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Adventure Fantasy Fiction

We wandered the wasteland with empty stomachs, shaking and sweating from hunger. Our guts were soured by the unused acids that churned like mortar. 


We sang as we trotted along to keep our minds off of the stomach grumbling: “Here’s to the grog, boys, the jolly, jolly grog / I’ve a-spent all my tin with the lassies drinking gin / Then come morning I’ll be sleeping like a log / Here’s to the grog, boys, the jolly, jolly grog.” 


Pinot was an absolute waste of a squire but was a first-rate singer if there ever was one, and I suppose that’s only one of many virtues that made him a hell of a questing companion; certainly, the best I’d ever known.


The roadside was full of dry brown grasses. When Pino noticed some wet grass by the side of the road, he exclaimed, “My Lord, this grass must be watered by some spring or brook nearby where we can quench our thirst.” It wasn’t just the thirst, but our mouths tasted dry and were parched by the dust from the dry roadway. I could hardly breathe through the cement of dirt mixed with dry mucous lining my sinuses like rawhide, so dry and caked, that swallowing felt like razors in the back of my gullet.


“Maybe we shall find some hovel where we can trade coin for a proper meal,” I said.


“And word of where we may find the Fisher King,” Pino said, kicking his mount to giddy up.


“Use your tongue less and your eyes more Scud,” I said, tossing the last of the peasant bread in my sack toward the ears of Pino’s gray ass, Put-put, who merely grunted and trotted behind Dukenshade, my Black Stallion. Put-put’s breath smelt like hay and a festering feeding troth on a hot day.


“But Lord, we must come again to the gates of the Grail Castle before much longer,” Pino said.


“Lead with your stomach, not your imagination Scud,” I said.


Clouds passed before the setting sun and darkened the path through the thicket of woods before us. We could barely see the little hermit in a camlet robe by the roadside, sitting on a rock, chewing on a straw, humming to himself, and drinking from a large flagon of ale, come to think of it, a mega-flagon.


“Who are you, friend,” I asked.


“Ahh, braw day to you gentlemen. I am Bran the Blessed. How blessed you ask? Thrice blessed. Blessed first in God’s gifts—food, company, and ale. Blessed twice in that I never get what I deserve, when I deserve it, though I surely deserve the flame. Blessed thrice, in that God brings me diversion to keep me from the devil’s temptations, and when he don’t, the devil’s to blame,” Bran said.


“Bran the Blessed—I think it is our blessing to have met someone so highly favored,” I said.


“You look weary and in need of some rest. Care to sup with me this evening and to sleep in my barn?” he asked.


“Bless you, bless your soul. What can we do to return such hospitality,” Pino said.


“Your company is enough,” Bran said.


* * *


I tied Dukenshade to a hitching post, which smelled of ripe manure and ground bran, and tied Put-put beside him. 


I noticed a barn out back in the meadow behind Bran’s home. I heard some weak cries that issued forth from inside, as from a person in distress. Not in mortal distress, but considerable distress, nonetheless. 


As a knight, indeed the purest of the Knights of the Round—Percival of the Long Spear, or Percival the Spotless—as I was called by some, it seemed I was bound by duty to investigate. In truth, I was just a Welsh boy with abandonment issues who’d lost his father to war and joined the ranks of his father’s killers, and who vowed to pledge his life to Christ and the chivalric code, but who at length had lost faith in both, and in humanity to boot. 


I had dropped my honor long ago, abandoned my search for the grail, and was content now with mere survival, Scud’s meager company, the occasional dalliance with a wench at some brothel we happened upon in the way, and at the moment, only wished to fill my stomach with anything but dust and standing water.


“Runkle, Runkle! Quick, get in here, we have guests,” Bran said. Another runty hermit in a camlet robe tied with a drawstring came careening through the undergrowth with a sack of foodstuffs over his shoulder, and busted open the door, appearing in the kitchen and emptying a sack on the wood counter. His hair was parted down the middle, shaved on the sides, and he had a whiny high-pitched voice like a teenage girl with a clothespin over her nose.


“Here, master,” Runkle said.


“What have you got? The dick and balls? The stomach and heels? The mode de caen?” Bran asked.


“Yes, master. We’ve got all the good bits. Going to be quite the feast!” Runkle said.


“You’ll excuse my dear Runkle,” Bran said to us, “He gets excited over sheep dick and pickled ram balls—Runkle! Get those Hrutspungar’s into some boiling water, so we can eat soon.”


We sat to eat by candlelight, and Bran put out the sheep’s dick, the Hrutspungar, the tripes a la mode de caen (cow’s stomach, intestine, heel, and bones), some meat pies, and milk pancakes. The sheep’s dick was stuffed like a sausage with egg yolk, saffron, cow’s fat, and a touch of cinnamon. But the sheep’s dick was undercooked and tough as sinew and the eggs were rotten and tangy. Scud spit out the dick on contact, which was saying something since he has a stomach like a cow. 


The Hrutspungar was pickled poorly, had a briny taste, and smelt like the sea on a red tide with the rot of purple threads of red mat roasting ashore in the summer sun. And it was also tough; so tough you’d need a proper saw to cut through it. It should have had the texture of meatball, soft and tender on the tongue, but gave a chewy toffee mouth feel instead. The dull blades provided were not mete to the task of cutting through this ropy, fibrous, brined testicle. I’ve never seen such a tough set of balls.  The intestine was mealy and had something gritty inside—dirt? excrement? spear-rust?—hard to say. 


All-in-all, it was a meal that even a starving man couldn’t get down the hatch and it turned my stomach to the point all I could do was chew on some dry flaking pancakes and nurse my fatigue with ale. Even the meat pies were made with spoiled meat and had a rotting fish stink to them.


Bran and Runkle didn’t seem to notice the dick was dried out, the balls were sour, the eggs were ripe, the intestines were dirty, or the meat pies were festering with rotting fish. They tore in like wolves gathering over a dead deer carcass and went to work. 


Their faces were covered in a smattering of crust, meat, egg, flour, guts, and tripe. And they hammered the ale with abandon.


The hovel teemed with flies buzzing around the smorgasbord of decomposing leftovers masquerading as proper food and the ripe and musty odor of our unbathed hosts and their stinking robes.


* * *


Feeling that I was near to vomiting, I excused myself and went back to my duty to investigate the barn out back.


Unlatching the hinge and drawing open the door, I looked into a rectangular room, the air full of dust mites and the chirping of crickets. There was also the groaning of a man in distress. I peered in and saw the tawny-haired man lying supine with a towel over his groin, and splotches of blood on his solar plexus. Near where he was reclined on a small table was a boiling Cauldron set over a pit of low-burning flames.


I sat down in the corner by the wall, clutched my stomach, and said, “I hope you didn’t have the ram’s balls for dinner, it’s enough to give you the flux!”


“Errr gawww?” he grumbled, turning a sallow face with sunken eyes in my direction.


It couldn’t be. The man had the look of a man who haunted my dreams. The Red Knight. That knavish hound I’d slain just a few weeks before, out on the roadway.


“Speak man—are you Sir Rood of Gronigen—that storied knight of ill-repute—that rogue of the red death—the very one whose armor I earned in honorable battle? Speak man, speak?” I asked.


“Grr aahwnnn,” he mumbled incomprehensibly.


Just about then, Bran the Blessed appeared in the doorway and said, “It’s no use sonny, the poor man is mute as an ox.”


“Is this Sir Rood of Gronigen, the Red Knight?” I asked.


“Ay lad, the very one,” he said.


“But how can it be? He was a boisterous fellow who prattled on and boasted of his accomplishments for a solid quarter hour before taking up arms. I felled him in battle and ran him through with my lance—but not before he’d recounted the full list of all his daring feats for posterity,” I said.


“Surely you did. But as I said, I am Bran the Blessed. Thrice blessed. And I also have been gifted a special implement, the Cauldron of the Nascent. It has the power to resurrect the newly dead—but at the price of their tongues—and it doesn’t always work—many having seen the other side fall back asleep or worse—driven mad by the knowledge of what lies beyond they take their own lives, even after being restored to health.”


“My God man, what kind of sorcery is this?” I asked.


“Seems that the divine was game for a revival but seals the lips of those that could tell us that which we’d all like to know,” Bran said.


“Only the devil can call forth the dead,” I said.


“Oh, have off it, Percy. It is a blessing, like all the others. And a curse. Sure. Sure. When the likes of ye fell some poor knob in the way, and their horse hastens down to my brook and drops the bodies in my stream, it is like a collecting pot for atrocities. What am I to do, bury the poor suckers, when I have the means to raise them?” he asked.


“Scud and I will be off presently,” I said, “and here’s some coin for Sir Rood when he is well, to secure a new mount.” And with that, I toss him a bag of coins and I am off to the hitching post, shouting, “Scud, get out here, we must be off.”


* * *


“Where are we headed to master? We must hunker down for the night?” Scud said.


“Follow me. We will investigate the brook,” I said.


Coming down into the valley where the brook ran by, I noticed that the stream fed into a small lake not far down the valley. We headed in that direction as the night grew dark. When we came up to the lake, we camped out there for the night.


After a good bit of retching, the two of us sat down by the fire with some ale I’d borrowed from Bran the Blessed and went over the night’s events.


“I’d rather sear my eyes out with hot brands than eat again with Bran the Blessed,” Scud said.


“And to think I’d been thinking of becoming a monk,” I said.


“Not the kind of monk that eats dick and balls, I hope,” Scud said.


“No. Surely not. Well, good night Pino. Get some rest. Who knows what tomorrow brings,” I said.


In the morning we noticed a man with a bronze crown and a dirty purple robe out on a rowboat in the middle of a lake, fishing with a small reed pole.


“My God, Scud, it’s the Fisher King,” I whispered.


I stood to my feet and bellowed loudly, “Dear King, who does the grail serve?”


The man looked over his shoulder blankly and went back to fishing.


“Dear King, who does the grail serve?” I screamed.


“Can’t you see I’m fishing,” he said, waving his hand as if to say, quit it with the nonsense.


I noticed that Scud had fallen back asleep and was now letting out dull guttural snores that quaked from the back of his throat and listed through the dewy morning like the rumbling of wagons on the rocky roadway.


I focused on the rhythmic percussion of the snoring, and it eventually lulled me to sleep, and I caught myself dozing off again, my stomach rumbling, but my limbs weary from the journey.


When my eyes opened again, the Fisher King was seated next to the fire, rubbing his hands over the flames and groaning, clutching his side in agony. He smelled of lavender and fresh oils and groaned authoritatively as if the fire would leap up and cater to him like a nursemaid if he asked. He had a spit of a half dozen fat-bellied fishes, split, cleaned, and roasting over the flame. They smelled fresh and the fat sizzled, with the skin crisping in oil, salt, and spices, with lemon slices laid over the top of the fish, browning and caramelizing.


“Hungry?” he said.


“We are starving to death,” I said.


He pulled the fish off of the spit, took fresh loaves of bread from his sack, took halves of fish, and laid them on the buttered bread, and handed us the loaves and fishes. Scud dug in and had nearly finished his meal in three large bites, his cheeks full of half-chewed food.


The Fisher King handed over a second fish sandwich to Scud, still groaning and moaning as he leaned in to hand over the food.


Our stomachs were full at last with something that actually contained sustenance.


“Are you in pain,” I ask.


“Mortally wounded, but unable to die,” the Fisher King said. “The only time the pain subsides is when I’m fishing on the lake,” the Fisher King says.


“But how were you wounded?” I ask.


“That’s a long story,” the Fisher King said.


“I’m not going anywhere,” I said.


“In my day, when I ruled these lands, I sought glory and expansion of my realm. But I neglected my people—and my soldiers—seeing to my every gluttonous desire instead. I drank, ate, philandered, and spent my nights with a harem of a dozen concubines. And while I saw to my own pleasure, satiating my every whim, luxuriating in all the bounties of the realm, my villagers went hungry, my subjects were robbed by my overlords, my soldiers deserted, my officers abused the prisoners, and chaos and corruption ruled the land. One day when I was taken with drink and ill humor, after losing an entire battalion of soldiers in a crushing military defeat, I abused one of my mistresses, slapping her, riding her mercilessly, cruelly mocking her, and it was too much for her to bear—she took my spear and thrust it into my loins. I was gravely injured, and the wound has never healed. The wound left me unable to sire an heir. And as a result, I grew deeply, deeply depressed, and gave up on life completely, with no care left for how I spent my days. At length, there was upheaval in my courts, and I was expelled from rule. Before I was dethroned, my sage counselor foretold that the land itself was connected to my journey, and my ouster represented the fall—such that drought and famine would devour our lands. He said that my wounds were fatal, but I would be forever unable to die until one totally pure and completely true would ask me the healing question. As you have tried to do three times now—and it would seem that you—as with all the others—have not asked these words in purity and in truth. And so is my curse, to wander the lands like a ghost, searching the lakes, waiting for the arrival of the Grail Knight and an end to my suffering.”


“So, you are saying this drought will end when you find the Grail Knight,” I asked.


“That is the legend,” the Fisher King said.


“But Percival already asked you the healing question—what more is there to do—tell us, tell us,” Scud begged.


“I have come to think of the scene after the resurrection when Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you love me’ and then beseeches him to ‘Feed my sheep’ and then says, ‘Follow me.’ I think that the Grail Knight is the one who would sacrifice himself for the land—the one whose heart is pure—the one who is the spotless lamb to the slaughter,” the Fisher King said.


“But how could any find such a pure heart—and how would one offer themselves for a sacrifice as you suggest?”


“Well Percival, that is your task, to answer that question, and to come back and find me when you’ve got the answer. And you will find me, at the far end of a bridge, which you must traverse over a great chasm—and only he whose soul is pure and light as a feather—will reach the grail chamber and be knighted as the Grail Knight,” the Fisher King said.


I looked down at the spit over the fire and saw that the spear was bleeding from the tip, like the bleeding of a man’s wound.


“Here my spotless lamb, take my spear with you, and it will guide you to the tests that only the Grail Knight is fit to suffer, and take these fishes with thee,” the Fisher King said, “And son, feed my sheep.”

October 07, 2023 02:47

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15:54 Oct 17, 2023

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