Startled, Edric backed away from the ragged man. “What’s that?”
“I said, I am Azriel, an Angel of the Lord God. You need not kneel.” Azriel postured unsteadily against the stormy sky, wet tunic rippling.
Edric blinked. “You’re a what?”
“An Angel. Have you never heard of Angels?” Brushing sticky leaves from his shirt, Azriel examined his torn stockings.
It should have been humorous, except for the manner of the man. It reminded too much of the monk back at the monastery. “A lunatic!” Edric cried to the woods. “I saved the life of a sarding lunatic!”
Azriel blinked, snapping up his head. “Whose life?”
“Yours, you sarding fool. They hit you harder than you thought.”
“You saved my life?” He rested his hand on his chest then looked down curiously at the white fingers. “But I do not have a life.”
Edric planted his fists at his hips and laughed. “Well begging your pardon, Master Angel, but if I left you back there in that ditch we would not be arguing the point now.”
Alarmed, Azriel touched his face and body again, hands exploring anew. When his fingers reached his wounded temple he drew his hand away in shock. “No! O Almighty Lord, no! Not this!”
Edric looked for a heavy stick and got to his feet. Cautiously he backed from the fire. “I’ll be going, then.”
Azriel’s blue eyes widened. “Don’t go. I need your help.”
“Not mine, friend.” He waved his hands in dismissal and hobbled over the wet bracken.
A hand darted forward and closed over Edric’s wrist. Edric cowered down and yelled. “Get off! Leave me be, curse you!”
Azriel released him immediately, clasping his fluttering hands together. “But I am cursed. I am being punished by the Divine Father.”
Edric rubbed his wrist, eyes darting furiously into the lonely woods. “Just leave me be, do you hear? Cursed you are, friend, that’s a certainty. And cursed I be for ever saving you. Now let me be off!” Eyeing the madman fearfully, Edric backed away, but Azriel moved with him.
“As strange as it sounds, I need your help, Little Creature.”
Edric jerked to a stop and frowned. “Here! Who the hell do you call ‘little creature’? I’m Edric, and that’s that!” He thumped his own breast in emphasis. “I’m nobody’s little sarding creature.”
“But we are all God’s creatures. It is just that I am His Angel.”
“You don’t look like an angel. You look like a lackwit, to me.”
Azriel raised his hands to his chest and buried his fingers in the wet cloth of his shirt. “I know,” he muttered. “It seems…I have been sent to earth in this guise…” he blinked tremulously, “as punishment.”
“Punishment? I thought if an angel needed punishment he’d just be sent to Hell.”
“Never say that! God forbid!” Clapping his hands to his ears Azriel stumbled in a nervous circle, licking his trembling lips. “Never speak of it again!”
“As you will,” Edric muttered. He saw his chance and turned, walking briskly. But soon footfalls approached from behind. Over his shoulder he cried, “Go away, you madman!”
“I am not a madman,” the voice called from behind. “I am an Angel! Truly!”
“Angel, madman, you’re trouble, that’s all I know.”
“But I need your help. Stop! I command you!”
Edric half-heartedly laughed but kept going. “Command me? Tell me another. I’m just a crippled beggar. I can’t do naught for you.”
“I am being punished, yet I do not know what I am to do for recompense. This…this world is strange to me and this body…I do not understand it. It is so…heavy.”
Azriel slowed and teetered before sitting abruptly on a nearby rock. He dropped his face into open palms. “My head…it hurts,” he said through muffling fingers.
Edric paused to eye him. He was never this close to a madman before. Might he become violent? “Punishment for what?”
“I do not know.”
Edric laughed at that, but sobered when Azriel jerked up his head with a scowl.
“Why do you laugh? You are just a miserable little creature. I could smite you with a mere look.”
Edric laughed again. “Could you, now? I’d like to see that!”
Azriel rose up, his face reddening.
Suddenly thinking better of it, Edric backed away, but the “angel” did nothing more than fiercely glower.
Azriel’s face collapsed into a deep frown. “I do not understand. I have no powers at all. Oh, this is dreadful!”
Laughing nervously, Edric leaned on his good foot and searched the countryside for a scapegoat. “Go back up the road. There’s a monastery there. They’ll help you.”
Azriel clutched his hands, shaking his head. “No, no. Not a monastery.” He sat again, staring at his worn shoes. He lifted one foot, then the other, looking sideways at the worn leather.
Edric regarded the forlorn man with irritation. He thought to make a run for the woods, lose him in the shadows and dark hollows. He knew well how to lay low, to be part of the forest to hide himself.
While he considered, he noticed the shadows of evening closing in and the fire flickering weakly behind Azriel. Perhaps it might be better to spend the night, make certain the man was well enough to travel, and then leave him by first light. He glanced up into the drizzling sky and beyond to the Heaven he never understood. “It’s late,” Edric said cautiously. “Let’s go back to the fire and warm ourselves.”
“And why would that help?” Azriel moaned into his hands, wet hair falling over his knuckles.
“Because I’m freezing me bollocks off here.” Without waiting, Edric moved back to the fire and crouched by the flames, holding out curled fingers to the warmth.
For a long moment, Azriel stayed immobile except to sway forlornly, his face buried in his hands. A soft murmuring lament escaped his enclosing fingers while he prayed or wept.
Edric glanced once in Azriel’s direction and spit into the fire. Good. Stay there. Freeze to death.
A few moments passed before Azriel slowly raised his head. With a melodramatic sigh and a petulant tilt to his shoulders, he dragged himself to the fire and lowered heavily to a rock. Edric scooted away, putting the flames between them. For a long time they sat in silence while the landscape darkened and crickets called over the crackle of licking fire.
“What sort of fool name is Azriel, anyway? Is it Welsh?”
The stranger glanced up at Edric, blinking. “No. It means ‘God helps’.”
Edric laughed again. “He didn’t help you, did He? Abandoned you.”
Azriel blanched. “You are a strange creature. An Angel of the Lord appears to you and you are completely unconcerned.”
“Two things about that, Master Angel. One: you’re not an angel; and two: I don’t believe in them. In Heaven neither, for that matter.”
Azriel jerked to his feet. “I have never heard such blasphemy! How could you not believe?” Azriel shook his head. “I do not understand Man at all. You sin, you help no one, you love no one, and then you do not understand your own lives. It is a wonder any of you get to Heaven.”
Edric readjusted his layers of tunics. “No more of that talk, now. You make me skittery.” He hugged himself for warmth, eyes following the amber flicker.
After a time, his glance irresistibly rose again to the forlorn expression of the self-styled angel. Did the man believe this nonsense before he was struck, or only after? “Do you remember who hit you? Was it robbers?”
Azriel raised a hand to his head but did not touch the growing bump. He dropped down by the fire again. “No one hit me. It must have been…when I…fell.”
“Fell? Into the ditch?”
“No,” he said miserably. “When I…fell.” Slowly his eyes inched upward and Edric followed the glance into the heavens.
Edric puffed a snort of disgust. “Ha! More like you was pushed.”
Horror thinned Azriel’s features and he mumbled an indecipherable lament for several minutes. He shook his head and finally fell silent.
Relieved, Edric settled back. Walking was wearying, especially with his irregular gait. With lids drooping, he thought of sleep, hoping the “angel” would succumb first, but his tired eyes snapped open when Azriel heaved a distraught sigh.
“This is such a feeble body! I do not know how you stand it. I was an amazing being. Much greater than this. Brighter than even these flames.”
Edric sat up again with a weary sigh, rubbed his chapped hands near the fire, and tossed another broken branch onto it. He eyed Azriel critically. “I thought angels had wings.”
“Something like wings. But we are fire and power. Mighty.”
“‘How the mighty are brought low’, eh?”
Azriel darted a barbed glance. “That is not funny.”
“Isn’t it? I think you’re being punished for pride. It sounds like you’ve a lot to learn.”
The smoke curled, lofting into the air above their heads in white puffs. Azriel did not move. His voice lowered in warning. “You would never dream of saying such to me if I were in my full raiment.”
“You mean motley?”
“You are a particularly insolent creature!”
Edric did not like that tone. It reminded too well of all the arrogant faces on perfect shoulders, two perfect feet striding forward to tell him to shove off. And that grating term “creature.”
Edric popped angrily to his feet and jabbed a finger at Azriel. “I told you not to call me a ‘creature’!”
Mildly aroused, Azriel glanced up. “Do you actually intend to strike me? How interesting.”
The anger that drove Edric dissipated. He lowered his arms and examined the lofty stranger anew. A blue bruise formed on the side of Azriel’s face where the crusted blood dried, and mud still flattened the hair to his scalp. A hole was torn through on the knee of his stocking, and the sole of one shoe flapped from the rest of the leather. He did not even have a cloak.
Shrugging, Edric limped back to his place. “Bah. Only a fool would bother to strike a lackwit, and I’ll be damned if I’m ever called a fool.” He sat heavily, hunched over his knees, and scowled at Azriel from under brooding brows. Little sleep I’ll get this night.
“You talk of…damnation…a great deal,” said Azriel gravely. “I wonder if you truly know what you are saying.”
“What? Do you mean Hell?” He said it with particular delight, watching Azriel cringe.
“Yes,” Azriel whispered. “Surely you do not understand, or you would not speak so.”
“Suppose you tell me.” Edric settled back indifferently, closing his eyes.
Edric’s eyes snapped open when he heard Azriel rise and move toward him. Fully awake, Edric scooted to a sitting position, his hand reaching for the hilt of his knife.
“When you creatures die, there comes a judgment,” said Azriel. “The Divine Father shows you what you have done with your miserable little lives. For some, it is Heaven. But for many more, the cleansing fires of Purgatory are mete. But for still others, it is Hell. Do you think you can imagine the Pit with your puny little minds? Do you think it is serpents and demons with pitchforks? Is that your view? How paltry. You have no idea.”
Azriel’s voice softened. “Do you understand that the presence of the Divine Father is light and love eternal? That it is so powerful and encompassing in its glory that it is unimaginable to such small creatures like yourselves?” Breathing rapidly, eyes afire, Azriel moved closer. Edric crept backwards, regretting for the hundredth time saving the man’s life. “At the moment of judgment,” Azriel went on, “you are shown the most fleeting vision of this splendor, and then…the light, the love, the immense knowledge is suddenly snuffed out like a candle flame. And through all eternity in unceasing regret, you know the tremendous loneliness under which you are now yoked! A loneliness you yourself chose.”
Edric grimaced, shrinking back. “That’s enough of that.”
Azriel drew closer, features more menacing in the uncertain fire glow. “To know you could have possessed all, but lost it for all time through your own neglect and apathy—that is the very essence of damnation!”
“I said that’s enough!”
“Your soul pleads, it screams, it writhes in the agony of eternal darkness and solitude, but there is no reprieve!”
“So,” Azriel said calmly. “It does frighten you.”
“You frighten me! Off with you! I don’t give a damn if you freeze to death! I’ll not have you nigh me tonight. Get out, you hear?” The blade hissed from its makeshift scabbard. Its nicked steel gleamed dully in the campfire’s light.
Azriel stared down at the short knife. “Is that a weapon? You show yourself in your true light. Mark what I said of Hell. It is your very next destination.”
The blade slashed outward and Azriel reeled back with a gasp, clutching the cut to his arm. Amazed, he watched the blood flow and then raised his eyes. “I felt that!” he said incredulously. “You meant to hurt me!”
Edric rolled to his feet, still holding the knife forward. “Damned right! And so did you with your words!”
Clutching the wound, Azriel slowly sat. Blood flowed over his fingers. “Look how it flows. Red. Red. The pain so sharp!”
“So were your words. Don’t I hear enough hurtful words in me life? I don’t need the same from a madman! Be off, or I’ll kill you!”
Mildly, Azriel raised his face. “Would you add that to your sins?”
“Off with you!”
“You are right, of course. I did mean to hurt you. Words are all I have left.”
“Then off! I’ve no use for words.”
“I shall be on my way and trouble you no more. Except…”
Sweat speckled Azriel’s pale face. “I…I suddenly do not feel well.”
Edric watched helplessly as Azriel fell face down in the rotting leaves, breath raising his shoulder blades. Edric stared a moment and prodded the unconscious Azriel with his foot before nodding in satisfaction with a jerk of his head.