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Holgast and the Duke's Dinner by D. E. Olesen


A story from the world of Adal, which includes The Eagle's Flight. Also make sure to check out the upcoming The Prince of Cats.

The travelers made camp for the night. As a pot boiled over the fire, they sat down to enjoy the warmth while the food cooked.

“You haven’t said much about yourself,” remarked one of the drivers to the stranger that had joined them earlier that day. “Pray tell, share a little.”

“I’m just a wanderer,” the stranger replied with a smile. “But if you want, I can tell a story to pass the time.”

“Oh yes!” exclaimed the children with excitement. “Which do you know?”

“Many,” came the reply, “but one of my favourites is the tale of Holgast at the duke’s dinner. There’s more than one version, but this is my favourite.” The travellers made themselves comfortable with all eyes on the stranger as he began his tale.

*

Once, Holgast was caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Seeking refuge from rain and lightning, he reached a derelict castle. The gate sat twisted on the hinges, the stonework was in disrepair, and the courtyard was overgrown. Walking inside, he found no one. There was no sound but his staff hitting the floor. Rusted sets of armour lined the hallway; as Holgast continued, their hollow helmets seemed to follow his progress.

Pushing rotting doors open, Holgast reached the great hall, where an eerie sight met his eyes. In the far end stood a table burdened with food of every kind. A veritable feast of meat, pastry, greens, and more. Beyond, a fire burned merrily in the hearth of the hall. By the table sat a solitary figure, as round as he was tall. Dressed in faded clothes, stained by wine and fat, the lord of the castle was gorging himself.

“Gods’ peace,” Holgast called out.

The nobleman looked up with a grunt. “Who dares intrude upon the duke’s dinner?”

“I am but a humble traveller,” Holgast replied, approaching the table. “I seek shelter from the storm. I would not mind a meal, either.”

“I have neither time nor room for beggars,” sneered the duke. “Be gone before I have my servants throw you out!” Along the walls, men and women crept back and forth, replenishing the table with food and drink. With hollow faces and torn clothing, showing the ribcages under their skin, they seemed incapable of carrying out any threats made by their master.

“I can pay, of course,” Holgast declared. He dug his hand inside his clothes and withdrew three coins, letting them fall onto the table in a stack. In the light of the torches, they shone golden. “These shall be yours, my lord duke, in exchange for a place at your table and a room. One for food, one for drink, and one for your hospitality.”

Eyes aflame with greed, the duke gave a smile. “Please, sit. Servants! Bring food and wine for our most honoured guest.” With a sharp glance at the nearest wretch, the duke continued, “Give him our best meal.” Shivering, they retreated from the hall to do their master’s bidding.

Meanwhile, the duke resumed his opulent feast. Meat was gnawed from the bone, whether fowl or pig. Bread was broken, soaked in duck fat, and swallowed. After every other bite, the duke would grab a jug of wine or ale and empty its content in one swig. Each time a plate or pitcher was finished, a servant would remove it; soon after, another dish would take its place.

Holgast let his staff lean against the table and sat down opposite the duke. He did not speak; instead, he picked up the coins with his fingertips before letting them drop down on the table, again and again. The sight and sound of the gold made the duke cease his frantic movements, if only for a moment before he resumed his eager eating.

“I can pay, of course,” Holgast declared. He dug his hand inside his clothes and withdrew three coins, letting them fall onto the table in a stack. In the light of the torches, they shone golden. “These shall be yours, my lord duke, in exchange for a place at your table and a room. One for food, one for drink, and one for your hospitality.”

Eyes aflame with greed, the duke gave a smile. “Please, sit. Servants! Bring food and wine for our most honoured guest.” With a sharp glance at the nearest wretch, the duke continued, “Give him our best meal.” Shivering, they retreated from the hall to do their master’s bidding.

Meanwhile, the duke resumed his opulent feast. Meat was gnawed from the bone, whether fowl or pig. Bread was broken, soaked in duck fat, and swallowed. After every other bite, the duke would grab a jug of wine or ale and empty its content in one swig. Each time a plate or pitcher was finished, a servant would remove it; soon after, another dish would take its place.

Holgast let his staff lean against the table and sat down opposite the duke. He did not speak; instead, he picked up the coins with his fingertips before letting them drop down on the table, again and again. The sight and sound of the gold made the duke cease his frantic movements, if only for a moment before he resumed his eager eating.

Silent like shadows, servants appeared to wait on Holgast. A plate and cup, both already filled, were placed before him along with knife and fork; curiously, the serf carried the utensils by the sharp end rather than the handles.

“Please, drink! You are my guest,” the duke declared.

With a smile, Holgast took the cup and raised it in salute. “To your health, my lord duke! May your days last as long as your generosity.” His face caught between a sneer and a smile, the duke reciprocated the gesture with a flacon of wine.

The scent alone was enough to tell Holgast that his drink was poisoned; under the watchful gaze of the duke and all the servants, the traveller emptied the cup and placed it on the table with a satisfied sigh. He let his finger play across the edge of the goblet, scratching the bits of hemlock stuck to the metal. “An excellent vintage, my lord. Spiced, even.”

An insincere smile turned to contempt as it moved across the duke’s face, and he resumed stuffing his face. Picking up the utensils, Holgast realised why the servant had carried them so awkwardly; the handle of both knife and fork had been sharpened and would bite into the hands of the wielder. With a serene expression, Holgast tried to cut his meat and found that reversely, the blade of the knife was completely blunt.

“Are you not enjoying the meal?” the duke asked. “You have not touched the meat.” His fingers caressed the handle of his own dagger, long enough to serve as a weapon; in comparison, Holgast wore no arms by his side.

“Just cleansing my tongue. I don’t want the taste to be dulled.” Using his bare hands, Holgast tore the meat into pieces and began eating. Quickly, his tongue found the glass shards inside, sharp enough to cut his throat on the way down. “Very tender,” he declared, chewing loudly. “But I am getting pieces stuck in my teeth.” Demonstratively, he cleaned his teeth with his nails. “Some more wine to flush it down with, perhaps?” He raised his cup, and a servant was quick to refill it.

“What of my cup?” roared the duke in anger; it was empty, as he had not used it all night, drinking straight from the jar. A serf approached fearfully, filling the cup. The moment this was done, the duke’s meaty hand lashed out, sending the servant to the floor; her eyes filled with hatred and dread as she hastened away.

“Your people seem cowed by you, my lord.”

The duke slammed his goblet onto the table after emptying it. “As they should be,” he sneered.

Holgast let his eyes glance at each of them. Their bodies spoke of starvation; their faces spoke of mistreatment. “Yet they are many, and you are one.”

“I am their rightful lord!” he shouted. “My lineage has always ruled this land – my ancestry goes back to the very first people who settled the riverlands!”

“So does theirs,” Holgast remarked. “They simply haven’t been keeping names.”

The duke spat out a piece of chicken bone. “What does the name of a peasant matter?”

“You never asked my name, my lord.” Once more, slender fingers played with the golden coins on the table.

“As if I care.” A sweetcake was stuffed whole into the nobleman’s mouth.

“You should. It is Holgast.”

Underneath the grease stains on his face, the duke became pale. “You lie.”

Holgast laughed. “Who would dare?” He got on his feet. Along the walls, the serfs shied away as he walked around the table.

“Stay – stay away!” the duke cried out. He tried to push his chair backwards, but he did not have the strength to move his own weight; he was stuck at the table. “You can’t be – Holgast isn’t real!”

“Yet here I stand. Summoned by your malice, your greed, and your thirst for cruelty.” Placing one foot on the duke’s chair, Holgast gave it a kick. Both furniture and nobleman slid backwards, stopping a few inches from the hearth. “Was nothing strange about this meal, my lord?”

Whether from fear or the flames behind him, the duke was sweating profusely. “Don’t touch me!”

“Did you not wonder about the wine?” Holgast grabbed the duke’s cup from the table and showed it to him. In the bottom lay pieces of hemlock leaves.

“Did you not taste the meat?” From the duke’s plate, Holgast picked out a large glass shard.

“Did you not show me hospitality?”

“Do not threaten me!” the duke exclaimed.

“I stand unarmed before you. In fact, I have already paid you.” Holgast pointed towards his own seat at the table. There was an empty spot where the coins had lain stacked. “The gold crowns are yours, my lord.”

His host let his hands crawl over his body as if expecting to find the coins in his clothes.

Holgast smiled. “Not in your pockets, my lord. In your belly. I fear in your haste to consume, you never noticed the gold slipping down your gullet.” With his hands, the duke clutched his throat. “I suppose it does not matter. You are dying in any case, my lord.”

“Get out! Servants, to me! Remove this villain!”

Holgast glanced at the serfs. “Why should they obey? Soon, you will be dead, and they will be free.” The servants exchanged looks. “Furthermore, if they should happen to split your belly open, they will find three gold crowns inside. None of them need ever starve again.”

From every corner of the hall, they began to approach the duke; through the smoke from the torches, they seemed a wolf park with bared fangs. Holgast in turn stepped backwards, away from the duke.

“No! Get away!” As his servants encircled him, the lord of the castle reached out to grab his dagger on the table. He found only the knife given to Holgast. As the duke’s hand closed around the handle, it sliced his fingers open. With a yell, he dropped the knife to the floor; drops of blood followed after.

Picking up his staff, Holgast left the hall. The storm outside was gone; it was a quiet night except for the screams coming from the crumbling castle he left behind.

The children sat with wide eyes looking at the stranger. “Is that the end?”

“It is,” he confirmed.

“But did the duke really eat the gold?”

“Did they cut his stomach open?”

“Enough,” said one of the elders. “It’s late and time for sleep. We’ve a long way till Middanhal.” The children grumbled and complained to no avail; the story was over.

“I can take first watch,” declared the wanderer. “I am not tired yet.”

“Mighty kind of you,” replied one of the drivers. “Wake me up when it’s time to take over.”

“Will do,” he promised. As the others found their resting place for the night, the wanderer turned around on the log serving as his seat; with his back against the campfire, he kept his eyes on the darkness surrounding the small band. From a pocket, he withdrew a coin, letting it play across his dextrous fingers. In the pale moonlight, it shone golden.

#DEOlesen #ThePrinceofCats #TheEaglesFlight

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