The Pilgrim and the Soldier
by Jane Jago
At the City of a Thousand Stories the Pilgrim Route leaves the Imperial Highway and enters more uncertain territory. Prudent souls rest a while whilst those in charge of their safety engage such protection as they can afford.
The best assurance of security lies in the cadres of pensioned-off Imperial soldiery, although they cannot be hired cheaply.
One such group of battle-hardened veterans was under the leadership of Caleb Cross, a thickset plain-faced ex-sergeant of some forty summers. He was a man characterised by few illusions, alongside proven courage and integrity. He and his men had enjoyed a brief furlough in the fleshpots of the city and they were now ready for the road. They sat at their ease at one of the pavement cafes that border the slave market and awaited whatever clients the City Watch might send their way.
It was something of a surprise to see one of the Captains of the Watch escorting a tall cadaverously thin character in a snowy white pilgrim robe towards them. Caleb’s second whistled.
“Some money must have changed hands there,” he said quietly before spitting a gobbet of something truly vile into an adjacent humidor.
“Indeed my friend.”
Caleb stood up and watched the two men who approached him through narrowed eyes.
The Watch Captain looked as if he wasn’t much enjoying the company in which he found himself, while the pilgrim had wealth, privilege, and entitlement ingrained in every lineament of his almost skeletal frame. He stared at the group of soldiers in their stained leather breastplates and his mouth formed a sneer.
“Is this the best your city can do?”
The Watch Captain sneered right back. “That depends what you want. If you want spit and polish obviously not. But if you want to get to the Dragon Temple safely then, yes, they are the very best.”
The pilgrim must have been less of a fool than he appeared, because he dropped his superior act and looked carefully at the score of men who lounged at their ease under his scrutiny.
“How much?” he asked brusquely.
Caleb answered with a sneer of his own. “It doesn’t work like that. There are a few things we have to get clear first.”
The pilgrim looked down his high bridged nose. “What is there to get clear? I pay. You do as you are told.”
Caleb sat down.
“Come back when you are ready to listen.”
He turned his back. Nothing happened for some appreciable time and in the end he turned back to where the rigid pilgrim stood in silence but with his jaw out thrust.
“I’m listening,” the man grated.
“First thing. Everybody walks.”
“But we have just bought sturdy mules.”
“I don’t care. Where you want to go people walk.”
The pilgrim’s eyes glittered angrily, but then he drew himself in. “If I am buying your expertise I suppose I have to listen.”
“You do. And no women.”
They eyed each other for a long cool moment before the pilgrim gave a thin smile.
“Very well. No women.”
“Finally. I’m in charge. I won’t make an issue of it, but if I take your money I’ve put my reputation on the line.”
The pilgrim actually seemed amused. “You are welcome to a task that I have found akin to herding cats. Now. For the second time. How much?”
“How many pilgrims?” Caleb was pretty sure he knew the answer, but he asked anyway.
The pilgrim drew his dignity about him once more. “We are one and twenty, as the Holy Book sets out.”
“Thought you might be. The price is one hundred gold ducats.”
Caleb just looked at him.
The pilgrim turned his cold gaze on the Watchman who leaned against a stone pillar grinning.
“You man. Would you pay this rabble a hundred gold ducats?”
“Whether I wanted to get to the temple and back with my skin in one piece or not.”
“Very well. You are hired.”
Some worm of unease was scratching at the base of Caleb’s brain and he was tempted to refuse the contract and wait for the next caravan. But a hundred ducats would see them all through winter in comfort so he nodded.
They left the city ten days later, with Caleb at the head of the column and his two most experienced men at the rear encouraging stragglers with broad profanities and the threat of being left behind. Even given a resistance to walking, and a more than fair sprinkling of arrogance and insubordination, the journey was an easy one, blessed with fair weather and fewer than usual bedbugs in the wayside dormitories where the pilgrims overnighted.
However, the ease of travel bred discontent – and by the time they left the broad, sunny valley with its cultivated fields and patient oxen most of the pilgrims were openly resentful of the soldiers. The tension was right on the edge of boiling over when a band of robbers rose out of the ditches that edged the rough track they were climbing. Caleb’s men beat them back with practised efficiency and the seeds of rebellion subsided somewhat.
The truce would never be more than uneasy, but at least the group made better time now the pilgrims began to understand what fate had in store for those who became detached from the column.
It was the longest day and the column breasted a hill at sunset to find a fallen tree had been dragged across the track leading to the dormitory. There was a red sigil scrawled on the bleached trunk of the barrier. Caleb swore briefly but with force.
“What?” The voice was arrogant. “What causes you to so profane our pilgrimage?”
Caleb pointed one thick finger. “Plague.”
Another voice, even more arrogant. “It’s the sign for plague. But could it not be a trick?”
“It could. But. Are you prepared to risk it?”
“No. Surely one of your men…”
Caleb turned the full force of his fury on the speaker. “Oh yes. Send somebody to die for you. If you were even half a man I’d kill you for suggesting that.”
The pilgrim wilted under the lash of his tongue, while an ugly soldier with a scarred face grinned sardonically.
“I’ll just go look then shall I?”
“No. I don’t think so. I’m uncomfortable. Something is itching my head.”
A slight figure could be seen toiling up the path towards them. It stopped well out of reach and put its hands to its mouth.
“Come no further pilgrims. We are infected. Some are dead already.”
“Is there anything we can do to help you?” Caleb asked.
“Many thanks, but no, good soldier. We are well provisioned and our healer survived the disease when it last visited.”
The figure turned and made its way back to the stricken hamlet.
“Well that’s that then. We ain’t going down there.” The veteran leaned his back against a convenient tree trunk. “What’s the plan Sarn’t?”
Caleb scratched his head. “We have to move. It’s either back. Or forwards. Either way stinks. I suppose we better ask this lot how they feel.”
“You can,” the guard spat into the undergrowth, “but you better explain it careful. They don’t seem too bright to me.”
Caleb sighed. “Shut up. Your opinions ain’t helping.” He turned to the pilgrim group. “We can’t stay here. It’s not safe at night. So we have two options. Neither of which pleases me much. We can head back to the last dormitory, but we’d be in the sights of every robber band that has heard the plague is here. Or we can press on. Which means passing through Silenius’ Forest on midsummer night. There won’t be bandits, but there will be other stuff.”
“Like nymphs and satyrs, and wood spirits. Celebrating the longest day.”
“That doesn’t sound dangerous to me.”
“Well it is. Go back and your bodies are in danger. Go forward and you could imperil your immortal souls. Talk among yourselves and tell me politely when you have reached a conclusion.”
The pilgrims got into a huddle and Caleb looked at his men. “What’s your vote?”
“Has to be forward. If this lot can be persuaded to behave properly.”
The thin man who had hired Caleb coughed politely.
“Our consensus is to move forward.”
“Right. But there are a few elementary precautions.”
“Tell us what to do.”
“You walk in single file. Hands in the sleeves of your robes, eyes to the ground. You look neither right nor left. You make no sound. You will hear a lot of strangeness. You must not react.”
He looked at each of the pilgrims in turn and something in his face must have alerted them to their very real peril because each nodded solemnly.
“Very well. Let’s do it.”
Caleb’s men lit lanterns before forming up around the pilgrim band. The column moved out at a stately pace and in silence. It was very dark in the forest, with the low sun barely penetrating the tangle of contorted tree limbs. As soon as human feet touched the black loam of the only pathway through the overhanging branches, the quiet sounds of woodland at sunset were superseded by the coarse refrains of bacchanalian celebration. If the pilgrims had any thought that Caleb had overstated the threat of Silenius’ Forest at midsummer the sounds that assailed their ears made them study the forest floor and their own feet with ferocious concentration as they walked in careful silence. It must have been more than three hours later, when the pilgrims thought themselves safe, being almost at the other end of the trees, that a great voice stopped them in their tracks.
“Who brings a human female into the Sacred Forest at Midsummer?”
Caleb turned a despairing face on the pilgrims.
“Please tell me you haven’t sneaked a woman into your group.”
“What if we have?” The speaker only stopped sneering when the soldier nearest him punched him to the ground.
“I’ll tell you what if you have. Your lies have just signed the death warrant of a good man.”
The satyr stood at the very centre of the pathway, blocking their egress into the dim yellow light of the rising moon. The creature was about nine feet tall, and crowned with twisted horns that shone in the fitful moonlight like black gold.
Caleb stepped forward.
“Do you know the penalty for your foolishness, human?”
The beast stepped forward on his oddly jointed hircine legs.
“Wait.” The pleasingly contralto voice came from the very centre of the group of pilgrims. “What if I give myself up to you, Forest Lord?”
The satyr laughed, but it was not a friendly sound. “We will have you anyway, after this one’s blood expiates your sin.” He turned his yellow eyes on Caleb. “Prepare thyself that this may be done in a seemly manner.”
Moving like an automaton, the burly soldier removed his breastplate and undertunic exposing his broad, white chest to the night breezes. It was then that the pilgrims finally understood what was about to happen and the shock to even the most arrogant was palpable.
“No,” a voice whispered, “oh, no.”
Then another whispered low and fierce. “Can we not rush the creature? It is only one.”
The guard who answered spoke harshly. “Only one? Look about you my lying friend.”
The pilgrims tore their eyes from the satyr only to realise that every tree wore at least one pair of inimical eyes.
“What happens now?” another voice moaned.
The same guard replied, his voice as dry as tinder. “That depends on how bravely Sarn’t Cross dies.”
All eyes turned back to the two figures that were now backlit by the rising moon. The satyr bowed, suddenly seeming full of respect for the motionless figure before him.
“It is given to few,” he said formally, “that they die to atone for the sins of others.”
Caleb inclined his head and the satyr stepped forward. As the Forest Lord placed the point of one of his horns against the man’s breastbone another voice rang through the forest shaking the trees and bringing the humans to their knees.
The satyr took a step back from Caleb and bent his neck in a gesture of respect. The woman who walked quietly into the darkness was tall and slender and seemed to glow from within with a silver radiance.
“What happens here?” her voice was as cold and precise as an icicle, and it chilled the hearts of the kneeling humans.
“The man has sinned.”
“What sin of man permits that you take his life in the sacred forest?”
“There is a female in the group he leads. There is a forfeit for such conduct, Lady Selene.”
He sounded defiant, and she who was the goddess of the rising moon hissed.
“He did this knowingly?”
“No. But that makes no difference. He must still pay the price of the lies of those he leads.” The satyr’s voice rang with conviction and he went to far as to raise his chin in the face of the goddess’ cool gaze.
“It is not for the likes of you to decide who pays.” When the Forest Lord still met her eyes defiantly she pointed a slender finger. “Would you try my patience, half-man?”
The satyr shook like an alder tree in the wind before bowing in acceptance of the goddess’ words. She smiled an icy half smile before turning her attention to Caleb who knelt with his head bent in respect.
“So human. What would you?”
He lifted his broad plain face and the fearlessness of his dark eyes showed plainly in the moon goddess’ cold silvery light.
“My lady,” he said with careful respect, “mine is the responsibility for the safety of those who journey this night. Therefore if there is a price it is mine to pay.”
“And if I say it is not so?”
He looked into the austere beauty of her face for a long moment. “Perhaps that is the price I must pay.”
“A good answer, human child.” She laughed and if the pilgrims had thought the laughter of the satyr cruel it was as nothing to the cruelty of the goddess’ silver tones. “Release the hellhounds,” she cried and the sky was filled with baying drooling dogs who swooped on humans and the denizens of the forest alike.
“Hold hard,” Caleb spoke strongly. “They can not hurt you if you show no fear.”
The humans held, but the satyr and the ring of eyes scattered like chaff before a storm.
When the hounds had passed, the pilgrims picked themselves up. There were twenty left, standing shaking in the loam.
“Where is my sister?” one pilgrim cried.
A coldly mocking voice filled the night sky.
“There is always a price…”