A Broken Banquet

by Thomas Brown

‘A thin, delicate figure, with wings like glass and wide black eyes, Gluttony is the youngest of the Seven Sins. Her Court and she drift languidly through the forests of the world, accompanied by mellifluous music and the intoxicating scent of spring. Yet they are not to be underestimated, for when night falls, a feverish hunger descends on the Sin and they erupt, irresistible as the tide, through the undergrowth with their bows and spears and bloody, nail-bitten claws. They slash and maul, searching out the beasts of the forest to devour, with bare hands gorging themselves, sating their yearning hunger with raw flesh and slurping down still-warm blood.’

From The Book of Sin

 They were starving. The cold had come early this winter, creeping across the ground and stealing the warmth from everything it touched. Frost had spread from the mossy earth right up to the highest boughs of the trees, covering everything in an icy layer of glittering hardness from which there was no escape. The rabbits had cowered in their burrows, the birds settled tight into their nests and everything that had been green was hard and crisp and cold.

   Were it not for their plentiful pantry, his wife, his grandchild and he would surely have perished, their bodies as stiff and thin as the branches on the trees around him.

   The hunter shook his head, as though to clear it of the morbid thoughts, and strode deeper into the forest. The pantry was almost bare now, but winter was nearing its end and that meant he could hunt again. Hunt and forage and gather. After a long season of impotence against the iron grip of winter, he was needed again. His family would be provided for.

   There was a coldness about the air, a chill that strengthened and became more bitter with every minute that passed. It was getting late. The sun died overhead, bathing the forest in the blood-red glow of dusk, and beneath the twisting trees, shadows lengthened. They reached out with their branch-like claws, devouring the last remnants of sunlight, growing blacker and more bloated. The man continued heedless. He knew these paths like the wrinkles of his own face; he had walked their ways for many decades now and did not need the light of day to see by.

   The ground crunched beneath his boots and a wind sighed through the trees, rustling the few leaves and testing the branches. Their creaks carried on the air, a hundred, hundred groans that brought the forest to life. They were weary of the winter. He could hear it in those creaks as readily as he could feel in it his own bones. The old man stepped round a bend in the path, emerging into a small clearing.       

   There had been a rabbit, two weeks ago. He had found the poor thing not far from here, frozen still as stone. Even its ears were stiff and it was hard to believe that it could ever have lived. Ribs pressed visibly against its thin underbelly and its dead, black eyes were trapped behind a layer of frost. In a very horrible way, he thought guiltily, it had reminded him of his granddaughter.

   The cold was merciless, devouring the warmth of everything it touched, insatiable and indiscriminate. The rabbit, the trees, his family and he. If he had learned anything over his long years, it was that there was no satisfying it.

   The ground was sparse, save a carpet of thin, brown roots that wound their way into the earth. He made his way to the edge of the clearing, where the barren undergrowth made something of a return, and began to rummage around. He had collected the root countless times from here before and it was hardy, even against the bitter frost. He slipped a knife from his long overcoat pocket and began to scrape at the soil, chipping away at the thin layer of cold that encased it. His fingers were white, or blue. It was hard to tell in the fading light.

   It was important to him that he found the root. The little one, waiting, starving at home, she loved them. They were her favourite of all the assorted plants that he gathered from the forest and he would not disappoint her. Besides, they were nice. Nothing in all the forest tasted as sweet.

   For several minutes he went on, his efforts fruitless. His breath came fast between his lips, visible as a cloud of white against the air. He would find the root and return home, before the coldness truly set in. His wife was cooking for him and he had not seen his little granddaughter since yesterday, when he had tucked her in for bed. It had pained him inside to see her small, pale figure vanish ghost-like beneath the covers. She’d grown so terribly thin over winter. So terribly, terribly thin.

   A flash of white against the earthy brown. His hopes leaped, only to be dashed when the thing squirmed violently away from his touch. The fat, tuber-like worm lingered for a moment and then was gone, his hopes vanishing along with the corpulent bug. The encroaching cold nipped at his flesh and, wrapping his overcoat tight around him, the old man strode back off into the darkness. He’d return tomorrow, with daylight, and dig properly. It was too late now.

   The chatter of teeth and a pale breath, his own starved soul coalescing in the air.

   Only the foolish or ignorant travelled the forest by night.

 *

 The old woman glanced longingly out of the small window. Her breath clung frostily to the glass and she fancied it was snowflakes she breathed out; a soft, delicate whiteness that clung to the windows and turned them foggy. Her eyes creased tight, crow’s feet crawling across her skin, then softened as a shadow at the forest’s edge stepped out from the rest and towards her cottage. Its confident stride bore it purposefully closer. She could picture his face, the soft warmth of his brown eyes, the furry greyness of his hair and his delicate lips, offset against that proud jaw.

   The wind howled, the trees shivered and the man was but a shadow again.

   ‘Grandmother! Grandmother!’ cried an insistent voice, and the old woman span from the window, for the voice was laden with fear. Her granddaughter rushed into her arms.

   ‘What is it, Bianca? I sent you off to bed over an hour ago! And you are shivering like I have never seen! Let’s get you some blankets to wrap up in, and keep you warm.’

   ‘I do not tremble from the cold, Grandmother!’

   She found that hard to believe. The girl was as cold as ice. Bones protruded where there should have been soft flesh, the child’s body shaking awkwardly against her own, and the woman felt a surge of guilt. She knelt slowly down, swept the hair from her granddaughter’s wide eyes.

   ‘Why else then, little one?’

   ‘I had a terrible nightmare!’

   ‘Do not be afraid, nightmares are not real. You are safe,’ she said, leading the child over to the glowing fireplace, ‘and your grandfather will be back soon. He will protect you from anything. Remember how strong he is?’ The girl’s parents had died the year past, victims of the terrible wasting sickness that had swept through the forest, and her husband and she had cared for the little girl ever since.

   ‘But it was so real, Grandmother, like I was there.’ The fire smouldered within the hearth, golden and orange like rich honey. Chunks of charcoal baked in its embers. ‘There were monsters. They rushed out of the forest to get me!’ Her eyes shone, reflecting the uncertainty of her grandmother’s own eyes.

   ‘What did these monsters look like?’

   ‘They were gangly, like the spiders you sweep from beneath my bed! All arms and legs and they were covered in blood! And they had the sharpest teeth you ever did see! Sharper than Grandfather’s best knife –’ 

   ‘Forget them all, little one, they were just nightmares. They are not real. Now run off back to bed, I will be along in a minute to tuck you in tight.’

   The girl smiled, a reluctant expression that tugged gently at her cheeks, and kissing her earnest grandmother, she trudged off back to their room.

   Not until the bedroom door creaked shut did the old woman move, returning from the crackling fireplace to her previous post at the window. Snow had started to fall, blanketing the night-time forest in a crisp white cape and though she had stood at the window a hundred times over the course of her long life, the frosty forest looked different this night. A thought went out to her husband, out there somewhere in the ravenous cold, alone and weary from a long day’s hunting. She wished he would hurry up. The food didn’t matter anymore; there were other days to hunt and it would not do him well to linger in this weather.    Her stomach rumbled, and with a final glance through the window, she drew the curtains and moved off towards the stove.

 *

  A fox flashed before the hunter’s eyes, dashing across the path and into a thicket of brambles. He peered hurriedly after it but the creature moved impossibly fast and it was far too dark to see by. The forest was full of hunters tonight, he thought grimly. The cold metal of his knife pressed against the flesh of his thigh.

   He would be home soon, if he picked up his pace. There was less than a mile left to go before he’d find himself looking across at a hot bowl of steaming stew, a large mug of ale, and his wife’s soft face.

   Devoured by time, until it was creased with wrinkles and age spots, it was no less beautiful than the first day they’d met and, tired, hungry and alone in the cold, he had never missed it more. The wind whined through the tree-tops, carrying with it a flurry of snow and ice, and the old man increased his stride. The snow had been relentless this winter, an endless stream of harsh cold that built up, day after day, until it was all anyone could remember. He was sick of it.

   Movement made the old man jump, and he turned in time to see a pair of owls soar gracefully overhead. He bit his cold, chapped lip and watched as the creatures were devoured by the darkness. They looked pale and ghostly as his own frail granddaughter, their creamy white feathers standing out against the blackness of the night sky. He sighed, his hand reaching to his racing heart, and turned to resume his trek home. Owls were a rarity in these part of the woods. Perhaps the cold had driven them here, he thought, drawing his coat tighter still around his chest and hurrying on.

   An arrow flashed through the air, impaling one of the birds. It stumbled mid-flight, losing grace with each drop of blood that fell to the snowy ground below. Its scream pierced the woods.

   A mass of shadows erupted with a shriek from the undergrowth. Limbs flailed like leafless branches, skeletal and pale in the moonlight. Moans of relief rose over gasps of desperation.

   The old man faltered.

   Blood-red lips parted in exultation. Ivory flesh glinted under the moon, flecked with ruby stains. Translucent wings rustled ravenously.

   ‘What –’ 

   A spear stabbed forward. It sunk smoothly into the old man’s stomach and he crumpled to the earth, his body already blanketed by a frenzy of feverish activity.

 *

 Something scuttled overhead and the woman shrieked. The pan she had been heating hit the floor with a clang. Hot water spilled out, running quickly into the cracks in the floorboards, but the old woman’s attention was firmly fixed on the ceiling.

   Movement in the attic.

   A definite scrabbling, as though something small sought to get down into the house. She cursed. If the rats were back again, it would be the end of them. Winter had taken its toll on their pantry and if the vermin ate what little was left they would all three of them starve. She waited, and listened.

   The pan had made such a sound when it hit the ground, but it did not seem to have woken Bianca. She offered a silent prayer of thanks. It would do her childish imagination no good to hear the unnerving noises that petered down from the dark, dusty attic.

   After a minute of silence the old woman stirred, stepping tacitly toward the cupboard by their bedroom. She reached slowly but steadily in and her grip tightened around a heavy broom handle. It felt good in her grasp.

   Taking a deep breath, she banged at the trapdoor in the ceiling with the base of the broom. Three thuds reverberated throughout the cottage before the trapdoor fell open and a long, thin ladder slid out. She peered up, placed a foot on the first rung. It groaned beneath her weight, the sound terribly loud within the otherwise silent cottage. Her teeth were gritted with determination.

   She had killed more rats than she could remember over the years and had become very efficient at it.

   With a bang, the door blew inwards. The window shattered, sending shards of glass across the room and the old woman tumbled to the floor. The ceiling span and her heart hammered in her frail chest.

   A dozen figures darted into the house, their lithe legs and wasp-like wings bearing them swiftly over the threshold. They were no larger than her own granddaughter, with lustrous white skin and large, black eyes that swam like shimmering oil. Thickets of tangled hair hung from their heads and the stench of spoiled flesh that hung over them was near-overwhelming. She had smelled it before, when their dog had crawled beneath the cottage to die, three years ago.

   In an instant, she knew what they were.

   She had heard tales of Gluttony, had been warned about her ever since she was little, but compared to the tales of the other Sinful Courts, she had not seemed worth the worry. A myth, a forest legend, something to scare the little ones into coming home before nightfall. 

   Witnessing the stark truth of those bony limbs, ivory fangs and blood-stained chins, she knew she had been wrong. Her heart leaped in her chest, sending stabbing pains throughout every nerve of her body.

   ‘Run, Bianca, run into the woods!’

   Even as Gluttony’s famished Court tore into the house, licking their lips, their breath shuddering with desperate desire, even as they pounced on the woman’s prone form with their fierce fangs and filled the house with their horrific presence, she could not tear her eyes away from the monsters. The last thing she heard was a single scream from the bedroom, before even that was swallowed by the savage cries of Gluttony and her offspring.

 *

 The wave of starving Sin flooded out of the forest just as the first light of dawn peered over the horizon. They collapsed to the sodden snow, reveling in the refreshing chill that soaked their bodies.

   Behind them, a path of ruin ran like a bleeding wound into the forest. Trees that had stood for decades lay broken, stripped of their branches. Gone were the squirrels, the mice, the foxes. Gone was the chorus of birdsong that usually heralded dawn. Only snow remained. Snow and the desolation of the trees, marked out by a few gleaming skeletons. The forest was in ruins.

   Descending like a delicate snowflake, Gluttony fell to the earth. She was gasping grievously from the night’s excitements and though the hunger was fast diminishing, as it always did with the rising of the sun, it would return when the moon next shone. And when it did, there would be no stopping them. Not until her offspring and she had eaten everything in their path and there was nothing left to devour could they stop. She looked up, expectant, excitement quivering at her stained lips.

   Fields. Acre after of acre of pure, white snow stretched out before her, as far as even her sharp eyes could see. Not a soul moved or breathed, save a single crow, which fled into the distance. She snarled, revealing rows of thin, needle-like teeth. Where would they turn to, when night fell? They had exhausted the forest for miles around. Wrath herself could not have caused more havoc, more destruction, in such a short space of time. What would they eat?

   Then, as her Court lolled in the weak winter sun, cleaning their bloodied bodies and sinking into a deep, gratuitous sleep, Gluttony bit into an idea, and it was the sweetest, most succulent thing she had tasted in months.

Bio: Thomas Brown – A twenty-two year old English graduate with a less-than-healthy penchant for horror! Reading it, watching and, of course, writing it, I can’t get enough of the stuff that scares. Am currently employed as a walking, talking cliche, serving over-priced coffees to (generally) under-appreciative customers and writing wherever and whenever I can find the time. Saving to do an MA in Creative Writing at Southampton, where I originally studied.
Inspiration: Gluttony equates to over-eating, yes, but it is so much more than that; it is excess, it is the hungry cold, the deep-set conditioning for overindulgence, and from the very beginning it was this manic, frantic, desperate hunger that struck me. Not an obese monster but impossibly thin, all bone and rib and overexposed tooth. This, as far as I was concerned, was how the truly famished should look; the binge-eater of the Seven Sins, ravenously devouring anyone and anything she could get her claws on (and all the more monstrous for her absent femininity). Think Christian Bale, in The Machinist, and you are somewhere along the skeletal paths my mind wandered down.
Brian Froud’s fantastically original artwork, coupled with those creatures depicted in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, were the final touches that completed my vision of this voracious monster and ‘A Broken Banquet’ was born. It is, at its delicious roots, a story of hunger. Whether the old man and his family’s, the insatiable bite of the cold, the hungry shadows or Gluttony and her Court itself, it doesn’t matter. If Gluttony is anything, it is all-consuming.
Website Link: www.tbrownonline.com

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