It’s back to normal this Friday, with a challenge from Chuck Wendig. He gave us fifty somewhat strange and mildly repetitive characters, generated by a computer, told us to pick five and produce a 1500-word piece for today. So here it is.
On the third night we camped on the beach.
After three days’ steady walking, a kind of exhaustion hung over us. We weren’t used to it, except for the blond guy. He was ready for anything physical, but mentally he was drained. He needed more encouragement to get moving than anyone.
We’d met Aelred, our guide, in the marketplace as arranged. He said we needn’t introduce ourselves if we didn’t want to, and we should respect each others’ privacy. So we nodded to each other, wondering what we’d let ourselves in for. The first night we helped set up camp and get the meal, except the big man, who complained of blistered feet. Aelred had looked at them, applied some astringent and then salve, ignoring the man’s screams. His feet were cured but no one admitted to blisters after that.
The walking had been easy: there had been grass and tracks, gentle hills, some quite high, a cliff to zig-zag up once, and that had led to rougher ground for an afternoon. That meant avoiding the tussocks and not getting snared by the heather, or rather the briars that wound underneath it. The second night had been in a sheltered dale, hard up against an earthbank, in among the tree roots. Not easy to sleep when your muscles need to stretch and your bones need to find ease among the network of wooden lifelines. Lifelines for the trees, not us.
Aelred tried to encourage us to tell stories round the campfire that night, but we groaned and slunk away to our blankets. I wondered who the others were. Maybe the blond guy was a disowned knight. The big man was surely a rich merchant.
By mid-day, we could smell the sea. We scrambled down the cliff path and arrived on the beach. Aelred delegated fire-making to the swarthy chap who’d said nothing, but shown his woodcraft on numerous occasions. I had him down as a released squire. Perhaps his knight had died. Maybe he’d poisoned his knight and was on the pilgrimage to seek salvation?
“What are we eating tonight, then?” demanded the blond guy, as he watched the swarthy one add more wood to a fine blaze. He received an appraising stare from the fire-maker. I wondered how he could remain so cool, when the blond one treated him like a servant. Maybe squires were used to knights treating them like that. He quietly moved sideways to get branches to lay on the pile, ready for fuel when needed.
“Answer me, man!”
“Aelred didn’t say,” the fire-maker said loudly and clearly, sinking back onto his heels then rising to his feet easily. His tone seemed to put the blond one off. Blondie nodded and looked away, spotted me and sat down beside me.
“What are you doing on this trip, then?”
“Well,” I stammered, surprised by his attention. “Well, I’m hoping to be granted a favour, well two favours, well, no, one because if I get one the other will follow, but not if the other gets granted first, if you see what I mean…” I knew I made no sense.
The big man wandered over to sit on blondie’s other side.
“What are you doing here yourself?” he asked the blond one.
“That’s my own business. Aelred said we needn’t tell.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be asking others, if you don’t want to tell yourself.”
“I can ask who I please.”
“Don’t bother asking me.”
“I wasn’t planning to!”
I moved away from them. Blondie had forgotten me anyway, since he’d turned to face the big man. I watched them in the flickering firelight. Chins raised, clenched jaws, glaring at each other. I’d seen fists fly with as little provocation.
I reached into my pack and fingered my reed pipe. It gave me confidence, knowing it was there. I’d debated long whether to bring anything with me, and decided the lute was too big, too obvious. The pipe I could hide, and finger without making a sound, just music to myself. I hoped this pilgrimage would not be in vain. The next stage was the most difficult, they said.
Aelred returned with provisions and a stranger.
“This is Arvom,” he said. “He’s our boatman. Listen to what he says and do as he orders, with no delay. That’s the secret to a successful crossing.”
Arvom looked round at us and spat on the ground. The big man bristled and was about to lunge forward, but blondie caught his arm. Now they could gang together against the stranger.
“Typical pilgrims,” Arvom said. “Y’all think ya so important. Think the saint will answer ya boons. Too damn lazy to work for it yasselves.”
“You stupid webfoot,” cried the big man. “You think the saint doesn’t appreciate great works? You think everyone wants their pimples reduced, or their bodies fertile?” He glanced at me then, but I didn’t know why. “Some of us have important work to do, the King’s work, God’s work.”
He certainly knew how to get our attention.
The boatman looked round at us and laughed.
“Lubbers,” he said, and walked off into the night.
Aelred calmed us all down with our supper. “Arvom’s seen it all before, he won’t hold it against you,” he said, looking at all of us but lingering on the big man. “Just do as you’re told, sit where you’re told, move when he tells you to. I’m not joking when I say this sea trip is dangerous. Pilgrims have died because they haven’t obeyed the boatman.
“When you get to the other side, you’ll see a track winding up from the beach. That’s the track to take. It’ll lead you over the top of the cliff, across the grass at the top, and over to the other side where the shrine is. You can’t miss it. Take it in turns to climb down the rope ladder, make your penance, ask your boon, and then come back up the ladder. They say it doesn’t work if you go down in a group. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re first or last either. So don’t argue about the order.”
“Won’t you be there with us?” asked the big man. “I paid for your services as a guide, not to be abandoned halfway!”
“I’ll be here when you return. It doesn’t do to have too many people on the island at once. Just the real pilgrims. Now, I’m going to get some rest, I suggest you do too.”
I went back to my blanket and reached for the security of my pipes. I could hear the other three muttering together close to the fire. I wondered whether to join them, but I was afraid they were plotting something.
“Are you still awake?”
I half-rose, surprised out of slumber by a harsh whisper close to my ear. “Yes.”
“We’ve decided they’re in league with each other,” said the swarthy guy. “Taken our money and they’ll strand us on the island. The other two want to give up now, although the big one wants to give them a damn good hiding and get his money back. What do you think?”
I rubbed my eyes and thought a bit.
“Why do you think they’ll abandon us?”
“Tell the truth, I don’t think they will, I think the other two live in a different world from me. Depends what you want from the saint, I reckon.”
“What do you want? Oh, sorry, that’s …”
“No, it’s ok. I just thought it would be an adventure. No harm in getting a blessing on my next trip. Might find more gold with a saint on my side. What about you?”
“I wanted a blessing for my mother. She’s ill. She couldn’t come herself. It might rub off on me if I carry it back to her. Don’t you think? Then I might become a real musician. It’s what I want more than anything.”
He sat down next to me and hugged his knees, staring at the dying fire. “I reckon you’re a true pilgrim. Blondie wants help to find his next victim, big man wants to be rich and famous, I want… well I want a bit of gold too.” He paused, and I watched him chew a stick that he’d been chewing off and on ever since we started. “How much did you pay Aelred? Just wondered.”
“That’s a lot of money to you, eh?”
“Yes. Took three months of digging in the churchyard and six months of singing in the church to save that.”
“Do you want to go on?”
“Tomorrow, on the boat? Yes.”
“Well, I’ll come too, then. I’ll tell the other two to escape while they can. Leave it to me.”
Next morning, the swarthy guy and I left the camp to go with Arvom to visit the saint and get his blessing.
They sing my hymn of praise to the saint on his feast day now.
(c) J M Pett 2014
My characters were: friendly musician (narrator); rude boatman (Arvom); tactless ambassador with big dreams (big man); strong contemplative prospector (swarthy chap); athletic, tired, arrogant bounty hunter with no hope (blondie).