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Fleming Storage Unit #117: Noxious Nostalgia

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Phil Simpson

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« on: 09:42:05 AM 12/07/17 »
There was a time when nostalgia was considered a sickness. Often ascribed to soldiers longing for their homeland, it was seen as such a debilitating disease that commanders worried about the effects of such a potent blight running rife among their ranks. As I stood in the storage locker my grandfather had hidden from all of his personal records, I felt overwhelmed by a wave of debilitating sickness. Stacks of memories were piled high around me, each box marked with thick black letters. In one box I found a carrying case of mini flares, and suddenly I was thrown back into a caving expedition we went on when I was still a teenager. That was one of the worst symptoms of nostalgia, it made you lose your grip on the present.

Inside another box, marked AETHER RESOURCES, I discovered the reason why my grandfather had become such a recluse. As I held photograph of the two of us at a dig site he worked in Northern France, I found myself reliving that summer. While building some great monstrosity the company had accidentally unearthed the remains of an old wooden motte and bailey castle, which was the perfect excuse for a season of discovery. I felt the memories pour back into me, the sense of adventure, waking up every day eager to see what we would find next. The last time I had with my grandfather. But inside this box was a discovery he hadn’t decided to share. What follows is, to the best of my ability, the most coherent record of my grandfather’s final obsession. The myriad of twisted notes, half-finished translations and frantically sprawled prose proved a significant challenge to attempt to unpick and transcribe; but between what initially seemed to be the poorly maintained records of an ageing mind there was a deep sense of method in his madness. In many ways, this method perfectly reflected his final work. When confronted with a stack of hastily compiled documents stapled together at seemingly random points using crumpled paper decorated with multiple shades of coffee stains and knowing that this was produced by a mind that published a professional research thesis and countless influential academic articles, when absorbs an ethereal sense of dread observing such a poorly maintained manuscript that had devoured what sense of reality was left for the old man. Something rather important is quite lacking in the translation, but given its content, perhaps this is for the better.
 
It all begins with a quote, and the death of tens of millions.

***

‘That omnipotence which has called the world with all its living creatures into one animated being, especially reveals himself in the desolation of great pestilences.’
- J.F.C. Hecker, Epidemics of the middle Ages, Trans. By B.G. Babington (London, 1859)

Sin. That which differentiates man from beast. It is within the nature of the beast to hunt, to kill, to fornicate without reason, to steal from others and all manner of other deplorable actions just as a man may do so to his neighbours. But a beast does not choose. A beast is a slave to its nature. A man chooses. To that end sin is born from choice, not nature. And this year, the culmination of our sins brought about such righteous wrath from the Almighty creator that it seems half of Christendom is gone. Where once the labourers worked the land thick as flies on a corpse, now there were empty fields with rotting crops. Towns used to be so thick with people that a man had to push his way through market crowds, but now the stench of death and decay lies so heavy in the air that a thick miasma pollutes the lungs of any who dare travel to the markets and turns their skin black with pestilence. Usually in times of famine, disease, and war my brothers and I are worked ragged. Men sense the end and only then do they think to protect their souls. This year was no different, but my brothers have left me now. When I travelled to this country my chapel housed four men of my order, but now only I remained to stand vigil against the looming abyss.**

** Historical estimates of mortality directly due to the plague vary from one-fourth to three-fourths of the population of Europe and Asia; at least 25 million Europeans died between 1347 – 1351 - George C. Kohn, Encyclopaedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present (2008)**

Have you ever known real hunger, dear reader? I have. When you can count the number of times hunger has driven you to a spot of madness by the teeth shaped scabs around the base of your fingers, you discover exactly how hard your resolve is in the face of such awful suffering. Between the starvation and the threat of the scourge, fear ran through men like a wildfire, spreading beyond control and filling the hearts of everyone inside the castle. In this time of constant suffering, the Christian people felt the closest they had ever felt to God, and so they came to me. One day in the cold heart of winter as the sun dipped below the sky a soldier came to my confessional box.

“Does God see and hear everything?” He asked in French. I paid no mind to it at the time, after all half the castle garrison spoke French as their first language, but his voice seemed unfamiliar.

“He does.” I replied. “Especially confession. Tell me, what brought you to me today?”

“Justice.” He stated. “For what has been done.”

“And what have you done?” I foolishly asked, not sensing the danger.

“I have killed. Tortured. Maimed. I have peeled the skin from the backs of the living and left them to die. I have burned men at a stake. I have done all this and more, and I sleep soundly with a smile on my lips, knowing that justice has been served.”

I was shocked. This was a stranger. A man who revelled in the very worst of sins. I remained silent.

“This place is rotten with sin. I could smell it a hundred miles away. Those of you still clinging to life in this cesspool of humanity will know that judgement has come for you.”

I stammered for a moment, unable to find the right words. Eventually I spoke. “Who are you?”

“We have many names.” His voice was thick and heavy, an intoxicating liquor that blocked out my other senses as I stared dumbfounded at the plain wooden panel before me, hanging on his every word. “Most don’t bother to learn them though. If we’re lucky, someone might peer down from atop their horse to gaze upon the little rats scurrying about their day. We are, what you might call, the worthless of society.”

In a moment of madness or bravery, I raised my hand to the mesh that separated us within the confessional box to gaze upon the face of depraved insanity, but I retracted my hand as a flash of steel pierced through the wood and cut through the flesh between my thumb and index finger.

“I AM JUDGEMENT!” He screamed. “MADE MANIFEST BY ALL YOUR SINS! Before the sun rises you shall know true fear, and you will all face your creator with pain in your hearts.”

Shocked. Unable to speak. My head a rush of leaves in the wind. I couldn’t think, but my body moved as if independent from my mind and I kicked down the door before me. Leaving a bloody handprint on the oak I heaved the door to the chapel open and stepped out into the crushing cold, dark night. The snow had piled up to my knees but I forced my way through the slush to the keep, barely noticing the half frozen guards at their posts. The castellan was in his room drinking ale when I found him, blood pouring down my raised arm.

“Sir!” I cried. “There is an intruder in the castle.”

Sir Walter spat out a mouthful with ale. Once he saw the blood streaking my arm he understood my sincerity at instantly. He called in his squire, Henry, to tend to my hand before turning to me. “What happened?” He barked.

“Some madman came into the confessional box, raving about damnation and murder.” I thought it best not to trouble Henry with all the details since he was still only a child. “When I tried to see his face he stabbed me.”

The old knight stared at the ceiling in disbelief. “Did he identify himself in any way?” He asked, his voice tainted with just the slightest wisp of desperation.

“He said he was the worthless of society. Or rather, he actually said ‘we’ are the worthless.” That crucial detail had somehow completely evaded my thoughts until I spoke out loud.

“You might have led with that fact Christopher!” Walter yelled. He shook his head in disbelief. “They’re already inside then. FUCK! They call themselves worthless do they? Some scare strategy they’re trying no doubt. Worthless indeed. Those fucking archers I pay are worthless. They have let a whole group into the castle” He slammed his fist down on the table. “Father, go tell the archers on the wall they have already failed. The enemy is within. Henry!” The boy turned with a start and I saw a fading bruise on the back of his neck for a moment. “Go get the sergeant and tell him to ring the alarm bell at once.”

Out in the elements I stood upon the wall gazing out into damnation. Beside me an archer from Bristol was close to death with the build-up of frost around his face and clothes.

“Inside?” He gasped. “Already? We haven’t seen anything in weeks.”

“Well the worst has happened, a saboteur of some kind is inside.” I raised my hand, the bloodied bandage standing testament to my words. “The old man isn’t happy. He says you should all count yourselves worthless. Best not spread it around to the peasants though, it wouldn’t do to have them panic now.”

The archer nodded to the outside, shielding his eyes from the blistering snowfall. “He dares call me worthless does he? He sits in that office at the top of the keep with a mug of ale and roaring fire while I lose my toes and half my face staring out at that lot.” He spat at the floor. “Two months they have been sat in the fucking ice, watching us, barely making a move. Why now? Why would they try an assault in the middle of a snowstorm?”

“They’re freezing to death.” I said. “Just like us I suppose.” Behind me I heard the alarm bell ringing. The archer turned to look but I reassured him. “It’s just the sergeant calling the garrison to arms.”

But I was wrong. It was quiet at first, almost a hushed secret whispered into the ears of a loved one. But the sounds was there, growing in volume as each shout was answered by another, fighting against the wind. I felt the unease set into my bones as I realised what they were shouting, and why. No longer did I shiver from the cold as I heard it clearly.

“MURDER!”

Sir Walter was found with his throat slashed open from ear to ear. His body had been heaved onto the wall of his office, held in place by a series of crude iron nails that had been hammered into his flesh. Blood covered the walls, the floor, and even dripped from large splatters on the roof. Many of the soldiers recoiled with disgust, but the sergeant remained, staring at the brutalised corpse. I rushed into the room next to him and, to my shame, I turned and retched.

The Sergeant found this amusing. “Careful, Father.” He chuckled. “It smells bad enough in here already without you adding to it.”

The body was horrifying to behold, but I made myself watch. Whatever he had been in life he was now just an object of pure terror, the visceral canvas of a blood thirsty saboteur. Composing myself, I began to recite the prayers I had read aloud so many times over the graves of those who had succumbed to the black, pus filled tumours.

“I wouldn’t bother with any of that.” The sergeant said, scratching his chin. “Old Walter here isn’t going up there. I’ve been with him since the war started. When Our Glorious King Edward* led his last campaign right through the heartland of King Philip’s estates we were ordered to put everything to the torch.” He smiled, lost in the nostalgia. “Oh what a sight it was. Blackened earth as far as the eye could see. You could hardly move by the end of it we were carrying so many shiny baubles and coin purses. Every time we came to a stop at a village, most of the lads went to find a good woman. Not Walter though. No his tastes were a little more… Boyish.”

A sickening knot of disgust twisted itself around in my gut but before it could materialise in a coherent thought the sergeant spoke it for me.

“Speaking of which, Henry hasn’t been seen in a while.”

“What do you mean by that?!” I cried. “Are you somehow suggesting that a twelve year old boy not only killed Walter, but somehow lifted his body onto the wall and hammered nails into it to pin it in place? How on earth could he do that?”

“I don’t know.” The sergeant replied, undeterred by the ridiculousness of his accusations. “All I know is Walter is dead, and his squire, who was never far from his side I might add, has mysteriously gone missing.” He turned and looked at me. He was an abhorrent, grizzled man, long past his prime and devoid of any sympathy. “I’ve sent some men to look for him.”

“Where is your evidence?” I demanded. “You cannot accuse a boy of such crimes without anything to connect him to it.

The sergeant walked over to Walter’s body, tapping a set of nails that I hadn’t seen before. Around the man’s pelvis a series of extra nails had been dug into his flesh, arranged very carefully so as to suggest great purpose and intent on their location. My heart sank as the sergeant asked.

“So I suppose this is a coincidence then?”

I do not remember leaving the keep, only the blind rage that crashed over me at my frustration to stop the spreading of madness throughout the castle. The idea was utterly absurd, yet I could not reason with the man. As I stepped through the doors back into the frozen black air I stopped dead in my tracks.

The archer I spoke to earlier was lying face down in the snow. The snow around him was stained a deep red from his blood. Clouds of steam rose from the ground all about him. The delicate feathered fletching of a dozen or so arrows stood out from his back, likening him to some morbid depiction of a hedgehog lost in the snow. I felt my breath get knocked out of me as I gazed at the corpse, only a few moments dead at most. I didn’t hear more guards approach from behind me.

“What Devilry is this?” one of the castle constables asked to no one in particular.

“They call themselves the worthless.” I said without thinking.

“Priest!” The sergeant called out. “Enough of this, I’ll not have you spreading any more fear than necessary. You two.” He pointed at the two guards. “Get the other boys together and round up all the peasants in the long hall. Time to see who this traitor is.”

“Traitor?” I asked.

“You heard me, Priest.” The sergeant spat. “It’s the middle of winter, and there are two walls between us and Count Reynold. So you tell me what is more likely; a team of men crawling over the walls and sneaking around the castle without being seen by anyone, or someone on the inside is looking for favour with Reynold?” I had no answer. “Now you go back to your little chapel and say whatever prayers you need to say.” He turned once again to the guards. “As for you, one of you go and tell the archers to get down and help round everyone up. The threat is inside now.”

I paced around my small room. This was difficult since there were four beds inside, but only one now saw any use. Their emptiness a constant reminder of the loss that ate away at my soul every day when I awoke, looking for my Brothers and seeing only the vacant space their absence left behind. On my desk there were a few scraps of dried out and yellowed parchment. The almost indecipherably faded scrawl written on them was centuries old at least, but this didn’t bother me. The true reason for my deep unease was a single word, painted onto the desk adjacent to the parchment in thick red blood. “Curious?” It read. Teasing me. Daring me. One question digging into my sanity with each passing second. Eventually, I caved in.

***

Father Martin Harcourt, Written in the First Year of the Reign of King Baldwin I**

**Baldwin I was crowned King of Jerusalem in 1100 AD. This document must have been close to 250 years old by the time Father Christopher was reading it.**

The man sat across the table from me was the picture of madness. The corruption of his mind had spread into his body. His teeth had rotted away. His skin was the pale grey shade of death. What little hair remained dangled pathetically in thin strands from his crown. In his eyes, I saw only the horrifying void that claims so many souls in the cold depths of war. Yet despite all this, he wore a stoic smile on his cracked lips.

“What makes you smile so?” I asked.

“For the first time in my life I tasted power. You can’t take that from me, no matter how long you keep in shackles.” His voice rasped and he clearly strained with the effort of forming each syllable.

“What you tasted wasn’t power.” I replied, my hands trembling in his presence. The lunatic laughed. “What you tasted was closer to madness.”

“No.” He pointed a bony finger at me. “It tasted much closer to pork actually.” The lunatic threw back his head and filled the stone cell with such raucous laughter I fought back the urge to cover my ears.

“You laugh, at such awful crimes?”

The rusty rattle of the lunatic’s shackles crashed around the room as he slammed his hands on the table. “My crimes?” So offended at the idea. “I did nothing more than what I have always done, what everyone I have ever known and loved has ever done. I survived. And I did whatever it took. I am the product of this world; and this world is rotten. As we sat outside the walls of Antioch, staring up at the men on the battlements, the rich sat in comfort and the poor starved. They starved, and they died. Very slowly. Where was the compassion? Where was the charity? Where was the decency, the genuine belief in helping those in need? In short, where were all the Christians in this holy pilgrimage?”

“You cannot wave away your crimes by blaming others. What you did is beyond abhorrent.”

“Am I to blame for the world around me? The lords and their loyal knights had turned the hearts from God. The crime of apostasy and desperation is clear. As a holy man you must know this. Did not King Jehoram witness first-hand the horrors that befell his people as a direct consequence of his Godless path?”
**

**The passage in question is that of 2 Kings 6:28-29, in which King Jehoram, after allowing his people to turn to false idols and profit from their worship, is punished by God by having his capitol besieged for months. During the siege, he is confronted by the case of a woman who, in her extreme hunger and desperation, cannibalised her own infant son.**

“Who are you?” I stammered. “Who would speak thusly? You act as if you are a consequence of the actions of others, yet are you not a man, with free will to choose to act however he pleases?”

“Who am I?” The lunatic cackled once more. “We are the worthless of society, and fear is our only weapon against men of blood and steel. Remember us, Father. Like a plague, word of our deeds will spread through the minds of the sinful, the very mention of us striking even the bravest warrior with fear. When the sin of all mankind grows too much to bear, God will send his wrath against the wicked, and we will be watching, and waiting for our time to exact justice.”

Clearly having grown tired of the lunatic’s ravings, the constable to my left dragged the near corpse of a man over to a chopping block and forced his neck down onto it. As the constable raised his axe the man looked at me one last time.

“Tell your friends about me, Father. The more people know about us, the more the terror spreads, and the more powerful we become.”

The axe came down, and the lunatic was silent forevermore.

***

I was silent for a very long time after I had finished reading. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think. I just sat, and waited for my mind to settle, but I knew it never would. I tried to wipe my eyes and fight back the crushing realisation that I had spread the fear myself, but it would never leave me. To this day, I still atone for my sins.

A sound stirred me for a moment. A sudden, distant thud beneath my feet. “The wine cellar.” A sudden rush of energy took a hold of me and I ran for the outside. Thrusting myself headlong into the snow once more I circled back around the rear of the chapel to find the half buried wooden door leading to where, when there had been wine, the communion liquor had been stored. I heaved the doors open, and what little light radiated from a nearby torch flooded the cramped and frozen cellar, revealing the huddled figure of a small boy.

“Henry!” I cried “It’s me, child. Do not fear, I am not here to hurt you!” The boy raised his head. His skin was turning blue, and the worn blanket around his body was covered in frost. “You can’t stay here. The frost will kill you before long. Come with me.”

The boy obediently rose and took my hand. The innocence of his face cut through me like a knife, sending jolts of guilt and pain through my body. I wrapped him in the wide cloak that hung around my neck, shielding him from the cold and from sight as I led him back to the chapel. And then I heard the screams. The blood curdling cries of agony coming from the long hall. I looked at the open door of the chapel, at salvation, at warmth, but my mind went back to the story I had just read. If I turned my back now, would I be so different from those who had driven the man to lunacy?

The long hall was on fire. The brilliant orange flames reached up into the inky black night. Its brilliance was matched only by the horror of the screaming of those inside. A score of armed men stood outside, their weapons drawn. Archers stood on one side, the men-at-arms on the other.

“You cannot do this!” I cried. “Those are innocent people.”

The sergeant turned to face me. “Shut it Priest!” He yelled in answer. “This lot are the worthless scum trying to get Reynold’s army inside.”

“Don’t say that!” I cried out once more.

“They are worthless,” and archer spoke up, his knife pointed at mail clad constable. “But these are innocent people. Open the fucking doors!”

“I choose life, archer.” The sergeant sliced the archer across his neck, killing him instantly. As the innocent men and women burned to death, the soldiers hacked each other to pieces outside. I screamed and I begged and I hurled every obscenity I knew at them, but they wouldn’t stop. The madness had taken hold of them. Violent lives ending violently.

The roof of the long hall collapsed, and the screams were snuffed out, the eerie silence screaming across the bailey. The sergeant was the last man standing. The others were either dead or quietly dying. He looked over at me, huddled on the floor with the young squire clutching my chest under a cloak. Tears streaked my face. My heart was torn asunder. Behind me I heard the portcullis being raised, and horses idly trotting through the gatehouse. Count Reynold had finally arrived, and the sergeant knew his fate awaited him soon. But first, he had another task. He walked over to me, sword in hand, his footsteps muffled by the thick blanket of snow on the ground. I braced myself for the end.

“Fucking priest.” He spat, blood was trickling down his arm. “My men are dead. I could have kept them all together without your fear mongering.”

The tip of his sword reached my neck as I gazed into his eyes that smacked of blood fuelled rage. Just then, a shadow fell on him. He chocked for a moment, and then a great fountain of blood erupted from his throat and he fell to the floor beside me. The shadow lingered. Now a silhouette against the burning remains of the long hall, with blood dripping from a sickle in its right hand. A wide hood covered his face in darkness, so looked back at the snow, unable to find any humanity in the black void of his unseen eyes.

“When men know true fear, they show their real colours.” The shadow said.

“Was it all worth it?” I managed to say.

The shadow leaned down to whisper into my ear. “We always have our due.” He rasped, and walked away into the night.


***

The original manuscript had been respectfully buried in the remains of the burnt out long hall. It was strange really, had Aether not been attempting to build a natural gas storage unit on that exact tract of land, this last record would never have been found. In his notes, my grandfather mentioned that he had found it in a lead casket, so at least their memories received a proper burial. I remember unearthing the hall, within the crumbled foundations we found the remains of twenty six people, five of whom had not yet reached adolescence. None of their names are recorded anywhere, had it not been for the account of an obscure priest who witnessed the madness unfold within a besieged castle, nothing of their lives would remain. But within his words is the record of the end of their lives. As I closed the door to the storage locker, I began to understand why my grandfather had hidden such a manuscript. There was power in its words, but it was dangerous too. He had always been a religious man, and perhaps he feared the effects of the words spreading further. A worthless notion in my mind, words were not quite as infectious as fear.
« Last Edit: 09:47:26 AM 12/07/17 by Phil Simpson »