A Yuletide Party, With a Side of Zombies

A Yuletide Party, with a Side of Zombies

Part One: The Feast

Everyone in the kingdom, no matter
their station, was invited to the Yuletide party at the castle.

Nobles and gentry hailed carriages,
looking like frosted, pale pumpkins in the snow, cutting a path up to the
castle. Peasants came either by horse, boat, or on foot, bundled up against the
bite of the winter chill, with what little they could offer the king and queen
for their generosity in tow.

Schools were closed, a resting day
declared, and farmers put down their scythes and axes, eager for a respite,
however brief, from their labors. Servants in fine livery, lined with fur,
stood at the doors, escorting people inside and to their seats at the table in
the grand hall, which was an event unto itself. Strands of holly berries hung
from the ceiling, as red as freshly spilled blood, and mistletoe hung from
doorjambs and strung from bannisters, inviting secretive trysts in the dark,
sweet-smelling alcoves throughout the castle.

The king and queen, Rueben and
Iris, were already seated at the long wooden table, their faces looking
strangely ghostly in the dim, golden candlelight.

Rueben was dressed in pine green,
so dark that it looked black in the hushed atmosphere. His face was strong and
proud, his olive skin full of shadows in the dark, but the most notable thing
about his face was a wicked scar that cut a jagged line from his eyebrow to his
mouth. Nonetheless, he was very handsome in spite of it; his dark hair was
spiked beneath the bejeweled crown that he wore on his brow, and his eyes, the
color of sun-warmed honey, gleamed with the glassiness of good health and more
than his fair share of mulled Yuletide wine.

Iris was seated at her husband’s
left, her long, chestnut hair pulled up in a bun, and she wore a net of fine,
gleaming pearls around the bun, and her bright green eyes were bright and
sparkling with good humor. She was smiling, greeting the members of her kingdom
with stately, polite nods, wearing a gown of bright yellow that brought to mind
sunflowers, one hand on her distended stomach.

They’d ruled the kingdom for more than five years now, and
everyone in the kingdom was happy to know that their queen was expecting an
heir at last.

After all, what better time to
welcome a child than the Christmas Solstice?

The castle’s chamberlain was busy
seating peasants at small, round wooden tables, taking what offerings they’d
brought and putting them on another table, adjacent to the right of the royal
couple, to be opened after the meal.

The long table groaned under the
weight of so much food: silver tureens of thick, fragrant soup, platters of
cheeses and crackers spread in appealing shapes, tiny buns that gleamed with
butter and were garnished with precious cloves, cardamom, and parsley, dozens
of loaves of bread in intricate braids, roasted vegetables of all colors
arranged in a pretty circle on a silver platter, rich roasted pig with candied
fruit in its mouth, a whole haunch of roast beef, cut into paper thin slices
and garnished with horseradish sauce and rosemary, venison in a plum sauce,
whole roasted fish adorned with citrus, its pink flesh gleaming in the low
light, and so many desserts that it was impossible to count them all: tiny
petit fours frosted with sugar and cinnamon, puddings of every flavor in giant
crystal bowls, a many-tiered cake that climbed toward the ceiling, covered with
pink and blue frosting, as if to welcome the new heir before it even came into
this world, steaming pies that showed their enticing insides: apples, pears,
sugared cranberries, quince and orange, topped with whipped cream, scented with
nutmeg, and candies of every kind, personally made by the Queen’s own
chocolatier.

The royal couple always celebrated
every Solstice by sharing the bounty of the harvests with the common folk; the
celebratory mood was further heightened by word of the baby, who was due in a
few short months.

Soon everyone was seated, and there
was a low buzz of chatter throughout the room; children were staring at the
feast with eyes as round as dinner plates, their hands on their growling
stomachs, and the adults had their heads close together; they’d all worn the
finest clothing they had, as was fitting for such a festive occasion.

The King stood up, smiling broadly
at his guests. “Welcome to my castle on this auspicious night, everyone, and my
wife and I thank you all for coming. We stand on the threshold of a new year,
and at last, the gods have smiled down upon our family, for we welcome a new
member of the royal family, after all of our faithful prayers!”

The King’s words were nearly
drowned out, as they were followed by stomping feet, applause, and loud
cheering and hoots of pleasure; he smiled genially, holding his hands up for
silence. Everyone quieted down, even the rowdy children.

“But for now, enough talk. My
household did not slave over all of this delicious food for a week for it to
get cold while I flapped my gums! Please, dig in!”

Everyone was served, from the
oldest villager to the tiniest child, and no one was denied anything; everyone
ate until they couldn’t any longer. It was part of the royal family’s holiday
oath: No one was denied warmth, food, a good time, and a place to stay. It had
been a tradition from the time that the kingdom was formed, and the entire
royal estate was full of richly furnished dwellings for everyone to stay in.

Yes, it was indeed a time of joy,
prosperity, and bounty beyond all measure. But, alas, it was not meant to last.
There would be a guest to this joyous celebration, one that would soon bring
the party to a grinding halt.

Part Two: The Visitor

The party was still in full swing,
even after the feast: Dancing followed, and though Iris was sitting on her
throne, hands cradled around her stomach, King Rueben was in the thick of it
all, surrounded by a small group of courtiers, farmers, merchants, and artisans.
He was in the middle of a lively quadrille with one of Iris’s ladies in
waiting, laughing merrily, lips parted in a bright, carefree grin. When the
music stopped, he called for another glass of wine, for himself and his dance
partner.

“More wine, please, Ezekiel!” He
called, beckoning his chamberlain forward with a bottle. The thick, rich wine
sloshed over the goblets, and the king took a hearty swig.

“Come, Diana, drink with me!” He
said, smiling at the young lady who had done him the honor of a dance while his
wife was indisposed, one of Iris’s handmaidens.

The girl smiled indulgently at the
King, first looking back to her Queen, who nodded, waving her forward with an
elegant hand. Ruben held out the glass, and she took it, their fingers brushing
briefly during the exchange. She took a few sips, handed the glass to a passing
servant, and extended her hands to the monarch, her face unreadable in the low
light. They met and began to spin across the floor, the crowd of dancing
couples parting for the most privileged and powerful man in the land.

Iris watched from her perch,
clapping her hands in time with the music, nursing a crystal goblet of mulled
cider. It felt like her joy was brimming over the boundaries of her body, but
how could she not be truly happy? She and her husband had finally been blessed
by the gods for a child, and the whole kingdom had come to help them celebrate.

The Rite of Yuletide, the celebration
that paid homage to their gods and the blessings they received in exchange for
such worship, bound everyone until the dawning of the new year, regardless of
station, class, and or trade, and Iris looked forward to it all through the
year. Even more so now that… That their family would at last, be expanded. With
her eyes on the vibrant, merry festivities, she did not notice when the doors
at the front of the room creaked open. Indeed, it took a while for anyone to
notice the person’s arrival.

The noble in question was a young
woman, dressed in a violet so dark that it seemed black in the candlelight, her
skirts trailing behind her like spilled wine. If anyone had been paying any
attention, they would’ve realized that something about this woman appeared
unusual.

Her skin wasn’t so much pale as it
was gray, and her mouth, ringed with something that looked like blood, hung
open; she was making a quiet, low moan in the back of her throat. The whites of
her eyes were yellowed, and she reached her hands out, long fingers grasping
nothing.

Everyone was so caught up in the
gaiety of the celebration that no one noticed when she grabbed a nobleman, so quickly
that she seemed to be a blur.

Next there was an awful, loud
crunching sound, and all the merriment was broken by a shrill, agonized shriek.

The sound of bones crunching
together was the only sound; the music stopped abruptly, and then the screaming
started, despite The King yelling for calm.

But when one person is eating
another, how can everyone remain calm?

**