Martin sat up within the House of Despond and looked upon a dusty corridor and a dusty man, sitting in a chair by the staircase. The curling steps that stretched out like a corpse to the chandelier that hung in shadow from the ceiling high above.
And the man saw Martin lying before him. It took some time to react. First he blinked, a thin mist of grey particles drifting from his eyebrows. Then his face pulled itself out of its stasis repose into a semblance of life. Its one emotion was despair, a haggard face with sinking jowls and ravines under the eyes and a forehead lined with the cares of a thousand lifetimes. And the sorrows of the world thick over the irises of the eyes, a swimming, milky fog half-blinding him to colours and shades. His hair a flimsy mist of white strands drifting unconnected on his scalp. A pathetic sight, a once handsome and noble man broken-backed under the cares of his unending tragedy.
Then came the movements of the limbs, continent-slow as the weight of years slid from the dry cloth on his arms in the sign of the ever-present billows of dust. And the man stood. A great man in his day. Lord Succour himself, the Earl of the House, of the lands far about, of the City renamed as Foundation and rebuilt after its fall long ago. A great man indeed, yet like his family, an old man. A man without hope, without joy or love or peace or the will to live. A dead man still living. Brought down by the weight of the great knowledge that he had come to know. The knowledge of the tragedy of existence.
Yet the Earl arose, old habits the last to die in him, greeting his guest automatically, unthinking. His last act before, realising he was moving, still alive, his mind would try to end such a tragedy, and the body too slow to react. Survivalism drowned under the suffocating earth of existentialism.
And the great man stood and stepped forward to Martin, one hand pressed against his upper thigh, clenched against the great wound he had suffered in his youth. The old man limped forward. And he raised his hand to Martin and helped him to his feet.
“Arise guest and welcome,” he intoned. “Yet such a welcome you will find here is dry indeed these days,” the old man admitted. “There seems such little point in anything these days.” The Earl fixed Martin’s red eyes and continued, “don’t you think?”
The Earl’s voice held the merest hint of hope in it, the subtlest desire that here, maybe, was a man with the answers, with the reason for continuing existence, for suffering that little bit longer. Maybe this man could explain why. Though the Earl doubted this with the doubt of a man who had spent his life accepting disappointing conclusions. And the timbre of hope was so slight, the effort to produce even that amid the monotone of the sentence almost exhausting the Earl completely. It would have almost escaped a man looking for it.
But Martin was just as broken as the Earl and unable to hear anything other than the drone of noise emanating from him. Useless words. Meaningless in their uselessness. Yet he allowed the Earl to lead him to his feet and guide him forward. There seemed little point in resisting and maybe there was hope up ahead.
Maybe there was hope. But no, his mind reacted with sluggish violence; how could there be hope? How could there be any hope when everything was so dead and dying? And dirty and heavy and dark and uncomfortable and aching and despair.
And the Hall of cold welcome gave way to the rest of the house as the Earl led Martin to the dining table. And Martin came to realise that the house had not always been so dreary. It contained treasures of unimaginable splendour. Artful pictures in tasteful displays against the walls. Marble sculptures on pedestals. Gold and silver and gems and intricate clocks and murals and carpets and chandeliers of a thousand pieces.
Once glittering treasures brought from across the world to delight the mind and impress the visitor with all the delights the world could offer the weary traveller. For the House of Succour had been built as a respite for the journeymen of the past. For those wearied by their passage east. For those weary travellers, in their tiredness, not seeing the end of their journey would grow despondent and the mire that had once been here had thus ensnared them.
The ancestors of Succour had drained the waters of Despond and redirected the stinking fluids to a deep well and dried the earth out and sunk deep piles into the earth, binding it together with strong pillars of stone. And on those foundations they had built this house. So that the weary traveller, tempted to despair, would instead be revived by the art and the culture of a hundred civilisations. Musicians hired from the ends of the earth, poets and bards, jugglers and fire-eaters. Acrobats would play as the travellers feasted and drank. And a great and merry time would be had by the family and their guests. And the party never stopped, day or night.
Yet the dried earth below was unfertile and the garden died despite the imported plants. And the soil dried and became dust. And the travellers stayed away for the road east had become unpopular. And the family Succour bewailed the foolishness of the people as they turned their faces west and their backs to the sun. But the House stayed open for those who needed it. Yet their wealth dwindled and their hospitality died. And the family and the servants left one by one. Until now only the Earl and his final guests remained. And they for not much longer for they were lost in their despair, lost in themselves and the tragedy of their fates.
And the remnants of the glory of the house, now grey with dust, uncleaned, contaminated, old, dry, useless; showed up the vanity and emptiness of the world they represented. No longer reminders of the gaiety of life, now emblems of its hollowness.
The Earl hobbled forward, one leg striding slowly with the weight of his despair, yet powerful still beneath that heavy burden. The other dragging behind, wasted from the thigh, shuffling, pitiful, impotent. His back was bent yet his large head was noble, still held up despite the tragedy of his position. His leg bothered him tremendously, the wound never having healed properly. He was stiff from his lengthy station by the door yet still attended to Martin with ancient hospitality.
“Come,” he intoned. “You will join us if you please at our repast. A humble meal indeed from the days when the kitchens sang with roasting flesh and the tables swam with fine wines. Yet still it will be a feast. The final feast this old echoing place will see.”
And the Earl brought Martin on into a great dining hall. A long table running along the centre of the room towards a high table on a raised dais. And by one wall there was a fireplace, huge and cavernous. Once it would have blazed with the dancing flames but now it was shadowed and cold. A vast cauldron, large enough to place a man inside, sat empty on the stone-cold ash. It could not be used now as an enormous crack ran from its brim to its base and it lay aslant on the grate. Cobwebs ran along its mouth.
The tables were bare wood and along it were empty platters and barren cups. All was coated in dust. Yet scattered around the room at places along these tables were the final guests, each in pairs or in groups, playing and chewing on a long-dry bone or upending a jug to see if a single drop still lay within that could be used to whet the palate.
They talked quietly and weariedly among themselves; a dinner party long ended but the occupants having nowhere else to go so staying, seated at the tables that had been cleared many days ago. And the Earl led Martin on, past these sparsely cluttered tables up to the high table at the head of the room. And the guests looked up as they passed and their conversations ended as Martin was led, wearied, to his seat beside the Earl.
Martin sat as the Earl clutched the table with both hands and lowered his great body into the seat, wincing terribly at the pain in his thigh as he bent. And he sat at length and lifted a heavy head to the remains of his guests and spoke. “Please, bring out the final meal; the last supper this house will see.”
And the doors opposite the fireplace creaked open and shuffling stewards brought in plates of cold meats and cheeses. Breads and pastries, puddings and pies. And flagons of ale and wine. Yet the portions were small, the cuts of meat lay limply at the centre of the too-large plates, pools of congealed fats between the slices. The food as cold as their bellies and the drink lukewarm and dry.
The guests sat and stared dejectedly at the poor fare laid before them. And picked out unappetising titbits and lay them on their pates, some nibbling at cold, fatty chicken legs or sipping warm beer then pulling a face and leaving the half empty cups untouched as they turned back to their companions. Some kept the pretence of eating but most just ignored the food and waited for the end. For the last meal seemed ridiculous when it would rot alongside their stomachs just the same.
Martin looked at the guests of this final resting house. Some had been here a long time, others only arrived recently. Sorrow lined their faces. For the wasteland outside had affected them all. A young woman sat by herself, arranging wilting flowers beside her empty plate and singing to herself:
“And will he not come again,
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead:
Go to thy death-bed:
He never will come again.”
And a young man sitting further up the table looked up and sighed at the song. “Once was I could have played a song to cheer even her out of her sorrow.”
His companion, a gaunt man with shaggy long blond hair muttered back. “What changed?”
“She died. The only woman I ever loved died.” He sighed deeply and buried his faces with his hands. “And I couldn’t be joyful again so they caught me up in that town of Hypnos and beat me and broke my harp. I couldn’t even find the will to defend myself. I just lay there and let them rain blows on me and throw me naked out on the moors. They don’t make harps like that any more”
“Use a guitar.” His companion offered.
“Didn’t help you, did it?” the youth answered dejectedly. The blond haired man didn’t answer, just scratched his arms and lowered his eyes to the bare table and the pitiful attempts at a feast to raise their spirits.
And the young man stared up, his eyes searching, desperate for a distraction from his misery and saw Martin and called out.
“You travelling too?” Martin didn’t bother to answer but the man didn’t care.
“Won’t help you know. Can’t bring them back, whatever they say.” Martin stared uncomprehendingly at him.
“Always a loophole, always.” His eyes turned inwards again. “I thought I could win. I thought they would pity me. Let me have her back.” He stared blankly at the wall.
“They were just twisting the knife.” He sighed, a deep rattling sigh like a man’s final breath. His heavy head collapsed into his hands. “I want to die”