The Hall

In the bleeding north

where the darkness of old blood

merged on winter stones

waiting for new wars,

a man rose to power.

Uncut, unbruised,

with his sword still in his scabbard,

with a shadow that clung to him

noon and night,

a man whose words

were spoken softly,

and soldiers leaned close to hear them

fearing that the word they missed

might be their death.

They tried to kill him at first,

scheming across the table at the feast

he threw for them,

drinking deep of the poisoned wine

as Hrothgar smiled,

watched them writhe ad die,

until even their hate could not keep

their eyes from closing,

and then he too sipped

from their cups,

and smiled and smiled.

Assassins came at night,

died at night,

while Hrothgar and his shadow

played at dice,

(the shadow inevitably won,

and Hrothgar frowned

knowing that the shadow cheated).

When killing failed

tributes came;

gold, gems, women

were sent

and at some time

Hrothgar was crowned,

king of no tribe except the tribe

that won,

ruler of the bloody handed

and victorious,

king of a people

whose enemies knew only

the terror of death,

and then death.

His kingdom ran like a fever

across the northlands,

burning, spreading, unquenchable,

and when they called him

king of kings

Hrothgar laughed

and decreed

that a Hall should be built

deep in the dark land,

lit brilliantly

to show the night

that Hrothgar’s sword

had been unsheathed

flame ran across its edges

and under its fire

he ruled.

But in the darkness

in the corners

of that brightly lit hall

the night lingered,

and while Hrothgrar

marvelled at his own power

his shadow was caught,

caught and dragged,

back into the holes

from where it had sprung.

And that night

something moved,

the land shifted,

a torch fluttered, guttered, failed,

then a second torch died,

and a third,

while the soldiers

of the king of kings

drank to forget

their fear of him,

the light fled,

and true terror,

long toothed, clawed, taloned,

armoured in dread,

arrived.

The first scream

was high and surprised,

it lasted so long

that it gurgled and died

only in the blood

that was suddenly everywhere.

In the dark hall

men scraped their swords

from scabbards,

axes were lifted,

and a searching arrow

found a patch of flesh

higher than the head

of the tallest man.

The sound that came

was so vast

that it sucked up

the clatter of weapons

like raindrops

swallowed by the sea,

and the frenzy that followed

broke men and tables,

bones and steel.

And all the while Hrothgar

sat on his darkened throne

amid the howling and splintering,

the breaking and screaming,

and his smile was thin,

and his word

was no longer death,

at this moment

when hell had caught

him at last,

climbed up the rope

of his shadow

to his bright, bright hall,

and made it

dark.

 

By Omair Ahmad. He is an Indian writer. His last book, The Storyteller’s Tale was released in India and France in 2009, and is due out in Spain and the UK in 2010. The manuscript of his next book, Jimmy the Terrorist, was shortlisted for the Man Asian 2009 literary prize.

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