A Short Story; A Meal To Remember
The night was pregnant with a storm not yet born. He walked the road from the cliffs by the sea and in the distance, in the dark of the evening, could see the lights of an Inn or Tavern, surely a coach stop or the like, and perhaps lodgings for the night.
He walked on, fully aware that soon the storm would arrive. Already the off-shore winds were thick with moisture and he reasoned, as he tasted the salt, blown from breakers crashing against the cliff face far below where he now stood, the tempest would surely be angry.
It was not a night to walk or wander. It was a night for locking one’s self into a warm bed in a friendly inn and listening to the rain and wind as it pelted against the window and the thatching of the roof, trying to make the point that as a traveler of the road, this comfort was a luxury, not a right, a time that he had to work for and drag from his particular reality.
As if to add a sardonic counterpoint to his musings the first sizable drops of rain hit his forehead and the night was lit with a ghostly flash, causing him to turn and look to see where the blackened clouds flashed and drank the light the lightening offered.
He ran towards the refuge, a sign, “The Floating Tree” painted reasonably well on it, hung on a metal arm from above the door, rocking to and fro with a protesting growl as the wind increased. As he stumbled under the verandah by the west wall he felt a tingle of foreboding, but dismissed it as a reaction to the way the weather had turned and pushed on the door to enter the building.
The Inn was awash with light, agog with a distinctively festive feel. The press of humanity therein strange to him, given his solitude on the road, made more so by the apparent solitary location of this place.
The noise died as he entered and then stopped completely. Folk dressed in gay regalia and with masks made of leather and feathers. The atmosphere was heavy with the smell of mead and beer, thick with smoke from the fire and heavy with the smell of roasting meat.
He entered and stood tall. There were a number of mumbled gasps as his height unfolded. He stood 6’3” and was a very big man. His years 40 odd, face wizened from life and learning and his physique made hard with the toils of the road, he tended to fill a room with his entrance. Around him short dumpy people, well fed and equally well fettled stood, looking like court fools in their ridiculous fineries. But he knew better than to judge or mock for his was the life of a traveler and journeyman; one learnt never to do either.
Removing his road cloak, his garb was pedestrian in this august company. Gray and brown serge and leather belt, travel bag and boots. He walked towards the bar and the crowd closed in cautiously behind him.
The Innkeeper was a large round man as his experiences would dictate such men tended to be. He stood behind the bar, an oaken slab supported by the same timber in large uprights and behind him shelves fashioned from a local timber that meant nothing to him. Two large barrels tapped and leaning forward where dispensing the beer and mead and tankards of a dull silvery metal seemed to be the vessels they were being drunk from.
The room was still quiet and he felt as if he was trespassing, but his memory of the storm gave him voice where, in normal circumstances he would have left and continued, leaving the citizens to their games and found a dry tree to sleep under.
“Inn Keep, an evening fine and true to you I pray” he said, his voice softer than his normal tone as he was not one to make an entrance per se, and endeavored to undo the impact his entrance had in fact made.
“Aye Stranger, it is. Although I think it is an ill wind outside.” The man said as he wiped his hands on his apron, a cotton towel of far too many usings and far to few washes. “What can I do for you?”
The response was curt, further adding to the feeling of trespass he felt. He considered one more time turning and walking away but a solitary crash of thunder sounded and the windows around the wall of the inn washed over with bright light causing his to swallow his usual reticence and continue.
“I wonder whether lodgings are available and perhaps a meal if the trespass is not too great?”
The inn keep had a mask on his head that covered his eyes. It was fashioned in the shape of an eagle but made him look like a grotesque sparrow. His eyes darted from side to side as if observing for some sign or notion from those present.
A minute twitch in the corner of his mouth signified some such was forthcoming. To any but a skilled roads man this change in countenance would have gone unobserved but he made note of it; such things important to survival in strange places.
“Yes, of course.” The inn keep said, and immediately the room seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Conversation started again and in the corner a little man, looking like a raccoon in his outfit, started to play the fiddle again and the room just relaxed back into its normal sway.
“If you would be so kind stranger, this room is for our celebrations.” The inn keep once again performed his hand wiping ritual for a ritual it must have been as his hands were dirty and not affected by the wiping in any way. “Please, follow young Margot to the scullery where a meal will be prepared.”
For the first time the smell of the roasting meat sat heavy on his mind and he realized that, except for a piece of cheese, he had not eaten since the evening prior. He nodded and followed the plump young girl out of the room, down the passage and into the scullery.
He sat and listened to the merriment echoing from the main room and drank honey-mead as he waited for a meal. The girl had told him that the meal would need to be prepared for him here as the roast was for the celebrations and it was not good form for him to be a party to that.
People streamed down the passageway and back as they made their way to the night house at the back of the Inn, their voices and conversations softened and slurred by too much beer and mead.
Margot busied herself preparing him a cut of beef and vegetables, fresh bread and local butter. He ate it in silence after she bid him her excuses and left to return to the main room.
The meat was magnificent and, in all, the meal a fine feast for one conditioned to handfuls of whatever is going at the time. The girl returned with a fresh draught and transacted the business of tariff and meal. She told him he was lucky to get a room as all were taken bar one and that this was only made available prior to the celebrations beginning.
“What of the celebrations?” he asked as Margot busied herself cleaning away his dishes and the utensils she had used in the preparation of the meal.
“Well sir, it is not much to tell. It is our annual Traveler’s Day. Well I have wondered from a small girl why it is called a day for it is really a night a day and a night. It begun this evening as you can see.”
He pressed on with his interrogations as he endeavored, where ever possible, to learn the customs and ways of the people of the lands he visited.
“An interesting festival I’m sure. On what is it founded?” He asked the girl, being aware of the increase in volume from the main room.
She was about to continue when the Inn Keep’s voice boomed down the passage after her. She curtsied as she left, saying that they were serving the roast and her time was needed and promised to return soon with another mead.
He sat there and pondered this place and this time; his feet against the hearth of the cooking fire, warming him through. The rain and wind ever present, letting him know that this was indeed the correct passage to take on this evening.
She returned with a fresh pot of mead and one or two sweet cakes, made him a pot of tea brewed from some local flower leaves which was surprisingly tasty and showed him to his room.
It was in the attic and was furnished with a bed and matching dresser. There was a wash-basin and towel atop the dresser and the bed was freshly made. Margot turned the bed back and bid the traveler good-night.
He locked the door and prepared for bed. The candle lit the room with a strange half light and the small window at the pitch of the roof on the outside wall showed rivers of rain running down it. The occasional flash of lightening completed the picture. He was glad he was warm and dry. With that he entered the bed and sleep. Fitful, oblivious to the dim from the main room and the comings and goings as the guests made their entries to their rooms later and earlier that evening and the early morning.
He awoke at dawn, the time he normally did, with the first call of the cockerels sounding in the yard below. Throwing his bedding back he jumped to his feet, many years on the road had taught him to awaken alert and this he was.
Dressing quietly he listened to the silence of the inn. He left the room and moved down the stairs and left the inn by the side door. Walking down the road he sniffed the morning air; now fresh and full of ozone; the storm long left and the world fresher for its passing.
He walked the track back to the cliffs and saw a roughly hewn track down its side to the beach below. He started down and was soon on the rocky gravel that stood for sand on this part of the coast.
Walking alone he studied the beach, looking with a practiced eye for those special pieces of flotsam and jetsam that appeared on windward beaches after storms such as these. It was then that he noticed it, at the point, along the beach and to the westward side.
Not sure what it may have been he hurried along the beach and was soon upon the find. It looked like a fisherman’s net of kind and that is what it was.
Inside a collection of things, clothes, a travel bag and a few books; all water-logged, albeit freshly placed, it was obvious that this bundle was tied to some weight or another as the net trailed away to a single cord and it appeared frayed as if torn from something it was tied to.
He opened it carefully and studied the contents. A man’s clothes; simple in presentation although of a quality that suggested wealth. Definitely the clothes of a man on the road, not a seafarer, as the boots were the finest quality and fit for walking. There was little to give away the wearer’s identity save for a letter he found in one of the books; addressed to an Elder Whitehall or Kandor regarding travel to the large town many more days to the east.
He stopped and studied more. The shirt had traces of blood on it and the whole thing weighed heavy on his thoughts.
This was not right. These were the clothes of a person traveling through this land. He looked back up the cliff in the dawn light and felt a foreboding. This man Whitehall must have been the person from the day prior at the inn. It stood to reason. The pages in the centre of the book, a first edition print of stories from an author he had heard of, were still dry.
He thought to himself what to do. On one hand he had no evidence, but he was sure foul-play had occurred. He was in no position to make any comment or police this in any way. Mainly because he had learnt on the road to attend to one’s own case and never interfere.
This, if it had occurred as it appeared, was most foul and some thing had to be done but he was an itinerant so his input would be of little weight against the testimony of the locals. It could even be made to appear as if he were the culprit. No, it was best to take the evidence, hide it for later replay and get away from this place.
With that in mind he busied himself finding a place to hide this grizzly lot. As he did he started to play the events that may have caused it to have come to pass.
What ever the cause was someone else could ascertain later. Needless to say, this evidence was obviously assigned to the sea bed, possibly from a fishing boat or the like, tied to some weight or another and left overboard. The strong seas and the weather of the last night would surely have been responsible for its escape and subsequent washing up on this beach.
That these were the possessions of the man who had the room prior were of no doubt. He removed from his fob pocket a single gold button. He had found it this morning when he used the pitcher to fill the basin. He had already found the cuff it had come from; the evidence strong. The man Whitehall had come to an ill end at the hand of a person or persons unknown within or about the precincts of the Inn.
Young Margot had said the gentleman prior had canceled his stay. A strange word to use, something was not normal around this. Something was very dangerous and needed strict attention to self preservation was needed he though.
He found a bush on the cliff face that stood out amongst its peers. Under this he dug a shallow hole and buried the cargo, placing a rock on top and pulling the grass back over it.
Studying the morning sky he reasoned that his time away had been about one hour; time to return and bid a hasty retreat.
He should have just gone but there were things in his travel bag he needed so he would have to return to the inn.
Before leaving his hiding place, his senses now alerted to the danger here, he made very sure that he was alone, studying the cliff face to see if there was a watcher ensconced there on. Along the beach to be sure that he was alone, and finally, out to sea to make sure no small craft was riding beyond the swell line.
Happy he was surreptitious in his endeavors he made good his return to the inn; keeping an alert look-out for any event or thing out of the ordinary.
Save for the movement of deer in the bushes beyond the cliff road and into the forest behind there was not another living soul to be seen or found. A single tendril of smoke rose above the inn looking peaceful in its white-washed beauty, red tiles against the slate gray morning sky.
Around the Inn a number of carriages were parked and the stables at the back must have been full of horses. Thinking back to his learning he moved quietly to the carriages, careful not to make any noise, he interfered with each by removing the split pins from the front wheels. The work was not difficult for him as he had experience with carriages and the like.
Once done, he had rendered each capable of only a few hundred yards before the wheels would fall off; rendering them useless in any pursuit if so they were intended. No risk or chance worth taking. He pitched the pins into the bush behind the stable.
Wiping his hands on a rag be had found on the buck board of the first carriage, he moved back to the inn, electing to enter via the rear door. The sounds from the scullery were of Margot making good the breakfast fire and preparing for the guests.
He entered cautiously, now the place feeling foul and stinking in his new found state of mind. Margot saw him as he walked past and bid him a good morning which he accepted as he past. He strode to top of the stairs and then to his room.
The door was unlocked and he entered, locking the door behind. Quickly gathering his belongings, checking to see that his secret stash was still intact, which it was, he left the room, the keys hanging in the lock.
Down the stairs and down to the scullery; he had decided to eat a hearty breakfast before going. Not only would it give the affair a legitimacy, a road traveler leaving with the morning’s start, but he felt he would need a good reserve of energy before this was done so he would make sure to eat well although he had little hunger the truth be known.
He ate the breakfast will little concern for its content, Margot chatted to him and he acknowledged her without really saying anything. His mind at all times on the task ahead. To get away from here and bring the law back to see what the end would bring.
The inn-keeper entered the room, looking sallow and worst for the effects of alcohol; his demeanor surly, barking orders at the girl. Turned to look at him, noticed his bundle. “You are leaving us then traveler?”
He looked at the man, sensing the danger immediately. It was not that he was afraid of the man, for he stood a lot taller and although weighing less, was sure his fitness left the other fellow for dead.
“Yes I am. I have pressing engagements to undertake and miles to travel.”
The inn-keep grunted an unintelligible reply and left the room. Margot turned to him and he noticed she was fretting.
“Go sir, Go now” she implored “before you can not”
He needed no encouragement and immediately stood and left the room. He noted that a group of men were standing with the inn-keeper in the yard engaged in earnest conversation. Turning quickly he walked up the corridor and into the main room. It was still smoky from the evening before and a mess of cluttered tables and the evidence of drunken debauchery everywhere. He weaved his way through the tables, past the fire place and noted there was still meat on the spit. With horror he recognized the bones of a human arm and leg in the rubbish and the spit held a torso three quarters gone.
Bile raised in his throat and he gagged as he made his way to the door. He tripped over a stool that blocked the passage-way, hidden in the half-light of the room, and fell to his knees. As he looked up he saw the raccoon man from the evening prior, the short fiddle player, a demonic look in his eyes smiling with drops of spittle running from the corners of his mouth.
He saw the cosh as it swung down; then darkness.
He came too, in the barn he thought, one window caked with dust, the floor covered with straw. He was trussed tightly, no movement was possible. His head ached like death.
He had no idea of the time, no understanding of how long he had been here.
He realized now that this traveler’s day celebrations offered no ceremony for any traveler unfortunate enough to stumble across it. Perhaps it was linked with black arts, he could not be sure but there was no doubt in his mind that they planned to make him the main course at this evening’s celebrations; the fate that must have fallen Whitehall.
Try as he may, there was no way he could loosen the bonds. He decided there and then he would just have to wait to see what would unfold for he was not able to be an architect in its design, not tied hand and foot like a pig for the slaughter.
Outside, voices laughing, orders being barked in an off-hand fashion; the noise signified a gathering of folk. The door opened and three men entered, all dressed in the ridiculous head-gear of the evening prior and in cloaks of ermine and velvet. Outside the door a man in a golden ram’s head and a black cloak; he spoke with authority.
“Bring the feast forward brothers” The crowd moaned with one voice. He realized now that this was a debaucherous gathering for members of the crowd were at this time nude save their headwear and the arousal of those persons obvious.
They dragged him to his feet and with his feet dragging trails in the dirt floor pulled him out into the courtyard.
All around, the gathering from the night prior; a hierarchy existed for sure, with various coloured cloaks signifying something, of which he was not sure.
Being held between the two men he was faced to the leader.
“So, traveler, journeyman from other places, do you not fear the power of this place?” he asked triumphantly emphasizing “this place” with a certain panache, a man used to fear in the person facing.
Quietly now, leaning his head forward he looked the leader in the eye; his voice so silent that only the leader could possibly hear.
“I see nothing to fear, I see nude men with beer guts and pricks soft with to little use. I see women with tits sagging and ugly gashes not fit to spawn and I see you my friend; trumped up fart in a black cloak. No I see nothing to fear”
The man was caught surprised, so used to a certain recant to his question, his complete denial was evident. He did not know how to respond. Then, as to be expected; he raised his voice.
“You are to be our meal traveler, for we celebrate our deliverance from people from afar each year in this way as we have done in these parts for many generations.”
The crowd cheered and lurched as a mob; the leader puffing his chest out as they did then continued.
“Now do you fear the power traveler?”
At this point he decided that enough was enough. He closed his eyes and muttered one or two words in a tongue foreign to any within earshot.
The ropes seemed to part, fray from him in the path of a golden light that just seemed to engulf the traveler.
Those closest were blinded by the intensity and the leader gave a loud cry he being the closest of the close.
He now stood tall, erect. His hand outstretched and more words of that same tongue.
His travel bag was against the far wall of the inn and it just flew to the man. In a second he had in his hand a talisman of gold and dark stone which he now held in his left hand and aimed at the men at either side. A direct beam of pure light left the stone and hit the men, one at a time. Their hair exploded into fire seconds before their sculls exploded like over-ripe watermelons hit by a large rock.
Now he reached forward and took the leader by the throat; his strong hand grasping the man and lifting him from his feet. He gasped and choked kicking like a chicken aware that his head was lost to him.
“Now, let’s see what we were saying” the man continued. The crowd cowered away and one or two made a bolt for the inn. A fierce bold of fire leapt at them and blew holes in their backs the size of a man’s hand and they fell forward where they stood.
“Stop all of you” he ordered in a loud voice and the noise and hysteria stopped so abruptly the only sound was the flames of the burning flesh and hair around, where this death fire had hit.
“Now, we will be putting a stop to this stupidity this day. Hear me all” the leader was purple with lack of air and his kicking a mere shadow of its former self.
“First, this clown, this trumped up fart of a man” before their eyes the leader levitated and flew into the air about thirty or forty feet. They could hear his gasps as he dragged air into his lungs. The traveler them raised his right hand and a bolt of golden light hit the figure above causing it to explode into fire, screams sounding loud in the heavy air. The body just burned suspended in the air as the traveler walked through the crowd.
All were too afraid to move and he just picked at random folk that he turned into flaming torches. Sobs and screams filling the air. By the time half of the thirty-odd congregation was dead on the ground cooked through from the fire the traveler had generated; they were convinced they were in the presence of a demon.
“You are to stop this THIS DAY” he said, out loud and with an absolute authority.
“Know you all that I do not ever get involved in such things unless there is no other way. I never use my powers unless all else has failed.
“I make the exception here as I see no other way to remove this blight. And every one of you must know that I can both see and know what your thoughts and actions are. What’s more, from afar I can meter my justice. Do I make my self clear?”
The crowd mumbled their acquiescence to him.
“Now, each of you; chose a body beside you and eat it, completely. We are not leaving here until it is done. Anyone failing to do so will be burnt and then the rest will eat them. Do you understand?”
The terror was now in the faces of those prior used to terrorizing. Absentmindedly, as he walked through the crowd, making sure that each was eating another, the body of the leader, now a charred and blackened husk fell to the ground with a thud.
“When you have finished you will all eat him.”
He stood guard over the sniveling evil group until early evening. Margot who had warned and tried to protect him was sent for and kept out of site of the carnage taking place in the courtyard. She made him herbal tea and a light meal of pickled vegetables. He particularly asked for no meat.
He then sent her on her way. Telling her he thought that no work would be here for her later.
She ran from the inn up the road and into the evening.
The group lay on the ground to a man and woman. Stomachs blotted from the continued encouragement of human flesh.
The inn-keeper had died. His heart must have given way under the strain and more than one or two had vomited and drowned in their excrement.
Others sniveled like dogs as they ate their beloved or betrothed and he was not satisfied until each and every one had understood the lesson he had to teach.
They were not allowed to remove their head-gear or their vestments and those nude not allowed to dress.
Into the night and through to the next morning he stood guard over the sorry crew until all those left alive had picked their designated carcasses as clean as bare hands could do.
Of the thirty odd that started the Traveler’s Day the evening prior only eleven remained. Three now quite mad from the ingesting of loved-ones.
Finally, the traveler pulled his travel bag onto his shoulder. He surveyed the carnage around. Bones, carcasses, human excrement, bodies, and nodded his head.
“I am leaving now. If I keen that this enterprise occurs again at this place or nearby I will return and you will rue the day you did.”
“Remember what I say, for I Jano, Master Mage of The Inner Set have spoken.”
The sound of Jano’s name was like a final blow to most. The name of fairy tale and legend, the greatest wizard of the Sinterland’s was the man standing before them.
They cried their anguish all the more for they knew of his powers and his dedication to the power of good. Since his time as a young man, traveling the realm putting right what was wrong and showing no mercy to those that transgressed the ways in any manner.
They knew his words were absolute.
The man turned and walked away. The sultry crew left to die or live as they may. As he reached the road the Inn leapt into flame so fiercely and immediately it was like an explosion. In his hand he held a canvas sack containing all the money he had got Margot to collect that day; his quest now to visit a Widow Whitehall on the Kandor islands; to pay his respects and to resettle her with these funds.
He collected the books and keepsakes from the hiding place by the cliff and continued down the road; the inn burning dark red in the distance.
The night was warm and welcoming, the storm left like the blight he had just removed. Tonight he would sleep under the stars. Tonight he would use his magic to rest the soul of Whitehall, allow it on its way, and those of any other traveler caught between this world and the next because of this bad business.
Tonight Jano the Mage would make things right. Tomorrow, as a traveler on the road to where ever roads lead, he would just continue.