The End of a Long Journey (2020 edit)

I’ve been wanting to write some flash fiction for a long time.  Several years ago, I stumbled across the weekly flash fiction challenges Chuck Wendig publishes on his blog.  I’ve attempted a couple, but I have never completed one until now.  Below is my story ‘The End Of A Long Journey’.  The brief was straight forward: 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 perhaps too brief an episode.

At first, I planned to write a sci-fi story, and there was an idea I played with for a few hours.  However, I had a certain place of pilgrimage stuck in my mind, as shown in the photo.  This story comes in at just over 1500 words.

2020 update – I have improved the editing on this short story.

The End Of A Long Journey

The pilgrim fell to his knees, landing clumsily on the first step.  His pain was brief and nothing like the aches and pains which hounded him in his old age.  Before him, the remaining seven stone steps rose towards the shrine, a last challenge at the end of his long journey.  This was a trial he would savour, the ultimate 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 moved, he noticed the kneeling and standing pilgrims, such as he, had worn away each stone.

This journey started years before.  Leaving his homeland, he searched for glory, fighting in the great crusade against the Ottomans, the Crusade of Nicopolis.  The crusade had failed, and in the chaos of the decisive battle, he was one of the few who slipped away.  First, he travelled to the Holy city of Jerusalem, determined to visit the places his patron saint planned to visit.  

The Holy City had been hot and dusty, the memory of it sustaining him on his long return journey across Europe.  He was surprised by the hospitality of the Saracens, as a pilgrim he lived off the charity of others.  The followers of Muhammad were generous, sometimes more than Christians.  One young man took time to explain to him the practice of zakāt.  People gave willingly and shared the gifts among the poor, the needy and travellers.  The practice struck him as far more practical than the tithing practiced in the western Christian world.  There were many things which impressed him about the Saracens.

He visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, overwhelmed by visiting a place where the Lord had set foot.  The services in Latin were familiar and comforting, despite his being in a foreign land.  While he considered visiting other places in the Holy Land, he saw his true calling was to visit the holy places his patron saint had been intending to visit. Jerusalem was the last destination the saint had intended to visit.  The pilgrim would visit the other holy sites on his return journey.  It would be a long and hard trip, but would bring him home to the location the saint lay in rest.

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 lowered his knee to the worn stone.  Moving 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 died, coughing and in fever, black swellings erupting on their bodies.  He remembered his mother dead in the corner of a room.  It was a terrifying time, with many people claiming the pestilence was punishment from God.  Others blamed strangers.  He had even taken part in a revenge attack against some people accused of bringing the pestilence into the town.  For all he knew, they were innocent.

Yet, those dark days had not taken him, cheating death soon became something of a habit.  For several years following the death of his family, he lived on his wits, sometimes alone, sometimes not.  He accepted charitable handouts from a monastery, at other times stealing from those better off than him, sometimes poaching.  His skills at the latter drew notice from the lord of the manor.  Caught for poaching, he should have been punished, maybe executed.  Instead, he received admiration for his use of a stolen bow.  This esteem led to his eventual adoption by the childless nobleman who had seen some reflection of himself in the resilient youth.

He did not notice the fourth step, lost as he was during his recollections.  Grinning at the memory of the bow as he crawled onto the fifth step.  The bow always seemed so powerful.  He was enormously proud of the weapon when he stole it.  

Halfway to his eventual goal, buoyed on by the memory, his long journey almost at an end.

Ah yes, he thought.  The journey to Canterbury was drawn-out and hard.  Jerusalem had been the last place his patron saint planned to visit, Canterbury was the second.  He knew the immense distance between the two cities.  For most of his journey to Jerusalem, at least the part leading to Nicopolis, he was in the brave company of fellow warriors.  The journey from Jerusalem to Canterbury was immense and lonely, seldom dangerous.  Yet, every step was a step of contrition.  As he travelled the leagues, he felt the torment of his sins increasing upon his soul. To visit the shrine of Saint Thomas of Canterbury was worth the journey.  In the shrine’s elegance, surrounded by the immensity of the huge cathedral, he felt peace for the first time.  Yet, at the shrine, Saint Thomas saw fit to intercede with a peace beyond describing. 

The feet of uncounted pilgrims had heavily worn the sixth step; the sixth step before the shrine of St William of Perth.  What a man, what an example.  As the pilgrim’s patron saint, and the patron saint of adopted children, St William was a shining example of Christianity.  This was why he was making his pilgrimage, to seek the intercession of St William.  For the saint had once adopted a child, training him into his own bakery trade.  St William was wise and generous, giving a tenth of the bread he baked to the poor.  

As a knight, well, the adopted son of a knight, the pilgrim found it hard to emulate the saint in this respect, but he tried.  There were many times when he gave alms, often more than was required.  He always paid his tithe to the Church, although sometimes he noticed he was less than honest about the amount due.  By attending Mass every day, inspired by the piety of St William, he knew in his heart his intentions were almost always good.  Sometimes he failed.  He knew this penitence would address this.

The seventh step.  His knees throbbed with pain.  He had lost track of how long he had been climbing the steps.  It might have been hours.  Many other pilgrims overtook him.  He tightly grasped his clamshell pilgrim badge, the symbol of St William.  The last step would not defeat him, the once proud knight.

He mounted the last step of his monumental challenge, and thought of the great parallel between the saint and himself.  This was the true reason for his pilgrimage.  St William was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, via Canterbury and Rochester, when his adopted son, Cockermay Doucri, attacked him.  The young man struck William’s head, before the traitorous charge cut the saint’s throat.  Likewise, the pilgrim had failed his adoptive father, neglecting to protect him in the great battle at Nicopolis.  He had watched as a lance pierced the side of his guardian, seeing the attack coming, yet failing to act, fearful of the consequences to himself.  Later he worried he did not act, certain in the knowledge he would inherit his guardian’s wealth.  Yet, he did not forget his debt to his guardian.  Perhaps he should have interposed himself between the attacker and his guardian; he could have struck the assailant off his horse. He failed to act.  A shouted warning was all he achieved; inadequate over the noise of the massed chargers.  It was as if he, himself, had cut his own father’s throat.

The pilgrim let out a sigh, one hand leaning against the archway, the other placed against his ever-present staff. He raised himself atop the pilgrims’ stairs, taking in the Norman architecture of the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  One last 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 an act of contrition.  He knew Saint William would intercede if there were sincere repentance.  For had Saint William not already interceded in a far more miraculous situation, curing the madness of the woman who found the saintly corpse?  Had not this miracle been the one to convince the monks of Rochester of William’s martyrdom and saintly presence in the throne-room of the Lord?

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