The hermit had lived in the ruined chapel on the rock for longer than the villagers could remember. The oldest among them could not remember a time when he was young. Indeed they could not recall his appearance ever having altered at all. Never younger and yet no older, the hermit lived apart from the village and yet a part of its lives. The people would visit him occasionally, singly, in pairs, they would take a gift, they would talk and he would hear them, and they would return satisfied.
The hermit lived with a partial roof, an overhang really, a blanket which he wrapped around himself while he slept, a walking stick, although he rarely left the chapel environs, and in the corner, in a small hollow in the wall, he kept a tobacco tin full of pebbles, a rudimentary cross worn smooth by his hands, and a musical triangle. The pebbles made a pleasant rattling sound when he shook the tin, and the triangle a melodious note when he struck it with the base of the cross. The cross was itself a reminder of when his prayers were less sure and his calling less certain. The pattern of his day was simple, from rosy-fingered dawn to sudden dusk, summer and winter the same, his every breath was a prayer and he praised his creator with every heartbeat.
Change came slowly to the village. For centuries, incomers were few, their differences were accepted or subverted, and village life went on. But in recent years the rate of immigration had increased, new faces appeared in the pub, the church, new shops opened around the green. An industrial complex was quickly followed by a housing estate, bringing its outskirts closer to the ruined chapel on the rock. The new villagers attached satellite dishes to the outside of their homes, their children rode skateboards over the cobbles, they seemed to draw a veil over the face of the village. The old was still there, but only if you looked hard enough at the new.
The hermit did not notice that fewer visitors were arriving at the ruined chapel on the rock. He tended his little garden and grew enough to sustain himself. That he had to venture slightly further afield more often to gather enough to supplement his diet did not give him much pause. He only enjoyed the opportunity to bear witness to the beauty of his creators work.
One night the hermit was awoken by the sound of raised voices. Drifting up to his chapel from the forest below the rock. Disentangling himself from his blanket, he crawled across the cold stone floor to the gaping hole in the building's wall that served as his door and as his window. In the trees beneath he could make out the glimmer of firelight, and the movement of figures around it. Harsh voices pierced the night, cracks of laughter shattered the silence and the hermit could just hear the burning pile of logs. For the first time in many, many years the hermit felt fear, its cold fingers tightening around his chest, echoed in the icy chill of the cold air.
His first instinct was to hide, to draw his blanket up over his head, and wait for morning, but something in him drew him on. Carefully creeping around the crumbling building he managed to scramble down the rock on the side opposite the bonfire and it's caretakers. Then, crouching, he made his way towards them as quietly as he could. Moving closer he could see six perhaps eight figures, some sitting, some dancing in the firelight, its flickering glow emphasising their gestures. Sinuous shadows merged and jumped across the tree trunks and undergrowth and the flames turned eyes into black sockets, faces into grotesque masks. Again the hermit felt the urge to flee, to scramble back up into his sanctuary and hide himself away, again something drew him to stay, to watch them from his hiding place on the edge of their clearing.
The revelers were drinking, hurling empty bottles and cans at the surrounding darkness, some, after a complicated series of actions involving a different type of can and a paper bag were inhaling its contents with drooping mouths and satisfied groans. A pair of figures were coiling around one another in full view of the rest, their mouths and groins pressed close, their hands moving constantly over one another, in jerking frenzy. The shouts were incoherent to the hermit, but their tone frightened him, bragging and jeering, swaggering and at their ease, these creatures were sure of themselves, whole and comfortable in the world, full of jaded knowledge despite their obvious youth. The hermit did not know how long he watched, cold despite the heat nearby. Then the others arrived.
They entered the clearing, between them they carried a twitching sack, from the sack came scratching and muffled whimpers, and those already by the fire cleared a space for the newcomers with shouts of greeting. Quickly an expectant quiet fell. The hermit could hear the wind in the trees once again, the rustling of twig against leaf, a susaration which usually brought calm, but tonight it only served to deepen the feeling of fear twisting in his chest. One of them was standing, holding the sack in one hand now, next to the fire his grin flickering with the flame. With his free hand, and a triumphant flourish, he reached into the bag and pulled out a dog by the scruff. Startled by the sudden heat, the sudden light, and the rough hand holding it aloft the dog whimpered and struggled, the one holding it came close to losing his grip. Three of his companions joined him, surrounding the animal, obscuring it from the hermit's view. In shadow form he saw one take the burning cigarette from his mouth and push it deep into the dogs thick coat. The yelp that followed made them laugh, and the shadows grew confused as they all reached forward poking and plucking at the helpless animal. The hermit felt his hands beginning to shake, the tremble juddering through his body. He could not move and yet he felt that every part of him was in motion, but he was frozen, all voluntary action was impossible, he could only watch.
The atmosphere in the clearing seemed to have changed, all eyes were on the central group, laughter lighting their faces brighter than the light of the bonfire. He could see their mouths, open, expectant, tongues flickering across moist lips, eager smiles, rapt at the scene before them. As the creatures yelps began to converge into a plaintive howl the chant began, first it was a whisper, one voice, intent, then two then four. It grew louder, like the throb of a giant's pulse it became a shout, grew faster and louder. The four in the centre had spread apart now, the hermit saw that each of them held a paw. The dog was stretched, it's howl a petrified whimper as they held it - two on each side, over the fire. The chant had become all the world. Focused on the spectacle, the hermit smelt the singed fur and the tremble became so strong that he was sure that they would see him. All eyes were now on the four and the one. Faster and faster the beat became, the four in the middle began to laugh, high and wild. And then they began to pull.
Like a gruesome tug of war the four stepped back, leg set apart, weight straining. The dog let out a series of whimpers, and still its torturers continued, until in one terrible moment, with a sickening splash, the dog came apart, each of the four still holding a limb, its torso burning in the fire. As one the spectators surged forward, reaching hands bathed themselves in their victims blood, and with whoops and dancing they anointed themselves as if to confirm their willing involvement in the sacrifice. With masks of blood they began a frenzied dance, and finally the hermit, driven by his fear, with tears streaming down his face, fled the scene, somehow finding his way back to the ruined chapel on the rock. He wrapped himself in his rough blanket, blotting out the tainted night.
When the dawn came it brought with it a driving rain. Stripped down, the hermit stood in its full blast, but his peace had been shattered, and he could not wash away the smell of the wood, and the burning hair, nor could the relentless noise of the rain drive from his ears the petrified crying of the animal in its agony.
In the late afternoon the rain stopped and a feeble sun dodged the scattered clouds it had left behind. The hermit pulled on his clothes, putting his tin and cross in a pocket on his waistcoat, hanging his triangle from his belt. He put his hat on and, with his stick to aid him, he took the steep path away from ruined chapel on the rock, towards the clearing he had visited in darkness the night before. The fire was gone now, a circle of blackened stones, surrounding a pile of mud and charred wood. In the centre the sodden half-burned body of the dog remained, and carefully the hermit lifted it away, placing it gently on the trampled grass. He searched the clearing and found two of the creatures limbs, trodden on, broken, bloody and coated in mud, these he put next to the torso. It took him another two hours of searching through the trees and the undergrowth, water from the branches and leaves soaking through his hat and dripping from the brim, but finally he found the remaining pieces of the dog. When they were assembled in a crude simulation of a once living creature, he knelt beside them, taking his things from his pockets, and the triangle from his belt. He swayed a little as he began to pray, eyes fixed on the dismembered corpse, he hummed and prayed, until the noise of the wind, the movement of the trees disappeared, and silence and peace spread around him. He slowly lifted the tin, and rattled it gently, and then he put it down, he lifted the triangle and the cross, and struck it three times, it's chime echoed out. Then he held the cross in two hands, raised it slowly to his lips, and then with beads of perspiration mixing with the rain on his brow, he placed it slowly on the dead dog. At the moment he raised his hands the sun escaped the cloud that had been hiding it, his kneeling form was suffused with a golden light, he laid hands on the animal before him, and he prayed, he believed. First the dog yawned, its tongue lolling from the side of it's long brown snout, then it stretched and rose, pushing its wet nose against the hermits neck, it whimpered with pleasure as the hermit reached out a hand and scratched the ruff on it's neck.
The days passed and the hermit regained his equilibrium, only now he had the simple and undemanding company of the dog. It would lie next to him as he prayed, walk with him in the woods, and occasionally it would head off into the trees on its own to forage. Most importantly though, it would be with him at night. The hermit no longer felt secure in his ruined chapel when darkness fell, and the warm, breathing body of the dog reassured him, in a way which his prayers could not.
It was about three weeks later when the hermit saw the fire burning once more in the clearing, once more he could hear the voices. This time his fear drove him trembling beneath his blanket. He pulled it around himself and imagined himself a tower. By hiding he felt invisible, impenetrable, and he could not hear the cruel sounds from below. So great was his fear that he gave no thought to the dog, who was, even as the hermit hid himself away, racing down the path away from the ruined chapel on the rock and towards its one time torturers.
The revelers brought a struggling sack into the clearing. They were startled to see the brown dog leap across the fire. Even more startled when the growling beast wrenched the sack from their grasp, spilling a cat into the clearing. The frightened cat blurred as it streaked away into the darkness between two trunks. The dog however had lost some of it's momentum, and as it turned and ran into the night, the shrieking, howling mob gave chase. The hermit had screwed his eyes tight and thrust his fingers into his ears. He prayed frantically, swaying with the effort, but could not find peace. The mob did not slow when it hit the steep path. The dog, panting and scrambling against the loose earth lost ground, and as it reached the ruined chapel they were an arms length away. In a desperate bid for safety the dog leaped on the blanketed hermit, and whimpering it tried to hide itself in his trembling arms. The foremost of the pursuing mob halted in surprise at the sight of the half naked figure before them. For the briefest of moments they regarded one another and then the tallest one, the sack bringer, broke into a slow grin, and followed by his compatriots advanced on the hermit.
He struggled in vain as they carried him down the path, away from the ruined chapel towards the clearing in the woods. His struggles increased as he saw the fire, but the rough hands that held him prone and helpless, held him fast, fingers digging into his skin, grinding bone against bone in his wrists and his ankles. They dumped him next to the bonfire. Their laughter echoed as faces appeared and disappeared before him in the dancing light. Fingers poked at his chest, pulled at his hair, pinched his skin till it bruised and tugged on his ears until his eyes watered. His heart was hammering now, the trembling in his hands and legs, his fear on clear display to his tormentors. The initial rush died back and four figures stood around him. He closed his eyes, but could clearly hear their taunts. They became more deliberate now, one hand pulled him sharply upward by the ear. He struggled to find his legs, to lift his body with the relentless pull, a booted foot swept them out from beneath him, and a wrenching pain tore through the side of his head. Fallen he felt them kick at his face and chest, and the hermit raised his arms weakly to cover himself. Hands grabbed at his arm, pulled him across towards the fire, and pushed his arm into the leaping flames. The pain burned red and white through him flashing behind his eyes, he could smell the hair burn on his arm, hear it sizzle as his skin reddened and turned black. Released he rolled over, cradling his injured limb before him. Looking up he saw four faces leaning over him, their features morphing into monsters and goblins as shadow and light chased across them. An arm across his throat held his head still and one of them crouched before him, he turned his face away and a ripping pain in his scalp twisted it back to see a hand lifting before his face holding a glinting shard. The pain as they plucked out his eye made the world turn black, made him, for the first time in many, many years, cry out, a wordless sound, a scream, and somewhere outside the clearing a dog howled.
As four pairs of hands lifted him once more, the last thing he saw, out of his only remaining eye, was the fire, the last thing he smelt was wood smoke and burned hair, the last thing he felt was an all encompassing pain, in his arms, in his legs, his genitals, shoulders and back as they held him stretched above the fire, then ... nothing.
In years to come the village grew. Its inhabitants made no fuss as the woods were cut away to make the space for more houses. When the remains of a dismembered human were found in the woods below the ruined chapel on the rock, there had been quite a stir. But, when the police pathologists declared them hundreds of years old, according to their latest carbon dating techniques, it died away. No one was left now who remembered the hermit who once had lived in the ruined chapel on the hill, and still the village grew.