They came out of the trees together, their figures making long shadows across the grass.
A woman, her fine, pale hair wound in coils and tangled with leaves. Willow boughs and climbing vines made dark spirals against her skin. Her expression was peaceful, remote under the failing moon.
The girl, trailing a few steps behind, was wearing a white dress.
They walked without speaking, but the grass was brittle and dead, and their feet made a soft hushing noise as they crossed the park.
Out on a bare expanse of sand, a merry-go-round creaked disconsolately. The breeze was damp and chilly, blowing in from the hills, making the swings rattle.
The woman moved with a purpose, always staying slightly ahead. She looked around from time to time, peering into the shadows.
“Where are we going?” the girl asked in a breathless whisper.
Away, the woman wanted to tell her. Away from the tunnels, from a people who worked tirelessly to appease a beast crouching blind and hungry in the dark. The girl’s blood on the knife would slake its appetite for a handful of years, but not long enough. Never long enough.
The woman pointed across the park, indicating a broad, tree-lined avenue. “You’re going home.”
“No.” The girl shook her head. “No, that isn’t my home.”
The house sat well-back from the street, cordoned off by a lawn and a low picket fence. The gate was closed, but the windows glowed warm and electric, and the porch light cast a yellow circle across the grass.
The woman stopped at the edge of the park, fading back into the shadow of a beech tree. “Go across and knock on their door.”
“I don’t know anyone there.”
“But you can be certain they know you. Now go.”
The girl stood in the dry grass and didn’t move. In the years she’d spent beneath the hill, she’d grown lanky and coltish, with long legs and bony wrists. Her hair was to her waist, and nearly as pale as the woman’s. Despite the awkward proportion of her limbs, her mannerisms held all the fluid grace of people underground.
The woman closed her eyes, resting her cheek against the tree. “It’s this, or die for the hill with a shining blade and bonfires burning,” she said, and felt cruel.
“I’d rather.” The girl’s voice was low, flat with conviction.
It was folly to think that she was like them. That speaking a phrase made it so. She may have lived for years in the caves and tunnels, but she could still lie.
Her expression was fierce and stoic, though, and for a moment, the woman almost believed her. The girl’s eyes were dark with trepidation. It wasn’t difficult to divine that her fear was for the bright lights—house and street and town—and not at all for the coming festivities and the promise of the knife.
She stood at the edge of the park, arms limp at her sides. “Will they know me? Will they know me like I know the grass and the moon—like something I dreamed once, and not like a real thing at all?”
In the shadows of the beech tree, the woman nodded. It was a helpless gesture. “We had you for so long.” She was aware that her eyes had filled with tears and she touched her wet lashes with her fingertips. “They never should have taken you so long before the teind, but you were a beautiful child. They coveted you. They took you, not out of desperation, but out of reverence.”
The girl clasped her hands in front of her. “What will happen to you?”
“They’ll punish me.” The woman’s voice was harsh and bitter suddenly. “They’ll punish me, but they’ll kill you if you stay, so go across and find a new life. One that’s better.”
“Please, I don’t want to.”
“Go across and find your mother.”
“You’re my mother. Please, it’s going to be okay, right? Say it will be okay—everything’s going to be okay, right?”
“No,” said the woman. “No, I don’t think it is.”
The girl was crying now, softly and with a startling intensity. She stepped down from the curb and into the street, moving towards the lawn and the house and the warm, burning porch light.