Are we not all lepers? - Editor
The Brokenhearted Leper
by William Knight
Froth was my cellmate. He was a leper. Not the contagious kind. The kind of man kept alive for the sport of nasty children, and dismissive nobles--who shunned his outstretched hand as if it brandished a dagger.
“She was a sight, my lad. A true beauty,” he said longingly.
I nodded, feigning interest in his oft-told tale.
“If it wasn’t for this accursed affliction.”
Light seeped through the bars, illuminated Froth’s deformity in a dazzling ochre haze. I tried not to flinch, but failed. Froth noticed and clammed up, his one good eye leaking betrayal.
Somewhere, in another cell, a woman cried. Her incessant wailing clamored off the moss-bitten stone walls. In reply, a heartless soul yelled for her to “pipe down.”
I hunkered down in the dirty straw and pulled the flea-riddled blanket tight around my shoulders.
Froth sighed reluctantly. Obviously he’d decided to forgive my effrontery and continue with his well-heeled yarn.
“Hair the color of golden wheat, skin unblemished as a babes. And the sound of her voice, ah...” He scratched at a knobby pustule under his occluded eye. “I’d wager it was the loveliest in the known world. I can hear it now. La, la, la...”
I buried my face in the blanket. No doubt it lost something in the translation, but Froth’s wine-soaked pipes did little to curry favor for his erstwhile love’s singing acumen.
The singing ended abruptly with a wealth of wet hacking.
I heard more than saw, Froth roll into his dirty mound of hay. His blanket was cleaner than mine, the stitching given less to abandon. It used to belong to me. He’d ‘accidentally’ wrapped himself in it one morning while I was sleeping. He could keep it--contagious or no.
Froth hummed quietly to himself.
I was left to make peace with sleep as best I saw fit. No easy task. Thoughts flowed like wine from a smashed cask.
I pictured the woman I’d had the audacity to become enamored with. Unlike Froth’s long begotten mistress, mine had dark hair, and skin the color of cinnamon.
“Untouchable,” was my mother’s warning.
I did not heed.
Click, clack. Click, clack, came the sound of the guard’s interminably slow slog.
Fate had conspired to berth me in a cell at the very end of the aisle.
Sometimes the footsteps reached our far flung quarters, though more often than not the slop bucket ran dry and we were left with only pangs of hunger for company.
When hungry, Froth became quite loquacious, and I less keen to hear his wistful reminiscences.
Click, clack. Click, clack.
A little more. I could smell the moldy broth. The clacking was so loud against the stone flags I could swallow it. Taste it in my mouth.
I heard greedy fingers claw at one of the earthen bowls proffered to prisoners.
Then the footsteps grew fainter. No! I squeezed my face against the bars and briefly caught the image of a receding sea-green tabard. Then the ungentlemanly bastard began to whistle.
Never mind us! Go back to your game of crook-hand, you knave. We’ll be fine here with the greasy straw. We’ll just chew on it like hobbled donkeys!
Froth released a plume of acquiescent air, akin to a spoken “Oh, well.”
“Did I ever tell you about her horsemanship, lad? Well...”
My white knuckles stood out on the bars as prominently as the winter moon in a cloudless sky.
Warm sunlight ribboned through the barred window, cast even Froth’s squalid skin in a healthy glow.
I stared at his moving mouth, hearing no words. His fingers, bubbled like leeward render, gesticulated as he spoke.
My temperate pity slowly gave way to loathing.
“Why are you here, Froth?” I asked.
His monologue ceased and he chewed his bloated lower lip. When he finally spoke, the words were flat and stilted like remembered verse.
“I had a bit too much to drink one morning, Yilkem. I’m afraid my penchant for plum wine has landed me in this pickle.”
“You were thrown in the Tower of Chains for being wine-addled? Surely such a benign infraction is the province of the gaolers, not the Royal Guard?”
For once, Froth was silent.
The Tower of Chains abutted a fencing green. Bright green grass gave way to traipsing nobles in gilded raiment, leisurely sipping libations to the consternation of the many dispirited eyes watching their every move. Sometimes they doused themselves with water from leather jackets to the forlorn moaning of the parched prisoners.
Duke Tyril often frequented the green, flashing around in a powder-blue waistcoat with layered tails; looking for the entire world like a frilly-papered lamb chop. His gold-weaved, basket-hilted saber reflected the sunlight as he twirled, parried, and riposted.
Occasionally Duke Tyril would glance wistfully at the Tower of Chains, a smirk alighting on his handsome features.
I knew, despite the countless peering eyes, that his smirk was meant for me.
Froth’s occluded eye is nestled between harsh-veined scar tissue. It stares out at me, night after night, catching the transient moonlight as it plies its trade.
Some nights I cannot sleep. I lie awake for countless hours staring at the opalescent deformation.
I wonder at times--does Froth know his malfunctioning eye so disturbs me? Why doesn’t he sleep facing the wall?
I believe he does it to irritate me, to fray my slowly unraveling nerves.
A tumoral growth overhangs the loathsome eye, like a distended lintel.
Sometimes, though I know it is crazy, I think I see a sentient glint in the eye. As if it’s dissecting my movements, keeping tabs on me.
The Tower of Chains is a place where paranoia is allowed to fester. Like Froth’s diseased skin, it will make abominations of us all.
“Tell me about your lady,” said Froth.
I didn’t respond at first. Instead I mulled over the proposition. I had no desire to dangle sentences before the leper, just so he could augment his own tedious stories.
“She is not my lady,” I decided to say.
“Ah, jilted love. I know it well, Yilkem...” he began.
“Kensha did not jilt me,” I said. I was angered by his presumption. As if he could understand the complexities of my affair. Always the old mistake experience for wisdom.
Froth reached out with the greasy spikelet’s he called fingers and pawed the air. “I apologize, Master Yilkem. No offense intended, I assure you.” His voice warbled and pitched with the theatricality of a performing minstrel, and I was not assured of the sincerity of his apology.
I turned away and stared at the small square of light, which teased us with the morning sky.
“Fine,” I muttered at last--more to quiet the old fool than out of honest forgiveness.
“Kensha, you say? A lovely name, for a no doubt lovely maiden.”
I smiled despite myself. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d forgotten the name of Froth’s long lost love. Had he ever mentioned it? I wasn’t certain. I asked.
Froth seethed with rage; his puckered skin alighted with crimson. Is he angry at my ignorance?
I apologized, but he turned it away with a venomous wave.
He muttered belligerently and turned to face the wall.
For once, his obscene eye is cloistered from view. And yet, I was still uneasy “You’ll see,” he spit out. “By the Gods, you will see!”
I pressed my face to the rust-flecked bars. Two guards were removing a prisoner in a shoddy wheelbarrow. One held a lantern at arms reach, his mouth swathed in linen.
They were laughing. The faint remonstrance echoed uneasily on the ashlar walls of the cell, which were so unused to the cheery sound.
They unceremoniously dumped the recently departed in the barrow the tower’s prisoners had dubbed ‘clemency.’
The prisoner was wheeled away. Finally free from the Tower of Chains. Many eyes that watched the scene unfold, including mine, are full of envy.
“I can’t remember her name,” said Froth. He pounded a scab-crusted fist against his lumpy forehead. “I can’t.” His voice was beseeching.
I nodded. Froth hadn’t spoken in over two days. For some reason it was a pleasure just to hear his raspy voice once more.
“What happened?” I asked.
He lowered his head and it disappeared into his soiled blanket.
“It was spring,” he said. “Dying heather dusted the air; the scent of pine-risen was a rich companion. We had a cottage, I think. She was there one day, gone the next. Fell into some mischief. I searched for her for ages. I called her name. I called...”
He started to cry. His shoulders heaved and ebbed, imploring a comforting arm to hold them tight.
I remained where I was, and courteously ignored the tears.
As if Froth’s sobbing were the enticing keening of a dog, a prisoner in the adjacent cell joined in and began to weep.
Tears were free in the tower. They’re the only things that are.
Lurker inhabits the cell across from ours. His appellation is duly earned. All day long he traversed his miniscule quarters. Back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes he would pause and giggle like a man possessed, the sinews standing out on his neck in sharp relief to the pallid skin.
His cellmate didn’t seem to mind, though. His cellmate is dead.
They’ve yet to remove the body. Apparently Lurker’s sin against the crown is on par with my own. He gets a corpse for company, I get a leper.
The smell is stupefying, and I could easily commiserate with Lurker.
His sin must have been great indeed.
Kensha. As I languished away in the moldering cell with the diseased Froth, I tried hard to forget her.
She was lost to me. As sure as I would never feel the warm spring rain again, I would never hold her in my arms. Never smell her, never touch her. She smelled of alyssum, and her skin was smooth as silk.
Parthic warned me to be cautious. I ignored his warning to my eternal damnation.
In the cell across from ours, a rope was tied to the stubby iron bars of the window. Lurker swung from the end of the rope, his eyes bulging, a maniacal grin etched for all eternity on his face.
He is still at last.
“Hair the color of golden wheat, Yilkem. Have I told you?”
“Yes. You’ve told me. Many times, Froth. Many times.”
“Oh.” He cackled, his one good tooth standing out in its isolation. “Guess I must have. Tell me of your woman.”
“I’ve told you. She is mine no longer.” Perhaps she never was. She was Duke Tyril’s as sure as the sky belonged to the ravens.
Had I spoken the thought aloud? I shifted uncomfortably.
“Please.” Froth leaned forward, his fetid breath an invading force upon my senses. “I love stories of courtly intrigue.”
I had no desire to relive my naivety, but something in Froth’s anticipatory countenance changed my mind. “I became enamored with the Duke’s mistress.”
“Ha! The foolishness of youth.”
Nice of him to put it so subtly. “At least I remember her name.”
Froth’s mouth dropped open. He turned to the wall. “You’ll see!”
“What will I see, Froth?”
He turned to face me, a cruel sneer contorting his face. “You’ll see.”
Froth rarely spoke to me anymore. Occasionally I would catch him sneering in my direction, but for the most part we ignored each other.
The spring had turned to winter, and a cold, biting wind howled through the small window. Sometimes it brought with it crystalline flakes of snow. They settled uneasily on the soot stained floor.
The blankets prisoners were afforded in the Tower of Chains are of poor quality and I’d spend the entire night shivering. Froth for his part seemed unaffected by the abysmal weather. Maybe it had something to do with his condition.
I wondered why he was still here. Maybe he’d lied to me about the manner of his incarceration.
Lurker still hung from his escapist rope, the eyes still bulged.
Why didn’t they take him away?
“What was her name, Froth?”
He snarled at me and dug his bony fingers into his bowl of slop. My own bowl of lukewarm soup remained forgotten beside me. I will get my answers.
“Tell me,” I holler. The shout echoes off the riven walls.
“Leave me alone,” he said.
I leaped over and grabbed him by the collar of his greasy tunic. His one good eye went wide with shock and the clay bowl tumbled to the floor, its priceless contents draining away into the mortared cracks.
He licked his lips. “Dreva.”
“What happened to her?”
“She went missing, I told you.”
“No!” I shook him roughly and he moaned in agony. I could almost hear his old bones clicking in response. “She didn’t.”
Tears started to roll down his cheeks. “No. Please.” He voice was tinged with sorrow. “I beg of you.”
“Tell me what happened, leper.”
“I...I killed her.”
I released him and he slumped to the floor. He clutched at the dirty straw and sobbed quietly.
Stunned, I stepped backwards; leaned against the wall. “Why?”
“She was unfaithful. My precious Dreva. I tried to apologize. I begged the Gods to bring her back, but it was too late.” He held up his hands as if they were the ones to blame. “I loved her.”
“But she didn’t love you?”
“No,” he said quietly. “Not enough.”
The harsh snow made a mockery of the sun. It hid behind the clouds and Froth and I were left to languish in the shadows.
He continued to talk about his love as though he’d never admitted to me that he’d killed her.
“Someday I’ll find her,” he said. “Soon I’ll be free from these bars.”
“Maybe,” I said noncommittally. I could leave Froth with his delusions; he had little else, after all.
“Soon the Duke will come for me.”
I sat up. “Duke? What duke?”
He spluttered and shook his head. “I misspoke.” He turned and buried his face in the blanket and hay.
I eyed him warily. The leper had more secrets.
It was the middle of the night. The moon was a frozen disc in the night sky and a layer of hoarfrost coated the floor of the cell. I crept over to Froth. He muttered lightly in his sleep, imploring some unknown threat for leniency.
I ripped off the blanket and grabbed him around the neck, cringing at the feel of his slimy, spongy skin.
“Wha…” he started.
I squeezed. Froth hacked violently, his palsied fingers scratching wildly.
“Why are you here?” I whispered. I eased my grip just a fraction.
“I was drunk one night...”
“No.” I smacked him across the face. He whimpered and tried to wiggle free. “Tell me the truth, leper.”
“Murder,” he finally choked out.
“I know that. I know you strangled your love. Dreva, was it? You deserve your fate, murderer. Why did Duke Tyril send you?”
I held his gaze for half a minute. His gleaming eye examined me. Finally he relented. “To infect you, Yilkem.”
“What?” I released him and stumbled backwards, my heart racing, my senses dulled with fear.
Froth shakily pulled himself to his knees. A cruel laugh percolated out of his throat. “I am the punishment for your sin.”
I screamed. “No! You’re not contagious.”
“A lie. Sorry, lad. It’s too late. You’re surely infected by now.” He laughed harder. “I warned you. You’ll see, I said. Remember?”
“Ah, that’s the most beautiful part. Duke Tyril promised to set me free. Said he’d have his mage heal me. They’ll remove this diseased husk and I’ll be cured.” He cackled anew.
I moved forward as if in a daze. Froth continued his throaty laughing until I bore down on him. My hands gripped his throat of their own volition. I squeezed.
Froth struggled futilely.
Soon he was limp. One lifeless eye. His torment over.
My cellmate’s name is Banson. He hides from me in the corner and screams when I come near.
I am a leper. I understand his hesitation.
“Have I ever told you of Kensha?” I asked him. “Hair the color of the night sky...”