The cold, pensive atmosphere of the Great Hall was broken by the shattering of the wine glass.
It slipped from the opened fingers of Dr James Russell, the guest of All Souls College, rolled off the table and exploded on the cold stone floor. The claret soaked the pristine white tablecloth like blood.
From his position at the far left end of High Table, Dr Russell became aware of the scrutiny from his fellow diners. Knives and forks were lowered, jaws paused in chewing. The muted conversation had ceased and now the only sound in the cavernous medieval interior of the Great Hall was the crackling of logs in the huge fireplace and the wind howling from the streets and courts of Cambridge, rattling the heavy panes in the mullioned windows as if seeking access and shelter from the cold.
The annual Founders Feast, held every year on the 21st of December, was a very exclusive affair. Only the twelve most senior Fellows who formed the College Council were invited to attend. Other associates – those with Honorary Fellowships who spent little time in Cambridge – were not invited, and the undergraduates who elected not to return home for the Christmas holidays were told in no uncertain terms that the Hall was off limits to them for the night of the Feast. Every year for the past six hundred years the only occupants of the Hall on this night were the twelve diners and the attendant servants. There had certainly never been invitations given to College outsiders. Until now.
For the first time ever, a thirteenth diner sat at High Table.
No-one had been more surprised by the invite than James Russell. An outstanding and ambitious young scholar who had recently received his PhD from Trinity for his thesis on causes of the English Civil Wars, he had a glittering academic career ahead of him.
The invite that had materialised in his pigeon hole two days earlier was his opportunity to advance that.
The Feast had begun promptly at eleven. He had been led from the Porters’ Lodge to the Great Hall, a light dusting of snow covering the small Court they passed through.
He had been introduced to the twelve members of the Council by their titles only – Senior Tutor, Bursar, Praelector, and so forth. They were old, withered men who gazed at him with cool appraisal beneath their black academic robes like vultures. Only the tall, imposing Master showed some warmth and hospitality, although he refused to shake hands. But there was something in his cold blue eyes that made Russell uneasy. Something that burned like desire…or hunger.
The Feast itself was strange. There was only one course, platters of dark gamey meat in a rich gravy, slightly underdone. It was delicious, unlike any meat Russell had tasted before. He ate some more, noticed out of the corner of his eye how the other diners chewed more slowly, eyes closed, as if contemplating the very nature of the meat rather than savouring its flavour. Strangely, the Master was not eating. His plate was empty.
Russell had swallowed the second mouthful and was lifting the glass of claret to his lips when he saw the figure on the Minstrels’ Gallery. That was when the glass slipped from his fingers.
“I saw him.” Russell spoke firmly, a determined tone of voice trying to overcome the fear that still gripped him. “He was there in the Minstrels’ Gallery, screaming…covered in blood.”
The assembled diners turned and exchanged glances.
“Saw who?” asked the Bursar.
Russell took a deep breath. “Paul Stephens. Your student. He was there…” His voice trailed off as he saw surprise and what looked like relief on the faces of the Fellows.
The Master spoke, his voice deep, but smooth and mellifluous. “Mr Stephens’ death was a tragedy, Dr Russell. A quite brilliant and popular student, a life ended so early - the consequences of drink driving. It is fortunate no-one else was killed.
“That’s the official story, anyway. His death was…necessary.”
Russell was silent. He remembered all too well the newspaper reports of the horrific accident on the A14 last week, the shattered corpse pulled from the twisted wreckage. Or rather, most of it. Certain body parts had disappeared.
Russell stared at the meat on his plate. His bile rose.
“Was that his ghost you saw, then?” The Senior Tutor smiled as he picked up his fork and resumed his meal. “A spectre at the Feast, eh? ‘Never shake thy gory locks at me!’”
Russell frowned at the quote from Macbeth. Banquo’s ghost, returning to accuse his murderers.
“That’s enough, Bursar.” The Master spoke softly, but there was a sharp edge to his tone. A warning. “May I remind you that Dr Russell is our guest tonight, here by my personal invitation. I know that you are all unused to strangers in the Hall at the time of our Feast, but this man has special qualities which will bring considerable benefit to our College.
“He is a man of hidden depths and… rare vision. He sees what others do not. He has proved that just now.
“It is for that reason that he is to be made a Fellow of the College. And it is he who will be performing my duties in the near future.”
Russell’s jaw dropped, his breath misting in the air. Sighs of relief emerged from the Fellows, joyous smiles and hearty handshakes came his way. Russell was too stunned to say anything.
The bells in the College chapel rang in the midnight hour. The Master rose. Maybe it was a trick of the feeble light cast from the candles, but to Russell’s eyes the Master was fading, becoming transparent.
“Until next year, gentlemen. Dr Russell, the Bursar will instruct you in your duties.” His voice was as thin and hollow as he had become, barely a whisper.
It was no trick of the eyes. The Master was vanishing. The last of the chimes faded to nothing, as did the Master.
“Perhaps you understand the nature of our College a little more now, Dr Russell. “ The Bursar smiled. “It is on the eve of the winter solstice that the boundaries between this world and the other merge. Our Master can return to us for one night only, he must retreat to the dark place on the stroke of midnight. But he wishes to return to this plane on a more permanent basis. That is the purpose of the Feast. It is a form of communion.
“The flesh of the offering is shared and consumed by all members of the Fellowship, to show our love for the Master and to bind the offering’s soul to him. To give him the power to return permanently. It won’t be long now.
“The Dark Master of all damned souls will need one more communion, one more Feast. And it seems he has already chosen the body he will inhabit when he returns for good next December.”
The Bursar stroked his chin thoughtfully. “You’ve been given a very great honour, Dr Russell. I trust you will be worthy of it.”
Copyright 2008 Adrian Chamberlin