Chapter 20: Grit of Berth and Stone

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.

Grit of Berth and Stone

First book of Chasmaria

TWENTY

<< Chapter 19 | Chapter 21 >>

The midday sun beat upon Grit’s bare shoulders. She sat on the side of the southward road, removed her tunic, and studied the unmarked skin. The absence of brands no longer disturbed her. In Port Colony, she had longed for something to identify her as belonging somewhere, though she no longer belonged in Thresh. Here in the Southern Realm, however, she needed no origin to placate Vell or anyone else. When she reached the Southern Sea, she would begin a new life, independent of Thresh, Port Colony, and all she had known in either place.

Jareh’s food sustained her body, though her spirit flagged in his absence. I almost wish I’d remained with the old man. If nothing else, he’s a living, breathing human being. Grit bit into her second loaf of bread. Across the road, the bushes rustled. Grit jumped to her feet and pulled her dagger, ready to meet any opponent.

A dog emerged from the shrubbery. Black and mangy, with hairless patches near his tail, he lay on the grass watching her. Scooting forward with his belly against the ground, he made his way across the road until he crouched just a few yards from Grit.

“What do you want, worm?” She’d stab the beast if he pounced on her.

He turned his head to one side and whined.

“Go away.” Grit threw a piece of bread at his head, hoping to frighten him away. He opened his mouth to catch the bread midair. Wagging his tail, he inched closer. His ribs protruded from his sides.

Grit broke a larger chunk from her loaf. She tossed the piece to the dog, who devoured it in one gulp.

“I don’t care if you’re starving. That’s all I’m giving you. Now get lost.”

The wiggle started in his tail, but soon his entire body squirmed back and forth.

“I mean it, worthless creature! I’ve no use for a dog who thinks he’s a worm. Anyway, you don’t want me. I might eat you once I’ve run out of bread.”

Grit sheathed her dagger, threw her pack over her shoulder, and sauntered down the road. After several steps, she turned. The dog had followed and stood in the middle of the road. He plopped to his belly and wagged his tail. She stomped her foot at him, turned, and refused to look back again.

The dog remained close when she sat to eat her evening meal. With each bite she took, his head tilted up, following the motion of her hand. Sighing, she tossed him the crust of her bread.

“You win, Worm.”

He wiggled his way to her, nudged his head under her hand, and rested his chin in her lap. As she scratched between his ears, flakes of skin appeared in his dull, black fur.

“You’re a nasty beast, and I doubt you’ll be good company, but you may travel with me if you insist.”

When Grit curled up under a shrub that night, Worm crawled under the bush with her. She cursed as he stepped on her hair and then her arm. Resting his head on her thigh, he settled with his tail near her face.

“Turn around, stupid dog.” Grit reached for his neck to guide his head to hers. His body twisted, and soon the two were comfortably situated. Even if Worm’s head smelled no better than his tail, Grit smiled as she laid her arm over his body. The presence of another living creature, even one as unpleasant as Worm, comforted her.

The next morning, Grit beckoned Worm to walk at her side.

“You may as well know, since you’ve attached yourself to me, we are headed to the Southern Sea.” The dog’s ears perked as Grit spoke. “I used to live along the Western Sea, you know. The waters there are frigid in winter, but perfect in summer, especially after a day of sparring. Coil and I used to…” She stopped, the memory of pleasant swims too painful to relive.

She frowned at Worm. “Do you know when I first noticed him, Coil of Dara? It was my Sixth Branding. He was standing in the front row, his hair spiraling in every direction and a smudge of jam on the tip of his nose. He was laughing, Worm, laughing at me as Dame Berth touched the rod to my arm. I swore he would never see me cry. He never did, either, not for the branding rod or for anything else. I never shed a single tear.”

She realized she had stopped walking when she felt Worm lean against her leg and press his nose into her hand.

She patted his head and laughed. “No need to pity me, Worm. I’ve done perfectly well without tears. Look how far I’ve come. I’m almost to the Southern Sea, and I’m conversing with a dog.”

She shook her head and closed her eyes to shut out the bitter reality of her loneliness. She yearned to spar with Coil, to listen to Sire Stone’s careful instruction, even to snap at Dame Berth over the imperfect consistency of the porridge or whatever other complaint she might invent. All of that is goneEven if I were free to go back, the disgrace of failure and the shame of disownment bar my return. Thresh and all it holds are gone. Gone, gone, gone.

She bent over, picked up a rock, and threw it as hard as she could against a tree. It hit the trunk with a thud and dropped softly to the ground. When she turned around, Worm sat waiting expectantly.

“Come on, Worm,” she said, weary of her angry grief. “Let’s go. It can’t be too much farther.”

****

Later that day, the air thickened. When the wind brought the scent of the ocean, Grit left the road behind. Breaking through dense scrub, she stepped over a twisted root and scanned the horizon. The Southern Sea stretched from east to west as far as her eyes could see, the sun reflected in its gentle ripples. She could almost taste the warm, sea-soaked air.

“Breath it in, Worm. It smells like the Western Sea, but warm.”

She would stay until the memory of Thresh had faded, until she’d made a new name and a new life for herself.

She sat, removed her boots, and buried her toes underneath the warm sand. Worm sat beside her.

Ahead of them, a hundred yards from the shore, a small boat bobbed in the water. Near the boat, a man’s head emerged from the ocean. The man reached a hand over the boat’s side, then disappeared again under the water. Two minutes later, he appeared and disappeared a second time.

Grit wrapped her arms around her knees and squinted, intent on the spot where she had seen the diver plunge beneath the surface. He came up, reached into the boat, and dove again. He repeated the process every two minutes, never acknowledging Grit or even looking in her direction.

“What’s he doing, Worm?” Grit asked.

The dog lay down in the sand and kept watch with Grit.

Finally, the man lifted himself out of the water and rolled his body into the boat. Seated in the middle of the small vessel, he rowed toward shore. As he neared the beach, he jumped into the water and pulled the boat by a rope tied around his ankle.

He was Grit’s height, slightly built with well-defined muscles for a man of his advanced age, and skin darker than any Grit had seen. Around his waist, he wore a cloth similar to what Threshan infants wore beneath their gowns. As he stooped to unfasten the rope from his ankle, the sun glinted off his scalp.

Without warning, Worm leapt forward and bounded across the beach. He circled the man, barking incessantly.

“Worm!” Grit rose and ran to the shoreline. “Get back, dumb dog!”

“He means no harm.” The man laughed and knelt to let the dog lick his face. When he looked at Grit, his eyes were cloudy and white. She shuddered and looked away from his face. A thin silver band encircled his ankle.

“You are far from home,” he said.

“I have no home.”

“Your pearl says otherwise.”

Grit wrapped her hand around the white sphere.

The man frowned. “I do not see much, but what I see, I see clearly. And, I see your pearl. No one wearing that pearl can rightfully claim to be without home.”

He patted Worm on the head, rose, and pulled his boat further up onto the beach. From its hull, he lifted a basket filled with rough, oddly-shaped, gray shells. Both arms wrapped around the basket as he hugged it to his chest.

“Come, I could use your help.”

“I didn’t offer my help,” Grit said, still clasping her pearl.

The man stopped and faced her, his milky eyes unfocussed. “What else have you to do?” With one hand, he gestured toward the sea. “It is not as though you can travel farther.”

He turned and continued up the beach. Grit remained at the water’s edge a moment, then trotted after him. He was right. She had nowhere else to go.

“The Southern Sea is a wonderful place,” he said as Grit came alongside him, “especially for those who feel they have no home. There’s an empty hut a hundred yards east of here. Inhabit it, if you like.”

“I can build my own hut.” She might have nowhere to go, but she wasn’t so weak as to need to dwell in a hut built by another’s hands.

“Wherever you have come from, you need not prove your worth here.”

They had reached a modest structure of upright sticks bound together with twisted vines. A thatched roof covered a plank floor. The entire front was open to the sea. The man set his basket on a woven rug in the middle of the floor and faced Grit. “There is no honor in building a hut, nor shame in taking over an empty hut. The honor lies not in how or by whom the hut was constructed, but in the actions of the individual who lives within the hut.”

Gesturing for Grit to join him, he seated himself on the rug and took a shell from the basket. Grit sat, her legs hanging over the edge of the raised hut, and surveyed the man’s home. The furnishings were simple, a table and chair against the back wall and a bed in the corner.

“Do you have weapons?” she asked.

“Only this, and it can hardly be called a weapon.” He held up the small knife with which he had separated the halves of the shell. A memory flickered in Grit’s mind, but disappeared as the man continued. “I have no need of defense. Very few people, and even fewer of them unkind, come this far south. Do you have oysters where you come from?”

“No.”

He scraped the inside of one of the shells with the knife and held something white out to Grit. “Try it.”

“You first,” she said.

He slid the meat from the knife into his mouth, pried open another shell, scraped his knife against it, and held the meat out to her.

Cautiously, Grit took the oyster from the knife’s blade and put it in her mouth. It tasted fresh, like the sea with a hint of melon and a whisper of smoke. As it slid down her throat, all her senses awakened. She felt the soft breeze against her cheek, heard the man’s gentle exhale and Worm’s soft whine, smelled the sand and the sea and the flowers blooming outside the hut.

Grit opened her eyes. “It isn’t awful.”

“Someday, if you like, I will teach you to dive for them.” He whistled, and Worm took an oyster from his hand.

The diver shucked his oysters, eating the meat of some and holding the meat of others out for Grit or Worm. Grit eased her hand away from her dagger. She wouldn’t need it here. The man was no threat. On the contrary, he set her at ease. Peace washed over her with every wave of the sea, with every taste of his catch. She scooted closer to the basket. Watching his knife as he slid the blade between the half-shells, she caught her breath.

“Tell me about your knife. I have one just like it.” Reaching deep into her pocket, she pulled out her Sire’s Aid, the tiny dagger she had thought good for nothing.

The man smiled and hummed. “You must have been destined to come here and shuck oysters with me. Try it.”

Grit shrugged, took an oyster from the basket, and mimicked the man’s actions. Sliding the blade of the tiny knife into a small opening where the shells met, she wiggled the handle and pried the shells apart. The meat stuck to one shell. She scraped her knife against the hard surface to detach it. At last, she held the meat on the edge of her blade.

“Your turn,” she said.

Holding the man’s wrist, she set the oyster in his hand. He slid his thumb over its mangled form, popped it into his mouth, and smiled. “Magnificent.”

When the sun lay low in the western sky, Grit rose from the rug and looked to the east.

“A hundred yards?” she asked.

“Yes. Rest secure. You won’t find another soul for miles.”

She hopped onto the sand and whistled to Worm, who had fallen asleep under the hut. After several steps, she turned back to the man, who remained seated on the rug.

“Do you have a name?”

He looked up, and his cloudy eyes seemed to search the sky. “Ezekiel. Ezekiel of the Southern Sea.”

The hut was just as Ezekiel had said it would be. One hundred yards to the east, nestled among the foliage lining the beach, with one side wide open to the ocean. Like Ezekiel’s hut, this one contained a bed, a chair, and a table. A woven rug lay in the center of the raised plank floor. After wiping the sand from her legs, Grit climbed into the bed. Worm jumped in after her and curled at her feet. Despite Ezekiel’s assurance that she could rest secure, she wrapped her left arm around her pack and her right hand around her dagger. She ruffled Worm’s fur with her toes.

“Sleep well, my companion,” she said. “We may stay awhile.”

Like what you read? 

Check back Wednesday to read chapter 21

or

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.

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