Dark tracks, p.12
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       Dark Tracks, p.12

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  “What?” Freize bellowed up at him, driven to anger by his fear for Isolde. “What are you thinking? Why don’t you just say?”

  The Being stepped back from the gate and drew a breath. He spoke—for the first time Freize heard his voice. It was loud and sonorous, like a well-tuned bell. He spoke in a language that Freize did not understand at all.

  There was a stunned silence from behind the gate. The dancers were on the bridge now, twisting and leaping as they came closer. Freize could see the fiddler’s knowing smile as they waltzed, the tambourine beating the enchanting, irresistible time. The dancers knew that Freize and Isolde were trapped between them and a barred gate, that the two of them would be snatched from the doorstep of safety as if they were helpless children.

  The Being raised his voice, as if it were an old psalm loudly sung.

  The tambourine started to sound more insistently as if announcing a triumph; the fiddler flourished his bow over the strings. Freize clawed his way up the gatepost into an upright position and felt his feet moving; turning toward the music, he saw Isolde straighten up; he saw the pretty red shoes start to turn away from the gate, her toes pointing as she shuffled slightly toward the dancers.

  “I beg you!” he shouted.

  The fiddler came to the head of the troupe; he pointed his bow at Isolde, and smiled, conscious of his power. He beckoned her to return to them at the very moment, quite without warning, the gate suddenly swung open, and the three of them fell inward to safety before it banged shut.

  Ishraq lay awake, took in the white walls of the limewashed little bedroom, the tiny window overlooking the orchard and the yard, heard the rippling song of the blackbird, high in the apple tree, and knew herself to be deeply happy. Luca’s dark head was buried against her neck, and when she moved her head she felt his warm, soft hair against her cheek, and the scratch of the stubble of his chin against her naked shoulder. She was glad to hold this moment of peace; she closed her eyes briefly as if to dream that he was to be in her bed, in her arms, for the rest of their lives, that this was their first night of many, and that they would never be parted again. She inhaled the sweet male smell of him, and felt, all down her body at every point where they touched, the warmth of satisfied desire flickering into awareness once again.

  Luca stirred, then lifted his head and smiled at her with such simple delight that she smiled back. “You’re alive,” was all he said.

  She nodded. “I think you saved me.”

  “I’m glad. So glad.”

  He pulled away from her, tucking the bedclothes back around her as if he feared her getting cold, finding his breeches, shouldering into his plain linen shirt, sitting on the bed to pull on his boots. He thought that not since his childhood had he had this sense of being blessed—paradoxically never before had he been in such a state of deep sin. He had promised himself to God and here he was: breaking his sacred vows. He had promised himself to the Order and to serve under the guidance of Milord and here he was: thinking of nothing but this girl. He had told Isolde, Ishraq’s dearest friend, that he loved her, that she was his first love: and yet now he knew this was the love of his life. He thought that he should feel shame and remorse, but he could feel nothing but deep guilt-free joy.

  He turned to smile at her and was surprised again at her unvarnished beauty, sitting up in the bed, her hands clasped round her knees, her dark hair tumbled over her naked creamy-brown shoulders. She radiated a sense of peace and a sensual shamelessness, as if their being together was an outcome completely natural and completely desirable. It was impossible for him to feel remorse when she was so beautifully carefree.

  “My God, Ishraq, you are so beautiful.”

  “I am reborn,” she replied. “I feel as if you have brought me back to life and that every breath is precious to me. I feel as if this is the first sunrise of my life. I feel as if I am waking to a new world.”

  “Everything is different,” he agreed. “As if everything is new.”

  She smiled at him. “I suppose everything is different?”

  “I must go and tell Brother Peter; he was desperately grieved for you,” said Luca, thinking that the world would press in on them all too quickly. “And then we have to look for Isolde and Freize.”

  The spell of guiltless sensuality was broken at once. She gave a little gasp. “Isolde? What do you mean? Where is she? I thought she was safe, here, in the inn. Where is she? What’s happened?”

  Luca shook his head. “It seems that she went outside. The peddler left the door open. She and the landlady went with the dancers.”

  Ishraq was horrified. “Why didn’t you go after her?”

  Luca shook his head. “Freize ran after them. I knew that if she was out there with them, then you must be in danger. I came back to look for you.”

  She paused at the thought of his vigil at her side, and their night together. “Yes, I see. I see. But oh! You shouldn’t have let her go.”

  “How could I go after her, and leave you?”

  She threw back the covers and slipped out to stand at the side of the bed. He gasped at her, so beautifully naked, her skin so smooth and golden, as lovely as a statue of a beautiful girl, one that the Greeks might have sculpted if they had marble the color of dark honey, and warm as sunshine on silk.

  Ishraq was unaware of his sudden rise of desire: she was thinking only of her friend. “We must go after them now. We should have gone as soon as I woke.”

  He could not stop himself; he went to hold her, and at his touch she suddenly went quiet, like a little bird will rest and be still. She paused for a moment as his arms came round her, her warm, naked body against him, as he burned up beneath his linen shirt.

  “Are you really well enough to ride?” he whispered against her hair. “Are you strong enough? Shouldn’t I go without you and come back as soon as I have found them?”

  She shook her dark head, pressing against him in a ready response. “I must see her. We have to go after Isolde. Do you think that she spent the whole night out with them?”

  “I hope that Freize caught up with them and got her away to safety,” he said, releasing her reluctantly. “Perhaps he brought her back in the night, and they’re here now?”

  Ishraq tore herself away from him. “Go and see,” she urged him, pulling on her pantaloons and throwing on her shift. “And, if we need to go after her, I’m ready to leave at once.”

  Freize and Isolde leaned their backs against the inside of the barred village gate, their breath coming in panting gasps, their feet gently pacing on the spot as they slowly ceased to dance. “Thank you,” Freize said to the gateman. “Thank you.”

  The man looked surprised at Freize’s speech. He stepped back from him, suddenly suspicious and fearful. “Which of you speaks Hebrew?”

  From beyond the gate they could hear the whirl of the fiddle and the beat of the tambourine. Isolde’s feet started to move again, despite herself.

  “Hebrew?” Freize repeated, putting an arm round her shoulders and taking hold of her, trying to force her to be still. “Did you say Hebrew?”

  The gatekeeper nodded.

  “Those strange words? It wasn’t us, it was the giant,” Isolde said, turning toward him; but the Being had gone.

  “Didn’t he come in the gate with us?” she asked Freize.

  “We can’t leave him outside,” Freize said, looking round. “Did you see—” He broke off at the difficulty of describing the Being that he had seen as a little thing, more like a lizard than a child, and was now taller and stronger than a grown man. “Did you see him—the other one that came in with us?”

  “You two came in,” the gateman said. “I was busy getting the gate barred again, against them outside. Who are they?”

  “They’re dancers,” Freize said. He had to raise his voice as the music outside was getting louder. “Stop your ears and warn the village to close their windows and stay indoors. Everywhere they go, people join with them and can’t stop themselves dancing.

  Even as he spoke, Freize’s feet started moving again and he felt Isolde rise and dip under his restraining arm.

  “I can’t stop,” she muttered. “Hold me, Freize, hold me down. I can’t stand still.”

  “Why, you’re dancers yourselves!” the man said, looking at them with sudden hatred. “As bad as they. And you tricked me into opening the gate. And you will bring the dancing curse in with you.”

  “We’re not,” Isolde swore to him, though her fidgeting feet told another story. “I promise that we’re not. At any rate, we don’t want to be. They captured me yesterday and my friend Freize here came to get me away from them. We don’t want to dance. We want to stop.”

  “You stop, then,” the man said flatly. “Right this moment. Or I will turn you out of the gate to be with your own kind.”

  Outside, the drummer started beating the time to a march. The gateman straightened his back like an old soldier and fought to still his feet. “Look,” he said. “Look at me! I can feel it myself! You’ve brought danger to our door. We have enough trouble here, more than enough, without the dancing madness as well. You should be out there with them. You’re no better than they are.”

  “I swear I’m not a danger to you,” Isolde said, speaking rapidly and earnestly. “I’m only dancing because of these shoes. I don’t want them. I don’t want dancing shoes. I’ll take them off right now.”

  Freize held the bars of the gate, forcing his feet to be still as the girl dropped to the stone cobbles and started to untie the ribbons around her ankles.

  “They’re knotted tight,” she said. “Help me, Freize.”

  The steady beat of the tambourine sounded through the thick wooden gate and then the skirl of the fiddle. Freize knelt before her and picked at the knotted ribbons. Despite themselves, Isolde and Freize swayed to the music though she was still seated and her feet were in his hands.

  “I’m sounding the alarm,” the gatekeeper declared. “And, when the watch comes, we’re going to throw you out to them.”

  “Hurry,” Isolde said to Freize.

  He bent his head and picked with his strong fingernails at the twisted knots. “I’m going to have to cut them,” he said.

  The gatekeeper put his hand to the clapper of the bell and the tocsin started to ring loudly, drowning out the noise of the tambourine and the fiddle. At once, people opened their shutters and looked anxiously to the gate; the men stumbled into the street, pulling on their boots and their jackets, wiping their mouths as they came from their breakfasts. A tall figure walked down the street behind them.

  “Cut them! Cut them!” Isolde begged Freize, as her feet fidgeted in his hands. “I don’t want them. I wish I had never been such a fool as to put them on.”

  Freize reached for his belt where he had a sharp dagger in its sheath, took it out and brought it to the ribbons. “Keep still,” he said.

  “I can’t.” She turned to him, her face pale and sweating. “I can’t keep still. I am longing to get up and dance.”

  “I know,” he said grimly. “I can feel my feet itching to join in. Fight it, Isolde. Let me get these shoes off your feet. Think of something else. Tell me about Lucretili Castle—how big is the hall? How many people sit down to dinner? How many dishes did your father have at his table?”

  “What’s all this?” came a stern shout from the back of the crowd. A man in the dark robes of a rabbi, with a black hat trimmed with a yellow star on his head, came to the front of the crowd, which parted to let him through.

  Freize glanced up and saw for the first time the distinguishing badge, saw the dark robes and the people wearing their dark capes, all with a yellow star, and gave a gasp of horror. His face blanched with shock and he leaped to his feet to face them, his knife held before him, standing over Isolde as if to defend her. “Get back!” he shouted. “Get back. We have come to you for help and refuge. We are under the protection of Lord Vargarten. You do not dare to touch us.”

  “What?” Isolde demanded. She reached up and pulled the back of Freize’s jacket. “Put down your knife, Freize. Are you mad to draw a knife on these people? We want them to help us.”

  “They’re Jews!” He turned his frightened face toward her. “Isolde! We’ve run into a Jewish village! God help us, for we have run from dancers and fallen among Jews. We shouldn’t be in here. We’d be safer outside with the madmen than in here! They will kill us for sure.”

  Ishraq, dressed in her traveling clothes of dark blue pantaloons and tunic with her long headscarf tied over her black hair and wound round her neck, was in the stable yard, feverishly tightening the buckles on her horse’s bridle, as Luca pleaded with her.

  “You’re not well enough to ride. You can’t go on your own.”

  “I have to get the broadsword back. You go after Isolde and Freize, save them. I’ll go after the peddler and get the broadsword. I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

  “How can you be so sure that it was the peddler who robbed you?”

  “Any ordinary thief would have taken our gold. This is Giorgio’s man—it’s Giorgio all over, to send a criminal after his own sister to rob her of her father’s sword. Of course it’s the peddler, and he will be going straight back to Lucretili Castle for his payment.”

  “You can’t ride on your own after him.”

  She turned and leaned back against the horse’s strong shoulder. “Luca, I have to do this, just as you have to follow the dancers and understand their madness. The Lord of Lucretili himself put Isolde into my keeping; everything that I learned about fighting was so that I could keep the two of us safe. She has to take the sword to her godfather’s son. When they came back from the crusades, Isolde’s father and godfather exchanged their war swords and had them engraved with some message, each for the other. They bolted the blades into the scabbards as a sign of peace and gave each other the key. Isolde’s father told her that after his death she must put them together and open them up and read the message on the blades. I cannot let the sword be lost or—even worse—taken to her brother. I have to get it. You must save her.”

  “Brother Peter shall ride with you.”

  “No, I’ll be faster alone.”

  “I won’t let you go out like this, into danger!” he exclaimed.

  She turned a hard face to him. “I am not yours to command,” she said. “It is not for you to let me go, or keep me here. Neither you, nor any man, has the right to tell me to stay or go.”

  “You are mine, you are my . . .” He broke off before he could say the forbidden word of “lover.”

  Steadfastly, she looked at him. “You are promised to your God,” she said. “You are the beloved of my dearest friend, who is as close to me as a sister. I don’t claim you for my own. And I will never belong to anyone and no man will ever command me.”

  He nodded at her determination. “I know . . . I know. But . . .”

  “So bid me Godspeed, and you go and find Isolde and keep her safe.”

  He bowed to her will and to his own desire to recapture Isolde from the dancers. “All right, then. I’ll go after her. I’ll bring her back, and we will meet you here,” he promised.

  She nodded and swung herself into the saddle. He could see how pale she was, her skin like cream on honey.

  “Don’t faint,” he ordered her, and saw her dauntless smile. “I suppose I am allowed to say that?”

  “You are.”

  “And you know what I think, but will not say.”

  “Never say it,” she said instantly. “And this is not the time to think it either.”

  He nodded, accepting that her devotion to Isolde came before anything. “Godspeed,” he said, and stepped back as her horse thundered out of the stable yard.

  “There are dancers outside the gate!” the gatekeeper reported rapidly to the rabbi. “And these two got in.” He gestured to Isolde, seated on the threshold stone, holding her bleeding feet, and Freize, white with fear, standing over her. “They cried out in Hebrew; they a
sked for refuge in the name of the Lord, so I let them in. But now I see they are dancers too, and Gentiles. Forgive me. I heard our language and I thought they were one of us: the Chosen.”

  “You are Christian?” the rabbi asked Freize shortly.

  “Yes,” Freize said. “Under the protection of Lord Vargarten, traveling for the Holy Father himself.”

  “We have to put you outside,” the rabbi said firmly. The ringing sound of the bell died away and now they could hear the tambourine and the fiddle outside the gate. Despite herself, Isolde’s feet twitched and she leaned down and grabbed her toes to try to keep them still.

  Freize swayed to the music, looking from the rabbi to the gatekeeper. “You may not touch us and you may not touch her,” he said loudly. “Keep back, or it will be the worse for you.”

  “We don’t want to dance,” Isolde said, looking up at the rabbi. “It’s these shoes that are making me dance. See, my friend has tried to rescue me—he will cut the ribbons, and when I get them off my feet I will be myself again. Please don’t put me out there with them.”

  The rabbi turned to the crowd. “It’s not an attack,” he reassured them. “Not today, praise God. It’s not a raid. God is merciful to us today. Go to your homes and close your doors and shutters so you don’t hear the music. If anyone starts dancing, bring them to the synagogue at once. Guards, you stay with me. It is the dancing madness, and if we turn these people out to their companions and give them food, then they will dance away. But nobody is allowed to listen to the music.”

  At once, the people turned away, hands over their ears, heads down, and hurried to their homes. Six men stayed with the rabbi and waited for his orders.

  “Please,” said Freize. “Don’t turn us out. Just let me get the shoes off her feet and, as soon as the dancers are gone, we’ll go. We want nothing to do with you. I warn you, our friends will come for this lady; she is the Lady of Lucretili, the goddaughter of Count Vlad the Second.”

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