Crowds showed up to see him, congesting the main street with foot-traffic. Mostly they hung back, leaning sallow against shop-fronts or watching through half-closed windows, but a brave knot of people clustered around him and his procession. They moved like a clot of fat through an artery, tumbling and scraping their edges against buildings.
The man had brought with him a brace of guards. Or a brace of guards had brought with them the man. He was plainly dressed and walked in the center of a diamond formation at a slow shuffle. The guards could have outpaced him easily, but they all wore stoic expressions, kept their strides short, and focused on repelling the crowd.
There were pleas and curses. Attempts at conversation. Shouts. Cat-calls. Petty spectacles that evolved wherever he passed. He did not stop, and the guards held back the press of humanity. For a time.
The guard in the rear—a tall, brawny man with a hauberk and halberd—was the first to notice when he ran into him. And bounced off. In and of itself, this was surprising. The man he had been escorting was built like a stick. Whiplash-thin, with limbs of skin and bone. He was only of medium height, and his balance was poor. When the guard collided with his back, it was as if a massive hand had gently shoved him away.
One by one the rest of the escort realized what had happened and turned to look. Their charge was standing stock still; utterly arrested. His left hand was out, and the withered claw of an old woman was wrapped around the tip of his index finger. She was holding on for dear life, determination shining bright in her rheumy eyes. He looked like he was running uphill in a hailstorm.
For a long moment nothing happened. The crowd leaned in and the guards stood rooted to the spot. Then the old woman's brow began to smooth. Wrinkles erased and crows' feet withdrew into the corners of her face. Carbuncles dissolved, melting back into pure silky skin that slid across her body in a slick. Whatever transformations took place beneath her rags, they could be seen working their way across her arms and over her bare feet. She gasped—eyes flashing baby-blue—and from the murky tangle of hair still clinging to her scalp sprang a single lock of gold.
Then there was a thump of flesh and the woman tumbled back, out of sight, into the crowd. The guards reformed around their charge—taking care not to touch him—but the damage had already been done. A clamor rose into the afternoon air like the froth from an over-boiling pot. And all of a sudden there were hands everywhere. Touching, grasping, feeling. Hoping for the faintest brush of skin on skin. One lingering instant with which to re-define the world.
It was a nightmare.
The woman was a warlord, although she did not much like the term. It was predicated on conquest, and that was the last thing she wanted. She had trouble enough managing her own territories without adding to them. She would rather have been called a land-lord. One who watches over a particular piece of the earth with the intent of regulating it. Protecting it. Receiving tribute from the people who choose to live on it.
But no. Land-lord sounded silly in everyone else's ears but hers. Worse, it sounded weak. In that weakness she was vulnerable, so in order to avoid a fight she chose war.
The last several years of being a warlord had been hard on her. It had left scars on her arms and on the right side of her neck. It had worn deep furrows into her brow. And it had tired her out while the tumor in her stomach swelled and grew; a parasitic child of her body.
These days she could eat only a little. She grew thin. Then skeletal. Her limbs began to look like they would be more at home on a junkie. Finally, relief came in the form of a rumor.
There was a man (or men,) outside the borders of her land who shut himself off in seclusion from the world, refusing physical contact with everyone he had known. When she first heard of this, he had sounded crazy and harmless and perhaps a little sad. She had dismissed him as useless almost immediately, at which point the messenger bearing the rumor had put in that the slightest touch of his flesh could cure sickness.
Taking pieces of him had done no good. Hair, fingernails, saliva all yielded no return when they were placed against another body. Even ground up or burned or stewed and swallowed, they had no effect. So, the warlord had ordered a detachment of her most loyal men to go outside the borders of her domain and retrieve him.
Now he stood before her.
She lounged skeletal atop a pile of satin pillows. Beneath them was her throne. Sitting on it lately had brought bruises to her limbs, so she had made the concession to a little bit of softness, as long as she knew she was not going to be disturbed. Her guards had all been ordered outside. The only other living soul in the hall with her was the man. The rumor. Perhaps the miracle.
He sat on his heels, knees pressing down into the carpet. He kept his eyes down, too. And his face was expressionless. Not a trace of fear played across his sparse features. He was either the very picture of humility or defiance.
"Approach the throne," the warlord said, as regally as she could manage. It came out drawn and haggard, but that was alright. There was no one there that she needed to impress.
The man complied mutely. Stood. Shuffled. Stumbled his way up the steps to wait in front of her. He did not kneel again. He looked for a moment like an awkward party-guest.
"I am told that you can fix my condition."
The man said nothing.
"I am told that no one else can. If you are a fake, I suppose that I will have you put to death on principle, but I will not mean very much by it," she smiled wearily. "Besides, I will follow not long after. You will be avenged, in your own way. Does that matter to you?"
The man said nothing.
"Take my hand."
An impossibly long arm reached out, closing the distance between the two of them. Fingers fastened in a vice-grip on her wrist. The circuit between them was complete, and the warlord recoiled in shock as a flood of indescribable something surged up her arm.
The first thing to unravel was the cancer. It came apart like a ball of dough bobbing in a pond. Bits grew slick and greasy around the edges, and begun to slough off in drabbles of flesh. They were consumed by a vigilant police-force of immune cells that swarmed the site, and also by the acids of her stomach. After the cancer came the worry. The sleeplessness. The malnutrition. Her arms filled out with muscle and blood and color. Her face slid from sallow to sunken to rich and full.
Her hair fell out and no sooner had she swept her free hand across her scalp in frantic panic then it came back in. It was now a vibrant, curly red. It had been brown and stringy before. She was delighted.
From her savior came a gurgle, and she saw that her wrist had gone white where his fingers were crushing it. Every tendon running down the length of his arm was clenched and standing out like a fire hose. His face was contorted into a grit-jawed grimace.
When she peeled his fingers back and pulled away, he collapsed on the ground at her feet, breathing raggedly through his mouth.
"What was that?" she demanded.
"You took what you wanted," he managed, in between breaths. "Now tell your men to take me back to the wilderness and leave me there. You are done with me."
The warlord shook her head. Rose-firm lips curved in a smile. "Why on earth would I do that? You are perfect. With you, I can have the strongest, healthiest troops and citizens. And I can reign for ages over them, never having to worry about the squabble and back-stabbing and pointless waste that happens during a succession. You're a blessing. A gift from on high. Why would I squander you like that?"
"All I want is to be left alone."
"But why? You're a miracle. Have you considered how many people you can help? How many deaths you can stave off? You're staying here with me."
"If I am to be a prisoner, then I have one demand."
"What could you do to make demands of me?"
"I could hold myself hostage. Without me living in it, this body is of no use to anyone. I could simply wait until whoever you assign to watch me stops paying attention, and then hold my breath. I have heard it takes a phenomenal amount of willpower to die that way. Do you think I could do it?"
The warlord regarded him coolly. The edges to her enthusiasm had faded. "Alright, then. What is it you demand of me?"
"Only this. That one day, when you have reached the end of your reign and decided to step down from this position, you will grant me recompense for my service. If it is not equal in value to several lifetimes of healing, then you must take your own life."
"There are several problems with that bargain. Suppose I never retire?"
"You will. One day. An eternity spent doing just one thing grows old fast. But you are free to put off retirement for as long as you choose."
"Well, suppose I break the deal?"
"You might. I will confess that I don't know you very well, but I am willing to make that gamble."
"All right. Deal." She slid down off of the pillow-throne and extended a hand. The man looked down at it and, by way of accepting, spat noisily on the carpet.
After that the years went by fast. The warlord's territory grew slowly. Not at the speed of conquest, but in tireless, ragged inches as her people began to live longer lives.
The territories around hers waned. Some of them suffered from famine. Some plague. Some from stupid, internecine feuds. Within a generation's time, she found herself presiding over a much larger area.
With this development came a number of new concerns. She was no longer expected to lead troops out onto the battlefield, or to lead masons in their crafts, or to lead anyone in anything. She learned to delegate, finding the most promising members of every profession and appointing them to offices with frilly, irrelevant titles to make them feel more secure in their change of careers. Every once in a while, she got to intervene directly in a botched coup, but the more time passed, the less frequent they became.
There were a few advantages to being effectively immortal. One of them was that you got to know other people really well. For the first few years of their business relationship, the warlord and the miracle did not say much to each other that was not a command or the assent to a command. That evolved.
The miracle man was close-lipped and withdrawn. Those two traits defined him. He would take every healing session with a grimace. Sometimes—when the damage to the person he tended was truly severe—he would black out during the healing and have to be pulled away. This did not happen very often. Most of the time what he experienced was run-of-the-mill pain.
Centuries passed. The warlord asked him questions that he could not remember the answers to. What his name was. Where he was from. If he had family. He adapted to the norms of her culture, and began to wear more than just rags for clothing. She asked him why he had done so, and he supposed that it had become habit. More time passed.
Of the warlord's original people, only a few remained. The warlord grew nostalgic, and she began to talk with the miracle about the old days. He said very little. She asked him why healing hurt him. He shut up entirely.
It was exactly one eternity later when the warlord relinquished her post. She did not intend on giving up her immortality. Only her rulership. It did not mean so much to her. Anyways, it had become redundant a long time ago.
When the miracle heard this, he asked her what compensation she could possibly offer him in return for an eternity of service. She answered by leaning over and pressing her lips to his brow.
It was a small gesture and entirely without value, but it might have been enough.