For three more days and three more long evenings Sam and Tom strode on along the road. The sun was warm, the nights mild, and the going smooth.
The heralds still appeared to refresh and encourage them just when they were most needed. It sometimes seemed that their greatest enemy was boredom, the unending tramping past fields and through woods was beginning to wear on them. After weeks in each other’s company, they had little left to discuss and often passed long stretches in silence.
Around mid-morning on the fourth day, however, they caught a glimpse of something in the distance. Something which looked like a castle on a hill. Something that looked a lot like the dreams of castles from their childhoods. Something, in fact, like their destination.
They stopped, overcome by awe and disbelief. They had been travelling for so long that both realised they had almost stopped believing in their destination. It had been the journey that consumed their thoughts, not the kingdom or the king. Now, with a renewed burst of energy, they set off once more, this time talking excitedly about the prize that awaited them.
‘What would the king be like?’ they asked each other, ‘What would it mean to serve him, to co-reign with him?’
The time and the road flew by as they talked and dreamed and planned. They barely noticed the road growing steeper and the climb harder as they mounted the hill. They began to catch snatches of music and cheerful chatter. From time to time the soft wind wafted the scent of roasting meat towards them, and their anticipation increased even more.
Finally, they crested a rise and saw the end of their journey ahead. The road led straight up to the castle gates, and they could see within crowds of people going about their daily business with smiles on their faces, stopping to exchange a word here, stooping to help someone there.
Then, “What’s that?” asked Sam. At first Tom couldn’t see what he was pointing at, then he began to make out more figures moving back and forth, but this time outside the gates. “I wonder what they’re doing,” Tom said, “Let’s go and ask.”
A short distance outside the gates, they came upon a crossroads which had been hidden by the contours of the hill. At the crossroads stood a herald. “Welcome!” he called to them, “Your journey is complete. Come and enter the house of the King!”
All of a sudden, the two men found themselves feeling shy and hesitant. They were acutely aware of how they must look after their long journey. Their clothes were torn and grubby, the wounds they had sustained in the forest were still raw and ugly, and having not had a shower for several weeks, they knew they didn’t smell their best either.
“Herald,” said Tom, “We can’t go in like this, we look awful, and smell worse! We can’t meet the king in this state!”
“Of course you can!” the herald assured him, “Just go on inside. He’s got hot showers, fluffy towels and new clothes for you to wear. Tonight there will be a great banquet to greet our newest arrivals and tomorrow, after a good long rest, you’ll begin your new roles as co-regents. Hurry inside now, he’s waiting for you.”
Tom made a move to go on, but noticed that Sam was holding back. “Herald,” Sam was asking, “Who are all these people walking on the road past the entrance? Why are they not going in?”
A shadow came across the herald’s face. “They don’t go in because they think they’re not welcome. They don’t believe the king could want them, so they just keep walking round and round the hill, so close to the blessings he has for them, and yet so far away.”
“No, no, that’s not it,” one of the passing travellers interjected, “It’s not that we don’t think we’re welcome, we just don’t have anything to give him. A great king deserves a great gift, so we’re staying out here until we’ve found something worthy to take to him.”
“Well that’s not why I’m walking around,” a woman chimed in, “I’m on a journey, you see. I’ve learned so many things and grown so much. It has been wonderful, and it is all because of him. I’m continuing the walk to see what else he has to teach me.””
Tom looked at the herald in disbelief. “It’s true, I’m afraid,” the herald said, “He brings them through all that, and they stop at the very gates of his castle. For some, the journey has become the destination – they don’t want to step into the things they have been promised because they value the process more highly than the prize.
“Others think they’re not worthy unless they come bringing gifts. The king owns everything in the kingdom, yet they think he would be pleased to receive part of it from his subjects. They search and search for something that would bring him joy, unable to accept that what he most desires is their presence, not their presents.”
“We’re not going to fall into that trap, are we Sam?” Tom asked his fellow pilgrim, but was dismayed to see Sam gazing apprehensively at the castle walls.
“I… I don’t know,” Sam stammered. “It all sounds too easy. I mean look at us, so dirty and scarred, he couldn’t want us in his presence, could he?”
“But that’s exactly what Jon thought, don’t you see? He’s still sitting by the forest nursing his wounds because he’d rather focus on his pain than on the King’s healing. And Tim will never get here because he cared more about playing and having fun than on growing into a man the king could use.
“You’ve fought the battles bravely, you’ve persevered for many days and nights because you dared to believe that he might want you. Are you going to be held back now because of a few scratches and smears of mud? Don’t you want to enter in to the joy you’ve been striving for?”
Sam looked into Tom’s pleading eyes.
He looked over at the herald.
He looked up at the castle.
He looked down along the path that curved away around the hill.
For a moment it seemed that all the earth held its breath as Sam hesitated, then with a shout of joy raced ahead of his friend through the castle gates.
The watching crowd cheered. Tom cheered. The circling wanderers shrugged and continued their endless walking.
Tom turned to thank the herald before following Sam, but to his astonishment, the encourager was nowhere to be seen.