Katéry let her body lull from side to side; her feet dragged across the boulder, through the shallow, frothing water and moss at the top of the precipice as she dangled. Her arms were cast high over her head and bound in endless curls of thin, scratchy rope. The fibers were pale and dry. Much earlier, she had struggled for hours, and those unforgiving, dry little fibers had rubbed her raw, burrowed into flesh and splintered off. For a while she thought her determination alone might wear away at the rope, but it was futile. Now she relaxed against its pull and let her arms hang limp, and something about the painkillers her body was producing made it seem almost fortunate. Her frightened frenzy had slowly ebbed into hazy delight as she vied with acceptance, fate.
She dangled against the whim of the great stone and wood pillars that extended up on the banks of the river falls and over the water. The rope was wound through a series of caverns in the surface of the stone. They undulated and mixed, moving together and apart again just like the waves at Katéry’s feet. All of the pillars were cut so, and the waves all culminated at the point where the rope left the pillars and connected to her.
“Child,” the Master of Ceremony said, shouting over the rapids, “do not close your eyes to the gods.”
The redhead wasn’t listening, and her thin lips were set in a grin that unsettled the Master slightly. He had seen many with a dull look of acceptance, some even with joy, but it seemed like she was not only in bliss but in it somewhere else. The Master was even more convinced now that the parasites had infested her brain, and he knew that the waterfall would carry them far away.
“Humanity cannot save you,” he said and lifted his left arm. It was bare save for five raised lumps underneath his skin. They sat like dull dorsal fins on his forearm in a star formation. He pumped his arm into the air.
“Back to the ocean! Back to the gods!”
The Master didn’t need to look at the man positioned to Katéry’s left. In one motion, the Giver lifted his longsword and cut the intricate, knotted tangle of rope that was wound around five stone spokes. It freed the redhead to the falls.
The Giver watched her bound feet expecting Katéry to stumble and lose her footing as her weight hit the slippery rock. The redhead landed on the rock gracefully despite the rope around her ankles, and in one deft motion she sprung back upwards and out toward the falls. The Master watched her open her eyes as soon as the blade hit stone and saw her disappear over the edge. A whipped tail of auburn hair covered in frothing white was the last image the Master ever saw of her.
He picked up the cistern, a flat silver jug that brought the river to his altar. He poured it across the dirt and dropped the cistern next to the puddle. The Giver stopped inspecting his blade to frown at the old man.
The Master barely rolled his eyes and turned.
“Nin,” he called over his shoulder, “wrap up the tools and bring them back.”
Nin’s frown deepened, and he looked out at the rocky ground made a mess by the Rebirthing. He didn’t need to hear what the Master had said to know. A marine blue cloth was laid out across a raised, carved rock that was part of the landscape. The alter was covered in metal amulets, artifacts and little containers of chemicals. Nin was pale and sullen-eyed. His wide, dark longsword made him look even thinner and paler, and he slung it into the scabbard on his back and walked over to the altar.
Unlike Master Gegled whose cloaks were made of leather and soft cotton dipped in fragrances and dyes, Nin wore only a pair of rough cloth pants with leather boots he had fashioned himself. He cast one last look over the falls and then stooped to grab metal dentist’s tools and bird beaks the Master had let fall onto the ground.
He meticulously arranged the beaks by size and species inside a leather pouch. The tools were wrapped in their own rolling fabric case. Each vial and talisman had its own place in the satchel. He was halfway through preparing it when a the sound of shifting earth echoed from the direction of the falls. Nin stopped to glance over his shoulder. Everything was as it had been. He froze to stare at the stone mechanism expecting nothing and everything simultaneously.
The seconds seemed to drag on, and just as he reasoned away the noise, a second and even more thunderous crash seemed to shake from the rocks themselves, and he watched the wooden pillars break silently, inaudible over the thunder of stones as they plunged into the falls. The precipice of the falls was collapsing. Nin wondered briefly whether or not this was a sign from the goddess Ytra. As the embodiment of water, she always chose the path of least resistance and was known to target the weakest, most vulnerable links, wearing away at them until they were nothing.
He left the pack near the altar and walked with firm but slow steps toward the edge of the falls. The hard bank was raised, and he peered down at the half-moon chunk, a bitemark out of the overhang’s edge. The sacrificial contraption that had seemed so permanent, built by their fathers’ fathers, was little more than a few broken stones tangled with wood and rope that would be soon washed away by Ytra’s currents. He got as close to the waters as he could and squinted at the plunge pool, the wavering of blue as the river continued on.
Bobbing the current, he saw fragments of wood not held down by stone. His eyes darted across the speckles of debris until he spotted a smaller one that was moving, pulling itself further up the shore. He gasped lightly: no one had ever survived the falls, and yet that loony girl was inching away from death. Nin knew then that it was indeed a sign from Ytra, and his mind raced with possibility. The Giver knew that Master Gegled would probably hunt down Katéry and kill the girl himself or worse: he’d send Nin to do his violent, blasphemous bidding.
Nin took several long, deep breaths and resolved to keep her survival a secret. He walked back to the alter unsteadily and slung the pack over his shoulder. The weight of his sword suddenly bore down on him, and he felt the responsibility of silence bore into the back of his mind. This secret he would carry to his grave, the man swore to Ytra.
As soon as the Giver’s sword swung to hit the wooden block and free her to the falls, Katéry angled her body to land precisely on the stone at her feet. She had felt its every crevice with her toes, probing for decent footing, scraping at the rock with the raw flesh to turn slippery moss into a surface she could spring off of.
“Surviving this will be partially a consequence of sheer luck,” she remembered hearing through the cracks in her cell, “but there are things you can do to increase your odds. First, you’ll have to vault yourself away from the overhang and hopefully land toward the front of the plunge pool.”
The redhead had soaked in every word like a sieve, and from then on, she huddled in the corner awaiting this stranger’s aid. He advised her to succumb to the villagers’ wills, to play into their expectations.
“By Ytra’s will, these things will help you stay alive.”
I’ll be thrown into her gullet soon enough, Katéry thought bitterly, and I hope she spits me back out.
The woman succeeded in escaping the grasp of the overhang. She fell for what seemed like a lifetime to her, and when it was over, it seemed like picoseconds. The lungful of air she had gulped was crushed out of her by the force of the water, but she managed to keep half of it. With her bound hands over her skull she tumbled, spiraled and sunk.
“Don’t panic when you hit the water and are swept under. If you survive the fall, it’s already half over,” the stranger had told her.
Another eternity passed in eerie silence as she mashed her eyes closed and let the water do what it wished. Instead of sweeping her against the rocks at the back of the pool, the current carried her forward and she tumbled in silence. Just when she thought her lungs would burst, her knee broke the surface, and she fought to keep herself afloat with her limbs still tied.
Katéry barely registered the pains in her ribs and collarbone. After a full gulp of air, she was able to float more easily and focused on escaping the rapids downstream. Struggling to shore made her arms and legs burn. She imaged that the pain of drowning would be worse. Muscle failure was imminent, but still the woman used her working arm to grab a branch. The adrenaline had almost faded when she heard a thunderous sound that seemed to come from the mouth of the waterfall itself. A look over her shoulder reinvigorated her fight for survival: the overhang was collapsing; wood and rock was plunging into the pool. To survive a plunge off the waterfall only to be run through with wooden spikes seemed a cruel joke, and she knew that Ytra was demanding she do her own part.