Het and the Three Companions

Part 1

There came a time when the dust of the road grew too thick for Het, and her great stave grew heavy, and the days grew dead and cold. She lifted her brow to the horizon, and spying the faint light of shelter, set her shoulder to the wind and drove on. It was not long before she came upon a cramped and hardy town, set into the earth as though frozen there. The roads were well used, and smoke and steam coiled from hot chimneys, but although the light had not yet died, there was not a soul about, only a few spare and desperate looking dogs. This troubled Het, being a former watchman, but she pressed on, for travel by then had worn her so thin that she feared to trust the strength of her arm.

It wasn’t long before Het came upon a narrow and weather-stained hall, and there a door with iron nails in it. As she entered, something caught her eye. Over the threshold was an old sprig of holly and and a writ of forbiddance against the things that preyed on men, the paper fresh and crisp. Inside the hall a long hearth tried fitfully to push back against the chill that seeped in through the cracked walls. There gathered on the straw were some dozen locals, their faces haggard and creased, and sitting some ways off were three others, who stood out by their color – for the rest of the place was dull and smothered with gloom. The first was a man with a crimson cloak, a beggar knight with a knotted beard and bulging eyeballs. The second was a priest in a stained white vestment, chewing on sweetroot and spitting the juice into the straw. The third was a golden-haired woman with milky skin and burnished armor. She had on her a great number of weapons, all polished to a sheen, and many emblems were fastened to her breastplate, which was fashioned in the likeness of a snarling beast.

Het thought it a strange scene, but stranger still was the cold and hollow silence in that place, broken only by the shuffling of feet, the light tap of utensils, and the occasional sound of the priest spitting into the straw. “Ho friends,” said Het, feeling as if she was breaking glass with her very words, “May I sit by this hearth? The nights grow long and the path is hard and stony.” There was no response, so Het took a second step into the room, and saw at once the grey and downturned faces, the hollow and reddened eyes, and the empty expressions of those seated there. Het saw that the hall, narrow that it was, was built for far more to supper there, and she was suddenly aware of the great emptiness in that room.

“Death has made her abode here,” said Het.

“So she has,” said the red-cloaked beggar knight, and bade Het come share bread.

Het sat down amongst the three strangers. The bread had been broken some time ago, and was stiff and dense. Het chewed it and tried to warm herself, but her cloak was thin, and the the hearth barely touched the room with its heat. “Where is the waymaster?” asked Het. “Dead,” said the priest with the stained robes, and spat into the straw, “And you won’t get much out of anyone here about it. Not a soul in this town dares breathe a word, or lets their boots protrude an inch outside more than they have to. All industry and life in this town fled long ago. It’s as dead as the poor waymaster.”

“How so?” said Het.

“They are paralyzed with fear. There’s a demon about,” said the priest, through his mouthful of root. “It goes about pick-a-pack and kills what it pleases, be it man, woman, or child. So I hear it, at first it began taking a little – mutilating livestock and the like. Then before long it got a taste for man flesh. It hasn’t killed when the sun is high yet, so folks have figured that’s the only way to stay safe.” The priest picked at a scar on his nose and continued. “Trouble is, it seems lately it hasn’t been following the rules. It’s lifting latches and throwing catches and crawling in through windows and spilling the guts of folks in their sleep. So they all figure the quieter they are, the less likely they are to lose their innards.”

“Makes for poor hospitality,” wheezed the beggar knight, and took a long drink from an iron flask at his hip. The golden-haired maiden simply looked on, her expression bitter. Het found the pale woman’s silence troubling. Her massive hands searched for the grip of her great stave, for she was familiar with demons, and had spent a great deal of her days on the road driving them out of the places she passed through. Here, near the edges of the world, they clustered on the hamlets spotted across the bleak landscape and fattened themselves like ticks. “Well, hasn’t anyone thought of killing it?” said Het.

“Didn’t you see the tree on the way in?” said the beggar knight. Het shook her head, as she had no idea what he was talking about. The three other travelers passed a look between them.

“Well come have a look,” said the priest. He heaved to his feet and spat his sweet root out, and grabbed his preaching rod and an old iron lantern, which he lit with a foul-smelling oil. Het followed him as he limped out the door. Strangely, he paused on the threshold, foot planted as though waiting for something. Het was about to ask why, but caught the sheen of sweat on the man’s ruddy neck, and the slight shake in his hand, and realized the priest was afraid. She held her tongue as the beggar knight, and then the golden-haired woman, gathered up their armament, then rose and followed them into the biting dusk. The light had almost wicked away to nothing. The streets they passed through were hollow, and even the dogs had disappeared. Their footsteps echoed off the walls of that barren place, and through the freezing air Het could sense the invisible and terrible grip of fear.