Dark tracks, p.5
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       Dark Tracks, p.5
 

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  “There were no marks,” Luca said thoughtfully. “At least, I didn’t see anything. Did you, Freize?”

  “No signs in common at all except that they are all so tired they can hardly stand,” Freize pointed out. “And their eyes are like fish.”

  Brother Peter hesitated, his pen poised. He sighed at Freize, who so often turned a phrase that was far from scholarly. “Eyes like fish? What do you mean by that?”

  “Oh no, he’s right,” Luca said. “Their eyes are dead: they have no intelligence or interest or sparkle.” Without being aware of his gaze, he nodded toward Ishraq’s intent, thoughtful face. “With some people, you can almost see what they are thinking by their eyes; you can almost see their mind working as their eyes gleam and darken when the thoughts cross them. But all the dancers’ eyes are dead. Freize is right. They are people with eyes like fish.”

  “You were like that, little Sparrow,” Freize confirmed. “Your eyes went blank. Until I asked you to solve a problem, and then you came back to me.”

  One of the old men in the corner, who had been listening to this, let out a crack of laughter. “You’re right, young’un!” he said disrespectfully to Luca. “That’s how they look the moment before they go. I lost my wife and my son in one afternoon when the dancers last came, and they looked at me with as much interest or love as if they were a pair of carp from the pond with string through their gills.”

  “This is an Inquirer, from the Holy Father himself,” Freize corrected him. “You call him ‘sir.’ ”

  “Call him what you like, makes no difference to me.” The old man was not at all rebuffed. “But he has the right of it. You can tell the Pope that. You can tell him that from me.”

  “Let him speak as he wants,” Luca prompted Freize, who was inclined to argue that the proper respect be shown to his master.

  “Did your wife and son leave with these dancers who are in the town now? The same people?” Brother Peter asked the old man.

  “No, with another lot,” he said. “A different lot. They came through three years ago, just the same. They stayed two or three days and then we drove them out of town. But they took my son with them, the brightest boy in the town—everyone loved him. I was going to give him to the church for a clerk, he was so clever and able. And I heard later that he danced till his feet bled, the blisters went bad, and he took sick, and then there was no more dancing for him. They laid him on the floor of the church and bid him be at peace, but still he writhed about and waved his arms until he died.

  “So they took him for nothing. I should think that they are the Devil’s own; I should think they are possessed. You should tell the Holy Father that he must stop them. They steal our young men and women and dance them to death. The Holy Father should stop them.”

  “Why do you think they dance?” Luca demanded.

  The man shrugged. “It’s as if they all go mad for it, all at once. Why does anyone do anything foolish? Why do storks all come in springtime? They all act together without thinking.”

  “Does Lord Vargarten do nothing to stop it?” Luca asked.

  “He’d move them on if he knew they were here,” the old man said. “But no one has dared to leave their house and go up to the castle to tell him. We’ve bolted ourselves into our homes and we just run from one house to another when the dancers go quiet or fall asleep. You should go and tell the lord that they are here again, frightening everyone, stealing children. You go and tell him if you’re brave enough to cross the square and take the road to his castle. If the Pope ordered you to come here, then God will keep you safe. Go and tell Lord Vargarten that the dancers are here again and we need his help. He should drive them out like the vermin they are.”

  “Where is the lord’s castle?”

  “Just ten miles up the track going north. You can’t miss it. Straight out of the north gate.”

  Luca looked at Brother Peter. “I’ll go,” he said. “I’ll wait till the dancers are asleep tonight and then I’ll set off before it’s light.”

  “I’ll come with you,” Brother Peter said. “We’ll go to the castle and see if he is going to move them on, or what he intends. I can send this report to Rome with one of his men. I take it that the dancers don’t respond to prayer?”

  “One of the men said that he had been taken right into the church and up to the altar and still danced away,” Luca said, as Brother Peter made notes. “He said he had holy water actually on his head and yet kept on dancing. This is a stubborn sin. It’s like a madness, but a madness that passes from one to another. A plague that you catch the moment you are touched.”

  “I’ll come with you too,” Freize said. “We’ll need to ride out of the stable gate and get through the square so quickly that they can’t stop us. We’ll do that better all three of us at once. Rufino can lead. We’ll need to charge.”

  “Will you be all right on your own?” Luca turned to Isolde and Ishraq. “If we leave early in the morning, before sunrise, and get back before midday?”

  “Of course we will.” Ishraq spoke for them both.

  “Keep to your bedroom with your door locked. We won’t be long.”

  “We’ll be safe,” Isolde assured him.

  Ishraq nodded. “I’ll lock our door and guard it. And our bedroom faces the herb garden and orchard. We can’t even hear the music when we’re in there.”

  “Block your ears if you have to,” Freize advised her. “When you hear the drum start, it’s the oddest of things. You just want to get up and dance. You think that no harm could come of it, and it’s what you want to do. It feels like a good idea, like a merry thought. It feels like it is your own idea, nothing to do with all of them.”

  “I don’t think it’s a merry thought,” Isolde said. “I think it’s horrifying. It doesn’t make me want to dance, it makes me want to hide under my pillow.”

  “Keep your door locked till we come back,” Luca commanded. “And we will be as quick as we can.” He glanced at Isolde and spoke as if to her alone: “I will be as quick as I can,” he promised. “I will not fail you.”

  Before dawn, while a rain-hazy moon was setting, Luca woke his two companions. Despite the cold and his unease, he could not help but laugh when he saw Freize, who had forced two scraps of linen into his ears and tied up his head with a rag, looking like a man with toothache.

  “They’re not stirring yet,” Luca pointed out, cracking open one of the shutters of the inn’s front windows and looking out at the quiet square and the exhausted dancers huddled in doorways. “I think you’re overprotected.”

  “I’m taking no chances,” Freize said as he went out of the back door, carrying the horses’ tack. He crossed the yard, the wet cobbles gleaming in the pale light of the dawn sky, and went into the stables. Something at the back of the barn moved quietly. “There now,” Freize said, as if to himself. “You here in this troubled town? Following us? Be still. Be quiet. Go your way. No need to pay any attention to me, and no need to follow us, either, what with the world ending and us always going to the worst places.”

  He squinted into the gloom at the back of the barn and thought he saw a pale child, perhaps a boy, shrink back and disappear.

  “Go your way and God bless you,” Freize said quietly, shaking his head. “As if we didn’t have enough to worry about without you, you poor little thing.”

  He waited in case there was any response and then he said again into the silence: “I don’t know who you are, nor what you are, to tell the truth. And if you are following me for gratitude because it was me that saved you from the alchemists’ jar, then you need not trouble yourself. All I want from you is that you go. Go well, go safely, but go. We have troubles of our own, and I can’t care for you or keep you. And—no offense—if I wanted a little pet, I would have one less clammy.”

  He finished this address into the silence of the barn and then led the horses out into the yard as Luca and Brother Peter came from the inn, took their horses, and mounted up. Luca glanced up to
the girls’ bedroom window just visible over the tops of the orchard trees. Isolde’s white face was looking down at him. He waved a hand to her and was glad to see a reassuring nod from Ishraq, who was standing at her shoulder. Their bedroom door was bolted and they could close the shutters on their window; he thought that they would be safe while he rode to the castle, summoned help, and came back.

  Luca, Brother Peter, and Freize lined up their horses at the back wall of the yard, almost as if they were starting a race—the horses alert, slightly spurred on, but held back, shifting under a tightened rein. The stable lad and the landlady were at the double gates, and at a nod from Luca they opened them wide and the three horses went out at an explosive canter, shoulder to shoulder, across the town square without drawing rein. A few of the dancers started up out of their sleep, shouting and calling them back, but the horses were gone before they could circle them. Freize, clinging to Rufino’s mane and glancing back, saw that the gates to the inn had been slammed shut.

  “Let’s hope we come back with an armed guard,” he remarked to Brother Peter. “Let’s hope this lord keeps a strong household.”

  Brother Peter nodded, and the three of them rode under the arched gateway of the town, where the sleepless porter told them to hurry and bring back help, and took the winding road north toward the castle as the sky slowly lightened and the sun came up.

  The castle sentries were not alert in the early morning: theirs was a country at peace, and although there were armed robbers and highwaymen working the roads, preying on vulnerable travelers, they would never dare to challenge the castle or the villages under the control of the Lord Vargarten. Luca, Freize, and Brother Peter were at the castle gates before anyone shouted a challenge from the battlements, and a sleepy guard of four men tumbled out of the guardroom, opened the sentry grille, and called to them to halt.

  Freize rode forward and explained who they were. At once, the guard stepped back, lifted the great beam to open the gate, which creaked open, and the captain led them into the castle courtyard.

  It was a pretty castle, a round tower with the square bulk of the hall beside it, around it a scatter of houses like a small village, all enclosed inside the great walls. At the center of the courtyard was a deep well, and around it was an orchard of apple and pear trees, with hens scratching about in the grass, a cow with a calf grazing, and, in the pen behind the cottage, a rooting pig. As Freize, Luca, and Brother Peter dismounted, a boy came yawning from the stables and took the reins of their horses and led them away.

  The double door at the top of a flight of stone steps opened and Lord Vargarten descended slowly in his furred night robe, his wife following him with a cape thrown over her nightgown and her hair loose under her hood.

  “Strangers, you are welcome,” Lord Vargarten said, no welcome in his gruff tones. “However early.”

  He broke off to look at Luca, as handsome a young man as had ever been seen in this part of the world, his face as clear and regular as one of the new statues that they were all making in Italy, his dark hair shining.

  “Thank you, we apologize for the early hour,” said Luca. “But there is grave trouble in Mauthausen.”

  Lord Vargarten looked beyond him to the solid strength of Freize and the quiet presence of Brother Peter. “What’s the matter? And who are you, anyway?”

  Luca came to the foot of the steps, speaking quietly and urgently. “There are dancers in your town; they are growing in numbers, and becoming unruly, and it’s getting serious.”

  “And you are?”

  “I am an Inquirer appointed by the Holy Father to discover the reason and meaning of these troubled times. This is my clerk, Brother Peter, and my friend and servant, Freize.”

  “General factotum,” Freize said, bowing particularly to Lady Vargarten.

  Lord Vargarten came down the rest of the steps, gave his hand to Luca, and nodded to Freize and Brother Peter. “How many dancers are there?” he asked briskly.

  “About thirty, but they are growing in number all the time. They are deliberately picking people to dance with them and seem to want to pass on the disease. They are quite irresistible. They’re begging, and threatening.”

  “You’ve seen them yourself?”

  “They tried to take hold of me. It was hard for me to break free. I couldn’t have done it if my friends had not recalled me and pulled me to safety. The dancers are a real danger to your town and your tenants.”

  The lord nodded. “We’ve had this sort of trouble before. What do you suggest?”

  “Certainly, they should be moved on. They say they will go if they are given food or money. But I would like to try some sort of Mass, encourage them to pray, wrestle with their souls, try to get them to stop dancing. I want to know what makes them dance. I need your help to hold them still and quiet while we speak to them. The town wants them moved out.”

  “You want to cure them? You think you can?” Lady Vargarten asked angrily. She came down the steps and stood behind her husband, her dark eyes on Luca, her pale cheeks flushed red.

  “If possible. Certainly, I’d like to understand what is happening.”

  She shook her head. “They stop only when the Devil has left them for dead. They start when He enters their soul. Nothing can stand against Him when He dances with them. No one can resist Him. They are weak and He has claimed His own.”

  “You think it is possession?” Brother Peter asked her.

  “My wife lost her sister to the dancers,” Lord Vargarten explained. “Last time they came through.”

  “She was a child!” she exclaimed passionately. “And a man arrived with a flute which played a tune that no child could resist. Every child in the village went running after him, dancing where he danced, and they never came home again. My little sister was among them. Should such people be treated gently, should they be prayed over? Or should they be torn apart and left for dead?”

  “Where did he lead them?” Freize asked.

  “They said that a mountain opened up and they danced away to a secret land that he had promised them. Who knows where they went? Who knows who took them, or why? What would a man want with a dozen children? At any rate, we never saw any of them again, and we could not trace them though we sent out searches in every direction.”

  Brother Peter crossed himself.

  “A Mass or an exorcism is a waste of time,” she said passionately to Luca. “There’s only one thing you can do with the dancers—”

  Lord Vargarten made a little gesture with his hand as if to silence her.

  “What is that, in your opinion, your ladyship?” Luca asked.

  “Drown them,” she said shortly. “If the Devil has care of His own, they will swim away and then you are free of them.”

  “But if they are innocent, just driven by some sort of madness, then they will be drowned in a state of sin, and their souls will be on my conscience,” Luca pointed out.

  She shrugged. “Madmen like that don’t deserve to live. Why would you care? You can confess and clean your conscience as if you were a hangman who has drowned a witch, but at least they will be dead and gone. They are not people; they are a pestilence.”

  She spoke nothing but what most people believed. Luca, with his own thoughts about justice and compassion, looked into her hard, beautiful face and kept silent.

  “They are vile,” she went on. “They are not like us. People who are not like us should not come near us. They should not be allowed to come near us. They destroy everything. It is better for all of us if they are just . . .”

  “Just what?” Brother Peter asked quietly.

  “Neco.”

  Neco: it was the old Latin word meaning to bully someone to death. She said it as if she would avoid the blunt word “killed,” as if neco were a legal ruling that would make the dancers of Mauthausen disappear and all of Lord Vargarten’s lands a better place. As if people could simply vanish—melting into smoke and leaving no trace, as if they could be wiped out of the town
s, burned out of the landscape.

  “I’d better come with you to the town,” the lord said to Luca. “We can drive them out. I won’t have them on my lands.”

  “We’d do better to return them to their homes,” Brother Peter remarked. “If we drive them on, they’ll just go to another town and their numbers will grow.”

  “I don’t care as long as it’s not my town,” Lord Vargarten said grimly.

  “But we have to care,” Luca told him bluntly. “We have to do what we can to cure these people of this madness. We have to be responsible for them. They are men and women just as we are.”

  “No, they’re not,” the lady argued. “Don’t you understand? They are like Jews; they are like Egyptians; they are like the infidel or strangers from another country. They’re like Ottomans, Muslims. They live apart from us, and are different from us; they are not men and women like we are. They are different. We need not treat them as if they were people like us. If they are different they are our enemy.”

  Lord Vargarten summoned the captain of his guard with a gesture and sent the man running to the guardroom. The castle bell began to toll and from the towers set in the walls, from the little cottages, and from the main body of the castle, men emerged, some of them untidy and dirty, some of them snatching a piece of bread to eat as they ran, some of them smart and ready for duty. They went to the guardroom beside the stable yard and stumbled into order. The captain of the armory started to issue pikes and swords and the men lined up to receive their weapons, strapping on their leather jackets.

  “Will you eat and drink while we wait for them to get ready?” Lord Vargarten offered. “They won’t be long, but they’ll have to saddle the horses and finish issuing weapons.”

  “Thank you,” Luca said, as Freize brightened visibly at the thought of breakfast.

  “This way.”

  The three men followed the lord and lady up the steps and into the castle.

  They found themselves at once in a great hall, two stories high with carved stone openings between the roof trusses where birds flew in and out and swallows came twisting in, looking for nesting sites against the huge dark beams. In the center of the hall was a circular stone fireplace, as massive as a campfire, the logs still warm from the night before. Sleeping on the stone-flagged floor were half a dozen deerhounds, and they lifted their pointed heads and stirred their tails in the dried rushes scattered on the floor as the lord and lady walked by.

 
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