Old words these are. But but long it hath been, mayhap, since last they woke. And All Hallows comes nigh, so mayhap it be fit to wake them. And if I offend in their waking, or setting them here, then my apology also. But thus and so—I'll set them here. The tale of Harvest Wine...

Harvest Wine

Even in Summer the night comes of a time. And as the sun falls to the mountains, as the night yawns fresh from sleeping and opens the stars it wears as eyes, then a wanderer’s thoughts turn to setting the Long Road aside, if only for a moment. And if that wanderer’s pockets bear copper, and silver beyond…
If the Inn had a name, then it seemed time’s toil had set it aside some day long past. A sign hung in air unmoving, yet still warm from the day’s heat. A sheaf of corn? A laughing cow? Who knew. But the door stood wide, that the air inside stay sweet. And where such a door was found, then meat and drink, and even room or cot might also lie to greet passed silver. She stood a while and stretched. It had been a long day’s walking and of a time it was worth while to take stillness for companion. And as she stretched, the worn scabbard at her side rang gentle against the ring of her mail, and as she stretched, the lean muscles beneath the mail kinked and let her know what they thought of long miles and short rations. And she wondered what her mother would have said to see her, a Walker of the Long Road. No Carinde, nor yet the famed Lightning she might be, but many had found it unwise to cross her path in anger. And as she remembered the small farm where she had grown, she smiled fondly to remember those days gone, when all that need be done was to gather the eggs and perhaps a posy for her mother. But old days make new graves, as her father used to say, and this was none of either. And the Inn waited.
Inside the door, there were but few patrons. As she entered it seemed the room stood silent and—and somehow grim. Of a moment, unnoticed, her hand found the hilt of her blade. But as she stood framed in the door, the eyes that turned to her took one look and it seemed brightened to see a fresh face among them. “ Ho, Queen Grape! It seems we have fresh company for thine arts!” The cheery voice came from a fat and red faced fellow sat near the ale barrels. His face was round and his smile broad, and the hand that waved a mug full of ale through the air in welcome was skilled and practiced not to spill a single drop.
The wanderer smiled. “ Might ye be Keeper here?”
“ Hah! Fat Findle, Keeper? Oh, in his dreams mayhap, and then only if I had a bed new made, and that of twice thick oak!” The new voice came from the kitchens, and it danced lively before the woman who followed it out. “Martha I am, though Queen Grape they call me, my dear. And once there was a Keeper, my Andrin. But he be gone now. But it seemed those near would have me stay, and so I stayed. And thus the Harvest Grape is still a place ye may find, and enter, and see! Ye have done so!” And without more ado, the slim built woman with long blonde hair swept up to her and wrapped her arms about her and gave her a squeeze fit to burst! “I’m sorry, warrior maid. Or no, not really. We do not stand on ceremony here… and ye looked for a moment so like…” The woman stopped, and it seemed a shadow passed over her face. “No matter… Now. Let us see. Ye don’t come from the town, and the dust still sits to thy soles. Hmmm. I trow it’s a long road ye’ve walked to come here. Thus and so, thus and so. But yet, ye stand alone. Hmmmm… Of course! The Long Road?”
The Long Road. The by-name for the journeys of warrior and wanderer, vagabond and sell-sword. And a road well travelled by those that with little care to offer name or history to others. The woman waited, as was custom, for the wanderer to offer what she would, or keep silent as she might.
With a rueful smile for the bed she had pondered, the wanderer spoke what must be said. “None pace the Road behind me who might threaten this place. And I the same. A full stomach and a wet windpipe, and I’ll be away. There are fields in plenty near…”
“We’ll have none of that! Why, what do ye take us for? Do ye see, my—my first husband…. Well, he Walked as ye do, and none the less for that. Hmmm… are any with ye?”
At Martha’s words, though cheery they were, it seemed a small hush fell over the room. It was little surprise to the wanderer, for it was not unknown for bands to send forth a scout to make spy of a place they sought to make victim. And a woman? Well, why not? “The Long Road, aye. And for now it seems my footsteps have no echo beside them. Though of course I might speak untruth…”
“Not ye, my dear. Or not tonight. I know an honest face when I see one, and thine? Well. Enough. I could read a lie in thee, trust me in this…” Again, a shadow seemed to cross Martha’s face. But it was swift gone. “Now. The venison is near done, though ask not how we came by it”. Martha grinned. “So what think ye? Venison roast, fine potatoes fresh dug by Fattie Findle there, and the ale in his mug the reason, roast onion and red carrot. Hmmm… and to drink?”
“Heh… what of his ale?” as she spoke, she felt the cheery manner of the place set about her.
“Only if ye must, lady! Think on, she is not called Queen Grape for lack of reason!” At the speaking from another near, the whole room erupted in laughter.
“ Well, let me not set aside such fame! It seems I am in thy hands, Queen Grape, and that full willing!” She turned to the one called Findle, and raised an eyebrow. “Queen Grape?”
The one called Fat, though it seemed he took no ill of it and rather honour for his girth, grinned. “Heh, well, aye. It may be I seek ale, but for the blood of the vine, there is none better than the Queen’s Harvest Wine. Do ye see, there is not a grape in it that does not come from the Inn’s own growing. And there are those will tell ye she doth sit and speak to each grape as it grows, aye and polish and tend each one as though it were her own daugh…” Findle stopped, and hurriedly looked about to see if any had heard his words. His face was a cross from sadness to near fear. With a mutter she could not hear, he put down his ale, stood swift and left the room.
With hustle and bustle, Queen Grape came forth from the kitchens, and she bore a platter steaming high with those things she had offered. The same was set to a table near, and the wanderer needed none of urging to sit to its attention. And soon and sooner Findle and his hurried going was a passed memory, set far from her compared to rich venison hot gravy and red carrots glistened with gold, melted butter. As she first lifted dagger to meat, there was a hush across the room. She looked up, and Martha was smiling.
“ Did ye not thirst? Good meat needs company!” And in Martha’s hands was a small cask set with a tap, and in her hands was a glass and the glass glowed red with rich wine. Seeing Martha’s expectant eyes, she took the glass and set it to her lips.
Now ale was a thing she took when she could, and many more a mountain stream had quenched her thirst. But wine of a time she found, and it was none of ill to her. But not wine like that in her glass, for that slipped to her throat as smooth and light as a lass’s glance to her lover, and it passed to her like fire and ice both, and as she drank she felt freshed and new, like waking to a new dawn in a soft bed. “Why, that is marvelous! Never have I tasted such!”
“Ah, that is our Harvest Wine. It seems not unpleasant to those that find it. And ye come at an auspicious time! For this is the last cask of last year’s making. And later… ah, but ye will see.” With one more smile, Martha took herself away, and the wanderer fell to the platter before her. And of a time she would sip on the glass that sat to her side, and each sip was nectar. And when she was done, Martha returned to clear the table clean. And when all was cleared, and the platters gone, the wanderer could not but tell Martha that her kitchen was indeed fine, and her regal name was most well earned!
“Heh… glad I am the wine pleases ye, but let me not claim too much of credit. For that which comes out of the oak must first be found on the vine, and none of my doing will put there what is not. And our vine is well set in good ground, and the grape be close friend to the Inn. I wonder… would ye see it?” Now a grape vine used for the making of wine was not a thing the wanderer had ever seen, and it seemed but courtesy, so she agreed gladly. And she followed Queen Grape through the kitchens to the rear of the Inn. And there she found a thing she had indeed never seen. For as far as she could see were tall bushes set to the ground, but where she expected to see them heavy with grapes, there were but buds and leaf.
Martha smiled. “I can see thy question. The grapes, and this Summer? This vine is late growing, and that will give it more of the spirit ye have found. And thus when others harvest, we wait, and when the snows come, we will harvest.”
As the wanderer looked about she saw tall stakes set about the vines, and each had a small mannequin set high upon it, and as she counted, she saw some twelve. And the nearest stared to the sky with a wild and frightening grimace. She took a step back…
Seeing her so, Martha burst into laughter. “Hah! A fine warrior maid ye be! But so long as the crows and the like feel the same as ye, then my grapes will not be their feeding! Do ye see, they be like unto the farmers use, and my little ones…” the same shadow came… “…well, they let the vine keep to its business, that I might keep mine.”
Seeing the shadow, and remembering Findle’s manner, the wanderer could wait no more. “ Martha! What ill is it? Ye speak, yet it seems there is woe to it.”
“Oh, it is no matter. I am but an old besom. But… but once I had a daughter. She… she was lost to me. She… she fell to illness. And I know what those fools in the common room speak of, that I tend each grape as though it were my own. Well, I care not. That is but good growing. But they hear me speak of these… of these crow-scares as my little ones and they think me mazed mayhap. But it is an old sorrow, and a past one.”
And the wanderer let the matter go, for it was clearly of trial to the Inn’s mistress.
“But enough. Today is the day, and tonight is the time, and by thy coming there may be more profit in this than ye know. Let me guess, ye feel well fed, but a soft bed and fine sheets would not be ill to thee?” Well, soft beds and fine sheets were not a thing any who walked the Long Road would meet oft, but the wanderer’s pouch was not so full she had gold to spare. And seeing her hand dart to her belt, Martha laughed again. “ Oh, worry not. We have fine straw and good pallets. But this night is the night it is, and there is a thing we do. For the last cask of the Harvest Wine is to be emptied, do ye see. And there is a game we play. For we pass the cask around, and the one that finds the last glass, why their scot is made clear, and our finest they have, aye, and the best of our beds besides! Come, come!” And the two went back to the commons, and there now sat pride of place on a table the small oak cask Martha had brought earlier. And those present sat about, and as Martha entered, a chant arose.
“Summer come and Summer past, who will drink the last set glass? Blood of grape and all is given, drink the glass and all forgiven!”
And Queen Grape took down a large flagon, and she passed each there a scrap of parchment, and each made their mark. And as the parchment came to the wanderer, she set a small scritch of a sword blade to it, for she could read, but she had none of lettering. And all the marks were set to the flagon, and they were stirred about. And Queen Grape would set her hand to the flagon and draw a mark, and the one that had made it would go to the cask and draw a glass of wine. And as each drew, they would sit, and wait for the next to go, for there might or might not be more wine to come. And as each was called, there was more of wine, and each had a glass, and then… and then it was the wanderer’s mark that came! And she went to the cask and drew her glass, and the wine filled it. And then next was called, and the next set their glass to the cask—and none came forth!
“Last glass, last glass, will we feast or will we fast?”
And the wanderer knew her face was set confused, and Queen Grape took pity on her. “Well, do ye see, it would not seem fair that one had all, and all had none. So, but only if ye choose, all here may feast on our finest, as ye will, though they must to their own beds after. And all will be set to thy tariff, but do ye see, as Last Glass, thy tariff is set aside! So the choice is thine. All may feast, or ye may make them fast! And if I might say, they are ruffians all and I would have full understanding if ye made them watch while ye feasted alone!” And the room laughed, if, it might be said, a little nervously.
The wanderer looked about, and she smiled... and after a pause to tease them, she called… “Then let the feast begin!” And so it was. And all the time, at Martha’s request, the glass she had drawn sat waiting and she had the best ale the house had to offer to drink. Till all was done, and those present called their gratitude, and she was sat to the centre of the commons, and the glass before her, and she took it, and as Queen Grape had coached her she drank, and when she was done, she set it down and she spoke. “Summer come and Summer past, I and mine the last glass? Blood of grape and all is given, glass is gone and all forgiven!” And the room cheered. Then when those who had other beds to find had gone, Martha took the wanderer to the Inn’s rooms, and the best was set before her, and indeed the bed was fine. And the sheets—never had she found sheets so soft! And after making sure she had all that she needed, Queen Grape left her, and she took her to sleep. And sleep came swift. And she dreamed. And in her dream, as still she slept, she seemed far from her and looking down. And the door opened to her room, and Queen Grape entered. And as she stood by the bed, the one that slept there woke. But the one who woke was both the wanderer and not, for she was childer, and young. And as she woke, the small one spoke. “Mama! What comes? It is yet dark!”
And Queen Grape spoke. And she said, “We must see to the vine, little one.”
Then the one who had woken rose, and, still unclad, it took the hand of the one she had called Mama, and followed her. And they went to the vines. And the moon stood full and high. And Queen Grape spoke. “Come my children and greet thy sister. For the vine must drink and I am hungered.” The vines rustled and hissed in the night wind. And of a sudden they came, and the twelve high poles that had scared crows were most empty. And those that came were small, and all of bone that walked, and they bore sharp bony claws, and those claws lifted her and set the one who had woken on the vine’s thorns, and the vine twisted and reared, and bound her tight, and the thorns bit and tore and her blood flowed.
And the vine drank, and the grape’s blood was made new.
And the one who had woken is soft sheets—her sisters had sharp teeth, and those teeth tore at her, and the flesh was rended from her in long strips, till all that was was gone, and bone remained. And in all her dreaming the wanderer did not wake, though she struggled to. And at last she knew, that she would not wake, not ever, nor ever sleep again.
And Queen Grape feasted well that night.
And of a Summer’s day, of a year come by and Fall coming close, Queen Grape stood at the vine, and another was with her. And Queen Grape spoke, and her words drifted to ears that heard high on their poles. “Hah! A fine warrior maid ye be! But so long as the crows and the like feel the same, then my grapes will not be their feeding! Do ye see, they be like unto the farmers use, and my little ones? Well, they let the vine keep to its business, that I might keep mine.”
And thirteen mannequins nodded in the breeze, teeth sharp. For tonight?
Tonight was Harvest Wine.