Callused toes curled around the edge and her stomach tried to pitch itself into the void, but lodged in her throat like a hot stone. The open air below her perch was a promise that could never be broken. This was it. Jumping couldn't be undone, couldn't be taken back. The pounding drum of her heartbeat in her ears drowned out everything else, even the days of planning that lead to this ledge. Still, if the wind shouted hoarse promises and trusting herself to the air was the only answer that would satisfy... would she ever forgive herself if she crawled away like a wingless preybeast?
Karina looked down again. The drums roared in her ears, an angry challenge that blotted out her past, her plans, and her balance. Jumping was an choice. Falling was an accident. She took a step back, sucking in hot, humid air that tasted of summer and green things.
Determination, once as strong as a bronze ax head, hard enough to split the dry kindling of her protests, felt as weak as rotting wood. How could she have thought this was a promise she could satisfy? By the fiery eye of the Ever-Bright, had she truly planned this madness? A part of her whispered, weaving words through the rotting determination and drumbeats. You are no-name. No father. No teacher. Child of the village. Burden to all.
Guilt and anger burned at her from the inside, and her body tried to water the fire through her eyes, the windows to her inmost parts. Karina refused to be a burden. No one need trouble themselves over her, when she was a woman fledged and grown. She wouldn't be the one that failed. The one that was left out.
Her toes gripped the edge like extra fingers and the wind rushed up the side of the plateau, whipping around her, catching her feathers. As though the spreading of her wings raised a battle flag, her heart climbed into her throat with her stomach to hold firm against the threat. What if she wasn't strong enough? What if the wind dropped her? Karina hesitated for an age. An eon. The wheeling stars watched her from beyond the Ever-Bright, tiny pinpricks that peered through the dark hide of night. They waited for her, not caring if this was her first flight or her last jump. Nothing would change for them. All the same, they watched.
"Karina?" A voice seemed to come from nowhere, floating out of the jungle like a ghost. The girl's heart lurched, nearly leaping into her mouth as she twisted to see who called, wings spread wide. But even as she twitched in surprise, even as she glimpsed a dark face in the greenery, her balance shifted slightly, and calluses scraped against stone like flakes of obsidian vibrating along her taut nerves. In the split second that was an infinitesimal eternity, she knew she was falling.
The wind roared. Finger-lengths away, a river of rough stone rushed upward, waiting hungrily for her to twist, to spin, to smash to pieces on its stained and cracked surface. Fear drowned out even the frantic beat of her own heart, screaming through her veins, along her skin, into her very pinions. Karina squeezed her eyes shut against the punishing wind, against the eager surging ground that charged toward her, an impossibly huge beast.
Why? Why are you doing this to me?
Their prayers and feasts called to the wind. Thanked it. Blessed it and asked for its blessing in return. It carried their crop seeds, powered their mills, marked their boundaries. Now it sang to her, curled around her. With insubstantial hands, it cupped her wings and pulled her away from the death-wall, coaxing her with a mother's soft voice to open. A little more, my darling. There you go. Just like that.
The weight of the world pressed her down and bore her up at the same time. Instinctively pulling her stinging skinned toes up against her belly, Karina hung there for a long minute, not even daring to breathe, lest the wind abandon her again. How could she trust it? How could she trust herself? But the seconds passed and the terrifying fall didn't resume. Her stomach still sat up on the ledge with the skin from her poor burning toes, but when the girl obeyed her aching lungs and sucked in a reluctant gasp, nothing happened.
Cautiously, Karina opened her eyes, her heart in her throat. The wind carried her, curling like cool blankets under her wings, brushing her face with invisible fingers. It ruffled her feathers, and almost sounded like it was laughing. The wind had accepted her. It held her. It would not let her fall. Karina let out a whoop. The wind was a song, bearing her on the updraft of triumph. She was flying! Like her mother and grandmother before her, she had trusted herself to the sky and here she was, part of the wind. Karina gave her wings an experimental beat, the muscles of her back and shoulders and chest aching with the exultation of use. Opening her mouth again, she crowed to the Ever-Bright, singing with the wind. The void was a promise, and she had answered its call as she'd been made to do.
Tipping and turning, curving and arcing, the wind shaped the air under her as she descended, cushions she could trust. Flying was a part of her, but it was not her. It was the wind that lifted her, that supported her, that kept her safe. No one had ever been there when she needed them; until now. As the plains below rose to meet her, the specks of grazing herds and dusty herders came into focus. There a preybeast with a speckled grey hide, there a wing extended in cheerful greeting. Her mother would have been proud. A voice seemed almost to speak with the wind in the grasses.
I knew you could do it.