The castle ruin was the only shelter Famine could see for miles, a shadow cast on withered land, on mud, bracken and brittle heather. And on bones. Beyond was the sea, and snow clouds on the horizon. The gatehouse, its great rounded towers broken and jagged at the tops, stood defiant in the desolation, like an old, wounded knight after a battle. Wind, sea-salt, and even War had not defeated it, and as Famine traced the silhouette against the sky, he could have believed the castle would withstand time itself, if such a thing were possible.
He remembered this place now. Earlier that day, he had stopped along the coastline at an abandoned village, and a memory had stirred, a faint recollection of familiarity. He had been here before. In those memories lurked his pursuer. Ever present, ever on his trail, his pursuer was relentless, and Famine was drawn to the sanctuary of a fortress he had previously forgotten. How fitting, he thought, that the castle should be his destination, that his pursuer should drive him across wretched, dying lands for all these years, only to arrive at this ruin.
To his right, waves crashed against the pebble beach, each louder than the last, like the breaths of a waking beast. Between these breaths, there was silence. It was a heavy stillness, a deceptive calm, the kind that falls when snow clouds gather. The silence carried a dread of what was to come, and, Famine considered, of what followed behind. With urgency, he kicked his black horse and felt its skeletal body lunge into a canter. His horse’s hooves pounded the hard ground, but Famine imagined an echo of hooves behind him as well. He spurred his horse into a gallop.
The marking of days didn’t mean much anymore, but by Famine’s reckoning, it was the Winter Solstice. There was no one left to celebrate it now. Indeed, as he entered through the gatehouse and reached the inner bailey, he saw that even the crows were dead, their feathers scattered.
The outer bailey stretched along the cliff, and was encircled by crumbling walls and towers. Within these walls, Famine saw flattened tracks of limestone, the remnants of other buildings. He put a stake in the ground and tethered his horse to it. After some exploration, he found shelter within the gatehouse itself, a snug gap behind some steps that spiralled up the tower and were now blocked by rubble. By the time the first snowflakes began to fall, Famine had retrieved some wood, lit a fire with his tinder and kindling, and settled down to munch on rotten flesh. He sniffed as he ate, the heat thawing his cheeks, and he listened to the patter of snow alighting on the stone above him. The fire crackled.
‘It’s good to see you again after all these centuries,’ he said to the castle, stroking the flagstone floor. ‘You probably don’t remember. We met during a siege. You were in a better state, then, I think.’
So were you, he thought the castle might say.
Pungent juices dribbled down Famine’s chin as he bit into the flesh. The meat had decomposed just enough to be satisfying.
‘I don’t know where I’ll go next,’ Famine mused. ‘Perhaps I’ll stay here a while, for my bones do ache. I’ve been running for too long.’
The castle didn’t seem to care. Famine wrapped his cloak tighter around his frail body and used it to wipe his chin and hands, as was his routine. He knew he smelled. Throughout the ages, humans had looked at him in disgust, wrinkling their noses and whispering to their companions. Famine was the smell of waste. He was the scent of a malnourished body, of bloat and ammonia and flaking skin, and on occasion, the strange fruity aroma of ketosis. You smell of rotten fish, Pestilence had once told him. I like it.
Famine was unconcerned either way, for he led a lonely existence. He lingered still, waiting for inspiration from Above or Below, but none came. For thousands of years, he had inflicted starvation on humanity and waited, waited to ride with his brothers one final time, and herald the Apocolypse. Now that time had passed, and he had served his function. There would be no more famines and no more wars. His only purpose now was to survive, to outlast his pursuer.
Famine rubbed his bony hands over the fire and watched his breath merge with the smoke. It was dark, but just then, as he looked towards the wall of the inner bailey, he thought he saw a figure standing in the snow. Famine leaned around his fire, unable to see much past the flames, and studied the shape.
The shape didn’t move. It was human-height, but Famine wondered whether it was just a lump of masonry. He shivered. Perhaps, at last, it was his pursuer.
‘Come closer,’ he said, hearing the uncertainty in his voice. ‘Show yourself.’ The shape remained still. Famine noted that his horse wasn’t unsettled, but he watched the shape a little longer, until he was sure it was harmless. Yes, just masonry, he supposed.
After adding more wood to the fire, Famine burrowed into his cloak and lay down to sleep. He couldn’t see anything now except the flames, and so he closed his eyes and dwelled in memories.
So long ago, too many years to count, he had ridden his horse with War, Pestilence and Death at his side, and this castle had been the scene of slaughter. Even now, he could hear the cacophony, the clash of steel, the roars of fury and cries of anguish. War came first, his mighty sword rallying soldiers to the cause, and together they charged at the walls, with ladders and shields and siege machines. Death tore through the ranks, and with arrows and burning oil he struck at them, cutting men down row upon row.
Famine had flitted between the fighting, having already laid the seeds of starvation by blighting crops and food stores. As War raged, Famine had relished the sights and waited for his own glory. After the battle came the siege, and with the siege came Famine and Pestilence. While sickness spread and bodies wasted, Famine had sat in the castle’s bailey and picked his teeth with his fingernails. For days he had sat and watched the people weaken and turn on each other, knowing that he must be patient in his work. Death has it easiest, Famine thought. Death only reaps what others have sown.
‘And when will Death reap you?’
Famine sat up. He was certain he had heard a voice, but it was difficult to tell. Often he would hear someone speak, only to realise it had been his own words.
‘Who’s there?’ he called. He squinted, searching for the figure, but now it was gone. ‘I am Famine,’ he said. ‘You don’t want to play games with me.’
Nothing. The snow was settling and the fire still crackled, but all else was still. Famine blinked and rubbed his nose, thinking he had been dreaming.
But then he saw it. A shadow, blacker than the night, running across the outer bailey. It was short, like a child, but moved fast, faster than humanly possible. It turned and ran towards him. Closer and closer, faster and faster, and with it came a scream, so hollow, so mournful, and so pained, that the form appeared weakened by the intensity. It slowed and then dispersed a moment later, losing all substance and merging with the darkness, while the sound still echoed across the walls and gatehouse.
Famine rested his hand on the ground to steady himself as the scream died, and his fingers touched what he at first thought was a twig. He glanced down, and saw that it was in fact a bone. Holding it up to the fire, he realised it was a furcula, a forked bone found in birds. Strange, he thought, I’m sure this wasn’t here before.
It wasn’t a large bone, and Famine supposed that it belonged to a crow or pigeon. There wasn’t a carcass so it was difficult to tell. He was about to set the bone aside when his neck went cold, and he heard low, rasping breaths in his ear. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement on the steps above him. Another shadow. His pursuer had never drawn breath. This was something else.
‘Who are you?’ Famine said.
The breathing became rapid.
‘Don’t you remember?’ came a snarling voice from the outer bailey.
‘He’s forgotten us,’ another hissed, somewhere near the gate.
‘The winter is not kind,’ said the shadow on the steps.
Famine turned to face the shadow, but the steps were vacant. The winter is not kind. These words resonated with him, but he wasn’t sure the significance. He examined the bone.
There’s power in bones, he thought, remembering that furculae had been called merrythought or wishbone, because of the belief that they could grant wishes. He turned the bone over in his palm. The Feast of Saint Martin… yes, that was it. People used to eat a goose on this day and divine from its furcula whether the winter would be harsh.
A memory gnawed at him. The siege had lasted for weeks, and had started with the Feast of Saint Martin. During the siege, he remembered seeing a little girl. She had been the only one who had tried to speak with Famine – he wasn’t sure why – but she had knelt at his side and asked if he had any food. Famine had ignored her, but she had persisted. Please, she had begged. Please. All these years later, he could see her muddy face and freckles. Each day she had implored him, until, too ill to speak, she had curled at his feet and closed her eyes. On the last day, he had stepped over her body, stepped over all the bodies, and left. Once, she had asked him to be kind. In response, he had given her a merrythought and answered: The winter is not kind. They were the only words he had said to her.
Famine sighed. ‘Little girl,’ he said to the shadow on the steps. ‘Do you want to make a wish?’
‘No,’ said the shadow. ‘You will weigh the bone.’
‘And what shall I weigh it against?’ Famine said.
‘Life,’ came the reply. ‘Death against life.’
The shadow drew closer and reached towards him. Surprised, Famine saw that it held a fresh holly leaf, a rare find. He took the leaf and set it on the ground with the bone.
‘Let us dance,’ said the voice in the outer bailey.
‘Let us love again,’ said another.
Famine took the brass apothecary scales out of his pack. A rush of nostalgia overcame him as he heard the metal clink. With these scales he had blighted crops and measured justice, but now they were nothing more than a relic. His purpose was done and he was no better than these ghosts: he wanted to live, but had nothing to live for. Though he wasn’t inclined to help the spirits, he was tempted to try an untested theory. The ghosts were weak and wanted strength, but perhaps he could do more. They might yet appease his pursuer.
With gravitas befitting his past glory, he placed the holly on one scale. Next, he took the bone and snapped it, weighing the smallest piece. He hoped his judgement would be sufficient. The scales see-sawed but gradually slowed, until the leaf hung lowest.
As the scales settled, so the castle transformed. The broken stones became whole, and all that had been lost became new. Music floated across the grounds, a reedy pipe melody backed by lyre and lute, and a choir echoed from the outer bailey, singing carols long forgotten. Closer still, there was laughter and the sounds of feasting.
Famine stood up and approached the vision of long tables that had appeared in the main hall. Next to a fire that held no heat, people sat and gorged themselves on boar, venison, and ale, blind to the snowflakes falling through them. Dogs begged for scraps and two jesters, in faded red and green, somersaulted in the centre. Holly and ivy hung from rafters and adorned the tables. There was delight on every ghostly face.
Famine was frustrated and thought he might break the spell there and then, for it hadn’t worked as he had hoped. The spirits were still dead.
And yet, he found that the joviality comforted him. It was often during prosperity, when people had become complacent, that Famine had effected his most devastating work. He crept among the merry ghosts, and smiled in the knowledge that he had already starved them all.
As he watched, he spotted the girl at the top table. She stared at him, and then beckoned. Famine approached her with caution at first, but then he thought, what can a little girl do to me? He strode forward and then crouched beside her. None of the other ghosts seemed to notice him.
The little girl stuck her hand into a roasted goose and pulled out its furcula. Though the scene was a phantasm, Famine could hear the squelch of the juices as the bone ripped from the meat. The little girl clutched one edge of the bone and indicated that he should hold the other.
‘Are we to play a game?’ Famine said.
‘There is only one game,’ said the little girl.
Famine frowned, but he took the bone between his finger and thumb. Distantly, he thought he heard his horse stamp and whinny. Too late, he saw the little girl, the actual little girl, dancing across the hall. Too late, he saw that the face before him was not the face of a spirit. First he saw the teeth, bared and set hard within a white bone jaw. Next, the eyes, clouding like smoke behind glass, burning black until only deep sockets remained. And then the flesh, sinew and muscle hanging in bloodied strips from the face. The sounds of merriment faded and darkness closed in, cocooning Famine until he wasn’t aware of anything beyond, not the snow, not the cold, not the ghosts. There was only his pursuer.
‘It seems you win,’ said Death.
Famine looked down at the broken bone in his palm. In his terror, he had torn the merrythought in two, gaining the greater portion.
Death examined his own half. ‘Make a wish.’
Famine couldn’t stop his body quaking. His leathery skin felt tighter than before, and he realised he was so very tired. This is a trick, he thought. This is the end. He hung his head and waited, surprised to find himself wondering what the little girl may have thought in her final moments.
‘Make a wish,’ said the skull again. Famine lifted his head, unsure what to say. He stared at his brother, remembering all that had passed between them, and feeling empty in the knowledge that nothing, whether good or bad, is everlasting. Together, they had humbled kings and destroyed civilisations, but none of that mattered now. The world was dying, and he was not the god he had believed he was. If only everything could return to the way it was before, he thought, before the world was silent, and before my brother was my enemy.
‘I wish to live,’ he said at last. ‘And for humans to live too.’
Death scratched his cheek with the broken bone, tearing off a fleck of skin as he did so.
‘You are not what you were,’ he said.
‘No,’ Famine acknowledged, remembering that he hadn’t even sensed his brother. ‘But these are strange times.’
‘Time must end,‘ Death said, ‘and when there is no time, I too shall cease. You are the last life I must take.’
Famine nodded. He had suspected as much, for why else had Death pursued him so keenly?
‘I know,’ he said, thinking again of the little girl, and how he had not shown mercy when she begged. He sighed. ‘Then take my life at last, brother, and end it all.’
For a few moments, Death was silent. ‘Fate has decided,’ he said, holding up the bone. ‘You won a wish, and so it must be honoured. Time will wait, and so will I. But remember, you cannot run eternally, and neither can they.’
He gestured towards the silent ghosts, now motionless as waxworks in the gloom. As Famine watched, the ghosts slowly began to move, began to cough and splutter and speak. They rubbed their eyes and leaned upon each other for strength. Famine gazed at them, wondering if this was truly his brother’s doing, or whether his own spell had worked after all.
‘Just them,’ said Death. ‘Just for a short while. Run, brother, for I will come for you again soon.’
Famine took a deep breath and stepped back a few paces. His instinct had awakened and he yearned to consume the living, longed to triumph once more. It burned through him, drove him to the point of torment, and yet he resisted as best he could, knowing that he needed these people to survive and rebuild.
And so he fled, to his horse and then from the castle, doomed to run once more. The people saw him leave and knew that Death was close, and so they gathered their loved ones and also hastened from the ruins. The little girl who wasn’t the little girl waited a while, until dawn, and then she drew a black hood over her head and stepped out of the castle, trampling the bone into in the dirt as she left.
Image. Google images.