One drop of blood from each person on the first day of each new year. It had been a family tradition for as long as Allegra could remember. One of her earliest memories was tightly clutching her father’s hand, tottering down the long, winding garden path to join the silent procession towards the elder tree overlooking the old manor house. It did not seem as tall as it once did, the peculiar tree that their family lore revolved around. This time of year was characterised by wistful stories around the fire and glasses raised to the tree that was always present in the corners of their eyes.
However, this year was different, for now Allegra had a child of her own. Oscar was sleeping soundly, blissfully unaware that when the clock struck midnight tomorrow night, he would be roused from his slumber and brought out into the frosty garden, the swaddling clothes unwrapped to expose his baby-soft skin so a solitary drop of blood could be drawn forth and sacrificed to the tree.
Allegra’s husband had no idea that this would happen, of course. Laurence had not been invited to the manor to celebrate New Year. He never was. Grandmother always insisted that New Year’s Eve was for blood family only, and Allegra rather suspected her husband was grateful for the excuse to remain in the city whilst she made the obligatory pilgrimage back home once Christmas itself was through.
Laurence had never seen the elder tree, never bore witness to the berries that stayed obstinately blood red even when the tree’s cohorts displayed beautifully dark, ripe berries each autumn without fail. When she was a girl, Allegra could never stop herself from pressing her face up against the window when the first snow of the season fell, the contrast of their tree’s crimson berries against the pure white snow captivating her, its herald of anticipatory dread growing keener and sharper with each year that passed.
No longer did she meekly follow in her family’s footsteps. She was old enough now to know how abnormal their annual sacrifice was. Before she offered up her son, she needed to understand why it was that the elder tree needed their blood. Her father, grandmother and aunts all refused to tell her, and so it was that tonight Allegra had resolved to seek out the truth herself. Under the cloak of darkness, she had slipped away from the cradle to venture out alone into the garden and to the tree she was forbidden to visit unaccompanied.
Her heart was beating out a frantic tattoo against her ribcage when she stole a glance over her shoulder at the slumbering manor house behind her. No candlelights were showing, and the fire in the rear parlour room had long since burned out. No curtains twitched, and no faces showed at the glass.
It was safe.
Allegra forced herself to exhale. Nobody was coming to reproach her. For the first time ever she was alone with the elder tree, free to examine it at will. Its bare, twisting branches seemed to reach out towards her, an invitation she was powerless to resist. When she came nearer, though, her eyes were drawn downward.
Something protruded from the frost-kissed ground. She knelt down and winced as she brushed the top layer of dirt away, inwardly cursing herself for lacking the foresight to wear a pair of gloves. Her thin nightgown and housecoat were next to no protection against the biting cold of the winter’s night. The moment she realised what her fingers were touching, though, the cold receded so rapidly it threatened to take her breath with it.
It was a bone; weathered, chipped and soiled, but a bone nonetheless.
Allegra’s breath came in shallow gasps as her hands began to dig, her fingers tearing away the topmost layer of soil to reveal the terrible truth to her wide eyes. It was not only blood that nurtured the family tree, but bodies too. Each of its grasping roots was tangled around a bone, holding them tightly below the ground and away from prying eyes. For a moment she tried to convince herself the bones were nothing more than the remnants of wildlife from the woods beyond, but that hope flickered and died almost as soon as it arrived. The bones were too large to be anything but human, and when she pushed down further, she came up with a jawbone and a handful of human teeth before her fingers hooked a tarnished silver chain.
She rocked back on her haunches and tugged it free of the root as the moonlight glinted off a hinged locket that came away with the chain. There was something familiar about it. Allegra couldn’t quite place it, not yet, but a quivering veil of tears descended over her vision nonetheless, a snatched memory of floral perfume and smiling eyes only a heartbeat away from breaking through.
She lifted it towards her face, and when she brushed away the last vestiges of soil from the worn inscription, the dam gave way.
Her mother’s initials; the mother who abandoned Allegra shortly before her third birthday, never to be heard from again.
“No.” Shaking from head to toe, Allegra clutched the locket tightly and tried to defy the incontrovertible truth. “No, it cannot be!”
“It is precisely what you suspect, Allegra. Now you know.”
Her grandmother, leaning heavily on the gnarled stick formed from a fallen branch of the elder that loomed large over them now. The elderly woman’s pristine, wispy curls rose from her head like a soft cloud on a summer’s day, alluding to a light-hearted contentment that the astute, sharp-eyed woman had long since lost, if she ever possessed it.
Allegra twisted towards her, the locket falling through her numb fingers with a soft thud as it came to rest once more amongst the roots that had kept it hidden these past twenty years. “Grandmother, I do not understand,” she said, her lower lip trembling as she spoke.
Her grandmother smiled. “The tree protects our family against those who would destroy it,” she said. “You have always known that, Allegra.”
“I have heard the stories, of course. But this…”
She could not bring herself to put forth the fateful accusation that would turn her world on its head, but the ghost of the unspoken words hovered between the two women regardless.
“Your mother was too inquisitive for her own good, Allegra. I knew it from the first moment your father brought her home, but he would not hear a word against her,” the elderly woman said. “I warned him to keep her away from the tree. I did not want this to happen.”
Allegra tensed, her stomach churning painfully. “Want what to happen?”
Her grandmother gestured at the bones. “She could not accept the price we must pay to stay protected, Allegra, but the family’s bloodline must survive at any cost.”
“The cost she paid was her life.”
“And the family stayed safe, Allegra. No harm came to us, and now here we are. The next generation is sleeping soundly inside the manor. I can only pray that little Oscar has not inherited the fatal flaw your mother passed down to you.”
Her body lurched as those calm words echoed in the still night. Oscar. There was no longer any trace of doubt in Allegra’s mind. They were leaving. The family could go to hell now for all she cared; all that mattered was her baby son. She would dash back into the manor, snatch him up from the cradle and walk down to the village to wait for the next mail coach if necessary. They were not staying here in this house of horrors a moment longer than they had to.
Allegra felt the root crawl past her bare feet before she realised what was happening to her. Stealthy and silent, the root that had kept her mother’s locket hidden wrapped around her ankle, and before her head could process what was happening, another root relinquished its human relics to seize hold of her other ankle and yank her down as the roots began to beat their retreat.
With a piercing scream, her fingers scrabbled for something, anything, to hold onto, but nature defied her and her grandmother was impassive, a statue mutely bearing witness to what must pass. As Allegra’s legs disappeared below the ground, swiftly followed by her torso, the elderly woman exhaled deeply and reached out to lay her free hand against the unyielding trunk of the elder tree.
Her grandmother’s voice was the last sound Allegra heard before the roots pulled her beneath the surface.
“Allegra, we all must pay the price.”
Cara Fox is an English author trying to write her way out of the dark. She favours steampunk, horror and Gothic romance, but you can find her anywhere that the stories sink their claws into you and the wine is flowing freely.