The End Of A Long Journey - The Pilgrim's Steps at Rochester Cathedral
April 11th, 2017 by C. M. Harald

Flash Fiction Challenge

For a long time I’ve been wanting to write some flash fiction.  Several years ago I stumbled across the weekly flash fiction challenges Chuck Wendig, publishes on his blog.  I’ve attempted a couple, but none have ever been completed until now.  Below is my attempt at ‘The End Of A Long Journey’.  The brief was quite simple in that it was 1,500 words on the end of a long journey.  The hardest part was to show a beginning, middle and end.  I think I just about achieved this, although it’s probably too brief an episode.

I had initially planned to write a sci-fi story, and had an idea I played with for a few hours.  However, I could not get a certain place of pilgrimage out of my mind, as shown in the photo.  Pleasingly the story comes in at 1502 words.

The End Of A Long Journey

The pilgrim fell to his knees, landing awkwardly on the first step.  The pain was brief and nothing like the aches and pains that hounded him in his old age.  Before him, the remaining seven stone steps rose towards the shrine, a final challenge at the end of his long journey, a challenge he would savour, the final act of his penitence.

He took a deep breath, his staff in his right hand, the left clasping a rosary.  He lifted himself to the second stone step.  As he did so, he noticed that each stone was worn away by the passage of kneeling, and standing pilgrims, such as himself.

The journey had started years before.  He had left his homeland in search of glory, to fight in the great crusade against the Ottomans, the Crusade of Nicopolis.  The crusade had failed disastrously, and in the chaos of the final battle, he was one of the few that had successfully slipped away.  Travelling first to the Holy city of Jerusalem, he had determined to visit the places that his patron saint had been intending to visit.

The Holy City had been hot and dusty, the memory of it sustaining him on his long return journey across Europe.  The hospitality of the Saracens had, at first, surprised him.  As a pilgrim he had frequently lived off the charity of others and the followers of Muhammad were just as generous, if not more so, than the Christians.  One young man had explained to him the practice of zakāt, and how this would be shared with the poor, the needy and travellers.  The practice had struck him as far more practical than the tithing practiced in the western Christian world.  There were many other things that had impressed him about the Saracens and the they way they lived their lives.

He had visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, overwhelmed by visiting a place that the Lord had been.  The services, in Latin, were familiar and comforting, despite his being in a foreign land.  While he had considered visiting other places in the Holy Land, he knew his true calling was to visit the holy places his patron saint had been planning to visit, Jerusalem being the final of these.  The journey would be long and hard, but would bring him home and to the place that the saint had left this earthly life.

The third step was a challenge.  An ache spread up his back, following the line of an old wound.  He lifted his right leg, grimacing as the ache became a sharper pain, yet he carefully lowered his knee to the worn stone.  The left leg was much easier.  He paused, allowing the worst of the pain to pass, ignoring the other pilgrims making their own journeys up the steps.

His mind went back to his youth.  His parents and siblings had died horribly, coughing and in fever, black swellings erupting on their bodies.  He remembered his mother dead in the corner of a room.  It had been a terrifying time, with many people claiming that the pestilence was a punishment from God.  Others had blamed strangers.  He had even taken part in a revenge attack against some strangers who had been accused of brining the pestilence into the town.

Yet, those dark days had not taken him and cheating death had soon become something of a habit.  For several years after the death of his family, he had lived on his wits, sometimes alone, sometimes not.  He had accepted charitable handouts from the monastery, at other times stealing from those better off than him, frequently poaching.  His skills with the later were what had brought him to the attention of the lord of the manor.  Caught for poaching, he should have been severely punished, probably executed.  Instead, he had been seen and admired, for his use of a stolen bow.  That admiration had led to his eventual adoption by the childless lord, who had seen some reflection of himself in the resilient youth.

He grinned at the memory of that bow, as he crawled onto the fifth step.  He had barely noticed the fourth step during his recollections.  That bow had seemed so powerful at the time.  He had been inordinately proud of it when he had stolen it.  He was now half way to his final goal, buoyed up the memory, his long journey almost at an end.

Ah yes, he thought.  The journey to Canterbury had been long and hard.  Jerusalem had been the final place that his patron saint had been planning to visit, Canterbury had been the second.  He knew the immense distance between the two cities, for most of his journey to Jerusalem, at least the part that had led to Nicopolis, had been in the brave company of fellow warriors.  The journey from Jerusalem to Canterbury was immense, at times lonely, at times not, often dangerous, but every step, a step of contrition.  To visit the shrine of Saint Thomas of Canterbury had been truly worth the journey.  In the elegance of the shrine, in the immensity of the huge cathedral, he had. for the first time, begun to feel a peace.  As he had travelled the leagues, he had felt the torment of his sins increasing upon his soul, yet at the shrine, Saint Thomas had seen fit to intercede with a peace beyond describing.

The sixth step, was so heavily worn, in the centre, by the pilgrims feet; the sixth step before the shrine of St William of Perth.  What a man, what an example.  As the pilgrim’s patron saint, the patron saint of adopted children, St William was a shining example of Christianity.  That was why he was on this pilgrimage, to obtain the intercession of St William.  For the saint had adopted a child, trained him into the saint’s trade of baker.  St William had been wise and generous, giving a tenth of everything he baked to the poor.

As a knight, the adopted son of a knight, the pilgrim had found it hard to emulate the saint in this respect, but he had tried.  There had been many times when he had given alms, often more than was needed.  He had always paid his tithe to the Church, although there were times when he knew he had been less than honest about the amount due.  He had tried to attend Mass every day, frequently succeeding, inspired by the piety of St William.  He knew, in his heart, that his intentions had almost always been good, and when he failed, well this penitence would address that.

The seventh step.  His knees throbbed with pain.  He did not know how long he had been climbing the steps.  Many other pilgrims had overtaken him.  He grasped tight his clamshell pilgrims badge, the symbol of St William.  The final step would not defeat him, the once proud knight.

As mounted the final step of this great challenge, he thought of the great parallel between the saint and himself, the true reason for his pilgrimage.  St William had been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, by way of Canterbury and Rochester.  Yet, his adopted son Cockermay Doucri, had attacked him, a great blow striking William’s head, before the traitorous charge had cut his throat.  The pilgrim had likewise failed his adoptive father, neglecting to protect him in the great battle at Nicopolis.  He had watched as a lance pieced the side of his guardian, seeing the attack coming, yet fearful of the consequences to himself.  So he had not acted, certain in the knowledge that he would inherit.  He had forgotten his debt to his guardian, he had not acted.  He could have interposed himself between the attacker and his guardian; he could have struck the assailant from his horse, he had not acted.  He had merely shouted a warning; itself inadequate over the noise of the mass of chargers.  It was as if he, himself, had cut his father’s throat.

The pilgrim let out a sigh, one hand on the archway, the other on his staff as he raised himself atop the pilgrims’ stairs, taking in the Norman architecture of the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  One final act remained at the end of his long journey.  He would light a candle and pray for the intercession of Saint William.  For he was penitential, he knew his sins, the whole pilgrimage had been an act of contrition, for he knew Saint William would intercede if he truly repented.  For had Saint William not already interceded in a far more miraculous situation, curing the madness of the woman who had found his corpse?  Had not this miracle been the one that had convinced the monks of Rochester to William’s martyrdom and saintly presence in the throne-room of the Lord?

His hands shook as he lit the candle, it was the end of a long journey.  His eyes closed.

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