They ride on the Longest Night, and we spend it tucked in our barrows, surrounded by fire. The screaming hounds and pounding hooves thunder above us, and when the Crier’s horn calls we shiver and Father orders the human musicians to play harder.
I like to slip away from the feast and into the root halls where I can press against the earth and feel the howling shake the trees.
My sister trails behind me, crawling on her stubby human hands. She climbs into my lap and pulls at my hair. I tickle her nose and smile at her. When she grins back her flat teeth remind me of her mother, and I say, "I wish you were like me." She reaches up and touches my teeth. I bite gently, and her fingers come away red. Tears make her eyes larger and brighter. Her eyes are just like mine. Like Father’s.
"It is well, little sister," I say, and bend to kiss the blood away. She puts her hand in her mouth, and says something around it. Carefully, while the Hunt shakes the hall, I draw out her hand and smile. "Sister," she says. And offers me her hand again.
I slide one of my own fingers over my bottom teeth and hardly feel pain. But my finger bleeds, too. It’s not red like hers, though. It looks like honey. I hold it out for her.
But someone comes around the corner and halts next to a twisted root. It’s her mother. Her name is Elizabeth and Father brought her here three years ago, when the birch trees were dropping golden leaves and he was in need of warmth. For a human, she is lovely, full and soft, with long dark hair and eyes bright even under so much earth. Now her face is hard and her bejeweled fingers curl into fists. "Morgen, don’t touch that," she says.
My sister clutches my hand. "Sister. Mine."
Elizabeth holds out her own hand. "I know baby. But come here. Come to Mama." She stares at Morgen, as if she can make her daughter obey by will alone. Maybe she can. Morgen stands up and toddles to her, her bleeding hand out against the root wall for balance. Elizabeth crouches and hugs Morgen, then glances at me through the flailing wisps of Morgen’s hair.
"I would not hurt her," I say. My lap is cold without Morgen’s chubby weight.
"Not on purpose." Elizabeth gathers Morgen up and stands. "But you can’t help it."
I shake my head.
"It’s what you are."
The Hunt sweeps past again, and the barrow trembles hard enough that bits of dirt and pebbles shake free of the ceiling. I hear the horn and look up. I close my eyes and imagine flying with them, ghostly stallion between my thighs, wind through my skin and wrapping around my bones. I would crackle with lightning and raise my spear high. I would shriek and laugh while the horn Cried.
Then they are gone again, and so are Elizabeth and Morgen.
I wander back to the feast and am nearly bowled over by a band of glittering hinky-punks. Behind them comes a tatterfoal and two merrows dripping brine in a long trail.
And then I hear it.
Father screams. I run, against the river of courtiers fleeing my Father’s wrath. Even Shining Ones are leaving, and Fiachrian grabs my arm. Black feathers flow up from under her cheekbones as she hisses, "Now is not good, princess, come with me, or go to your chambers."
"I’ll not hide with the crows," I say, and jerk free of her. She stands and I feel her eyes on me as I press through to the feast hall.
The longest table is turned over and dishes of silver and gold have spilled cinnamon apples and peach-jam, honey-wine, cakes, and candied beetles across the black floor. Candlewax is splattered everywhere, and I know Father’s fury had exploded through the flames. He stands alone before his throne, eyes closed and long-fingered hands loose at his sides. A human girl, one of the musicians, lies at his feet with her neck twisted and bleeding.
I stop. He rarely injures his prizes. "Father?" My voice snakes over the torn feast hall.
He steps over the girl and comes toward me. His skin is peeling away from his neck, like the birch bark in the groves over our hill, and his eyes are black and narrow. "Take my hand," he says. I do, and his hands are brittle. Oh, he is so angry.
We go up into the night. I have never smelled Yule wind, and I laugh at the sharpness and cold. Father says, "You love this."
"I will give you what you want, daughter."
I glance up, curious. I do not know what he means. But I do not ask, because I still don’t know why he is so angry.
The earth’s bones jut high into the black sky, hard veins of naked trees drawing magic and light and power from the sky and delivering it all into the ground. We are in the birch castle, surrounded by ghostly white fingers and thousands of black eyes. Lightning flashes and Father raises his hands. He is a tree himself, he is Birch, one of the Twelve Princes, whose earth palaces shelter the Queen of All Things.
And he raises his voice to call the Hunt.
A single word, screamed through thunder.
They appear, shields raised, and spears and swords drawn high. They surround us, gruesome masks laughing and leering, horns and antlers creating a giant crown in the pale field. Hellhounds bark and bay and run widdershin circles around us, between us and the riders.
One horse steps forth, reigns jingling with silver bells. Its rider’s mask is pushed back over white hair so he can smile at us. The horn hangs from his saddle. "White Hand," the Crier says. "What have you for us tonight?"
"My daughter is stolen, taken from my barrow by her mother. I would have you Hunt them. Bring them home to me."
The Crier laughs. "Gladly, oh prince. Gladly we would do this thing. But for a price. Always a price."
Father turns to me. He bends and presses his dry lips to my forehead. I hear his breath rattle over his brown-leaf-tongue. "A daughter for a daughter," he whispers.
I feel steel slide into my chest.
Honey-blood pours out, sticky like sap.
photo by IShuttertoThink