|His steps pounded soundlessly into the coarse, shifting sands of the desert, and the winds whisked away his footsteps within a few moments, rendering him nothing more than a dark stain, a fleeting image under stark blue skies. He ran, lungs strained and tired, gasping for air, pressing desperately against his ribs and his chest, but he did not know why he was running. There was no one chasing him. And the man who knew of his treachery was dead, a spearhead piercing his side and thorny crown tearing open the skin of his forehead.
Judas Iscariot stopped suddenly, as if the life had gone out of his legs, and dropped to the desert floor, hot tears dripping like a small storm to the sands immediately beneath him. He sobbed, a hard racking sound that tore from his throat and flew away on the winds, even the solace of self-pity denied him now. The prophesied traitor, left with nothing but his black robes and thirty pieces of silver dangling in a pouch from his belt.
So much for his passionate hatred of the Romans, his shouts of "no master but God" as he murdered Centurion and official alike, making no progress but insidious hatred among Jews and Gentiles alike. And where had such hatred led him but here, a traitor to his people and, worse, to his friend? A man condemned by his fear to roam the world alone until he died and fell into the chasm.
Slowly, Judas rose and clutched at the pouch in his hand, feeling the silver within it. He had tried to return it to the priests, to redeem himself, to cast away the hatefulness of his sin, but they had denied him. He had cast it to the floor of the temple and run into the desert, not knowing why he was running except that he must be away from Jerusalem and the heinousness of his crime. But they had sent a boy after him, and the silver had once again found itself attached to his belt. Judas now felt it was right that he carry it. A tangible reminder of his sin, like the mark of Cain.
Judas reached a cliff, from which grew a gnarled ash tree, and stumbled to a stop. He stared at it, dark eyes red-rimmed and raw with grief, red hair blowing in the wind. And then he knew what he must do. How he must punish himself for his sin, for the grievousness of murdering the Son of God. Judas could never escape hell, but at least he might castigate himself somehow.
Removing his belt from around his waist, Judas walked slowly, with measured steps, toward the scraggly, twisted branches of the half-dead tree. How like himself, he supposed, with a half-chuckle and a small shrug, tossing the rope over the nearest branch and securing it with a simple knot. He was grim and efficient with his work now, filled once more and for the last time with purpose. There would be no repayment for his sins, of that he was certain, but he could at least feel repentance if he did this.
If he denied himself his life in the way he had denied the Messiah's.
Breathing slowly, eyes closed, he wrapped the fabric once, twice, three times around his neck, winding it tight and thick lest it tear under his considerable weight. He was not a corpulent man—no one who walked at Christ's side was soft—but corded muscle weighed considerably more than fat, and he'd been walking for years.
Judas remembered the last time he'd eaten with the Lord. "One of you here will betray me," Christ had said, even as he'd passed the bread and wine, blessing them with the light of God. Judas had eaten with the others, even daring to meet the Messiah's eyes, feeling the silver tucked tight against his chest. The Lord had known even then, and yet he had done nothing. He had accepted his fate. Had died, murdered and betrayed by one of his own, at the hands of the hated Romans.
Tears, hot and stinging, fell from his eyes and were whipped away by the winds. Judas walked to the edge of the cliff and took a deep breath. "I can never be forgiven, but I give my life to show my remorse."
He stepped. There was a crack as the branch gave way, and he fell. And all was dark for a brief, torturous instant.
Strange, but his thoughts never ceased. He was conscious of the pain from the second he landed in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the gorge until his eyes fluttered open. In the haze, he saw a shape, mists swirling into the form of his beloved friend and Lord. The Christ stared at him.
"My Lord," Judas replied, as if nothing were wrong, as if he shouldn't be dead. His body, rather than hurting, itched as if the inside had suddenly been transformed into a colony of fluttering butterflies.
"You thought you could redeem yourself by taking your own life?"
Judas shook his head. "No, my Lord. No. I thought only not to live." In the shade of the gorge, the shade of the Christ flickered steadily, as if made of fire.
"You thought, then, to run from your punishment." Christ shook his head. "You betrayed me, Judas Iscariot. I would forgive you, allow you the solace of death, but my Father is not so compassionate. Death will be no escape for you." The shade stepped forward.
Judas found himself shaking, terrified, as the shadow of his Lord fell upon him, mist and smoke caressing every curve of his broken body. He could feel the bones knitting, the abrasions closing, the bruises healing. And the Lord spoke without speaking, directly into Judas' heart.
You shall not die, Judas Iscariot, but you shall not live. The sun and all life shall be your enemy. The silver you carry and the ash that was your weapon shall be anathema to you. No sustenance shall be yours but the blood on your hands. And you shall be doomed to walk the earth forever until such a time as the Father can forgive you.
The shade disappeared and Judas was left alone, the skin at his chest burning as if he'd been dipped in fire. Judas scrambled, tugging at his robes, grabbing for the bag of silver that hung there. Tossing it away, Judas cried out and huddled in the shade of the gorge, hiding from the sun.
He was anathema to the Lord.
The Betrayer, doomed forever to walk the earth. And so Judas cried. And his tears were blood.
Forever and ever.