A Feast for the Fallen - Part One

A Feast for the Fallen - Part One

A Chapter by Kieran Shuttleworth
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Part One of a Three. Parts two and three soon to come...

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News of the strangers spread fast, even before the king’s men had met them at the border fences. Few travellers passed through the small kingdom anymore, and so the coming of even the most humble traveller was cause enough for the people to cease their work and trade gossip in hushed voices. Word came quickly to the king in his seat, yet when he gave the order to begin preparations, his servants were already seeing to their tasks, knowing what was expected of them. Guests were coming to King Amhor’s hall, and that meant a feast must be readied, though few were truly glad of the news. The people smiled and made small talk, while dread hung heavy over the land. 

A company of riders escorted the two strangers along the old road, guiding them to the king’s stronghold. They passed by many people, peeping out from windows or over fences, none daring to come close to the visitors. The two travellers were clearly from distant lands known to the simple farmers only in songs, riding ponies of breeds as outlandish as themselves. One of them was a very tall man, almost a giant compared to those around him. Even had he not carried a sword at his side he would have stood out as a warrior; big-boned and sinuously muscled, ponderous in his movements and grim of face. He wore no ornaments, except a rich cloak of tiger-skin draped about his massive shoulders, while his dark hair was bound in a braid so long that it brushed the flanks of his mount. He rode along like a conquering king, and paid no heed to the many stares that followed them

The other man however, much shorter than his companion and more humbly garbed, glanced this way and that. Gaunt yet lithe, sitting his mount with the contemptuous grace of a cat. His eyes flashed piercingly from beneath heavy brows, shaded by a wide brimmed hat, and his high cheekbones and aquiline nose gave him a thoughtful countenance. And whenever he turned his gaze to meet the stares of the locals they would look away hurriedly and pretend to be busy like naught children. The man in the hat wondered at this, keeping his hand close to the sword at his hip. 

After a time, the strangers at last came into sight of the king’s household; a great hill-fort protected by ditch and palisade. Before they drew close to the fort however, a band of horsemen had ridden from the gates and approached them. The band was led by King Amhor himself, come to receive the strangers in person.

“Travellers to see the king!” declared one of the escorts.

“And the king will see them!” boomed Amhor in response, arms spread wide “Welcome to my house friends. I am Amhor, son of Andor.”

“Mahar of Gath” The giant warrior bowed his head. 

“And Charon of Morn, at your service.” The shorter man swept off his hat and held it to his chest. 

“And I accept your service gladly,” said Amhor. The king’s bearded face split into an oafish grin, eager as a child. “But come, enough formalities. I am sure that you two would like to be indoors with food and drink after a long day’s journey. But if I may, what brings you men to my little realm from such far-off places?”

“We are but landless swordsmen,” said Mahar with a wave of his hand, “on our way to the city of Ishtar to find employment.”

“Ishtar?” said the king. “Truly? Travellers headed for Ishtar usually do not come through here unless they are lost…”

“The road proved dangerous,” said Charon. “We thought it wiser to take the longer route.”

Amhor frowned thoughtfully at this. “I see. I daresay that should concern me. But let us discuss such things over full stomachs. No matter the tidings, it is always good to have visitors. We’ve had so few of late that I’m afraid I might be losing my grip on the Traveller’s Tongue. Would you not accept my hospitality for a night or two and humour an old man?”

Of course the only reason Mahar and Charon had bothered to meet this backwater king was for fire and food, as was the right of travellers according to the gods’ ancient Law. But it was in good manners to allow a potential host to make the invitation, and Amhor did not disappoint. The two swordsmen politely accepted, and were soon led to the king’s hall and sat at his table. The hall was small and cramped, a sad ramshackle affair that seemed poor even by the standards of other such petty kingdoms. Yet when a servant came with drinks for Amhor’s guests, they were treated with a rare, blue lotus-wine come all the way from the fabled land of Ond. 

“Drink deep friends,” said Amhor, “for no vintage is too good for guests of mine! Would you care for bread and cheese? I’ll have something brought for you fellows to chew on, but remember to spare some room for supper. We’ll have a merry little feast underway once the mead-hall is prepared.” 

Charon looked up in curiosity, but Mahar spoke first. “The mead-hall?” he said, already slurring a little. “Is this not it?” The question was on Charon’s mind too, for it was unheard of for a king in these parts to not live in his own mead-hall. 

“Ah… no, this is no true feasting hall. I keep these humble chambers to house myself and the family, while we keep the mead-hall empty until we have need of it.” Amhor drained his cup. “… It is tradition here.”

“My lord, we are honoured,” Charon said. “But we are just wandering swords for hire, there is no need to throw a feast for our sake. We will be grateful just to have bread and water. Is that not so, Mahar?” The big warrior only shrugged his shoulders and refilled his cup. 

“Oh, but you must understand,” said the king. “As I said, we have few visitors, even from our neighbours. We are quite cut off from the outside world you know, so the chance to see an unfamiliar face, and to hear news of foreign lands is quite the cause to celebrate. Master Charon, I don’t suppose you can recite any of that famed Mornish poetry at all? You can? Most excellent! I would be overjoyed to hear some of it. And you, Master Mahar, we have heard of your homeland of Gath and its mighty warriors. My people would be most eager to hear whatever tales you have to share…”

Before long, a servant had shuffled forward with downcast eyes and spoke to Amhor in the local language. The king related to his guests that the preparations were complete and bade them follow him to the feasting hall. This they did, marching along a trail up a solitary rise, somewhat removed from all the other dwellings huddled within the hill-fort. There stood Amhor’s mead-hall, and although its painted walls had faded somewhat, it was garishly ornate, its wooden beams engraved with fantastic patterns and imagery. The interior was no less impressive, with tall roof and richly carved pillars. A long trench was dug in the floor for a hearth, which ran up the middle of the hall and was now filled with coals and logs, a fire dancing merrily there. Amhor gave his guests seats of honour by his side, on a bench at the far end of the hall, while lesser members of the household either found seats at the long benches on either side of the hearth, or were busy setting up food and drink. 

The sun was setting fast, and the hall soon filled with the smell of smoke and cooking meat. Amhor had four sheep from  his own flock slaughtered, and had half a dozen barrels of dark beer brought up, along with two clay jars of even more Ondish lotus-wine. He personally filled Mahar’s and Charon’s cups, and lavished his guests with flattering words. Mahar’s face was already flushed from so much wine and he eagerly joined the king in drunken babble. Charon however, only sipped at his cup, looking thoughtfully at the assembled feasters. They ate and drank, but chatted but only a little. Few of them seemed to be quite so jovial as their king. Charon couldn’t help but notice an air of uneasiness about these people, and he caught many eyes making apprehensive glances in his direction, or at the shadowed corners of the hall. 

An hour rolled by. Much of the food had been eaten, and the feasters were deep within their cups, their tongues loosening a little. The din of conversation grew, and while Amhor had excused himself from the table to relieve a call of nature, Charon leaned close to his inebriated companion and whispered in the warrior’s ear.

“Go easy on the drink,” Charon said. “I want you to keep that head on your shoulders from here on out. These folk have something they’re not telling us…” 

“Pah! Easy on the drink? Friend, I’ve barely started!” Mahar was already in a celebratory mood and did not share Charon’s doubt. “If I guess right, and you are afraid of knives in our backs, then I say you worry too much. Had these country-folk meant to murder us, they would have done so already without all this fuss. And if they mean to rob us, well, our swords and the few coins we have would barely cover the cost of all this good wine going around…”

“I think you are right, my overgrown friend,” Charon said with a sigh. “This is too much effort for robbery. Yet… perhaps they have a blood-feud against our people…”

“Your mind is dark, little man, all this talk of robbery and murder… you’re killing the mood. We are honoured guests, divinely protected according to the Law of the gods themselves. These folk don’t seem like the outlaw type.”

“No… no they don’t,” said Charon. “Yet even for guests, all this seems a bit much for any sort of king to give to two wandering vagabonds like us. Maybe they have a favour to ask of us, some dangerous task to request only after we’re thoroughly drunk and buttered up. This Amhor fellow seems too eager to please…” 

“Whether they want something in return or not, I won’t say no to a bit of pampering,” said Mahar, emptying another cup and grinning like a fool. “Only the Fates themselves know how long it will be before either of us is treated like this again. Stay sober if you like, but I intend to enjoy myself tonight. All I need now is woman’s company. The lasses here aren’t much to look at, but you can count on an honest country-girl to have a warm heart and… ahh, but enough of that talk, our host returns.”

Mahar and Amhor continued their talk, discussing the dangers which had been plaguing the roads in the surrounding kingdoms, while Charon watched the mumbling feasters in thoughtful silence. Before long, Mahar was struggling to keep his head uplifted, though he was a mighty drinker like all of his gargantuan people, his eyes blinking drowsily as Amhor and a few of his warriors shared stories of old battles. The other feasters muttered softly amongst themselves or sang sad songs. Charon himself was a skilled bard, and might have regaled his hosts with ancient sagas of heroes and gods, but he was in no mood for it. He only sat there and stared into the hearth in sombre silence, fighting against sleep. The two swordsmen had been on the road for a long time, suffering many sleepless nights, and so Charon couldn’t help but close his eyes for only a moment. He awoke suddenly to find his head resting in his folded arms, and a young girl draping a blanket over him. The girl scurried off, and Charon allowed himself to fall asleep once more. 

Mahar too had finally slumped to the floor, snoring loudly. King Amhor, with heavy heart, rose from his seat and motioned to his warriors. Those of his household who were still awake went about rousing the sleepers, leaving only the two strangers to sleep undisturbed. The travellers’ swords were laid beside them, having been fetched from storage by a servant. With that done, Amhor led his people out of the hall, and the doors were closed and barred. 

The fire in the hearth grew low, and Mahar and Charon slept peacefully as shadows loomed large about them. 



© 2018 Kieran Shuttleworth


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Added on December 9, 2017
Last Updated on January 18, 2018
Tags: fantasy, horror, supernatural, swords, sorcery, short story, betrayal


Author

Kieran Shuttleworth
Kieran Shuttleworth

Bonnells Bay, NSW, Australia



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Hi there. Like most everyone here, I am an aspiring writer, looking to practice my technique amongst like-minded people. I like to keep my reading varied, but my passion truly lies with gritty adve.. more..

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