CHAPTER 27: THE LEPERS OF ST ROCHELLE
It was in in the autumn of 1627 that Virgil, Vicomte de Aurais, arrived in La Rochelle to partake in the great siege being conducted by His Majesty, Louis XIII and his noble eminence, the Cardinal-Duc Richelieu against the Huguenot insurgency.
And he was loving it.
Finally out from under the boot of his father, Virgil proceeded to enjoy himself as much as one could enjoy themselves during a savage military campaign. Which, as it turned out, was a great deal, and when not on duty Virgil was rarely found far from the taverns or gaming houses of the garrison. Virgil would never want for friends; he had wit and courage, which endeared him to men, beauty and charm, which endeared him to women, and a great deal of money, which endeared him to both.
He could never, however, be accused of not earning his keep. In battle he was a force unto himself, his swordsmanship a mix of pitch perfect technique and almost instinctive savagery.
For three whole days, the whole camp had been full of nothing but talk of Virgil, and how he had single handedly dispatched eight Hugenots on the field of battle, and so terrified the remaining Rochellois that they had fled back over their lines, ending the incursion. Virgil did little to add to his own myth beyond stating that it had been very easy, as all the Rochellois had appeared to be moving very slowly. He declined to add however, that he had known that those men were destined to die at his blade as he had been able to see angels and devils hovering in the air, waiting to snatch the souls of the fallen like kitty-hawks hovering over a meadow at dusk. Virgil had known from a young age that he was different, but had long ago decided not to trouble others with that knowledge, and generously allowed them to continue to believe that he was beautiful, charming, wealthy and quite normal.
For three whole days, the camp hummed to the tune of his feat.
And then suddenly…
Old news. Passé. Remember Virgil? Virgil who?
“YOU FICKLE SWINE!!!” Virgil bellowed to the camp, the night sky and the world at large, waving his arms with such vigour that he was in endanger up dropping his wine bottle. This was not so great a risk, in truth, because not only had this bottle been drained with quite unnecessary aggression half an hour ago, but there was another just like it in his other hand.
“PIGS! I CALL YOU PIGS AND SWINE!!” he slurred.
“Pigs are swine.” a calm and reasonable voice informed him.
“SILENCE! I AM PROTESTING A GREAT WRONG!” Virgil retorted, staggering a little, and then a lot. And then falling over.
A fuzzy, sypathetic looking blur sat down beside him.
“Come now, Virgil.” the blur scolded “This is no way for a gentleman to behave.”
“It bloody is, you know.” Virgil snapped “We gentlemen are both violent and drunken to a spectacular degree.”
“You come, come. Better yet, go, go. I’m terribly annoyed with you.”
“With me, my good fellow? Tell me what I have done and I shall move heaven and earth to set things right between us.”
“You know prefectly well. Why did you have to go and steal my glory?”
“Steal your glory?”
“I was the talk of this camp before you and your friends decided to have breakfast on the front lines.”
“Oh that. Wasn’t my idea I assure you.” his companion said, a little embarrassed.
“Who’s was it?”
“Athos’ I believe.”
“Was it at least a good breakfast?” Virgil asked.
“To be perfectly frank it was quite the worst I have ever had. Eating in the middle of a battlefield whilst knowing the enemy may mount an assault at any moment plays merry havoc with the digestion.”
“I really don’t see why you’re taking it so hard. It was for a bet, we didn’t do it specifically to irritate you.” his companion huffed.
“Well it was an idiotic thing to do.”
“Envy is a grave sin, Virgil.” his solemn friend intoned.
Virgil buried his face in his hands and hissed furiously “Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, be quiet….”
“Wrath, also, it is said…”
“Aramis, do you still wish you had joined the Jesuits?”
“Oh yes, for many reasons…”
“Shut up or I’ll give you one more.”
Aramis simply folded his hands, closed his eyes and began to move his lips wordlessy.
“What are you doing?”
“You know perfectly well, Virgil.”
“Stop praying for me, Aramis.”
“You’ll thank me when you are with the angels in heaven.”
“Hah! As if you knew the first thing about them!”
“What?” said Aramis, opening one eye.
“Angels.” said Virgil “I know about angels. I see angels. I’ve even spoken to them when they had the inclination. I’ve been able to see them ever since I was a child.”
“Good angels or wicked angels?”
“Both, since you ask.”
“And is there any particular time when you are most likely to see them? After the fourth bottle, perhaps?”
“How droll. I see them whenever someone is on the very threshold of death. Dear Aunt Yvette, you recall her?”
“She was that horrible fat crone who used to call me Francois. At her deathbed I saw one of either species waiting to collect her soul. I see them every day on the battlefield. Scores of them.”
“Do you think I‘m mad, Aramis?”
“No.” he said “You are wealthy enough to be merely eccentric.”
Virgil and Aramis sprung to their feet. It had been a woman’s scream. They scanned the darkness.
“M’Aider! M’Aider, mon Dieu!”
The voice was ragged, as if she was near collapses from fear or exhaustion.
“Where?” Aramis asked.
“From the wood.” Virgil said, suddenly as sober as granite.
“Can you see her?”
Aramis drew his sword.
“No.” said Virgil again, putting a hand on his shoulder “I need you to go back to camp and get as many men as you can. I’ll help her. If there’s just one of them I should be able to deal with him.”
“And if there’s more of them?”
“Then I will need the reinforcements you are going to bring for me, won’t I?”
“I should go with you now, what if I don’t get back in time?”
“Then you have permission to pray for me.”
“GO!” Virgil roared, shoving Aramis who dutifully took off as fast as his legs would run.
Virgil drew his sword and turned to face the pitch black forest. Whatever was in there was now his alone to deal with. Rescuing a damsel in distress would be more than enough to get people talking about him again. He only felt slightly guilty for thinking that.
He was now deep in the forest, and as good as blind. He could hear no noise now except twigs and bark crumbling and snappeing beneath his boots. Was he too late? He stopped dead still. The sounds and smells of the wood came softly to his senses.
The strong, clean aroma of the trees, the sap and resin.
The gentle humming chuckles of the brook, maybe a hundreds yards distant.
“Mademoiselle?” he called out “Can you hear me?”
The answer he received was a low mocking hiss which seemed to come from all around.
“M’Aider…..” he heard a voice say, rasping like a cobra “M’Aider mon Dieu…”
Virgil felt his skin begin to shrink around his bones.
“Where are you?” he asked.
The only answer he received was a long nailed hand clamping around his throat.
And suddenly, he could no longer breath.
“Right you were, Lula my love.” hissed a voice in Virgil’s ear “He’s one of ’em and all.”
“He’s pretty.” a female voice answered, and the sound of it made Virgil’s stomach try to crawl into his back, “Can I make him my sock puppet?”
“Later, my dearest. Has to have our nosh, now, don’t we?”
“I’m hungry.” the female voice whined like a three year old.
“Of course you are, poppet. Which is why you is having the first taste.”
“Can I really, Abel?”
“Of course, Lula. You know I loves you, and so you may sample him first as is your right.”
Virgil managed to make a groan escape from his contracted throat
“Ah, does our feast have some contribution to make to the proceedings? Does he want to throw his opinion into the ring?”
And the grip was relaxed slightly.
“Monsieur.” Virgil gasped “Mademoiselle, I’m sure my father will be more than willing to pay your ransom as long as I am not harmed…”
He almost wet himself at the hideous cackling that sprang from the darkness.
“Ransom! Ransom, he says!”
“Why lad, I can assure you that there is not the sum in all creation that can help such as we. No, your old Pop can keep his money as I’m sure he’d much rather, and we shall content ourselves with murder and feasting as we are used to and it please your grace.”
Virgil at last realised that there would be no bargaining his way out of this, and that the only thing left to do was to die with some dignity.
“Do your worst then.” he said “I shall show you how a gentleman can die.”
“Oh, we know that.” said the one called Lula “They’re all “Ahh! Ahh! Stop help! Please! No! No! Not my arms! Ahhhh!”
“Hush now, there’s a good girl.”
Virgil closed his eyes.
“Get yer hands off him!” Virgil heard a great burly voice shout and he felt the grip on his neck broken and he was flung to the ground. Lula gave a scream.
“Abel, they’re here! Eat their eyes! Scratch them out and gobble them up!”
“Is that you then, Aodh?” Abel called out “Is that you, ya filthy Scots…”
“Mind your tongue now, Abel.” the newcomer replied “Mind it or I’ll cut it off and give it to someone who’ll use it more civilly.”
“Kill him Abel! Stamp his brains!”
“And where are your comrades, Aodh my heart’s treasure? Where are your little friends?”
“They’ll be along in a tick.” Aodh replied “I told them I wanted first crack at you and your scabby little girlfriend.”
“I heard him, my dear heart. Now, we shall eat his for his impudence.”
“Listen to me now, lad.” Virgil heard Aodh whisper in his ear “I can only take them one at a time. I’ll take care of Abel, you’ll have to handle her. Do you have your sword?”
“Yes.” Virgil whispered.
“She’s fast, so make yourself faster. Now cover your eyes, boy!”
And suddenly there was a terrible white flash and Virgil saw a flare, burning like the sun, snaking towards the heavens, and the forest was thrown into hellish relief. Standing over him, with the flare gun still raised to the sky, was Aodh. He was around five foot tall, with a great mane of orange hair and a long sword gripped in a scarred, calloused hand. His teeth were bared, and he looked like nothing so much as an orange were-wolf.
And there, stunned and blinking from the flash, were Abel and Lula. Hideous, long haired wretches with filthy yellow teeth, and long grey fingernails. And their skin was grey and mottled as if they had contracted some disease. It was clear, just from their eyes, that they were quite mad.
“Now lad!” Aodh roared and gave a scream so loud that Virgil’s head rang like a brass bell and then the Scotsman was moving like a blur, faster than Virgil had ever seen a man move and with a single blow he had knocked Abel clear through two trees and into the blackness beyond. Aodh through after him, swearing like a demon.
Lula and Virgil watched them go, and then regarded each other for a few seconds.
Suddenly, she was on top of him, screeching like banshee. Desperately, he clawed at her filthy blonde hair to force her to let go (how had she moved so fast ?!) and he could feel her hands on his throat and there were colours dancing and then…
She was moving like a willow in a breeze, even the snarl on her face was expanding and retracting slowly.
He knew this feeling, it had happened many times before. It had never happened at a more fortunate time than this.
Suffering a momentary and regrettable lapse in chivalry, he punched her straight in the face. Time snapped back like an elastic band and he watched as she flew into a tree like a screaming cat shot out of a cannon, and remained there, her legs flailing wildly as she tried to get to her feet. Suddenly she flipped herself over and landed on all fours like a cat, and hissed through her teeth at him. Her eyes were glowing yellow.
Slowly, Virgil raised his sword, levelling the tip at her.
“En garde.” he said.
Aodh couldn’t breathe…
Abel was holding him over his head with one hand clamped on the Scotsman’s neck.
“Always a brawler, ain’t that right, Aodh? Always a scrapper. Never stop to think that there might be another way to settle a grievance. But then, that’s the Scots all around, am I right?”
That’s it, thought Aodh to himself. Talk away to yourself, you stupid Sassenach.
Then, he was moving at 0.04 seconds per second, had grabbed Abel by the heel and swung him around four times before raising him over his head and smashing him head first into the soil.
Stay down, damn ye.
He knew he would not be so lucky. Abel was stupid, and arrogant, and mad as a bat with syphilis but he would not go down easily. In fact, Aodh was beginning to wonder if he would go down at all. He knew, after all, which of the two of them was the strongest. Then, like a vice, he felt Abel’s hands clamp around his neck, and he was screaming into his face.
“That really hurt you hairy…!”
And he pounded Aodh’s chest with his knee, his leg jack-knifing like a piston. Aodh faded out…
…and faded back in “…dirty, worthless little piece of…!” and back out again.
“I’d reckon Lula’s finished the boy off now and left none for me, as like as not.” Abel hissed. “But you, you’re a three course meal all to my own and self.”
And Aodh felt it, the horrible, agonising, sensation, like cold steel ants eating him one cell at a time. Like pins and needles, if they were chisels and spikes…like…
To tell the truth, there was really no way to describe the sensation of the Leper feeding.
Then it was gone, and relief washed over him. He fell to the ground, utterly drained. There were tears in his eyes. What had happened?
Abel had let him go and had taken a step back.
The mad Temporal was staring at the tall figure in the shadows, a black, wide brimmed hat concealing his features, a silver topped cane in it’s left hand..
“Mabus.” whispered Abel.
In reply, the figure simply tipped it’s hat politely.
Abel gave a scream, maybe more from fear than fury, and sprang at the figure. Aodh, watching in real time, saw only this: A grey streak where Abel had been flew through the air towards Mabus. A black streak where Mabus had once been flew through the air on the opposite trajectory and seemed to envelop the grey streak. Abel crashed to the ground at where Mabus’ feet had been only a half second before. He was dead, every limb broken.
Mabus turned to look at Aodh.
“Are you alright?”
Aodh nodded. “You took your bloody time.” he growled, and then his face went white “Oh God. The boy!”
“It’s not…” said Lula as she knocked him to the ground with a single blow.
“…nice…” she kicked him fully five feet into the air.
“…to…” a withering blow to the gut.
“…hit…” she dragged him to his feet by the hair.
“…girls!” she flung him clean through the air and she was on his chest , hissing into his face before he had even come fully to rest on the torn soil.
There was no point looking for the rapier, he was in no condition to use it anyhow. What a strange way for such a dull life to end, he mused. A life spoiled and pampered in his father’s estate, a brief taste of war and torn to pieces by a deranged demoness in a forest. Well, at least he’d be going to the afterlife with a good story.
Oh God, why was he joking? He was going to die now.
He gazed into her face, and realised sadly that she must have been beautiful once. She had a delicate, almost gentle looking face, which made it all the more hideous to see it warped and hissing now, the yellow eyes burning like hot coals in the pale dirty countenance, the long blonde hair caked with filth and sweat .
“Poor baby.” she cooed, and again it was like listening to a child speak. She had done this to him with no more guilt than that of a toddler pulling the wings off a fly. He was just a toy.
“Not so pretty now, are you. Nooooo…..” she drew out the last word like she was talking to an infant, lovingly cooing the vowels.
“You look like a bird after the cat’s been at him” she remarked idly dabbing her sleeve in the bloody mess of his face, “Don’t worry. You’ll be in my tummy soon, and then no one will be able to see you and say you look ugly and you’ll be all safe and warm, just like being a baby again.” She looked up at the stars, as if she had forgotten all about him, but then continued.
“I had a baby once. She came out of my tummy and it was really, really sore but when she was out I didn’t mind because she was so pretty and I forget what I named her but it was very pretty. Emily maybe. E something. I really liked her because she was tiny, small enough to fit in my tummy but then I lost her because she was so small. I miss her sometimes. You can be my baby when you’re in my tummy. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
“Get off me.” he whispered hoarsely.
She chuckled merrily.
“No.” she smiled, as if he was being silly.
And the last thought that went through his mind as he felt the terrible pain of the Leper’s kiss was not anger or fear, but a quiet pity for her as he wondered what terrible thing could have transformed her into this.
Then, the weight on his chest was gone as abruptly as a door slamming and he sat up, coughing and spitting blood, searching for his assailant. She was being pinned to a tree by a great gaunt figure, dressed in a long black cloak and hat, and he held her with one hand while with the other he held a silver topped cane, ebony black below the handle, which he raised threateningly .
“Do you know who I am?” he thundered.
“Get off!” she screamed.
“WHO AM I?!” he roared and Virgil started at the sheer fury in his voice.
“Mabus!” she screamed pitifully.
“Good. Then you know how easily I could break every bone in your body in the blink of an eye. But I’ve no stomach for more killing tonight. So, I am going to let you go and you are going to return home and you are going to tell them what happened here. Do you hear me?”
“Yes…” she mumbled.
“DO YOU HEAR ME!?” Again the voice that shuddered bone.
“Yes!” she screamed, terrified out of the few wits she had left.
He stood up, straight as a clock tower. She gingerly got to her feet and stood before him, terrified to move.
“Abel…?” she whispered.
“Dead.” he said simply, but his tone was not as hard as it had been. Did Virgil hear pity? Perhaps.
At the word, she gave a single, heart-rending scream, and then she was gone, vanished like dew in the sunlight.
The great Temporal turned his head. Aodh was leaning on his sword like a crutch.
“Boy’s in a bad way.” the Scotsman noted, gesturing to Virgil.
In an instant, Mabus was kneeling over him and for the first time Virgil got a look at his face, or as much as could be seen in the darkness. He had never seen a face so ravaged by time, every inch was crossed with wrinkles and creases, his face was like a war torn nation viewed from the air. For all his incredible strength and speed, Virgil thought, this is a very old man. Mabus was clean-shaven, and his face, like the faces of all old people was marked with the passions that he had allowed to rule him throughout his life, their signatures stamped indelibly on his features. In that face Virgil saw wisdom, rage and kindness. Terrible fury and gentle tenderness. Grief and joy.
And in his eyes (like balls of blue lightening) Virgil saw something else. Not simply the power and authority that he had just seen demonstrated (A line from some English play came to mind “An eye like Mars to threaten and command“) but something more. As their eyes met Virgil was struck by a single thought. This man has lived this long through sheer force of will. He has survived because he will not die.
He refuses to do so.
Then the last dregs of adrenaline ran dry and Virgil fell into the black.
You will always remember that moment when you saw them for the first time. Always.
For Virgil, the moment was now.
He saw her first through the half opened slit of an eyelid. A long, silky lock of black hair caressing her cheek, just brushing the tip of her perfect pink lip, as light as a morning rose.
Her eyes were green like a winter sea. When she saw he was awake she smiled at him. And he felt a little giddy.
“Good morning.” she said.
He opened his eyes. He was lying in a bed, with a cast on his right leg, and his left arm in a sling and he could feel the weight of a swathe of bandages wrapped around his head like a turban.
“And to you, mademoiselle.” he said, and he sounded like he had been gargling with treacle.
“Here, I’ll get you a drink of water.” she said.
He took the cup from her, which was transparent like glass, but felt like rubber, and drank it with his good hand. It tasted strange, slightly metallic.
“How are you feeling?” she asked him.
He tried to articulate it, gave up and simply asked her where he was.
“Berlin.” she said.
“Berlin!” he exploded “Berlin, Germany!?”
“Calm down.” she soothed.
“I will not!” he retorted “What the Hell am I doing in Germany!?”
“Recovering.” she replied
“I could have recovered perfectly well in France!”
“Ah, but then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting you.” she said slyly.
Virgil was vain enough to fall for the bait. He calmed slightly.
“Why have I been brought to Germany?” he asked her “How long was I unconscious?”
“Not long.” she said “Only a few hours.”
“Only a few hours.” he said.
“A few hours ago, I was in France. Now I am in Germany?”
“Yes.” she said.
“You are lying to me.”
“I’m not, you know.”
“How did I get here so fast if this is Germany. Did I fly?”
“This is going to take so long to explain…” she muttered.
“Any questions?” she asked, after she had told him everything.
There was a very long silence.
“Emmm…” said Virgil.
“Well…” said Virgil.
“Emmm…” said Virgil again.
“What’s your name?” he finally asked her.
“Jeda.” she said.
He was in love.