Lorn Gorstorfsson stood at the parapet, eyes piercing the uneasy night from above a gnarled red beard in which a sparrow could easily become lost. Overhead, the Harvest Moon hung, fat and full; much fatter and fuller, he thought bitterly, than the actual harvest.
That was the price, he’d been told, for ignoring tradition for so many years. Traditions existed for a reason, even when they seemed nonsensical, or even silly. They’d kept the people of Tyrafyl safe for countless centuries. It was only in the reign of the most recent king that things had fallen by the wayside.
And what a terrible harvest had been reaped, for that time of inattention: floods, terrible storms, bad harvests, and all while the king engaged in debauchery, ignoring his closest advisors and taking shelter behind the supposed infallibility of the crown.
Well, Lorn thought to himself with grim amusement, the man hadn’t seemed all that infallible when he’d fallen down those three flights of stairs and onto a pike someone had left so carelessly propped against a table.
Only now there was a vacuum of power at the top of the onyx steps that led to the throne. And while life was unpleasant enough for the peasants and even minor (if ambitious) nobility like Lorn, with belts tightening by the week, there was something about that massive, carved wooden throne. Everyone wanted to sit in it. Everyone thought they knew best.
Even Lorn himself. He had ideas, about defending the country, about expanding the borders to compensate for the harvests and bringing new lands into the kingdom. No one had listened to him seriously before now, but perhaps they would.
This had been his idea, for all he regretted it now. A return to the old ways to place himself in better attention, bring some light onto his rather convoluted bloodline. And that was why he found himself standing out on the walls, breath steaming in the air, boiled leather armor the only thing between him and freezing in the unseasonably cold autumn night.
By all rights, there should have been a storm, perhaps one of the great autumn blows where there was snow and purple lightning, crashes of thunder crackling through the ice riming the streams. But no, it was just cold, cold and calm, not a breeze stirring the bare branches of the palla trees.
From within the keep, an unholy howl rose, cat after cat raising its voice as if shrieking at the moon. The hairs on the back of Lorn’s neck stood, as did those on his sinewy arms, what few were left behind after the wash of dragon fire he’d taken as a young man.
Four times, the cats howled, once for each of the quarters. He’d read in the tomes of lore this would happen, but had not truly believed it. After all, this festival had not been observed in his lifetime.
The doors of the keep boomed hollowly, four measured strikes, someone indescribably ancient and powerful asking to be admitted.
Lorn licked his suddenly dry lips, smoothing his beard down with one hand. “Destarn River Keep bids you welcome!” he shouted. After a moment of hesitation the other sentries followed suit. “Open the doors!”
As two guards, their own boiled leather armor less impressed and adorned than his own, hurried to man the giant winches that would open the formal gates, the cats howled again. In the sky, the moon washed red. And in the inner court of the keep, somehow over the din he thought he could hear the soft weeping of those chosen. Girls, their curls adorned with thorns and holly, waited with their milk white backs bowed under massive stone serving platters.
The Dining of the Cats was about to begin.