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The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Author:Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon

Kelly Barnhill




1.


In Which a Story Is Told





Yes.

There is a witch in the woods. There has always been a witch.

Will you stop your fidgeting for once? My stars! I have never seen such a fidgety child.

No, sweetheart, I have not seen her. No one has. Not for ages. We’ve taken steps so that we will never see her.

Terrible steps.

Don’t make me say it. You already know, anyway.

Oh, I don’t know, darling. No one knows why she wants children. We don’t know why she insists that it must always be the very youngest among us. It’s not as though we could just ask her. She hasn’t been seen. We make sure that she will not be seen.

Of course she exists. What a question! Look at the woods! So dangerous! Poisonous smoke and sinkholes and boiling geysers and terrible dangers every which way. Do you think it is so by accident? Rubbish! It was the Witch, and if we don’t do as she says, what will become of us?

You really need me to explain it?

I’d rather not.

Oh, hush now, don’t cry. It’s not as though the Council of Elders is coming for you, now is it. You’re far too old.

From our family?

Yes, dearest. Ever so long ago. Before you were born. He was a beautiful boy.

Now finish your supper and see to your chores. We’ll all be up early tomorrow. The Day of Sacrifice waits for no one, and we must all be present to thank the child who will save us for one more year.

Your brother? How could I fight for him? If I had, the Witch would have killed us all and then where would we be? Sacrifice one or sacrifice all. That is the way of the world. We couldn’t change it if we tried.

Enough questions. Off with you. Fool child.





2.


In Which an Unfortunate Woman Goes Quite Mad





Grand Elder Gherland took his time that morning. The Day of Sacrifice only came once a year, after all, and he liked to look his best during the sober procession to the cursed house, and during the somber retreat. He encouraged the other Elders to do the same. It was important to give the populace a show.

He carefully dabbed rouge on his sagging cheeks and lined his eyes with thick streaks of kohl. He checked his teeth in the mirror, ensuring they were free of debris or goop. He loved that mirror. It was the only one in the Protectorate. Nothing gave Gherland more pleasure than the possession of a thing that was unique unto him. He liked being special.

The Grand Elder had ever so many possessions that were unique in the Protectorate. It was one of the perks of the job.

The Protectorate—called the Cattail Kingdom by some and the City of Sorrows by others—was sandwiched between a treacherous forest on one side and an enormous bog on the other. Most people in the Protectorate drew their livelihoods from the Bog. There was a future in bogwalking, mothers told their children. Not much of a future, you understand, but it was better than nothing. The Bog was full of Zirin shoots in the spring and Zirin flowers in the summer and Zirin bulbs in the fall—in addition to a wide array of medicinal and borderline magical plants that could be harvested, prepared, treated, and sold to the Traders from the other side of the forest, who in turn transported the fruits of the Bog to the Free Cities, far away. The forest itself was terribly dangerous, and navigable only by the Road.

And the Elders owned the Road.

Which is to say that Grand Elder Gherland owned the Road, and the other Elders had their cut. The Elders owned the Bog, too. And the orchards. And the houses. And the market squares. Even the garden plots.

This was why the families of the Protectorate made their shoes out of reeds. This was why, in lean times, they fed their children the thick, rich broth of the Bog, hoping that the Bog would make them strong.

This was why the Elders and their families grew big and strong and rosy-cheeked on beef and butter and beer.

The door knocked.

“Enter,” Grand Elder Gherland mumbled as he adjusted the drape of his robe.

It was Antain. His nephew. An Elder-in-Training, but only because Gherland, in a moment of weakness, had promised the ridiculous boy’s more ridiculous mother. But that was unkind. Antain was a nice enough young man, nearly thirteen. He was a hard worker and a quick study. He was good with numbers and clever with his hands and could build a comfortable bench for a tired Elder as quick as breathing. And, despite himself, Gherland had developed an inexplicable, and growing, fondness for the boy.

But.

Antain had big ideas. Grand notions. And questions. Gherland furrowed his brow. Antain was—how could he put it? Overly keen. If this kept up, he’d have to be dealt with, blood or no. The thought of it weighed upon Gherland’s heart, like a stone.

“UNCLE GHERLAND!” Antain nearly bowled his uncle over with his insufferable enthusiasm.

“Calm yourself, boy!” the Elder snapped. “This is a solemn occasion!”

The boy calmed visibly, his eager, doglike face tilted toward the ground. Gherland resisted the urge to pat him gently on the head. “I have been sent,” Antain continued in a mostly soft voice, “to tell you that the other Elders are ready. And all the populace waits along the route. Everyone is accounted for.”

“Each one? There are no shirkers?”

“After last year, I doubt there ever will be again,” Antain said with a shudder.

“Pity.” Gherland checked his mirror again, touching up his rouge. He rather enjoyed teaching the occasional lesson to the citizens of the Protectorate. It clarified things. He tapped the sagging folds under his chin and frowned. “Well, Nephew,” he said with an artful swish of his robes, one that had taken him over a decade to perfect. “Let us be off. That baby isn’t going to sacrifice itself, after all.” And he flowed into the street with Antain stumbling at his heels.



Normally, the Day of Sacrifice came and went with all the pomp and gravity that it ought. The children were given over without protest. Their numb families mourned in silence, with pots of stew and nourishing foods heaped into their kitchens, while the comforting arms of neighbors circled around them to ease their bereavement.

Normally, no one broke the rules.

But not this time.

Grand Elder Gherland pressed his lips into a frown. He could hear the mother’s howling before the procession turned onto the final street. The citizens began to shift uncomfortably where they stood.

When they arrived at the family’s house, an astonishing sight met the Council of Elders. A man with a scratched-up face and a swollen lower lip and bloody bald spots across his skull where his hair had been torn out in clumps met them at the door. He tried to smile, but his tongue went instinctively to the gap where a tooth had just recently been. He sucked in his lips and attempted to bow instead.

“I am sorry, sirs,” said the man—the father, presumably. “I don’t know what has gotten into her. It’s like she’s gone mad.”

From the rafters above them, a woman screeched and howled as the Elders entered the house. Her shiny black hair flew about her head like a nest of long, writhing snakes. She hissed and spat like a cornered animal. She clung to the ceiling beams with one arm and one leg, while holding a baby tightly against her breast with the other arm.

“GET OUT!” she screamed. “You cannot have her. I spit on your faces and curse your names. Leave my home at once, or I shall tear out your eyes and throw them to the crows!”

The Elders stared at her, openmouthed. They couldn’t believe it. No one fought for a doomed child. It simply wasn’t done.

(Antain alone began to cry. He did his best to hide it from the adults in the room.)