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CyberWar
October 7th, 2014, 05:13 PM
Messina, Kingdom of Sicily, 1347

---

On that fateful October day, a ship was found beached not far from the harbor city of Messina, from which great fleets under the flag of the Cross had set sail to the East just a hundred years ago. The beached ship was flying Genoese colours. Genoans were well-liked in Messina, their merchants being frequent visitors in the city's markets, and unlike the Venetian swindlers they did not always try to cheat their customers. At least so the word was - perhaps rumors spread by Genoans themselves were more at fault, given their lukewarm relations with the Venetians. Competitors were, after all, competitors.

As usual on such occasions, the local peasants and fishermen began to gather around the ship. Although the common folk around Messina were by no means poor, the region being famed for plentiful harvests of wheat and grapes and for it's lush olive groves since ancient times, neither could they afford to pass on such a godsend that a beached ship was. But at first, they would have to await for the king's magistrate to arrive and evaluate the ship's cargo, claiming the king's due of one fifth, leaving the rest to be divided by the people as they saw fit. The salvagers on such occasions always hoped that none of the ship's crew would be alive to claim the goods for their righteous owner, because in such cases they would only get the finder's share of one tenth.

Among the people who accompanied the magistrate was a certain Giovanni Visconte, a representative of the Genoese merchant house in Messina.

"I really hope these vulgar peasants will not have killed any survivors as they sometimes do to claim more than their lawful share," Giovanni spoke as he rode alongside the magistrate. The road meandered along the coast, the shipwreck and the crowd around it being visible in the distance.

"Fear to speak such foul words, monsieur! The common folk here may be of modest means, but not honourless scoundrels! They would never raise their hands against people in distress," the magistrate said, "I have heard of such vile practice on the southern coasts of England, where villainous folk do not just kill shipwrecked sailors, but purposely light bonfires on the coast near banks and cliffs at stormy nights to entice unsuspecting ships to their doom."

"Englishmen have never been known for their honour," Giovanni remarked bitterly, "Although that cannot be said of their knights, the lot of whom are indeed fine and chivalrous gentlemen, the common folk there have always made a habit of cheating and twisting the truth to their ends, and in nowhere I have observed that more than in England."

"By the way, monsieur, have you heard any word of the great battle between the armies of England and France that took place last year? Word has it that the Frenchmen were crushed severely there. Now there will be no peace between these two kingdoms for certain," the magistrate spoke.

"Indeed I have heard of it, the great battle near some place called Crecy, though I cannot recall whether it is a village or a castle. People say that a good share of France's knights were slaughtered like lambs on that fateful day, may God have mercy on their souls, and slaughtered not in honest battle, but shot down like dogs by arrow," Giovanni confirmed, "So you can see for yourself how these Englishmen are honourless people as far as the common folk are concerned."

Giovanni's dislike for the English was founded in his last trip to England, where he had been waylaid by highwaymen and constantly charged exorbitant fees in the taverns he had stopped to spend a night in.

The riders were almost at the wreck now. Seeing their betters arrive, the peasants and fishermen crowding around the ship removed their hats in greeting. Giovanni noticed scores of seagulls circling the ship - apparently there were bodies on the deck - but found it strange that none dared to land on the wreck, and assumed the birds were simply spooked by the crowd of people.

"Find a plank or ladder so we can get aboard!" the magistrate commanded. A group of peasants immediately left and arrived a short while later, carrying a large plank. They leaned it against the board of the ship and stood by, awaiting further orders.

"Come, monsieur! As the representative of Genoese merchant house, you will evidently know better the lawful owner and the true value of the goods in this ship," the magistrate gestured as he set foot on the plank. Giovanni felt a strange tingling in the gut. Something told him not to set foot on this vessel, but give it a wide berth, set fire to it and burn it down until nothing but ashes remained to be washed away by the sea. Something was terribly wrong with this ship.

When they saw the deck of the ship, both Giovanni and the magistrate looked away unwittingly and cross-signed. The presence of the seagulls hadn't lied.

"May God have mercy on their souls..." the magistrate sighed, cross-signed again and put his sleeve over his nose. Although it was mid-autumn, the hot Mediterranean sun was shining brightly as ever, yet a chilling breeze suddenly blew over the coast, making him and the people crowding on the beach shiver.

"There is one thing I find strange though. The bodies of these poor men look like they have festered here for quite a while already, and from what I gather, this ship was found beached just this morning, yet there have been no storms in at least a month. Which means the shipmen must have died a while ago, their ship remaining adrift until today," Giovanni remarked, trying to suppress nausea as he held his sleeve over his face, pointing the other hand at the putrid corpses littered about the deck. Although he had witnessed bloodshed and death before, he was a merchant, not a soldier, and was unaccustomed to such macabre sights and terrible stench. At least that explained the seagulls' reluctance - they fed on raw flesh, not carrion.

The magistrate called upon the men on the beach and commanded them to remove the bodies, then proceeded down to the hold with Giovanni.

Inside the hold, they came across two more bodies in equally horrid state of putrefaction. Although there was some excess seawater in the hold, the majority of goods were still neatly packed and well-preserved - spices, rolls of fabric, and other typical wares of the Orient.

"I know this seal," Giovanni said, pointing out the seal on the crates and packages, "It belongs to Frederico Valenti, a good acquaintance and trading partner of mine. He trades with the Orient, so evidently this must be his ship."

The magistrate nodded and called upon the men outside that there are two more bodies in the hold, and commanded them to start unloading the goods. He then proceeded to the sailors' quarters in the stern of the ship. Giovanni followed him, noticing that none of the corpses were teeming with maggots despite their advanced stages of decay. Evidently, the spray and air of the sea was at fault, corpse-flies shunning the salt.

The sailors' quarters revealed the same lamentable sight. Some had died in their bunks, some on the floor. The stench was overpowering. Giovanni cross-signed again to ward off disease - apparently some kind of pestilence had stricken the ship's crew, all of them dying at sea, where the hot sun had quickly reduced their bodies to festering carcasses.

"Water!"

Young merchant's heart almost stopped, hearing this raspy voice that seemed to come from beyond the grave. He jumped about to see a figure move in the darkest corner of the room, lying amidst two corpses.

"Bring water, quickly! There's one still alive here!" he shouted to the men outside. The peasants seemed slightly disappointed - now that a live crewman was found to claim the goods for their lawful owner, they would have to make do with the salvagers' share of one-tenth.

Two men arrived, bringing a flask of watered-down wine that everyone in these parts drank. Taking the survivor by his arms, they carried him out so that everyone could have a better look at him.

It was an old man, a wealthy one by the looks of his fine clothes and the large golden pendant adorned with gemstones, hanging in a thick golden chain around his neck. Seizing the flask with bony, emaciated hands, he began to drink so greedily that the men were forced to pull it away from him with force, so the old man wouldn't die from drinking too much after prolonged thirst.

When the survivor was carried off the ship down onto the beach, magistrate and Giovanni started to question him, but the old man knew only a few words in Italian. From his accent, Giovanni deduced that he must be a Frenchman, and spoke to him in the French tongue that he himself knew well. Unwittingly, his eyes touched the precious pendant around the old man's neck, which he noticed and immediately concealed beneath his cloak jealously.

"Speak, old man, who are you and what woe befell your ship!" Giovanni spoke. The old man did not answer until after getting to drink for a second time.

"My name is Abelard," he spoke, "and I am from Burgundy, but I have lived most of my life in foreign lands. Ten years ago, I was among the Genoese merchants who journeyed East to the distant land of Cathay, the great Khan's realm. While there, I came to feel I have journeyed enough and decided to go home so that I could die back in my homeland, and my bones would rest in a proper Christian graveyard, not in a far-away heathen land. I managed to meet up with a few merchants heading back West, and with God's mercy, I made it to the Genoese town of Caffa, which lies north of Pontus Euxinus on the opposite side of Greek lands. While my companions rested there, the city was attacked and besieged by Tartar heathens. For half a year we would defend ourselves, until a most terrible pestilence struck the Tartar camp. In their devilish malice and hatred for Christians, they loaded their trebuchets with the bodies of the plague-dead and flung them into the city to infect us with the same plague that ravaged them. So we who were still alive from the siege boarded ships and fled to Constantinople. But some of us had contracted the plague, and by the time we passed the Dardanelles, the entire crew was lying down ill, seized by the most dreadful plague imaginable. I too contracted the plague, but with God's grace recovered, remaining the only man alive aboard after a week. Being too weak from my recent illness, and having no skill in piloting a ship, I could only sit down and wait for death as the food and water stocks ran low. A week or so passed before I felt the ship strike ground, and here I am now, may the Lord repay your kindness to me."

Giovanni nodded compassionately but couldn't help himself ask about the precious pendant around Abelard's neck.

The old man's eyes glinted viciously, his gaunt hands clenching tightly where the pendant lied beneath his cloak, but he answered nonetheless.

"That is a most precious artifact from the Orient that I do not wish to speak of in the presence of these peasants, who might be tempted to steal it upon hearing of it's worth - even though they do not understand French, they might still get an idea of what I speak of by looking alone. I feel my last hour is upon me, so do me a favour and have me brought to some more comfortable place, where I will tell you of this pendant in private," he said, grinning strangely whenever mentioning the pendant.

Giovanni spoke to the peasants and asked them to take the dying old traveller to the small monastery just outside the nearby village.

The sun was setting when old Abelard was getting visibly worse. It wasn't the plague he claimed to have recovered from - starvation and thirst had weakened the old man too much. One of the monks came to Giovanni, who had spent the rest of the day sorting and accounting for the unloaded goods, now placed under armed guard, and informed that the dying foreigner wishes to speak to him one last time.

When Giovanni entered the room Abelard was being tended to in, he saw the abbot speaking to Abelard.

"Sire, it would be best to take care of your soul while there is still time and confess your sins now," the spiritual shepherd of the village and the 10 monastic brothers suggested.

"Oh, Father, I have had enough time to think over my sinful life and ask for absolution directly to the Lord himself as I laid amidst the dead on the sea," Abelard laughed weakly, "Besides, I already received Holy Communion and last rites from our ship's priest, may his soul rest in peace. The Lord's will was for him to die the last, after he had taken care of the salvation of my soul. So I ask but one thing - have the earthly remains of my sinful flesh buried right here, in the monastery's graveyard. Although I haven't lived my life as a good Christian should, I at least wish to make sure I come to face the Lord's judgement as such. But in the little time I have left, I ask to speak of more earthly things with this good young man alone."

The abbot nodded and left the two to their conversation.

"So," Abelard said, grinning strangely again as he looked around as if afraid someone might be listening on them, "you wished to know what this pendant is, and I promised to tell you. I can say that it is so precious that, were I at better health now, I would never reveal it to a single soul. However, since my last hour has come, I do not wish for it to perish along with my mortal flesh either. So, young friend, in gratitude for finding me and seeing to my bones resting in a Christian cemetary rather than bottom of the sea or in the stomachs of dogs and carrion birds, I am going to entrust this pendant to you. When I am dead, take it as a reward for your efforts."

After a pause and a burst of his strange giggle, Abelard continued.

"You wanted to know where I found it, right? First I heard of this amulet in the far-away land of Cathay. Word was that it had once belonged to the mighty Ghenghis Khan himself, the first and the greatest of all khans. There was also word that the current khan wanted it back, it having been stolen from him. There were also a lot of rumors about it's power, but I dismissed them all as nonsense at first."

After taking breath and coughing, Abelard proceeded with his story.

"I mentioned my journey back home with those certain Genoese merchants. We set out, and came across many perils on our long journey, from attacks by steppe brigands to terrible sandstorms. When we arrived in Caffa, as I told before, the city was besieged by Tartar hordes. I helped to defend the city, fighting on the walls alongside younger men, when one day, I noticed a man in the Tartar camp with this amulet around the neck. Although I had never seen the great khan's stolen pendant, somehow I knew this one was it, as if it had told me itself. Instantly, I was seized by great greed and desire to seize it for myself, because I wanted to take something precious back from my journey to the Orient. I did, however, realize that my longing for this pendant was futile, given the circumstances, and told myself to abandon any such thoughts. Weeks passed, but then one day I noticed the Tartars digging a large pit outside their camp and carrying bodies there. That made me realize a pestilence had descended upon their camp."

After a long pause, where old Abelard strived to keep his face from grinning and twitching strangely, he continued his story again.

"That same evening, we heard great noise in the Tartar camp, the clash of weapons and shouting as if the heathens had started to fight amongst themselves. We thought they were simply settling some dispute and went to sleep. But the next morning, we saw them prepare their trebuchets for bombardment, except this time they flung no rocks, but corpses at us, as I told before. Some of them splattered against the city walls like disgusting worms, others dropped on the streets and roofs of houses, and all of them bore the disfiguring signs of the plague that made their already ugly features so terrible that no Christian sould would have words to describe them, let alone courage to behold them. We understood immediately that the Tartars intended to wipe us out with plague if they couldn't do it with fire and sword, so the castellan gave orders to abandon the city immediately. Just as we were leaving the walls, I heard a great, terrible screaming behind me, and as I turned around, that same Tartar who had worn the pendant crashed into the cobble just next to me, crushing his ugly head from the blow. I found it most strange that he alone had been thrown at us alive, and since he had no visible marks of the plague on him, I examined his body only to find the much-craved pendant to my great delight. Although I found it strange that such a precious article, and one who allegedly was stolen from the Khan himself at that, wasn't taken from a condemned criminal, I did not bother to think why and took it. The rest of my story you already know."

"May I see it?" Giovanni asked.

"Yes, you may," Abelard cakled, grinning again as he pushed his cloak aside, revealing the pendant on his chest, "Just be careful - if you play with fire, you can get burnt!"

Giovanni looked at it as if mesmerized. Although he had seen many fine works of jewelry, this one was certainly the most intricate and beautiful of them all, so it was no surprise that old Abelard had assumed immediately that this was the Khan's legendary amulet. It was adorned by exotic gemstones and strange and mysterious symbols, shining differently from ordinary golden articles, so seemingly mundane and yet having something mysterious and terrifying about it.

"Real precious, is it not," Abelard remarked, caressing the pendant, grinning madly again. Apparently, the suffering endured on his journey had robbed him of his sanity somewhat, "You can touch it, don't be afraid. They say that among other things, this pendant can predict the future. But that's obviously just rumors and tall tales..."

Giovanni gathered his courage and touched the pendant. It was really pleasant to hold in hand and look at. He caught himself eagerly waiting for Abelard's death just so that he could finally call it his own, and was for an instant horrified at such sinful thought. But as he gazed at the amulet again, the air in the monastery's room seemed to darken and thicken. It was no longer the fresh sea air coming in through the window, but a sickening sweetish stench of death and decay akin to what had lingered on the stranded ghost ship. Streets of Messina appeared before Giovanni's eyes, littered with rotting corpses with no more semblance to human beings, and great pits filled to the brim with the dead. Like ghosts, the dying roamed the streets aimlessly, all consumed by a disease so foul and vile as to elude any description, until eventually collapsing next to the dead. The waters of the harbour were filled with floating bodies, all horribly bloated and blackened by corruption and disease, no bird or fish touching them in fear of the dreadful plague. A most terrible spectre looked back at Giovanni from the amulet, the lipless mouth of it's skeletal face smiling at him in a horrifying grin, it's bony hand reaching out for him menacingly.

Giovanni recoiled in horror only to find himself back in the monastery room with fresh air and no sign of any of the frightful sights he had witnessed in his vision. Old Abelard, witnessing his terror, laughed again.

"I told you, play carefully with fire!" he said, his words betraying that the old man knew a lot more than he was saying, while the pendant on his chest shined mysteriously and enticingly as before.

"Did that really...." Giovanni gasped, unable to understand if the terrifying vision before was a trick of the Devil or a product of his own imagination.

"Maybe yes, and maybe no... One thing I can tell you - this amulet will make you a great man if you are more careful with it than I was. I've heard there's much more to it's power than just giving visions of the future. But those are, after all, just tall tales... I feel my time has come. Take it now, it will tell you, it's new master, everything about itself like it told me... Just remember what I said about playing with fire..." Abelard spoke, his rattling breath signifying that the Angel of Death was already standing next to his bed.

"I will remember that. Thank you for your gift, old man!" Giovanni said, removing the pendant from Abelard's neck.

Moments later, the old Burgundian drew his final breath. Giovanni cross-signed and began to recite the Lord's prayer as he closed Abelard's eyes. And even though something deep inside screamed for him to throw the pendant out in the sea or let it be buried with it's old master away from mortal eyes, only then did Giovanni call in the monks when the amulet rested securely on his chest underneath his shirt.

"Bury this man properly, holy brothers," he told the monks who stood around the bed of the deceased and began a chant, praying the Lord to have mercy on the departed soul.

---

As Giovanni rode back to the city, the evening skies appeared unusually red, red Northern lights being visible in the far north - a most unusual spectacle this far south and at this time of the year. Giovanni had seen Northern lights before only in England that he loathed, and was most surprised to behold them here in Sicily. There was an unusual silence in the air - even the cicadas that normally sang day and night were completely quiet now, and all signs seemed ominous, heralding something dark and terrible. Giovanni remembered the dreadful vision and cross-signed, the pendant suddenly seeming unbearably heavy. The merchant in his mind judged that he will at least be able to sell it to some rich nobleman for a heavy price, to a duke or maybe even a king. After the frightening premonition, it was evident that this amulet was no ordinary piece of gold and gemstone, but what more powers did it hold? What had the late Burgundian meant when he said "it would tell about itself", and why did one need to be careful with it besides it's obvious power to attract very real robbers?

Giovanni pulled out the pendant and looked at it again. His horse grew visibly restless, looking back as if frightened of something.

"Oh precious, tell me what you are..." Giovanni thought, looking at it without expecting any answer.

But the precious did answer. At first, Giovanni was seized by unspeakable horror. The horse was also seized by the same horror and dropped him to the ground before charging away as if pursued by a pack of rabid wolves. When Giovanni stood up, however, he didn't utter a single harsher word at the foolish animal. He understood now at started to laugh madly, much like the pendant's last owner had laughed.

---

A few days later, another Genoese ship from Caffa arrived in Messina. There were no men with strange pendants aboard it, but there was something else in it's holds - the black plague. And barely a week had passed when the city streets were littered with corpses, cemeteries being filled to the brim, the air was thick with the stench of decay and putrefaction, countless bloated bodies floated in the harbor, and barely a house in the city did not have a red plague cross painted on it's doors - all just like the young merchant had foreseen. Meanwhile, ghost ships with a skeleton crew would continue to drift in the seas, it's sailors long strangled by the pestilence, and all of them carried plague in their holds. And everywhere where careless people sought to claim the wreck and it's contents, the plague already awaited them and within a week turned them into foul and festering cadavers that even the flies shunned to touch.

Merchant Giovanni had left Messina before the arrival of Black Death. Nobody knows for sure if it was on his own accord, or on the advice of the mysterious amulet. But some say the plague had arrived already with the first ship...

LeeC
October 7th, 2014, 06:14 PM
No time for a proper critique at the moment, but I did want to say, how Poe of you. Well done :-)

Jean Bathurst
October 8th, 2014, 02:20 PM
This is awesome. As LeeC said, very Poe. Atmospheric, creepy, delightfully hair raising. Really enjoyed the use of language.

Could cut words here and there, ("Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!" -- Will Strunk, teacher of E.B. White) but that's all I can suggest. Feels very well researched. I've always been told to cut research as much as possible, even though I personally enjoy it. Enlivens the story and gives you a better sense of place. Still. 'Kill your darlings'.

So a few details might be struck in order to increase the pace for today's 128 character attention span audience.

Mind you, I always say this!

One thing:

"He understood now at started to laugh madly, much like the pendant's last owner had laughed."

Should be:

He understood now and started to laugh madly..."

Probably an autocorrect thing...!

best,
Jean