This short story is set in the time of the events of the novel, The Age of the Dead, by Scott Farrell. In this story, the “Great Pestilence” (usually called the Black Death) that ravaged Europe was not an outbreak of bubonic plague, but rather an event brought on by a mysterious, supernatural force that brought the dead back to life – with a hunger for human flesh.
Giacomo heard the ship’s masts groaning with each swell. The shroud of untrimmed sails popped and ruffled in the steady ocean breeze. As the steersman of the little skiff pushed closer to the vessel, he could make out lettering on the bow that read Signora di Dolori Costanti. He quickly made the sign of the cross.
“When was she sighted?” he shouted to the captain of the little boat.
“After midnight, harbor master,” the sailor replied over the wind. “One of the merchants said his ship nearly collided with her in the dark. She was running without lights. If not for the full moon, they’d never have seen her in time to steer around.”
“No one has made contact?” Giacomo asked.
“A fisherman passed close by this morning,” the captain said, holding down his cap. “He sounded to her for nearly an hour, but there was no reply.” He shook his head grimly. “She’s adrift with the current, master.”
Giacomo turned and squinted at the ship. “No reports of piracy?” he asked.
“None in these waters,” the captain said with a wave to the steersman. “Besides, it’d be a rare pirate that would take a crew and leave the cargo. Look how low she’s sitting in the water,” he pointed.
The harbor master shrugged in confusion. “She’s abandoned,” he concluded.
“Perhaps you’re right,” the captain said cautiously.
“Well, take us round to the windward side,” Giacomo ordered. “And get a rope. We’ll have to board her.”
The skiff captain scowled as he turned and began barking commands to his men. Giacomo saw their unhappy looks. These sailors knew how dangerous boarding a vessel on open water could be. Throwing a line over the gunwales and hauling her into harbor would be easier and safer, and he knew that’s exactly what these sailors would do if given a choice.
Of course, the foolish legends of haunted ships cruising the seas, looking for blasphemous souls to take on a voyage straight to hell only added to the men’s reluctance to board. This lot looks like they’d make a right fine crew for the devil, Giacomo thought, glancing at the gang of sailors manning the skiff. Drunks and fugitives all, from the look of them. Probably sell their own mothers into brothels, if there’d be a profit in it.
He stood aside and let the men do their work as they guided the little boat beside the drifting merchant ship with care and hurriedly cast a line over the side. One of the sailors held the rope and looked expectantly at Giacomo.
“Up you go!” snapped the harbor master. “Secure the rudder and find a ladder to toss down.”
Giacomo paid no heed to their contemptuous glares as they scrambled one by one like monkeys up the line, trying to avoid being crushed between the hulls of the ships or hurled into the sea by the bucking of the bigger vessel. He could hear the call of ahoy as the boarders slid over the ship’s rail, but no voices answered.
Moments later a rope ladder tumbled down and one of the sailor’s faces appeared over the side.
“Don’t seem to be anyone aboard, master!” he shouted.
Giacomo reached out, caught the ladder and climbed. The wind made his sailing cape billow as he swung over the railing and dropped to the deck of the Signora di Dolori Costanti. “I’ll find the captain’s records,” he said as the skiff pushed away. “You men secure those sails. And touch nothing else.” He knew the customs of the sea, and how eager greedy seamen would be to pocket anything valuable the instant the laws of salvage were invoked.
The sailors set about their tasks quickly as Giacomo walked aft and ducked beneath the ledge of the rearcastle. Down a short, narrow hallway was the door to the captain’s cabin, but Giacomo’s breath caught in his throat as he glanced to his left.
In the dim light, he saw a ladder leading below decks. At its base lay two men dressed in bright colors. Their outfits would have been comical — one in green and orange striped pants, the other with a dark red doublet — if they were still among the living. Their grinning faces and glassy eyes testified that they had been dead for days; the horrid sores on their cheeks and hands indicated the cause of their demise.
“Pestilence!” gasped Giacomo as he backed away from the ladder, whipped a kerchief from his doublet and held it tightly over his face. Judging from the stench of rot rising through the hatch, he realized there must be more corpses down there. He’d heard rumors of ships in distant seas struck with contagion so swift it decimated the crew before the vessel could make port. He’d hoped never to encounter such a thing in a civilized place like Venice.
Giacomo knew the laws regarding such finds: Salvage was forbidden. The ship had to be burned to the waterline, and all those who’d been on board her placed in quarantine for a fortnight.
He clenched his jaw at the thought and hurried to the captain’s quarters.
Only one thing Giacomo cared to know as he rifled through the pages of a thin volume by the captain’s bed: Where did this ship hail from? If sickness was plaguing a city on the Levantine coast, it was Giacomo’s duty to deny entry to all ships hailing from that port.
Flipping through the worn pages, he found the entry documenting the outset of the voyage:
Year of Our Lord 1347, St. Marcellus Day — Having taken on board supplies and crew, we set sail for Acre in relief of God’s forces, blessed by Pope Clement, sixth of that name, who have invested the city and shall drive out the infidels and scourge them in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesu Cristo.
Giacomo quickly flipped through pages of cargo records — casks of wine, sacks of flour, sheaves of arrows, lumber and fodder — that were destined for the Pope’s soldiers. Pages later, the captain’s script chronicled their arrival at Acre and the successful delivery of the supplies.
The ship’s captain didn’t seem a man prone to indulgent ruminations or poetic descriptions, and Giacomo respected him for that. Yet among the brief series of log entries, Giacomo’s eye lingered on a passage distinctly longer than the rest:
Year of Our Lord 1348, St. Porphyrius Day — What awfulness has been bred in this forsaken place? The walls of Acre stand firm and I doubt this bastion of a city will ever fall to the efforts of man, yet the Christians who besiege the place persist in their efforts to defeat the infidel. They cannot seize this insurmountable fortress; they merely cause suffering in the hopes that the enemies of God will abandon their defense.
This morning Baron Leonardo led men-at-arms to attack the town of al-Manshiyya, which lies east of the walls of Acre. The town was peaceable, yet rumors had reached the baron’s ears that the governor was withholding treasure within the walls of his home.
Leonardo’s men passed the gates in arms; by the time the Saracens knew what was happening, it was too late to secure the town, and in any case the little walls of al-Manshiyya would have been of no avail against the greed of the knights. They hurried to the door of the governor’s home, but the man swore he had no concealed treasure and begged the knights not to harm his children, who were watching from the shade of a fruit tree that grew in the courtyard.
The baron paid no heed to the man’s pleas. The knights entered the house, searching for plunder. From outside we could hear the screams of the man’s wife as the knights violated her quarters. A moment later one of them brought forth jewels and gold plate.
The man wept as Baron Leonardo commanded his men to bring the governor’s son and daughter before him.
The man begged the knights to have mercy on his children, but there was no mercy to be had. The boy was blinded; the girl given to the baron’s men. And even as the governor wailed with grief, the baron pointed to the streets and houses of the town. “You are the lord of this town. These are all your children,” he said. “And their suffering will be the result of your faithlessness.”
The sky was soon black with smoke and shrieks of agony were heard in every street. Every man and boy in town was blinded — every one but the governor himself. He alone was left with sight to lead the mutilated residents of his town groping into the desert in search of water. The baron’s men laughed at them all and hurled down filth as the retched mob passed out of the gates.
We sailed to Acre to serve our Christ, but I now see that Christ has no dominion in this place.