A Short Story by Olivia Griffin-Cordray
The lone and level sands stretched far away along the barren shore, grey as ashes, cold as iron. Frozen black bulges of seaweed littered the high-tide line, and ripples of snow rimed the sand down to the water’s edge. The brine-crusted stony beach had long ago been beaten into submission by the icy sea. The sea, called Kalc by those who believed in the power of names, menaced the vast sprawling north of the map that had once belonged to the knifemaker’s father. The sea didn’t stop at the map’s edge, but man’s fortitude did. Nothing scared the knifemaker more than the sea, except perhaps the Wall. It was the sea that took his hand fifteen years ago, back when he earned his keep on a fishing boat. But it was the Wall that took his god.
Now the sea was the only god left in the north, and Durly the knifemaker made his home beside its dark sacred waters. He was thirty-five years old, thickly bearded, heavily scarred, twisted in the back, and since he quit the fishing business he had grown as scrawny as the gulls that shrieked and circled over the beach. When working on his knives he wore a pincer-like hook where his left hand used to be. His hut, a round stone construction with a sloping thatched roof, was his home and his workshop, and it nestled in the hillside overlooking the cold beach that had belonged to his family for three generations. Before he had lost his hand and when his father had been alive, the beach and the dock had been always busy, but now it lay abandoned and all but useless.
Durly preferred the view of the town. When he climbed the hill and looked south he could see the dingy sprawl of Brindlecove, the smoke rising in pillars and threads from its crooked chimneys to the pearl-grey arc of the sky. He walked into town nearly every night by a dirt road split by gaping ruts, remnants of the now defunct fishing trade that had once brought merchants to the beach in droves. He’d take his wares to sell in Brindlecove, but mostly he talked to the men of the town, listening to whatever news that had come their way and sharing stories late into the night.
But tonight he had come home unusually early, and now he sat on a rock in front of his hut, pipe clenched between his teeth, shoulders hunched against the bitter cold as he watched the sea churn. Off to the east the Wall stood sentinel, taller than the mountain range from which it had erupted all those years ago. Durly didn’t know how tall it was — tall enough, he guessed. No one had gone east since it rose. You couldn’t scale it. You couldn’t even sail around it. For all he knew, it stretched out across the sea to the very edge of the world. Maybe even farther.
He rubbed his forearm ruefully. He wouldn’t be the one to find out how far it went. He hadn’t been on a boat since he lost his hand and didn’t plan on boarding one any time soon.
The water looked as hard and forbidding as iron now in the evening slant of the sun, and the waves worried the beach like a man chewing his fingernail. Durly sucked on his pipe and let the smoke whorl over his tongue. He couldn’t stop thinking about the news from the west, of the men who had been tearing apart temples all along the coast. What had Herdann called them earlier?
”They’re working their way east,” Herdann had said just this afternoon. “It’s only a matter of time ’til they get here….”
The Ashen Monks, Durly thought. That’s what he called them.