The leper moved slowly through the streets of Ravila pushing a heavy cart in front of him. The bells around his neck rang out their warning and people seemed to literally leap away from him, the crowds parting, faces looking away superstitiously and spitting in the dust as he passed.
At the gate none questioned him but seemed anxious to see him out of the city now that his strange business was concluded. His wooden cart was piled high with cast-off blankets and clothes. He paused to rasp out a thanks at one of the guards, his cracked lips forming a smile that didn’t seem to reach the bruised eyes.
Along the high road he made his way, the other travelers giving him a wide berth. At a deep bend he pushed the cart across the refuse that marked the boundary between road and forest and made his way clumsily deep into the trees. There, in a small clearing, an old pony stood hobbled and cropping grass beside a small wagon, a fireplace was ready-built, wanting only the strike of a match.
The Leper dropped the wagon with a relieved sigh and pushed the hood of his robes back, breathing in fresh air. The bundle of rags in the cart suddenly seemed to bubble up and flop out onto the forest floor and with a clinking of chains Maggie was crouched there, staring up at the rapidly darkening sky as if she had never seen it before.
The leper began to peel at the flesh of his face, revealing it to be theatrical make-up, he dropped it and started to shed the heavy robes, “Make yourself useful, there’s a hammer and chisel in the wagon,” Mr. Underby drawled, wetting a towel in a bucket and scrubbing at his hands now.
Maggie stared at him with wide, dark eyes and then moved slowly, as if the shackles that held her weighed too much for her to lift. The pony hobbled toward her, nudging her with his nose and giving Underby an accusing look.
“Never mind,” He said, annoyed, “I’ll get it.” He still had a bit of a limp himself, but already his thin limbs were gaining their deceptive strength. He got the hammer and chisel out and carried them over. Maggie held her wrists against a stone as he brought the hammer to bear, cutting first one shackle and then the other. She didn’t speak, just looked away has he cut away the ones from her ankles.
She looked thin and bruised and dirty, her hair matted against her head. She flexed her fingers and toes.
“Were they so hard on you?” He asked.
Her dark eyes met his and then looked away as she rolled shakily to her feet, walking away into the woods. He rose and followed, “Morrigan?”
“Maggie.” She replied and seemed to sniff the air, then pushed through the dense underbrush until they came to a place where a stream formed a calm pool around the gnarled roots of an oak. A kingfisher startled out of the tree as she walked into the water until she was sunk up to her nose, the dirty prison clothes ballooned up around her and then seemed to detach of their own accord, like a flotilla of water-weeds, and drift away with the slow current. She ducked under to scrub, the water clouding around her and when she popped back up again she cracked a thin smile.
“Ain’t polite ter watch folks bathe, is it Ossy? Hope ye gots summat fer me ter wear in that wee wagon o’ yours or I’m goin’ ter be goin’ about in th’ buff.”
“Ah, right.” He turned and hurried to the camp and returned with her hat and a plain brown dress, he sat them on a rock. She was floating on her back now, watching as the first stars appeared in the sky.
He left her there to start the fire and put a pot of stew on. He chewed a bit of dried srizzle snake as he stirred and when she re-appeared, dripping and fresh, he had a bowl ready for her. She took it and sat down, eating slowly and dipping more out of the pot until it was empty.
“Seems ter me ye just pulled me from the jaws o’ death.” Maggie said at last, when she was done with the stew.
He nodded, still chewing the snake slowly, looking uneasy.
She gathered her bowl and the spoons and the pot, preparing to walk them to the river and scour them, “What e’re it is that’s worryin’ yer head now ye might as well lay ter rest. Yer mine ter guard now, ‘till such time as ye see fit ter release me from me duties.”
She walked bare-foot back to the river and he could hear the sound of sand being scrubbed across the copper surface of the pot. Sitting on a stone across the fire from him was her hat, looking in remarkable shape considering it had just spent two months in the Ravilian prison. He thought of the price he had paid once before when he had stolen it, how dearly she had fought to get it back.
He felt, for the first time in months, unafraid.