Dark tracks, p.20
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       Dark Tracks, p.20

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  Luca fell silent.

  “The emperor himself and the Church authorize the Jewish people to deal in loans,” Brother Peter observed, as if to himself. “They are expected to take the sin of usury on themselves. They are under the protection of the emperor, and so under your protection, my lord. You would be very wrong both in the sight of the emperor and of the Church to molest them.”

  “For God’s sake, Priest, I’m not molesting them!” his lordship swore. “I’m just checking on what I owe them. I’m simply hoping to reduce my debt. That’s fair enough. I am visiting my creditor to reduce my debt, that’s all.”

  The rabbi came out of the side door of his house, closing it behind him. In the silence, they could hear the quiet shooting of the bolt from the inside.

  “And why do they do that? Why bolt the door if not to hide their treasure?” Lord Vargarten demanded irritably. “They’re hiding something in there!”

  “I am hiding nothing,” the rabbi said quietly. “But my wife is of a nervous disposition. She is afraid of your soldiers.”

  “Nothing to be afraid of! They’re just lads!”

  The rabbi laid his debt book on the table before Lord Vargarten and pointed to an entry. “This is your debt,” he said quietly. “Three months ago, and this earlier, last year. This to pay for some losses you had sustained, and this is the price of my lady’s emeralds that you asked me to obtain for you.”

  “This can’t be right!” Lord Vargarten exclaimed, looking at the total. “What interest are you charging me? This is usurious.”

  At the mention of the sinful word, a few of the young men at the table stood and settled their sword belts on their hips. One or two went to untie their horses and swung themselves into their saddles, as if they thought there might be riding or fighting to do.

  “No, not at all,” the rabbi interjected. “I charge you three percent as we agreed, but I can adjust that if you wish, my lord. Since you are here, and since this troubles you. Shall we say two point five?”

  Brother Peter looked up. “He charges you three percent?” he asked.

  “Is that unfair?” Lord Vargarten asked eagerly. “Is that not a crime?”

  “No,” Brother Peter said hastily. “I was surprised because it is so low. The Knights Templar charge twenty percent, and they have permission from the Pope himself. This is very favorable to you, my lord. You would pay far more in Vienna.”

  “What? What d’you say?”

  Luca could see at once that Lord Vargarten could not calculate his debt, did not understand the concept of percentages, could not even add the simple sums.

  “Brother Peter says it is not usurious,” he said. “He says it is fair.”

  “And why write it in heretic script?” the lord said, rounding on the rabbi. “What does it mean that you write like the infidels you are? Why not write it the proper way? One stroke of the pen means one, two means two, a gate shape means five. Everyone can understand that.”

  “Most people use the Arabic numbers now,” Luca said soothingly. “It’s easier to calculate with them than with the old system. But my lord, if this rabbi charges you only two point five percent, then you will owe him nine hundred and forty-three nobles.”

  “I can’t repay that!” his lordship exclaimed in horror. He turned to the rabbi. “Are you mad? Are you completely mad to come before me and demand this sort of money? I can’t repay that!”

  “But you don’t repay it!” the rabbi pointed out. “I don’t demand it. I never ask you to repay it. It just stays in my books and I—”

  “We can soon remedy that!” Lord Vargarten said in a rage. He grabbed the debt book by the spine and tore out the page. There was a gasp and then a cheer from his men. Brother Peter and Luca exchanged a brief look. The rabbi bowed his head, saying nothing as the lord crushed the paper into a ball and threw it at his feet.

  “Now how much do I owe?” his lordship demanded, thrusting the torn book across to Luca.

  Luca looked at the next few pages. “About six hundred,” he said.

  “Easily mended!” his lordship said joyously, and ripped out another page. “What do you think of that?”

  The rabbi glanced nervously at Lord Vargarten’s guard. More of them had mounted up and were seated on their horses, one hand on the reins, the other on their swords, waiting outside the town, the gates wide open to admit them. The rest were on their feet, standing beside the table, clearly ready to obey orders.

  “I can adjust the entire debt,” the rabbi said. “I can rewrite it to your convenience. We are grateful for your good lordship and happy to have given you a good dinner. I can alter your debt as you leave . . . as you leave . . . ,” he added quietly.

  Lord Vargarten took the book and ripped the whole volume in two, scattering the pages and laughing. He turned to his men. “You can all take one thing!” he yelled at them. “One thing only. No more than that. One thing and then back here to ride for home. As an adjustment.” He laughed loudly at his own wit. “An adjustment, as my friend the usurer here would say.”

  “Wait!” Luca said. “You can’t let them loose—”

  But the men were unleashed. Those on foot simply leaped over the dinner table and ran into the main street of the town; those on horseback spurred their horses on and followed them, jostling each other in the narrow streets, his lordship bellowing with amusement.

  “See what they get!” he shouted at Luca. “They’re such fools. See what they come back with! Ten to one it will be a cooking pot, or a coat.”

  “Stop them!” Luca implored.

  They saw a man wrenching a set of shutters open and then heard the clatter of breaking glass as he elbowed the leaded panes from the window. He plunged into the room and came out with a beautiful, many-branched candlestick.

  One of the horsemen turned his horse in a high doorway and had it lash out and kick at the door. As the door yielded, he ducked his head and rode inside. They heard a scream.

  Luca looked at Brother Peter. “How can we stop this? We have to stop it!”

  “We can’t,” said Brother Peter grimly. “We have no authority to forbid it. They are Jews, this is their punishment. We’d better just leave.”

  “We can’t go!” Luca yelled over the noise of the attack on the village, the splintering of doors, the shattering of windows, and the shouts of protest. “We brought these wolves in! We can’t just leave them here!”

  Brother Peter grabbed Luca’s shoulder. “This is not the first time,” he said urgently. “And it won’t be the last. This time we brought the men in; but they come whenever they wish. The Jewish people know this: this is what they suffer. They suffer, they endure, and then they patch everything up and continue till the next time. The Church allows this; we, the Christians, allow it. The best thing we can do is urge Lord Vargarten to get his men back with their prizes and leave.”

  “Why don’t the Jews resist?”

  Brother Peter pointed to where a man was desperately running down the street with two guardsmen thundering behind him, easily riding him down. He fell under the hooves of the horses, rolling over and over, bunched up, his face in his hands as he tried to protect his head.

  “How would they resist?” he asked. “A Jew raising a weapon to a Christian would be hanged at once, his household broken up, his children baptized and enslaved. His village would probably be burned to the ground.”

  “Why don’t they leave?”

  “And go where? Everywhere is the same for them, and they have not had a home for more than a thousand years.”

  Luca whirled on Brother Peter in a frustrated rage. “Why do we do this?” he demanded. “Why do we allow it? Why does the Church not demand that the Jews be left in peace?”

  Brother Peter nodded, thoughtful amid the noise and the chaos. “That is probably the only question,” he said. “Not why they endure it—for they have no choice—but why we do it, we who have every choice.”

  He pulled the hood of his robe over his head as if he
would hide the sights of the street from his eyes, and approached Lord Vargarten, who was standing, hands on hips, bellowing with laughter at the sight of his men running riot in the streets. The rabbi was nowhere to be seen, his book of debts ripped to pieces and the scattered pages blowing down the street.

  “Is it enough, your lordship?” Brother Peter asked calmly. “Your debts are canceled and each man has taken a prize. You don’t want to kill the golden goose, do you? You don’t want to drive them away, or fleece them to the bone.”

  “Aye, enough, it’s enough,” Lord Vargarten agreed, as if he were coming back to reality from a valorous dream. “Enough, I suppose.”

  He cupped his hands to his mouth and bellowed, “Enough! To me! To me!”

  But the men had not had enough. Two of them came reluctantly away from a nearby house, one of them lugging a bolt of carpet, the other stuffing a silver cup in the front of his jacket. But the others, running down the streets and jumping to kick in windows and running on, were out of earshot and out of control.

  “Come on.” Lord Vargarten smiled at Brother Peter and Luca and the two men who had come back to him. “Better get these varlets back into order before they wreck the place.” He mounted his horse, unsheathed his sword, and nodded at the two men. “Follow me,” he said.

  Using the flat of his sword like a flail, he rode down the street, beating his own men about the head and shoulders. His two guards rode behind him, cuffing and shouting until the men broke away from their looting and came back into some sort of order.

  “Some are still missing,” Luca said breathlessly to Brother Peter. They had run down the streets behind the horses and now stood to one side.

  There was a piercing scream from one of the alleys and Luca whirled round to see a woman desperately running from a man who chased after her, unbuckling his belt as he ran. “Leave her!” Luca yelled.

  He ran toward them both, and the woman ducked beneath his arm and dashed through a doorway. Her pursuer rounded on Luca and slammed a clenched fist into the side of his face. Luca staggered back against the wall as Lord Vargarten bellowed with weary patience: “Leave the woman, and don’t hit the priest! Are you drunk, you fool? Get your damned horse!”

  The soldier ducked his head and ran back to the gate for his horse as Brother Peter hauled Luca upright. Luca blinked as Freize, riding down the street to rescue his master, jumped down from his horse and steadied Luca.

  “Are you all right?” Freize asked. “I came back as fast as I could.”

  “It’s nothing,” Luca said. “But I’m glad you’re back. We’re trying to stop this; Vargarten is calling his men off.”

  Freize looked around at the barred doors and the reluctant drunk men, shouting and boasting and slowly coming to their lord. “I’ll go to the synagogue,” he said very quietly to Luca. “The children are hiding in the attic. See if you can get Vargarten to leave.”

  “Where are the rest of you?” Lord Vargarten was bellowing at the man who stood before his lord, shifting sulkily from one foot to another.

  “Someone said there was treasure,” he said sullenly. “Infidel treasure in their church. They went there.”

  A crashing noise and the screams of children from the synagogue made Vargarten wheel his horse around. “Come on,” he said, and rode toward the sound.

  The open door of the synagogue, banging on its hinges, showed half a dozen of the guards pushing and shoving their way up the narrow stairs that led to the women’s gallery. Lord Vargarten spurred his horse forward, right through the doorway, into the sacred space of the synagogue, and looked around at the beautifully carved wooden chairs and the central table where the scrolls would be read. Everything was polished clean and bare, but there were no candles, there were not even the sconces for candles on the walls. Everything had been taken down and hidden as soon as the warning bell had sounded for the arrival of the dancers. All the holy things—the scrolls of the Torah, the candlesticks—had been hidden with the children, in the secret attic above the women’s gallery. It had never been discovered before, but this time Lord Vargarten’s men, running along the women’s gallery, had heard a baby cry above.

  As Lord Vargarten rode up to his men, crowded on the stairs to the women’s gallery, he saw the first one hammering his battle-axe upward, breaking into the limewashed ceiling. There was a shower of plaster and a hole opened up. “There’s someone up here!” he shouted excitedly. “I heard them. Lift me up!”

  “Get a ladder!” someone yelled. But instead a dozen men lifted one of the heavy carved benches from the gallery and used it as a battering ram against the ceiling, thrusting it upward, shouting, “One! Two! Three!” until it broke through and was jammed between the floor of the gallery and the rafters of the ceiling above.

  They shouldered it into place to serve as a makeshift ramp into the attic, and the first man scrambled up the ornately carved back, pushed on by his fellows, and thrust his sweating head through the hole in the ceiling and looked around. They heard his yell of delight, and he ducked his red face down to shout: “There’s treasure up here! And the children are hiding here! And wenches!”

  “Oh Lord, come away,” Lord Vargarten said with sudden weariness. “You’ll break your necks. We’ve all got something as a reward. Leave the children and the wenches.”

  “We’ll baptize them!” the man shouted, pushing his head and shoulders into the ceiling space, quite drunk with excitement. “We’ll pull down the children and baptize them and we’ll have the women! Come on! Come on!”

  “We’ll make Christians!” another man yelled, crawling up behind him, boosted by his fellows. “Christian bastards on the Jew whores!”

  The first was hauling himself into the loft space, the second pushing him on, and their comrades behind them yelling encouragement, when there was a sudden warning shout from the first man, half in and half out of the plaster hole.

  There was a crash as the hole was suddenly widened around him, as if scooped out by a giant hand, and a massive figure, too big to be real, leaned down to look at them all. He was on his hands and knees, bending his great head over the opening, reaching toward the straining men, his eyes glaring like a beast, twice as big, three times as big as any of them. His huge face impassive, the letters on his forehead glowing like fire, he took hold of the first man by the arms and lifted him away from the hole, beyond the bench, his legs dangling. The giant swung the kicking man out over the gallery and released him without any force, dropping him from the ceiling to the stone floor below, and then he leaned out of the hole and pushed the second man firmly in the chest. The men behind screamed in fright, and then the great bench swayed as the men at the top flung themselves off, or slithered down away from the monster. But those at the bottom, who had seen nothing, still tried to force their way up, yelling, and the men on the stairs and in the gallery pushed their way upward, crushing the others.

  “Let me out! Let me down!” The man who was second on the bench was fighting his way to get down, choking on his own blood. Saliva and blood spewed from his mouth, and he held his ribs as if they were broken. “There’s a monster! A monster! A giant!”

  The men swarming up the staircase to the women’s gallery, greedy for plunder and rape, looked up at his terrified shout and saw his face, a white mask of terror, blood foaming from his mouth, screaming a warning. Behind him, terrifying in his calmness, was the great Being, who bent down and took hold of the enormous bench, as easily as if it were a plank ladder, and, standing up to his full height, twisted it and flung it down, over the women’s gallery, to the stone floor of the synagogue, two stories below.

  The half-dozen men fell with it, spilled to the floor, cracking their heads on the tiles, breaking an arm, twisting a leg, one man breaking his back. He lay there in screaming agony.

  “My God,” said Lord Vargarten, shaken into terror. “What was that thing? Did you see it?”

  Luca, horrified, looked up and saw the blank face of the Being, and behind him the
frightened faces of a score of children, crowding round to see the injured men howling on the floor. Among them, holding them back from the hole in the crumbling ceiling, arms outspread, was Freize. As soon as Freize met Luca’s eyes, he gave a little nod of reassurance, and drew the children back from the edge of the shattered ceiling into the darkness of the attic. A gentle touch by Freize to the back of the Being drew him away too, and when Lord Vargarten looked again there was nothing to be seen but the broken hole and a shower of falling plaster.

  “Priest—was that a giant?” Lord Vargarten demanded. “A monster?”

  “I saw nothing but the bench collapse under the weight of your men,” Luca said breathlessly. “My lord, that man looks as if his back is broken.”

  “This one is dead.” Brother Peter knelt beside the first man who was dropped from the ceiling, giving him the last rites in a rapid mutter. “Poor soul, he broke his neck as he fell.”

  “I saw . . . I saw . . .” Lord Vargarten stammered.

  “Terrifying,” Luca said. Those men who could get to their feet scrambled up, groaning from the pain of their fall. Some of them dragged up a comrade and limped out past Lord Vargarten into the open air. Some were too badly injured to move. “What did you see?” Lord Vargarten demanded.

  “The hand of God,” Luca announced, thinking fast. “That first man”—he gestured at the body and at Brother Peter closing his eyes—“had put his hand on the Holy Bible, stored up there, in the attic. The Jews hold it sacred, just as we do. It is our Holy Bible, and his blaspheming hand was grabbing it, oaths in his mouth. Then I saw an angel of judgment strike him down for blasphemy against the Word of God.”

  “I saw it!” Lord Vargarten exclaimed. “I saw it too! An angel! Bigger than a man, with burning eyes.”

  “Let’s get out of here,” Luca said. “Blasphemy is punished by God. You don’t want to be part of it.”

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