It was a good sized lizard; as long as a man’s outstretched hand and so brightly coloured it resembled nothing more than a jeweled glove hanging against the bare stone. She watched the cat who was watching the lizard with the deep interest of one who has nothing better to do. Her hand moved towards the book open on her lap but paused as the lizard’s head whipped around to follow the movement. Perhaps the cat had always intended to pounce at that moment, or perhaps the lizard’s change of posture alerted it to the possibility of losing its prize; in either event, the cat leapt vertically against the wall and seized the reptile in gaping jaws. The lizard screamed like a child in pain, and she flinched against the unexpected noise, fiercely loud against the hot silence of her bare chamber. Undeterred and unconcerned, the cat curled against the wall and began to enjoy its feast, its back turned to her in ostentatious disdain as it crunched.
She had never noticed this cat before – there were many cats about the castle, scuffling through the un-swept detritus on the floors to prowl after rats and mice, kicked aside by the servants if they came within striking distance of a casual foot. Most of the cats were much of a muchness – lean, long legged and long bodied, constantly scratching against the nuisance of fleas, refusing to come anywhere near a stranger, unable to believe that a caress rather than a blow might be offered. Something about this cat triggered a forgotten chord of memory; she put her hand against her face, her lips curling in disgust as the smell of dislodged guts drifted across from the kill, dominating even the stink from the filthy rushes on the floor. The cat glanced at her, his own muzzle curling in unwitting parody of her expression as one of the lizard’s hind legs swung across his whiskers, his blue eyes narrowing as he evaluated whether she posed any threat to his hard-won meal.
The memory came to her suddenly, and she drew a deep breath which caught in her chest and lodged there, painful as a hastily swallowed piece of food. Marcus the peddler’s cat had had blue eyes as well, but his was a well-fed pet with no need at all to chase lizards for food, although undoubtedly it would still have done so purely for the sheer pleasure of hunting.
The peddler’s arrival had been so timely; she suspected the timing had been deliberate. The summer had been long and hot and dry. Even the usual diversions of tournaments and riding out had become a chore as the ubiquitous red dust rose and choked throats, coating clothes and hair alike. What little grass there had been after a dry spring had long since withered and animals and peasants alike barely turned their heads to follow with listless interest the progress of the court. Even dancing – always the last savior of sanity in the worst of the summer heat – had lost its savour, as unwilling languor replaced any inclination to move. Worst of all, nobody, it seemed even had any capacity for flirtation; even the normal courtly attentions and protestations of undying love were affected, unbelievable, uninterested. Fans were used for cooling, rather than flirting. Reports came in daily from Pamploma of the spread of various plagues throughout Navarre; leprosy, the ever present scourge, was said to be on the increase. Even worse, the latest plague was said to be taking the young and healthy, and ignoring the old and infirm almost maliciously. Between the enervating heat and the fear of contagion, instead of the normal gay summer round of visitors and processions, feasting and jousts, sighing and languishing for a handsome face from a far-flung land, strange faces were few, journeys curtailed to those that were necessary.
Many in Pamplona said the plagues were a visitation from God, a curse sent to reprimand the people of the great city for their wickednesses, which must have been many. Special masses were held to pray for divine forgiveness and intercession. Always aware of the needs of his people, her own father, the great Rey Sancho, had attended one of the masses and had knelt before the Bishop in unison with the crowded congregation, his hands clasped in supplication. She had overheard him later, speaking with one of the courtiers, shaking his head in sorrow over the plight of peasants and townsfolk alike, talking of the huge hunger that had fallen on Pamplona and the surrounding area as men fell prey to the plague by the score, the hundred, the thousand, their wives and children falling by their side. Soon, he said, there would not be enough living to bury the dead.
The courtier had shrugged and grimaced.
“Terrible, Sire, terrible. But what can one do? There is not enough food to go round as it is, and it will not help the people if we starve along side them. They have seen you defy the curse that has fallen on the land and worship by their side,” he shuddered at the thought and raised a scented pomander to his nose, inhaling deeply, “For the greater love of God. There is nothing more to be done, nothing.”
His glance slid towards her and he raised his eyebrows and smiled quizzically. She smiled in return and turned away slowly, her book clasped in her hand. She had never greatly cared for this flamboyant peacock of a man, but one had to play the game, nonetheless.
Following her father’s lead, she prayed daily for Pamplona, for Navarre, for land and people alike, but eventually even her faith began to waiver as the plague – in one form or another - continued to rampage and the heat blared and her prayers went unanswered. Like the rest of the court, she sank inexorably into an unrelieved fog of ennui where life seemed to lose its flavour.
Even with autumn approaching, there seemed as if there would be no end to the deadly, enervating heat; it appeared that autumn would pass into winter and thence back into spring with no let up. That it had always been unbearably hot, would always be unbearably hot.
But the peddler bought the blessing of rain with him. Suddenly, the heat let up to a sweet warmth that felt blessedly cool after the furnace blast of unrelenting sun. All the girls – and many of the grown women and men – had found an excuse to walk out on the ramparts, the rain drying on the stone underfoot as fast as it fell. She remembered tilting her head back and letting the rain trickle down her throat, and how glorious it had tasted after months of brackish well water that had flavoured everything it touched – beer, the water vegetables boiled in, even meat and fish – with a nasty, metallic aftertaste.
It must have been the eagerly-awaited break in the weather that had relaxed the rigorous discipline of the court sufficiently to allow the peddler access beyond the courtyard. Either that or he had bribed the guards with some gaudy trinket or two for their sweethearts. Returning to the solar happily, cool for the first time in months, she had paused, surprised to hear a trill of laughter coming from inside. She pushed the door ajar gingerly, and paused, uncertain whether to go or stay.
“Berengaria? What are you doing, hovering about outside there? Do come in child. My ladies appear to have deserted me for nothing more interesting than a drop of rain, so I have found myself some more amusing company.”
She closed the door behind her and sidled across to the embroidery she had abandoned earlier. Aunt Constanzia ignored her, for which she was heartily grateful. Constanzia was regal to her toes, and expected humility from those about her. Even from her niece. Berengaria bowed her head and devoted her attention to her stitching. Expecting to find one of the men of the court seated at Constanzia´s side, instead she saw a dirty, unkempt figure. Certainly, even the court was none too clean this summer but this man was obviously, undisguisedly filthy. His long, black curls hung in greasy elf locks against his neck, and his teeth – exposed when he laughed aloud, as he did now – were stained brown. His clothes were old and so covered in dust as to make the original colour unrecognizable. Berengaria was certain she could smell the stink of mid-day garlic and wine on his breath, even from where she sat. But Constanzia – the great, the beautiful Lady Constanzia - appeared to be doting on him. She leaned towards him to smile, reached out and touched his shoulder, rifled through the trinkets he held out to her, ensuring that her fingers touched his hand artfully.
“What do you lack, my Lady?” The peddler grinned, rubbing his fingers against his thumbs. “Tell Marcus what you need, what you want, and somewhere in my magic pack I will have it, I assure you!”
His tone was so familiar, so knowing that Berengaria felt her cheeks flame with embarrassment. Her needle poised over the canvas as she waited for Constanzia to tell her to summon the guards to take this insolent man away and have him whipped soundly, before throwing him out of the castle. Instead, her aunt laughed again, a high, breathless warble.
“What have you got that would be of interest to me, my friend?”
He poked filthy fingernails into a leather pouch around his neck and fumbled something free. Berengaria craned her neck to see, interested despite her instinctive dislike of the peddler. He held the item out on the palm of his hand and Constanzia sucked in a breath of fascination.
“This lady.” His hand thrust towards Constanzia, almost touching her hair “You can never have seen anything such as this before, because there is nothing like it in the whole of Navarre. A specific against the plague, Mistress. See – I have traveled from Tarragona to Valencia and back, but I have never caught the plague, not as much as a cold, I swear to you. This, this has kept me safe.”
Constanzia took the item from his hand and gestured to Berengaria to look.
“What is it?” Constanzia demanded. “You´re right. I have never seen anything like it.”
Berengaria stared at the yellow jewel with the strange insect imbedded in its depths. Fascinated, both woman and girl turned to stare at the peddler.
“It is a relic, Mistress. The fly in the jewel was one of the blessed beasts that sipped the sweat and the blood from our Lord Jesus’ face as he hung on the cross, to relieve his discomfort. To reward it, God the Father entombed it in this jewel so that it could have everlasting life. I obtained it from the shrine at Compostella, where I have made pilgrimage twice. Twice, I assure you. Is it not a miraculous thing? Have you ever seen an insect so strange before? A jewel so beautiful? Surely, it is its own testament to the truth of my words!”
Constanzia pursed her lips and turned the jewel in her hand.
“How much?” She demanded abruptly.
“How can I put a price on such a wonderful thing?” The peddler wheedled. “It is worth whatever my Lady wishes to pay poor Marcus.”
Constanzia frowned and was about to speak when a movement in one of the baskets the peddler had discarded around his feet caught her eye, distracting her butterfly attention.
“What’s that? What’s that in your basket?”
The peddler shrugged.
“Nothing, my Lady. A cat, a common cat, nothing more. He keeps me company in the long, lonely days and nights.”
The cat mewed, a long, plaintive wailing note.
“A strange sound for a cat to make. Let me see it.”
The peddler hesitated then shrugged and stooped, releasing the cat from its wicker prison. Sinuous as a snake, it wriggled out and immediately leapt up to settle on the peddler’s shoulder like a fur tippet, purring loudly and rubbing its sleek head against the side of his face. Bright blue eyes stared arrogantly at its audience. Constanzia sucked air between her teeth in a hiss of interest.
“It´s a Moorish cat, isn´t it? I´ve heard of them, but never seen one before. It has a squint, is it some sort of familiar? Can it be used to cast spells? To tell fortunes? Does it bring good luck?”
“It is no more than a cat, Ma´am. A beautiful cat, a talkative cat,” on cue, the cat wailed. “But no more than a cat. He is my friend.”
“I want it. I want the cat, and I want the relic. You will sell them both to me. We will discuss how much. Berengaria, you may leave us now. Be good enough to tell my ladies I do not want their company until I ask for them.”
Dismissed, Berengaria walked across the room in a silence that made yards feel like miles and pulled the door closed behind her with a deep sense of relief.
A bargain of sorts must have been struck, for thereafter Constanzia was never without the miraculous relic at her neck and the cat twining around her legs or lying on her lap. The servants hated the cat, both because it was fed on nothing but the very best the kitchens could offer but also because it was a Moorish cat, and hence an agent of the Devil, for sure. Constanzia´s previous most precious pet, a fussy, chattering little monkey that delighted in nipping with its sharp teeth and running away before an avenging hand could make contact, sulked for weeks after the cat’s arrival before decamping and making a new home with one of Constanzia´s ladies.
A knock at the door recalled Berengaria abruptly to the present. Startled, the cat flew to the window slit and wriggled through, the remains of the lizard clamped in its jaws. The door opened at her word and Isabel backed in, tugging the rope handle of a large wooden chest that trundled ponderously on swollen wooden wheels. Straightening, she gestured at the water-stained, paint-peeling chest with open hands, her eyes wide and her face expressive of deep hurt.
“My Lady,” she wailed. “Oh, my Lady. I am sorry, I am so very sorry”.