This takes place on the 17th of Trivor, 1329. Thank you, Harry, for inspiring me to write, again.
Fandremos scowled at the head table in the meeting hall, shook his head, and then turned back to his ale. The ageing warrior had seen his fair share of battle – lost two sons to the War of the Undead, lost a daughter to the ogran invasions before that, lost his father to the Nabrolian raids, lost his mother to Davan's Plague. Fandremos knew what loss was. The fools at the head table seemed not to know it, though.
A great gathering of warriors had been called to Stomalin Keep. The ancient fortress had been refurbished, and all the outlying warriors, farmers, ranchers, rangers, and every man or woman that could carry a weapon and wasn't running a farm had been called to the gathering. Out past the docks, a number of galleons lay in the muck. When the tide came in the next day, the warriors would mount the gang planks and become so much cargo to be ferried to Teras, and from that port city, up the River Galanus towards the latest war with the ograns.
Fandremos sucked down half his tankard, wiping the foam off his handlebar mustache with his sleeve. He belched loudly, not caring who heard, though his irritation and dour mood were lost in the general festivities. At the head table, an effing paladin sat in the main seat, facing out on all the gathered warriors, immaculate in his gleaming plate, reflecting all the torchs and chandeliers in the great hall of the keep. To the paladin's sides sat the local lords and clergy, talking with great jests among themselves or smiling at some hidden joke.
The joke would be the warriors leaving to do battle, and the lords remaining behind. Fandremos, son of Jeldarn, knew the ways of war. He stared deeply into his tankard's dark well, seeing the foam along its sides slowly flowing back into the good ale – flowing as slowly as a man's innards on a wall, or his brain matter spattered darkly on an orc's armor.
A great reverberating voice shook even the foam in Fandremos' tankard. “Soldiers of Stomalin, Shed your tears.”
Fandremos, like all the rest of the gathered warriors, looked up to the head table. The paladin stood in mirror-polished armor, one hand upon the table, fingers splayed, the gauntlet itself reflecting the light. The paladin's white hair and white beard belied his age, and his powerful voice was in full control of the keep; not a voice stirred against his.
“Soldiers of Stomalin, Remember your fallen.” The paladin turned to the side, and called in a softer, but still commanding voice. “Sergeant. Post the unmanned table.”
A big blonde Vikerman turned to some nervous-looking soldiers, and echoed, “Post the unmanned table.”
The nervous soldiers streamed out from the wall, one carrying a small pedestal table, another carrying a single chair, a third with an arm load of things. The small table was set just before the high table at which the paladin stood, in a space between the low tables and the high table. One man threw a table cloth over the table, while the second put the chair in, such that it faced the crowd and had its back to the high table and the paladin. One soldier set the placing of the table – a dish, a candle, a fork, a knife, a glass. Another soldier set onto the table a slice of lime, and a pinch of salt, while another filled the glass with dark red wine.
The paladin's voice carried to the farthest corners of the confused but silent hall, as the soldiers withdrew, leaving a lone table lit beneath the brightest of the chandeliers.
“Soldiers of Stomalin, Shed your tears. We here celebrate our lives, which yet remain. Here sits the one place reserved for our fallen. Bitter is the taste of death, as is the wine. Sour is the taste of death, as is the lime. Salty are the tears of the dead – and of the living. The candle is lit, and then blown out, to signify lives snuffed out too soon. Here then, shall our dead be remembered. Here then, shall our departed be not forgotten. Soldiers of Stomalin, Raise your glasses.”
The paladin grasped his goblet of pewter, and raised it high. Beside him at the high table, though they still sat while he stood, the nobles and clergy raised their glasses as well. Out among the many who were gathered, glasses and tankards were slowly raised. Fandremos found himself doing as everyone else did, despite the bitter, sour taste in his mouth.
“Soldiers of Stomalin, Remember your fallen. You yet live, but only by their sacrifice. Let not their lives have been in vain; let not their deaths fall ignobly.” The silence held for a moment, as the paladin's icy-green eyes slowly fell upon them all, sweeping them into his confidence.
“You cannot fight – you cannot live – until you have let those who sit at this one table go before you. You will fight and die, unless you can let go the deaths of those before you, and live your lives for your own sakes. Too many have we lost. Though this table is but one setting, it is the setting of all our dead. It is for the forgotten dead alone – for so long as we remember, so long as we remember their sacrifice, their lives, their names, and their stories… WE,” and his voice echoed with a powerful burst, “WE SHALL NOT FORGET! Soldiers of Stomalin, SHED YOUR TEARS, REMEMBER YOUR FALLEN.”
The silver-bright man raises his glass even higher, and in a deadly-quiet voice, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he said, “To our tears. To our fallen.”
He drank deeply of the pewter goblet, draining it – and two-hundred who filled the great hall of Stomalin Keep joined him.
Fandremos paused, looking at the tears streaming down the paladin's cheeks as he gazed out upon the low tables. His eyes lighted on Fandremos' for a moment, and the two exchanged a look. Fandremos saw in those eyes the same awful loss there, as he felt in his heart. The old soldier envied the bastard paladin's ability to cry, and let go his pain. Fandremos, son of Jeldarn, looked deep into the dark depths of his tankard, again, and then drained the tar-caulked wood cylinder.
The old soldier sat his tankard down heavily on the table, feeling the flush fan out from his throat and his gut. His nose glowed merrily, and he smirked. Fandremos knew how to hold his liquor, but somehow, he could not seem to remember how many times the serving wench had filled his tankard from the tun she carried on her shoulder. That bothered the old soldier more than he was willing to admit.
At the head table, the paladin had sat down, but he seemed weary, tired, unable to talk with the men to his left or right. All his attention was on the small, empty table before him, its unlit candle a seemingly glaring affront to life.
Fandremos found his tankard refilled. The serving wench drained her pitcher on the next tankard, and moved on.
Across from the old soldier, a bald man with a mustache and mutton chops sniffed back tears. “Me Alice's been dead four years, now. She got took down by a damned tide, she did. Made it all through them undead buggers, only to get caught too far out on the flats, huntin clams. I miss the girl. She kilt her over a dozen zombies durin the War.”
The fellow next to him, a fresh-faced youngster whose downy beard showed his youth, said, “I lost my mother to the War. A zombie got her. Ate her throat, right in front of me.”
Fandremos snorted, drinking deeply from his tankard. His contempt for his fellow 'soldiers' still held, but it was hard to keep it, with all the alcohol in his system. He stared, instead, at the lonely table in the front. The old soldier thought it a devilishly clever idea, whosever it was. The paladin stared at, though, and his eyes were haunted. Fandremos knew that stare – as though a man were seeing something at bow shot, and seeing it afresh through the eyes of his dead self.
The bald man with the mustache and mutton chops said, “They say Winter lost his whole regiment at the Battle of Weil. I reckon he's got some stories of his own.”
The younger man to his side, with the downy beard, asked, “His whole regiment? Is that why he left the Kur Maens? I mean, maybe even they didn't want him, if he lost that many men?”
The bald man said, “No; way I heared it, he volunteered to come west, to protect the mages.”
“Him, a man of the Inquisition?” asked the younger man in earnest.
Fandremos snorted, and both looked at him. “Mages or no,” he said, “He's a man that lost. We'll be lucky if he doesn't lose us, too.”
In his mind, though, the old soldier heard the paladin's voice echo, “Soldiers of Stomalin, Shed thy tears.”
The bald man scowled. “You're one to talk.” He turned to the younger man. “Ignore him, he's lost in the sauce. Anyway, Winter supposedly…”
Fandremos tuned the bald man out, and listened to his memories. The ale was buzzing in his head. He had no children left to lose to a war. His sons, gone. His daughter… His beautiful daughter, gone… His wife had left him, after the loss of their three children. He knew not whether she was still a live, or dead, and the thought saddened him. For a moment, just a moment, he could feel the tears, threatening to burn a path down his cheeks, but Fandremos held them in check, by sheer effort of will.
A voice in his mind echoed, “Soldiers of Stomalin, Remember thy fallen. Shed thy tears.”
Fandremos staggered to his feet, the bench, occupied by so many, refusing to budge under his efforts. The old warrior grasped the lip of the table, and heaved with all his strength. The table, heavy to begin with, went nowhere.
Anger. Rage. Frustration. They boiled in Fandremos' mind, and he spun, turning to look on the rest of the assembled 'soldiers'. At another table, two women and three men cried together, as they examined a knife one of the women held, a momento from someone long gone. Fandremos turned to another table, and saw there the easy laughter of veterans sharing stories, stories of long-fallen comrades. “Do you remember old Varsey? What ever happened to him?”
At another table, as Fandremos whirled, eight old soldiers like him simply sat, staring into their tankards, remembering old friends. Tears streamed down their cheeks, as they Remembered the fallen.
Fandremos, drunk and enraged, managed to get his feet over the bench, and staggered away from the table.
It was only as he suddenly ran out of backs and shoulders to support him with his hands, that he realized he was facing the unmanned table. The torchlight from the chandeliers fell on the lone table, and Fandremos' rage grew as he saw the single candle. It seemed indecent to him; a mockery of the rememberance of his family, and even the veterans he had served with.
He remembered Chandrea, a Vridaran woman with a knack for the short swords. He remembered Ygald's poor grasp of the common tongue, but his masterful skill with the hand axe. He remembered his son's body, brought home on his shield. The unmanned table seemed a mockery of the pain their memories represented. It was a show for downy-faced youngsters who had yet to remember Anyone fallen in combat or war.
“Shed thy tears.” The voice was not a memory.
Fandremos looked up, almost unwillingly, at the speaker. The Paladin of the god Whalin, known as Winter, looked down on Fandremos with respect, not pity – understanding, not compassion.
The paladin spoke softly, and all the hall became quiet to hear, but perhaps only Fandremos alone heard. “Remember, all of it. The pain, too, to remind us, to relieve us. To shed thy tears, is not to shed thy remembrance. Remember.” A fresh tear fell from the paladin's icy green eyes.
Fandremos' anger flared, and he held the tears back in rage. He so wanted to let them flow, but anger and shame and pain kept them locked in. He could not let go. He wanted to, but he could not. He started to push it all aside as he always did; started to push the pain into a distant part of his mind; started to find that calm center within him that served him well in battle.
A hand on his shoulder startled him.
Fandremos turned back, to look upon the great hall of Stomalin, and saw that he was not alone. The nearest person to him, a woman, laid her hand on Fandremos' shoulder, and as the old soldier looked into those eyes, and then to the eyes of the others around him, he realized that they did, truly, understand.
They had all lost friends. Family. Loved ones. Tears were in all their eyes. Though some wept, and not all, all understood. All forgave. All were here for one another.
Fandremos fell to his knees, as the tears fell, and the first of the great, wracking sobs overtook him. He felt the pain afresh, as his sons came back to him, as his daughter's body came back to him, as his wife left him, as his parents died.
There in the presence of the unmanned table, he Remembered, and he Shed. And he was not alone. His brothers and his sisters, in spirit, joined him, and together, the Soldiers of Stomalin Remembered their fallen, and Shed their tears.
The Stomalin Regiment saw heavy fighting during the War of the Four Winds, but under the leadership of the Paladin of Whalin known as Winter, they had one of the lowest casualty rates of any unit on the Rakoran side. Most of the regiment is still intact and at the service of the current Lord of Stomalin Keep. Winter fell during the final battle for the keep, and though he fell, his armor inspired all to fight and win a Pyrrhic victory. Fandremos wore the armor of the fallen, buying time for the keep to evacuate from the Nabrolian invaders. The story of the Unmanned Table spread, and has become custom in Rakore, though where it came from is unknown.