Aisling’s mother died at midsummer. She had fallen sick so suddenly that some of the villagers wondered if the fairies had come and taken her, for she was still young and beautiful. She was buried three days later beneath the hawthorn tree behind the house, just as twilight was darkening the sky.
Maire Solanya, the village greenwitch, came that evening to perform the old rituals over the grave. She stood at the foot of the mound of black soil, a thin old woman with white hair bound in a braid that reached her hips, her face a finely drawn map of lines. Aisling and her father stood across from each other on either side of the grave, and at the head of it, resting on the simple headstone, was the burning candle. Aisling’s father had lit it shortly after Elinor died, and it would burn all night, sheltered by the curving glass around it. The gravestone was a plain piece of slate carved with her name: Elinor. Grass and tree roots would grow up around it as the months and years passed, until it would seem as if it had always been there.
Maire Solanya said in her low, clear voice, “From life to life, from breath to breath, we remember Elinor.” She held a round loaf of bread in her hands, and she tore off a small piece and ate it, chewing deliberately, before handing the loaf to Aisling’s father. He pulled off his own piece, then passed it to his daughter. It was still warm, and it smelled like her mother’s kitchen after baking. But it hadn’t come from her mother’s hands, and that realization made a hard lump rise in her throat. The bread was tasteless.
Maire Solanya took the loaf from her, its crust gaping open, and placed it on the gravestone next to the candle. Aisling couldn’t shake the feeling that her mother had merely gone out on an errand and would come home at any moment and wonder what the three of them were doing. It didn’t seem possible that she was buried there, at the foot of the hawthorn tree, in the ground. She had seen her mother’s body after she died, of course, but her face had lost all of the vibrancy that made her recognizable. And it was easier to believe the village rumors than to sit with the ache inside herself.
She remembered those rumors now, while she stood with her father and Maire Solanya in a tense silence, waiting as the sun set over the Wood. Everyone had always said that Elinor had some magic in her, and everyone knew that fairies—if they existed—were drawn to that. So Aisling’s father had ordered all the old rituals, even though he did not believe in them, just in case. She was not entirely sure what she herself believed, but she knew that her mother would want them to do these rituals for her, and that was enough.
When the sun slipped below the horizon, the greenwitch said, “Sleep in peace, Elinor,” and scattered a gold powder over the grave to bind Elinor to the earth. On the freshly turned soil, the gold glittered like fairy dust.
Aisling’s father stepped around the grave and put a hand on her shoulder. “Go back to the house, Ash.” He had told her that he would keep vigil over the grave all night. Some said that the Fairy Hunt sought out souls on the night after burial, and only those who were guarded by their loved ones would be left to rest in peace.
She walked slowly up the hill toward the house. When she turned back at the kitchen door to look down toward the garden, Maire Solanya was making three circles around the grave before she left. Just beyond the hawthorn tree, the Wood was dark and silent. The single candle glimmered, and Ash could see the shape of her father as he knelt beside the grave.
The housekeeper, Anya, came out the kitchen door and caressed Ash’s hair. “It will be all right,” Anya said. “Come inside before night falls. Your mother’s spirit will be safe with your father watching over her.”
* * *
Ash woke in the middle of the night from a dream of horses—tall, thundering white horses with foaming mouths and slender, wraithlike riders. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and went to the window that looked out over the Wood. She searched for the light of the candle by the grave but saw only darkness. Then there was movement at the edge of the trees, and she shivered. Where was her father?
She ran down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the back door. The wind was rising. She ran down the hillside in her bare feet, feeling the earth alive beneath her toes, her nightgown flying behind her in white linen wings. She ran past the garden’s rows of carrots and cabbages and toward the dark, hulking line of the Wood. Beneath the hawthorn tree, the glass cover was tipped over on its side, the candle was snuffed out, and her father was gone. She knelt on the ground and reached for the candle, but she hadn’t brought matches and could not light it.
The wind gusted over her, whipping her hair around her face. The dark pressed against her, and she wondered if her father had given up his vigil because of the weight of the night on his back. She heard the hoofbeats then, coming closer and closer. She thought she saw a faint glimmer of white in the dark Wood, a glow of otherworldly light, like stardust caught behind glass. She was frightened, but she would not leave her mother. She lay down on the grave, pressing her body into the warm earth and her cheek against the gravestone. The hooves came closer, and she heard the high, thin sound of a bugle. The wind rushed toward her, and the cries of the riders were clear upon the air: They called for her mother, for Elinor. The ground beneath Ash’s body heaved, and she let out a scream of fright as she felt the world buckle beneath her, earth and stone and moss and root twisting up as if it were clawed by a mighty hand. There was a roaring sound in her ears as the horses surrounded her, and she squeezed her eyes shut, afraid of what she might see. She dug her fingers into the ground, clinging to the earth where her mother lay buried.
And then there was a sudden silence, and in that silence she could hear the breathing of horses, the heaving of their lungs, the musical jingle of bit and bridle, and the whisper of voices like silvery bells. She thought she heard someone say, “She is only a child. Let her go.”
The wind roared again, so fierce that she thought she would be pulled from the ground and thrown aside like a rag doll, but when it died down the horses were gone, and the night was quiet. The air hummed as it did after a storm. When she opened her eyes, the ground all around her was marked with hoofprints.
* * *
Ash woke up suddenly in her own bed, her heart pounding. She sat up, gasping for breath as though she were being suffocated, and saw the early morning light coming through the curtains. She ran to the window and looked out; her father was coming slowly up the hill. When she heard him come into the house and close the kitchen door, she realized she had been gripping the windowsill with white fingers. She let go, feeling foolish. But just as she began to turn away, she saw something gleaming on the windowsill: In the spaces where the paint had cracked, gold dust glittered.
Copyright © 2009 Malinda Lo