“How dare you try bribing me!” Marat drew his sword in fury
Marat, the giant soldier bringing Naftali to his execution, was a man of few words. But his facial expressions were enough to make anyone drop what they were holding and run in the opposite direction. He was like a giant, angry bear, except he drank more.
Very frequently, Marat would let go of the reigns with one massive hand and reach deep into the pouch tucked into his thick belt. He would drink heavily from the seemingly endless supply of wine he kept there.
Poor Naftali was stuck with this fiendish man. Alone, away from his family, far from his friends. But even at his young, tender age, he knew he was not truly alone. No Jew ever is. Rattling up and down behind Marat as the black horse rode on, Naftali tried to keep his eyes away from his brutal captor, and instead rested his gaze on the ever-changing sky. Day blended into night, and then back again. He lost track of all time, but at this point nothing else mattered except the words ein od milvado — there is nothing, except Hashem.
At some point during their journey, as the sun began to set, snowflakes began to drift from the sky. A cold breeze swept through the air, sending shivers up Naftali’s back. The blue sky darkened and was soon swallowed up entirely from sight. Only a glorious, glowing moon shimmered in the blackness above. Naftali felt his hands trembling.
“I’m freezing. Do you have an extra blanket?”
“What does a corpse need a blanket for?”
“Please, I know you must have an extra blanket packed away somewhere. Help me, please.”
“You are too weak.” Marat shifted in the saddle. “The cold doesn’t bother me a bit. Besides, this you call cold? You’ve experienced nothing yet, boy. Soon, if this snow picks up, you will see what true freezing feels like. It will toughen you.”
“This is cold enough.”
The snow picked up with incredible intensity, turning a cold night into a frigid one within moments. Soon snow blanketed their heads and shoulders.
“Even the horse is starting to shiver.”
“Don’t worry about the horse.”
But the horse was starting to slow down. The ground was filling up fast with snow.
Naftali saw Marat slowly inch his hands toward his pocket. The giant man’s shoulders were beginning to shake.
“Even you are cold. There’s no shame in admitting it. We’ll both die out here! We have to stop somewhere.”
“Silence, boy! Don’t tell me what do!”
A moment later, the horse collapsed.
Marat and Naftali flew into the snow, the boy landing onto the giant’s back.
“Get off me!”
Marat flung Naftali from him and stood up. He kicked the motionless horse with his boot, but the large beast did not stir.
Marat bent next to the horse and withdrew the provisions he needed most, including his enormous sword. He procured a blanket as well from the saddle bag.
“I can’t even move my feet… Please…” Naftali held a hand out for the blanket.
Marat smirked and swung the blanket across his wide shoulders. He turned and began stomping through the thick snow toward flickering candles from homes in a nearby village. Naftali followed slowly, his frail body aching in pain.
By some miracle, they reached the village. Marat made a beeline for the closest house.
“Stay here, boy.”
Marat kicked the door in and stepped inside the house.
“I need a horse! Where can I find a horse?”
Naftali could not bear to hear the fiend roaring, so he stumbled across the street to wait at a distance. He collapsed against the windowsill of a large building, resting his hand against the cold windowpane.
And incredibly, the familiar sounds of Torah learning drifted from inside the building.
Excited voices argued over a certain difficult question, and the men learning spent much time trying to come up with a solution.
Naftali could barely lift his head, but he found himself opening his mouth and calling out the solution to the dilemma. The voices inside the shul stopped. A moment later a group of Jewish men stepped into the dark, frigid night and saw Naftali.
“What a brilliant explanation!” one of the men exclaimed. “And what is a young, bright talmid chacham doing out at such an hour, freezing in the cold?”
“He’s with me…”
The men shrunk back as Marat stepped into view, looming in the dark like a giant, menacing shadow.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Marat. I’m bringing this criminal to be killed for throwing a stone at the king. Our horse died along the way, and I need a new method of transportation.”
“Let him go and we’ll pay you whatever price you ask.”
“How dare you try bribing me!” Marat drew his sword in fury. “I’m a man of honor and integrity, not some worthless traitor to the crown! It’s my royal duty to bring this criminal to his death, and no amount of money will change my mind. Don’t you offer me money again, or I’ll slay all of you right here, right now!”
“Okay, okay! We’re sorry, just put the sword away!”
“Get over here, we’re getting out of here!”
Marat grabbed Naftali and began dragging him away.
A kindly looking man with a short beard and bright blue eyes stepped forward.
“My name is Chaim, and I own the village tavern and hotel. It would be my greatest honor to host a soldier of the king, free of charge of course. Do not go back into this terrible blizzard. Stay the night. I will provide you with my largest room, and free food.”
“I don’t trust any of you.” Marat stopped in his tracks, turning to look back at Chaim with glittering black eyes. “You’re all Jews…”
“I’m offering you shelter from this storm, with no cost to you.” Chaim held out his hands. “And free wine, of course, as much as your heart desires…”
Marat’s eyebrows rose in his giant forehead.
“Well, I suppose staying over one night can’t hurt. And tomorrow, first thing, I’ll need a large horse prepared for immediate travel. Can you arrange this?”
“For a soldier of the king? What’s the question? Your wish is my command!” called out Chaim enthusiastically.
“Fine. Take us to the lodgings that you’ve promised me. But I warn you, if you’re planning something, I’ll have no trouble slaying all of you.”
As Marat stomped off in the direction Chaim led them, the kind innkeeper fell into step with Naftali.
“I won’t let him take you,” Chaim whispered into Naftali’s ear. “We’re going to rescue you.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 911)
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