Dark tracks, p.4
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       Dark Tracks, p.4

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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She looked at him over her hunched shoulder. “I can’t stop. I’m called to it. Aren’t you?”

  “No. Who called you? One of the other dancers? Did they lay hold of you?”

  “Yes. Once they touched me, I was lost. But it was I who first ran after them. I wanted to dance and never stop till I died. And now, it seems, that’s what I’m doing.”

  “Don’t you have a home?”

  She shrugged. “If you’d call it that. A young gentleman like you wouldn’t stable your horse there; it’s too poor for you. But it was good enough for me for years. Long, terrible years. I had a hungry childhood and miserable years growing up. Then my children left me and I have no help in my work and no dream of the future.”

  “Can’t you go back home? Don’t you want to be with your family?”

  She laughed as if he had made a merry jest. “I’d rather dance to my death than go back there,” she said flatly.

  “And all the others? Do they feel the same?”

  “How would I know?” she said indifferently. “Why would I care? I don’t ask them, and they don’t tell me. We don’t talk—we just dance. I won’t talk any more to you.” She wrapped her tattered cloak a little closer around her and closed her eyes.

  Luca stood up and looked at Freize, who shrugged. The two of them walked to the side of the square, where a man seemed to be pleading with his daughter to come away while the dancers were resting. He had hold of her hands and was trying to pull her to her feet while she dug in her heels to keep her seat on the cold stones. He towered over her, a big brute of a man, and she was like the bent stem of a stubborn weed, resisting him.

  “I won’t go,” they heard her say.

  “But your mother orders you to come, and your brothers want you home.”

  “I can’t stop dancing,” she said impatiently. “You’ve seen me. I can’t stop.”

  “But you’ve stopped now.” Freize paused to reason with her. “Why don’t you try walking home now, while nobody is dancing and the fiddle is quiet? Your father here will help you. I’ll help you. I’ll set you on your road. We’ll walk either side of you and keep you going.”

  “I had to stop,” she said. “I couldn’t dance another step. I couldn’t do anything but sit. But as soon as I am rested, I’ll start again.”

  “Don’t you want to stop?” Luca asked her incredulously.

  “Sir, I swear she does, in her heart,” her father interrupted. “She has everything to live for. A young man to marry, her work to do—we can’t run the farm without her. And yet up she gets one morning and dances round the house, does nothing, though the cows need milking and the dairy needs cleaning and the eggs have to be fetched and the ox is lame so she has to pull the plow. But she’ll do none of this. Dances all the day and half the night and then climbs out of the window and runs after the dancers.”

  “She ran after them? They didn’t take her? She sought them out? Why?”

  The girl raised her head. Her eyes were quite blank. “Because I want to dance up a whirlwind,” she said. “I don’t care what it costs.”

  The father shrugged his shoulders. “She’s run mad,” was his only answer. “She was always a fool and now she has run mad.”

  “Did you know of the dancers before you started dancing?” Luca asked the girl directly.

  “The priest preached a sermon against them the very day before!” the man exclaimed furiously. “Said that they were a crew of sturdy beggars with runaway maids and worthless lads, led by a fiddler who tempted them into sin, coming our way, and that everyone was to shutter their windows and stop up their ears. Warned us that these were fools who did nothing but dance and drink while we have no time for anything but work. Every sensible person in the town takes the warning and closes their doors. But my foolish daughter doesn’t do as she’s told. Oh no! She knows better! She leans out of the window, looking for them, and, after they’ve gone by, up she gets and starts dancing. Runs after them, dancing all the way. Then I have to come chasing after them to find her here, in the middle of the village, dancing like a madwoman where everyone can see her, to my shame and hers. When I get her home, I shall beat her to within an inch of her life. I’ll break her legs—that’ll slow her down.”

  Freize looked shocked. “But, you old fool, why would she go home with you if she knows you’re going to beat her?”

  Luca knelt on the cobbles beside the girl. “Would you stop dancing if you were not beaten at home?” he asked. “If your life was easier?”

  She raised her head and he could see that she was thin and tired, with a dark bruise fading from one eye as if someone had taken a fist to her about a week ago. “I’ll never stop dancing,” she said quietly. “And I’ve always been beaten at home.”

  “How can you do it?” Freize asked the man. “How can you raise your hand to your own child? How can you use a little lass like this to pull a plow?”

  The man shrugged at Freize’s softness of heart. “If I have no ox, how else am I going to plow? If she is disobedient, she must be beaten. How else will she learn?”

  Freize hesitated, as if he would speak with the girl again, but then, as Luca moved away, he followed him to a group of dancers whose ragged clothes and worn shoes showed that they had been dancing on the road for weeks. One of them, a young man, looked up from the stone step as Luca came toward him.

  “Will you give us alms, sir?” he asked. “We have no money for food.”

  “Why don’t you work for money?” Luca asked him.

  “We can’t work, we can only dance,” the man said. “If you give us money, we’ll dance away to the next village and leave you in peace.”

  “Does every village pay you to leave?”

  He laughed shortly. “Of course—they’re afraid of us. They’re afraid that their children will run away with us.”

  “Then is dancing your work? Do you do it for money? Are you really beggars?”

  “No, truly we are dancers. I can’t stop myself. I’ve had the priest drag me into the church and pour the holy water on my head, but I just danced down the aisle and out of the door. Then he saw there was nothing to do but get rid of me, out of his parish. He gave me some food and made me promise that I would go away and take the dancers with me. The people here will feed us and send us on our way, if not today, then tomorrow. We’re not wanted anywhere. They’ll pay us to go. Won’t you pay us to leave now?”

  Luca shook his head. “I want to know why you started dancing.”

  The dancer rose, wincing at the pain of his blistered feet. “If I lay my hands on you, you’ll dance too,” he said. “Or would you rather give me some money for food?”

  Freize drew on all his stubborn courage and stepped forward. “This is an Inquirer of the Order of Darkness reporting to the Holy Father himself,” he said quietly. “You won’t touch him, and he won’t give you money.”

  Mockingly, the youth stretched out his hand to the very center of Luca’s chest. He pointed his finger but did not touch Luca’s thick woollen robe. “If I touch him, he’ll start dancing and not be able to stop,” he said. “And you can report that to the Holy Father, with my compliments.”

  Luca looked at him steadily, but did not step back. “Don’t threaten me,” he said gently, “for I mean you no harm. I want to know what is making you and all these people dance, and if you can be cured and go back to your lives. I am here to help you if I can. Actually, I am ordered to help you if I can.”

  The young man shrugged and abruptly sat down again. “Nobody can help us; we’re cursed,” he said. “And if I touch you, the curse will fall on you.”

  Luca was about to ask another question when a tentative patter on the drum made all the people around the square stir and look up.

  “Better get inside,” Freize said nervously. “Before they start up again.”

  “Are you afraid that we will start dancing?” Luca asked him. “Because someone clatters on a drum and scrapes a fiddle?”

  “I don’t know,” Freize said
. “And I don’t want to find out. Come on, Sparrow. There’s no point risking ourselves out here if they’re starting again.”

  Luca nodded and turned toward the inn, when out of nowhere, a fiddler sprang up and blocked their way. He was a small figure in a multicolored, ragged jacket, his fiddle under his chin, his bow laid on the strings. His gleaming smile was bright as he cocked a tattered hat and threw back his black cloak, drawing his bow across the strings with a warning wail of sound.

  “Masters,” he said ingratiatingly. “I can play you a pretty tune.”

  “Come on!” Freize said, laying hold of Luca’s arm and pulling him away, moving round the fiddler toward the inn door.

  They were too late. The drum started to sound, urgent and impelling, a rapid staccato rhythm, and the fiddler burst into a tune so lively and so exciting that every exhausted dancer on the square sprang up and started to whirl around.

  “Quickly!” Freize yelled, truly frightened, as he felt his own toes tapping to the insistent beat and the tune seemed to enter his head as if he would hear it for the rest of his life. “Come on!”

  Luca and Freize linked arms to keep hold of each other and headed for the inn door. But now, gathered in a moment to the wild whirl of sound, there was a mass of dancers, in a line, forming a chain between them and the door, and in a second, one of them had got Luca by the hands and Freize by the waist and was spinning them off into a dance. Luca twisted his hands away and tried to push his way toward the inn while Freize thrust his dancing partner away from him and dived through the crowd toward Luca.

  The inn door burst open and Isolde came out like a fighter from the sally port of a castle, her head down, her hands over her ears, a long rope tied around her waist, Ishraq uncoiling it to let her sprint through the crowd toward Luca. Playfully, the dancers pulled on it, tossing her to one side and another, but still Isolde fought her way through them, struggling to get to Luca’s side.

  Freize and Luca could not keep themselves from being swept into the pattern of the dance. One eager grabbing hand after another snatched at them, held them, turned them until they were trapped in a circle of jostling, beaming dancers; but they grabbed on to each other’s shoulders and tried to force their way toward Isolde as she battled toward them. Luca, feeling his feet wander underneath him, saw the blank brightness of the dancers’ eyes and the sharp, predatory smiles, and felt that he was being absorbed by the music, by the beat of the dance, and by his own rising desire to join in. It was like being washed over and rolled around by the currents of a mighty river, and he gripped Freize like a thrown rope as he felt himself being tugged away.

  “Freize! I’m going!”

  Freize grabbed hold of his friend, hauled him toward Isolde and the inn, and suddenly yelled in his face: “How many acres in a field five hundred feet long and seven hundred feet wide?”

  “What?” Luca demanded, and even the dancers’ feet checked as they turned and looked at Freize as they heard his extraordinary question.

  “How many acres in a field five hundred feet long and seven hundred feet wide?” he shouted. “In the new numbers.”

  Luca blinked, and as his mind went to the problem, his feet stood still. “Eight point zero three,” he said.

  “Get Isolde!” Freize yelled, and Luca, suddenly clearheaded, stretched his hands toward the girl and she grabbed him with all her strength. With Freize pushing him from behind, and Ishraq and Brother Peter heaving on the rope, they stumbled toward the door of the inn, the landlady flung it open for just a moment, and the three of them fell into the hall.

  Isolde and Ishraq slammed the door and put their backs to it as Brother Peter shot the big bolt into place.

  “The sacred Lord save me, I was moments from being lost,” Luca said, his face white, his breath coming fast. “God bless you, Freize; if you hadn’t held me, I would be out there now, dancing in a ring.”

  Freize rubbed his sweating face with his linen shirt. “God save us both,” he said. “I have never known such a thing in my life. It is as if you lose your own will, you forget yourself.”

  They could hear the beat of the drum and the insistent swirl of the tune through the closed door. Freize found his feet tapping to the music and got hold of Luca’s arm. “Let’s get into the back room,” he said, “away from the sound of that damned drum.”

  Isolde got hold of Luca’s other arm, and together they stumbled into the public room that overlooked the stable yard and smelled of old ale and horse dung. A couple of old men looked up from their horn cups as the little party came in, then turned away.

  “So education is no safeguard?” Isolde asked breathlessly.

  “And being a man doesn’t save you?” Ishraq prompted.

  Luca, panting, shook his head. “It goes past that,” he said. “It goes past your mind and your pride, straight to your feet. Your thoughts have nothing to do with it. It’s like you yourself have nothing to do with it. It’s like hearing a song in your ear; you might not know the words, but you can’t help yourself: it just gets into your ear and you sing it and it comes out in your voice, without your mind ever consenting. It’s like being possessed.” He turned to Freize. “But what did you ask me? About the acreage of a field? Why ever did you ask me that?”

  “I wanted you thinking like you always do,” Freize said. “I wanted you in your right mind, your thinking mind, your usual track. I didn’t even know if you would hear me; you were gone. But I thought if you made a calculation . . .”

  “Why, what did you ask him?” Ishraq demanded.

  “I asked him the acreage of a field five hundred feet by seven hundred feet,” Freize said.

  A slow grin spread across Luca’s face. “But why those numbers?”

  “It’s my father’s field,” Freize said. “We were hoping to sell it once. But nobody knew how big it was. We knew the length of the hedges, because we could pace them. But not how much land lay between them.”

  Ishraq put her head on one side. “If you multiply the length of the two hedges, you get the field area in square feet, and then you just have to know how many square feet in an acre.”

  Freize looked at her with warm respect. “There you go,” he said. “That’s the Moorish learning for you. But that’s the other thing we didn’t know.”

  She laughed. “What other thing?”

  “How many—what did you call them?—square feet to an acre. Even if we could have worked out the paces, we still didn’t know that.”

  Luca laughed reluctantly, recovering from his fear. “It’s 43,560,” he said. “It’s 43,560 square feet to an acre, that’s why you divide all your square feet by that number to get your acreage.”

  “Well, I never knew that,” Isolde admitted. “And I was educated to be a lord over great acres of land. I thought an acre was a team’s plow day; I didn’t realize you could measure it in feet. Freize is right, it’s Moorish learning. We talk about acres at Lucretili, but it’s just a guess; we only know that a farm is a hundred acres or a vineyard is twenty acres because everyone has always said so. Nobody actually measures it. And, of course, there is no need. Hardly anyone buys or sells land and, when they do, they know the land itself so they don’t need the measurements. They just say the name of the field.”

  Freize nodded. “We were going to sell it to a stranger,” he said. “To anyone else we would have just said we were selling the Green Field, next to the stream. Everyone knew what it was like. But he wanted to know how big it was.”

  “The Greeks were the first to calculate it,” Ishraq told them. “And then the skill was lost until the Arab philosophers translated their work. That’s when I learned it, at the Moors’ university in Spain. Where did you learn it, Luca?”

  “I was taught how to calculate as part of my training in the Order of Darkness,” he said shortly. “They kept me for months and taught me many things.”

  “But what was it like outside?” Brother Peter interrupted. “What did you think of the crowd, Inquirer? Could they
be restored by setting them riddles, like Freize did to you? Is it a question of distracting them from their dancing? What shall we report?” He had his little writing desk ready, the flap open, the ink unstoppered. He waited until Luca and the others sat down beside him at the taproom table, and then drew a page toward him and dipped the nib of his quill. “Tell me at once, while it is fresh in your minds. Did it look like a demonic possession?”

  “I don’t know,” Luca replied slowly. “I suppose it must be; I don’t know what to answer. Everyone is poor and desperate and everyone spoke of terrible homes; but they don’t seem to have been poisoned, or bitten by a spider or anything that has made them run mad.” He looked at Freize. “I didn’t see any sign of insect bites on anyone. Nobody mentioned bites, not even a mad dog.”

  Freize shook his head.

  “They don’t tell any one single story,” Luca went on. “I spoke to three of them—their circumstances were all different, except for their day-to-day misery and their desire to dance. They seem not to care if they die dancing.”

  “The first woman actually said that was what she wanted,” Freize pointed out. “The lass said she wanted to dance up a whirlwind.”

  “It’s as if they are in a trance,” Luca said thoughtfully. “Reminded me of the abbey.”

  “Belladonna?” Isolde asked. “But how would all of them eat the same poisoned herbs? They all come from different villages.”

  “Something in the water perhaps?” Luca was puzzling away. “If they come from villages all along the river? But, in that case, why not more people? Why not everyone?”

  “Do they show any marks?” Brother Peter was writing rapidly. “Marks of possession?”

  Ishraq raised her eyebrows. “You seem determined to find possession by demons. You believe in such a thing?”

  “So would you if you had seen the things that I have seen,” Brother Peter said steadily. “I have seen men possessed and I have seen demons exorcised. Just because you have not witnessed something does not mean that it has never happened.”

  “Of course,” Isolde agreed. “But equally it might not be there.”

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