Dark tracks, p.18
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       Dark Tracks, p.18
 

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  “I will help Him.” Lord Vargarten laughed, his voice thick. He turned to the gateman, high on the tower beside the gate, looking anxiously down at them.

  “Your lordship is welcome to our poor village,” he said, his voice a nervous thread. “Most welcome. What can we do for you?”

  “You can open the gates!” Lord Vargarten shouted.

  “Your men?”

  “They’ll stay outside for now.”

  There was a low murmur from the Vargarten men as if they had been looking forward to galloping down the main street; but the lord did not even turn his head to them.

  “I’ll open them,” the gateman promised, and ducked down behind the wall. They could hear him struggling with the great beam that barred the gates shut, and then one of the gates swung open wide enough to admit only one horseman, as if he hoped to slam it shut after his lordship.

  “Fool,” Lord Vargarten said. He rode into the village with Luca following close behind him.

  Brother Peter waited for the dancers to limp past him, back along the road to Mauthausen, and then mounted his horse. Riding slowly, trying to look unconcerned but painfully conscious of the stares of the Vargarten men, he set his horse to walk down the road, leading the other two horses. The soldiers watched him come, recognizing him as the old priest who had failed to bring the dancers to their senses.

  “Let me through,” Brother Peter said steadily to the first of the men. “I wish to see Lord Vargarten. My brother in Christ, Brother Luca, an Inquirer of a Holy Order, is with him.”

  The troop drew their horses to one side to let Brother Peter pass. “Tell him to send us out some dinner,” one of the men said in an undertone. “Tell them we are thirsty.”

  The captain of the troop rapped on the wooden panels of the gates and shouted: “Gateman!”

  At once, the gatekeeper slid back a panel and glared through a grille. “A visitor for his lordship,” the captain said.

  The gateman, seeing Brother Peter riding determinedly toward him, scowled and opened the gate for him. Brother Peter, shrinking from the gaze of the Jewish man as if it carried a pestilence, rode toward Lord Vargarten and Luca.

  Ishraq rode at a canter on the smooth track, slowing to a walk only when the ground was rough. By the afternoon, she had crossed the River Danube and was on the quay of Mauthausen, before the barred quay gate.

  “Why’s the gate shut?” she demanded of the gateman.

  “Lord Vargarten’s orders, in case the dancers return,” he replied.

  “They might return?”

  “He went out after them this morning, with his mounted guard,” the man said. “They’ve joined with the Jews as one wickedness loves another. His lordship will kill them all, as he would knock down a wasp nest, or burn out a brood of rats.”

  “But the Lady of Lucretili is not with the dancers,” Ishraq demanded. “Surely she has returned with her friends?”

  “Not her. She danced off with them to the Jews. You’ll not see her again.”

  “Let me in!” Ishraq said shortly, and led both horses through the town to the stable yard of the inn. The stableman was lounging in the yard.

  “Take my horse and see that it is rubbed down and turned out to grass,” Ishraq said shortly, handing over the reins.

  “The mistress has come home exhausted, and gone to bed. Tired out by dancing,” he told her.

  “And the young lady?”

  “Still with the dancers, or run off with the Jews now,” he said, relishing the scandal. “But his lordship will destroy them all, for sure.” He took the reins of her horse, but did not interrupt his story. “They’re as bad as each other: Jews and dancers. Both strange, both unruly, both unknown, both responsible for plague and hunger and danger, though who knows how?” He glanced at Ishraq’s dark face. “Infidels,” he said. “Other.”

  Ishraq turned away from his insults, mounted the horse she had stolen from the peddler, and rode out of the stable yard, through the north gate as fast as she could down the road. When she went past the lane that led to Lord Vargarten’s castle, she could see the tracks of many horses on the mud of the road, and when it turned a corner and she came out from the trees she could see the road winding down the steep slope to the river, the bridge, and the village with the mounted soldiers waiting before it.

  She set her horse down the slope, and rode past the men without a glance at them though they loudly remarked on her Arab dress and on the great crusader sword in the sheath at her saddle. “Admit me,” she said imperiously to the gateman, who swung open the gate without hesitation.

  As soon as she was through, she saw Luca, and Brother Peter, dismounted from their horses, talking earnestly to Lord Vargarten, who sat at his ease, high on his horse, above them.

  “You’re safe!” Luca exclaimed.

  “Yes,” she said shortly, as if it were of no importance. “Where is Isolde?”

  “Safe too. God be praised, these people gave her refuge,” Luca answered. He turned to the rabbi. “This is our traveling companion, Ishraq, the friend of the Lady of Lucretili.”

  “You will want to see her,” the rabbi guessed. “She’s in my house. She is quite unhurt. She insisted on coming into our village and promised we would not be punished for giving her refuge. You can go straight in.” He gestured to a house that stood adjoining the synagogue, in the middle of the square, facing the gate. “She has been perfectly safe,” he said to Lord Vargarten. “She will tell you herself. We rescued her from the dancers and we have not touched her. She came into the village at her own request. She begged for entry.”

  “Christians and Jews have to live apart,” Lord Vargarten ruled. “It’s the law. You’ve broken the law. You’ll be fined.”

  The rabbi bowed his head. “Your lordship knows that Christians come and go here and everywhere, as they wish. How can we stop them? We’re not allowed to bar a door to them.”

  “I’ll find her,” Ishraq said. She jumped down from her horse, handed Brother Peter her reins, threw a quick smile at Luca, and went to the house where the door stood open, tapped on it, and went inside.

  She blinked as her eyes became accustomed to the shadowy room. At first glance she could see that it was not a Christian room, but Ishraq had seen the beautifully ornate interiors of the Moorish houses of Spain and it did not frighten her. Unlike Christian houses there was no little icon on the wall, nor a candle before a crucifix. Instead there was a sideboard with some silver cups and a silver plate marked with symbols around the rim, and a beautiful, many-branched candelabra with pure white wax candles unlit.

  Isolde was seated on a stool before the cold fireplace, her feet in a bowl of water, a woman kneeling before her, sponging the bruises and scrapes on her battered feet. She looked up as she heard the door open and the relief on her face shone as she recognized Ishraq.

  “Ishraq!” she said. “My love. Thank God it’s you.”

  “Sister,” Ishraq replied. She took two swift steps across the room and wrapped Isolde in her arms, kissing her head and stroking her blonde hair. “I was afraid I would never see you again.”

  Eagerly, Isolde pulled Ishraq down so that their two heads, one very dark and one very fair, were level. “And you? Are you quite safe? Luca said that the peddler put you to sleep, but that you had gone after him?”

  Ishraq paused for a moment, thinking of the night of unconsciousness, and the dark swim out of death, thought of waking with Luca’s arms around her, waking to lovemaking and wanting to never let him go, then the breakneck ride after the peddler, the stone to his face, and holding him down on the road with her heel in his back.

  “So much to tell you! The earrings were poisoned, and I fell unconscious on the landlady’s floor. I didn’t come round till morning, and found you were gone. That was terrible. The peddler stole your broadsword, so Luca went after you, and I went after the thief and got it back. Are your feet all right? Are you very hurt?”

  “Just bruised, just scratched. It was as if I
was mad; but I’m in my right mind now.”

  “What happened?”

  “It was the shoes. . . .”

  The woman kneeling at her feet moved the bowl to one side and started to pat Isolde’s feet dry. “This lady has soaked my feet with some herbs,” Isolde said. “She has been very kind.”

  “I have your riding boots in the saddlebags,” Ishraq said. “I’ll get them.”

  She went out into the brightness of the village street and at once sensed a change in the air. The street was deserted, the shutters all barred, every door locked. Only the door to the rabbi’s house behind her was still open, and, as she looked uneasily round, that closed quietly behind her and she heard the lock click.

  She went to the horses and found Freize waiting with them. “Freize,” she said, and there was love in her voice. “I am so glad you are safe. I am so glad you went after her. I am so glad that you were with her. I knew she would be safe if she was with you.”

  His eyes were warm on her, but he looked anxious. “I don’t know if we’re that safe now,” he said quietly. “It’s gone very quiet here, and his lordship keeps saying that they must be punished for saving us. They won’t listen to me. Is she able to ride? We should leave.”

  “What’s happening?” she whispered, undoing the leather straps on the bag and pulling Isolde’s boots from the bundle.

  “Lord Vargarten is walking down the street, talking with the rabbi. Demanding to know what happened with us and the dancers. Whatever the rabbi answers, Lord Vargarten says that he has broken some rule or other and that the village has to pay for it. I’ve tried to tell him that they gave us sanctuary here, that we would be dead without them, but he won’t hear me, he won’t even listen to Luca. Now he’s called for them to set up a table in the square and to serve him dinner and pay him money. Luca is arguing, but the lord is beyond reason.”

  Freize looked baffled and furious. “I know they’re Jews,” he muttered. “I understand that they cannot be treated like Christians. But they saved our lives. They saved us from the dancers and they helped get the shoes off Isolde’s feet. It’s wrong that they should be punished.”

  “Is that why all the doors are bolted?”

  He nodded. “All the girls and women vanished the minute Vargarten came in the gate. They know what’s going to happen and they just melted away. Looks as if they don’t think a dinner and a tax will be enough for the lord and his men. Looks like they’re expecting worse.”

  “Then we’d better go.” Ishraq’s first thought was of Isolde.

  “Yes,” Freize said bluntly. “We can’t stop Lord Vargarten’s men doing whatever they want to this poor village, and we’re better out of this. Luca is talking with him now, trying to agree on a fair price for their fine, but his lordship has sent for wine and is drinking. I doubt he’ll listen to reason.”

  Freize hesitated.

  “What?” Ishraq asked. “What is it?”

  “D’you remember the Being?” he asked her. “The funny little thing? That came from the alchemists’ jar? The thing that we never quite saw?”

  She nodded as if she did not want to say its name. “Yes. I remember it, though I only glimpsed it when it came after us on the road. Have you seen it again?”

  “He followed me as I followed Isolde,” he whispered rapidly, anxious to tell her. “He was in the shape of a youth then. All along the road he followed me, as I followed the dancers, growing all the time until he was taller, as tall as me, then overtopping me by a head. Growing stronger too. Strong like a horse.”

  She shook her head. “Freize, this isn’t possible.”

  “I know it isn’t; but I saw it. I was watching Isolde as she slept among them, on the ground like a poor woman, and he crept up on them, when they were sleeping, and lifted her up like she was a child. It was he who got her away—it wasn’t me. I was helpless, and then I started dancing myself, so I was no better than any of them. I would be off with them now, but he got hold of me. He had Isolde in one arm and me in the other. He saved us both. Truly he did, Ishraq.”

  “He saved you?” she queried. “But how?”

  “Ishraq, he was grown. Much taller and stronger than me. He wasn’t a youth anymore. God knows he wasn’t a lizard. He got hold of both of us, his arm round Isolde’s waist, hand in mine, dragged us to this place, the only place that we might be safe. They had the gates bolted shut, they wouldn’t open, but the Being shouted some strange words.”

  “What words?”

  He shrugged. “Foreign words. Magic words. I don’t know. Perhaps a password? Their words, Hebrew words, they said. But they opened the gates the moment they heard them and we fell inside and then he disappeared.”

  “Disappeared?”

  “Slipped away,” he said. “We were in a bad state: I was still dancing; Isolde was collapsing. I didn’t even see him go.” He thought for a moment. “I didn’t even see him come in, but I thought he did. When we looked around, he was gone, and the gateman had not seen him.”

  She was pale. “So where is he now?” she demanded.

  Silently, as if he could not bear to speak, Freize nodded back to the rabbi’s house. “That’s what’s worrying me. I think I just saw him,” he said. “At the upper window. I think he closed the shutters. I think he is upstairs.”

  Ishraq made a little frightened sound and turned and stared at the smart, brightly painted house with the tightly closed shutters. “Isolde is downstairs,” she said. “And that thing is up there?”

  “Let’s get out of here,” he said with a nod. “Let’s get her away.”

  “Do you think we have brought the Being down on them? Should we warn them? Should we tell Lord Vargarten?”

  Freize looked blank. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know anything anymore. Did he save us by bringing us here, or did he bring us to them? Has he trapped us here? Is he as bad as they are said to be? Are they holding us as prisoners? Should we ask Lord Vargarten to get us out before he does anything else?”

  “We’ve got to get out. I’ll fetch Isolde.” Ishraq turned and hurried back to the house with the riding boots in her hand.

  She tapped on the door and called: “It’s only me—let me in.”

  The door swung open. Ishraq stepped inside as the rabbi’s wife closed and bolted it behind her.

  “Are you afraid of Lord Vargarten and his men?” Ishraq asked her.

  The woman nodded. “They are brutes,” she said quietly.

  “Are you going to hide?”

  “We can’t take you with us into hiding,” the woman said at once. “I am sorry, but you cannot come. They would say that we had stolen you away and burn down the village to rescue you.”

  “I know, I know,” Isolde said. “We’ll go now. We’ll go at once.” To Ishraq she said: “We’re endangering her by staying here. We should go. What’s happening out there?”

  “Lord Vargarten is getting drunk and ordering dinner,” Ishraq said shortly. “Freize thinks there will be trouble. And there’s something worse. . . .”

  “What?”

  “I don’t understand it, but we should get away from here.”

  Isolde shook her head. “They say that this happens often. At Christmas, at Easter. It’s terrible, Ishraq. I didn’t know.”

  “Oh, didn’t you?” her friend countered. “Really? For I knew that Jews are feared and hated, even at Lucretili.”

  Isolde looked ashamed. “My father used to tax Jewish travelers when they passed through his lands and they were sometimes treated roughly. Sometimes their goods were stolen from them and they couldn’t get justice, I knew that. But I didn’t know that their villages were attacked. I didn’t know that their children were taken. This lady, Sarah, has told me some terrible things.”

  “We must let her get into hiding,” Ishraq said quickly. “And we must leave.”

  She knelt before Isolde and helped her pull on the riding boots. Isolde cried out in pain as her bruised feet were squeezed, but she managed t
o stand. “I’m all right,” she reassured her friend. “I can’t walk, but I will be able to ride.”

  She turned and took Sarah’s hands. “I am so sorry. I hope you are safe,” she said. “I shall pray for you.”

  Sarah bowed her head and opened the door for them. As they stepped out into the street, they heard the door close behind them, the bolt slide, and then a creaking sound as a table was dragged across the floor to block the doorway.

  Ishraq supported Isolde as she limped across the cobbles to where Freize was waiting with the horses. He beamed as he saw them together, and then glanced down the street to where Lord Vargarten was now seated at a trestle table with a jug of wine before him and men serving him food. The village gates had been opened wide and the girls could see that the soldiers outside were eating too, and drinking deeply of the special ale that the Jews brewed for their feasts. It was strong, sweet ale, brewed from hops and honey, and the soldiers called for more and more as they broke the bread and ate cheese and bellowed that the meat must be roasted by now, and if it did not come at once then they would roast Jewish babies and eat them instead. It was rough and bullying talk, but Vargarten’s men laughed as they shouted abuse, and the Jewish men did not respond, but went on bringing more jugs of ale and more bread. Luca and Brother Peter were seated on either side of Lord Vargarten, not drinking but talking quietly with him, as if they hoped that their presence would keep him calm.

  “Tell Luca we’re leaving,” Isolde said to Freize, looking at the drunken soldiers. “It’s not safe for Ishraq and me if those men get rowdy.”

  Freize handed the reins to Ishraq and went the few steps down the village street, bent to whisper into Luca’s ear, and listened to his reply.

  He came back, looking grave. “He says I am to take you away, and then come back for him. He wants to stay here till the soldiers leave.”

  “Surely he doesn’t think he can stop them? He can’t countermand their lord.”

 
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