A Soul, Diseased
Fog burst from between the leper’s grinning teeth and rose to join a snarling ribbon of smoke from the fire. It was deep into the night and a scattering of stars sat overhead. The leper, indifferent to the beauty of the bejeweled heavens, crouched over the flames, his slitted eyes fixed upon an ember. He watched it carefully, expectantly. It pulsed with red light in a slow, rhythmic throb. The lesions on his face, cavernous in the harsh illumination of the fire, glowed just the same — as red and horrific as freshly formed scabs.
A man, dressed in the vestments of a knight, sat opposite the leper. Dust stained his cloak and mantle, and his sun-beaten face was as worn and creased as the boots on his feet. One of his eyes was sealed. A deep scar ran the length of his face and through it, a single mark among the countless fastened to his rugged countenance. He stared at the leper with his one remaining eye. His expression was crimped with confusion.
The leper let another happy chuckle slip into the night air.
“Don’t mind me, friend. It’s been a good long while since I’ve enjoyed the company of another soul,” he said. “It tickles me to be within spitting distance of a healthy Christian such as yourself again.”
A knife in the knight’s hand stood poised over a half-skinned rabbit splayed upon the ground. His look of confusion faded and his face became rigid.
“Do not spit in my direction,” he said coolly. “I would take that as discourtesy.” He placed the edge of his blade to the rabbit and sawed at the hide.
The leper raised his wrapped hands. “Of course,” he said. “I was not intending… it was just a turn of phrase.” He gazed at the rabbit, blinked, and returned his gaze to the fire.
“Very well,” the knight said. He continued to work.
A moment passed as the leper watched a lone spark weave its way through the curling smoke. He sighed contentedly.
“I thank you, Sir Knight, for the charity you’ve shown me.” His smile caught the light of the fire and his teeth glittered like pinpoint coals. “Company is always welcome, and I am grateful for it, but I am especially thankful — selfishly, I’ll admit — for the roasted coney. Here, in this place, I have little but dank water and locust-meat to survive on. Rabbit makes for a rare, and most welcome meal.”
“The Baptist subsided on locust,” the knight said. He grasped a leg of the rabbit and began to wrench at the pelt.
“Aye, but did he not have honey also?” The leper gestured towards the darkness. Beneath the gloomy shroud lay the desolate rock and dried scrub of a desert. “I have no such delight here, no such luxury.”
The knight paused to inspect his handiwork. Tufts of fur littered the earth, bloodied, some bearing remnants of skin. His cuts were jagged and the pelt hung haphazardly from the body of the rabbit.
“Is that what you wish for?” the knight asked gruffly. “Luxury?” He prodded at the rabbit’s corpse with a broad forefinger.
“No, of course not,” the leper replied. “I merely state fact.”
“In a manner that suggests your suffering is proportionate to that of a saint?” the knight barked. He lashed out at the rabbit with a frustrated bellow. Its body tumbled through the air and landed roughly at the leper’s side.
The knight let out a long quivering breath. He placed a hand gingerly to his side.
“Do with that as you will,” he grumbled. “I have no talent for skinning.”
Grit speckled the bare flesh of the rabbit. Its folded, torn pelt was powdered with dust. The leper pulled his eyes from the glowing embers of the fire and stared down at its lifeless body. “Nor have I,” he said. “But hunger will absolve me of the shame that admission brings. I shall make do with what little expertise I have.”
He took up the dirtied rabbit, pinched a ragged strip of pelt and began to peel. It came easily away from the flesh. He produced a polished knife from the folds of his worn cloak and finished the work quickly, gutting and scraping the carcass clean.
“There,” he said, lifting the rabbit for the knight to see. “It is done. And soon we shall partake of its bounty.” He let out a sigh. “If only there was wine to share, then it would truly be a feast.”
He transfixed the rabbit to a forked stick and leaned it over the flames. “But I mustn’t get greedy,” he said. “There is much to be thankful for, wine or no.” He looked again to the pulsating embers. His eyes glimmered in the darkness like two guttering candles.
“I have no wine,” the knight said gruffly. He shifted slightly and winced. He put his hand firmly against his side. “I have shared all with you.”
“And I thank you for it, again,” the leper replied. He twisted the rabbit’s carcass slightly and let the flames play up along its outstretched form.
“But I wonder,” he continued,”to what to I owe the pleasure of your company and your charity?” His eyes lifted from the fire and roved the knight’s figure. “It is a rare thing to meet a man of your standing who wouldn’t rather drive me off by the point of his lance.”
The leper lowered the rabbit deep into the flames. Its skin sizzled and spat juices over the hot coals. A soft, abrupt exhalation erupted from the knight. He began kneading his side, gently.
“I tell you truly, I would rather have seen you off and away,” the knight said. His teeth were clenched and the muscles of his jaw quivered. “But no, the circumstances…the import…” He huffed and looked into the darkness. “Christ…I have need of you.”
“What need?” The leper bounced the rabbit out of the licking flames, twisted it expertly and lowered it again. “How could I possibly assist, Sir Knight?”
The knight stared at the ravaged face of the leper. His lips twitched and his expression tightened. A slight gust of wind tossed aside the rising smoke of the fire, and they gazed upon each other as though an invisible hand had plucked the swelling folds of a veil from between the two of them.
“Who else have you met upon the road?” the knight asked. The fingers of his hand massaged the space below his ribs. “Tell me that.”
“I have wandered this road for years,” the leper said. “I have met many folk. Too many to recall. Of those I remember, to recount their passing would take more than a single night in the telling.”
A growl emitted from the knight. “Of late,” he snapped. “Who have you met of late?”
“But what is it you mean by meet?” the leper asked. His head cocked to the side with the same innocence as a curious young pup. “Do you mean those with whom I’ve spoken — of whom there are few — or do you mean those I’ve seen pass by, though never spoken to — of whom there are many.”
“Who have you seen, if you have seen anyone at all, in the last day or so?” the knight asked. His hand sprung from his side as though he had been stung. He grimaced and let out a slow breath. “Have you seen two men traveling together? Three horses between the two of them?”
Black char was forming along the rabbit’s length. Drippings ran in rivulets from its cracked flesh and fell into the fire. Flames reached hungrily up to devour the stream with exultant braids of orange light. The leper placed another hand to the forked spit. He pushed it closer to the blaze. His tongue lolled at the edge of his teeth.
“I did see two men just yesterday,” he said. “Only they had no horses between them. They carried saddlebags, the pair of them, so they may have had mounts at some point. I cannot say for certain. If they had, I’m sure they must died, otherwise they would not have been carrying such a burden so far out upon this desolate stretch of road.”
“How can you be certain the horses died?” asked the knight.
“Most living things that wander here find only death. You would do well to remember that,” the leper said. “Hunger overtakes even the strongest beast and the hardiest of men.”
The knight’s brow furrowed. “But you survive.”
“Aye, I survive.”
With an effortless twitch of his wrist, the leper pulled the sizzling rabbit from the flames. He propped it between his knees and again produced the polished blade from his cloak. Its mirrored edge burned with the fire’s light, searing through the darkness like a beacon in the night. The knight watched as he brought the blade to bear and expertly carved a delicate sliver of roasted meat from the splayed carcass. The morsel slid between the leper’s scaled lips and he let out satisfied murmur.
“Delicious,” the leper said. “Tougher than I prefer, but we take what we get, do we not?”
He sliced through the flesh of the rabbit’s thigh and tore it away clean with a wet crack of bone. Juice bled onto his hand, seeping into the ply of his bandages. The stains it left appeared dark, despite the light of the fire, as though his bandage hid a leaking wound on his palm. The leper lifted the portion and waggled it at the knight.
“Will you share this meal with me, Sir Knight?” A wandering vane of fire bathed his smile in red light. “Shall we bread bread together, you and I?”
“No,” the knight said. The grimace on his face appeared chasmal in the firelight. “The meat is tainted and I have no desire to join you in exile.”
The leper sat in silence as a gust of wind stirred the fire. A whirling column of sparks leapt towards the stars and he watched as the points of light snuffed out against the dark night sky. Then he sank his teeth into shank of roasted rabbit and scrutinized the knight. Blackened flesh crackled between his lips as he tore meat from bone. The ruined tissue of his chin shone wetly as grease drained from the corners of his mouth. He chewed slowly. The tilt of his brow cast a shadowy mask over his eyes.
“Tell me,” he said after swallowing, “what interest do you have in those two men? Of what import are they?” He tossed the half-eaten rabbit portion into the fire. Bright flames surged up to devour it. “I do not think they be friends of yours. Do you seek them for some foul purpose? Do you wish them harm?”
The knight blinked. “Why?” he asked warily. “Have you issue with my wishing them harm if, indeed, that is what I seek?” His hand was once again at his side, kneading just below his ribs.
“Two men,” the leper said. He laid the rabbit in the dirt and raised two bandaged fingers. “Three horses.” He lifted his other hand and raised three fingers. “And there you sit, injured. Methinks those men did you harm, stole your mount and left you to starve on the road. Do I blame you for wishing to exact vengeance upon them? No, I do not.”
He looked down at the rabbit disinterestedly and prodded it with his foot. “Is your injury severe?” he asked.
The knight’s hand lifted from his side. He shot the leper a skeptical look. Finally, with a shrug, he lifted the edge of his tunic. “One of the bastards stuck me,” he said with a growl. A bloodstained bandage was cinched below his rib cage. “I fell from my mount and when I awoke both of them had gone along with my horse and the holy curios I had in my charge.”
The leper nodded slowly.
“If vengeance is what you seek, you will not find it,” he said. A toe dug into the rabbit’s side and pressed hard against its fragile ribs. “But you may rest easy knowing they will no longer foul the earth with their misdeeds. They have left this mortal realm, so you need not pursue them any further.”
The knight peered at the leper. His kneading hand paused and he was still. “They are dead?”
“Aye,” the leper replied. The glint of his eyes pierced the dark veil covering his face. “As I said, living things that enter this place find only death.”
“For all but you,” said the knight.
Sparks spat from the fire and the knight’s eyes fell to the leper’s hands.
“That is a fine blade you have,” he said in a low voice. “Well kept, and of good make.” His gaze flicked up to meet the leper’s. The brow of his one eye sloped, forcing ridges out of the flesh along the bridge of his nose.
Red light winked off the knife’s edge as the leper hurried to tuck it back into his cloak. “It is, indeed,” he said. “A fine thing I found upon the road. Some poor soul lost it and now it is mine.”
There was a pregnant lapse as the knight inspected the leper. His back straightened and one hand clasped the long knife sheathed at his waist. Perspiration dotted the rise of his forehead.
“Tell me how the men died,” the knight said. His voice was low but firm. “Did you witness it?”
There was a muffled wet snap of bone as the leper crunched the rabbit underfoot.
A mournful whistle sounded in the distance, herald to a rising wind among some distance crags of rock. The leper listened and his expression appeared to lighten as the cheerless tone echoed through the night. He reached down and tossed the broken body of the rabbit into the fire.
“Aye, that I did,” he said.
“And how did they die?”
Firelight caught the cuspate ridge of the leper’s toothy smile and burned along its length. “There are many ways in which a man may die in this place,” he said softly. “Hunger, as I said, is chief among them. Hunger is a deadly thing, yes indeed. Hunger is what caused their deaths.” His tongue wandered the boundary of his grin like an anxious beast pacing its enclosure.
The knight slowly drew his dagger. He nodded towards the fire. “Your meal is burnt. Do you not hunger?”
A harsh gleam shone in the leper’s eyes.
“To tell the truth, I did not have much of an appetite this evening,” he said. “I have fed well since yesterday. Besides, I prefer something more substantial than rabbit. I hunger for game with more meat on its bone.”
A crest of billowing sparks enveloped the knight as the leper sent cinders flying towards him with a savage kick. His face twisted with maniacal glee, the leper leapt through the flames, his cloak spread behind him like the outstretched wings of a bat. The glittering knife was again in his hand and he slashed it wildly through the curtain of ember and smoke. It sliced the air beneath the knight’s chin. His frustrated screech pierced the night.
The knight was quick, and had thrust himself backwards to avoid the leper’s onslaught. He rolled and came to his feet, his own knife extended. It wove a pattern through the air as the two began to circle.
“By Christ!” the knight exclaimed, the twist of his brow revealing his horror. “I thought you a robber. But no! Was your hunger so great you deigned to taste the flesh of man?”
The leper grinned and his teeth gleamed like embers in the night. “Aye, I was hungry,” he said, continuing to circle with his knife aloft. “But more so, it gave me pleasure to dispense the same foul treatment suffered upon me… that of a beast!”
“It is true, though, you’re no better than a beast,” the knight growled. “You’re accursed, fiend, and God will mete a just reward for your sins.” He lunged and swept his blade towards the crouched figure of the leper. The leper slipped easily away.
“I will see it done,” the knight barked. The point of his dagger flicked again towards the leper. “By Christ, I will see it done.”
Spittle rained from the leper’s gaping mouth as he let loose a furious laugh. “Are you blind, fool? God has already chastised me with His disfiguring touch.” His voice hissed like hot iron dropped in a basin of icy water. “And His people offer punishment further by banishing me to the desert, where death is certain. No, I need not be brought to justice. My sins have long been paid for in full.”
He wrenched his knife through the space separating the two of them. Its edge slid across the knight’s collar. A fluttering strip of fabric lifted in its wake.
“And you,” the leper snarled, “I’ll cure your flesh along with what remains of the other two.” He advanced a step and heaved his blade again at the knight. “God will have nothing to say of it. I have paid for all in full. I have paid!”
Dirt surged over their sliding, stomping feet. Streamers of dust entwined their legs. Firelight thrust itself between their struggling forms. A sky strewn with cold, winking stars fanned over their shoulders, a disinterested, immortal observer.
They fought furiously through shadow and smoke and heavy chill. They fought through shards of warming light. Each strained against the other. The knight’s wound had opened and the blood appeared black in the night.
A momentary pause brought with it a reverberant silence. They contemplated one another from a distance, and the stillness seemed to choke even the sound of their shallow breathing. Both men heaved, their shoulders slumped with exhaustion. Runnels of sweat streamed down their brows. Their eyes remained locked, their expressions twisted and pained, and the small muscles in their faces twitched in tandem, as though reacting to blows thrown — as though the contest continued, but in mind alone. Finally, the leper let slip a savage rattle from the back of his throat and advanced.
The knight stood in place.
They collided, and in the darkness their forms seemed to meld. The whipping folds of tunic and cloak curled around them like a chute of rising flames. Orange light flickered in the night. A single roar burst forth, and they fell as one.
By the time the knight was able to take to his feet again and make his way back to the fire, the sky was beginning to pale. What embers remained in the fire glowed weakly. He prodded at them with the point of the leper’s knife, tossed several sprigs atop them, and watched as the flames returned. They rose feebly from the white ash, timid as scorned children. But still they warmed him. They warmed him through, despite his hurt.
He held his side and felt the tack of blood through his bandage. The wound was leaking, slowly but steadily. It would need redressing, he knew. But not yet. For the moment he would sit next to the fire and rest. He was weary.
When the sun finally slipped over the rim of the world the knight was afoot, marching into the distance with his shadow in close pursuit. The leper he had left unburied, carrion for whatever might happen by. Were there wolves in this place? Crows? He cared little. The world would consume what remained of the man. To dust he would return. The knight would not trouble himself with thoughts of it.
The thing was done. It was done.