Dark tracks, p.15
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       Dark Tracks, p.15
 

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  “When will it end?” Isolde asked.

  The rabbi’s smile was twisted with bitterness. “We say ‘La-shanah haba’ah bi-Yerushalayim: Next year, Jerusalem.’ ” He looked down at her white, tear-stained face. “I see your fear now, but this is what every Jewish woman feels every day. There is not a woman in this village who has not tasted fear like yours, who has not cried as you are weeping now. So, though I am sorry for you, we cannot take a knife to you. Truly, we dare not. We can do no more for you than put you outside the gates when the dancers are gone.”

  “I said that I would bear witness for you!” Isolde reminded him.

  “They would say that we raped you,” the rabbi said bluntly, ignoring Freize’s exclamation of horror. “And that we had driven you mad. When you are hated, as we are hated, nobody can even hear a true word about you. They become deaf. It is how they keep up their hatred. They can hear any lie, but not a simple truth.”

  “I am so sorry,” Isolde said helplessly. “I am so sorry for you and your people. I did not know. I did not understand.”

  For a moment he looked at her, his dark eyes narrowed. “Oh really? Are you saying that you didn’t know?” he pressed her. “Are you sure? But your friend here knew. He knows all the things that people say against us, don’t you?”

  Freize bent his head, nodded.

  “And if your father was a lord, he must have agreed to protect Jewish moneylenders and Jewish traders on his lands. You must have seen them? He must have made them pay for their protection. He must have let his men loose on them now and then, to remind them to pay.”

  Isolde blushed a deep red in shame. “He was a true crusader, he did not make war on his own village,” she said quietly. “He fought in the Holy Land.”

  “Then he must have killed Moors, and he worked Jews to death,” the rabbi told her. “And you knew. You are the same as all Christians. You all know. You all always know. But you try not to think about it. And when we cry out for help you try not to hear. And when someone asks you what happened to a Jewish family who is missing from their shop, or a Jewish writer whose books are no longer on sale, or a trader who is no longer at his shop, you say that you did not know, that you were not sure, that you could not be certain. You say that you are good neighbors, but you did not notice. You buy our treasures at a good price; you move into our houses. You don’t ask where the owners have gone. You say that it is within the law. You say that you are sorry, but what could you have done? You say that you cannot be blamed for crimes that are done in your name, to the glory of your God. You say you didn’t know. But not knowing is a choice that you make, it is as bad as doing.”

  “In my part of the world . . . ,” Freize started.

  “Your part of the world is the same as anywhere in the world.” The rabbi swept over his objection. “We are hated all over the world for no reason that makes any sense. You have to make up reasons. And they still make no sense. But it means that when the Jews are taken, you can say that you didn’t know, but it probably had to be done.”

  Isolde acknowledged that he was right. “I am sorry,” she said. “I am very sorry. I did know. I chose not to know.”

  “We endure,” he said bravely. “We pray that it never gets any worse for us, the People, than it is today. We pray that the day never comes when someone, a new madman, speaks against the Jews and everyone listens, and many act, and everyone else says that they did not know. By coming here, you have put us into great danger. By staying, you continue to endanger us. If you truly have pity on us, then you will go.”

  Isolde turned to Freize, her eyes filled with tears, her bloodstained feet twitching in the red shoes. “He’s right. We have to go out to the dancers,” she said. “We can’t stay here.”

  Luca rode as hard as he dared down the twisting track, through the dark woods, back to Lord Vargarten’s castle. He pulled up his horse before the gateway and shouted: “I need to get a message to his lordship. The dancers are threatening the Jewish village. He has to send help.”

  “Why would he help the Jews?” one of the guards asked. “Let them dance away with the other madmen.”

  The other muttered an obscenity and the two of them laughed together.

  “I’ll speak to him myself,” Luca decided, not trusting them. “Open the gate.”

  As he rode into the castle garth, Lord Vargarten himself came out of the great hall and down the stone steps. His wife stood in the doorway of the hall and looked down on Luca with her cold gaze.

  “You again,” she said, without a word of welcome.

  “I’ve come for help,” Luca said shortly, swinging down from his horse and greeting his lordship. “The dancers have stolen the Lady of Lucretili and she and my comrade Freize have found sanctuary in the Jewish village, but the dancers have all but set siege to them. We have to go and move them on again.”

  “You should have put them all to the sword when you first had them,” her ladyship said flatly from the top of the stone stairs. “Then you would not be troubled now.”

  “We should have done,” his lordship agreed.

  “I could not allow it,” Luca said. “It would be against everything that I believe in. But this is different now—it’s worse. My lord, we have to go to the aid of the Lady of Lucretili.”

  “She’s breaking the law if she’s in the Jews’ village,” his lordship said. “And I will punish them for kidnapping her. They will pay for it.”

  “She was running from the dancers,” Luca said desperately. “What else could she do? They have probably saved her life.”

  Lord Vargarten shook his head in disapproval. “It’s worse to be with Jews than with dancers,” he said. “The dancers are mad, but the Jews are the enemy of the world, beyond the mercy of God.”

  “I beg you,” Luca urged him. “I serve the Order of Darkness. I am commanded to seek the help of the lords spiritual and temporal in my work to discover the causes of the end of days. The lords are commanded to help me.”

  “But you’re not discovering the causes of the end of days,” her ladyship pointed out. “You’re trying to rescue your traveling companion from a situation she should never have gotten herself into. Why should we lift a finger to help you? Why should my lord risk himself and his men for a woman who has chosen to go dancing, and has danced off to the Jews? She went off with vile people, as bad as animals, and now finds herself among vile people, as bad as vermin.”

  Luca looked up at her, trying to control his rage at her words. “My lord told me that you lost your own sister to the dancers. Can you not pity Lady Isolde? Do you not want to see her come safe home? Don’t you know that she would ride out for you, if she were in her castle and you were missing?”

  “I would never go to a Jewish village,” she said disdainfully. “No dance would lead me there. I believe in the purity of my family, of my people.” She turned to her husband. “Of course, it shall be as you wish. If you think you should ride out for the second time, once again showing mercy to madmen, and go on to save this woman who has run from her friends to the Jews.”

  He looked grim. “Certainly, I feel less merciful now.”

  “I beg you,” Luca said again. He could hear his voice tremble and he knew himself to be at the edge of despair.

  His lordship’s answer was to bellow toward the guardhouse, and the muster bell was rung. “We’ll take the horsemen only,” Lord Vargarten said. “That should be enough, and we’ll be quicker.” His squire came running down the steps with his padded jacket and his helmet. His groom brought his horse from the stable.

  “You have no armor at all?” Lord Vargarten asked Luca.

  “I am an Inquirer of the Church,” Luca exclaimed. “Of course I have no armor.”

  “Then someone will probably knock your head off with a rock,” Lord Vargarten said cheerfully. “You’d better ride behind me. Stay close. Borrow a leather jacket. Will you at least take a sword? A mace?”

  Luca shook his head.

  “Pray for
another miracle, then,” his lordship said. “Though God knows He didn’t choose to be so helpful last time.”

  Ishraq never took her eyes from the unrolling road before her, watching always the distant horizon, as far as she could see, never wavering in her attention. She was rewarded when only an hour out of Enns she saw the peddler a mile or two ahead of her. She could not be mistaken, for though his pack was now hidden in a saddlebag, on the side of his horse, she could clearly see the broadsword strapped on his back, the carved hilt above his head giving him a strange, hunched profile, dark against the cloudy white dust of the old road.

  The peddler, on his ambling horse, sat heavily in the saddle, thinking of his dinner in the inn at the next town, and of his likely reward from Giorgio, the new Lord of Lucretili. He was pleased with the success of his mission, singing a folk song of his childhood quietly to himself, so he did not at first hear the sound of distant hoofbeats behind him, coming up fast. When he heard the sudden thunder and looked around, alarmed, it was too late. Ishraq was in a cloud of dust, bent low over her horse’s neck, urging him on at a flat-out gallop, swinging her sling so that it was a whirling blur as she rode down on the peddler.

  She released a stone and it struck him hard on the back of his head, he slumped over his horse’s neck, stunned, as his horse shied. Ishraq wheeled round, turning her horse on its hind legs and reining it in as she gathered in the sling. The peddler struggled back into his saddle, looking up, his face dazed, as Ishraq loaded her sling with another stone, stood high in her stirrups, whirled it, and released it, straight into his horrified face. He went head over heels backward off the horse and lay where he fell, slumped facedown on the ground, perfectly still. Isolde rode up to him, jumped down, took the knife from her boot, and put her foot hard on his back. He did not protest, or stir.

  She thought that the stone had cracked his skull and he was dead, as she carefully drew the precious broadsword from where he had strapped it to his back. Only when she had it safe did she turn him over with the toe of her boot, keeping her knife in her hand ready for a counterattack.

  As soon as she saw his face, she knew that he was alive. He was limp, his face gray, one bleeding bruise on his neck below his ear, another ugly wound swelling rapidly on his cheekbone. Ishraq put the knife to his throat and bent her head to listen if he was breathing. He was conscious, panting like a dog with the shock. She turned from him to her horse, strapping the broadsword to her saddle. She looped the reins of both horses to a roadside bush and then took his water bottle from his pack and poured the contents in his face.

  The peddler, suddenly deluged with water, choked and squirmed on the ground, put his hand to the terrible wound on his face, and blinked up at her. “The dead infidel,” he said bleakly as if she were a dark ghost come back to haunt him.

  “The dead infidel,” she agreed.

  Outside the gates of the Jews’ village, the drummer finished his meal, crammed a bread roll in the pocket of his motley jacket for later, and stroked the skin of the tambourine with his dirty finger. He tapped it, as if to hear the resonance, then flicked a fingernail against the zils.

  Isolde beckoned to Freize and he helped her to her bleeding feet. They held each other tightly as they made little involuntary dance steps in response to the gentle rattle of the tambourine. She bit her lips into a narrow line of determination. “Open the gate,” she said to the rabbi. “I will not be the cause of your misfortune. I will leave.”

  “It will be the death of her,” Freize said over her bobbing head to the rabbi. “I’ll go out to them, if you’ll just keep her.”

  She shook her head, her eyes on the gateman. “Please,” she said. “Open up. Open up before I change my mind.”

  “Wait,” the rabbi ordered. “We have a guest in the village, he might cut the shoes off for you.”

  “Who is he?” Freize asked, suspicious and fearful all at once, weaving like a drunkard. “And why would he take the risk if you will not?”

  The rabbi looked anxious. “He’s not a Jew,” he said. “And he does not live in this country. He is not a servant of Lord Vargarten, he belongs . . . elsewhere. He carries his own sword, and he is practiced. He is accustomed to danger. He will not stay here. He is leaving today.”

  “Who is he?” Freize asked. He was even more suspicious.

  “He’s an Ottoman,” the rabbi said quietly. “A trader, I believe.”

  Freize gave a muted exclamation of rage. “An enemy! A heretic! As bad as a Jew, God knows. And what’s he doing here? An enemy of the country?”

  “Traveling,” the rabbi said evasively.

  “A peddler?” Isolde asked, her pale face going even whiter.

  “No, no, a great man. A wealthy man, he travels with a servant and a guard and six horses. But he carries a great sword. He might be willing; he might have the skill to cut off the shoes. And if you swore that you would tell everyone that it was not us . . . And not even mention him?”

  “Please,” Isolde begged. “Please send to him, and ask.”

  “Isolde.” Freize knelt before her and drew her down beside him, holding her hands tightly in his own. Even kneeling, they were both constantly moving, as her feet, folded beneath her, still tried to dance, and he swayed from one side to another on his knees. “Isolde! Think! You don’t know who this man is. He is a heretic and godforsaken. He may have no skill; he is the enemy of our religion and the enemy of our people. Your father rode out on crusade against people like him. We don’t dare let him draw his sword on you.”

  Her face was twisted with pain. “I know, I know it. But at least let’s see him and ask him if it can be done.”

  The gateman was on the tower again, shouting down at the dancers. “You’ve eaten your fill. Now go.”

  The fiddler got to his feet, tucked the fiddle under his arm. He looked up with an insolent smile. “You have two dancers inside the town,” he said. “One of them is a lady and worth a king’s fortune in ransom. Send them out to us, or we will play a pretty tune and all your young people will come out and dance with us.”

  “Don’t play!” the gateman said quickly. “Those two are not yours for the taking. They’ve stopped dancing. They’re resting and walking around, quite themselves. You’ve lost them. Now move on.”

  “Show them to us,” the fiddler suggested. He drew his bow across the fiddle and there was a long, inviting glissade of sound. “Send them out so we can see them, walking and resting and being quite themselves.”

  “They’re resting, I tell you,” the gateman said irritably. He glanced down at the rabbi, who nodded that the gateman should continue to argue with the dancers. “But you must go on. Go on, or we will get word to Lord Vargarten and tell him that we are troubled by you, and he will send his soldiers.”

  “We’re no trouble to anybody.” The drummer got to his feet and joined the fiddler. “It’s not us who bear the mark of Cain; it’s not us who crucified the precious Lord. You take care who you name as troublemakers. Aren’t you the troublemakers since the world began? Send for Lord Vargarten and see what his soldiers will do to you! Far worse than anything they would do to us. We are just dancers, mad for a moment; but you are damned forever.”

  The rabbi slowly mounted the steps again and stood beside the gatekeeper on the wall, looking down at the dancers who were already on their feet, some of them jigging, some of them walking around in aimless circles, awaiting the hard command to go onward.

  “We are the People,” the rabbi admitted. “And I have a purse of silver, which we can ill afford, for you to go away. Will you take it and go, or shall we send to Lord Vargarten and say that—miserable Jews though we are—we are troubled by dancers? Do you not think that he will come with his soldiers? Do you not think that he likes to have us in his lands, lending money, trading goods, connecting merchants and craftsmen, working across all of the Holy Roman Empire, trusted and reliable where no one else can be trusted? Do you not think he needs a people whose word is their bond and who pa
y their debts when his Church and his own family cheats and fleeces everyone constantly? Yes, he will come to help us against you, if only to make sure that we pay our taxes this year. Do you not think that we are his sheep that only he shears, that he does not want the flock troubled by any wolves but himself?”

  The drummer shifted uneasily. “Send out the two dancers you have kidnapped from us, give us the money, and we will go,” he offered.

  “They are cured of dancing,” the rabbi replied. “They won’t come out.”

  “Swear it!” the fiddler said with acute malice. “If you speak the truth, then show me. Swear it on your god or on your scrolls or on your bread, or whatever heathen thing you have, and show the two of them to us, and we will go on our way.”

  The rabbi looked down to where Isolde was kneeling on the cobblestone pavement by the gate. Wordlessly, she looked up at him while holding her bleeding feet tight in her bloodstained hands. Still her feet danced, even when there was no music but only the whisper of the tambourine, casually shaken. The rabbi knew that as soon as the gate was open and she heard the music she would have to dance, and it would be the death of her.

  “I will get the purse of silver—it will take me some time to collect coins from our people—and then I will swear,” the rabbi said, buying time. He looked away from the gate, toward the village square. One of the guards was running ahead of the Ottoman trader, leading him down the cobbled street to the gate.

  The stranger walked like a prince, dressed completely in black. He wore a turban with a glossy black feather pinned in place with a diamond of black, a black cape around his shoulders, a black waistcoat blazing with black diamonds, black pantaloons, and black leather boots. In his hand, sheathed in a black scabbard, which glittered with more diamonds, he carried a scimitar, curved like the crescent moon, and his tanned face was smiling.

  The wounded peddler trembled as he lay beneath Ishraq’s boot, her knife to his neck. “Will you give me time to say my prayers? I know you’re an infidel, but even you must understand prayers. I have to confess my sins—I have to pray.”

 
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