I wont make any excuses for missing last week – I suppose it was bound to happen this early on, though. Anyway, this week is going to be something different. This Short Story Tuesday will be put into parts, most likely only two. It’s also fantasy. I normally only do urban fantasy, sci fi or horror, but these stories are supposed to be all about stepping out of my comfort zone. Baby steps, though. Hope you enjoy! Or, if not… tear me apart in the comments section. Either way, thanks for reading!
Choosing, Part 1
The tips of her fingers burned where they scraped against the stone, tracing a continuous line along the entire barrier. She stopped when she reached the symbol that marked the end, or the beginning, however one chose to think of it. Feeling not quite as optimistic, she saw it as the end. The end of the Endless Mountain. A laugh escaped her, but the sound was hoarse and metallic. Pressing her back against the flat stone, she slid down until she met the grass and felt her shorts saturate with dew. Her fingers were raw and covered in a sheen of red. She looked back the way she had come and saw streaks of her blood marking her path along the mountain. Another laugh, empty of humor or joy. It caught in her throat and became a sob, her eyes stinging with the threat of tears. From thirty paces away, inside the shroud of forest, came the crack of footsteps on twigs. She swallowed, held her breath, and then launched herself at the nearest tree. Scrambling up its branches, she stopped when they were so thin that they swayed uneasily under her weight.
“Raz?” It was Mora’s voice, wavering with a mix of hope and grief. Mora approached the marking, and pressed her hand to the dark smudge of blood. Rather than flake away as old blood did, it stained her skin, and she rubbed her thumb against her fingertips as she turned to search the tree line with wide eyes. Raz froze, not breathing, but her sister knew her too well to just pass on. Mora tilted her head up and shaded her eyes.
“Raz, I was so worried!” She peered straight up the trunk. “Come down from there.”
Raz shut her eyes and pressed her cheek against the cool bark. Better to starve to death up in a tree than to be executed while the whole village watched. She heard the scuffle of skin against wood, but stayed where she was. Mora never had been a very good climber. After a few moments, all was silent but a heavy sigh of defeat. Raz peeked down to see Mora still six limbs below her, clinging awkwardly to the trunk.
“They’ll pick me, you know.” Her sister said. “You climb better than the whole village put together.”
Raz scoffed. “No one cares about that. You run like a wolf, you’ll be a great hunter.”
“They have enough hunters.” Mora mumbled.
“Quit it. You know the tradition, you were the first born. Our parents would never give you up.”
Mora went quiet. It was a fact as irrefutable as the mountain was endless; parents always kept the first born. Raz wasn’t sure if it was a birthright or if it was because they had more time with the first child, but knowing the reason wouldn’t help her. First it had been her sister, and then her brother, and then her. She wished she had never been born, had never been given the fifteen years she had been given. Her parents already had a boy and a girl, they had known that they would be sending their next child to death.
“Mother told me not to go after you, you know.” Mora’s voice came so quietly that Raz had to strain to hear it. “She said that someone always does this before a Choosing.”
The stone had been more smooth where her fingers ran along it, as if hundreds of fingers had traced the same path. She squeezed her eyes shut again.
“What did you think you would find? An opening?”
Raz sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Does it really go all the way around?” Her voice was small, afraid.
Raz lowered herself down until she was one branch above her sister. “It’s called Endless Mountain for a reason.”
“I just thought…” Mora made a small sound and Raz realized she was crying.
“Everyone thinks it. Because it doesn’t make sense.”
“What doesn’t?” Her sister turned her large, wet eyes up to her. It touched Raz’s heart that Mora didn’t want her to die.
“The river passes through the mountain, and so we should be able to. If I could be small, or fluid like water, I could escape.” She stretched her body along the length of the branch and hung her arms down to play with Mora’s hair.
“So there is an opening?”
How could she explain it? Raz snapped off a long twig and broke it into pieces, pulling off strips to weave together until she had a criss-cross pattern of sticks. She cupped her hands around it and held it down for display. “My hands are the mountain, the branches are polished, smooth stone, but impossible to break with a rock. The water passes through the gaps in between.”
Mora gaped at her, eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t understand.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Raz tore the woven sticks apart and dropped them to the ground.
Raz woke before the bright rose above the Mountain, creeping past the sleeping bodies of her family. She looped a woven rope around her shoulder and slid down the trunk of the tree. Her bare feet making no sound on the damp leaves of the forest floor. No one would miss her, it was her last day before the Choosing and she was allowed to do as she wished. It was recommended to see a Guide to help settle the spirit and help to accept fate, but Raz had a different fate in mind.
The bright was blaring above the mountain when she arrived at the place where the river ran under. The water roared as it surged through the gaps in the stone, and watching the force of it as it threw itself against rocks and sent waves sparkling into the air made fear well up in her stomach. She didn’t belong in the water, she belonged in the trees. But if she stayed in the trees she would be resigned to death. After a few deep breaths, she dove in.
The water hit her like a charging buck, twisting her body and slamming her into rock after rock. Raz tried to grab onto each one, but the surfaces were smooth and the water pushed until she was forced to let go. Her body struck a grouping of large stones and caught there. She lifted her head and coughed until she found air again, and then pulled herself out, laying on her back on the shore. It was a terrible idea; of course she wasn’t the first one to try to dig under the mountain. The pits remained to prove that it was impossible, as deep as the height of a tree, and the stone kept going. She didn’t know if anyone had tried to dig where the river ran through but she hadn’t heard any stories about it. They were understandably afraid of the river, as she was. Her body felt like she had fallen from the tallest tree, but once she was able to move again, she gripped the rope and made her way back to the gap in the mountain.
This time she walked in, turning to the side so that the water could rush past her with less resistance. Even so, it took all of her strength not to be swept away. Step by step she fought the current until she was close enough to touch the cold stone that spat out the river. She wrapped one end of the rope around her wrist and gripped it, then looped the other end through one of the gaps and back out again, tying it multiple times and giving it a good tug to make sure it would stay. The rope getting wet seemed to be a blessing, because it was tougher than ever before and held her weight easily when she let go and allowed the river to try to sweep her away. Water rushed at her face, pressed at her lips, and she sputtered, bring her feet to the ground again to catch her breath. She had to get under the current somehow. Diving under, Raz searched blindly for a rock. She found one, and tried to pry her fingers underneath to lift it, but she couldn’t get enough traction against the stones. Instead, she rolled it up onto the rope so that it was trapped underneath. She pushed it forward, using the taut end of the rope for leverage, until she was close enough to the gaps to reach the knot she had made. She pried at the knots until they came undone, and held the rope between her teeth as she dived under the water.
The water didn’t bother her as much beneath the surface, but she still had to hold on to the large rock to keep from being whipped away from the mountain again. She anchored herself on the rock as she retied the rope on a lower hole, as close to the river floor as she could reach. Then she breached for air before diving down and setting to work.
Later she sat in the tallest tree she could find, shivering as she waited for the bright to lick all of the moisture from her skin. Her eyes traveled warily to the twins, who floated gloomy and pale off in the distance. She could have left tonight, but a few things kept her from going. She needed to know if her parents really would choose her, needed to hear it from their mouths. And even then, would they would take her sister as a replacement if she ran? That was unheard of, but as was someone escaping the mountain. The small, body sized hole under the rocks in the riverbed brought a weak smile to her lips. They cracked with dryness and she tasted copper. She wouldn’t run yet, but now she had a choice.