Down in the valley, beneath trees whose trunks rise evenly spaced and straight but whose gnarled arms twine high above, a woman kneels digging.
She digs with her hands, nails tearing. Bright-beaked birds watch, hopping among the risen roots. One chirps a sad melody, but the song is lost beneath the waterfall’s thundering: a sound so loud it creates a silence.
The woman leans forward digging, chest heaving beneath tattered clothes. She knows freedom is buried here. Under these clumps of wet dirt. Her breath rasps, gasps, sobs, but these sounds are also lost. Deltas of tears and sweat run down her filthy cheeks, across her soft skin.
The birds stop and turn their bright beaks toward the river. Even beneath the waterfall’s roar another sound is rising: the deeper thundering of hooves.
The woman stares wide-eyed toward the sound, then throws her full weight into the loam, fingers sunk deep, pulling up clods of half-buried moss, tearing up tendrils of root, thin as hairs. Her small body shakes as she digs, frantic. Until her torn fingernails finally scrape against metal. She claws at it until the metal forms a line, a square, a box.
Her bleeding arms drag the box up into the light.
She knows they’re coming for her. Five hard-whipped horses, all ash gray, jump the river, lithe as liquid, flowing towards the woman like a rising tide. She cannot let them catch her. She will not let them hurt her again.
She wrenches open the box and grasps the crystal vial inside, holding it up to sparkle amber in the waning light.
She pulls out the cork and swallows the liquid within. It flows cool along her throat and then ice cold against her chest.
The woman smiles, then falls limp to the forest floor. The birds shriek silently and flutter up into the trees as the riders pound in.
The riders surrounded her. What had been her.
Their helmeted faces are impassive and their curses are lost in the muted air. One slides from his mount with uncanny grace, looks down on what had been the woman, kicks the body. Lifeless as the dirt. He remounts in one motion and the riders give each other quick, knowing nods. They ride back away along the river, pounding hooves retreating out of the valley. Behind them, beneath the darkened canopy, the body lies still.
The waterfall thunders relentlessly on, filling the valley with silence. Under the gently swaying trees, the bright-beaked birds have already fluttered back to the forest floor. They hop cheerily among the risen roots.
One bird watches the riders go, bright beak pointed steadily in their direction like the head of a notched arrow.
One bird turns its glossy black eyes back to the pile of flesh and bones and rags, tilts her head. A small loss, perhaps, but she killed that human long ago, and the coat of its body had grown wearisome.
She spreads out her new wings. There are worse bodies. This one will do.
Until she finds her friends again.
Until they are all finally together again. All finally free.
With a dainty hop she springs from the dirt, up and up out through the gnarled branches, into the world beyond, screaming a demon’s wild laughter.
Into the roaring silence.