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The pilgrim had come to the Old Land to pray at the shrine of the Old God, like a pious man should. And so he had done, and now he was almost ready to head home. There was just one thing left for him to do.
It was a strange thing to believe, but for some reason the story of a lonely rose bush here in the cursed Old Land persisted. And he had been asked by his wife to see if he could find this wonder and bring home one of its roses, for surely it must be holy to grow where nothing else would.
Most other pilgrims he knew of had been asked the same by their wives. None of the others had succeeded, and the pilgrim didn’t expect to either.
He searched anyway, following a cobbled path winding its way between the scattered ruins. The sun was glaring down, as it had been these past few days. Grey dust blown by the wind meandered like rivulets of ashes across the land, covered parts of the path. As he made his way across a particular deep drift of dust, he noticed a large overturned tree close by.
Something about it made him halt. The pale branches reached like skeleton fingers for things lost but not all forgotten. In his mind, he could see those branches covered in leaves. He could see the willow as it had been, standing in his parents’ green garden, before the curse and the flight.
A chill ran down his spine, despite the heat; the rubble beneath the tree--that must be what was left of the house he had lived in as a child.
It had seemed to him that the grey and dusty wasteland he wandered through had nothing to do with the land of his childhood. He hadn’t recognised anything. But now, gazing at a dead willow, he heard the soughing of the wind through the leaves and someone laughing. A friend long gone.
It was true what the monks said. He had never felt it so strongly before. Though life was good and his people had a new homeland, now, there could be no forgiving the Drakai, who had cursed this land. If any Drakai were left alive.
But the just vengeance was the business of the powerful monks, not a simple pilgrim. He pulled his wide brimmed hat down low against the sun and, with a grim set to his mouth, continued.
Shortly after, he found the rose bush. It grew by the foot of a hillock, easily visible from the path, and the green stalks and masses of red blooms stood in stark contrast to the desolate grey land. He could even smell a sweet scent on the breeze, and he stopped dead, astonished no one else had been able to find it.
It just didn’t seem right.
He drew in a slow breath through his nose, and with the back of his hand he wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead. Then he shrugged and went to pick a rose.
Somebody cleared a throat.
The pilgrim froze, his fingers just about to close on a thorny stalk, and looked over his shoulder.
A scrawny old man glared back at him, hands on his hips. His face was weathered with a scruffy beard and a coronet of receding white hair. The tattered rags he wore made him look much like a scarecrow.
“That is my rose bush. You can’t pick from it without my permission,” he admonished in a reedy voice.
The pilgrim straightened and suppressed a smile at the idea of this dishevelled man owning anything. “God’s peace.” He tipped his hat. “Can I get your permission?”
“You can.” The old man nodded. “If you will share your food with me. And answer my questions.”
The pilgrim saw no harm in this, and the two men sat on the dusty ground. From his knapsack, the pilgrim produced bread, dried beef, and a waterskin.
The pilgrim had recently eaten, and after a few morsels of the dry bread he had had his fill. He took a swig of lukewarm water. The old man kept on chewing. The pilgrim watched him for a while in silence.
The old man only had a few teeth left, and his thin brows were knitted in concentration as his jaws slowly moved. The breeze toyed with a wisp of his white hair, and on the ground a small swirl of dust moved into the shadow of the rose bush. The air smelled strange, of old sweat and roses.
“Do you live out here all alone?” the pilgrim asked at last, partly to break the silence, which he began to find slightly uncomfortable, partly because he was surprised to find anybody living in the Old Land at all.
The old man swallowed. He looked the pilgrim in the eye. There was something unsettling about that look, and it took some effort on the pilgrim’s part not to avert his eyes.
“Not all alone. My love is with me. I’ll never leave her.” The old man’s mouth quirked slightly, and then more bread was stuffed into it. Crumbs fell, stuck in his beard.
“Oh. That’s nice.” The pilgrim thought it rather unlikely. But who wouldn’t go a little crazy living in a dead land all alone? How did he even live here? There were no plants, besides the rose bush, no animals, no food to be found. The pilgrim asked him how.
A few moments went by, then the old man swallowed again and held up a piece of dried beef. “I’m eating now, am I not? Most pilgrims are willing to share.” He pointed the piece of beef at the pilgrim. “But I am the one to ask the questions if you want a rose.”
“Go ahead,” the pilgrim said with an inviting wave of his hand. He had nothing to hide.
“Tell me,” the old man began, leaning closer. “How come the land has gone barren though it rains no less than before?”
The pilgrim raised an eyebrow wonderingly. “That’s the Drakai curse, of course.” Everyone knew that. It was a strange thing to ask.
“The curse. Yes. The Drakai drained all the life force from the land with their curse.” The old man paused, scratched his beard. “But wasn’t it awfully convenient that just when the curse began, our monks gained all their wonderful new powers and abilities?”
“It was convenient, yes. We would not have been able to punish the Drakai and take their land for our new homeland otherwise. It was the foresight of our god.” The pilgrim shifted uneasily.
“Of course.” The old man looked at the piece of beef in his hand, turned it thoughtfully. “And very lucky that our monks’ new powers enabled them to tell us that it was indeed the Drakai who had cursed our land.” He looked at the pilgrim again. “One last question. What do you think the monks did to my love when she asked them these questions?”
“I don’t know.” The pilgrim stood, annoyed suddenly. “How would I know?”
“You’re right. You don’t know.” The old man smiled wryly. “You can pick one rose now, if you wish.”
The pilgrim glared at the old man, unable to shake the irritating feeling that he had been hinting at some insolent heresy that ought not go unpunished.
Still, he thought as he turned to the rose bush and his fingers closed on a green stem below a perfect red bloom: he could bring home a holy rose. He would be the first to do so. What did it matter, then, what one old man alone in a deserted land and most likely crazy said?
The pilgrim picked a rose. And as he did so, he felt something moist dribble down his hand; an unusual amount of sap, he thought at first. But it was warm and red, the fluid trickling from the stem he held. Like blood trickling from a wound.
Frowning, he moved a finger glinting red with this strange sap to his tongue. A familiar metallic taste spread in his mouth. He felt queasy. Could a bleeding rose be holy? Wasn’t it more likely the opposite? What would his wife think of him if he brought it to her? What would everybody else think?
The old man fixed grim looking eyes on him and opened his mouth, was just about to say something. Something heretic, no doubt, connected to the rose, no doubt. The pilgrim didn’t want to hear it. He dropped the rose, grabbed his knapsack, turned and walked away.
He did not see the blood of the rose soak into the dusty ground. When he came home, he told his wife there was no rose to be found.
micheledutcher - tobiash wrote: Nicely drawn. Your scenes are clear and evocative. All the other pilgrims must have found the rose bush as well and felt dirtied by the blood soaked past. The corrupt priests undoubtedly were responsible for the blighted land. This was a nicely wrought story and thought provoking to boot.
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