We are excited to share the next 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!
If you’re new to this series, we recommend you start with chapter 1.
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 4 | Chapter 6 >>
Grit of Berth and Stone
First book of Chasmaria
Grit crouched motionless and listened for the direction from which the hunter came. She stood, bent at the waist, eyes scanning her surroundings. The hunter’s tan tunic and dark trousers blended almost perfectly with the forest around him, but almost was not enough to avoid Grit’s detection.
He looked at his feet, probably cursing his own clumsiness. He was close, but with skill and speed, she might escape his notice. Her toes barely touching the ground, she tiptoed into the denser growth behind her. She’d almost reached thicker cover when his head jerked up. She froze in her tracks, willing her body to disappear.
It was too late. The hunter smiled, one side of his mouth turning up sharper than the other. He shouted something over his shoulder and sprinted toward Grit, splashing across the shallow stream.
Diving into the brush, Grit broke into a run. She did not zigzag, as she had in the days when she and Coil, mere babes, had neglected the filling of their baskets to sharpen each other’s skills in games of Prey and Hunter. This was not a game. If she did not immediately put considerable distance between herself and the hunter, things would most definitely not go in her favor.
She barreled through the forest, tearing off leaves and breaking low branches here and there, in hope that the hunter would stop at a damaged tree and decide to search its higher branches. Prey had often been caught clinging to tree trunks, betrayed by branches they’d snapped on the way to their hiding places.
Grit sped on, dodging trees and hurdling fallen logs. Her feet were quick and sure, her legs strong and steady; her heart and lungs kept pace. But Grit had limits, and the hunter was pushing her to them. Over the pumping of her blood and the pounding of her feet, she heard leaves crack and twigs snap behind her in rapid succession. She had no ground left to lose.
Tall trees, thick with leaves, stretched above Grit’s head, the sky blocked out by their verdant foliage. She picked the giant with the densest growth and braced her feet as gently as possible against the trunk to avoid scuffing the bark. Listening for her hunter’s approaching footfalls, she scurried quietly up the tree, through soft, closely packed leaves into the higher reaches. When the hunter’s pace slackened, Grit stopped, flattened her body against the trunk, and awaited her fate.
“Ho!” the hunter called over his shoulder. A menacing chuckle rose from the base of Grit’s tree. The hunter scanned the lower branches, paying close attention to the trunk.
Grit could not see his face, but she recognized his laugh of impending triumph. Slate had not misinformed her. Turf of Elna and Bord was one of Sage Brakken’s chosen hunters. He was indeed, as Slate had said, a very “well-grounded” warrior. In any other situation—for example, when she was not in a tree waiting to see if she would live or die—she would have laughed at Slate’s description. Turf’s “grounding” was the best-known secret on the warrior training fields. Grit and Coil had decided to let Turf rise a little higher in the council’s esteem before leaking his secret. It would be more fun, after all, to watch him fall from a lofty position.
But now it was Grit who had to worry about falling. She clung tightly to the trunk, squeezing her eyes shut and willing Turf to leave.
He stayed. Worse than that, his fellow hunter arrived and began to scrutinize the tree with him. The two hunters stepped back and looked up, arms crossed over their chests.
“Do your thing, why don’t you?” Turf spoke as if climbing a tree was below his dignity, a task to be passed down to the lesser hunter who stood next to him. But fear hid beneath the words. She could hear it in his voice.
The second hunter sprang deftly into the tree, his boots making only soft sounds against the trunk. A moment later, the leaves below her feet rustled. Then all quieted, and she dared look down. A patch of pink and gold hair showed through the leaves. Her worst suspicions confirmed, Grit swore to herself. She hadn’t climbed high enough.
Coil was close. If he gained one more branch, he’d be close enough to reach up, grab her foot, and dash her to the ground. She’d likely strike a few branches on the way down and be dead before the forest floor cracked every bone in her body. Her only salvation lay in the possibility that he might spare her life and claim her as his slave. Neither death nor slavery suited Grit.
She closed her eyes, held her breath, rested her forehead against the tree trunk, and willed her toes, her feet, her legs, all the way up to the last filthy hair on her unkempt head to disappear.
She did not disappear, but neither did Coil advance.
“I don’t see her, and the branches have thinned. I can’t climb any higher,” he said.
Grit opened her eyes and puzzled over the branch on which she stood. The whispery sounds of Coil’s retreat ended with a soft thud.
“I’m sure she’s up there.” Turf crossed his arms over his round chest and nodded toward the tree as Coil rejoined him.
Coil passed his hand over the tree’s rough trunk. “Oh, I have no doubt she went up. The question is whether she’s waiting above our heads or miles away, laughing at having outrun us. Shall we wait here, or would you like to pursue our prey?”
Neither hunter spoke for a moment.
Turf shifted his weight. “We could track her through the treetops. You can do that, can’t you? You’re supposed to be able climb and twist your way through any obstacle, Berry Boy.”
Coil shook his head. He examined the tree’s higher branches. “It wouldn’t work. She is lighter than I and can gain limbs I would snap like twigs. In this tree, say, she could—and obviously did—climb to levels I can barely see. There’s no way I could track her from tree to tree.”
“I thought Brakken picked you for this very situation.”
Coil shrugged. “So he did. But even Sage Brakken must know our prey is swift, fearless, and more adept at treetop travel than we—than I am. I’m sure he knows nothing of your level of expertise.”
Coil’s arrow hit its target. Turf grunted, but did not reply. The two sirelings studied Grit’s tree, considering what to do about the problem of prey beyond their reach. At last, Turf broke the silence.
“It’s useless to stay here. You’re probably right. The stupid girl is more than likely miles away by now, mocking our sloth. We’ll have to split up, cover more land that way. Maybe we’ll pick up her trail when she comes down. She’ll have to put her feet on the ground sooner or later. I’ll go east.”
Having made his decision, Turf headed east without a backward glance.
Coil studied Grit’s tree a moment longer. Shaking his head at the clumps of leaves, he mumbled, “To Grit.”
He sauntered due west, and Grit’s muscles relaxed as the tangled curls disappeared from view. When her hunters were a safe distance away, she eased herself down one branch. She stopped, her mind whirling with Coil’s words. Whether she’s above our heads or miles away… more adept at treetop travel… He’d shown her how to do it and pushed her higher and higher into the treetops, but was she better at it than Coil? Could treetop travel be her salvation?
She inched her way toward the end of her branch. At the very moment when the willowy branch began to bend under her slight weight, Grit sprang to the nearest tree. A soft laugh escaped as she steadied herself. She could do this. Like playing a childhood game, she could leave Coil and Turf behind. She could pass her test and become Thresh’s greatest warrior.
She traveled south for hours, pouncing from tree to tree, always above the branch at which Coil’s greater mass would force him to stop. Where the trees were spaced too far apart, she descended, selected a tree slightly out of her southern course, and climbed again.
When dusk fell, Grit slid down a tall oak. She stood in the darkening forest, tiredness overwhelming her body. Everything ached, and as she thought of the hunters she had avoided, she wished one of them had given her a larger bowl of berries. Her stomach tightened and her mouth watered at the thought of an entire pack full of juicy, nourishing fruit. She reached for her pack, but stopped with one hand on her shoulder. The rough fabric of her tunic pricked her raw palm. Her pack was missing. She must have left it beside the creek. Her flask of fresh water probably lay right next to it. No food. No water. No blanket. Only a wooden bowl and two daggers, one of them too small to hurt a mouse.
Too tired to curse, mourn, or plan, Grit curled beneath a large shrub, raked a few handfuls of leaves over her lean frame, and slept.
She woke beside a swiftly flowing brook. The treetops had taken her into unfamiliar territory. Coil and Turf seemed a world away. She drew her dagger and considered her situation. She wasn’t entirely without resources. It was late spring; the worst of the frosty nights had passed. With shrubs to shelter her and makeshift leaf blankets to provide a thin layer of extra warmth and concealment, she might survive the remaining nights. She’d shivered often enough on the floor of Dame Berth’s hut. As for food, she’d been foraging since she could walk, and Berth had trained her to survive on small, hard-earned portions. When she returned to Thresh, she’d have a week to eat and sleep all she wanted, and she could build a hut of her own with a fire to keep her warm all year long. She had plenty of time for hearty food and comfort.
For now, though, she had the fortune to have fallen asleep under a grizzleberry bush. Unlike Coil’s sweet berries, these berries tasted bitter, but they were edible and plump with thirst-quenching, lip-puckering juice. Before she traveled on, she filled her stomach, her bowl, and her pockets with the tart, purple fruit.
Over the next four days, she alternated running, walking, and hiding. Treetop travel was strenuous, not to mention risky. She’d only to resort to it in an emergency. The pressure to flee was not as intense as it had been in the beginning, nor did she have the stamina to sustain her earlier pace. She ate grizzleberries, mushrooms, and other edible plants and drank from each cool spring she crossed. She slept only when she tired of moving. If not for pursuing hunters, she might have luxuriated in her solitude.
Instead, she tensed at every sound and scanned her surroundings constantly. Sleep came in fits, never fully satisfying her worn body. She longed to return to Thresh, collapse on her mat, and sleep until both mind and body awakened. Perhaps Dame Berth would purchase a meal from the Inner Ring. For all their weakness, the Inner Ringers could bake a fine loaf of bread and fry a fish so tender it fell apart on one’s plate. It was unlikely, of course, but Dame Berth had served such a meal on Grit’s Twelfth Branding, so it wasn’t impossible. She could sleep in peace, too, if Seal and Oath would stay out of the hut.
Upon etching the eighth groove in her bowl, Grit set her sights to the northwest. By marking rivers, elevation, and other landmarks, she gained a vague notion of where in Chasmaria she had strayed and which direction to take on her return to Thresh. On the sixteenth day, the road into the village would become neutral ground. The hunters couldn’t touch her there. She mentally outlined a rough course to the Koradin-Thresh Highway, hoping to reach it early on the sixteenth day without first meeting Coil or Turf.
When the sun rose on the final day of her test, Grit was miles from Thresh, but mere yards from the highway. From her hiding place, she peered up and down the road. Swift as lightning, she darted to the wide path, leaping the final step. She had heard of women, in other worlds and at other times, who dipped their weary feet into basins of warm, fragrant water to soothe away their aches. They know nothing of the bliss of safe earth beneath weary feet. I’ve as good as passed my test.
In the early afternoon, Grit first made out the outline of the village. Before long, she could see the gap in the Outer Ring indicating where the hard-packed road led into the heart of Thresh. Some distance ahead of her, a stooped figure struggled to push a wheelbarrow onto the road. The wheel stuck in a spot of sand. When the woman pushed, the wheel dug in deeper. When she pulled, the barrow tipped.
Grit came upon the old woman and stopped. She wasn’t old; she was ancient. Her back twisted in an awkward curve, and wispy white hair framed a face from which skin hung in countless limp wrinkles. Her eyes appeared clouded and watery. Her hands… Grit stared at her hands as they tried to steady the tipping wheelbarrow. She was so frail, so fragile, it was a wonder her hands didn’t crack under the strain of her efforts.
On an impulse, Grit stepped toward her. “Woman, you’re a fool to be so far from the Inner Ring. Let me help you.” She reached for a handle of the wheelbarrow. As her toe sank into the sand, the old woman straightened to her full height. She towered above Grit’s upturned face.
Grit jumped back and watched in wide-eyed horror. The old woman’s face contorted with a host of evils far beyond Grit’s ken. The hag’s eyes, cloudy a moment before, now burned with unmitigated hatred.
“Fool!” The dreadful creature wrapped a steely hand around each of Grit’s slender arms, lifted her into the air, and threw her headfirst into the empty wheelbarrow. A demented, unearthly laugh emanated from a toothless mouth as Grit crashed into silent darkness.
Like what you read?
Check back Saturday to read chapter 6
Get your copy of GRIT OF BERTH AND STONE
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.