The clock showed a quarter to two as Archie pulled a massive pan of roasting lamb out of the oven. The sky was lit with a thousand stars, the moon hidden behind the sleeping mountain. Lazily, the bright neon lights of his diner flickered on. His father long since passed on, his sisters and brothers have all moved far afield, Archie felt a pang of loneliness in his heart.
With the quiet smoothness that spoke of a ritual performed countless times, Archie began preparing for his guests. A massive wooden table slid out of a narrow closet in the wall, the legs held tightly to the bottom, easily unclasped and folded out. He remembered installing the system with his father when he was twelve, reducing the hour long struggle to get the table placed to mere minutes.
The table set, Archie surrounded it with seven chairs. Unlike the ancient oak, the chairs were new. Made of light steel and thickly cushioned. Archie still got nauseous thinking about how one of the ancient solid oak chairs was smashed to splinters during an argument. When the anger had subsided, all he had was a newer stool to offer to the now seatless guest. The next morning he received a letter requesting similar seating for the other six.
The seats set, Archie placed seven deep bowls and seven large plates. The plates were nothing more than smooth stone. The bowls were yellowed and crack. Archie suspected they were skulls, but tried not to dwell on whose. The bowls he filed with dark, rich mead. The plates he piled high with roast lamb and seasoned potatoes. The spices were running low. He didn’t know what to do when they ran out.
The clock struck two and the doors opened without a sound. Seven large men entered, their faces black with ash and dressed in thick raw leathers. Some had great beards as thick as a hedge while others had not a hair on their heads, but all had sharp grey eyes and aged faces. Archie recognized all the men from the Sunday before, all but one.
Without a glance in Archie’s direction the seven sat themselves and began to eat. They ate more than any man should be capable, and while they ate they talked. As Archie moved to keep the plates and bowls full, he would listen. He’d listen as the men complained and gossiped about the fires of the mountain they tend. Of the arms and armour they forged. Of the gods and demons that requested their work. Of the woman that stole their heart.
For the full of the night the twelve men feasted and gossiped, until an hour before dawn. Slowly, the conversation ceased, until utter silence filled the diner. Then, the one Archie did not recognize stood. He raised his bowl and said something in a harsh language Archie didn’t understand, but knew by heart. Always when one was replaced, the new one would say the prayer, the words echoing in Archie down to his core.
Then, as the abruptly as they arrived, they would leave. As Archie held the door for the last man, he looked Archie in the eye. “You do your family proud Archie White, and we are grateful. May you find a woman to take your heart, as your ancestor took ours.”