The sky was the colour of dried blood when the family of three settled down for their final night. An afternoon of steady hiking had exhausted them enough that, once the tent was up, they sat in silence to watch the sun setting behind the distant, jagged mountains lining the horizon like teeth. The quiet persisted while the father, a bulky man, face hard and calloused by years spent outdoors, started a fire. His thick, leathery hands worked with a deft rhythm while his wife and young daughter patrolled the edge of the clearing collecting sticks.
Soon, his wife was cooking, picking apart the twine bows she’d tied around the special packages kept at the bottom of her pack. The little girl’s eyes widened when she saw the meal her mother was making. “Mint stew,” she said and clapped her hands.
“And carrot cake for dessert,” said her mother as she emptied a fragile jar of stock into the pot.
“Carrot cake,” the little girl told her father as she tottered toward him, propping herself up with one of the sticks she’d collected.
He gathered her into his lap, feeling the delicate bones of her spine against his palm. So small, he thought, letting his fingers spread apart. Only after this last season was she big enough that he couldn’t span the width of her back with his hand. “As much as you can eat,” he promised.
What was meant to be the final day’s travel was first slowed by thick fog rolling in from the north. The ground began to slope, gently at first, and the thick pine forest thinned out into scrappy saplings and wiry bushes fighting for purchase amongst the rocks. Limited visibility exacerbated the precarious footing over the loose stones and hard earth. The father carried his daughter on his back, where she slumped against his shoulder. She murmured to herself whenever a small mammal darted out of the mist long enough to see the three humans, only to disappear again a moment later.
“Are they scared of us?” she asked after a brown bunny bounded away from the cover of a boulder as they passed. Her voice had a hollow echo, the sound muffled by the fog.
“In a way,” said her father.
“Because we might catch them and eat them, or make clothes out of their fur.”
“Oh,” she said.
In the afternoon, the sun made its presence felt, hanging heavy in the sky until the fog had evaporated before slipping behind a strip of dark cloud. They ate on the move, trying to make up for lost time. The sun continued to fall as they climbed, with only the lingering reflection of its light left to paint the clouds when they sighted their destination.
“What is it?” asked the little girl, pointing over her father’s shoulder.
“You’ll see soon enough,” he said.
They rested for a while. The little girl wanted to know everything, but her father gave only noncommittal answers. So she turned to her mother waving her arms and pointing up the hill at the lights. Her legs failed her as she slipped on a flat, dew-slick rock, and her mother sprang forward, arms out. The little girl laughed.
She stopped when she saw the tears on her mother’s face. “I’m sorry,” she muttered.
“Don’t be,” said her mother. “It’s not your fault.”
When they started walking again, the father shouldered both packs so the mother could carry her daughter. More than once, he almost said something but found he’d run out of words.
The lights were a crown of jewels in the blue mountain darkness as they approached, obscuring the long silhouette behind them. The trees and animals disappeared as the ground levelled off in the final kilometre. The only sound was the flat slap of their footsteps in the void.
A new jewel appeared, closer to the ground, and focused, circling them in a pool of bright light. The father stepped forward, an arm raised to shield his family. When nothing happened, they began walking again. The spotlight moved with them.
All at once, as suddenly as it appeared, the light was gone. They froze again, blind in the new darkness. A voice came from the silence like a crack of thunder. “State your business,” it said.
The father stepped aside, revealing the little girl held tight in her mother’s arms. “My daughter,” he said, trailing off when the spotlight reappeared.
“Send her here,” said the voice.
The man looked back at his wife, at the mother, who was shaking her head while the tears flowed freely. “We have to do this,” he said, and gently pried her arms away.
The little girl looked back at them as she walked toward the lights. She used the stick her father had saved as a crutch. Her mouth opened, but the words were lost to the booming voice as it ordered them to leave. The husband pulled his wife away with him and only cried out once, when the light went out and the darkness swallowed his little girl.