When the night fell, the road became silent. As the shadows we cast disappeared into the darkness, my fellow pilgrims lit fires in their lanterns and raised them high, creating a path of light towards the city.
I didn’t try to light my lantern. After ten days of walking, the candle had burned out and I had no coin to spare for a new one. The rest of the coin in my meager purse was for the Gods.
So I stayed close to the travelers before me, and prayed to the gods that the light wouldn’t fail in their lanterns.
My stomach growled, my mouth was parched from lack of water. I walked because I had no choice. I had to get to the city, I had to…
“Why do you have no light in your lantern?”
I looked up into a bright light over me, and saw a guard standing there, dressed in his silver and black livery. My voice trembled, “I have no more candles, sir…”
The guard grabbed my cloak and pulled me along with him. He pushed me into a layer of stinking straw and said, “Sleep here. You can walk again tomorrow. There is water in the corner.”
He left abruptly, leaving me to stare into the darkness, feeling my way around in the straw. A gruff voice said, “You will find.. water … To my other side…”
The man coughed violently and fell silent. I crawled around him and finally found what I was looking for. It seemed to be a small well, it felt like water was moving in it. I leaned over, and drank a couple of handfuls, and smiled at the taste. I filled my water vessel, grateful that it was filled again, and sat down in the straw and rested my head on the wall behind me.
“Why are you here, boy?”
“I am here to seek counsel with the Gods. Is there any other reason why anyone would travel this far into the Barren Lands?”
“None I can think of.”
“Are you here to seek the Gods too?”
“Yes, son. As you said, no other reason…”
The man coughed violently. I wanted to reach out my hand to him and pat his leg. Reassure him, yet I was afraid to touch him.
I said, “Can I do something for you?”
“No, son. I am well. I have water, I have my belly full of food. I am content.”
I placed my hand on my belly and wondered how I would feel with food in my belly. I smiled and thought of all that I had fed with my loaves of bread along the road to the city.
“What counsel do you seek from the Gods, son?”
I smiled, “I wish to wed my sweet Rose, sir. I am here to wish for their blessing.”
He coughed again, and then was silent for a while. I feared he was dead. I moved cautiously across the straw towards him.
“I am not dead yet, son… Now tell me, is your Rose a good woman?”
“She is, sir. She will make me a fine wife. She is the daughter of the blacksmith, you see… She will work hard in the bakery, I am sure…”
“But work alone doesn’t make a good wife.”
I was grateful for the darkness in that moment, because I blushed so fiercely my face was red, “No, sir, she is the light of my life.”
“Good… Good, son… That is worthy of a blessing…”
He coughed and then fell silent. I sat there and listened for his breath, but all I heard were the shuffling footsteps of the people outside, walking to the city in the darkness.
I fell asleep then, and when I woke, the sun colored the sky red. I scrambled up and looked around me. The place where the man had been was empty.
There was nothing but untouched straw.
I scrambled up, gathered my belongings and walked outside.
The guard stood there, smiling as I approached.
“A wonderful day for a pilgrimage.”
“Thank you for taking me in.”
“I always do that, you see. The King may not allow it, but I always shelter one or two wary travelers.”
“What happened to the old man?”
“What old man?”
“The old man that was here last night when I came… He was… I think he was sick.”
He turned to me and said, “You were alone in there… What did the man say?”
I smiled and said, “He said my marriage to my sweet Rose is worthy of a blessing.”
The guard nodded solemnly. He raised his hands to the sky and said, “My dear boy, you can return home now. There is no need for you to go to the City. You have met the Most High and received his blessings.”
“That can’t be…”
“The Most High blesses those who are kindhearted. You must be…”
He leaned in and whispered, “I have heard stories of those who met the Gods, but never met one… until now. Go now, so I can share the story of my guest with all who pass. Go marry your Rose and be blessed, my friend.”
I moved to shoulder my bag, and frowned when I noticed it was heavier than before. I opened the bag and laughed. It was laden with food, more than I would need on my return home. I could share my food with other travelers and not go hungry myself.
I took my first steps on the road home and smiled.