Dark tracks, p.6
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       Dark Tracks, p.6

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  Lord Vargarten snapped orders at a groom of the servery, who went first to the buttery, a large cupboard at the head of the hall behind the great table, and brought out cups of small ale, and then jogged out of the hall door and down the steps and across the castle green to the bakery to bring back hot bread rolls in a basket.

  A kitchen boy emerged from an inner doorway with a tray of meats, and the three men seated themselves at the top table and ate a good breakfast with their hosts. As soon as he had finished, Lord Vargarten went to fetch his padded jacket and his helmet and see that his horse was saddled, while his lady sat in her chair, high-backed and as grand as a throne, and watched Luca eat.

  “Drive them away,” she said privately to him. “While you have the chance. You drive them into the river and they can drown like the worthless dogs they are. You would drown a dog with rabies, wouldn’t you? Drown them.”

  Luca suddenly found his food tasteless, got up from the table, bowed to the lady, and went out into the morning sunshine of the castle yard.

  Back in the town, Isolde and Ishraq had ventured down to the taproom that looked out over the stable yard. Now and then, someone slipped in from the square, tipped his hat to them, and said that the dancers were resting, the drum and the haunting fiddle were silent, that actually it was safe if the young women wanted to walk out. The shops were open during this period of quiet, the priest was in his church, the town was trying to behave as if it were not under siege from madness, as if it were an ordinary morning.

  “I’d like to attend Mass,” Isolde said. “The church is just across the square.”

  “Better stay inside,” Ishraq advised.

  “You do right to stay here, at the back of the building,” another man interrupted. “No point in taking risks. Do you go out to take the air when the plague wind blows? Not if you have any sense.”

  There was a tap at the front door; the landlady peered through the spyhole and made a pleased remark, then slid the heavy bolts. She opened the door and a peddler came in, easing the pack off his back. “Where’s the market today?” he asked. “I came to show my goods here and found not a stall in place, and nobody on the quayside. No one will even open their front door. Where is everybody?”

  “There can be no market while the dancers are making merry in our town square,” the landlady said crossly. “And they buy nothing and sell nothing and just turn the heads of everyone who hears them. Here are these young ladies, not even walking out, for fear of dancing. What d’you have to sell? And what can I get you to drink? Will you take something to eat?”

  “I’ll have a glass of ale and some breakfast,” the man said. He was a small man, no taller than Isolde, deeply tanned by the sun. He had one earlobe pierced with a silver ring like a sailor and his dark hair was tied at the nape of his neck in a ponytail. His face was lined like a man who smiles all the time. He leaned his pack, bulging with goods, against the legs of the common table and pulled up a stool.

  “And are you ladies trapped in here?” he asked Isolde and Ishraq with a sympathetic smile. “Besieged by merriment?”

  “I wouldn’t call it merry,” Ishraq replied. “They dance like people in a dream, like people in a nightmare, not like people having fun.”

  “You may be right,” he said. “I’ve seen it once before in Italy. A young man took up his flute and went dancing off, his family ran after him, and everywhere he went more people joined him.”

  “What happened to him?” Isolde asked.

  “He danced till he died, poor lad,” the peddler said. “They said he had been bitten by a tarantula spider; they named his dance the tarantella after the spider. God help them and save them from themselves. Sometimes people can’t stop themselves, you know. Sometimes a girl hears a jig and has to dance away.”

  The landlady put a big pewter mug of ale before him and he nodded to her to put the cost on the slate behind the serving table. “And God save all of us,” he continued, taking a deep drink. “Have you come far? D’you have far to go? Shall you dance onward?”

  “From Venice,” Isolde said.

  “Ah, then I shall not trouble you with my poor things,” he said. “You will have seen the finest of jewelry and lace in Venice. You will not condescend to look at my treasure box.”

  “There were many pretty things in the city, of course,” Isolde said. Then, as curiosity got the better of her, she asked: “But what do you carry?”

  “Oh, nothing fit for you,” he said firmly. “Nothing for a lady such as yourself.”

  The landlady put some freshly baked bread and some cheese before him as he turned to Ishraq. “But I confess, I have some silver earrings with the darkest of sapphires that would be beautiful on you, Lady.”

  Ishraq smiled. “You won’t find a good customer in me. I have no money, and if I did I would not spend it on earrings. But dark sapphires? What are they?”

  “Black star sapphires,” he said, lingering over the words. “True black.”

  “I’ve never seen such things,” she remarked. “Are they really obsidian, that you are calling sapphires to mislead foolish girls? Do you take me for a foolish girl?”

  He took a bite of bread and a pull of his ale and shook his head. “No, I swear it. Star sapphires because they make a star shape when they sparkle, and black as night. Try them. You know that only a true gemstone can cut glass? Well, you could write your name on the windowpane with these.” He plunged his hand into the pack and felt around the side. “Here,” he said, bringing out a tiny leather purse. “I’d never seen such a thing in my life before I came across these, but it is true.”

  Isolde watched, fascinated, as Ishraq opened the drawstrings and tipped the earrings into her cupped palm. They were beautifully worked, each shaped like a long stem of silver with hanging flowers, and the bud of each flower was black—darkest black—but sparkling like a diamond.

  “Oh!” Ishraq breathed.

  “Oh, indeed,” the peddler replied. “Try it yourself. I won’t touch them while I am eating, for fear of getting butter on them.”

  Ishraq took one of the earrings and drew a swift line on the windowpane. “See?” he challenged her. “Only a true gem will cut glass. They are black sapphires, and they could have been made for you.”

  Ishraq hesitated, her eyes on the black stones.

  “Mined for you and made for you,” he repeated. “Dug for you from mines far away, in West Africa, brought for you by camel train to the Moors. Cut for you, and set by them into silver. You’re the first woman I have shown them to, because nobody else could wear them. But they are the very color of your eyes. They are yours. You should have them. Nobody but you should have them. Just try them on.”

  “I’ll put them in for you,” Isolde offered. She stood up and gathered her friend’s thick dark hair away from her ears and hooked first one little silver spray and then the other in her earlobes. Then she stood back to admire the effect. “He’s right, they’re perfect on you,” she said.

  The peddler smiled with pleasure at the sight of the beautiful brown-skinned girl with the black sapphires in her ears. He raised his mug and took a gulp of ale, then took up the second roll of bread. “A dark beauty,” he murmured. “As soon as I saw you, I knew that I had been carrying them all this while just for you.”

  Ishraq glowed with pleasure. “But we can’t possibly be buying earrings,” she said quietly to Isolde. “We’re on a long journey and have to save our money. We will need funds to hire your godfather’s son’s army when we reach him.”

  “How much are they?” Isolde boldly asked the peddler. To Ishraq she whispered: “We have the money that Luca’s lord gave us, remember, to repay what we lost in Venice. We have the money that he paid us for the fools’ gold.”

  “But we traded your mother’s rubies to buy the counterfeit coins!” Ishraq protested.

  “So let’s buy some black sapphires to put in their place!”

  The peddler named a sum that made the girls pause. Immediately, I
shraq offered exactly half. The peddler laughed and sat back as the landlady brought him some dried apples and sweet biscuits. “Ah, you know how to bargain!” he exclaimed with pleasure. “You will take my sapphires from me, put them in your ears, and never take them off again, I know. Have a glass of wine,” he said to both the young women. “This may take some time. I cannot agree to such a price, and you cannot refuse these sapphires. We’re going to have to find a sum that suits us both.”

  Ishraq touched the earrings as they lightly danced at her neck. “I do want them,” she confessed. “But I am not going to be robbed.”

  “No one is robbing you,” the peddler said. “Didn’t I say the moment that I saw you that they were your very own? You are merely claiming what is yours and paying a fair price for them. Go and look in a mirror and see yourself in them. Tell me then that they were not cut to the very shape that would suit you best. Tell me that they do not dance on the curve of your neck. Tell me that they are not as dark and sparkling as your eyes. They are yours. I don’t believe you will ever take them out.”

  “There’s a looking glass in my room, nailed to the wall,” the landlady advised her. “You can go up and see yourself.”

  Ishraq went to the door. “We’re not paying that price, so don’t think it,” she warned him, smiling despite herself.

  The peddler winked at her and waved a slice of apple pierced on the blade of his knife. “Beauty calls to beauty. You go and see,” he said, “then tell me what you would pay for them, and I’ll take a fair offer. You cannot say no—you know that you cannot say no.”

  Ishraq shot a rueful, smiling glance at Isolde and left the room. They could hear the wooden stairs creak as she went slowly upward, touching the slim silver strands with her fingertips, feeling them swing against her neck, knowing that they shone like her eyes.

  “Do you have nothing pretty that you can show to me?” Isolde asked.

  The peddler crammed the biscuits into his mouth and pushed his plate to one side as if this were more important than food. “I have only one thing,” he conceded. “Only one thing that I would expect a noblewoman such as you to even deign to glance at. But I don’t know that the size is right. Let me see your feet.”

  Isolde rose up from behind the table and stood before him. Casually, he pushed a stool toward her with his booted foot, and she put up her shoe on it, for his inspection.

  “I have a pair of shoes so beautiful that no woman could resist them. For that very reason, I have never yet shown them to any woman. I would not tempt her so. It would be a cruelty. Your feet would have to be exactly the right fit for them. It would not be fair to put them in front of you and then tell you that your feet were too big.”

  “I don’t have big feet,” Isolde protested.

  “Or too broad.”

  She slipped off her shoe to show him her bare foot. “It’s not broad,” she said.

  “Or too bony, or with a flat arch, or bunions or chilblains.”

  Isolde laughed. “I don’t have any of those. See!” She pointed her toe and showed him the high instep, the straight toes, the rosy, rounded heel.

  “You have a dancer’s foot,” he said. From outside the fiddle gave a little ripple of a chord to wake the dancers.

  Isolde shuddered. “This is not the place to talk about dancing. Show me the shoes, for I have to go upstairs away from the noise if they start playing again.”

  “Ah, really, I should not. You will not be able to resist them.”

  “I shall be the judge of that,” she ruled.

  “They’re leather,” he said, putting his hand deep into his pack, but still keeping the shoes hidden. “Beautiful, soft leather. Kidskin—you could have made gloves with this leather. I’ve never seen finer.”

  “So let me try them!”

  “And they are red,” he said. “Scarlet. When you have them on, your little red toes will peep from underneath your gown as if they are laughing for joy at the beauty of your walk.”

  She hesitated. “Red shoes?”

  “Red as a rose,” he said. “Red as a poppy. I’ve never seen a pair like them. They need a beautiful foot; they need a beautiful woman. I wouldn’t even show them to you if I didn’t think that you were born for them.”

  Eerily, the fiddle was playing a slow, lingering chiarantana, very unlike the noisy jig of yesterday. It was a beautiful, evocative sound that echoed sweetly in the square. It was the sort of song that makes a woman stand tall, toss her head, walk with her hips swinging, as if she knows a secret. Isolde shook her head, trying not to hear it. “I must go. I promised that I would stay in my room, away from the music. . . .”

  “You should stay away from the music if you don’t want to dance,” he agreed. “Take a look at these before you go upstairs. I don’t think you will be able to resist them.”

  At last, he brought the shoes from his pack and put them on the stool before her as if he were presenting a work of art on a pedestal. Isolde stared at them. They were the most beautiful shoes she had ever seen in her life. They were small and slim-fitting, made of a leather—just as he had said—as soft as silk, as red as blood. At the front on the slightly pointed toe was a red buckle; at the back was a small heel; a red silk ribbon ran through loops of leather to tie in a bow at the side. She knew without even trying them on that they would give her a little height and grace to her walk. They would flicker under the hem of her gown, she would delight in catching sight of them, and when she could not see them she would revel in knowing that they were there, hidden but beautiful. She would feel the gentle stroke of the leather on her instep, the firm band across her toes. She touched them, and the leather was soft under her fingertips, like a glove, just as he had said.

  “May I try them?” she asked longingly.

  He gave a little laugh. “I warn you, if you put them on, you won’t be able to take them off again.”

  “I will be captured?” she asked him, smiling.


  She laughed at that, and sat on the stool and slipped off her well-worn riding boots.

  “I gave you fair warning,” he said, his voice as sweet as a lullaby, as if he were dancing with her in time to the music. “You cannot resist them; you cannot take them off.”

  Almost in answer, Isolde slid one foot and then another into the new red shoes. They fit perfectly, not a pinch, not a rub; they fit as if they had been measured and made for her. She took the silk ribbons and pulled them tight on each foot, tied a neat bow and saw how they drew the eye to her slim ankles. She stood up, and at once she took two steps, as if she were dancing. She felt the little lift that they gave to her height; she felt the elegance that comes from a small heel; she felt how they held her feet, so comfortable and neat. They were cool on her toes; they were snug on her instep. She turned round, dipped a curtsy, and laughed at herself. “They are beautiful.”

  “Comfortable for dancing?”

  “I hardly know I have them on!”

  She took a few dance steps. Another man, drinking his ale and eating his breakfast at the common table, said, “Take care, young lady. Next, you’ll be dancing away.”

  “She has to dance in them—she is bound to dance in them.” The peddler smiled. “They are dancing shoes, after all.”

  “They are perfect.” Isolde did a little turn on the spot, and the skirt of her gown flew out so that she could see the red toes, the pretty buckles on the toes. “I must have them. How much are they?”

  The peddler had finished his breakfast. He drained his glass, slapped down a coin on the table, hefted his pack, and headed for the door.

  “Don’t go!” Isolde called. “I must pay you for these, and Ishraq wants the earrings. We have to agree to a price. How much? I must have these.”

  Suddenly, incomprehensibly, he ignored her. He was deaf to her calling; it was as if he had made the sale but did not want the money. Without a word, he unbolted the front door and opened it wide. The bright morning sunshine poured in with the haun
ting music of the dance, faster now, and with the drum pounding the time, echoing louder and louder in the wooden hall as if it were calling her. Foolishly, he left the door open to the music and to the insistent call of the dance.

  “You can’t go! I must have these!” Isolde repeated, raising her voice to shout over the swirl of the music. “I must have these!”

  “Oh no, I think they have you,” he replied, and stepped out into the sunlight where the dancers were whirling round and around, where the drum was beating an irresistible rhythm and the fiddle was playing a dance tune that would make the dead rise up to dance, and then Isolde, wrongly, madly, held out the skirt of her gown with her new red shoes twinkling, and danced out after him.

  At Lord Vargarten’s castle, Luca found the men forming into squads in the yard. No one was very well equipped; no one was very well prepared. Servants and boys were milling around, bringing sharpened staves in the place of lances, and knives and wood-axes for men who had neither sword nor dagger.

  “Yes, I know what you’re thinking,” Lord Vargarten said, seeing Luca looking at the muddle of the muster. “They’re fools and villains. But the country has been at peace for years. I can’t afford to keep an army at the ready. And a group of dancers will run away at the sight of us. I doubt there will be any actual fighting. But this lot can brawl and bully, anyway.”

  “I don’t want any fighting. I hoped that we would parley,” Luca said. “I want to bring the dancers to a state of grace. I hoped that you would just hold them still, so that the priest can talk to them. I need to know what has inspired them. I need to see if they can be cured.”

  “Ever done it before?” the lord asked him. “Ever talked a band of dancers into quietness?”

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