the Church on the Hill
by G. Eric Williams
The beggar clutched the sodden cloak about his shoulders hoping to discourage the persistent rain. He slogged the muddy road, eyes fixed on the ground before him, prodding himself forward with a constant inarticulate mutter. Night was falling and he was miles from any village or tribal camp.
The wood crowded the muddy rut on both sides and from the corner of his eye he saw indistinct forms animate the darkness. The thought of another night in the open horrified him. He felt that he couldn't bear the presence of the wolves again; nor did he believe that he would be able to continue the ruse of kinship through another long night. If they suspected that he wasn't in sympathy with them, they would tear him to pieces without a second thought.
Footfalls approaching from behind caught him unaware and he struggled to control the urge to bolt. His nearly gagged with fear as he remembered the terrible sound of a wolf speaking with a human tongue. When the voice met his ears, his legs well-nigh gave way.
"Ye look as if ye could bear a moment or two by a warm fire my friend."
It was a human voice. The beggar's panic melted like ice thrown to the flame. He looked around for the owner of the voice and saw a tall broad man sitting astride a white horse made gray by the rain. One glance was enough for the beggar to see that his sense of well-being was without foundation. The man was a Hero, a fact made obvious by his cloak, his weapons and especially the broad leather belt which glowed scarlet in the gloom of the wood. The beggar knew from experience that Heros were a selfish and harsh lot. He was glad he had nothing of value. Nevertheless, Heros often brutalized lesser folk out of simple meanness.
"I'll be just fine yer honor" his gaze had dropped to the mud again. "No need for yer to trouble yerself with the likes of me."
The Hero chuckled deep in his chest and the earth trembled at the sound.
"Ye needn't worry my friend. I'm not a Hero as you may know them." Again the chuckle. "I am The Hero. All others are but pretenders to the name."
"Yer honor . . . ?"
"Look ye - " the horse stamped the ground with impatience, "- why not join me and my tribe for the night. Ye'll not want to be in the wood when the wolves start their howling." He gestured toward the dark mass of trees that pushed toward the road. "I have other things to attend to just now, but if ye continue on this road ye'll find my encampment soon enough."
"Thankee, yer honor, but . . . " the beggar's eyes showed white in the gloom.
This time the Hero laughed out loud and the trees seemed to bow before Him.
"There is no time for talk - " He glanced at the menacing shapes at the edge of the wood, "I must be about my business." He wheeled the big horse away from the beggar. "But take ye this and bind it about ye - ye'll be safe enough till ye reach the camp."
With that The Hero unclasped his belt, tossed it to the beggar, and crashed into the forest. The beggar could hear the ring of His sword as He drew it from the scabbard and then all sound was swallowed by the darkness.
The beggar had instinctively reached to catch the scarlet belt and he held it now, gingerly, dumb at what The Hero had done. No Hero would willingly part with his belt while alive. And yet . . .
The beggar slung the belt around his waist and pulled it tight. He lifted his eyes to gaze at the road before him a moment and then set off toward The Hero's camp.