We are excited to share the first installment of Grit of Berth and Stone by Lisa Dunn, the first book in the Chasmaria Chronicles. Follow along with us each week for new chapters!
Banished for a foolish mistake, sixteen-year-old Grit scorns the loss of her home, her honor, and her only ally. Only the weak worry about such things.
| Chapter 2 >>
Grit of Berth and Stone
First book of Chasmaria
Grit of Berth and Stone flexed her muscles taut. Her left forefinger moved over her bare right arm. Slowly zigzagging from shoulder to elbow, she touched each brand in the order in which they had been seared upon her arm. As she pressed her fingertip into her fifteenth brand, a strong arm wrapped around her waist, and a finger not her own dug into the empty space just above her elbow.
“Sizzle!” Coil’s breath was warm on Grit’s ear, and he reeked of damp earth.
Wrestling against his arm, she turned, and with her fingertip traced a line from his temple to his chin. “Watch it, Coil of Dara. I might cut you again, and this time, no amount of forest magic will erase your scar.”
He laughed, a mirthless, distracted noise. Following his gaze, Grit looked toward the back of the meetinghouse. A wiry woman marched toward them, weaving through the crowd with ease.
“Fool child, I taught you better than to play with unclaimed boys. You’re due for your branding.” Dame Berth grabbed Grit’s right arm and steered her away from Coil.
“Take your hand from my arm.” Grit wrenched free of her dame’s grip. “Your hold over me has ended.”
Dame Berth studied Grit through dull gray eyes. “Since the moment I birthed you, I have been preparing you for this day. Whatever happens, child, do nothing rash. I didn’t raise you for failure.”
As the woman headed for the stage at the front of the room, Grit shouldered her way to tables of weapons and other tools the elders of Thresh had set out to aid her in her test. She ran her finger along a broadsword’s blood grove, ruffled an arrow’s fletching, and paused with her hand over a roll of gauze. Glancing about the room, she strained to remember the strengths and weaknesses of those she’d sparred during her training. The choice would be simpler if she knew which of them Sage Brakken and the village council had chosen to hunt her, but it was useless. The council guarded its secrets well.
At the front of the room, twelve council members, including Dame Berth, sat in chairs arranged on either side of an expansive hearth. A blazing fire added discomfort to the warmth of the spring day. Sage Brakken rose from the first chair, crossed to the center of the low stage, and struck his staff upon the wooden planks.
“Sixteen brands for sixteen years, and sixteen days to shun one’s fears.” His booming voice cleared the room of chatter. “Grit of Berth and Stone, come forth!”
Grit strode between rows of crowded benches arranged before the low stage. Holding her back straight and her head high, she stepped onto the dais, never taking her gaze from Sage Brakken. Respect and proper conduct were laid aside during a Final Branding. The village of Thresh craved brazen defiance. She’d deliver that and more.
Stopping toe to toe with Sage Brakken, she looked into his hard, weathered face. “I’m Grit of Berth and Stone. Bring the dame and her little rod.”
She glanced over her shoulder as a murmur of approval spread through the crowd. Behind Brakken, Berth and several of the council members nodded eagerly. The scornful smile faded from Dame Berth’s face; she rose, walked to the hearth, took the metal rod from above the mantel, and thrust it into the bluest, hottest part of the fire.
“I don’t take orders from an untested babe.” The woman stood with one hand on her slender hip. “If you would prove your courage, you must come to me.”
Grit did not hesitate, for to hesitate was to waver, and to waver was weakness. She advanced toward her dame and stopped just to the right of the spot Berth had indicated when she’d demanded Grit come to her. Grit spat on the spot.
Without a word, Dame Berth clasped Grit’s wrist. Grit’s scarred right arm extended toward her dame. The tip of the uplifted rod glowed red with cleaving heat as Berth raised it from behind her back.
Grit fixed her gaze on Berth’s face and forced into her eyes the same intensity raging in those of the woman who had given her life. Berth’s tight lips betrayed nothing but determination to triumph, but Grit swore victory to herself. I will not go down, neither by this woman, nor by the iron in her hand. She clenched her jaw, flexed her arm, and willed her body not to move.
Grit held fast as the rod sizzled against her first scar. She did not flinch, nor did she look away from Berth, even for an instant. The heat seared away the thick scar to eat into the tissue beneath. She held her breath, not wanting to inhale the stench of charred flesh.
One. Two. Three.
She spat over the rod, squarely hitting the wet spot left by her saliva moments earlier.
“One.” She feigned a small yawn.
Berth lowered the rod and returned it to the flame. The villagers rose for a better view. Some in the back stood on benches. It would be a pity to miss even a moment of a Final Branding.
“So that’s how you’re going to play it, is it?” Berth’s lips hardly moved.
“Fool girl, this is the easy part.”
The rod found Grit’s second scar.
One. Two. Three.
“Two.” Grit squared her shoulders.
The third scar.
One. Two. Three.
After the fourth scar had been retraced, while Dame Berth reheated the rod, Grit scanned the quiet room. Near the back of the crowd, a mop of golden curls bobbed toward a side exit. Passing through the door, Coil glanced over his shoulder. He scowled at Grit.
How like him to lose interest and leave. Grit braced herself to accept the branding rod again.
The iron ate into her fifth scar. Jaw clenched, she counted to three, recollected Coil’s departure, inhaled sharply, and threw in a fourth and a fifth count. She spat again.
With each branding, she waited longer to spit and call the count. The longer she waited, the more excited the villagers grew. She could have called the count at one, like all of them had done, and walked away with honor. When she was through, their honor wouldn’t be worth the ashes of their scars.
Grit’s fingers tingled as Dame Berth squeezed her wrist tighter and centered the branding rod over the next scar. By now, she hardly felt the iron. She waited, impervious to the foul odor of burning flesh wafting from her oozing arm.
Coil returned as Dame Berth set the branding rod in the fire to reheat for the last time. Grit’s steady gaze flickered long enough to notice his austere frown, but not long enough for anyone but Coil, who quickly looked away, to notice her faltering. A renewed determination surged through her body.
As Dame Berth touched the rod to Grit’s arm for her sixteenth and final brand, Grit wrenched the branding rod from Dame Berth’s hand. Grit stood in the center of the stage, her legs shoulder-width apart. Her vision blurred, but she didn’t need her eyes to know where her sixteenth brand belonged. She had traced the spot a thousand times in preparation for this moment. She plunged the branding rod deep into the flesh above her elbow.
“One. Two. Three.” Her pitch raised with every count. Her mind reeled with pain, but she resisted the scream that surged through her body. To waver is weakness, to waver is…Her gaze locked on Coil’s blurry face. Now he did not look away. She spat out the bile that had risen from her gut and counted on, her voice deep and trembling. “Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.”
Scorching, agonizing, inhuman pain shot through her arm, raged up her neck, and pierced her brain. She held the branding rod firmly in her arm until she could bear no more. Only then, when her stomach’s churning threatened to undo her, did Grit hurl the branding rod downward. It struck the floor, etching a depression in the wood. Grit spat on the branding rod, her saliva sizzling as it met the scorching metal. She turned to face the crowd, threw her head back, and shouted, “Sixteen!”
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Book 1 in the CHASMARIA CHRONICLES by Lisa Dunn
About Lisa Dunn
As a child, Lisa Dunn fell asleep to her father’s fanciful bedtime tales and played with her own story ideas during the daylight hours. She now resides in a small southern town with her husband, four children, and a Great Dane who rarely leaves her side. Local librarians habitually thank her for their job security.