Dark tracks, p.16
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       Dark Tracks, p.16
 

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  She let him wait for her answer—she could smell the acrid scent of his terror. “I’ll give you more than that: I’ll give you your life if you answer my questions.”

  A little gleam of cunning came into his hazy eyes. “And spare me?”

  “If you are honest. Remember that I know Lucretili and Giorgio, probably better than you do. Don’t lie to me, for I swear if you do, I will cut your throat without a moment’s remorse.”

  He gulped. “I’m thirsty, and I have a terrible pain.”

  “Yes,” she said without any sympathy. “You’re lucky to feel pain. If the stone had been one inch higher, you would have lost your eye and died. So to my questions: Who sent you to us?”

  “The lady’s brother, Giorgio. He said I was to kill her or destroy her and get the broadsword.”

  “Why did he want the broadsword?”

  “For the authority. It’s the lord’s sword—he always had it mounted up before him when he sat in judgment. Nobody will obey a fool like Giorgio without it.”

  “Did Giorgio say anything about a message that it carries?”

  “No.” The peddler shook his head and then moaned with pain and held his head still.

  “D’you know why it is bolted into the scabbard?”

  “I swear I don’t know. I just had to get the broadsword.”

  “Why did you attack me?”

  “Everyone knows you would die to save her. Everyone knows you are her trained and dangerous bodyguard. He told me to kill you first and then get rid of her.”

  She nodded, she could feel her anger like a fever. She took a breath and banked it down. “Where did you get the poison for the earrings?”

  “Giorgio gave it to me. I had poisoned rings and a necklace as well.”

  She took a little breath to contain her hatred of him and his master. “Why send her out to the dancers? Wouldn’t it have been easier to poison her? Why did you do that? And how did you do it?”

  She saw at once that his thudding head was clearing; she had reminded him of his power. She held the blade of her knife gently against his cheek and thought that she could plunge it into the pulse point. “If she went away with the dancers, then no one would come looking for me,” he said. “I didn’t calculate that you would recover. I am surprised at it. That’s a powerful poison.”

  She nodded. “How did you send her out?”

  “I have a gift,” he said, his voice softer, persuasive. “Like lulling a child to sleep. I can talk like this, gently, softly, and I can make someone do whatever I wish. Whatever I wish, little lady. I can put the thought into their head as if it were their very own. Why, even you might be glad to hear me speak gently to you. Who else speaks gently to you? You might be tired, your eyelids might be heavy, you hear what I am saying and you just want to sleep. If I were to count from five to one, you would be asleep by the time I got to two. It’s just a little thing I can do—you would like it.”

  He put his hand to where his cheekbone was throbbing, but his eyes were sharp above the darkening bruise. “Because you are weary and you have ridden a long way, and you were sick when you set out,” he whispered. “So of course you are very sleepy. I’ll start to count now,” he said gently. “Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . .”

  But Ishraq’s gaze was steady on him; her hand holding the knife did not soften; certainly, her eyelids did not droop. “And you are a dead man when you get to one,” she told him, her voice as gentle as his.

  Isolde rose unsteadily to her feet, and dipped and swayed in a dancing movement. Freize took her hand and together they faced the stranger as he came down the street, his hand on the hilt of his great scimitar, his dark blue eyes unwaveringly fixed on her.

  “Wait a moment,” Freize said quietly in her ear. “Isn’t this the Ottoman slave trader? The one that is the sworn enemy of Luca’s lord? The one who told Luca how to find his father in slavery?”

  “Radu Bey?” Isolde asked. Despite herself, her feet moved a little as if they would dance, even without music.

  “That’s the one,” Freize said drily. “And Ishraq was his secret friend, though he was Milord’s sworn enemy.”

  “I never met him,” she said, as she eyed the man coming toward them, light on his feet in his black leather riding boots. “I only saw him from the inn windows. Are you sure it’s him?”

  “There can’t be too many like him,” Freize remarked. “I would swear it is the same man. He’s said to be a great commander of the Ottoman army, a Christian by birth, second in command to the sultan. So what’s he doing here, in this village?”

  The stranger stopped before them and made a little bow, a mere nod of his head, then turned to the rabbi and put his hand on his heart and made an obeisance.

  “Are you Radu Bey?” Freize said bluntly. “For I think we have already met.”

  The stranger turned to him and took in the stocky truculence of the young man, the dirt on his clothes and the exhaustion in his face.

  “We’ve met,” he said shortly. “But you were then in better times.”

  “Oh,” said Freize. “I’ve had all sorts of times since then. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you. But I think perhaps you have too. When we met, you were a slave trader on a great slaving galley with maps and knowledge of the stars and a wicked ship with a great spike in the prow. You dined with my master, Luca, and I think you crept into our house at midnight and pinned your badge on the heart of his lord to show him that you could have killed him while he slept. Am I right?”

  Radu Bey inclined his head in assent, smiling slightly.

  “A threat,” Freize said. “To Luca’s lord.”

  “Say more a jest, a family joke.”

  “So what d’you call yourself now?” Freize demanded.

  “Still a trader,” Radu Bey said, with a smile to Isolde that almost seemed to ask her to forgive such a transparent lie. “And I was never a slave trader—I was not slave trading when you saw me. I was traveling on my own galley.”

  “As I remember, it wasn’t rowed by free men,” Freize said sharply.

  “No,” Radu Bey replied. “My crew were slaves, of course. I have no great interest in the freedom of infidels.”

  “And are you a Jew now?” Freize asked rudely.

  “Freize!” Isolde exclaimed.

  “I was born a Christian, but I converted. I am now a Muslim. I honor the Jewish faith, as anyone must who loves scholarship. We are all People of the Book.”

  “You must forgive us both,” Isolde interrupted. “We have been in danger and very afraid. We are in terrible trouble now. I was going to ask you a great favor.”

  Radu Bey bowed his head. “I am bound to help a lady who seeks my help,” he said formally. “What may I do for you?” he asked as if he could not see the constant shifting of her feet and the red shoes stained a deeper red with her blood.

  “I want you to cut off my shoes,” she told him. “We can’t get them off. I have to be rid of them. They’re making me dance, and nobody here dares to do it. Can you cut me free?”

  “Without hurting her?” Freize added.

  Radu Bey looked doubtful. “My scimitar is so sharp that you could shave with it,” he said. “But to cut your shoes from your feet without injury? It would be easier by far to hack your feet from your legs and leave you with stumps. That would prevent you dancing, my lady! Would you risk that?”

  Isolde took a deep breath and sat down on the cobbled threshold, rested her back against the gate, stretched out her legs, and showed him her ceaselessly twitching feet. “Cut the shoes,” she said. “Try. And if you can’t do it: cut my feet off.”

  He hesitated, as if she had surprised him. “You really want me to cut off your feet?” he asked. “This is a poor joke.”

  “Cut the shoes,” she said. “If you can. But if you have to take off my feet at the ankle, then do that.”

  “The pain would be unbearable,” he cautioned her, and was surprised at the unflinching reply.

&nb
sp; “I understand that.”

  “And you would bleed badly—you might bleed to death.”

  “I am willing to take the risk. And you must bear witness that these Jewish people did not encourage me. If I die, you must put me outside their gates so they are not blamed.”

  He blinked at her uncompromising courage. “You will be a cripple,” he warned her. “You will lose your beauty and your grace. Nobody would have a footless woman for his wife.”

  “I am unlucky, it seems.”

  He exchanged one look with the stunned rabbi. “What can a young woman want more than her feet?”

  “I want to hobble back to my home and defeat my false brother and win back my castle,” she said grimly. “I want my rights more than I want dancing feet.”

  She saw in his face a sudden respect. “You would lose your feet if you could defeat your brother?”

  “Yes.”

  He gave a short laugh. “You know, I think I will do it; for my brother is my enemy too, and I know that I would pay with my feet to defeat him. But be warned, if I make a mistake by a hair’s breadth, I might kill you.”

  “I will die if I go on dancing,” she told him. “I would rather die than run after the dancers and dance till I starve to death, in shame.”

  “You have a very high opinion of your honor and your rights,” he observed.

  She did not lower her gaze with maidenly modesty. She met his eyes like an equal. “I do.”

  He measured her determination and he smiled at her. “I admire your courage,” he said quietly. “I admire your pride. And because of that, I will do what I can.”

  “Here,” said Freize. “Wait a minute. Remember, you can’t hurt her.”

  Radu Bey threw him a careless, smiling glance. “You heard her,” he said. “You heard the Christian lady. She said cut off the shoes and if I can’t—then cut off her feet. I’ll do that.”

  He turned to the rabbi. “I’ll need a couple of logs of wood to raise her feet,” he said. “So that I can swing the blade. And get the blacksmith to boil up some pitch. If I miss the shoes and slice her feet, then we’ll have to dip the wounds in pitch to seal them.”

  Freize choked on his horror. “She cannot be hurt. I swear you may not hurt her.”

  “Oh, it will be a killing pain,” Radu Bey assured him. “Do you think she has the courage?”

  Freize looked down at Isolde, who was gray-faced against the gray wood of the gate. “She has all the courage in the world, but she cannot be crippled,” he said. “You had better be sure that you can cut the shoes. If you are thinking of taking her feet off at the ankles, you must stop right now.”

  “I’ll do the best I can,” Radu Bey said, and Freize shuddered to see his dark smile. “You’ll have to trust me.”

  Freize dropped to his knees beside Isolde. “For pity’s sake, let me tie your feet together and carry you away from here,” he begged her. “Don’t let this barbarian touch you. Don’t let him draw his sword. Don’t you see he is laughing at us? Don’t you think it is a plot between him and these terrible people, so that you are crippled for life and they cannot be blamed—they can say that you asked for it?”

  Her lips were as white as her pale face. “I do ask for it,” she said, and she shuddered as if she were chilled to death already. “I do ask for it.”

  Ishraq had the peddler kneeling on the hard ground, his hands behind his back, tied to his ankles with the rope from her saddle. It was an agonizing position, and the bruise on his cheek was bleeding and throbbing with pain. “You poisoned me and sent my friend Isolde out to her death; you tell me why I should not kill you?” she asked reasonably.

  “I beg of you,” he said. “I meant only to drug you to sleep and send her ladyship out for the afternoon. She has probably returned already.”

  Ishraq did not believe him for a moment. “Will you go back to Giorgio without the sword?”

  “I have nowhere else to go; he is my master. I did not want to do this—he commands me.”

  “Tell him that if he comes against us again, we will turn in our tracks and come after him. Remind him that his sister and I are stronger and braver than he, and that we will not hesitate to shed family blood if we have to. Tell him that we are going east, to make a new life for ourselves. We have all but forgotten Lucretili. He can keep the castle; he can keep the lands. We just want to live in peace.”

  He frowned. He could not be sure whether or not he should believe her. She certainly did not look like a woman who had accepted defeat. “I’ll tell him,” he said. “But he won’t believe me. Will you send the broadsword as a sign that you give him the lordship?”

  “I will,” Ishraq said. “But first we have to get it unlocked. We have to put it with Count Vlad’s matching broadsword. When we’ve done that, we will return it to Lucretili. I swear to you, the sword will come back to Lucretili. That’s why we’re going east. To find the new Wallachian count and match swords together.”

  “I will tell him,” he promised. “I swear I will tell him all this.”

  “Convince him,” she urged. “You don’t want to meet me again, and I will remember you, even if it is years from now.”

  “Of course, of course. I will never come for you again, I will persuade him to leave the two of you alone.”

  She nodded.

  “So we have an agreement?” he proposed. “You let me go now, I tell him that you are going into exile, and you send back the broadsword.”

  She hid her smile. “I might bring it myself,” she said so lightly that he did not hear the threat.

  She got to her feet and went to his horse and untied the fastenings on his saddlebags. There were little purses of jewelry, scraps of lace, ribbons, and carved ivory toys. There were Isolde’s riding boots.

  “You stole these?” Ishraq turned with them in her hand. “Her own boots?”

  “To prove to Giorgio she was in dancing shoes,” he said.

  Ishraq brought out a pair of red shoes. “And these?”

  “In case the others did not fit tightly.”

  “You made her think they would force her to dance,” she said wonderingly. “I’ve seen a snake charmed out of its box and dancing. You did that to her.”

  He nodded and then stilled himself as his head swam. “If you’ve seen it done, then you know—it can be done to anyone who is ready to believe.”

  “Why did you not do it to us both?”

  He looked resentfully at her. “They told me you were not easily persuaded.”

  She laughed shortly. “But what made the other dancers leave their homes? The ones we saw with the fiddler? Someone like you? Making mischief?”

  “No, they do it to themselves—they convince themselves,” he said. “They hear of dancers and they long for escape from their own lives. You’ll have heard that someone heartbroken can lie down and die, die without a mark on them? They wish it on themselves. All I did with Lady Isolde was wish it on her.”

  “It’s in their own minds?” Ishraq asked, thinking what Luca would want to know.

  “Like miracles and seeing angels,” he said sourly. “Everyone knows you can do that for wishing. Like seeing monsters when you’re drunk.”

  Ishraq tipped out his pack, kicked the things around on the ground, not touching them with her hands, ignoring his squawks of protest. She tucked Isolde’s riding boots back into his saddlebags, but tipped out his purse of coins and threw it in an arc, as far as she could, the purse turning in the air, spilling coins as it fell.

  “Infidel! Lady! Why rob me as well as injure me?”

  “Because anyone rescuing you will stop to pick up the gold,” she explained. “I expect you will scuffle around in the dust for the money as soon as you are freed. I don’t want you following me again.”

  “I would not,” he protested. “I hope to never see you again.”

  “You should hope it,” she said. “You should make sure of it. For if we meet again it will be the last errand you run for Giorgio. I have been
merciful this time—you won’t get a second chance.”

  “I know it, I know it,” he said. “We have an agreement. And you will untie me?”

  “No,” she said. “I’ll leave you as you are. You’ll get out of your bonds in an hour or so, I should think, or someone will come by tonight or tomorrow. But I will say farewell to you here, and remind you to never come after Isolde, or me, ever again.”

  “You can’t leave me here! Wounded? And tied up?”

  She smiled without humor, her eyes cold, her face hard. “As you wish, of course. If you prefer, I can just kill you.”

  “No! No! Gracious lady. But you would loosen the ropes?”

  As her answer she swung into the saddle of his horse, and took the reins of her own to lead him.

  “My horse!” he moaned.

  “Why don’t you will yourself free?” she suggested. “Five, four, three, two, one!” She laughed at his angry face. “Goodbye, Poisoner.”

  Freize and Isolde waited in frightened silence as the blacksmith came down the street with a smoking bucket of boiling pitch. The dark stench of it smelled of the winds of hell. The Ottoman swordsman stood beside them in silence, nodding his head thoughtfully as if rehearsing something in his mind. Someone had brought a stool for Isolde to sit on, and two sturdy logs of wood, which they placed under each of her legs. One of the guards helped her to sit on the stool as Freize stood, appalled, beside her. The guards positioned the logs under each calf, her ankles sticking out to give the Ottoman a clear sweep.

  “Please. Tell him no,” Freize muttered.

  Isolde shook her head. He could see her teeth were clenched, biting her lower lip. She was very pale.

  “Hold her shoulders still in case she faints,” Radu Bey ordered. Freize stood behind her and put his hands on Isolde’s shoulders. He could feel a constant slight tremble running through her, like a trapped animal that shivers on every breath.

  “No,” said Radu Bey shortly. “Not like that. You need to hold her so tightly that she can’t move at all. Kneel down behind her. Get a good grip of her.” He looked at Freize’s gray face and grim expression and nearly laughed out loud. “Wrap your arms round her and hold her tight as a lover,” he recommended. “I promise, you don’t want her to shy away and me to miss my stroke.”

 
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