Under the Hill

Written by Madison Marie

 Photograph by   Patrick Hendry

Photograph by Patrick Hendry

A hill rises at the edge of a small village; its vigil unending. Upon its crest sits a cottage, its wooden walls cracking and curling and its thatched roof crumbling with age. A young boy, just grown into his hand-me-down trousers, stands before the door. His hand was raised in front of him, preparing to knock, but he found himself hesitating. 

He heard the stories of The Healer. She was known to be a woman of beauty and kindness who could heal any wound in a matter of seconds. The village at the bottom of the hill, from which the boy belonged, revered the Healer. He recalled listening to the elders telling the story of the Healer’s arrival to their small valley. When they reached the end, their eyes always glazed over as if they were truly reliving the event. That had been decades ago.

Yet it was not the Healer’s apparent warm-heartedness that made the boy pause, but the voices of the night. After the sun retired and the village lights were extinguished, the voices crept through the boy’s window. They sounded mournful and hopeless, as if the collective voices pleaded for him to save them. From what, he did not know. He mentioned it to his mother one early morning. She furrowed her brows, her eyes widening as she asked, “Where do you come up with such tales?”

The boy disregarded the memory, assuming it was a dream. However, the voices returned the following night. He believed himself to be going mad, until he woke to the moon shining through his window. The voices had awoken him, trailing its fingers up his neck. He moved to sit on his window pane, one leg dangling out into the night with only the moaning and murmuring to keep him company. It was closer to sunrise than sunset when the house neighbouring his own woke up. The door burst open with a bang and a girl his age flew into the darkness. She had lived next to him for his entire life, though they had never interacted much. The boy had always assumed her to be average, but as he watched her trip over her night clothes, he assumed otherwise. 

She struggled through the high grass. The boy followed her with his eyes, his body glued to the window frame. He watched her fall to her knees, almost disappearing into the sea of black. He narrowed his eyes to make out her figure. She faced the ground, her body moving as if-- “She’s digging,” he whispered to himself. He pushed himself off the window pane and dropped to the ground, his bare feet sinking into the dirt. He cautiously made his way to the girl, feet spread and hands out as if he were approaching a wounded animal. 

‘Are you okay?’ he asked. His voice sounded like thunder in the silent night. That’s when he realized the voices had died. Something brushed against his foot and he jumped in surprise. He looked down to find a pale object lying on the ground, a hand. His eyes follow up the arm to find the girl curled up inside a shallow burrow. He crouched next to the entrance and peeked inside; he could only make out the girl’s wide, fearful eyes.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked. Despite himself, his voice quivered. Her eyes snapped to him, unblinking as she said, ‘The voices. They need to be let out. They beg and they don’t stop. They don’t stop. Always whispering.’

The boy jerked away from the girl, terror coursing through him. She heard the voices too; he hadn’t dreamed it, hadn’t imagined it. He scrambled away from her, his clean clothes now covered in dirt. He glanced away from her for a moment, towards his open window, not noticing the girl crawling from her burrow. She threw herself on top of him, grabbing for him, yet not hurting. He struggled beneath, but was unable to get loose. She gripped the sides of his face so tightly her fingers turned white. 

‘Do not trust the one who tricks. No one hears but us, those who haven’t been deceived by her charm. Do not trust the Healer. Do not trust her.  

The boy pushed her away and bolted back towards his home. In his frantic state, he didn’t notice the dip in the ground. His foot plunged down, his ankle twisting and sending shots of pain up his leg. He barely had time to put his hands out before he hit the ground with a thud, the air knocked from his lungs. He wasted no time in pushing himself up once again and sprinting the rest to the way to his house. 

The boy blinked, his mind snapping back to reality. His hand was still raised to the door, motionless, when it swung open to reveal a woman. Her beauty nearly made him stagger backwards. Her skin was as smooth as satin and dark as ebony, her lips as red as a rose, and her eyes matched the herbs that decorated the room. Her hair cropped close to her head, yet the designs shaved into the sides entranced him.

Her eyes flickered down to the boy’s hand, which was still raised in the air. A smile spread across her face, revealing flawless teeth. ‘Yes? Are you in need of my assistance?’ A shiver traveled down the boy’s spine at the sound of her voice. It reminded the young boy of when his mother used to sing him to sleep. 

The boy blinked and lowered his hand. The healer’s smile only grew as she stepped away from the threshold to allow him inside. Her question was immediately answered as he limped through the door, his ankle purple and swelling. She motioned to a stool that sat in the middle of the room, its wood looked to be older than the house in which they stood. 

The boy tried his best not to collapse onto the stool, the pain in his ankle almost overbearing. The young woman stood at a counter covered in herbs and medicines, her hands brushing over everything until reaching thick bandages. 

She didn’t look up at him as she spoke, ‘And what exactly did you do to cause such an injury?’ The boy chewed his cheek and replied, ‘I was running.’

‘From something you shouldn’t have been tampering with, I assume?’

The boy remained silent, confirming the healers suspicions. She walked over to him and knelt, their facing becoming equal level. She held out a hand towards his ankle, waiting for him to raise it. He did so, the fear that nearly paralysed him ebbing away at the rhythm of her work. She wrapped the bandage around his ankle, making movement difficult. After securing it, she leaned back on her heels and looked to the herbs hanging above their heads. She pulled a leaf from one of the various plants and held it out to him.

‘Chew this and it will help with infection. Besides that, you just need time and rest.’ 

The boy accepted the leaf but didn’t dare put it on his tongue. The healer studied him, her eyes showing an emotion the boy couldn’t place. 

‘Is there something wrong?’ She asked. Poison laced her voice, the type of poison one does not notice until it is too late. The boy shook his head, his words jumbled as they came out.

‘No Ma’am. I only heard stories of what you can do,’ he lowered his voice, ‘the magic.’

The woman breathed deeply, tilting back her head. ‘And you wish to see if the rumours are true?’ The boy shook his head. The woman narrowed her eyes, ‘Then what is it you want, boy?’

He paused before speaking, his body locking up just as it did when he had tried to knock on the healer’s cottage door. ‘I wish to know why the voices beneath the hill haunt me at night,’ his voice was barely more than a whisper, ‘I wish to know why only the children can hear them and why they seem to come from your home, Miss.’

The healer’s eyes seem to freeze, the green hue turning darker as they focused on him. The boy blinked, expecting to see the healer still smiling down at him. Instead, her face held a deathly glare, her smile all but vanished. 

‘I’ll show you.’ Was all she said.

The boy had the sudden feeling that he had made a grave mistake. He expected her to shed her skin for the monster he imagined her to be, but she remained beautiful. A siren atop the hill. She placed her hands around the boy’s ankle, squeezing hard enough for him to flinch. She closed her eyes and her body stilled. The boy suddenly felt very alone in the old cottage. Her hands began to warm, as if a fire had sparked between her fingertips. The heat grew so intense, that he tried to pull his ankle away from the healer, but her grip was steel. 

Just when the boy felt she was burning his foot to ash, she let go. She gasped, struggling for breath. The boy refrained from running, if only because his curiosity forced him to stay and discover the answers he so desperately sought. 

The healer regained her composer and wiped the sweat from her brow. ‘Behold, the magic I wield,’ she said as she spread her hands to him. The boy looked down at his ankle and a gasp escaped his lips. The skin was no longer purple and the pain nonexistent. It was as if he had ever ventured into that field. 

He gaped at the healed ankle, marveling at her work. She laughed quietly and spoke, ‘Does this answer at least one of your questions?’

The boy nodded, yet eager to learn more. He stared at her skeptically, still wary of this healer and the newfound power she wielded. She waved for him to follow her as she stood and turned away. He pushed off the stool and followed her to a large basin. 

Its sides had been carved to show thousands of shapes, most looked like animals, shimmering and sparking in their medium. The boy studied the basin, his eyes widening as he realized what it was. ‘Is this gold?’

The healer nodded, her eyes not leaving the water that filled the bowl. She waved a hand over the liquid and to the boy’s astonishment, it began to ripple and pulsate. She dipped one finger into the water and out from her skin came a black ichor that spread out like veins until all the boy could see was black. 

‘Look,’ the healer ordered. They boy saw nothing but darkness. He turned his head towards the healer, confused. 

‘I see nothing but oil, Ma’am.’

She motioned for him to lean closer and ordered him to look once again. So, the boy turned to the basin and squinted his eyes. He just saw a glimmer of something human when he felt the healer’s hand on the back of his neck, forcing him down into the water. He struggled only for a moment, as the oil filled his lungs and he choked. Within a moment, the feeling was gone and he opened his eyes to find himself in darkness. 

‘Ma’am?’ he called, fear gripping him like the claws of a bear. The healer’s gentle touch was on his shoulder, a lantern in hand. She waved for him to follow and began to walk. The boy could see nothing but stone and dirt covering the floor around the healer. He followed her only because she held the lantern, his only protection from the eternal night.

‘You wish to know why only children can hear the voices? Because not even I can hold a mind that moves so quickly. A grown man, however, does not think much past the food in his belly and the ale in his hand.’

Why would she need to hold their minds? What was she controlling them for? 

‘You also wish to know who the voices belong to? Why they plead for your help? Here is your answer.’ The boy looked around, still not able to see. He was just about to ask what she meant when an elderly man crawled into the lantern’s light. His skin was cracked and bleeding, his body hunched and deformed. He looked up at the boy to reveal sightless eyes and bruises on his pale face.

The boy jumped backwards, trying to get away from the man, right into the clutches of another person, this one was a woman. Her body was skin and bones, her hair dull and torn out in many places. The boy had nowhere to go but back into the healer’s arms.

‘Who are they?’ He asked, the terror in his voice unmistakable. 

‘They are mine and nothing else. I am their mother, their goddess of night, their prophet of salvation.’ 

The boy shook his head, ‘What has happened to them?’

The boy felt the healer’s lips curl against his ear as she whispered, ‘My gift is not to heal, but to deliver.’ 

Just then, a new figure came into view. A young girl, her skin pale and bloodied. Her clothes covered in dirt. She limped forward, agony filling her eyes as she reached for him. 

He glanced down a her ankle to find it purple and twisted, just as his had been. Yet her wound was also covered in fresh blisters, as if she had been burned. Horror rose in his throat as he realized what the healer had done. A sudden realization of where they were struck him. They were beneath the healer’s hill.

‘I want to go home. Take me home,’ he demanded. He missed his mother and the sunshine of his face. He felt as if he had been deprived for months, yet it had only been minutes.

‘My dear,’ the healer cooed, ‘you are home.’ 

Then she shoved the boy into the girl’s outreaching arms. They felt familiar as they closed around him, preventing his escape. He screamed and begged for the healer’s help, yet no aid came. He turned just in time to watch the Siren flash her beautiful smile before she vanished, along with the light. 

The boy was plunged into the darkness and the hands wrapped around him, pulling at him from every direction. Those familiar arms didn’t not let go.

It was then he recognized the wide eyes and the dirty clothes. The silence of the room was nearing deafening before the girl pressed her cracked lips to his ear and whispered, ‘I told you not to trust the healer.’

Then the moaning began. A pointless plead that the victims of the Siren made, calling for help. Realizing he was never to escape, the boy joined in their symphony.