Dark tracks, p.1
Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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NEAR LINZ, AUSTRIA, MARCH 1461
There was an angry bellow from inside the woodcutter’s hovel; the woman, struggling up from the stream with a heavy bucket of icy water in each hand, raised her head and shouted back. Something in her tone enraged him—he was always on the brink of fury—and, as she put down one of the slopping pails in the muddy patch before the tumbledown building, the rough wooden door banged open and the woodcutter surged out, his dirty shirt half open, his thick trousers flapping. He grabbed her free arm to hold her steady and slapped her hard, across the face. She reeled back from the blow, but gritted her jaw against the pain, and stood, head bowed, like a beaten ox.
He brought his head close to hers and shouted, his spittle spraying into her impassive face. He let her go, and impulsively kicked over both pails into the mud; she would have to go to the stream again, and haul more water. He laughed, as if the thought of her pointless labor was the only funny thing in this bitterly hard world. But then his laughter died as he looked at her.
She was not pressing her slapped cheek with the cold palm of her hand, nor bowing her head in sobs. She was not shrinking from him, nor picking up the rolling, empty buckets. She had spread out her hands wide; she was snapping her fingers as if to a drumbeat that only she could hear.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Woman? Fool? What d’you think you’re doing?”
Her eyes were closed as if she could sense nothing but a smooth wooden floor and clean limewashed walls and candlelight, and the fresh smell of a swept barn ready for a midsummer dance. Her head was tipped, as if listening to the rattle of a tambourine and the tempting, irresistible saw of a fiddler. As he watched, quite bemused, she lifted the hem of her ragged dress, spread it wide, and started to dance, as pretty as a girl.
“I’ll dance you!” He started toward her, but she did not shrink from him. She took three steps to the left and did a little jump, then three steps to the right. She turned round as if she were being spun by an attentive partner. Ignoring the icy mud on her bare feet, she started the part of the dance where the women circle the room, as if she were being watched by admirers, her head held high, her eyes blind to the leafless branches of the trees and the cold sky above them.
He laid heavy hands on her shoulders and felt her jig beneath his grip as if he were about to dance with her. He tried to drag her into their hut, but she only danced toward the open door, bowed to the dirty interior, and danced back out again. He drew back his fist to thump her into unconsciousness, but something in her smiling, bland face made him hesitate: suddenly powerless, his hand fell to his side.
“You’ve gone mad,” he said wonderingly. “A madwoman you’ve always been, but now you’ve lost your wits, and you’ll be the ruin of us all.”
LIEZEN, AUSTRIA, APRIL 1461
A robed and hooded traveler turned his weary horse into the stable yard of a good inn in the town of Liezen, threw the reins to a lad who came running to his piercing whistle, and eased himself down from the saddle with a sigh.
“Is there a Luca Vero staying here?” he asked the boy, tossing him a coin. “And his clerk?”
“Why, who wants him?” came a disembodied voice from inside the darkness of a stable, and then a tall, squarefaced, smiling young man of about twenty looked over the half-door of the stable. Behind him, his horse came and rested its nose on his shoulder as if they would both like to know who was looking for Luca Vero.
“I am sent from his lord to bring him a message,” the man said briefly. “I suppose you are Freize, Luca’s manservant?”
Freize bowed his head, slightly surprised that his name was known. “That’s me. And this is my horse, Rufino.”
The horse seemed to incline his head also, and regard the traveler with a matching polite curiosity.
“And you are?” Freize asked.
“I am Brother Jerome,” the stranger said. He turned to the stable lad. “See that my saddlebag is taken indoors and get me the best room available. I sleep alone.”
“There are rooms available,” Freize volunteered. “Enough space for a man to take a room just for himself, if he can afford it, if someone else is paying for him. And a very good common table. They eat well here. I have discovered the pleasure of dumplings. Do you know them? Take two and you need little more for hours, several hours; take three and you will need a nap. I doubt anyone can eat four. And you should try the stewed chicken. They have a way with stewed chicken that you would ride from Rome to taste.”
The man smiled slightly. “I am not here for the chicken,” he said. “Or the dumplings.”
“But you have ridden from Rome?” Freize confirmed.
The stranger smiled, acknowledging that Freize had guessed his journey.
“Well, you’ve ridden a long way to look down your nose at a treat,” Freize said, not at all abashed. “I’m assuming that you are being paid to come all this way, that you are the messenger that we were told would come here?”
“Yes. I’ve come to meet Luca Vero, your master. I am honored to be a member of his Order.”
“Tasked with the same sort of work?” Freize gently pulled his horse’s ear in farewell, and then let himself out of the stable, bolting the door carefully shut behind him. “Are you another Inquirer? Sworn to ride around in uncomfortable places, finding evidence for the end of the world, signs of the end of days, to sit in judgment, when required, on poor fools who have frightened themselves to death already, and report back to Milord?”
The stranger nodded at this jaundiced description of his work. “I am a member of the Order of Darkness tasked to examine these terrible times,” he said. “Since the fall of Constantinople, the Devil is here, daily walking the world. Everywhere I go, I find more horrors. Everywhere I go, I record them for Milord, and he reports to the Holy Father himself. There is no doubt that there are more and more events and they are growing stranger all the time.”
“My very point!” Freize exclaimed, delighted to at last find someone who agreed with him. “I cannot tell you what happened to me in Venice! Alchemists and wealth, and the destruction of all gold so that we could not buy Luca’s father out of slavery; the strangest of people; troubled weather; even odd animals. On this very journey we have been followed—I swear we have been followed—by some sort of a Being. A little thing, you never catch it in plain sight, but it is there—out of the corner of my eye—moving from the bridles when I go to tack up, slipping away behind the feed buckets. Never fed, never sleeping and not a thing of this world, for sure. So what is it, this little thing? And so I say to my friend and lord: why don’t we go back home and watch events unfold from there? Since there are so many unnatural people in this world, since strange things are happening all the time, why do we need to go seeking them out? Let them come to us! Lord knows there are enough bad and unknown events occurring in this dangerous world without us having to look for trouble!”
Freize led the way through the arched gateway toward the inn as Brother Jerome disagreed: “Your master has to go and search out these things because he is an Inquirer of the Order of Darkness. It is his work and his duty to go wherever there is danger or a mystery, and discover it.”
Freize looked unconvinced. “But what is the point of it all? What happens to his report?”
“Exactly! They know what?” Freize demanded, pushing the inn door. “They know that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of terrible things are happening all over the world, and we, poor fools, are dashing around from one dreadful place to another to catch sight of them as they happen. As if anyone would want to see them. As if anyone of good sense would not run in the opposite direction!”
“By gathering all the reports they then know that these are the signs of the end of days. That this is the end of the world.”
Freize hesitated. “You think so too?” he asked, as if he still hoped the answer would be no. “You really think it is happening? The end of the world?”
“It is a certainty,” the man said gravely. “It has started already, God help us all. It started with the fall of Constantinople, with the infidel Ottomans at the altar of the Eastern Church. Now we have to fear for ourselves. For if they reach the altar of the Western Church at Rome, the home for the Pope of the West, then it is all over for us. Your master, and I, and everyone serving Milord in the Order, must discover when the darkness will fall on us. It is not a question of “if,” it is a question of how long do we have? Perhaps it is as soon as tomorrow.” He looked at Freize’s aghast face. “You should say your prayers, for perhaps it is even tonight.”
“A very jolly visitor bringing the best of news.” Freize gloomily reported the arrival of Brother Jerome to his traveling companions: Isolde and her friend Ishraq. He looked from one smiling face to another, one of them as blond as a Saxon, the other as dark as a Spaniard. “Here comes another Inquirer, just as we were promised, turning up out of the blue, come to give us our mission and warn us of the Devil walking through our days,” he said glumly. “As if I were not afraid enough already.”
“Poor Freize,” Ishraq teased him, giving him a hug, briefly resting her head against his broad shoulder. He looked down on her smooth black hair, her hijab headscarf casually thrown back, her upslanting black eyebrows, the curve of her olive-skinned cheek, and his arm tightened round her waist.
“You are a comfort,” he conceded. “At least I will die in the company of a beautiful girl.” He looked across at the fair-headed Isolde and bowed to her. “Two beautiful girls.”
“Surely the world won’t end before dinner, so you’ve got that to look forward to,” Isolde pointed out.
“And there are certain to be dumplings,” Ishraq added.
“Yes, but he’ll want us to go somewhere,” Freize complained. “To some terrible place that is sliding into hell, and find out why. And I don’t want to go anywhere. I’m done with traveling. I want to go home.”
“At least you’ve got a home to go to,” Isolde remarked from her seat by the little window. “If I don’t get to my godfather’s son and raise an army, I’ll never win back my castle and lands. I can only come with you if the Inquirer sends you east because that’s my route. If your orders take you in another direction, we’ll have to part ways here.”
“I go with you,” Ishraq, her childhood friend, reminded her. “Wherever.”
“This Inquirer didn’t tell me anything,” Freize said. “Just that he would meet with Luca.”
“Let’s go down,” Ishraq suggested, “and find out for ourselves.”
“But are we supposed to be seen?” Isolde hesitated. “Luca might not want it known that we are traveling with him.”
“Surely, everyone knows by now,” Freize said cheerfully. “Since Milord used you to disguise the inquiry in Venice, everyone knows that his Inquirer Luca Vero is traveling with a lady and her companion. Brother Jerome came into the yard and knew my name at once. I should think that the whole of Rome knows that you two are traveling with Luca and me and Brother Peter, the clerk. Ishraq is right: we need to know if we can stay together. Let’s go and see.”
It was Isolde, as the Lady of Lucretili, the grandest member of the party, who led them into the hall, to find Luca and Brother Peter seated at the dining table with the new arrival. “We wondered if we might join you?” she said politely to Luca. “We wanted to know your new destination, and if our journeys still lie together.”
He jumped to his feet at once, his smile warm and intimate. “Of course,” he said. “Please come in, your ladyship, take a seat, take my chair.”
To the stranger he said: “This is Isolde, Lady of Lucretili. Did Milord tell you that we are all traveling together?”
“He said that you had companions,” the man said, rising to his feet and bowing. “But I had no idea . . .” His bemused gaze took in the beautiful young woman, her conical headdress standing tall on the coiled plaits of her thick blonde hair, her rich dress of dark blue velvet with fashionable sleeves slashed to show the bright turquoise silk underneath, and her air of confidence.
Ishraq came in behind Isolde. “This is my friend and companion, Ishraq.”
Now the stranger flinched back and crossed himself, for the girl before him was unlike anyone he had ever seen before. Her skin was as brown as a beechnut, but completely smooth, her eyes dark and ringed with kohl, her black hair hidden under an indigo silk scarf tied around her head. What startled him most was her tunic, like an Arab woman’s, and her billowy pantaloons, which she had strapped to her slim legs for riding. His gaze flicked to Luca almost accusingly: “An infidel?” he asked. “You are traveling with a Moor?”
“Ishraq is a most true and loyal friend.” Luca started to defend her, but Ishraq only laughed at the man, showing little, perfectly white teeth.
“I’m no harm to you, Inquirer,” she said. “So you need not cross yourself at the sight of me. I was raised in a Christian household by a great crusader lord and I serve his daughter, the Lady of Lucretili.” She nodded toward Isolde, who looked challengingly at the stranger and stepped closer to stand shoulder to shoulder with her childhood friend. “I have been in a Christian household since I was a baby, but my mother was a Moor and I am proud of my inheritance.”
“Even so,” Brother Jerome said, still shocked.
“I have met your Milord already, and I can’t say that I was impressed with him,” the young Arab woman went on, startling the Inquirer even more with her bold speech. “Now you have met me, I see that you are not impressed either, so we are equal in our prejudices. But I remind you that the people of my race now command half of Christendom and are advancing on the rest of it, so, if I were you, I would prefer me as a friend rather than an enemy. We’re rather dangerous as enemies, as you can see. Certainly, I wouldn’t be insulting on sight.”
“The advance of the Ottomans is a disaster—one of the great signs of the end of days,” the man bridled. “The fall of our sacred Constantinople confirms the end of the world—a tragedy.”
“Only to you,” she said shortly. “From the point of view of the Ottomans, everything is going rather well. Not that I am on their side. But I do think that if you are going to spend your life in the pursuit of knowledge, you had better consider how different something looks from another point of view.”
In the stunned silence, Luca and Isolde carefully avoided each other’s gaze for fear of laughing out loud at the shocked expression on the Inquirer’s face.
Brother Peter, the clerk, intervened. “I, too, was surprised when we found ourselves escorting these two ladies,” he remarked. “We met on the road after our first inquiry, and since then we have traveled together. Of course I would prefer to avoid women, all women, but our ways have run together so far, and not even I—a celibate monk who has devoted my life to our Order—can deny that these are exceptional young women who are courageous in danger and helpful in inquiry. But, in any case, they are going east and have their own reasons for traveling, and Milord has ordered th
A swift glance between Luca and Isolde showed that they hoped they would stay together. Ishraq smiled at Brother Peter. “Well, I hope not,” she said. “I have learned much from you, Brother. But how d’you feel, Luca?” She turned her attention to him, her eyes sparkling with mischief. “As a younger celibate monk traveling with us, shall you be pleased to part or shall you be sorry to lose us like Brother Peter?”
“I am a novice,” Luca said with quiet dignity. “As you know. I have not yet taken my vows. But I could not have completed my inquiries without you both. I owe you both a debt of gratitude.”
“If Milord has no objection to you all traveling together, then I can have none,” the visiting Inquirer said hastily.
“That’s very independent of you,” Ishraq observed sarcastically.
“And you already know Freize, our general factotum,” Isolde said as Freize opened the door a little wider and came into the room from where he had been listening outside.
“General . . . ?”
Isolde nodded firmly. “It’s how he prefers to be known,” she said quietly. “And we admire him and respect his preferences.”
“Not just a servant, you see,” Freize pointed out. “Indispensable.”
“We’re a motley crew,” Brother Peter conceded. “But we have seen some things on this journey! Milord has been pleased with our reports and even came out to visit us in the middle of one of our inquiries.”
Brother Jerome was impressed. “He did?” he exclaimed. “Why did he do that?”
Brother Peter was bland. “Of course we don’t know why.”
“Perhaps you would know?” Isolde asked Brother Jerome. “It was when an Ottoman galley came on shore for repairs and the owner, Radu Bey, insisted on dining with Luca. Milord said that Radu Bey was the greatest enemy to Christendom. He tried to capture him.”
Dark Tracks by Philippa Gregory / Young Adult / Fantasy have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes