Lasciate ogne speranza?

A story written for the Maglor in History challenge.

The title is in Italian. For the translation, see the Author's Note at the end.

Disclaimer: Maglor belongs to Tolkien, and the other character isn't mine either.

People totally unfamiliar with anything Italian and Italian history in particular, are advised to read Ch. 3, Author's Notes, first. Though for anyone who doesn't recognise the title, this may give away the (intended) surprise at the end of the first chapter.

Dedicated to my Italian friend Giulio Leoni, the Dante expert, whose reaction to this story pointed me to the appropriate quote:

'Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men - and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.' - J.R.R. Tolkien, Epilogue to On Fairy Stories

Mortality does not change, and neither do mortals.

I have seen yet another emperor die. This one succumbed to what they call the 'bad air' in this part of the world - mal'aria in their language. They think this is caused by vapours rising from the marshes. When I tell them I believe it could just as well be the midges, they shrug and turn away. I know why: the midges and their bites are more difficult to avoid than the vapours, and in their hearts, mortals prefer those interpretations of the world that ascribe them the greatest measure of power and control.

True, many also speak of God's hand or fate, yet more often than not this is merely their way to exonerate themselves when things go awry. As the physicians did when the emperor died, though neither knows the first thing about fate and they only have the vaguest notions of what they mean when they speak of God, as they call their idea of the One.

Others accused the emperor's confessor of having murdered him. For mortals also have a tendency to blame the mishaps of this world on other mortals, whenever they see a chance. And as they maintain that God cannot bear the order of his world to be disrupted, they mete out their ghastly punishments in his holy name. I have learned long ago not to point out to them that if God really could not stand disorder, he would have obliterated the world and everything in it many ages ago. It is not as if he needs it, being sufficient unto himself. And mortals overestimate themselves horribly if they claim responsibility for the marring of the earth. None of them has ever brewed a storm to wreck ships, none of them ever caused a volcano to spew fire, or a river to flood, or a pestilence to snuff out the lives of hundreds of thousands.

The poor confessor was innocent; I had seen enough people die of the mal'aria to be sure that the doctors were right. But the friar mistrusted the judgement of his fellow men and feared for his life. I helped him to flee. I had served the late emperor as a condottiere, as they call it here, a warrior who hires out his sword and his warrior band to the lord who pays and suits him best. I am too good a singer and craftsman to pass unnoticed among Men in these occupations, but as a killer I am less outstanding. My six brothers were all better at it than I was, and after the Silmaril burned my right hand I never learned to fight as well with my left hand as Maitimo did. Even among mortal warriors I am not known for my prowess. It was just sufficient to have the gates opened and let the poor friar slip outside.

Before he melted away into the night he blessed me, admonishing me to repent and mend my violent ways. I nodded; why rebuff him? There was too little time anyway to confess that no amount of repentance could save my fallen soul. I threw my last, shining hope into the waves in what humans with their fallible memories call times immemorial. I wish that my memory was as feeble, but the deathless Elves are not granted such merciful oblivion.

Though most of my fellow condottieri left the imperial army to seek new employment, I told my company to disband and followed the emperor's ashes - they had to burn his body when it began to stink unbearably in the Mediterranean summer heat - to his last earthly resting place in the cathedral of Pisa. I stayed even until long after the burial to watch the sculptor carve the grave monument. Not once did he pay attention to me, lurking in my shadowy corner to survey the details of his work from a distance that would have defeated the eyesight of any mortal. He was an accomplished enough craftsman, who would not have gone without a fair amount of praise even among the Eldar, and he had seen the emperor alive. But he had not seen him wither away and die, as I had.

And so, one evening after the sculptor left the cathedral, I approached the monument with a hammer and chisel I had procured that afternoon. Ascertaining that no one was looking my way I carefully proceeded to carry out a few alterations to the pale marble face, making the eyelids droop a little more and the mouth twist a little further in soundless agony. Some among my kin would undoubtedly have bettered my achievement. Yet none of them are left in this world of Men but I, and thus it fell on me to perfect the picture of imperial suffering and defeat.

'What are you doing?' a stern voice suddenly asked me.

So concentrated had I been that the soft footsteps approaching me from behind had eluded me. I started; it was sheer luck that I was not holding the chisel to the marble when the voice spoke up so suddenly, or it would have chipped off the curve of the emperor's lower lip.

Turning without a word, I took in the speaker's appearance: a small, middle-aged man with a brown skin and sharply cut features, clad in faded red and wearing a capocchio on his head that had also seen better days. Though he had to look up at me - I stood at least a head taller than he did, whereas he was stooping a little - he met and held my gaze with an angry glint in his. 'Were you trying to destroy the good emperor's tomb before it is full wrought?'

He was speaking rather loud, and from where I stood I could see the chaplain busy at the altar halt in his movements to peer at us. When no violence erupted, he continued trimming the candlewicks. I stepped aside. 'Does this look like destruction to you, messere?'

'Perhaps I came in time.' He craned his neck, his eyes having more difficulty than mine to pierce the twilight shrouding this corner of the cathedral.

'Why would I want to damage the imperial effigy?' I asked.

'You would not be the first to hate a dead man's memory!' he spat without taking his eyes from the tomb. 'I fear I did come too late. This is not my Arrigo - this is the face of failure! You are trying to destroy his image!'

Whoever the man was, he seemed to be a good judge of craftsmanship, for it was an apt description. But before I could remark on this he wheeled, ready to attack me, or so I thought. I almost laughed out loud; he was no match for me. But I was mistaken: he did not attack and the way his thin lips twisted gave me pause. It was plain to see that his agression was born of grief.

'Your Arrigo destroyed his own image,' I told him calmly. 'He tried to be a peacemaker, but when the mal'aria took him he had become an epitome of war. If that is not failure, I do not know what is.'

The emperor had come to make peace in strife-torn Italy, to end the hatred and bloodshed between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. Unfortunately his noble intentions, marred by too great a trust in his so-called God-given authority, proved no match for the resentment, vindictiveness and guile of the feuding parties. Slowly he slid into partiality himself, ending up as the figurehead of the Ghibellines. Eventually, he pronounced the Imperial Ban on the leader of the opposing Guelfs and vowed to wipe him from the face of the earth. The ensuing campaign had been savage and cruel, sparing neither peasants nor clerics, neither women nor children. Yet he had believed in the righteousness of his cause until the last. And as he paid me to fight for him, fight was what I did - though having slaughtered more than enough women and children in the darkest days of my past, in this time and place I restricted myself to soldiers and the occasional monk. The soldiers knew the risks of their job and God's servants should wish to be in Paradise anyway, to be dead happily ever after. (This notwithstanding, some of them cursed me to their human inferno, not knowing I carry my own void along wherever I go, without hope of redemption.)

'Failure? You are his enemy indeed,' the little man hissed. 'I ought to denounce you! Pisa is a city of the Ghibellines; shall I rouse the people to tell them there is an accursed Guelf in their midst, come to desecrate the emperor's grave? You are even wearing a sword in church!'

'Which I could easily use on you, were I so inclined,' was my reply. I cared nothing about such rules, as little as I cared about the petty quarrels of these petty people in their petty cities(1). But I do not kill people who merely annoy me, and truth to say this one intrigued me as well. 'So I am his enemy for speaking the truth? Call the virtuous Pisans, then, if that is too much for your feeble ears.'

Again he peered at the emperor's effigy. 'How he suffered,' I heard him mutter. 'The poor lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world...'

At first I thought he had begun to pray, and I was about to go when I realised abruptly that he was speaking of the emperor. 'I've heard that before,' I said.

'Are you telling me you are one of those fools who believed in that letter he received from -'

'Did I believe in it?' he interrupted me hotly. 'I am the one who wrote that letter, messere, and if there was anything foolish about it, it was the divine folly that is wiser than men!'

I should have left him to his pieties there and then. There is no arguing with believers, whether they believe in holy invocations or blasphemous oaths, as I have learned to my never-ending sorrow. But I stayed. 'So you are the fanatic who addressed him as the divine Arrigo, and told him he was the saviour of Italy and the true emperor of the world.' A world, much wider and far older than this little man could begin too guess, a world that remains indifferent to one petty chieftain of Men, whose mortal body will decay to dust in no more than a breath and a heartbeat.

'It was a good letter,' he said, straightening, though not to his full yet insignificant height. His stoop must have grown into his back, as happens so often with elderly mortals.

'It was,' I had to concede. 'Full of eloquence and conviction, of arduous faith, of trust and praise. And flattering, too. He believed it, every blasphemous word, every presumptuous turn of phrase, every ludicrous notion. It tempted him into shouldering a responsibility his fragile mortal back was too weak to bear.'

Maybe I was harsher than the man deserved, suggesting he had spurred his beloved Arrigo onward on the road to destruction, but he asked for it. I expected a new outburst of animosity, and for a moment, it seemed as if the entire, huge cathedral of Pisa was too small for his surging emotions. But the volcano did not explode. I can't tell why not. Maybe because he could perceive the shard of pity for the emperor still lodged in my hardening heart.

'You have read the letter? You can read?' he asked, suddenly curious.

I can read dozens of languages in many different scripts. I have read a great deal of what Man has seen fit to entrust to parchment, papyrus, silk, stone, bone, wood, bark and this new invention called paper that is made from shreds of cloth chewed to pulp - just as the thoughts that are entrusted to writing are often made from shreds of truth chewed to fancies and half-lies.

'I did not have to read it. I was standing within earshot when it was read to the emperor,' was all I said.

He peered at me, but as I stood with my back to the candlelight I doubted he could discern much of my face. Not even my eyes; once they used to shine with the fierce light that had earned me and my kin the epithet of flame-eyed, but throughout the ages the fire has dimmed and now it takes an effort to make it flame.

'If you know what was in the letter,' he said finally, 'then you must also know that it left room for doubt. You must also know how little he heeded it. I advised the good Arrigo to subdue the viper's nest called Florence, the sick sheep of the flock, the money-loving root of all evil in this fair land, before any other city. But did he act on it? No, he allowed himself to be led astray by self-seeking and untrustworthy counsellors, and when he finally saw I was right and laid siege to that altar of iniquity, it had grown strong enough to withstand the sword of his justice.'

The passion with which he spoke surprised me; it seemed almost too much for one, small, elderly mortal, and I felt a fire in his soul such as I had not sensed in many centuries. 'You seem to hate that city.'

Abruptly, he turned away and began to walk to the nearest side porch, treading slowly and carefully; the floor seemed to rock with the uneasily shifting shadows of the candle flames. But I would not be dismissed so easily. Putting my tools away I closed the distance between us with a few long strides. His footsteps rang angrily in the hollow vaults overhead; mine made less noise, but I did my best not to walk soundlessly, as I am wont to do when I manage to forget what I am for a time - an ever present temptation, and afterwards invariably a source of despair.

Though he noticed my presence, he did not speak until we stepped outside the cathedral, halting at the edge of the wide sward of grass surrounding it. Beyond it, a veiled woman flitted by in the direction of the city walls. To our right, beyond the apsis of the cathedral, a sliver of silvery moonlight glinted off the dome of the baptistry, but my father's Silmaril in the heavens, the Gil-estel that the mortals of this time called Venus, had already set. It was just as well; to me the star had become a mockery after all these ages, instead of a sign of hope.

To our left, the partly finished campanile with its elegant arches was a pale ladder vainly striving against the darkened heavens in which the first stars were coming out. Though the tower was leaning visibly, the Pisans kept building on, apparently oblivious to the possibility that it would crash down on the heads of their descendants some day(2). However, I had ceased trying to warn mortals against their own follies long ago.

Finally, the little man turned towards me. 'Yes,' he said fiercely. 'I hate that city, I hate Florence as only one who loves a thing more dearly than he loves his own right hand can hate it. I gave her everything I had, to cleanse out evil and bring peace, but she spat me out. I was exiled on pain of death; I have not seen her for a dozen years now.'

Ah, I thought. So that is what you wanted from the emperor. Your Arrigo was to subdue your city to enable your return. Well, I could hardly blame him for cherishing such hopes, even though they were built on the sand of wishful thinking.

'I can never return,' he went on, gazing past me, 'except on my bare knees, begging for pardon, throwing myself at the merciless mercies of her wicked masters. If they catch me on her territory and I do not bend, I will burn - as if I am not aflame already. Not that I expect you to know what it is to be exiled from the place of your birth.'

I groped for support against the wall of the cathedral, its stones still warm from the day's heat. 'But I do,' I said, unable to keep the catch from my voice, and almost I added: I have been exiled from the place of my birth for more years than you could ever imagine, even if you were able to count them.

He heard my distress and to my surprise he allowed it to mitigate his own. 'Sit,' he ordered me. I slid down along the wall, the scabbard of my sword scraping across the tiles. He sat down as well. From the heart of the city, beyond the unfinished belfry, the wind carried a waft of song and laughter towards us.

'You were exiled, too?' he asked, 'From where? What is your name?'

'Macalaure,' I replied, and after a slight hesitation I added: 'Of ValinĂ³re.'

He did not comment on the names; they do not sound too outlandish too Italian ears, and wherever I happen to be in this peninsula, people simply assume I am from elsewhere, which is true enough.

'Macalaure,' he repeated, as if savouring the name on his tongue. 'I am Dante Alighieri.'

(To be continued)