Kerlir was my home; a hanging valley nestled between two large landforms of the Spinlocke Mountains. Set on the edge of a ridge, our valley home had an incredible view. It widened into a plain of sorts, spilling over the edge of a cliff that dropped too far to scale or measure.
Thick, dark forests formed a curtain at the valley’s back. To our sides, like blinders on carriage-bearing horses, rose our rocky guardians. The two mountains had become something like gods to the people in my village; protecting us from the harsh northern winds of winter, the relentless burning of the summer sun. Strong and tall, they watched over us, year after year.
I had thought of them more as demons, as I grew into a more- spirited- young woman. They stood there, cold and distant, refusing to let me see the world outside of our valley, apart from the birds-eye view we gain at the cliff-edge. Their sides were a slick, dark rock- Steep and impenetrable.
Our elders always warned against wandering into the forests. The blackness emanating from their depths kept most out with no need for warning. Only the men, armed with their axes and tools, would freely enter- and return.
A mighty river split the valley, flowing through the village, over the cliff-edge at its front. During the winter it ceased flowing- its source cut-off; frozen, from a highland beyond the forest. For this reason, winter’s end was always a time of incredible tension. Our water supply would be reaching it’s end, and the water’s source would begin melting. While knowing this would allow our river to again flow into the valley, all were wary of… how. The water’s return was unpredictable, sometimes trickling slowly after an especially cold year, while others, steadily gaining volume and back to the norm within a month. Neither of these scenarios were our fears, though. What we feared was the great flood; the onslaught of water after a large break in some far-off ice formation. It had happened last when I was a small child, no higher than my father’s hip. The water’s roar, the harsh snapping of thick tree trunks, the sudden surge of icy water. That was what we feared. That was why we remunerated.
The vernal equinox marked the coming of the waters. Each year we had a festival, lasting for three days leading up until the equinox. The first day was in honor of the Northern Mountain, guard against the winter winds. The second, the Southern Mountain, guard against the summer heat. The final day was of highest importance, honoring the river itself. Attempting to sway its actions in our favor.
Every seventy-two years the festival was considered “most sacred”. During the festivals of these years, attendance was strictly enforced, our garments the deepest blues, our adornments the finest jewels. Children were harshly warned about insubordinate behavior and the consequences evoked, should they choose that way of being. A temple would be raised at the height of the valley- where the dried riverbed meets the precipice, and the ending ceremony would be held at dusk on the third day. A select group of elders ran the ceremony, leading the villagers in prayer to the river, citing poems of it’s greatness, and performing other slow, ritualistic motions in honor of the deity believed to be within. These elders chanted and moved until the sun had dipped completely out of view from our valley’s tall perch- at which time they would begin the final, sacred, ending ceremony.
It was my twenty-second year upon this earth, when I encountered the most sacred of festivals. I had been with my friends, eating freshly made street foods and watching the ceremonial dances that night, at the end of the third day. It was such fun- my elderly neighbors had told me to commit every bit of this festival to memory, as most lived only to see one within their lifetime. The sun was just beginning it’s descent in the sky as I separated from my friends to fetch some water for one of the elders- Making my way through the orchards, when the edges of my vision blackened, and everything went out of focus. The blackness began to expand, and bright spots exploded behind my eyelids.
There was a sharp pain in my side, which spread like fire. My eyes snapped open and my lungs expanded in what should have been an audible gasp. But my mouth was covered and my eyes saw only darkness. I willed my hands to uncover my face, only to find them bound. The movement made me wince in pain, not that it was visible. My eyes stung with tears, and my inhibited breathing was hard and ragged. Someone was holding be tightly, a hand firmly grasping around my waist. I focused on slowing my breathing, to tune into the sounds around me. Chanting. Louder than I had ever heard an elder chant. Closer.
Suddenly the chant grew fierce, a harsh sentence in a language I did not understand. And then suddenly a hood was lifted over my head, and I could see. It was pitch dark with the exception of the torches, but I could tell where I was.
I was in the temple. At the edge of the cliff. I was in front of the villagers, standing together in blue robes; their dark faces staring out from under hoods of their own. Although sure these were my people, they were unrecognizable to me. Their glares were menacing. They were shrouded figures. In this moment, they were forms I did not know.
I strained my neck towards my captor, a large man in an especially ornate robe. All I could see of his face was his mouth, set in a hard line. The muscles of his jaw were flexed, as if he were clenching his teeth. Now another man stepped forward from beside him, his hood hovering far, shrouding his entire face in darkness. He carried with him a sapphire encrusted scythe. He came to stand about three feet in front of me, slightly ajar so as to allow the audience to see me still. He began to murmor, words I cared not to listen to. My mind was already reeling, trying to comprehend the situation. But then I heard the word “sacrifice”. And my back broke out in a cold sweat. He raised the scythe, poised to swing, when I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. One of the robed figures disbanded from the line that stood beneath the temple, rushing in my direction. The man with the scythe swung around, catching the figure with the edge of his blade. The figure had barely dodged in time, allowing for only his hood to be caught in the weapon’s path. It ripped and fell aside, revealing a dark-haired man in a mask. He acted quickly, weaving around the armed man before he could prepare a second strike, and hurdling straight into me, forcing us both over the cliff.
In the impact his mask was shifted to the side, revealing a sliver of his handsome face. A sense of relief flowed over me, as I watched the corner of his mouth slip up into a smile, and his dark eyes caught a bit of light from the moon as we fell.