Ani took a breath in, eyeing up the next hand hold.
Almost there, she thought.
She swung her arm, letting her weight carry her forward and –
Her fingertips slid into the tiny crack as she let go of her first hand hold. Her foot swung out on instinct, hitting the foothold at her knee.
She moved with a practised rhythm, scaling the sheer rock face. It was just her, her breathing, and the rock face.
Raqueni was more than a mountain. She (and she was a she) was the mother of the land, bequeathing those who climbed her with the power of the third sight. Ani’s mother had made this climb before her, and her grandmother before that. They had been Raqueni’s Hands in their own towns, and now Ani would be the Hand for her own.
The last part of the climb was the most dangerous – there was an overhang lip that she would have to reach back to grab. It had been the part she had been training for almost a year, practising the move on lower climbs until she could do it in her sleep.
And yet, there was always the first time for the real thing. Three hundred feet above the ground.
Ani paused at her last rest before the final climb. The sun beat down on her, her skin was slick with sweat. The last challenge, then she would have beaten Raqueni.
I will be a Hand, Ani thought. It was her birthright.
She started the last ascent.
Her muscles burnt as she pulled herself up the rock. Cuts covered her fingers, and even after all the years of training there was some primeval part of her brain that screamed her death waited in the cold embrace of the river below.
And then she was there, at the lip. The final move, to see if she would make it-
Let’s do this.
Ani took in deep breath and cleared her mind. She pulled her leg up tight against her, ready to push herself out and allow her hand to grab the lip-
The air was glorious. Freeing.
Her first hand caught the handhold.
Her second hand missed.
“Mother’s breath!” Ani swore. She tried to get her breathing back, her heart hammering inside her rib cage. All of her weight was being put through her left arm, on one hand hold.
Three breaths, and she felt her mind come back to the centre again.
She looked out below at the fertile lands of Raqueni’s Basin. Her home, and home to thousands like her.
All who would be looking up at her now, waiting for her to Ascend.
Let’s finish this.
She threw her body up, slamming her other hand into the handhold. Now with two handholds, she could pull herself up the edge of the lip in one clean swing, pulling herself up over onto solid ground.
Her face hit the dirt of Raqueni’s summit. She smiled, breathing in the rich smell of the red earth.I did it, she thought, I made it to the top.
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