Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part fifty-three)
The Sword Decides!
The clank of gear, and echoes from the passage of swift-moving feet, interrupted, as Mastracchio was offering to Ludovic a Paolo condemned for murder…
“He is an instigator of murder. No matter his excuses, his hands are bloody as the assassins’.”
And, were it not for a Court of Inquisition’s need to stretch, slice, and beat such parts of the heretic as might heal from the efforts of Mastracchio’s men, before sentencing him to burn…a foreordained conclusion…he, Ludovic, might this moment hold the ashes in his hands. Proof, that in the Kingdom of Naples justice holds her breath, and bides her time, but she is served.
Mastracchio and Montferrat looked pregnantly at one another, and Konrad entered with the messenger.
“I found him asleep in a stableyard.”
“Why not?” the man said.
“You will know when your speech is wanted!”
“Who sent you…from Palermo, was it?”
“The Archbishop Theobaldus. Not Theobaldus himself,” the messenger went on, when Montferrat, who had asked the question, said nothing.
“You are of his household. His man of affairs has given you the charge.”
“Manners,” said Mastracchio.
“Yes, signor marchese.”
“Oh, ho,” said Montferrat. “You do well to know me. Give that document to the King of Hungary.”
The messenger glanced at Mastracchio, lost composure under the eye of Proserpina, tried Konrad. Better informed by a glare, he pulled from his pouch four letters, ribboned and sealed, and one loose scrolled paper, its inks leaked through from front to back. This mirror of the paper’s contents showed grim enough.
Before Ludovic’s place, the messenger struggled to push the edges flat. Mastracchio laid his cup on a corner; Montferrat, helpful for once, added his, and Ludovic, unbending from a wine-soaked sullenness, sat up to anchor a third.
Here were naked figures, male and female, prone and supine. The inartistic faces wore bemused mouths, startled eyes. At the neck, the armpits, the elbows, the groin, were swellings, made risen to a grotesquery, inked black, and the size of so many demonic heads.
On other figures, these were depicted burst and dripping. Lines of miasma were drawn radiating; the priest’s notes described a ghastly smell.
The afflicted fall suddenly, wherever they may be. From the streets we have carried away dozens. A great buzzing of flies in is the air, and households I have visited describe a sinister phenomenon, in which the noise comes to their ears, insistent. They know what they will discover—sometimes one of the family, sometimes a stranger staggered into their garden, or fallen across their threshold.
One seeming well, and whole in appearance, will take his nightly bed, waking when the swellings do not allow him to lie still. He cannot rest on his belly, or his back, or his side. At times in his delirium, he demands a feast, but he can eat nothing. And very quickly, he is dead.
“But we do not receive word that the pestilence has spread much beyond Messina.”
Mastracchio spoke. The messenger said: “A rider from Messina came to the archbishop’s court with this, and a plea from the city fathers to intervene, so much as he might. He has ordered prayers at every mass, that God spare Messina’s neighbors, and a doubling of alms.”
“Have you seen it?” Ludovic asked. “Seen such a sufferer, or such a corpse?”
Montferrat, paler than he had been, said in a quiet voice, “Yes?”
“When I rode out at first, making for Milazzo, not to take ship from Messina, by the wayside I passed… Bumps, in the fields. Like black rags, heaped here and there. One village, almost no village at all, only a shrine where a few live nearby, they call it Santa Maria-Lucia… My horse laid his ears flat. I stopped him a moment, not able to hear. It seemed to me I had heard… Some thin high noise that was nearly a cry.”
“And you dismounted, went to see what the bundle was?”
“By God’s grace, no! The sky was dark, it had not rained for a week. I rode on, through lightning and thunder. And since my ship arrived at Naples, and since I have ridden north from there, I have seen no more of them.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2022, Stephanie Foster)