The Orinath village perches on the edge of the great river, and it is there we have dwelt for longer than memory can tell. Each morning, we gather on the misty banks to plunge our buckets into the streams, and our days are spent foraging within the lush forest or standing on the riverbank with ropes in hand to catch what fish we can. The waters sustain us with their teeming schools and clean currents, but the children of the Orinath know never to enter the river, for it is told that any who do shall never return, and what the river takes, the river keeps.
Thus we had lived our lives in quiet simplicity, but now, the Day of Marking drew near, and we eagerly prepared for its arrival. Colorful banners hung from branches, and the air was heavy with the smell of smoking fish and bread cooking on fire-warmed stones. At the center of the village, adorned with garlands of flowers, stood an enormous tree, its gnarled bark scored with rings of countless marks, stretching up higher than the eye could see. A notch for every year, circling the trunk until the last reached the first and the circle was completed, marking the passing of one hundred years. On the morrow, the final day of the final year arrived, and we celebrated, for legend foretold that on that day, the river would rise and the village be remade.
On the last morning of the hundredth year, we awoke to watch the sun rise. We danced in the foggy dawn on the banks of the great river, for the life of the Orinath was short, and we rejoiced that we were chosen to see this day. The toils of survival were for once set aside, and we spent the day in joyful feasting, eagerly awaiting the river’s arrival, but when the sun again settled below the horizon, the waters still flowed as they always had.
The next day as the last mark was carved into the tree, a stranger appeared among us. Her hair flowed to her feet, and her eyes were as dark as the depths of the river. No travelers crossed these lands, and the great river was ever bare of boats, so we wondered among ourselves from where she could have come. The Orinath journey not and know nothing of the world beyond the forests and the riverbanks. We welcomed her, offering her bread and fish such as we had, but she turned it away.
“For seven thousand years, I have warned you of the price,” she said, running a finger along the fresh mark etched into the tree. “And for seven thousand years, you have neglected to pay it.”
We murmured among ourselves, for none of the Orinath lived longer than threescore years, and surely this woman was very old. Her voice rose as she spoke, her face darkening.
“You are granted life from my banks, and in return I ask only for one of yours, but still my waters remain empty.”
We saw then that the river had arisen as was foretold, but she had arrived late, and we grew fearful of the anger in her eyes. Again we offered what meager possessions we had, but she refused them, spilling the baskets of fish onto the ground.
“The time for your tribute has passed, and now all must pay the price.”
Terrified at her words, we begged her to have mercy, to let us remain on her banks, and when the day again came, we would gladly offer ourselves to her.
“This time, we will remember!” we cried, but she turned a deaf ear.
“Please!” we pleaded. “Our lives are short and our memories fleeting. If ever we knew of this price, we have long forgotten it.”
She took pity on us then, for surely we were no more to her than the silver fish flitting among her waters. The children of the village were called forth, and she chose two, a boy and a girl, pulling them into her arms.
“The price must be paid,” she chanted, as her hair pooled around her feet, spreading out over the land. “Two shall remain. Two to carry on my word, for none shall dwell on my banks who will not return in kind what has been given. Of my life you take, and so with life you must pay.”
As she spoke, waters sprang from the ground, the river rose from its banks, and even the trees bowed to her might. For a day, her anger swept through the forest, until the waters receded and her arms unfurled from around the children. The village was gone, and only the tree remained with the marks on its trunk stretching up, up out of sight.
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