The king is the hound and the hound is the king.
The feasters come and eat, but they don’t suspect a thing.
It’s a feast like none they’ve seen, a spectacular repast.
They never e’er suspect that the meal will be their last.
The king opened his eyes and found himself seated at the long table in the castle’s dining hall. As he watched, platters and tureens began to appear, filled with steaming and fragrant food. Favorite dishes materialized before the chair in which would sit the one who favored them. A large bowl of fruit appeared before the seat that the queen’s favorite friend would occupy. Stews appeared at the far end of the table, where the king’s scholars sat. A tower of sweet rolls appeared in the middle of the table, where the young knights would be seated.
So curious was the sight that the king blinked his eyes, thinking he must have imagined it. Surely the food had been there all along, as he somehow dozed off in his chair waiting for his guests to be showed in. One of his favored hounds sat before the door to the dining hall, his sleepy head lying atop his forepaws. He lay there untroubled and unmoving as people began to file into the dining hall.
The feasters sat upon the richly made chairs, marveling at the food, and delighting in each other’s company. The king smiled and he raised his glass for every toast that was made, even the ones that praised him. He felt uneasy, not because of the food or drink or company. But because he knew something that none of the other feasters knew.
That uneasy feeling he felt was not fear. For he was too weary to sustain fear any longer. It was not despair, anguish, or rage, all of which would have been appropriate for him to feel. The uneasy feeling he felt was loneliness.
Because the feasters were all dead. This would be the last feast they would ever eat. Soon enough, they would be the feast…for the dragon that haunted their kingdom.
Earlier that same day, the dragon warlock had attacked the capital. Word of his arrival had reached the king in time for the capital to mount a defense. The dragon swooped in from the north. But he was driven back and badly wounded. The guards and soldiers who’d fought the dragon thought he had flown off to die somewhere. There were plans to go and hunt him down the following day. But that day was not to come.
For in the dead of night, a dragon stalked the hallways of the castle, silently devouring. By the time the alarm was sounded, it was too late.
The king remembered glimpsing a tooth, one long sharp tooth dripping with dragon spit. He remembered his hand pinned down by a claw. He remembered the dragon’s searing breath.
He felt great pain and then….nothing.
The king opened his eyes and found himself seated at the long table in the castle’s dining hall. As he watched, platters and tureens began to appear, filled with steaming fragrant food.
The king rose suddenly. The plush chair on which he’d been sitting, lined with dark violet velvet, toppled to the floor, startling the sleepy hound that sat before the entrance to the hall.
Again, the feasters entered the hall. Again the king wondered and doubted himself. He felt he had lived it all before. Perhaps he had dreamed it. Long had the dragon in the north worried his thoughts. It was almost a relief when the creature finally attacked. A relief when the dragon fought with fire and not with dreaded spells and cunning, as the king had feared, for he had heard rumors that this dragon was also a warlock. When some matter weighed heavy on his heart, the king sometimes dreamed the same troubling dreams.
As the gathered company began to eat and drink, the king’s worries faded. It became easier to dismiss the vivid vision he had experienced as just a vigorous dream, one he should heed, but not before he enjoyed a well-deserved night of revels with the men and women who had brought his kingdom victory against a daunting enemy.
The king laughed and raised his glass as the servers struggled to set the last platter on the table, the roasted thigh of a colossus chicken. Something gnawed and gnashed in the pit of his stomach. He wondered if he’d indulged too much. Again, he recognized the feeling. The churning in his gut was not from overindulgence.
He retired early that night. But he could not sleep. He left his dozing queen in the bedchamber and wandered out onto the unlit balcony. The breeze was cool and swept away some of his unease. But not all. He looked out upon the capital and looked down at the castle grounds. He spotted one of his hounds padding along the grounds. The best-trained and favored among the hounds were kept in a part of the kennels that were loosely guarded and not locked, to allow the favored hounds to wander the grounds, especially when the castle gates were closed. On occasion they made their way to the kitchens for scraps.
The dragon had killed three of the royal hounds during the battle that morning, a battle that left its scorching and gouging marks on the capital and its people. Of the hounds that survived, a few were still recovering in the kennel during the victory feast. No doubt one had woken, strong enough to rise, hungry enough to smell and go seek the remnants of that feast.
The king was still standing in the darkened balcony when screams of terror and cries for aid began to sound through the castle halls.
His heart turned to ice even as flames erupted from within the castle proper.
Flames and the unmistakable rumbling roaring of a dragon.
The king opened his eyes and found himself seated at the long table in the castle’s dining hall. As he watched, platters and tureens of food began to appear. As a feast filled the empty table, fear filled his heart. And he knew he was not dreaming. The feasters filed into the hall, and the king kept his reserve and counted in his mind.
This was the fourth time. The fourth time he had sat at the feast. But only the third time he had woken at the table.
He understood. If it was not a nightmare, then it could only be one other thing. An enchantment. And he was certain he knew who had cast it. The dragon warlock. As vengeance against those who defeated him, the dragon must have rallied his strength, perhaps by casting a spell that kept the days from moving forward. That must have been why he was fully healed and able to defeat the castle guards.
Perhaps the dragon was not done healing. Perhaps there was still a chance that the king could break the spell and do so before he and his people were devoured for once and for all.
The dragon might be hiding anywhere on the castle grounds. The king gathered his closest advisors: his queen, the court mage, the captain of his guards, the royal magistrate, and the chief of the royal scholars. Under ruse of sharing a private story, he spoke to them right at the table. So raucous was the feasting that their discourse was quiet private. The king told them what he knew to be true, and was unsurprised to find that they were ignorant of the recurrences. They remembered many a feast from the past, but never one to celebrate victory over the defeat of a dragon. But he was their trusted king, and they believed his word.
The court mage agreed that some enchantment had been cast. Either the king’s perceptions were true and had by accident or by design escaped the enchantment, or the enchantment was upon the king and only the king, leading him to have the terrible visions. The captain of the royal guard vowed to keep watch for the dragon. The chief scholar asked the king for his leave so she might gather the other scholars and aid the court mage in revealing the enchantment and the one who cast it.
Though still afraid and weary, the king felt not so lonely now that there were others who knew what he knew. There were fewer feasters at the feast, but the absence of some members of the royal court was not unusual, and did not deter the feasters from their revels.
That night, despite the vigilance of the guards, the dragon again slipped into the castle, and took his turn to feast.
Again and again, the king woke in his chair at the table. Each time, he gathered his advisors, and explained to them all he knew and had learned either for himself or with their help.
In one recurrence, the king found the captain of the guards, his body torn, burned, and mangled, but still somehow alive. He gave his king two words of warning on his last breath.
During the next recurrence, the king kept a wary eye on the hound that slept before the entrance. Perhaps the threat of tripping his guests was not the only danger the hound posed.
With the help of the guards and the mage, the king discovered how the dragon had managed to recover and to sneak into the castle all in one effort.
The dragon had swallowed his tremendous pride and turned himself in a hound, one of the king’s favored hounds. The pretender was even healed by the royal healers, who thought the hound’s profound wound had been incurred during the dragon attack. As favored by the king, the hound was given the best potions. By evening, though he was exhausted from healing, he was well, and wandered into the dining hall just in time to join the festivities and beg food from the feasters.
It could not be. No dragon would stoop to taking the form of what they deemed to be “lesser” creatures.
But the king soon found it to be true. In one recurrence, he saw the transformation before he died. He remembered when he woke to life again. The dragon warlock disguised himself as one of the king’s favored hounds and waited till the feast was done before he devoured king and court.
Believing the dragon to be the maker of the spell and the key to breaking it, the king tried many plans. He tried to lead the dragon-hound away during the feast, so that he might kill it. He hesitated when he looked into the hound’s eyes. But the dragon sensed something amiss. He transformed before the king’s eyes and that night, he devoured the king first.
The king woke in his chair of dark violet velvet. Fearing he would be unable to do the deed himself, he once again gathered his advisors, told them his story, and ordered the captain of his guards to dispatch the hound. The captain reluctantly agreed, obeying but doubting his king when he was told the hound was really the dragon in disguise. All knew that dragons were proud to a fault. The captain could not imagine a dragon transforming himself into a man much less mere dog. The captain would only be slaughtering an innocent hound. Still, he obeyed his king. He too led the hound away.
But he too was overpowered. The dragon had been mortally wounded during the battle. The king was certain of it. Yet the dragon had regained almost all of his strength by the time of the feast, and had done so by the hand of the king’s own healers. That night, the feasters never feasted. For the dragon came crashing into the dining hall before the meal began.
The dragon was nigh-indestructible. The kingdom had planned for many months how best to defend against him, and yet in the end, the profound blow that the dragon had been dealt during his attack on the capital had come almost by chance.
If the dragon was still healing, perhaps it would have been vulnerable to the swords and maces of the guards, the spells of the court mage, or even the acids and anchored lightning summoned forth by the scholars.
But by the time of the feast, it was too late to kill the dragon. Though the hound appeared to be sleeping, he was in truth quite awake and alert. There was no surprising him. Still, on the king’s order, one of the knights brought a sword down on the hound in front of the startled and gasping guests. The sword clanged against dragon-scales, for a dragon’s protections snapped into place by instinct. And this dragon, being a warlock, had protections beyond instinct.
So the king abandoned his plan to kill the dragon, and began to gather knowledge over the many, many times he watched the dragon devour his people, and the many, many times he suffered the same fate.
One time, after the king finished speaking to his advisors, so great was his tale, so filled with knowledge and tactics was the king, and so pallid and sober his expression that his queen peered at him and asked a question that only he could answer.
“How many nights have we spent this way?”
But the king did not know. He had stopped counting.
In time, the king gathered enough knowledge for the mage and scholar to deduce that the spell was no ordinary enchantment. It had the markings of a curse. To find out if they could break it, they first needed to know how far it spread. The king did his best to seek and to remember, at the feast, and throughout the castle, and the capital. He found that even if he was away from the castle during the attack, even when he was not devoured by the dragon, the curse would fall upon him. He would begin to feel an irresistible drowsiness wherever he was. He would fall asleep, only to wake up in his deep violet velvet chair once again.
The king could only travel so far before the curse took effect. He learned little but that the curse extended as far as he was able to go. The court mage possessed a few charms that would allow the king to travel anywhere in the known world in an instant. The cost was too great, however, for any to use it save as a desperate measure. The spell consumed the very essence of the one using it, so much so that the person could only make one trip and would thereafter die within a day. But any who used it within the confines of the curse should be all right, for when the night repeated, all that was done before would be undone. The danger was in knowing what those confines were. Most of the capital was affected, as the king had surveyed. A few chosen guards used the charms and they traveled to various villages within the kingdom.
The next time the king woke, even as the feast appeared, he searched for those men and found them all alive and well. He remembered where they had been sent. It seemed the curse extended through a vast part of the realm, perhaps even the whole kingdom.
The king himself used the charm, against the advice of advisors. They feared that because he remembered each recurrence, the charm’s effects may remain, and he might die. But he reminded them that he often died, killed by the dragon. His mind remembered all. But his body did not.
He took himself to the very borders of the kingdom. He was tempted to cross out of it to seek aid. If he escaped the curse, he would die. But if he did not, it meant the curse extended beyond the kingdom. But the mage and scholars had expressed great surprise at the extent of the curse. And though they had not spoken of it, the king saw a deep worry in the glances they exchanged. No doubt the great minds at his court were wondering who could be so powerful as to cast a curse that covered a kingdom.
The king watched the main road that led into the kingdom. Few now walked the road where once there had been many coming and going every day to trade, to visit, to pass through. Any who did come further down the road appeared destitute or unsavory. The king called out once or twice, but he was never heard. He could neither lure them nor warn them off. He wondered if it was some effect of the curse. He soon found out. For if any wayfarers wandered too far down the road, they found themselves within the borders of the kingdom, and it seemed, the clutches of the curse.
All of a sudden would they see the king and his guards standing by the road. They too would spend every night thereafter the same way.
No one who accidentally or purposely entered the kingdom knew anything beyond vague rumors. The dragon had been spotted flying down from the northern mountains. There was talk of a great battle. Then, even as word of their victory against a terrible enemy began to spread, the kingdom simply vanished.
Allies feared that a curse had fallen upon the hapless kingdom. They searched for some way to break it. Failing that, they searched for the one who made the curse, hunting down every possible enemy. Some feared that the curse’s maker might have become trapped in the curse, perhaps by accident or perhaps on purpose, to ensure he or she was never found, for any who came seeking would become trapped in the curse. By the time the king heard these rumors, half a year had passed in the rest of the world.
The king wondered at the new knowledge he gained from those poor folk who stumbled into his cursed kingdom. A dragon who could swallow enough pride to transform himself into a hound could surely swallow enough pride to remain in a curse that he had cast. Perhaps it was so, and the dragon had devised it so that he would not be aware of the curse, and would not suffer the torment the king suffered.
But that could not be so. If the dragon’s aim was to watch the king suffer, then the dragon too would need to be aware of the recurrences. Surely, the dragon would work to thwart the king’s efforts at breaking the curse. But the king had seen the dragon’s delight when he scorched the castle halls and devoured the people within. It was the same. He did not grow weary from doing the same thing again and again, because to him, it was the first time. If the dragon had cast the curse, then surely he had become trapped within it by mistake.
So one day, the king decided to swallow his own pride—along with his fear—and speak to his enemy. He led the dragon-hound away from the feast, and revealed that he knew the hound was in truth the dragon warlock, and that before the dragon devoured him and his guests, he would do well to listen to what the king had to say.
The king revealed the truth of the curse to the dragon, who thought the story was a ploy to get him to leave off of eating the king and his people. At the same time, the dragon was intrigued and impressed by the king for seeing past his ruse. But as the king feared, the dragon decided in the end that the exchange was a mere diversion, and he devoured the king.
The king tried again, but each time, the dragon did not believe him, and ended up devouring him.
The king opened his eyes and found himself seated at the long table in the castle’s dining hall. As he watched, platters and tureens of food began to appear. The weight of curses and dragons, and deaths upon deaths, bowed his head. He grasped the crown upon his brow and cast it aside.
The feasters came.
The king watched the merry abandon with which the feasters enjoyed themselves. It had been so long since the first time he was one of them, unaware and joyous, so long since he sat at that table with them, even though the feast repeated itself over and over. That night, he decided to join the feast. He even forgot himself for a while, until he caught sight of the hound beside the door, the hound that was not a hound, raising his sleepy head. By then, the king could discern the distinctive green glint of the dragon’s eye hidden behind the disguise of the hound. He spent many nights getting so drunk that he would be numb and senseless when the dragon came romping through the castle.
Then in one recurrence, the king woke in his chair and watched the feast appear, and he felt a moment of peace, even with the dragon-hound in the room. The thought that the feasters would soon come filled him with both dread and fondness. He wondered if this was to be his fate.
Once again, the king took aside his advisors. He had become adept at quickly telling them all that he knew himself and all that he had learned from them, from the people who wandered into the cursed kingdom, and even from the dragon.
He told them that they had failed to break the curse, and so far, so had their allies. He asked them if they might try a different course.
Rather than trying to break the curse, the king sought to change it. He sought to end each recurrence with the feaster’s falling asleep, long before the hound padded across the castle grounds and transformed back into a dragon.
All would be forever trapped, but no one else in the kingdom would know. Only the king would know. Only the king would know that his people would be eternally triumphant, and the dragon would be eternally waiting for his feast, a feast that would never come.
Long had the king been a desperate wounded hound, chained to the curse, sheltering with his pack, powerless to stop the dragon who lurked in his very halls. Long had the dragon been a despotic king, hiding his long tooth and sharp claw until the people were lulled and unguarded.
But both king and dragon were really as flies, trapped in the web of a curse that might never be lifted. But might be ever so slightly shifted.
The king had learned enough to know that the dragon was the trigger. It was after the dragon was sated, and when he grew drowsy that the recurrence came to an end. The king too would grow drowsy—in the times he was still alive. When the king woke, the evening started again.
The king believed that if he could put the dragon to sleep before he had a chance to devour anyone, he might shift the curse’s loop.
The king had learned much of his advisors, his guests, and his people, over the many nights, upon nights, upon nights, that he feasted and traveled and died with them. He’d come to know the people at his table—even his queen—much better than he ever would have in the absence of the curse. He grew fonder and fonder of the feasters and of the people in his kingdom. But as his fondness grew, so did his despair, for he could not find a way to break the terrible curse. But perhaps he could find a way to save his people from the brutal dragon warlock.
Perhaps all he could do to save his people was to give them one happy night, and all he could do to thwart the dragon was to put him to sleep before he could feast.
The court mage could not use his spells, for few spells could penetrate a dragon’s well-armored body from the outside. But the inside of a dragon’s body was as delicate as that of any creature. The king and his guards and soldiers had counted on that during the battle. And the healer’s sleeping draughts had worked upon the dragon, for he had drunk them by choice. He had needed to sleep so his body could heal itself. The dragon would no doubt recognize the scent and taste of the healer’s draughts. So the king asked the scholars to devise a sleeping draught that would fool the keen nose and tongue of the dragon-in-hound-form.
As the king suspected he would, he failed to lure the dragon-hound to eat from his plate. The dragon may not have been aware of the curse, but his wits were keen enough to sense something amiss about the king. And his eyes were keen enough to see everything the king touched. But the hound was always there before the start of the feast. The king had no choice but to try and drug the food with the dragon in the room.
Night after night, the king watched the false hound play his part and beg for food from the feasters. Dragons preferred cooked meat as did people, and he ate well. The king recruited the queen to drug the very foods that were given to the dragon-hound. But that method was too crude, because the person eating the food would fall asleep before giving the dragon-hound a single bite.
Through many trials and errors, the queen at last managed to sweep a few drops into a bowl of stew, and with a passing whisper, convince the feaster to give the food to the hound. The king watched the hound eat the bowl of food. Perhaps the dragon was not done healing, for he ate heartily. He did not seem to detect the sleeping draught. The feast ended and the hound settled in a corner. His head began to nod, and eyelids slipped slowly down. As the dragon drowsed, so did the king. The king had not touched a drop of drink that night, though he had filled his cup many times. And though his heart hammered with hope that his trick would work and with fear that it would not, he felt his eyelids droop. He took a deep breath and like many at the table, he laid his head down.
The king opened his eyes and found himself seated at the long table in the castle’s dining hall. As he watched, platters and tureens began to appear, filled with steaming and fragrant food. His eyes widened. He glanced at the sleepy hound by the door. Sleepy but not sleeping.
He did not remember being devoured. He only remembered feasting. He only remembered being anxious and then being overcome by sleep.
The king watched as the feasters filed into the hall. A moment would come when he would take aside the chief scholar and tell her how to make the special sleeping draught. A moment would come when he would take aside the queen and make a strange request regarding a feaster’s bowl of stew. He would test his ploy to assure it was no fluke. To put the dragon to sleep before he could devour the king and his people.
But having come even this far, the king felt a moment of pure hope.
One of the feasters, the castle cook, who was responsible for most of the delectable dishes upon the table, raised his goblet, as he had done countless times before.
“To the king and his triumph!”
Glasses, goblets, and even bowls were raised and banged and clanged together.
Beaming yet conscious of the enemy that sat among them, the king rose from his seat and raised his own goblet. He gazed upon the faces of those who would help him to save them all, his guards, his scholars, his queen.
“To you, my people,” he said. “To your triumph.”
So goes the tale of the Feast of Paravirneo. Perhaps someone escaped the curse and brought the story to the rest of the world. And to some would-be bard who wrote an epic rhyme, a rhyme in which the same lines spoken in despair at the beginning are spoken in defiant triumph at the end.
The king is the hound and the hound is the king.
The feasters come and eat, but they don’t suspect a thing.
It’s a feast like none they’ve seen, a spectacular repast.
They never e’er suspect that the meal will be their last.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “The Feast Begins” by Sanjay Patel.