The story continues from Part 1 …
Giacomo steadied his hand and turned the page. The sound of the crinkling paper was enough to startle him.
The following page held a list of cargo taken on board as the ship prepared to for the return voyage: rich cloth, grain from Egypt, chests of spice, billets of iron and copper, and all manner of delicacies found in the governor’s storehouses. At the bottom of the page the captain had added an annotation in faint writing:
Year of Our Lord 1348, St. Oswald’s Day — A sickness has swept through the camps. The knights and archers are falling ill, and many have perished. The rocky soil and desert heat will not allow the digging of graves; the dead lie heaped in the streets of al-Manshiyya like carcasses at a slaughterhouse.
Baron Leonardo has commanded me to take a casket of golden plate and treasure on board that he wrested from the governor’s home, and convey it to his agent in Italy, where it will be sold to pay the debts his knights have incurred on campaign. The treasure was placed in my personal care. For my services, he has given me a fine medallion, an ancient golden pendant newly set with a jewel larger than a man’s thumbnail. It is worth a fortune. And there is much more than that within the hoard.
Baron Leonardo is pale and weak. The sickness has taken him, and I think he has not long to live. I think Death will soon claim them all.
I shall be glad to quit this wretched place and sail for home.
Giacomo held the logbook as his eyes darted around the chamber and fell on a dark wooden chest at the foot of the captain’s bed.
There was no doubt what had happened here: The captain had brought the contagion on board, either with his men, or with the vermin that always accompanied ship’s cargoes. The crew had fallen ill and perished, the ship had become floating graveyard. As the law demanded, he would have to give the order to destroy the vessel where it floated.
What a shame, thought Giacomo, to send such treasure to the bottom of the sea.
There was a single keyhole in the heavy brass plate set into the front of the captain’s chest. He walked to it and kicked at the lid, but the solid thump told him that no amount of pounding would yield its contents.
Surely, though, a captain would not sail through hostile waters unarmed. There would be axes and boarding pikes in the storage hold. Even without a key, there were ways to open a strongbox.
He dropped the book as he turned to exit the captain’s quarters. Had he glanced at it, he would have seen the page that fell open, revealing the captain’s final entry:
We are confessed of our sins. Night will soon fall. We can hear them moving beneath us — horrible, hungry and soulless. There are few of us who remain, and we will not see the dawn. We should break the hull and send this God-forsaken ship to the bottom of the sea, but none dares go below decks.
I pray for death. Yet for our sins, death is a mercy that will be denied us all.
Giacomo bent his head as he made is way down the ladder to the cargo hold. He kicked away a scattering of rags and rubbish as he reached the floor, then peered back into the recesses of the ship. Bags and crates were wrapped with oiled cloth and lashed down well, but some seemed to have shifted during the voyage. A heavy box blocked the walkway, and grain spilled over the floor from a torn sack. Giacomo wondered how many days had passed since the sailors had been down here to check the cargo.
He squinted into the darkness of the hold, but saw no sign of weapons or tools. There was a deep moaning among the cargo as the ship rolled with the waves. “Ahoy?” Giacomo called out. “Is someone there?”
Another swell caused the planking to creak again. Giacomo shook his head to clear away the foolish thoughts as he squeezed past the crate and into the shadows of the hold, looking for something to break open the captain’s chest.
Before he could take another step he heard a commotion from above: footsteps on the deck and voices shouting in alarm.
“What have those fools gotten into?” he muttered softly as he turned and hurried up the ladder and into the sunlight. He peered around the deck to find the sailors who’d come on board with them, but there was no one to be seen. Finally he caught sight of two of them, hunched over something near the bow.
They looked up at Giacomo as he signaled them toward him with an impatient wave. “Leave that,” he ordered. “I need you here. There is a trunk in the captain’s quarters. I want you to bring it out and take it to … “
Giacomo’s satisfaction at the men’s quick obedience to his summons faded. For an instant he felt nothing but annoyance at the sailors for playing some sort of prank when there was work to be done. They’d moved the bodies that were laying in the stairway to the hold and dressed themselves in the dead sailors’ outfits — the pants with the green and orange stripes, and the doublet of red.
When Giacomo saw the dull, lifeless light of their eyes and the glistening sheen of blood that darkened their teeth, his confusion became terror. He knew what had happened: Those dead men had returned to life.
Even as he turned to run, Giacomo saw the sailors who had come on board with him now lying on the deck, their flesh torn with bites and the scrapes of ragged, filthy nails. He whirled and began to run toward the side, but stopped in his tracks as more figures emerged from the darkness of the cargo hold, blocking his escape to the sea.
He ripped the cap off his head and waved it in the air, trying to signal the captain of the skiff, to tell him to destroy the Signora di Dolori Costanti, to send the death ship and everything on board to the bottom of the sea. But powerful hands pulled him downward as sharp teeth began to pierce his skin and strip flesh from his bones.
Giacomo screamed into the gusting swirl of the ocean wind; his voice was lost. The last thing he saw over the railings of the ship was the skiff, bobbing on the swells of the sea, and the captain on her stern, preparing a grappling line to cast a line over the rail to haul the cargo ship back to the Italian harbor.
Read more in the forthcoming novel, The Age of the Dead, by Scott Farrell