Dark tracks, p.14
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       Dark Tracks, p.14

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  Luca was as shocked by Brother Peter’s cold hatred as his prediction. He swung into the saddle. “I’ll leave the spare horses with you. I’ll be as fast as I can. Whatever the truth of this, whether our enemies are dancers or Jews, Isolde is in terrible danger and we need help to save her.”

  In the Jewish village, the shutters were barred on every house, every door locked. The gateman, standing on the gate tower with his fingers stuck in his ears, shouted down to the dancers below: “Stop the music and we will give you food.”

  At once, the tambourine rattled with a shimmer of brassy zils and the fiddle ended the tune with a triumphant chord. Inside the gate, Freize slumped on the ground beside Isolde, as if his legs had been cut from under him, and Isolde’s feet in the red bloodstained shoes were suddenly stilled, the red ribbons scattered around her like trails of blood. She leaned forward and clasped her calves as the muscles went into rigid cramps.

  There was an eerie silence. Outside the village walls, the dancers dropped to the ground with exhaustion. Those who had any food unwrapped their meager supplies of bread and cheese, watched hungrily by the others. Some of them stumbled down the steep banks of the river to the water’s edge and drank, bending their heads down and gulping thirstily. Some of them splashed their faces; a very few stripped off their shirts and washed in the cold water. The drummer confidently leaned back against the village gate, as if it were the entrance to his own hometown, stretched out his legs with an air of satisfaction, and dozed, his tambourine resting on his chest. The fiddler found a patch of soft grass and lay on his back, his face turned to the sun. Nobody could be in any doubt that the dancers were resting, waiting for their breakfast, only so that they would be ready to start again. The silence was nothing more than a temporary truce.

  On the inner side of the door Freize knelt at Isolde’s feet, desperately pulling at the shoes. They were so tightly fitted that he could not get them off. “How did you ever get them on?” he asked, pulling at them and twisting her foot.

  “They just slipped on,” she said desperately. “Easily, without a moment’s difficulty. They should come off easily.”

  It was impossible for him to get a grip on the slick leather. On the foot where he had cut her ankle, the blood was still flowing and the shoe was wet and slippery. His hands were damp with nervous sweat. Now her shoes and her feet were smeared with blood and, though he pulled and pulled at them, he could not tear the shoes off.

  “I’m so afraid of hurting you,” he said.

  “Pull them off!” Isolde demanded. She was panicking now, her voice high and frightened. “I don’t care if it hurts. If they start playing again and the shoes start dancing, it will hurt me far more then, Freize—it will be the death of me.”

  Freize scrabbled at the back of her foot, trying to get his fingers between the shoe and her heel, but there was no gap, and he could see the redness of her skin where his fingernails had raked her.

  “Pull them off!” she said again.

  “Looks like you’ll have to cut them off,” the rabbi observed. “While she is still.”

  “Yes!” Isolde exclaimed. “Cut the shoes off.”

  Freize looked from his dagger to the red shoes. “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t do it without hurting you. I daren’t. My knife isn’t sharp enough to cut through this leather without sawing at it, and then I’ll cut into your feet.”

  Isolde looked stricken. Any open wound was likely to go bad, and a bad wound was fatal. Often, the poultices of the wisewomen and the treatments of the physicians only made things worse. Someone with a stab wound, or even just a scratch, could die in terrible pain, with no other injury, the wound swollen and stinking, the patient mad with infection.

  “I really can’t,” Freize said. “Isolde, I dare not do it. I might cut your heel off. I don’t dare.”

  The rabbi shook his head at a guard who had put his hand to his dagger. “We can’t do it,” he said simply to Freize. “If the knife slips and we cut her, then Lord Vargarten will never believe that we weren’t torturing her.”

  “I will tell him that you were helping me!” Isolde exclaimed. “I give you my word.”

  The rabbi looked at her with pity in his dark face. “You might be dead,” he said frankly. “If we cut you deeply and we can’t stanch the bleeding, you will die. And then Lord Vargarten will destroy this village and kill every one of us. Nobody would believe that we had not murdered you. You people say that we bleed Christian babies to death for our own amusement. Who is ever going to believe that we were trying to help you?”

  “Isolde, everyone knows that these people sacrifice Christians,” Freize whispered to her. “And it’s certain that they kidnap Christian babies. These are not Jews like the moneylender in Venice who was living in a city alongside Christians, bound by our laws. They are living here according to their own religion; they hate us, and we hate them.”

  “We have put ourselves in danger just by admitting you inside our gates,” the rabbi went on. “We are supposed to live here without contact with Christians, except for serving them or lending them money. There are dozens of laws about when we may or may not see you. You are breaking these laws just by being here—we broke them when we opened the gate—but it is us who will be punished if anyone finds you here.”

  Freize tore at his hair. “What are we to do? What?”

  “Perhaps we can persuade the dancers to go away,” the rabbi said, nodding his head toward the barred gate. “When they are gone, we can put you on the road again, even if she is still in the shoes, and you can find your friends and they can help you.”

  “Won’t we hurry after the dancers if we are still dancing?” Isolde asked.

  The rabbi shrugged. “Perhaps. I don’t know.”

  Isolde put her hand on Freize’s arm. “I have to get these shoes off,” she said passionately. “I can’t go out there with them on. They will make me dance, and I will run after the dancers, I know I will. I have to get them off.”

  Outside the gate, the tambourine rattled as the drummer stirred in his sleep. Isolde gave a little moan of fear. “Do you have a shoemaker in this village?” she asked the rabbi. “Could he unpick the leather, get the uppers off the soles, tear them apart, and get these shoes off me?”

  “He can look at them,” the rabbi offered. “But we won’t do anything that causes you injury.”

  “Do you eat Christian blood or not?” Freize demanded directly, his own fear driving him to ask. “Is it true that you bleed Christians to make your Passover bread?”

  The rabbi turned his head from the question. His contempt and disdain were clear. He ignored Freize and instead he asked Isolde: “Did you just hear the tambourine? Did that slight sound, that little rustle, make you want to dance?”

  Shamed, Isolde nodded her head. “But please don’t put me out with the dancers,” she pleaded. “I have so much to do. I have to get back to my friend. I have to get back to my home and win it from my brother. I was born to be the Lady of Lucretili: it was my father’s wish that I should look after our people. I have to get back to my lands. I can’t just die here on the road because of a stupid moment of vanity when I saw a pair of shoes and wanted them.”

  The rabbi nodded to one of the guards, who went running up the main street. Isolde watched him go, seeing how the houses leaned against one another as if in mutual support, odd buildings, unlike anything she had seen before. There was a building rather like an inn but blank-walled—with no windows on the street. It had beautiful paintings on the outside walls and the doors stood open as if inviting everyone to come inside.

  It was a small village just like any other, the main cobbled street leading from the gate to the central square, the greater merchants’ houses with their double doors high and wide enough to admit wagons into the ground floors where they stored their goods, the smaller houses leaning on the back walls behind them. She would not have known it was a Jewish settlement except for the absence of a church tower constantly chiming
out the hours of the liturgy, and the remarkable cleanliness of the place. The ditch down the center of the little street ran with a clean stream of water and there were no animals roaming through the village, no pigs rooting in the rubbish heaps in the alleys, no chained dogs barking in backyards. Again, her gaze went to the building with no windows—that must be their church, their synagogue, where they performed their mysterious infidel rites. Isolde shuddered.

  The cobbler and the baker with food for the dancers came down the street together. The baker carried a basket over his arm filled with yesterday’s bread, a couple of cheeses, and some smoked fish. Someone had added two bottles of wine and a jug of small ale. The rabbi glanced at the basket. “Lower it with a rope over the wall,” he said to the gateman. “Tell them they must take it and be gone, or we will come out and drive them away.”

  “They will know that we don’t have weapons,” the gateman said quietly. “They will know that we can be attacked and have nothing to defend ourselves with, we’re not even allowed to fight in our own defense. They will know that we are always attacked and we are always defenseless.”

  “Tell them they have to move on—we have nothing for them here. This is all they will get.”

  The gateman nodded and took the basket. They heard him go up the stone stairs to the top of the wall and shout down at the dancers.

  The cobbler knelt before Isolde and took her restless foot in his hand. “Lady, this is no ordinary shoe,” he said after a moment. “There’s no stitching that I can unpick. It’s been made out of one piece of leather and pleated very tight around your foot. I was expecting a seam that I could unstitch, but these are unlike anything I have ever seen. Did someone sew them on to you? I can’t see how else they were made and fitted so tightly. I can’t see how they will ever come off.”

  “No one sewed them on. I did not allow that, I would not,” Isolde gasped. She was crying now, tears running down her face. “I just tried them on because they were so pretty, and the leather was so soft.”

  The cobbler shook his head. “I can’t understand why they’re not worn through, and then we could have torn them off. But I can’t unstitch them,” he said. “And they’re so tight-fitted that I can’t cut them off without cutting your feet. I might lame you for life. You might never dance again.” He looked up at the rabbi. “We’d have to hold her down,” he said. “Or tie her to my workbench to keep her still. And then she still might be injured. I don’t dare to do it. Forgive me, I am sorry, but I will not do it.”

  Ishraq rode down the straight Roman road, through the woods and across the plain, headed southwest. The sun was hot on her back and she knew it would get hotter later. She imagined that the peddler, calmly confident that he had got clean away, unaware of her behind him, following his tracks, would stop in the shade of a tree at midday to rest. She thought that if she came upon him then, she might steal the broadsword and his horse and get away before he woke.

  She pulled her horse to a halt under the shelter of a tree at the side of a stream and considered what she should do. She dismounted and let the horse drink, feeling her rage harden into an icy determination. She realized that she did not want to simply steal the sword and get away from him, she felt a cold fury that she knew was pushing her on to violence. She wanted him to feel the pain and the terror that he had wished on Isolde, and she wanted him to take back to Giorgio another message that the young women could defend themselves. Ishraq—an experienced trained fighter—let the rage wash through her and leave her. She knew she would be more accurate, and more deadly, if she were calm.

  She could see that the forest around her was thinning and opening out into empty pastureland ahead, the road running straight across the plain. When she came out of the shelter of the woods she would be clearly visible on the empty road if the peddler should glance back. She had her knife in her boot where she always carried it, and the belt of her pantaloons was a knotted silken cord that could be used to strangle a man; but apart from these she carried no weapon.

  She waited patiently for her horse to slake his thirst, and then she patted him on the neck, encouraged him to climb the bank out of the water, dismounted and hitched his reins to the tree. She unwound her long headscarf, her hijab, from her head and neck and ripped a small swatch from the end. She took the dagger from her boot and made four holes at each corner. She had a rope tied to the saddle for tethering her horse and she sawed the knot from the end and stripped two long threads from it, as long as her outspread arms. On one she made a loop to go over her middle finger; on the other she tied a little knot, and she threaded each one through the holes in the ends of the square of cloth, tying them tightly to make a sling with the cords on either side.

  She left the horse and scrambled back down the bank of the stream. The stream bed was rocky with water-rounded pebbles. Ishraq picked out half a dozen of them and tucked them in the fold of her pantaloons at her waist. She picked up one and put it in the sling, testing it for weight. She whirled the sling one way and another in a smooth figure of eight motion, then she released the knotted string and the sling flew open, flinging the stone across the stream. Ishraq narrowed her eyes to judge the range and accuracy of her throw, heard the sharp crack as the stone ripped into the bark of a tree. She smiled. It was a killer’s smile, merciless.

  “Do it!” Isolde begged the cobbler, stretching out her feet toward him. “I can hold my feet without moving, now that the dancers are eating. I can hold still as you cut the shoes. If you cut me by accident, I will not blame you. I would let no one punish you for helping me. I give you my word.”

  The rabbi rounded on her. “You cannot promise. You have made your word meaningless. You heard your servant ask me to my face if we kidnap Christian children and crucify them at Easter for our own amusement? He asked me if we really draw Christian blood to make matzo bread? You probably think that we poison wells, that we caused the Peste? You expect us to trust you, when we know that you and all Christians despise us? What does the word of a Gentile mean to a Jew? If you promise us that we are safe why should we ever believe you?”

  Freize gulped. “It’s just what I’ve heard,” he said apologetically. “Everyone says it. And I have to protect this lady.”

  “Who protects our women? Our children? Every Church feast, men ride out here and break down the gates or scale the walls and attack us in our own houses and synagogue. They destroy whatever they don’t understand; they break into storerooms and take away our food; they steal our belongings, our furniture out of our houses. They ride their stinking horses into our synagogue and laugh when they piss on the floor. Our wives and daughters—” He broke off. “If they find them, they rape them,” he said shortly. “The women and girls have hiding places; they run as soon as they hear the alarm bell. Our men take a terrible beating; often someone dies of his injuries. They kidnap our little boys and baptize them as Christians, then throw them back at us, shamed.

  “And how often does this happen? I’ll tell you. Every Easter when they work themselves into a frenzy about the death of Jesus, which they blame on us. At Christmas when they are drunk and the best way to celebrate the birth of your God is to burn down a Jew’s house. After haymaking when they want some sport; always at midsummer after the harvest is in and they know that our barns are full. We have to endure this every year, several times a year, without fail. It is the same in every Jewish village across all of Christendom! And then you ask us to take a terrible risk for you!”

  Isolde was horrified. “But why? Why do people do this to you?”

  “Because we are Jewish,” the rabbi said simply. “Because they blame us for all the sins of the world. Because they are violent, drunken men. Because they want to.”

  “But Lord Vargarten . . .”

  “We are under his protection!” the rabbi shouted. “Don’t you understand? All this happens under his lordship’s tender care. It is his men who attack us; it is his markets that cheat us. He gives them permission. We pay our taxes and
we give him a special payment every year, to keep us safe. But he says that, after all, we did crucify his Lord, and that we have been chosen to suffer and men must have their sport. He lets the attacks happen; he makes sure they don’t go on for more than a few days and that they are not more than a few times a year. But he allows them. They are his way of keeping his men loyal, his way of keeping us poor and afraid. He allows his men to play with us as if we were a chained bear to be torn down by his dogs for sport.”

  “Can’t you fortify the village?” Freize asked. “Hold out?”

  “Hold out for what? Who do you think would ride to our rescue?” the rabbi demanded irritably. “Don’t you know that we are hated by everyone? The nearest Jewish village is a hundred miles away and they suffer just as we do. All across the German states, all across the Russias, all across Christendom it is the same. Small Jewish settlements, sometimes no more than a few houses, sometimes a walled area inside a town, always in danger, always threatened. A hundred years ago we were respected for our learning and protected by the emperor, but not now. Now we are envied for our learning and no one protects us. It is against the law for us to own a weapon. We are not allowed to defend ourselves. We can enter a Christian house only as a servant; we cannot bar the door against a Gentile. All we can do is pray for a quiet year, hide our goods and our children when the Christians come, and pray that this will not last forever.”

  Freize’s ready compassion overcame his fear. “This is terrible,” he said. “Do they really take the little boys?”

  “They take anyone they can find. They take the boys, baptize them and sell them as servants in the town—they say this will win them eternal life; they take the girls and rape them so they give birth to Christian bastards.”

  “I’m sorry,” Freize said, shuffling his feet in the dust. “I am very sorry.”

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