Dark tracks, p.19
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       Dark Tracks, p.19
 

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  “He says that he has to try.”

  “Where are we to go?” Isolde asked. “Back to the inn?”

  “Yes, I’ll go with you, see you safely inside, and then come back for Luca and Brother Peter.”

  Ishraq took a look at the men, who set up a great growl of a cheer as some fat roasted chickens and a big bowl of butter and gravy were brought to their table. “Let’s go,” she said. “Perhaps they’ll eat themselves sick.”

  “I’m sure that’s the intention,” Isolde said.

  Ishraq helped Isolde onto her horse and mounted her own, but was surprised as Freize handed her the reins to his horse, Rufino. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “Freize, we have to go now.”

  “One moment,” he said, and turned back to the rabbi’s house. He knew the front door was barred, so he tapped on the shutters and they opened a crack and the rabbi’s wife, Sarah, peered out.

  “I am sorry,” Freize said awkwardly. “Forgive me. I am afraid of something, afraid for you. When we came to your town, I think we brought a Being in with us, and I think he is in your rooms upstairs.”

  Sarah looked at him as if she could not understand his speech. “A Being,” Freize said again, feeling more and more of a fool before her dark, frightened gaze. “A great, growing boy.”

  She looked at him as he struggled to explain. “He spoke Hebrew to the gateman,” he said. “On his forehead is the word ‘EMET.’ ”

  She knew that word—he could tell by the flicker of recognition in her eyes. She did not speak, but opened the shutter wide and swung open the window behind it in a silent invitation. Freize pitched himself in over the windowsill headfirst and scrambled to his feet. Inside the darkened house, she stood to one side and gestured that he might go up the twisting stairs to the upper floor. Freize bent his head beneath the low beams and climbed up.

  The first room that he came to was a bedroom with a broad bed, piled high with feather mattresses and clean white linen sheets. On the doorway was the mezuzah. Freize looked at it without understanding, thinking it was some kind of pagan icon that might poison him if he went through the door; but he ducked his head and went past it, his neck prickling. The only furniture in the plain room was a chest at the foot of the bed. Certainly, there was no place that the giant Being could hide.

  The rabbi’s wife crossed the room ahead of him and showed him the smooth, unbroken linenfold paneling on the wall. Freize tapped on it, but it did not yield and it did not sound hollow. He looked at Sarah and, with a little smile, she stepped to one side and pressed her foot down on a floorboard. There was a tiny click, and a hidden doorway in the panels swung open.

  It looked like nothing more than a cupboard. Any searcher might conclude that it was a hiding place for treasure, or for a single man to stand still and silent, and that they had found all there was to discover. Sarah went into the small space and pressed an unmarked place on the ceiling, and all at once it slid back and a wooden ladder descended on a pulley. She gestured that Freize might go up.

  Slowly, he climbed through the hatch into the attic and found that it adjoined the roof vault of the next-door synagogue. The women and the children of the village were hiding here, seated, holding each other, in complete silence in the darkness. As Freize’s head slowly emerged through the open hatch, their faces turned toward him, but nobody said a word. Freize took in the golden-skinned, dark-eyed faces of a dozen children, the blaze of treasure of the case holding the scrolls of the Torah, the beautiful brocade cover, the silver yad, the rolls of the sacred texts, the golden menorah, and before it all, on guard, his head brushing the very top of the steeply sloping rafters, unsmiling and silent, was the Being.

  On his forehead, shining as if in gold, were the letters that Freize had seen on the head of the little Being in the glass jar in the alchemists’ room in Venice: EMET.

  Freize’s compassion for the strange Being overcame his superstitious fear. “I saw you at the window,” he explained. “And you saved us last night. Thank you. So I came to tell you: there’s going to be trouble. You might not be safe here.”

  He looked around at the little dark heads of the children, at their trusting faces and the dark eyes fixed unblinkingly on him. “I’ll come back,” he said, as if the words were being forced from him. “I’ll come back for you.”

  He reached out for two of the nearest children. “I’ll take two now,” he said.

  Silently, as they had promised their parents they would be silent, they yielded themselves to him, and, one under each arm, he went carefully backward down the ladder, through the hidden door, across the bedroom, and down the stairs. The rabbi’s wife saw him lift them through the window and squeeze through the opening himself. She said nothing, but watched him from the window as he put one child on the horse behind Isolde and one child on the horse behind Ishraq, then drew their long riding capes down over the children to hide them. As Freize mounted Rufino, he heard the shutter slam and bolt.

  The gateway stood wide open: there was no point in securing the village with Lord Vargarten inside. Its safety would depend on his whim, not on its defenses. Ishraq led the way through the open gates with Isolde alongside her, Freize bringing up the rear. The soldiers glanced up indifferently as they passed. Ishraq felt the silent child’s arms tighten round her waist and spurred her horse onward. Freize glanced back. All the shutters were barred; all the doors were bolted. It was so quiet and it felt so doomed, he thought, that it was like a town with the plague.

  Once through the gate, the girls rode side by side, letting the horses walk up the stony path to the forest and then urging them forward in a canter where the track was smooth.

  “As long as we don’t meet the fiddler,” Isolde said.

  “I think he would have no power over you now,” Ishraq said. “It was the peddler who persuaded you that the shoes would make you dance.”

  “It felt like the music.”

  “It was a trick of the wits, by the peddler. He was hired by Giorgio to kill me, to get rid of you, and to steal the sword.”

  “And he poisoned you?” Isolde demanded. “On my brother’s orders?” She looked grim. “I will never forgive Giorgio for this,” she said. “I knew he was my enemy before—I had sworn to recapture my lands from him—but to poison you! You could have died. We could both have died. I will see him dead at my feet for this.”

  Ishraq told her friend that she had been in a deep sleep, perhaps a faint, very like death, but Luca had brought her round. She did not say how; she did not describe their tranced night of joy together. She thought that she would never tell anyone—she would never even think of it herself. Luca would never speak of it to her; even now, it felt like a dream, part of the deathlike experience: too strange and too secret ever to be spoken of.

  “He held you?” Isolde asked.

  Ishraq glanced sideways at her friend, looking for signs of jealousy, but saw none. It was as if they had all been too close to death to worry about anything but their survival. “He warmed me through,” she said. “He breathed for me. Truly, I think he brought me back to life.”

  “Thank God he was there and knew what to do,” Isolde said. “Think if he had not searched the inn for you?”

  “He and Freize saved each of us,” Ishraq said. “We owe them our lives.”

  “And, as well, I owe my life to Radu Bey,” Isolde told her.

  “No!” Ishraq exclaimed. “What was he doing here?”

  Isolde told her how Radu Bey had appeared in the village and saved her from the red shoes, how he had lifted his scimitar and whirled down on the shoes, that she had felt the wind of the blade as he slashed it down but nothing but the sudden cool on her feet as the shoes fell off.

  “And did he just cut them off and leave?” Ishraq wondered. “Did he say what he was doing here in the first place? Did he say anything about the fools’ gold and Luca’s father in slavery?”

  “No,” Isolde said. “I should have asked him. I just couldn’t think. He was
. . .” She broke off.

  “He was what?” Ishraq asked her.

  “He was a lord,” Isolde said, incapable of finding words to describe the presence of Radu Bey, his quiet power. She said nothing about the stranger’s claim that her father had converted to become a Muslim, and had been married to Ishraq’s mother. She said nothing about her own furious denial. She felt she was not ready to tell Ishraq that all the time that her father had brought them up together, he might have known they were half sisters. She had to consider what she was to her father, and he to her, if he could have raised her with a sister and never told her. She did not know what to think if her father had died without telling her that he had another daughter, or if he intended her to be considered as the coheiress to the Castle of Lucretili. Isolde did not think she could possibly claim the castle for herself if Ishraq had some sort of right. She could never disinherit Ishraq. But equally she knew she would never hand over Lucretili to another, not even Ishraq.

  “But what was he doing here?” Ishraq wondered. “You don’t think he followed us? You don’t think he is tracking Luca, hoping to turn him to work against his lord and the Order of Darkness?”

  “They said he was trading,” Freize volunteered, coming alongside them.

  “That’s not very likely, is it?” Ishraq pressed. “He didn’t look like a small trader when we first saw him on his great galley. He said he was exploring the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire with old maps. He’s probably doing that on land now.”

  “Spying?” Isolde suggested. “Obviously, the Ottomans are planning to advance from the east into all these towns and villages. They hope to take over all of Christendom—he said as much. Their army will be coming this way if we don’t stop them; perhaps Radu Bey was learning the lay of the land. He told me that they hope to get to Rome.”

  Ishraq nodded. “They must plan to take Rome. They have Constantinople—it is the next obvious objective. And that is one of the signs of the end of the world.”

  “He knows of Count Vlad,” Isolde said quietly.

  “He would do: the count has led one of the few armies that can stand against them.”

  “He spoke of him with hatred.”

  “Did he?” asked Ishraq. “He warned me too when we talked at Piccolo. And he warned me against a man who looked as much like him as a twin brother.”

  “Shall we canter?” Freize suggested. He was anxious to return to Luca and get him safely away from the village.

  The two girls pressed the little children closer to their backs, tightened the little arms around their waists, and put their horses at a fast pace down the dusty track. With relief, Freize saw the jumbled roofs of the town of Mauthausen and the guarded gate.

  “Here,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to see a poor inn before. Please God I will be back in time for my dinner.”

  The landlady had returned only a little earlier, walking slowly on painful feet. She was in her bedroom resting, but her daughter had come from her farmhouse outside the town and was running the inn.

  The girls dismounted wearily in the stable yard. Freize turned his horse. “I’ll go and fetch Luca and Brother Peter and meet you back here,” he said to them.

  “Make sure you do,” Ishraq said to him with a smile. “I won’t feel safe until we are all under the same roof again.”

  “I won’t feel safe till we are far from here,” Isolde said.

  “I don’t ever feel safe.” Freize capped their complaints. “Why don’t we all go home and wait for the end of days, comfortably, in our own beds?”

  Isolde laughed. “Godspeed,” she said, reaching up and lifting the child down from the saddle.

  The ostler recoiled when he saw them. “I don’t think the mistress will let these come in,” he said, taking the horses’ reins. “I’d better tell her.”

  He tapped at the kitchen door and said a few words to the young woman who appeared, her hair pinned up and her face flushed from baking.

  “Who are these?” she demanded, stepping out into the yard and looking from one child to another. The youngest one, a boy, shrank back from her stare and took Ishraq’s hand.

  “These are children from the village,” Isolde said. “We are taking care of them. Lord Vargarten’s men are there, so they are safer with us.”

  The woman made a disdainful face. “Jews,” she said flatly.

  Ishraq pulled back her hood and unwound her scarf from her face so that the landlady’s daughter could see the tumble of her black hair and her olive skin. “And my mother was Arab,” she said challengingly. “What of it?”

  The woman looked embarrassed. “My mother was happy to serve you and your traveling companions, but the children could carry a sickness,” she said awkwardly. “They have all sorts of diseases, these people.”

  “They are not sick,” Isolde overruled her. “I am the Lady of Lucretili and they are under my protection. They will sit with me, in my rooms, and dine with me tonight. I hope they will be able to return to their families when the village is at peace again. I hope you will cook a good dinner for all of us: my friends when they return, and these children. We will pay a fair price, and I will talk with your mother in the morning. She and I went through a terrible ordeal together. I know that she will understand.”

  “No, it’s you who don’t understand,” the young woman said. “We’re not allowed to take them in, even if we wanted to. They’re not allowed to come into our houses. It’s for their own safety. We have to live apart.”

  “Your mother locked out the dancers, but then she danced with them,” Ishraq said. “She was no better than any of them. If someone is ill, they should be cured; if they are mad, they should be cared for. If they are children—whoever their parents are—they should be safe. You’re not a human being if you don’t know that.”

  “Well, they’re not coming into my kitchen.”

  Isolde raised her eyebrows, at her most grand. “Of course not,” she said. “They are not servants to wait at the table. They are my guests. There is no call for them to go to the kitchen. And I am sure that they are allowed in a house if I vouch for them.”

  “Very well,” the woman said grudgingly. “But if you had to live near the Jews and see their wealth and their prosperity, when we know that they killed Our Lord, you would feel as I do.”

  “They’re little children,” Ishraq exclaimed. “The children of good people. How can they be blamed for a crime that happened a thousand years ago?”

  “Was it so long? It wasn’t a thousand years,” the ostler suddenly remarked. “It cannot have been, for the priest speaks of it as if it were only the other day.”

  Ishraq looked at him thoughtfully. “It was more than a thousand years ago, and the Jews have been in exile for hundreds of years. And it was thousands of miles away from here. Did you not know that?”

  “In the Holy Land,” he blustered. “Of course I know that. Did I not start off on crusade myself when Lord Vargarten called us? Was I not going to Jerusalem with my friends?”

  “Didn’t get beyond Amstetten,” the young woman sneered. “Did nothing but attack the synagogue at Amstetten, kill all the Jews and steal their treasures.”

  “A crusade against the infidel,” he said firmly. “Here or the Holy Land, it is the same thing. It’s still blessed. I am still forgiven my sins for going. Amstetten or Jerusalem, it’s the same to the Holy Father. It’s still killing Jews and Arabs and anyone who is not of the True Faith, so it’s blessed work.”

  “It’s not the same thing,” ruled Isolde, the daughter of a crusader lord. “It’s not the same thing at all.”

  “And how can you be so certain that your faith is better than anyone else’s?” Ishraq demanded. “Since your Bible is the same as theirs, and since Jesus Christ is in the Koran?”

  The ostler and the young woman looked uncertain. “Priest said so,” the young woman said. “And Josef was just following orders.”

  In the Jewish village, Lord Vargarten had
completed his dinner and washed it down with a flagon of wine when he beckoned the rabbi to the table. “I’ll take my lads away before they become too boisterous,” he promised. “There’s no need for you all to hide in the woodstores and tremble this time. But I must give them something, you know.”

  The rabbi bowed his head. “You know we are a poor farming village,” he said.

  “Don’t lie—you trade as well. You have a fortune tucked away somewhere.”

  “We trade as we can, but at the moment we have more notes of debt than we have gold to lend. We will be repaid after the harvest has come in. That’s why we pay your taxes then, my lord. As you know.”

  “Of course I know!” his lordship said irritably. “Tell me something I don’t know. What do you have in your storeroom?”

  The rabbi looked surprised. “Flour, a little sugar, some spices, some dried fruits . . .”

  “Not that store!” Lord Vargarten raised his voice and the men at the dining table beyond the gates looked up, like hounds hearing the hunting horn. “Your treasure room, your gold store.”

  The rabbi spread his hands. Luca saw that they were trembling slightly. “I don’t keep a treasure store,” he said. “I wish that I did. I lend money out, and that in only small amounts, as your lordship knows. When your lordship needs a large sum of money I borrow it from my brethren.”

  “Why, how much do I owe you?” Lord Vargarten demanded in sudden irritation. “Let’s see your debt book if there is no treasure to be had.”

  “Let’s see the debt book!” someone repeated from the soldiers’ table, and a man got to his feet, kicked his stool out of the way, and came in through the gate toward the lord’s table. The rabbi rose to his feet and went into his house using a side door.

  “Lord Vargarten, we have no quarrel with the people of this village,” Luca reminded him quietly. “You came to free the Lady of Lucretili from the dancers and you have done that magnificently. All you need do now is finish your dinner and leave.”

  “You don’t know,” his lordship said, fixing his eyes on Luca’s face. “Priest, you are too young and you know nothing of the world. I owe a small fortune here, probably several small fortunes. And of course they have to reward me for driving the dancers from their door. What would have happened if we had not arrived?”

 
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