Dark tracks, p.8
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       Dark Tracks, p.8
 

         Part #4 of Order of Darkness series by Philippa Gregory
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  “Over,” Lord Vargarten said laconically, and the two guards simply tipped the boy’s legs and let him go. They heard his yell as he fell, and then the splash and plume of water. His head bobbed up, his arms flailed wildly, and the current took him, flung him against the stone stanchions of the bridge; they saw his hands grip unavailingly at the wall, and then his head bobbed beneath the water, came up once, his mouth gasping for air, and then he was gone.

  Luca hesitated for a moment, leaning over the parapet as if he would dive into the stream after the young man and swim to his body, which they could see turning over and over in the current. Freize grabbed on to his jacket and hauled him back to safety. Luca furiously turned to Lord Vargarten. “Why?” he yelled. “Why would you do that?”

  His lordship shrugged. “So that others think twice before coming here again,” he said shortly. “I warned you. It’s easier to kill someone than change their mind with talk. Life is cheap and my time is precious. And, besides, I don’t think of them as humans. Why would I argue with vermin? I just scotch them.” He nodded toward the dancers. “Now, see how briskly they step out? How anxious they are to be gone?”

  They were going faster, their steps speeding up, afraid of the soldiers; but even now, even in this moment of fear, they were unable to run—still they had to dance. Occasionally, prompted by their own inner rhythm, they would break away from the road, join hands, and jig round each other.

  “Go on!” Luca shouted, wary of Lord Vargarten in case he gave another murderous order. “Keep moving!” He had a sudden terrible awareness of his failure. He felt that all he was doing was persecuting these people, that he was no help to them at all and had learned nothing that might save other people in the future. He had meant to save them, but he was colluding in their terror.

  The dancers were off the bridge now, stepping and twirling breathlessly up the stony track that led north. Ahead of them, scrambling out of a ditch, the fiddler stood up, keeping a wary eye on the guards, and they heard the scrape of his bow and the start of a tune. Luca shaded his eyes with his hand and watched them go. “Will they just go on?” he asked desolately. “On and on? And we can do nothing?”

  “Till they drop dead of exhaustion, or someone else chucks them in another river,” his lordship said hard-heartedly. “You can’t save people from their own stupidity.”

  “I can’t save people at all,” Luca said miserably.

  “Who’s the fiddler?” his lordship asked. “You know, I think he’s the rogue that came through last time. I swear he makes a living from leading and guiding beggars. If I catch him, I’ll hang him on one of my own trees.”

  “No more killing,” Luca pleaded. “Let them go.”

  The lord pulled up his horse and watched the dancers straggle down the road. “Keep going!” he shouted. “I can see you. Keep going and don’t come back.”

  Freize pulled at Luca’s sleeve. “There’s something odd,” was all he said.

  “What?”

  “Something odd about that woman, the one at the front.”

  “What?” Luca repeated irritably. “And what does it matter now?”

  “She had new shoes on,” Freize said. “Nobody else has new shoes. Everyone we saw in the market square yesterday was in rags with worn shoes. Most of them were danced to pieces. Some of them had bleeding feet.”

  They could barely see her; she was dancing up the road, her head bent, watching her feet, her loose blond hair tumbling about her face. It was as if the feet were taking her away, almost against her will, and she was watching them go.

  “I suppose so.” Luca could not be distracted from his guilt and grief about the young man whom he had watched struck and then drowned, at the complete failure of his mission. He turned back, and Brother Peter put out a steadying hand.

  “You could not have saved him,” he said quietly. “Lord Vargarten is a most determined man. You got some dancers into the church and the others out of the town. You did the best that you could. You saved them.”

  “I save no one,” Luca said shortly. “I have no gift for it. And this is not the first time that I have understood nothing.” Grimly, he turned toward Mauthausen and started for the gate, not even looking to see that Brother Peter and Freize were following him. The town gateman, arms folded across his chest in the open gateway, was staring up the hill, watching the dancers go.

  “I brought Lord Vargarten down on them and he is a murderer,” Luca berated himself. “I led him to them. I thought I was saving them, but I brought their murderer straight to them. I asked them what they were doing, but they did not answer me and I made no inquiry. I still don’t understand the dancing sickness and I let that boy die and the others be driven onward.” He swallowed bile. “I let that boy be thrown into deep water when his skull was already split. I let him be killed.”

  “Not at all, we saved about ten of them.” Brother Peter caught him up. “And the rest will go free. Lord Vargarten won’t chase them beyond his lands: all he wants is for them to move on. Now we’ll go at once to the church and see how the saved ones are. When they make their confession, we will understand more. We will have to report to Milord if they can be recovered and returned to their normal lives. Nine sinners out of thirty lost souls. That’s not bad. That is a victory for the risen Lord.”

  “I did not save that boy,” Luca said bitterly. “And in Venice I did not rescue my father. I let the boy go into the river. I left my father in slavery. I don’t even know where my mother is. Nine souls out of thirty doesn’t seem like a victory to me.”

  Lord Vargarten and his troop of guards followed behind Luca, Freize, and Brother Peter, the lord high on his horse, the men swaggering like victors.

  “You make sure you close the gate against the dancers if they come back,” Lord Vargarten commanded the gatekeeper. “This gate and the quay gate are to be shut at sunset, and, if you see the dancers coming, you bolt it tight and send for me at once.”

  “And what will you do?” Luca demanded.

  “I’ll ride down and put them to the sword,” Lord Vargarten said briskly. “They won’t get a second chance from me.”

  Luca nodded and shrugged his shoulders and turned away, his head bowed at his failure.

  “Good thing too,” the gateman assured them. “They’re devils, devils in human form. God knows what trouble and sorrow they have caused. And they took the landlady from the Red Fish, so who is going to brew ale now?”

  “The landlady?” Freize asked. “Did you say the landlady from the inn?”

  “She had the door bolted shut, but some fool opened it and, when they got in, they danced with her, danced her round and round and out of the door, and left the inn wide open and the keys to the cellars for anyone to steal.”

  “She’s with them?”

  “Oh yes, didn’t you see her go by? And the fair-headed wench that was staying there?”

  Freize whirled round and stared up the hill to where the last of the dancers were disappearing into the thick woods on the far side of the river. Without a word, he suddenly took off, running toward them, pushing through the guards, ignoring Lord Vargarten, deaf to Luca’s startled yell, dashing like a desperate man through the slowly closing gate, back over the bridge to run after the dancers.

  “Freize!” Luca shouted after him. “What is it? Where are you going?”

  “Go back to the inn!” Freize yelled over his shoulder. “Look for Ishraq! That was Isolde! Isolde in the red shoes. If they’ve got Isolde, then Ishraq must be dead or captive. Find her!”

  Luca took two rapid steps to follow him, but then realized that Freize was right. If Isolde was gone, then Ishraq must be in terrible trouble. She would never have let Isolde go alone; she would never have opened the door to release her friend to the dancers. He turned on his heel and ran back to the inn. As soon as he entered the square, he saw that the worst had happened. The front door to the inn stood wide open, a man, slack-mouthed in amazement, lingered in the doorway. “I never saw su
ch a thing,” he said.

  “What?” demanded Luca breathlessly. “What did you see?”

  “Mistress Schmidt, with her skirts kilted up, dancing like a girl; out of the door and away she went, and the bonny young woman with her, as if they were going for a Saturday dance at the threshing barn, as if they were happy to go.”

  “How did the dancers get in?”

  “That’s the worst of it! They didn’t get in; it was the women—the women themselves unbolted the door and ran out to them,” he said wonderingly. “After spending all that time keeping themselves inside! Who knows what women think, eh? Aren’t they mad as March hares? And now she’s gone, who’s going to make dinner?”

  “And the other girl?” Luca shouted. “The dark girl?”

  The man shrugged. “Did she go too?”

  Luca swore under his breath and pushed past him into the taproom. It was quiet and still, cool after the hot sunshine outside. He looked into the back dining room and saw that no one was there—the candles smoking in the sunshine, the stools and settles empty—and then he tore up the stairs to the back bedroom on the first floor: the girls’ room. It was horribly silent. Their traveling capes were flung on the floor, the box at the foot of the bed gaping open. Clearly, the room had been ransacked and they had been robbed. Luca tried the other rooms on the first floor, the room he and Freize and Brother Peter had shared—nothing, no one. He ran up the stairs again to the attic bedrooms and tapped lightly on the landlady’s door. It swung open at his touch. Lying on the floor, as still as death, was Ishraq.

  The dancers had a head start on Freize over the bridge and up the road, but they made only slow progress as every few steps they paused to dance with each other, or make a turn on their own. Freize, powering along with his long-legged stride and his pounding feet, got within hailing distance in minutes, but then thought he should hang back and see what was happening. He felt in his pocket and found his pieces of rag and again stuffed his ears and tied the cloth round his head. The haunting music of the fiddle was muffled and distorted. He could still hear it, but it was not so loud as to set his feet tapping and he could not distinguish a tune. He dropped back, and kept to the side of the road, ducking behind bushes and trees, hiding in the shadows as he watched the dancers.

  It was Isolde dancing at the front of the procession, fresher and more energetic than the others. He could see her clearly now, and the bright new shoes that hammered the road and twirled around. The fiddler danced alongside her, and around her, as if to encourage the red shoes to patter along the stony way. Her head was bowed, as if she were watching the shoes, as if she could hardly believe that they were dancing of their own accord and she was being dragged along by them. Beside her, the landlady from the inn was already red with effort, breathlessly maintaining the pace, but yearning to stop. Now and then she paused in the middle of the road, one hand to her side as if she had a pain, gasping for air. To her, the bright tune of the fiddle and the rattle of the tambourine were like torture, forcing her onward and onward.

  Freize’s attention was taken by a movement on the opposite side of the road. He froze at once, and stared at the bushes and the saplings that were swaying as if someone were pushing through them. He was afraid it was one of the dancers, doubled back to attack him, and he shrank away, deeper into the thick woodland that crowded the track. But then, where the undergrowth rustled, he saw a pale face, a big moon face, and someone no bigger than a boy, barefoot and half-dressed in a dirty linen shirt and a pair of breeches.

  Freize recognized him at once. It was the Being that had followed them from Venice, the strange baby that Freize had glimpsed as he thrust it at Ishraq, the dwarf-child that she had released into the canal, that had trailed them on the road, that had haunted the stables. Now, as the creature turned his pale face toward Freize, the young man could see clearly on his broad forehead the letters of his name, inset into his skin like a brand, like an engraving of silver in a marble statue, the glistening fools’ gold of Venice: EMET.

  Freize shivered in fear as the dark eyes met his, and slowly a smile spread across the big face, a childish, trusting smile as a boy will smile at his hero. The Being raised his big, spadelike hand in a shy little gesture of acknowledgment, and waved.

  Ahead, the dancers turned a corner and were lost from sight. Freize stepped out into the road, showed himself to the mooncalf gaze, spread out his hands to demonstrate that he had no weapon, no tricks. “I mean you no harm,” he said slowly and loudly. “But do not follow me.” He gestured to the road ahead, where the sound of the music was still pounding. “These are people under a spell, taken by the Devil. They are not people that you should be with. So go. Go away, and God bless.”

  He could not tell if the Being had understood him or not; he just shrank back into the darkness of the wood. Freize felt that he had been unkind, as if he had pushed an animal to one side with an angry word. “I wish you well!” he called to the moving shrubs. “Go your way. But I have to go after Isolde. I have to rescue her. I am her squire, sworn to her service. I have no time for anyone or anything else.”

  “Brother Peter!” Luca yelled down the stairs. “Help me!”

  He stepped toward the girl as he heard Brother Peter coming quickly up the stairs. “Help me! Look at her! What should we do?”

  Brother Peter arrived at the doorway and looked into the room. “Lord have mercy on us, is she dead?”

  “I don’t know!” Luca said frantically. “She’s cold. She’s really cold. But what is wrong with her? There’s no sign of a wound. How could she die, like this? Alone? In a moment?” He fell to his knees beside her and cradled her in his arms. Her head lolled; her hand fell down and knocked on the floor; she was quite limp. “Ishraq!” Luca breathed, patting her cheek. “Ishraq, wake up!”

  “Is she breathing?” Brother Peter asked. He crossed himself. “Poor child. Poor child.”

  Luca put his ear to Ishraq’s nose. He could not hear her breath. “No! What can we do? Christ help us! What can we do for her? She’s so cold.”

  “It may be that there is nothing that we can do now but pray for her soul. She is a lost soul, of course, an infidel. Poor child. Put her on the bed.”

  “She’s so cold.”

  “Brother, it may be God’s will.”

  “No. No! Don’t say that.”

  The two men lifted Ishraq easily onto the bed and laid her on her back. She was as still and as cold as if she had died in her sleep in midwinter.

  “What are those?” Luca noticed the earrings. “I’ve not seen them before.”

  “Can you feel her heart beating?”

  Luca put his face against Ishraq’s chest. Beneath the silk tunic he could feel that her body was cooling. He was conscious of the swell of her breast, of silence where her strong young heart should be steadily beating. “I can’t hear. I can’t hear anything.”

  Brother Peter put his fingertips gently on Ishraq’s neck. “There,” he said. “I can feel it. I can feel a pulse. She’s still alive—just. There’s a pulse as soft and fluttery as that of a bird. She’s barely with us.”

  Luca looked up. “Can we restore her?”

  “We’d better get a physician, if this town has one. Or a midwife. Perhaps it is women’s troubles, and nobody will know what to do.”

  “But Ishraq’s strong, she’s healthy. She’s never been ill before. You’ve seen her dive two stories, from the top of a house into a cold river; you’ve seen her fire a bow. She wouldn’t just faint away like this. It must be the dancers! Perhaps she tried to stop them taking Isolde.”

  “Perhaps she is possessed,” Brother Peter said. “Perhaps the Devil has stolen her soul, as he has stolen Isolde’s feet. I’ll go out and find Lord Vargarten. See if his lordship knows of a doctor.”

  “I’ll carry her down to her room,” Luca decided. “Be quick, Brother. For God’s sake, find a physician or a barber-surgeon or someone for her. She’s so cold!”

  The drummer had a tambourine in p
lace of his broken drum, and the insistent beat and the occasional bell-like rattle as he waved it in the air led the dancers constantly onward, along the dirt track up into the hills and the woods, away from the town. The fiddler kept up a brisk tune and Isolde danced at the front, the red shoes pattering along, turning and sidestepping as if she were practicing for a May Day dance with the girls at the Castle of Lucretili, and not in a daze of misery among a crowd of tattered beggars, dancing themselves into exhaustion.

  The afternoon sun was high in the sky, a bright yellow-white burning disc, and the fiddler led them in and out of the dappled shade of the forest, sweat pouring down his own grim face, the drummer pounding away on the tambourine, keeping up the pace. Isolde was in a dream, incapable of knowing what she was doing, hearing only the irresistible calling of the joyful music, the inspiriting beat. Nothing could stop her, nothing could recall her to herself, she was entranced, beside herself, beyond herself, unconscious of the pain in her feet, insensate to the sweat and the heat, unaware of her own panting breath.

  There was a final rattle of the zils of the tambourine and then they were stilled. In the sudden silence, Isolde looked up from her feet for the first time in hours, and saw to her surprise that she was in a wood, by a stream. She dropped to her knees and put her mouth down to the water, drinking thirstily and splashing her sweaty face and neck. Even now she did not know where she was or what she was doing. She looked around slowly, as if to confirm that she had no friends among the tattered, exhausted dancers. Her face was blank as if she expected no one, her blue eyes dark-ringed with exhaustion. Slowly, she sat back and stretched her feet toward the stream. Her ankles were swollen, her legs filthy with dirt from the road. Only the shoes were still bright and clean, red as blood. Isolde tried to undo the ribbons, so that she could paddle barefoot in the water, and found that her feet were so swollen and sweaty and the ribbons so knotted that she could not get them off at all. She shrugged as if it did not matter, and paddled her feet, red shoes and all, in the icy water. She did not notice as the leather shrank a little tighter still.

 
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