In addition to spiritual resources, Franciscan Media publishes inspirational Christian fiction. Below is an excerpt from The Pilgrim, a novel by Davis Bunn.
Helena did not really want her world to end. She simply wanted it to be different.
It was a desire that had carried her through her childhood and early years. She had started this journey thinking that the quest would serve her well enough once more.
Only now, as she stood and watched their ship glide across oil-slick water, she was not so sure.
She could feel Anthony’s tense disapproval. Which was hardly a surprise. He expected them all to die very soon. And then there was the manner of her dress. The simple garment of gray linen covered her from neck to ankles. She wore no jewelry, no badge of rank, no crown.
Like most of Constantine’s officers, Anthony clearly regarded Helena’s son with awe. Constantine, her only child, was thirty-two. He was the youngest Roman general in almost two hundred years. He was considered by many to be the finest military leader in the empire’s history. Anthony did not say anything. But she could sense his brooding displeasure. Dressing like a commoner insulted her son and everything he stood for.
Helena said, “Describe what awaits us, if you would.”
The ship glided slowly toward the quayside. Dockhands stood ready to catch the ship’s lines and make it fast. Beyond them was massed the might of Rome. Anthony replied, “Judea is run from Damascus. Damascus is ruled by Caesar Maximinus. The man you see lounging beneath the canopy is his appointed governor, Firmilian. Maximinus and Firmilian are sworn enemies of all followers of Jesus. Their persecutions have been harsher than anywhere else in the empire. They scorn you and your son. Nothing would please them more than boasting that they had caused your death.”
“It would certainly delight all my son’s enemies,” Helena agreed.
“Maximinus is not satisfied claiming the title of caesar in Damascus,” Anthony went on. “He wants to be crowned ruler of Rome. Causing your death would bring that much closer. But he won’t do it today.”
Helena felt a faint rush of hope. “Why not?”
“Because it is too public. His enemies and your son’s allies would declare him a murderer. He would lose the support he’s building in the Senate.” Anthony scowled at the soldiers standing at attention. “He’ll wait until we are beyond the public eye. Then he will wipe us out.”
The lines were tossed and the ship pulled in tight to the stone embankment. Overhead a gull passed, crying a forlorn welcome. The ship’s captain shouted orders, and the gangplank rumbled out. Beyond the armies and the weapons and the officials and the arena rose the steep-sided hills. The temples were burnished by the rising sun, heightening Helena’s sense of entering a realm from which there was no escape.
Helena knew the young officer expected her to express some concern, or fear, or at least a hint of strategy. And he deserved that much. All of those who traveled in her small group should understand why she was taking what they all thought was a suicidal risk.
She said, “I do not come to the Holy Land as a disgraced wife. I have no interest in holding onto titles and glory that my husband’s actions have stripped away. I come to Judea as a pilgrim. I carry with me an eternal quest.”
Anthony gestured to the array of armed men. “My lady, they care nothing about your reasons for coming. In their eyes, you are not just weak. You are prey.”
Cratus, her grizzled guard-sergeant, grunted in agreement. Helena traveled with four guards and a maid, the wife of her former priest who had died. Helena’s maid was the most silent woman she had ever known. They had scarcely exchanged a half-dozen words since setting sail. Cratus and his four guards stood with the stolid resignation of men who had spent the entire journey coming to terms with their fate.
Helena replied, “Which means we must rely on our Lord’s strength to protect us.”
Anthony was still working on his response when Helena bowed her farewell to the captain and walked through the ranks of sailors. Anthony sighed and followed her, the maid, and Cratus and his four guards. Helena’s sandals made a quiet slap-slap down the gangplank.
The Caesarean legions were drawn up in perfect order along the stone dock. Beyond them rose the palanquin bearing the consul of Caesarea. The yellow silk canopy flapped in the morning breeze. Firmilian and his courtiers were rendered speechless by the sight of Helena disembarking.
Helena knelt by the gangplank, lowered her face to the stones, and kissed the dust. She had dreamed all her life of journeying to the Holy Land. But never had she imagined it might happen like this. Disgraced, cast aside, alone save for the company of strangers, facing enemies who wanted her dead.
She had nothing to rely upon but the promise of a God who felt very distant just then. Helena rose to her feet and softly declared, “And so it begins.”
At a bellowed command, the troops stamped to attention. Their swords glinted in the sunlight like a forest of steel. Helena paid the soldiers no mind. Flanked by Anthony on one side and Cratus on her other, Helena walked down the central aisle. She halted in front of the palanquin and bowed as a humble servant. “It is kind of you to come and greet a simple pilgrim, Consul.”
Firmilian was a corpulent toad in silk. His robe was the color of ripe lemons. His cheeks were so pudgy they pushed his little mouth into a permanent pout. He turned her title into an insult. “Augustine Helena.”
“We both know that title is untrue, good sir.”
“And yet your husband, the general, insists that the world address you as empress.”
The bevy of officials clustered about the palanquin smirked at her. Helena knew the governor intended to shame her, make a public declaration of her many failings. So she raised her own voice and disarmed him. “My former husband has retired from all official duties.”
“But … He still calls himself caesar of the north.”
She did not shrug so much as lift her hands in helplessness. “The Senate has declared him officially retired. And I am no longer his wife. He divorced me.”
The man shifted on his bed, causing the slave holding the near pole to flinch. Firmilian said, “But your son, Constantine, claims—”
“Forgive me, sire. Constantine is but a general. Nothing more. As we both know.”
Firmilian searched for something to condemn. Or heap scorn upon. Which was proving impossible, since Helena stood before him in utter humility, claiming nothing whatsoever for herself. She might as well be a serving wench, which of course was how her son’s enemies referred to her. Which added a bitter spice to the moment, as she addressed the governor like a humble penitent.
The consul’s officials observed the exchange as they would a bit of good theater. They were easily ignored. But one man caught Helena’s eye. He was as different from the rest as a hawk among gaudy songbirds. What was more, he knew it. He was dressed in the manner of a Roman officer, and yet there was something odd about him. It was more than the insolent way he eyed the officials. Nor was it merely his burnished uniform. Many Roman officers were granted breastplates of solid gold as reward for great victories. Most wore them only for grand formal occasions. Otherwise, they were kept on a special stand, like an armless statue, a centerpiece for all visitors to admire.
This man was different. He did not wear his gold breastplate to honor the consul or this occasion. He did it to be noticed. He wanted her to see him, to study his features, carved from some harsh desert stone. She was to observe the threat in those glittering black eyes and know that she was his prey.
He wanted Helena to be afraid.
Firmilian demanded, “What is your purpose here?”
She forced her gaze back to the governor. “I journey to Jerusalem. On pilgrimage.”
The word pilgrim was not new. But the meaning had changed beyond all recognition. Before, pilgrims had been followers of the secret sects, the Greek mystery religions that demanded strict obedience. Now, a Christian pilgrim was one who gave feet to their prayers. They asked for a miracle, and they carried this prayer with them to a place of significance to the life of their Lord.
The fat man on the silk palanquin sneered. “So it’s true, then. Your family has gone over to this Jesus.”
“Christians are banned. They are outlaws. Their crimes are punishable by death.” He waved at the grand structures that crowned the ridgeline. “Rome is ruled by Roman gods.”
Helena did not respond.
“Well, then.” He made a moue of distaste. “I suppose you’ll be wanting provisions. And transport. And to use the royal palaces.”
“We want nothing.”
This time he did not bother to hide his astonishment. “But … how will you travel? Where will you stay?”
“We journey on foot, as pilgrims should. We will camp. We will purchase our own provisions.” She bowed more deeply still. “But I thank you for your offer of generosity.”
He had made no such offer and flushed at the implied criticism. “You will find nothing between here and Jerusalem but desert bandits and death.”
“Our God will provide.”
“Where are your troops?”
“I have none.” She swept a hand back to where her maid waited with Anthony, Cratus, and the four guards. “I travel only with these gathered here.”
Helena knew the consul had expected their convoy to be filled with soldiers. Her son was general over all the armies of the west. Constantine’s domain ran from the Danube to Hadrian’s Wall, a region over a thousand miles wide. Of course, Firmilian had expected to greet a horde of armed troops. Which was why he had massed so many of his own soldiers. The man’s laugh was a high-pitched cackle. “Then you will die!”
“That is in God’s hands, Consul. Would you be so kind as to deliver a message to Damascus?”
“Perhaps. Who is it from?”
“My son. And Licinius.”
The flat gaze tightened. Licinius was the general who ruled the eastern armies. He had recently allied himself with Constantine. Though Licinius did not share Constantine’s faith in Jesus, he was the only other Roman general who did not count Christians as enemies.
The fact that Constantine claimed no political rank made the situation even more troubling for his enemies. Constantine fought any usurper who sought the throne of Rome. And yet he refused to claim it for himself. It was assumed by most that Constantine waited for the people to ask him to take on the role of supreme leader. But no one knew for certain, for the general himself refused to speak.
The consul gestured. “Very well, give me the letter.”
Helena extracted the sealed parchment from the pocket of her robe. It had been brought to her by Anthony, who had no idea what he carried. Constantine had merely told the officer that the message he carried was urgent, that many lives depended upon him delivering it. “My son asks that you deliver this to Maximinus with all possible urgency. Once you have read it for yourself, of course, and can confirm just how urgent this document is.”
Impatiently, he broke the seal and unfolded the note. “I will determine what is urgent …” The man’s words failed as he read. “This is madness.”
“It is the law.” Helena raised her voice so all the consul’s retinue could hear. “Licinius has been appointed caesar of the east. He and my son the general have issued a joint edict declaring that Christians are to be restored as full Roman citizens.”
“This cannot be.” The corpulent man’s fingers trembled violently, causing the parchment to flutter like a large white fan.
“All property confiscated from followers of Jesus will be immediately returned,” Helena continued loudly. “All rights as Roman citizens are immediately restored. All churches that have been destroyed will be immediately rebuilt at the government’s expense. Every imprisoned Christian is to be immediately freed.”
“There will be chaos,” the consul muttered.
“From this day forth, Christianity is no longer an outlaw religion.” Helena shouted the words. “Any who treat it as such, or persecute believers, will be sentenced to death. This law, signed by your caesar, shall be known as the Edict of Milan.”
“Madness!” Angrily Firmilian tossed the parchment aside. “Maximinus is caesar of the east!”
“Your Senate says otherwise.”
“The Senate is over a thousand miles away. This paper is worthless. This audience is at an end.” Firmilian gestured crossly. As the palanquin shifted around, the consul glanced at the man who stood isolated by more than the distance between them. Firmilian then tossed over his shoulder, “And your bones will soon bake beneath the desert sun.”