Inspired by Crusader Kings II.
The table was fat with pig and deer, hunted especially for this occasion. The fruits and wine sat between platters of thick, crusty bread. Some of the bottles had already been emptied. The fire in the wall sconces shifted and danced, casting shadows over the bright eyed councilmen who had joined for the feast. Countess Arianhod had been invited, only a week after the death of her brother, so that the king could offer his condolences in person. Or so that’s what he said.
Arianhod ate only the food the others had already eaten, drank only the wine they had already opened and never let any servant near her cups. She watched the king as he sat, laughing, at the head of the table. He tore into the meat in front of him between laughing fits. Food fell from his mouth, half chewed and wet, whenever someone made him laugh. Arianhod smiled when he looked over, and laughed when he directed a joke at her, but the mask she wore was one of survival, and it was cracking. It wasn’t long before Dwyfan noticed her apprehension, and he called for the table to silence. He raised his cup.
‘To Countess Arianhod of Gwent, shall her life be long and our relationship be strong!’
The councilmen raised their cups in unison and mimicked the blessing. Arianhod nodded in false appreciation.
‘I wish to offer my condolences,’ Dwyfan said. ‘It is a shame about your brothers, gone so young, and so close together too. Sickness…’ He paused and let the air hang. ‘…really is a terrible thing.’
‘Thank you, your majesty,’ Arianhod replied. She raised her cup and nodded.
‘You seem tense,’ The king said. ‘Weary from your travels?’
Arianhod saw her way out there in that statement.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And I don’t like to be rude, but perhaps I need to lie down for the night.’
‘Ah of course,’ the king replied. ‘A lovely lady like yourself can’t be up all night carousing. Get your rest, we will talk business tomorrow.’
Arianhod stood and curtsied. Her footsteps echoed throughout the room as she walked away from the table full of food and wine, and she felt dark eyes watching her as she left.
The hall outside was dark. Arianhod’s heart smashed against her ribcage, perhaps she had made a mistake in leaving early. Suddenly, like a ghost, a shadow in a cloak darted around the corner and Arianhod stopped in her tracks. She watched it, the cloak swaying in the night breeze. Every sound seemed to be louder now, the wind whistling through the trees, the distant sound of wolves howling. The shadow looked to the left, then the right and pulled back its hood. A young woman, not an assassin, not death himself, but a young woman. And when she came closer to Arianhod she recognised her. King Dwyfan’s, very young, third wife.
‘Martha.’ The name sounded more like a breath of relief.
‘He’s testing you,’ Martha said, without introduction. ‘He wants to see whether you’re loyal.’
‘I don’t see that I have much choice in the matter,’ Arianhod said.
‘You need to prove it to him, show him you are trustworthy.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘All we have in this world are each other,’ Martha said.
Before Arianhod could ask what she meant by that, the sound of footsteps echoed behind them.
‘Martha, I did not know you were still up.’ The distinctive voice of King Dwyfan felt like it speared Arianhod in the back. ‘What are you up to? Sharing womanly gossip? Everything she tells you is a lie.’ His words were jovial, almost playful, like he revelled in the hunt.
‘I was just telling the Countess here about that exotic eastern wine you just acquired.’ Martha’s eyes, fixed on Arianhod’s, were trying to tell her something. Arianhod thought she knew, but she wasn’t sure she could pull it off. Everything went quiet again, and another wolf howled in the distance. When the howl had trailed off into silence again, Arianhod took a deep breath and spun around to face the King.
‘Did your mother not tell you it’s wrong to keep exotic things away from a lady? You break that out and maybe we’ll have a party after all.’
The King smiled his toothy smile, but his eyes burned through Arianhod. She held her ground.
‘A party it shall be,’ The King said.
And Arianhod followed the King back, wearing her mask for protection, stitched up and stronger, into the den of the wolves.