Het and the Three Companions

Part 2

They arrived after a short while at a low hollow in the earth, what might have once been called a town square. In the middle, the broken and knotted form of an ancient tree jutted forth from the ground. In times of plenty, Het could have seen it bear a thick crown of leaves, or perhaps colorful blossoms. At a time it may have been majestic, a sentinel watching over the town. But Het realized now she had been lucky to avoid its sight when the light was better. For as she drew closer to the tree, and the quavering light of the priest’s lantern picked up the jagged tangle of its branches, she could see that they were smeared with a strange, crusted sap. Here and there, the sap had dripped to the ground in smears and blotches, creating a strange patchwork among the gnarled roots. And as the party drew right up to those roots, Het saw that there were tattered cloths hanging from the tree, like discarded laundry, hanging here and there as though carried in by a gale of some sort. Hundreds of them hung there, limp and lifeless in the frosty dusk.

But it was not sap. And they were not cloths.

They stood there a while. Het was not sure what to say. Her breathe had quickened and she thought she might swallow her tongue a moment. She waited until the beating of her heart had subsided, and let the cold fingers of fear retreat from under her skin. “Nobody dares take em’ down,” said the priest finally. The whites of his eyes were very bright, even in the dusk. “Some tried, and were added to the rest. Seems a few would-be-heroes came through town, and thought to go after the beast.” He raised the lantern higher, with slow and deliberate movements. “There’s many up there.”

“Ten,” said the beggar knight. He licked his lips, his bulging eyes flicking back and forth among the branches and their grisly banners. “I see em’ up there. It hung their cloaks and banners next to them.”

“Why does it flay them?” said Het.

“Who knows,” said the priest, “God didn’t give demons a reason for killing. They don’t even need to eat.”

“We shouldn’t be about, now,” said the beggar knight, his eyes wide and darting, his voice barely a croak. The tiny circle of lamplight surrounding them seemed to be dimming, and the hollow spaces between the buildings surrounding the square seemed to swell, filling with a thick and pregnant blackness. The silence was suddenly completely deafening. Het felt as though she herself was missing her skin, and all the eyes in the world were burrowing into her flesh, hard enough to draw blood.

But at last, a voice like a firebrand cut through the silence. “I’m not afraid of any demon,” said the golden haired woman. Her radiant white face seemed to rise up in the lamplight, and Het suddenly relaxed her painful grip on her stave, and her breath grew calm as the cold sweat on the back of her neck evaporated. Had she been that afraid? “I’ve been trying to convince these clods for hours,” said the woman, motioning with her chin at the priest and the beggar knight. “We should go about when the sun is up and slay the beast in it’s lair.”

“You’re as afraid as we are,” protested the beggar knight, his thick beard bobbing as he spoke.

“Nay, friends,” said the woman, “I am never daunted. I will go after it myself if I must.” There was a ring of steel, and she drew a heavy, gleaming blade from her collection. “I had hoped to go while the light was about, but if I must, I’ll head it off now and we can get this whole business over with. If any man join me and cannot banish the measly scourge of fear from his heart, he is of no use to me.”

“Wait!” said Het, not wanting the woman to leave, for if she did, Het knew her fear would surely return. Looking about, she saw the same hunger in the faces of the beggar and the priest, and she knew instantly that the same terror had them in its grip.

“Do you doubt me?” said the shining woman. “I’ve dueled with soldiers of the corpse-legion and won. I’ve killed giants with naught but a broken axe,” said the woman,” and I’ve hacked off the heads of fiends and crawling things from one end of this blasted world to the next.” Het saw that this was true, for the woman’s gleaming breastplate was flush with colorful emblems, and she had a great number of pale and puckered scars crowding her beautiful face. Het saw the confidence with which the woman held the handle of her blade, and the steadiness of her polished boot, and the beautiful line of her strong and confident brow, and knew then that there was not an ounce of fear inside the woman.

“Now join me or quake by the hearth some more,” growled the woman, and made to leave. But the priest put a hand on her shoulder, and in the other raised his lantern high. “I shall join you,” said the priest, “For God spake and said to cast out demons wherever they are found, and forbade us to feel fear while doing our holy work. I may be of some use to you.” But as he spoke, Het saw his quivering hand, and his shaky gait, and his white eyes that were constantly darting up to the tree and its grisly adornment.

“Nay” said the golden-haired warrior, who had seen it too. “Fear has his grip on you, and you’re of no use to me”

“I feel something like fear,” said the priest, “But I cannot be afraid, for God has taught us fear is naught but an illusion. I deny my fear, and in doing so, conquer it” He set his pale face, shiny with sweat, in a resolute expression, and from his habit produced his preaching rod, which he clutched in a strained grip. The golden-haired woman gave him a discerning look, but at last waved him forward. “Very well,” she said, “Stand by me here, and hold the lantern,” she said, and made to leave.

They had scarcely walked two paces when there was a cry. “Wait!” said the beggar knight, “I think I told you I was afraid, but I am sure now I wasn’t. My drink is clouding my mind.” From within his cloak he produced his flask and took a long swig as if to prove a point. Then he produced a stout wooden cudgel for beating away dogs, as was the custom.

“Is that so?” said the golden-haired woman. Her eyes were mistrustful. “I must plead for my food,” said the beggar. He tugged on his beard as he spoke, and Het saw he was shaking almost as badly as the priest. “From dawn to dusk I am looked down upon by even the lowliest of men who pass me. Some think I’m no better than an animal! If all of you think less of me because I am afraid, then I will endeavor not to be!” He puffed up his chest, and thumped his cudgel against the cobbles.

“Very well,” said the golden haired woman, finally. “You may stand behind the priest and steady his hand, for I’ll need consistent lamp-light if I’m to do my grisly work.” She hefted her heavy blade, and the three of them turned to leave, but then Het cried out, for she could feel fear returning as fast as the lamp-light faded. “Not you too, surely?” said the golden-haired woman. “Dare you tell me you are not afraid as well?”

Het looked around at the darkness, and turned her eyes away from the tree, for it was too terrible. She planted her stave, and leaned into it. It had served her well in defending the weak and poor. She had smashed the skulls of many terrible things with its thick end, and she had faced down death many times. Het knew that she was regarded as brave by many people. She was confident in the strength of her arm, and the skill of her swing, and the power of her watchman’s eye to catch out and destroy evil. But at all that time, even when swinging the mighty bulk of her stave into the jaws of death, she could never once say that she hadn’t been afraid. Fear had been her constant companion, as much as she would have liked to have banished it. She could not be like this shining and decorated warrior before her, golden-locked and striding into the darkness with confidence and poise.

“I am afraid,” said Het. “I’m very afraid. Even though I’ve spend the last odd year of my life hunting demons, there’s been a shiver in my grip the whole time.” She felt ashamed. But it was better to tell the truth and bear it on her back. It was what a good watchman was supposed to do, if Het had still been a watchman. In truth, Het was a better watchman then than she ever had been when she wielded a badge and uniform. In truth, Het had slain thrice as many demons as the golden-haired woman. Het was, in fact, a head and a half taller than any of the other three travelers. Her arms were like oak boughs, and none save her could have dreamed of lifting her heavy stave. But she knew none of this, and so she felt ashamed.

“Well then you’re of no use to me,” scowled the golden-haired woman, “But there’s no use either sending you back to the hall to cower. Stand a ways behind the beggar, and hold on to the tail of his cloak. Now let’s be off!” So the golden-haired woman gripped the rugged haft of her blade and set her jaw and stormed off into the night. And behind her, the priest raised his lantern, and behind him, the beggar followed with his cudgel. And at the very rear was Het, who clung on to the tail of the beggar’s cloak, and brought her stave close to her chest, and hung her head low. Her one reprieve was that the heavy and matted locks of her hair, which had grown long and dense during her time on the road, hung like a curtain and hid her shame from the others.

They made a strange party as they crept through those empty streets. First, the golden-haired woman came, with her profusion of weapons, and her steely gaze and confident stride. Each time she stepped, her boots slapped the cobbles with such a profound sound that Het almost jumped. Then came the priest, with his lantern held high. The tremble of his hand made the light waver and swing violently. Profuse shadows would grow and clutch from the hollows and recesses of the crooked buildings around them until the beggar reached out and steadied the lantern with his callused hand. There was no sound except for the slapping of the golden-haired warrior’s boots, and their breath, which by degrees became louder and louder to Het, until it was almost deafening.

It quickly grew so dark that to Het it seemed they stood in the void itself, and nothing else existed in either shape or sound beyond the swinging circle of lamp-light they carried with them. The cold dug under Het’s meager wrappings, and sent nails under her skin. Her knuckles cracked and bled, so tight was her grip upon her great stave and the ragged cloak of the beggar. An hour or more passed, and the truth of that place began to unfold itself in frozen vistas of emptiness. The world was black and total, a place that mocked light, sensation, and the meager heat inside them that they bled out into the uncaring night. Occasionally the golden haired woman would stop and stoop, and they would wait in silence while she examined the earth, or where a low wall of stones had been broken, or where a window shutter had been torn off its hinges. At these times, Het would lash down her breath and release it in a sudden burst when they moved again.

It wasn’t long before the priest’s lantern threw its light on a a terrible scene. The dwellings surrounding them were ransacked and empty, their windows hollow. Their doors were splintered or torn, the contents of their interior vomited into the street. Broken furniture and trash were piled almost wall to wall, so that as they proceeded, they picked their way over the mud spattered detritus of vacated lives. Finally, the golden-haired warrior raised a gauntleted hand and bade them stop. There was no sound at all as they came to a low and hunched building that stood aside from the others. The ground was torn and mangled here, and pressed into it like strange cobblestones were the strange and precious oddments of every day life- a tea set, a shoe, a child’s doll, a crumpled wrapping cloth, an antique plate. There was a single door in the building, and over the door frame, a ward against evil. It had burned up and curled into a black and barely recognizable mess.

Over the eaves of that building, hanging like dull banners, were dried and tattered skins. The door was swinging on its hinges.

“The beast dwells here,” said the golden-haired woman in low voice, and motioned to the building. And as the last of her exhalation left her lips, from the open doorway something terrible and massive poured, and unfolded all its awful limbs and hurtled towards them, screaming.