Pilgrims

Issue #141

I found the dead man a few hours before sunset, rolled roughly out of the narrow path I had been following. If it hadn’t been for the drag marks and the dark stain in the dirt, I might not have seen him at all; the shadows were lengthening and whoever had left him there had set him in a low spot and tossed a broken branch over him. I didn’t want to stop; I’d been hoping to catch at least a squirrel for my dinner, and though I was out of arrows, I’d still a sling and a pocket full of stones. But the living have a duty to the dead, or so I’d been taught.

The man had been rich once; he was tall and had a plumpness to him that wasn’t just the bloat of death. Whoever had left him there had taken everything but his undertunic and braes, and likely they would have taken those too for the fine linen if his death hadn’t left them so shredded and stained. I had seen a battlefield before, and so I was not sick, but something sat cramped at the back of my throat all the while that I blunted my knife and my finger-ends scraping rocks and soil enough to cover him. 

I’d no coin left me for the burial gift, but I wrapped his linens as shroud-like as I could and pulled off the last of my rings to rest on his swollen tongue. When the body was covered, I sang the rites and blessed the space of ground with my own blood—a little more than I had intended, on account of the dulled knifeblade. The people in Kemnwater had called me a saint once, and sacriligious though it was, my own not-yet-relics were the most I had to sanctify the ground. At least I knew what to sing over a proper burial. 

I slept cold and hungry, and my ringless fingers felt nearly as light and strange as my head had when my braids had fallen twisted at my feet like a pair of coiled snakes, severed from my head and theirs. There’d been too much change of late, and a supper of winter-cold water and the last of my dried fish didn’t help that.

I was two more days walking before I met another soul, and fortunate indeed that it wasn’t brigands, since even the scrub trees had given out, leaving nothing but the scattered boulders to give any kind of cover or shelter. I’d been remembering the stories the Northerners told about outlaws and about the walking dead, especially after finding the dead man, but the horseman who caught up to me along the path was dressed like a knight, in good furs and fine wool.

He drew rein some paces away from me and bowed from his horse, as gallant as a young courtier, though neither of us were young and there was none but me to admire his fine airs. When he spoke, it was with a practiced voice and words that would have sounded well in some troubadour’s tale: “I bid you greetings, fair madam; I am a knight in sore need, for I travel under a geas that I must do a great service for the first living soul whom I meet. Please grant that I may be of use to you in this land of God’s forgetting.” 

I stared at him, feeling the dirt of travel and the coarse fabric of the borrowed peasant’s wools against my skin at wrist and neck. Briefly, I thought of asking what hell he’d sprung from, but it came to me that I didn’t really care to know. He was either a madman, cursed, or some revenant of a knight out of a tale, and whatever the case there was little I could do if he changed the face he showed me. “Have you any food, or wine?” I asked. 

He had. It was fast-day fare, suitable for travel, but it tasted as fine as the First Food must have done in the beginning of the world. When we had eaten, he tried to put me up on his horse behind him, but I said that I walked for a penance, and so he walked beside me, leading the beast. 

“There are kinder roads that lead to the graves of the saints, fair lady,” he said to me, after the third time I had stumbled over the rough ground. 

“There are,” I agreed. 

There was a little silence when I said nothing further, and he glanced back at the empty way behind us. “May I ask what shrine you seek, lady, that I may escort you there over better roads?”

I felt my brow draw down and my teeth begin to clench, but it was the village priest’s voice I was hearing, and the elders from the abbey, who thought a woman good for little but bearing and weaving and gathering the cut sheaves at harvest. If this man thought to protect me, at least he had said no word about women being unsuited to the service of the Lord. And truth be told, I was even more poorly provided for the barren lands than I had thought, and had been wondering for some days if I would reach my destination at all. I did not so much mind the thought of dying out here, but it would have been a waste. 

“I am not seeking the shrine of any saint who died in the God’s wars,” I told him, minding my feet so that I would not have to look up. “I seek the root of the Tree that the Lord cut down to end His war, that I may build a shrine at its heart, and burn an offering there.” He did not need to know about my village or my daughter. 

The knight stopped, between one step and the next, and I walked a little further before turning back to see him standing with his foot still raised. I waited, and after a moment he finished his step, and the horse bumped his shoulder with an impatient nose. 

“If that be the case, fair lady,” my protector said at last, “then your way lies farther to the north.”

We changed the direction of our steps.

I began to feel that I had not paid enough attention to romances and mummers’ tales, for my companion did not act in ways of ordinary men. I thought perhaps I remembered hearing it was unwise to question mages and the creatures that lived by the rules of magic, lest you break some unspoken part of the compact between the two of you and turn their help to hindrance. Surely there were stories enough of the lives of the early Saints that told of strange rewards for stranger customs, though I was not about to compare myself to those great heroes of the war-torn days. Whatever the case, I didn’t quite like to question my companion about why he was here and helping me, and he seemed content to travel as silently as his horse. 

Watching him sidelong through the chin-length brush of my cropped hair, I began to feel as if he should look familiar to me; something about the look of his jawbones or the shadows beneath his eyes. His skin was dark enough that he probably had some southern blood, though his hair didn’t have the inky curls of the men of the Empire or the Churchlands. I thought of the faces I’d seen in the great halls at Caerleon and Newmarket on feast days and the church Knights who had stayed at the Abbey three winters ago, but I could not place him in that multitude. 

As the sun sank, we stopped, and it seemed he had enough sorcery to start a fire and knew what of the scrubby plants in the waste about us would burn well enough to heat a little wine. He looked up at me as he handed me the clay cup he’d pulled from the horse’s pack, and with the fire casting light and shadows across his face I finally placed him. It was fortunate I had not yet stretched out my hand, as I would have dropped the cup; his was the face of the man I had buried. 

“What are you?” I whispered, stepping back out of arm’s reach, though there was still nothing I could do if he meant to hurt me in this empty place. It was one matter to speculate about ghostly knights, but another entirely to meet a man you had put into the ground yourself not a sennight before.

He watched me calmly, his hand still held out to offer me the cup. “As I told you, lady, I am a knight under geas.” 

“But you were dead. I buried you.”

“Indeed, and for that I thank you. Now I am in your debt, and it is my fate to repay you before I finish my journey out of the mortal world.” 

That almost made sense, which was more than I could say of most of the live men of my acquaintance. I considered for another moment, but fate or no, nothing had changed; we were still alone in the middle of the Godless lands. I moved back toward the fire and took the cup from him. The wine was warm enough to scorch my tongue, but it took the edge off the chill that had begun to cut into my bones. I sat near as I might to the little fire and tried my best not to shiver, now that I had ceased to move. The dead knight gave me more food and pulled a cloak from one of the saddle packs to put over my shoulders. 

I did not ask how great a debt my scanty burial had accrued, but when he had tended to his horse and returned to the fire, I did ask how he had died. 

He added more bracken to the flames, and I huddled in his cloak and my own, watching him and trying not to shiver. I did not want him to think I was afraid of him. 

“I was set upon by brigands,” he said, “that haunt the outer borders of these God-forgotten lands, as I believe you have guessed, though why I was wandering there alone and without my proper arms is a longer tale than the darkness. You must sleep, fair lady, but I will tell it to you in the morning, if you would have me do so. For now, I will watch, and keep the fire burning.” He led his horse over to lie at my back, and whatever unearthliness he might have about him, the horse felt mortal to the touch and smelled it to the nose, and between its great animal heat and the warmth of the fire I slept as sound as a child in bed between her sisters. 

By the time it was light again, and I had asked him to turn his back while I crouched in the dubious shelter of a knee-high rock to relieve myself, I began to regret my question. It was no real business of mine what history had led to his death, and I was afraid it would open the way to his asking about my own past. But when I returned to the fire he held out another small cup of warmed wine to me and said nothing. 

The land we walked across was empty except for the rocks and the bracken. There was nothing to see but colors of dust and stone all the way to the blowing clouds and the distant mountains. We went towards those mountains, farther into the heart of the wastelands, but I looked mostly at my feet to keep the rising sun from shining into my eyes. 

After a time, the knight began his tale, a little abruptly: “My father arranged that I marry for the sake of an estate that bordered our own, for both I and the lady he chose were our parents’ sole surviving heirs. I was not unwilling, though perhaps I should have been, as the lady had no great care for me, nor I for either her or the wealth of her lands. But many men marry without love, and our fathers made an agreement they thought well for both of us.”

I thought of the agreements my own father had come to, disposing of me and of my sisters as he thought best; some of those had gone better than others, and mine was not the worst lot among us. Many men might choose to marry without love, but it was a rare woman who could choose to marry for it, if she were offered the choice at all. 

“What my lady wife kept to herself was that she had already been married in secret and borne a child to another man, who had left her for a war and not returned. How her father did not know of this I cannot say, but while she felt it her duty to give me an heir, she took no pleasure in my touch or my company. In the end, I went myself to fight in other men’s wars, in search of glory where I might not have to meet my lady wife’s sad eyes at table. 

“It was well enough for a time; I am skilled at killing men in battle, and for many years I was lucky as well. But as the saints have said, all luck runs out and there is no true trust but in the Lord; the day came that I was captured. In the high stone room where they imprisoned me was another knight: a man who had been there seven years, and from whom I learned the history of my lady wife, for it was he who had first married her.

“In time, my comrades ransomed me, but I asked that the other man go in my place, that he might return to the wife who was more his than mine, for I had wronged both of them. Our captors agreed gladly, as they had no wish to see me return to the field of combat, and the knight departed with promises to ransom me as well. Three months had not passed before a foreign army besieged the keep where I was imprisoned, and when their war engines began to destroy the walls and rafters I was able to escape.“

In the middle of the godless lands, it was hard to imagine the feel of a tower under siege, but the stone walls of a locked room were as clear in my mind as if they had been around me instead of the vast expanse of emptiness. It was only a different sort of wall, though it didn’t keep the wind out. Despite the wind, I was still grateful for the barrier between myself and the places I had left, though I guessed that he had not been. 

“Were you killed on the road home, then?” I asked, wondering how long ago these things he spoke of had occurred. 

He shook his head. “Nay, lady, I swore then never to return to my home. I have been on pilgrimage these twice twelve years, praying at the deathplaces of the Saints that I might yet undo the wrongs I have done unto others. Two months ago I came to a pool sacred to Saint Mathild, the child-witch, and there I dreamt that a black-haired girl child came to me and bade me throw my sword and lance into her pool as I had thrown away my life for the folly of others.”

My breath stopped a moment. Two months and seven days ago, I had left my braids on the altar of Saint Mathild that my daughter had kept in secret before her arrest. 

“When I had sworn to do so, she bade me go into the Godless lands and find a pilgrim whose need the saints could not answer, that I might help what she could not.”

My foot hit a rock and I stumbled, flinching away from the hand he reached to steady me. The Saint had sent him to me and thus to his death. My ankle twisted painfully on the next step and I fell, awkward as a child just begun to walk.

There was a moment of stillness as I caught myself on my hands, my face close as a lover to the dirt, rocks digging sharply into my palms. I wondered if the child Saint were playing with us: setting our lives into a romance for her own entertainment, or for that of the Lord and his Armies. But then the revenant knight was kneeling beside me, respectful as always, and I shook my head at the doubts, for they were unworthy of all of us. 

Instead, I sat up and tended to my ankle. It was twisted but not broken, and not so hurt that I could not pull enough heat from the pale sun to mend it. When I stood it was sore, and my head spun a little with the dizziness that comes of healing within my own body, but I could walk again. 

“You are a sorceress.” 

I shook my head. “A healer only.” It had always saved me, that lie; a woman who followed Saint Edreth might practice her art outside of the stone anchorite’s cell, which my father had not allowed me. I had always had talent enough for healing; if I could do other things as well, it mattered little when I chose not to do them. 

The stony waste and the pale sun seemed to reproach me, and I added, “My daughter inherited the power, but not the direction of it. Our Abbot had her arrested for lay practice of sorcery not five days after my husband was put in his tomb. She burned herself rather than take the cell behind the altar.” I did not say that she had also burned our little church and half the village, or how long I spent tending those wounded or dying before I followed the promise I had made when I cut my braids. Perhaps my tale was no more strange than his; we had each been turned from the lives our fathers had given us by the passions of others. 

After that, there was little enough to say, though when the windy silence became too much, one or the other of us might begin a hymn. 

We were another ten days walking, and the miraculous food in the knight’s saddlebags had begun to run low before we came in sight of our destination. By then, even the bracken had run out, leaving us with no fire and the horse with as little to eat as we. It, I pitied. 

It was half a day’s journey between when we could tell our destination from the mountains behind it and when we reached the base. The stump of the Tree stood taller than my head above the plain, blackened as if by some poison meant to keep it from regrowth. Half again as broad as the stump’s height, the tree itself lay to the side, trunk and branches still as crisply formed as if it had just been felled, though there was no sign of leaves. 

I reached out to touch the splinters of what had once been living wood, but under my hand they felt as empty of life as the burnt-out stones of our church.

“What will you do here, lady?” asked the knight, breaking half a morning’s silence.

I glanced back at him, but his face held no more expression than the empty landscape. “Make a shrine,” I said, turning to the stump above me. “Will you raise me up?”

He did, cupping hands for me to set my foot, and lifting smoothly until I might grab the jagged splinters where the tree had broken and scramble up. I wished my body twenty years younger, but it served me well enough, and I did not stumble as I stood and looked down at the Tree whose fruit had given my ancestors the magic that the church now cursed us for. The axe that felled it must have been wielded by the Lord Himself, for no mortal could have made the strokes of such a blade, but though the line of splinters at the tree’s center stood as high as my waist and beyond it the stump fell away sharply, the side where I stood sloped only gently. I pulled out the pale chalks I had brought and mouthed a brief prayer that they might mark the darkened surface. A foolish thought; no saint could intercede in this place. 

“Do you know much of theology?” I asked, suddenly reluctant to begin. 

“Only twenty years of lay sermons on pilgrimage, lady. I have never read the writings of the Church Fathers.” 

Whereas I, wishing for an anchorite’s place where I might light a church with the glow of the heavens, kinder than my daughter’s fire, had read all the doctrine and theology that I had been able to buy or borrow and had corresponded with scribes in my husband’s name for passages of what I might not see myself. The revenant knight stood still as a guard, his face turned up to watch me, no more holy than my husband had been, for all his guilty piety.

“The Learned Theonikias writes of an ancient treatise in which it is said that in the days when men might pray to the Lord directly, those of the Defiant’s line chose to pray to the Tree, as a god with sympathy towards those who had inherited his sorcery. We know that the Wars of the Holy Book ended in sacrifice, but what that sacrifice was is lost to mortal knowing.”

 He nodded, unmoved by the impiety of the ancients. “I have traveled with monks of the Lost Orders.” If the Lost brother who had once written to me was any example of his brethren, the knight would have been well introduced to the ideals of Ineffable Sacrifice. My own views had always been more tied to the world I could sense; what use was it to sacrifice a thing that none could understand enough to value? The abbot would have said this was a woman’s unsubtlety, but I held dearer the loss of books and magic than that of some earthly romance with a handsome lover who had never appeared. 

“What if,” and I swallowed, awkward with words I had never dared to speak, “as the Defiant destroyed half the world to separate us from the Lord, so did the Lord sacrifice a god in the Tree to keep His enemies from gaining the greater sorceries?” The works of the Saints had been beyond us for centuries, as what magic was left in our blood grew thinner from one generation to the next; the church only weakened it further by their bans. 

He was silent, and I looked down again, wondering if he understood, but he was watching his hands. When he looked up, his eyes were wet. “Saint Mathild sent me to you, lady. Once from an endless task I had taken out of pride and shame, and once from beyond death. I trust in her, and in the Lord, that they would not have sent me to aid you had you not been meant to undo some part of the harm the Great Wars left in the world.” He held out his hands, strong and empty. “What may I do?”

We made the Tree into a shrine, I with my chalks and he carving at the brittle bark with a knife, writing the holy words of Saint Mathild, of Saint Edreth, and of the Lord. It was not beautiful, but we each had our reasons for knowing the scriptures of holy places, and as the Church Fathers have written, the words are the blessing.

When the light failed, we ate a little and gave the last of the fodder to the horse, which had stayed, dog-faithful, by its gear. I prayed that whatever god looked after horses might look after it if the Lord and the Saints could not, but short of driving the beast away from us with rocks, there was nothing more I could do for it. Instead, I shut my eyes and tried to fill my thoughts with piety, waiting for moonrise. 

When the moon hung three fingers above the horizon I stood, my heart as certain of what I did as it had been when I watched my daughter’s pyre. Her fire had not reached even the abbot, but mine would reach the Heavens. 

This time the cut across my palm was deep by intent, and I pulled the moon’s silver into the dark line I drew about the shrine we had made, blessing words and ground, and laying to rest the Tree with the same songs I had sung over the revenant knight. May the peace of the heavens be with you. May your mortal vessel be released to the earth as your soul is to that beyond. May that which you leave behind pass to those who come after you.

My hand began to burn as oil touched by a match, and I felt as though all that I had drawn from the sun over my lifetime flowed out of me again in the shape of my daughter’s fire. It spilled out, fire and blood, in a blaze that should have drowned out the moonlight, but the silver light that I had snared shone just as bright. And then the Tree caught, and we were all but sparks to the heartwood of the Tree from which all mortal magic had once come. 

My own flame began to flicker, and the knight steadied me as I swayed. 

Someone stood on the stump we had blessed, a dark shape at the edge of the fire who knelt and held out a small hand. I heard a child’s voice, the words as clear over the fire’s thundering as if we stood in a quiet room. 

“Come, Magda. You have fulfilled your vow.”

“But the magic—” I whispered, not certain even a saint could hear me.

“It is released. It will fall with the rains and come back to the land; magic was never meant to belong only to the church.” I thought perhaps she smiled, though how I could know that I had no idea. 

“Come, Magda,” she said again, and the knight held out his arm, courtly and strong. He had passed once beyond the world already, and now he escorted me through the fire and beyond it to where the saints awaited us.


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When not getting distracted by other people's books or the internet, Ann Chatham mostly makes things. (Worlds, wildlife gardens, clothing, dinner...) In real life she shares a house near Baltimore with her husband, their small daughter, and a long-suffering cat. On the internet, something about her can be found at www.thanate.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Ivy-Smothered Palisade” by Mike Allen
“Transitions of Truth and Tears” by David G. Blake

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2 Comments on “Pilgrims”

2 Responses to “Pilgrims”

  1. Lisa says:

    What a beautiful story–richly imagined and powerful!

  2. […] final story is “Pilgrims” by Ann Chatham. From BCS #141, it tells of a lone woman, unnamed for most of the tale, […]

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