did you come from?”
“We just arrived from Nablus on our way to Ibelin, and my lady went to the citadel to see the Lady Eschiva. We were still at the gatehouse when I heard you cry out. I thought I recognized your voice.”
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