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  • The Price of Falling

June 01, 2024

THE PRICE OF FALLING

BY KAELYNN PUGH

 

Everything has a price.  A cost. It is the unprecedented, unsolicited, unyielding consequence of living.   

And the more one has—the higher the price.   

They never saw it coming. They were ignorant, thought it was beyond them, that their physiology made them invulnerable, that their lifestyle made them insusceptible.   

But they were wrong.  And Tiriana Gael was the first to fall.  

Aviklyn had watched as the archers pinned her mother down with an array of arrows. How she'd fought like a wild beast to tear back into the poor male she'd mauled nearly to death in front of their shop. And how, when she'd heard Avi cry out, her head had whipped to the side and her blackened eyes narrowed with a predatorial glare, lip pulled back into a snarl. And despite the arrows, her mother ran for her. Avi had wished it was to hold her, to protect her, to tell her everything would be okay—but there was a frenzy in her eyes that only quarry saw. So when the mages came and they pulled her apart with magical hands, and her mother was nothing more than flesh and bone and rot—some deep wicked part of her was glad.   

The Rot had invaded Arlen as swiftly as Belanor. Belanor wasn't so lucky. Massacred, they'd said. Not a single survivor. And where desperation breeds answers, it came to them that the Underwood had to be at fault. Of course, they'd be at fault—they were the cursed—Elves who had the misfortune of touching the tainted ground, elves who hunted and butchered the meat every Clan of the Na'Ghabrel ate.      

So the Cree of the Clans, Scalanis Nue'aleth made an example of the Underwood. The Elves were shunned, stripped of their clan name and branded Ruvaen. And suddenly the Cursed became curses, nightmares fuel for naughty children, the birthplace of filth and evil.   

Avi had learned to fear the Ruvaen. Spent years cursing their name. Turning them into beasts in her mind. Never did she think she'd become one.   

But that's how it is, isn't it? Nobody expects to pay for a gift they didn’t want. But then, when one pays, it's not really a gift. I suppose that's why they call it a curse. Turns out the Elves had something right after all.  

She was playing. Old enough—to know where not to but stubborn enough to do it anyway. They did it all the time. Nobody ever got hurt. The bridge was older than her papa, with a rail higher than her head. The game was simple.  One person stands in the middle of the bridge. Two other people shook it on either side—if the person in the middle fell, they lost. Like Rosanhi, she was a Stander. And she was good. She wouldn't fall and it was making the others mad. They kept shaking harder and harder and she heard something—the groan of rope. The snap of tiny threads.  She screamed at them to stop, but they wouldn't. They thought it was the game. She shoved one of the kids off. And suddenly—there was nothing beneath her.  

And Aviklyn Gael—fell.  

She woke on the ground. In the dirt, decaying leaves and muck. Numb. Lungs seizing. A vise grip on her chest. And above her she could see Arlen. The grand, beautiful city built into the branches—surrounding The Etria, their sacred tree. She could see the platforms and lights and people. But they couldn't see her. They weren't looking.   

Lethal, her teachers had said in class. Falls from Arlen were always lethal. A promised end, one that was never doubted, never questioned. She'd wondered, as she stared up at her city, why she'd never questioned it. Why it had been so easy to believe that everyone who fell died?

But it was easier. Families needed to believe they were dead. Because dead was better than Ruvaen. Dead was better than condemned.    

Avi was in that spot for what felt like forever. Broken. Cold. She thought she was dying. Could feel it in her bones. Her lungs rattled with shards; blades swam through her veins. Her screams wouldn't escape her throat.   

And she was right. And she did.   

Aviklyn Roisin Gael died in that forest. 

Though her heart never stopped beating. Nor eyes seeing. Lungs breathing.  

She'd heard him before she saw him. A Ruvaen—Grounder, Cursed one. An older male, elven—his age showing in the weariness in his eyes, white in his hair, scars on his hands. He was a hunter, she could see his bow over his shoulder, tracking a stag. Only he found two child-sized bodies instead. He knew what to do—as if he'd seen this before, been through the steps. It made her wonder how many bodies had fallen from Arlen—how many of them had been found.   

He first saw Rosanhi, her golden hair catching the light. She was dead. Really dead. Least, that's what Avi surmised when he'd sworn in old elvish and recited the prayer for the fallen. Then he came to her.     

And he touched her neck, and studied her face, and she blinked back at him, and his eyes widened, and voice shook.  And he'd sworn again in that elvish.  

"Help me," she'd breathed, tears in her eyes. They were mostly from the pain—but not entirely. Part of it was fear. Deep, cutting fear. The kind that turns you inside out. Because she knew he wouldn't help—why would he? She was a Clansman, a Na'ghabrel. Her kind had condemned him even further into the ground.        

But then he'd made a sound with his mouth—a sharp biting sound, a call of some sort—And he'd knelt. "It's okay Kindreth, you're not alone anymore—I'm right here," he’d said softly, voice wavering. He swore again, then chuckled nervously—followed by another short whistle.     

Kindreth.         

It meant family—friend—beloved.       

And then it'd hit her.     

He hadn't found a Clansman lying on the ground dying. He’d found a Ruvaen. A cursed one. Broken. Claimed by the land she'd touched.  

Like I said. Aviklyn Roisin Gael died in the forest.   

Avi had blinked and as if from the dust there were others, more Ruvaen. They'd surrounded her, tentative and on near silent feet. And when next she woke, she was in bed. Her head had spun, stomach in knots, wrapped in bandages, leg splinted, the Ruvaen half asleep in the chair beside her.  

And for the second time in her life, that wicked part of her grinned. For she wasn't thinking about the cost, the pieces of her life mistaken as currency—like the name she couldn't use, the father she'd never see, the friends who all rightly thought her dead.  Only that she had lived. And at the time, she'd liked living.   

"Where am I?" she'd croaked, voice parched.   

The Ruvaen had sat up, grabbed a glass from the table and held it to her lips as she drank. Once. Twice.   

He put the glass down. "You're in the Underwood Kindreth, you fell from Arlen. Do you remember?"

"I fell."  

"You did."

"You found me."

"Yeah, Kindreth," he'd said softly, "I did."