The Curse of the Gray Hunger

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Quill 155 Curse of Gray Hunger Image 1 FinalThree beautiful sisters were they, in those days.  They had eyes the color of jade with shades of honey flecked within.  They had hair like golden silk.  Their lovely smiles were made lovelier still by their dazzling white teeth.  As might be expected with beauty so bold, they were envied by many.  They were coveted by many.  Their mother fretted and feared over that envy and longing.  She did not want to lock up her daughters for fear of the world.  But one day, her fears came true.

A powerful lord came to desire the sisters.  When they refused his advances, he had a warlock curse them.  He demanded they be cursed with an eternal hunger for all men.  Though his intention was to inflict upon them the same longing that they inspired in him, the warlock’s curse had a different effect.  The sisters were afflicted with a hunger not of their hearts or their loins, but of their bellies.  For they became consumed with a ravenous hunger for the flesh of man.

No matter what other sustenance they were given, they hungered.  Even the richest of foods would not satisfy them.  Not cakes, not whole hens, not jugs of milk, or jars of ale.  They could eat until their bellies were near to bursting.  And still the craving remained.

Soon their mother did have to hide them away, not for their beauty, but for their monstrous appetites.  There were rumors of disturbed burial sites, of corpses newly dead and even those long-rotting found with bite marks and missing limbs.  The dead could not rest in their graves, for the sisters were digging them up and eating them.  So said the rumors.  While they were still rumors, the villagers did little but post guards at the village gravesite.

Then one night, a young guard patrolling on his own heard a noise.  He crept toward it and raised his lantern to find the three sisters, covered in dirt and gore, feasting on the flesh of a villager who had passed just the last year.

The light of his lantern caught the sisters’ attention and they turned toward him.  Their green eyes glowed in the lantern light.  Their hair, golden in the sunlight, shown so pale it appeared to be white.  Their teeth, their once-dazzling teeth were reddened with blood.

The guard cried out and dropped his lantern.  The sisters chased after him.  They meant only to catch him so they could warn him not to speak of what he had seen.  But when they overcame him, their hunger overcame them.

***

They were cast out of their village.

The villagers pitied their mother and comforted her as she wept for her children.  But they had no pity or forgiveness left for the sisters.

The sisters did not resist.  They felt only loathing for themselves because of what they had done, and what they had become.

They found shelter in a cave on the side of a great mountain far from the village.  They hunted animals and they gathered fruits and herbs.  They proved to be resourceful and strong.  Their cookpot was always full and their bellies so as well.  But their craving for the flesh of men remained.  They refused to succumb to it.  They began to waste away.  Their beautiful silken hair grew coarse and dull.  Out of despair and pain, they pulled at it, until it grew thin and wispy.  One day, the rare traveler ventured close to where the sisters were gathered in the wood below the mountain.  He was hunting hares.  They almost fell upon the traveler.

Instead they retreated to their cave and decided to foil their hunger by pulling out their own teeth so that they could not bite into the flesh of another.  They howled with suffering.  But so too did they howl with pleasure, for as they pulled out their teeth, the sockets filled with blood.   They drank their own blood and it was sweet.  Their hunger was sated but for a short while.  Then they were filled with a terrible lust and longing for more.  They went out from the cave, still covered in their own blood, licking their own lips, and they hid by the side of the road, waiting for some poor hapless soul to come along.

For many days, no one came.  The mountain was remote, the road rarely traveled.  So the sisters ventured out farther and farther.

At last they came upon a young shepherd.  He too had ventured far in search of fair grazing for his flock of spry sheep.  The sisters watched him.  The flame of hunger burning in the pits of their stomachs burst forth and consumed them.  Weak though they were, they were three, and he was one.  They waylaid him.  They killed him.  As his sheep scattered, crying in distress, the sisters drank the shepherd’s blood.  They gnawed on his flesh with their toothless gums until they fell into a stupor.

***

The next morning, the sisters woke to the distant sound of bleating.  They saw all around them the bloody remains of the shepherd they had devoured.  Only the sheep were close enough to hear the tormented wailing of the sisters.  Unable to stand the sight of what they had done, or the sight of each other, and so they might not see and find another victim, they put out their eyes then and there.

For many an hour they wailed.  Then at last they collapsed in weariness.  The eldest of them spoke.

“Sisters, we do not deserve even what wretched lives we have.”  She groped about until she found her sisters.  She took them by their hands.  “We must free this world from our evil.”

Another sister began to weep again.  “But it’s not our fault,” she moaned.  “Why did no one seek to break the curse upon us?”

“Perhaps they did.  Perhaps they failed,” the third sister said.  “Or perhaps they envied us so much that they were glad to see us cursed.”

“So glad they would suffer with us?” the eldest sister retorted.  “We will pay a penance for our crimes when we reach the afterworld, and once we have paid it, we can rest.  But we will never rest so long as we live.”

She convinced her sisters.  So miserable were they, so filled with pain, they did not need much convincing.  They tried to take their own lives.  Though they were blind, they had seen a bluff nearby.  They were clever, the sisters.  They remembered the lay of the land well enough to find the bluff.  It was high enough.  They held each other hand in hand, and as one, they jumped off the bluff.

***

They next morning they woke to the sound of rushing waters.  There was a river below the bluff.  That was the sound they heard.  They had survived the fall.  Their broken bodies ached, but as the hours passed, the agony subsided, until the only ache that remained was the hunger in their bellies.  That hunger.  Not natural and noisy.  That hunger was hollow and gray.  They were clever, the sisters.  They had reasoned it out.  They had reasoned out why they had survived.  It was the hunger.  They were cursed with an eternal hunger, and that meant they themselves were eternal, immortal.

Still, they tried again.  They tried to drown themselves in the river.  When that failed, they groped about and found enough vine to make nooses.  They tried to hang themselves.  They even tried to dash each other’s heads with great rocks.  Each attempt grew more desperate, more vile.  Remorse faded.  Madness took hold.  Sadness became rage, and rage became hatred.

But no matter what else the sisters felt, they always felt the hunger.  At last, they agreed to embrace it.

***

Without eyes and teeth, they could not find their prey, could not feed upon them.  They made their slow and painstaking way back to their cave.

The three sisters were battered and broken, but they still lived.  They began to have visions.  Perhaps it was an effect of the curse, or of their madness, or some other unknown forces.  They had blinded their natural eyes, but they had gained the power of a different kind of sight.  The sight of the future.  At first, they used the power only to sate their hunger.  But once their hunger was sated, they longed to do more.  They longed for what they once had.

Using their gift of sight, they found one who could help them, a mortal man, one who was favored of the god of the forge, and had also studied and built at the heavenly forge himself.  They foresaw that this smith could forge them enchanted eyes by which to see and enchanted teeth by which to chew and eat their fill of the forbidden meat they craved.

They also foresaw with vicious glee that they would feed upon the very smith, savor the flesh of a favored mortal, and deny all others his talents.

As it had always been, their hunger was too great.  The smith was able to forge one eye and one tooth, which each sister tried.  When each saw the smith through the eye he had crafted, saw how young and tender his flesh was, they became overwhelmed with hunger for him.  And before they could stop themselves, they fell upon him and killed him.  They passed their one eye among themselves, so they could watch the smith’s flesh cooking in their cookpot.

After they awoke from the stupor of their feeding, they realized what they had done, that they had killed the smith before his work was complete.  They cursed themselves.  But then they cackled with mad glee, for they knew they could use their gift of foresight to find another who could restore their eyes and their teeth.

***

But the three sisters did not find it so easy to restore what they had lost after all.  They did not venture far from their cave, for their bodies had not healed well from the harm they had done to themselves.  Though they were still quite young, they limped, stumbled, and doddered about as if they were in their old age.  Their minds were sharp though.  They played soothsayer to the closest villages.  Soon, word of their powers spread.  People came to see them in their cave, and the sisters did not always devour these people.  Sometimes they used them to find favor with those more powerful, to obtain precious treasures.  Always they sought one whose powers would be as great as those of the smith who have forged their eye and tooth.

Among those who heard of the reclusive seer sisters of the mountain was a young witch who had once been married to a strong and gentle shepherd.  He went far to graze his sheep one day.  Some of his sheep returned.

He never did.

***

The witch had followed her husband’s trail.  Her powers were in healing, not tracking.  But she found a place where she felt his spirit, where she thought he must have spent his last moments.  The witch found bones and clothes so torn, tattered, and dirtied that she could not tell if they belonged to her beloved husband.  But she felt that they did.

The mountain of the three sisters was close.  They were rumored to be great seers.  They were also rumored to be monsters who ate the flesh of men.

There were those who had warned her not to seek her husband’s fate.  Some bitter enemies tried to convince her that he had abandoned her with a child in her belly.  He would not have done so.  He would not have left her, not by his own will.   And he would not have left the child he had yet to meet, the child he had longed for even more than she had.  He jested about raising a flock of children even as he raised his flock of sheep.

The witch began to feel a twisting in the pit of her belly as she imagined what fate had truly befallen her husband.  She did not dream of vengeance.  Not against those who could see the future.  Whatever she planned, they would know it beforehand.  Yet her husband deserved justice.  His bones deserved to be buried with honor, not left lying in the dirt like broken twigs.

She wanted only to see them so they could tell her what had come to pass.  So she went to the mountain of the seers.

***

“Enter child,” a creaky voice said as the witch approached the mouth of the cave.

The witch took a gasping breath as her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the cave, and she saw the three crones.  To her eyes they looked almost identical.  Indeed their faces and garb were the same.  One was bent over an immense cookpot, nearly as tall as the crone, stirring steadily.  To her left stood her sister, squinting from her one wicked-looking eye.  To her right stood her other sister, whose tongue licked at the one rotted tooth that jutted from her gums.

“What payment have you brought us?” the one-eyed sister said as her gaze shifted down to the witch’s pregnant belly.

The witch placed a protective hand on her belly.  She tossed forth a bag full of coin, which  the one-eyed sister caught.

“What fortune would you have us tell?”

“Not fortune,” the witch said.  “Misfortune.  My husband’s.  He has been missing for many moons.  I fear he is lost to me, lost to this world.”

“Dead, you mean?”

The witch blinked away the tears that tried to form.  She kept her gaze fixed on the sisters.

“You already suspect what happened to him, don’t you?” the one-toothed sister said.

The sister who stirred the cookpot merely sneered.

“Tell me,” the witch said.

They knew who her husband was.  They told her what she wanted to know , what she wished were not so.  So terrible was the story that she wanted to scream and lament.  She would do so when she was safe, away from the sisters.  She numbed her pain.  She placed both hands on her belly as if that would shield her child.

“You want to kill us for what we did to your love.  You haven’t the strength or the power, witch.”

“Perhaps, but there are many heroes in this world.  More than one of them will come to defeat you.”

“Let them come.  We’ll have them for dinner.”

“I can see what she’s planning, sisters,” the one stirring the cookpot said.  “She wants to weave a binding, to bind us to this cave.”

“Can she do that?”

“What does it matter?  Go ahead and do it.  We hardly need to leave our cozy cave much anyway.”

“You can bind us to this cave, but you can’t stop anyone from finding us, can you?”

“And find us they will.  Word of our gift of prophecy is spreading.  We will be known as better than mere witches.”

“We will be known as oracles.”

The witch was troubled by their words, for she knew them to be true, at least in part.  Word had indeed spread of the sisters’ gifts of foresight.  Even monarchs were beginning to take note and planning pilgrimages to the cave of the seers.

“We are not to blame,” the sister at the cookpot said.  “We were cursed to hunger for flesh.”

The witch did not know this, but it mattered not to her how the sisters came to be so fiendish.  “What did you do to try and break the curse?” she asked them.  “Did you entreat the gods?  Did you seek a healer?”

“We did all of that and more.  We even tried to end our own lives.  In many different ways.  Did you know that?”

The witch did not.

“To no avail.  Our hunger is undying, witch, and so are we.  We are what we are.  We cannot change by our own will.  Even the gods cannot change us now.”

“It is too late for mercy, for justice, for restoration.”

“It is too late for all things…except dinner.”

The sisters cackled and the witch frowned.

“You must be famished.  Come closer to our cookpot.”

The witch took a half-step back.

“Come, lean in, and take a good whiff.  We may be fiends, but we know how to cook.”

“I wonder,” the witch said.  “If your hunger were to die, would you die?”

As one the sisters gasped.  Their bodies went stiff as if they had been struck by the god-king’s lightning.  The sisters’ flesh, their hair, even their garb seemed to turn gray, leeched of all color and vibrancy.

Then they all spoke as one.

“Catch her!”

“Stop her!”

“Kill her!”

The witch’s eyes widened as the one-eyed sister hobbled toward her.  The witch had planned to back away from the cave opening, to never turn her gaze away from the tricky sisters.  But she turned now in terror.  She grasped her belly with one hand and began to run.

The sisters were terrible and terrifying.  But they were not witches and they were not warriors.  They could not catch the witch, who climbed down the mountain and hid, watching for the one-eyed sister.  They could not cast curses or spells at her.  The other two sisters did not leave the cave.  But the sister with the one eye did.  If only she would return, the witch could weave her spell of binding.  She had it ready.  Even though she knew the sisters were right, that binding them to the cave would not diminish their powers, their influence, their horror, it was all the witch could do.  She had to wait, though she wanted nothing more than to flee.

She sat in her hiding spot, watching the one-eyed sister search in vain, shambling about on bent limbs. The others called the one-eyed sister back to the cavern.  Fighting terror, the witch followed.  When the sister passed back into the cavern, the witch stood as far away as she could and wove her spell.  Dripping with sweat from fear and effort, she wove and wove.

The sisters were clever.  They would no doubt find a way to defeat the spell of binding.  The witch wasn’t even certain the spell would work, for she needed some possession belonging to the sisters, and all she had managed to find was a broom beside the cavern mouth.  She could only hope that all three sisters had used it.

She heard a commotion from within the sisters’ cave.  There was crashing of metal and stone.  And screams of lamentation and despair.  Though she knew she should flee, the witch chose to be reckless.  As soon as the weaving was done, she moved quietly toward the cave.  She lowered herself to the ground and peeked just inside the cavern mouth.

The three sisters were gathered around the bubbling cookpot.

“Give me the eye!  I’ll go out and find her.”

“Let her go, fool!  Even with child, she can move faster than your twisted limbs can.”

“We can find out where she’s going and cut her off.”

The sister who was stirring the cookpot stopped stirring.  “Stop your yammering!  I can’t see anything with your moaning in my ears!”  She waved her hand over the bubbling stew in the cookpot.

The other two sisters gave a grumbling apology.  And the one-eyed sister reached for her one eye and plucked it out of its socket.

“What did you see, sister?” the now no-eyed sister asked.

“What did you see?”

“We all saw the same thing.  The question…she will find the answer.”

“If she’s alive to find it.”

“Then let’s make sure she does not live.”

“Can we?  If we saw—”

“She will destroy us.  We will pass through the veil of death and suffer eternal torments with no hope of penance or peace, for our crimes are too many and too heinous.”

“Prophecies can change.  We will change it.  We will stop her.  There is still time.  For we are immortal.  She is not.”

“The hunger…do you remember?  Before we succumbed to it, obeyed it, it was a torment.  That is what awaits us beyond death.”

The sister who had spoken began to whimper.  Then they all began to speak of hunger and wicked plans.  They spoke no more of whatever they had seen in their vision that had disturbed them so.

The witch watched her enemies.  They were blind and helpless now, and if her spell had worked, they were trapped.  They would not be helpless for long.  Still, their powers were not as great as she had thought, for her spying revealed that they could only see if they were all blind.  And they could only see their visions in that cookpot, save for the most powerful visions.  Such a powerful vision had struck them, all of them at once.  A prophecy.  That’s what she had seen when she saw them grow stiff and gray.  They had chased after her, tried to kill her.  The vision—whatever it was—had made them fear her and hate her.  Or perhaps it was not her they feared.  They did not name the “she” they spoke of from their prophecy.

***

The witch walked carefully down the road.  She drank often from her water skin.  She rested when she needed rest.  She let her anger and her fear go.  She had to take very good care of herself.

“If not me,” she said, placing a hand on her belly, “then perhaps they meant you.  Or perhaps your child.  Or your child’s child.”  The more she pondered, the more she felt that the prophecy was not about her, but about her descendant.  For the sisters spoke of having time, plenty of time because they were immortal.  The witch felt she would likely die then before she saw justice done for her husband.  But so long as she cared for her kin while she was alive, that justice would one day be done.

The sisters’ words, their prophecy, echoed through her mind.  She will destroy us.  We will pass through the veil of death and suffer eternal torments with no hope of penance or peace, for our crimes are too many and too heinous.

“Let princes make their pilgrimages,” the witch said to herself.  “And let my husband rest in peace.  They drank of his blood.  And one day, one of his blood will destroy them.”

 

Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel.

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