Isobel walked around the mound of earth as crickets chirped in the evening air. On the hill, the branches of a great yew stretched across the twilit sky. The old woman had told her to come here—either at twilight or dawn. Isobel hadn’t wanted to wait, and so here she was, wandering through darkening field as the dampened grass chilled her feet.
She looked around, but the hill and surrounding field remained empty, other than the one yew tree. She turned towards it as she remembered what the old woman had told her. Kneel, she had said. Kneel and then bleed.
Isobel knelt, and the dewy grass soaked through her skirts. From her pocket, she pulled out a small paring knife. She licked her lips and glanced around, and then, before she lost her nerve, Isobel closed her eyes and cut her hand.
The air chilled, and the sky seemed to darken further. Stars winked in the sky and, from the hill, a blackened hole gaped. Isobel walked to it and the air turned damp and earthen. She looked back towards the field, but still it remained empty. Then, taking a deep breath, Isobel stepped inside.
She followed the path as it wound its way downward. Do not look back, the old woman had said. Never look back. Isobel kept her gaze ahead, even as her footfalls echoed and chased her through the gloom. She kept her hand to the wall, feeling as the damp earth coated her fingers, and tiny tendrils of roots tickled her palm.
Smells drifted up from the depths of the hole—inviting ones, like freshly baked bread and summer flowers. Paths branched off from the one Isobel walked, beckoning to her with aromas of perfume and feast time sweets—but she hurried past them, just as the old woman had told her to do.
“Keep to your path,” Isobel whispered. She hurried on.
The air turned warmer and drier; the aroma of food and flowers turned to a stifling stench of smoke. The roots in the earthen walls started to glow, lighting Isobel’s path with a wan and stifled light. It led her downwards, ever downwards, until she came to an arched vault in which the path ended.
Smoke lingered among stone pillars that disappeared into the darkness above. On the ground lay a charred and lifeless form. Isobel cried out and knelt next to it. Do not touch her, the old woman had said. No matter how much it hurts you, do not put your hands on her.
Isobel wept as she knelt next to her daughter’s body—her trembling hands lingering over the lifeless form. She remembered how she had clutched the body to her breast, enduring the wracking sobs that had threatened to tear her apart. She wanted to touch her, feel her skin—blackened though it was—but she dared not. Instead, she clenched her shaking hands into fists, and then she got to her feet.
On weakened legs, Isobel turned back the way she had come. Clearing her throat, she said, “Follow me,” and then she started walking.
She wound her way upwards, following the path as she had before, passing other paths of sweetened wine and springtime air. Her footsteps echoed around her, but it wasn’t just hers, was it? There was another step in sound, lighter than hers and more tenuous. Isobel couldn’t be sure, but she dared not look back.
“Never look back,” she whispered to herself. “Never.”
The path ahead brightened as faint, dawn light broke through the gloom. Isobel quickened her step, and the echoes quickened with her. There will always be a price to pay, the old woman had said. Be sure you are willing to pay it. Isobel ran until she reached the entrance, but before she passed the threshold, she stopped and closed her eyes.
A cold air rushed past her, chilling her bones and freezing the breath in her chest. A girl laughed, and Isobel opened her eyes.
She was there—Evyn—her round cheeks pink and her eyes alive with laughter. She ran through the grass, her bright white dress dampened with dew. Isobel stifled a sob. She wanted to leave, to run through the grass with her daughter and feel the sunlight on her face. But there was a price to pay, and Isobel was prepared to pay it.
The sun broke over the horizon, washing the field in a fiery light. The portal closed, and then all else turned black.