The Wolf Pilgrim
It was pre-dawn as Giovanni began to make his way from the Capitoline Hill to the city’s edge. The eastern sky was only just beginning to pink near the horizon, and most of the stars were still bright and clear overhead. He was plainly dressed as ever in a monk’s robe with an old wooden walking stick in hand, even if he didn’t need it.
“You’re really sure about this?” Capitolina asked, walking at his side. “You only just got back.”
“Our journey north is what gave me the idea,” Giovanni said/ “And I’ve been too long in this city. I’m not like you or Kebechet, Capitolina, I need the wilds.”
“When will you be back? We need you at the Vatican,” There was clear concern in her eyes, her ears drooping slightly.
“A few months, most likely,” Giovanni said. “I’ve got a long way to go.”
“And you’re going alone?” Capi asked. “Even for a wolf that’s not the safest journey.”
“I will manage, Capitolina. You can stop being a mother wolf,” He smiled gently as he saw her fluster. “But yes, if Torleif is right, then there is at least one Catholic holdout in Spain, and they deserve to hear from the Vatican. We’ve been without contact with the rest of the faith outside of Italy for too long.”
“So long as you come back,” Capi said. “Rome needs you.”
“I will be back,” he said. “Thank you, Capitolina.”
“Travel safely, Giovanni.”
Giovanni made his way alone to the edge of the city. It was a long road ahead, but at the same time he was slightly relieved to have a direction and purpose again. It was a stark contrast to his almost stifling city life.
He paused, looking over his shoulder as he saw Stella, still bleary-eyed with a heavy pack over her shoulders, running to meet him.
“Stella, what are you doing…” Giovanni started, before he recognized the pack as the one she had used to carry her camping gear with her to the Alps. “Stella you’re not-“
“With all due respect, Mister Giovanni,” Stella cut him off for the first time. “It’s barely four in the morning, I’ve not yet had my tea, and I’m coming with you.”
“Stella, I’m going on a pilgrimage, it’s an important and personal-“
“Personal journey of self-discovery, yes I know. And I also know you better than that, Mister Giovanni.”
“Do you now?”
“I know you need others,” Stella said. “You’re a wolf, just like a person, a social creature. More than that, you need a friend.”
“So that’s why you’re going with me?” He asked. “To be my sounding board? My company?”
“No, I’m going because I’m your friend,” Stella smiled. “Besides, you’re not the only one whose been cooped up in Rome for too long.”
“It’ll be a dangerous trip,” Giovanni said. “We’re going beyond the Alps, into Nidhoggr’s territory.”
“I survived the Days of Revelation,” Stella said. “And that was before I became an approved exorcist. I have faith in my abilities and yours, Mister Giovanni, and that faith will be our shield.”
Giovanni sighed but couldn’t help but feel a smile tug at his lips.
“Very well, Stella, you may come with me. It would be an odd thing for a wolf to go alone on a pilgrimage anyway. But we need to get a move on.”
Stella smiled back at him. “Of course. Where is our first destination?”
“Assisi, about two days walk,” Giovanni said. “There is an old friend I would like to meet there.”
The days passed quickly between them on the road. Though hesitant at first, Giovanni quickly grew to enjoy Stella’s presence on the journey. He didn’t have as much time for quiet introspection, but the days were long and there was only so much meditation a wolf like him could stand. Stella turned out to be a marvelous traveling companion, talkative but not chatty, quick but not over-eager, and sunny without being grating.
Stella had grown more comfortable with his massive lupine form, no longer intimidated by the enormous heavily-scarred and dark-furred wolf. Indeed, several times on warmer nights she fell asleep curled up against his fur near the fire. Giovanni had always held a close bond with the other wolves of Rome, the bonds between a pack. But Stella, he had come to realize, was the first honest human friend he had known in centuries.
Assisi was one of the larger Italian cities. It had an active population of over a thousand people, much of the surrounding countryside filled with farmland, and the view of the city from the hills around was dominated by their the city’s large basilica, a massive stone complex of Romanesque and gothic architecture.
“It almost looks like a fortress,” Stella remarked as Giovanni pointed it out.
“That likely helped it survive,” Giovanni said. “Strong stone walls to keep the dead at bay.”
“Faith might be a good shield, but strong stone walls never hurt,” Stella said with a smile as they continued on into the town.
Giovanni was a known figure in Assisi. He had been one of the first from Rome to arrive here and had come several times in the past, so it was with smiles and nods of polite reverence that the city’s religious elite welcomed him and Stella into the city, provided them with lodging, and lead them to the Basilica to leave Giovanni to his devices. Though Stella was with him, this was, after all, to be a private audience.
“They seem quite fond of you here,” Stella said.
“Well, I helped a fair bit in the reconstruction. I convinced the Vatican of the importance of this place and made sure they diverted some of their resources here.”
“I can imagine why,” Stella said as they walked through the nave of the basilica towards the double staircase leading down into the crypts. “Would you like to be alone?”
Giovanni considered it. “…No,” he decided on. “I would like your company here as well.”
Together they descended into the quiet stone crypts of the basilica, alone for the time as they stepped down into the candle-lit hallway of stone. Giovanni knew the way from here, having walked it many times before as Stella followed him to his destination.
They soon came to an altar placed before a tomb made in a very plain style of old Romanesque stone. Within was a plain stone coffin tied with iron above a placard reading:
“Hello, old friend,” Giovanni smiles as he approached the altar. “Though I suppose I’m the old one now…eight centuries, has it really been that long?”
Many memories across hundreds of years could fade, but some stuck out despite the passing of even the greatest spans of time. Capitolina said she could remember clear as day finding the young babies Romulus and Remus, as well as Julius Caesar’s taking of Rome. Kebechet recalled vividly her youth with her father, Anubis, despite being many thousands of years old, and he had no idea what kind of memories Angel possessed. But Giovanni still had, clear in his mind, the image of the first man he had considered his friend. Saint Francis was already old then, haggard and plagued constantly by the claws of disease. But there was an indefinable kindness to him, a radiance that almost seemed to set him apart from other men. He could still hear his voice, tired but full of life.
“Brother Wolf,” Francis had called him, entreating him to stay his claws and teeth from the people of Gubbio, to hold back his hunger-driven wrath and in turn be offered forgiveness. Francis had made a promise to him then, and asked that he make one in turn.
“I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”
“I’ve kept that promise, as best I can, my friend,” Giovanni said. “Against my better wishes I have had to fight against man, spirit, monster, and wolf. I have not taken a living soul since I made that promise to you, and all the harm that I’ve done was in the defense of these people that you loved, and that I have loved as well.”
Gently he moved past the altar, placing his hand upon the cold worn stone.
“They cared for me then, and in their time of need I came to care for them. Now I’m here to renew that promise I made to you. The people have forgiven me, but I still owe to you and to them my protection and my faith. Not only for their forgiveness, but for you and in thanks for what you’ve done. Eight hundred years and still I cannot hope to match the good you’ve done, for all the good I do was brought to them by you, when you placed a hand on mine and brought me to them as an ally.”
Giovanni bowed his head and turned as Stella took his place, leaving her to pray quietly at the altar as he moved back towards the stairs. She met him a few minutes later, a smile on her face.
“Did I ever tell you about Jacoba dei Settasoli?” Giovanni asked as they ascended the stairs.
“I…don’t believe so?” Stella said.
“Did you see the small urn by the crypt?”
“Those are her remains. She was a stalwart follower of St. Francis, so beloved that she earned the nickname ‘Brother Jacoba’ among many. She was even allowed into the friary when Francis was on his deathbed when women were forbidden from such things.”
“She must have been quite a woman then,” Stella said.
“She was. She was a friend and stalwart supporter of St. Francis, and supported him and his followers whenever they were in Rome, using her privilege and abilities to look after those less fortunate.”
“Did you meet her?”
“Oh no,” Giovanni shook his head. “Unfortunately, she stayed in Rome for the most part. But she’s the kind of person that I’ve always tried to look for. Not everyone can be a saint, Stella, and not everyone can be a pilgrim, priest, or monk. But everyone, high and low, should do what they can to look after those souls less fortunate, and to care for them is to enrich one’s own soul.”
“So that’s why you’re on this pilgrimage then?” Stella asked.
“Partially,” Giovanni said. “I want to find those fine and generous souls who manage to remain such even through the harshest times. Even those who aren’t among the faithful must be seen to. I was a wolf, after all, simply an animal when Francis took pity upon me and saved me from my own evil. While I seek the other sanctuaries of faith in Europe first and foremost, this journey will be…perhaps a bit like Torleif’s, I suspect.”
“Like hers?” Stella looked at him curiously.
“She was seeking warriors, right? The strongest and bravest, the mighty and the dragonslayers. Well I’d like to find some of the kindest and the most charitable, the most virtuous in these trying times.”
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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa