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Fiction

The Shining Hills

“Are you all right?”

The voice, sharp and worried, shot out of the pocket of shadow to her left. Startled, she turned and found herself blinking at a cop, one of the ones who patrolled the park on foot. In the last light of dusk, she could just make out his half-frown, his badge, the hand resting on a nightstick. He reminded her of her father.

She shivered and pulled her sweatshirt more tightly around her. She should have brought warmer clothing, but she wasn’t going to be here long. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?” Her father would have said she was being rude, and foolish beside: You didn’t talk back to cops, especially in foreign countries. She didn’t care. Cops were cops.

“It’s getting dark. Where are you going?”

None of your fucking business. Even she knew better than to say that. Anyway, couldn’t he figure it out? She didn’t answer, just gestured with her chin. When she glanced at the top of Arthur’s Seat now, she couldn’t make out the glowing lights she’d seen before. She wondered if the cop would have been able to see them. Only the Chosen saw them, supposedly. That was why the rest of the world thought they were crazy.

She hoped she hadn’t missed her chance.

When you see them, don’t look away. Follow them. If they vanish, they may be gone forever. There’s no way to know if you’ll get another chance. That’s what everybody said. There were Chosen who were still here, stunned and yearning. Some of them killed themselves, and she didn’t want to do that, but she wasn’t sure what she’d do instead, since she’d come all the way here.

“Ach,” the cop said, softly, and shook his head. “That’s no place to be going, not at nightfall. You don’t know what’s up there.”

Neither do you, she thought. And I know there were lights up there. Maybe they’d just been blocked by other people. Maybe they’d come back. She started walking again, but he hurried next to her. “Wait, please. Please, wait. I’m still here. I’m talking to you. What’s your name?”

The lights hadn’t come back; she couldn’t even see the top of the Seat now, in the growing darkness. She could only see a few other people, far ahead of her. She wondered why the cop wasn’t going after them. Frustrated, angry at herself for letting him distract her—although she supposed he’d just have followed her anyway, had she ignored his first greeting—she turned. “Niff.”

“Niff?” She caught a flash of white teeth in the dusk, a smile. “That short for something?”

“Jennifer.” Why was she even answering? But maybe he’d go away more quickly if she did.

“Niff. That’s a good one. I’ve never heard that.”

“Thanks,” she said, throat tightening. She’d hated her name and all its standard nicknames as long as she could remember. Her brother Toby had hit on Niff, the one surprise hiding in those syllables, and it had stuck. Toby had always understood her, but he was gone now. War. IED. Not enough left to send home, not even his dog tags.

She turned back toward Arthur’s Seat. Had she seen a brief blaze of light? She peered into the dimness, unsure, but started walking anyway, really more of a trot. The cop stayed next to her, an unwelcome growth.

“I’m Seamus. I prefer not to be called Shame.” She didn’t answer. He thought he was clever; he wasn’t. She sped up. So did he. “Niff, what do you think you’re going to find up there?”

He was faster than she was; he stood in front of her now, and she blinked, unsure how he’d gotten there. He could have been one of the fey himself. “Go pester somebody else,” she told him.

“Not right now. Right now I’m pestering you.”

“If I scream and say you were harassing me, what do you think would happen?”

His face in the fading light was grave. “If you scream, another cop will come. They know me. They’re my friends.” She shook her head and tried to go around him, but he blocked her. “Niff, listen to me. Just listen. I don’t know if there’s a faerie court on top of Arthur’s Seat or not. I do know that people you don’t want to meet have been going up there to waylay folks heading to the top to see faeries. Some of them shine lights to fool people. Robbery’s the best you can expect.”

“Nothing to rob.” She’d spent all her money getting here. “The lights are real.”

“Some of them are real. Others aren’t. None of them, real or not, mean you any good.”

She noted that he hadn’t told her she was stupid to believe in them. He was pretending to keep an open mind, trying to win her trust. Again she tried to move around him; again he swung easily into her path. He made no move to touch her, just made it clear that they could do this dance for a long time. “Robbery’s the best, I said. There are other things they can take, will take. You know about the bodies up there: everyone knows. Some say they’re folks the fair folk rejected, say if they want you, they’ll pull you into their world and you’ll be safe and will never have to worry about rape or murder again, although don’t ask me how anyone knows faeries don’t have their own version of rape, or that they aren’t just throwing people into stew pots.”

She rolled her eyes. “They’re vegetarians.”

“And you know this how? The people who vanish don’t come back: Everyone knows that, too.”

At least he wasn’t trying to convince her they didn’t exist, not that anybody could. Everyone knew people had vanished. Everyone had seen the lights, or knew someone who had seen lights, heard music, glimpsed gauzy forms with wings, flickering, here and then gone. Some said they weren’t faeries but angels or demons or aliens. It didn’t matter. Wherever people vanished to, they were somewhere else.

She thought the summoners were faeries, because she’d dreamed music, celtic-y, with harps and pipes. She didn’t really know they were vegetarians; she just thought so. Nuts, flower salad. Berries. But she shouldn’t have said anything. Dumb. Don’t engage with assholes. “I’d like to go up there, please. I’ve done nothing wrong. You can’t arrest me.”

“Oh, Niff.” He sounded very tired. “I’m not going to arrest you. When’s the last time you had something to eat?”

Arthur’s Seat wasn’t very high, not really, but the path seemed longer now than it had before the sun set. She craned her head; she couldn’t see the lights anymore, but if she started up, maybe they’d come back. “I’m nineteen. I’m legal. You can’t stop me.”

“In three hours, the moon will be up,” said Seamus the cop. “Full moon: You know that. That’s why you came tonight, right?” She wondered how many other cops were in the park, trying to stop people heading up to Arthur’s Seat on the night of the full moon. “You’ll be able to see better then, if you still want to go. Let me buy you a burger, talk a bit. You still want to go up there afterwards, you’re right. I can’t stop you.”

• • • •

He took her to the Holyrood, one of the pubs closest to the Park. He hadn’t expected her to say yes, and wondered why she had, but he was glad of it. Simple hunger, he supposed. She was American, that was clear enough, on a gap year before college maybe: She’d be at school at this time of year, if she were studying. But then, plenty of college kids had run away to the Shining Hills too.

This time of year: late November, when it got dark before 4:00. Perfect for mysterious lights; bad for young women—or men, for that matter—wandering around the Park. In summer, especially Festival, when it stayed light until ten and the city swelled to three times its normal size, Niff would have been much less easy to spot.

But kids had regularly washed up in Edinburgh even before the mysterious lights started. He’d been working Holyrood Park a long time, and he knew them from a mile away, just as the pimps and predators did: the lost ones, the runaways, headed up for a look-see. They gave off a sour smell that had less to do with food and hygiene—both usually in short supply—than with grief, desperation, despair. Some were on drugs, but not all; Niff wasn’t, not that he could tell, and over the years he’d gotten good at telling.

The Holyrood was warm, crowded, renowned for its burgers. He wondered if Niff would order beer—he wouldn’t have stopped her—but she didn’t, asked for tea instead. “You really a pimp?” she asked, eyes narrowed, sitting across from him at the table. “Pimp dressed as a cop?”

“No, Niff. I’m really a cop.” He was off-duty now and shouldn’t have been in uniform, but he wasn’t going to tell her that, and she hadn’t asked about his lack of a partner. If she did, he’d tell her the radio on his shoulder kept him in touch with a partner, which indeed it did, when he was on duty. He walked the paths and trails and his partner drove the car around the Park down below. Sometimes Seamus patrolled down there too. If he heard a scream, he could make it to the top in ten minutes.

Niff eyed him. She wore a nondescript faded sweatshirt and fingerless gloves, none of it warm enough for Edinburgh in November, although they’d had no snow yet. Well, sure she’d packed light. Planned to go somewhere warmer.

He wondered briefly why there were never stories about ice fairies—or maybe there were, that kid’s ballet—before Niff said, “You have a police budget to buy people burgers?”

He smiled. It was a smart question. “No. It’s my own money. I won’t say no to your repaying me, if you have any of your own.” She looked away, and he said, “That’s all right. I didn’t think so.” If she’d had money of her own she wouldn’t have been hungry, wouldn’t have agreed to come with him in the first place.

“So you’re a cop who works with pimps?” Her eyes were still narrowed. “Being so careful not to touch me, taking me somewhere public. Trying to get me to trust you?”

He regarded her. Smart. “Has that happened to you?”

“No.”

“Good. Because you’re right: If that’s what I were up to, I’d probably be going about it the same way. But I’m not. I’m worried about you—or anybody—hiking up to the Seat this time of day, that’s all.”

“You take them all out for burgers? What’s your story?”

“Trade,” he told her. “Your story for mine. But yours first, because I’m buying the burgers.”

• • • •

She told him. She didn’t know why; she hadn’t told anybody else except people online, the ones who gathered in the chat rooms to talk about the Shining Hills. The lights appeared in high places every six to eight months, but only in one place at a time, always somewhere with hills. Rome. Seattle. San Francisco. Edinburgh. They shone intermittently for a few weeks, and then they vanished, and some percentage of those who’d made the pilgrimage to see them vanished too: the Lucky, the people in the chat rooms said, and of course other people thought they were unlucky, doomed or damned. No one knew. All anyone knew was that wherever they were now, alive or dead, it wasn’t here, and that was enough for Niff and the others like her.

She had never fit in, never felt like she belonged to her family—mother dead of cancer five years ago, father distant ever since—never really felt like she belonged to the Earth. She’d always had strange feelings: heard snatches of song, flashes of odd color, been bored and baffled by the things other people found ordinary—football, baby showers, prom corsages—and smitten by the things no one else understood: the slant of moonlight through a window, the angle of a skyscraper rising into a flawlessly blue sky.

“None of that means you’re a faerie,” Seamus said. “You could just be an artist, Niff. Why not stay here and find out?”

She shook her head. If she did that, she might miss her chance. And there was nothing to stay here for, nothing, because Toby was dead. Toby was the only person here she’d ever really loved, the only person who’d understood her and never made fun of her, and he was gone, blown to bits.

Seamus was quiet when she told him this, quiet and attentive. He knew how to listen; she’d give him that. He didn’t lecture like her father, like most of the other adults she knew. And, unlike her father—of whom he’d initially reminded her—he didn’t seem lost. He wasn’t bossing people around to give himself a job to do. He seemed rooted, at home.

“I’m sorry your brother died, Niff.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you think this is what he’d want, though? Do you think he’d want you to be gone, too, because he is?”

She shook her head. “You don’t get it. I’m not killing myself. I’m just going somewhere else.”

“You don’t know. You don’t know what will happen, even if you give the fakers up there a miss and get to whatever’s real about it, if anything is.”

That was true. She took the last bite of her burger, chewed and swallowed it. “Toby would understand.”

Seamus gave her a level look, infinitely sad. “The dead always understand, don’t they? Anything we want to do, they’ll always approve.”

“No. My mother wouldn’t. She only cared about herself even before she got sick. But Toby would.” She pushed back her empty plate and said, “Thank you for the hamburger. I have to go now.”

“Ah,” he said, and put out a hand. “Not yet. Not quite yet. We’ve still time before moonrise, and it’s a trade, remember? You have to hear my story, too.”

“You think I’m stupid,” Niff said. “Or silly.” She could hear the anger in her own voice, but it wasn’t really directed at Seamus, this stranger: It was what she wanted to say to her father, to the endless therapists and counselors, to the other people her age who were too busy with school or hooking up or getting drunk to care about faerie. “You think I’m trying to avoid the real world.”

“All worlds are real,” Seamus said, and she looked at him, startled, feeling herself give a grudging nod of admiration. Not many people knew that.

“Yeah. They are. So why not go to that one?”

“Because it isn’t yours, that’s all. Look: You’ve heard about geographical cures, right? People taking vacations to get away from whatever’s bothering them, but they can’t.”

“They bring it with them.”

“They bring it with them. Suicide rates are higher in holiday towns, Niff, did you know that? Because unhappy people go to places where people go to be happy, because the places are supposed to make them happy, but it doesn’t work. And when you’re unhappy in a place like that, it’s doubly terrible. There’s nowhere else to go and no one to talk to. And that’s true even when you’re surrounded by other people. Look, if running off to bleeding faerieland would fix everything, I’d go myself. I’m not telling you to stay here because I want you to suffer, because I’m trying to keep you from something better. I’m not anti-pleasure. You can have all the drugs and sex you want, as far as I’m concerned. But I don’t think faerieland’s any better. I don’t see how it can be. If they don’t just eat you or put you in a zoo, it has to be the biggest jolt of loneliness and culture shock there is. And yeah, there would be other people there, presumably, a little expat community maybe. Why do that when you can find a community here?”

“You believe in it,” Niff said, feeling her eyebrows rise. He wasn’t faking, and he wasn’t talking down to her.

“Yes, I do.”

“Why?”

He turned away from her. In the dim light of the pub, she saw him swallow. “Because my daughter walked up a hill like that one five years ago and never came back down.”

“No body?”

“No. No body.”

She looked at her watch. Ninety minutes to moonrise. “All right. So tell me the story.”

• • • •

Audrey was fifteen when she walked up her hill. Hers was the Sparrow Hills in Moscow. She’d been there on a school trip—a music camp; she was a violinist—and the lights had come, and she’d followed them, although none of her classmates had. They’d all been warned by their teacher, but Audrey had crept out of the youth hostel in the middle of the night with her best friend Selena, who didn’t see the lights but was curious, and wanted to keep an eye on Audrey.

Selena came back alone. She’d gotten almost all the way to the top with Audrey, she said, and then she tripped on a stone and fell, and when she got up again, Audrey was no longer there, and the air had an odd tingling sensation, the way it does right before lightning strikes, but Selena couldn’t see anything except other people climbing the hill, passing her. She called for Audrey, and got no answer. She heard frantic cries, screams and shouts, ahead of her. Afraid to climb any higher, she turned back.

She killed herself six months later, hung herself in her parents’ attic.

“I didn’t blame her,” Seamus said quietly. “No one blamed her,” and Niff didn’t know if he meant that he didn’t blame her for losing Audrey or didn’t blame her for killing herself. Maybe it was both. Maybe he couldn’t tell them apart. “I can’t listen to violin music anymore. None of it: not fiddle, not chamber music, not ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’ Anything on that instrument makes me too sad.”

“What about your wife? Can she listen to violins?”

“I don’t know. We split up after Audrey disappeared. That happens a lot, when bad things happen to children. Illness. Accident.”

Faerie. “My mother’s dead,” Niff said. “So’s my brother. My family’s already split up. I doubt my father will even notice if I vanish.”

Seamus’ eyes narrowed. “I’m betting he will. If you’re doing this to make him sit up and take notice, it’s an awfully big gamble. And if you’re right, you’ll never know if it paid off.”

Niff shrugged. “Maybe that would matter to me if I cared if he noticed.” She pushed her plate back. “I’m going now. It’s almost moonrise.”

“All right.”

“Are you coming with me?”

He looked startled. “Do you want me to?”

“You can if you want to, but you’re not talking me out of it.”

“All right,” he said. His stomach twisted. He was afraid of the climb, but she wanted company; she was, after all, just a little girl. And if any human evil was up there, he could maybe do something about it.

So he paid, and they left, and went out into the cool darkness, moon just rising, and began climbing the paths to the Seat. He used the torch on his belt to light the way until the moon came up more fully; then he switched it off. They didn’t need it anymore.

As they went, others joined them, quiet bodies in the dark, climbing. No one spoke. A glow brighter than moonlight lit the path now. Seamus stopped twenty feet from it, and watched others walk in, two, four, six of them. A woman cried out behind him: “Johnny, no! Stay with me! Stay!” Seamus half-turned, and in the light of the glow saw a woman holding a man her age, husband or brother or friend, saw him wrench away from her and race past Seamus and Niff. The woman keened, and Seamus remembered the screams Selena had heard. He watched Johnny approach the glow, a dark silhouette against it, and then vanish. Gone. Gone, like Audrey, like all the others.

Behind him, the woman was on the ground, sobbing. Someone helped her up and started walking her back down the hill.

Shaking, Seamus turned toward the light again, thinking that Niff would be gone, that she’d have vanished when he took his eyes off her. But she was still there, and for a dizzy moment he allowed himself to believe that she’d stay, that he’d saved her.

“Don’t blame yourself, Seamus.” She was watching him with something like pity. She reached out and almost touched his arm, but didn’t. He knew her words for a great kindness. He couldn’t answer. “Be happy for us. Think of us dancing.” And then she moved forward until she too was gone, and he was left to remember those last words, how they had sounded clear and bright over the music. Pipes and flutes, not fiddle.

Seamus heard it too, the music. He’d always heard it: in dreams, in alley echoes, in the gurgle of water in the drain when he washed the dishes after his lonely dinners. He’d heard it his whole life. He’d never spoken of it to anyone, and Audrey had never told him she heard it too. He doubted anything would be different if she had.

He stood in the glow, leaning against its pull. He knew that if he walked into the dazzling brightness, he might wind up where his daughter was, might see her again, would anyway have solved some mystery.

Or died, or been eaten or dissolved. Better the devil you know.

The summons grew stronger the longer he stood there, with people streaming around him as if he were a tree, with the burger and beer cold and heavy in his stomach. He heard the faint, sweet music, smelled the flowers of that other land. He waited until the pull became nearly unbearable. Someday, maybe he wouldn’t resist it.

Others had stopped. He knew some of them were predators, still and cautious now maybe because they’d seen his uniform. He couldn’t arrest them if they weren’t doing anything, couldn’t tell them from heartsick friends and family.

He hoped Audrey was dancing somewhere, had reached the portal rather than falling to scum, human or otherwise.

Farewell, farewell.

The light blurred from tears; the music continued, endlessly enticing. How many of the others standing here heard it? “Sod off,” Seamus said aloud, speaking to the glow and the lilting melody. He raised his voice, seeking a defiance he didn’t feel. “I live here, don’t I?” Then he turned away, back to the city and the dark, and began to descend the hill.

Susan Palwick

Susan Palwick

Susan Palwick is the author of four novels from Tor Books and a story collection from Tachyon Publications. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of SF/F magazines and anthologies, including several Year’s Best volumes. She has won a Crawford Award and an MLA Alex Award and been shortlisted for the Mythopoeic and World Fantasy Awards. After twenty years teaching writing and literature at the University of Nevada, Reno, Susan is embarking on a career change into social work. She and her husband live with their three cats in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.