A Short Story by Olivia Griffin-Cordray
Durly fixed his gaze on the restless waters. He didn’t want to believe it. But the god of his forefathers hadn’t spoken since the Wall had risen. How long had it been now? Three hundred years? Nearly? What did it matter, he thought; the god wasn’t listening anymore.
Today he had gone to town as usual. He had taken his wares in a roll of butter-soft suede, tucked tight under his shoulder as he made his way to the One-Eyed Mule, where Herdann had his ale waiting. But the alehouse was darker than usual, just a little bit quieter, and Herdann had a tenseness to his face that crinkled his brow and tightened his lips as he passed the mug across the bar to Durly.
“Eh, Durly,” said Herdann, “you catch any of the brother’s sermon this afternoon?”
Durly had not, and he shook his head. “Didn’t know it was a feastday, cousin.”
Herdann swiped at the bar with his rag and then tucked it into his apron. He was an average-sized man but had a nose as long as a broomstick and eyes as pale as marbles. His blond hair was going grey and stuck up around the crown of his head like a haystack. “More a fastday, the way the brother tells it,” he said. “These Ashen Monks are bad business. Say what you will about the temples and those that run ’em, but if the temples aren’t too sacred to fall, what’s stopping ’em from burning down a whole village? Brindlecove is half driftwood. We’d go up like so much dry grass.”
Durly wiped foamy ale off his moustache. “You think they’re coming this way?”
Herdann turned away. “They’re working their way east,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time ’til they get here. And no one’ll bother stopping ‘em. Let the brother try to rouse the rabble; the plain truth is there’s a new god that rules now, and his name is Chaos.”
Durly didn’t know why it hurt so much to hear Herdann say this out loud. He himself had never been a great believer. The sea ruled his life as it had ruled his father’s before him. But there was a comfort in thinking the god was watching. He wanted to believe in a purpose to things, a reason that ruled the tides, the flights of birds, the coursing of a man’s blood. If chaos really did rule, what was to prevent the tide from washing over the whole earth and razing it to stubble? Durly’s heart felt leaden and black.
“The brother says the god is letting us suffer as punishment,” said Durly.
“It’s a wicked kind of shepherd to let the wolf carry off the flock,” said Herdann stonily.
“It’s because of the Wall,” said Marla, Herdann’s fourteen-year-old daughter, who sat near the cave-like fireplace at the end of the room. Unlike her father she was small and dark, with her hair tied in bunches like sheaves of wheat. She had huge eyes that glistened in the firelight. Next to her sat her older sister Blind Bittern, who was spinning yarn with a drop spindle. “That’s what the brother says, anyway,” said Marla. She turned her attention to her sister again, handing her a pinch of rough wool to draft into the yarn.
“The Wall wasn’t our fault,” said Herdann as he pulled another cup of ale from the keg. “It was the thaumaturgists who raised it in the east, and who brought hell and damnation down on our heads when they were trying to decide how the world turned. The wars raged for fifty years and what did we get out of it? Blasted earth and poisoned waters from the thaumaturgists’ evil fire.”
“The thaumaturgists’ power ended at the Wallrise,” said Durly tiredly. “Maybe the Wall was a gift from the god in that respect.”
“If it was a gift, it was his deathbed gift,” said Herdann.
“You think the god is dead then?” said Durly.
The barkeep was silent a moment and then Bittern spoke up from the end of the room. “I don’t think the god is dead.”
Durly gave the girl an assessing look. Bittern had been blind since birth. She would likely never marry because of it; men around Brindlecove wanted wives who could work. If no one took pity on her, she would remain in her father’s alehouse for the rest of her life, sitting by the fire and spinning. If anyone had cause to doubt the god’s existence it was her.
Herdann cleared his throat. “He’s either dead or sleeping or he just don’t care about us enough to pay us any mind,” he said.
But Bittern shook her head. “I don’t think it’s that,” she said. “I think the god is wounded. Everyone knows the stories of how he used to provide for us, in the ancient days. He made the sea feed us even in the darkest winters, when we were cold and hungry and had nothing left to us but ashes.” Durly found himself nodding. He remembered hearing about the giant fish that once swam the seas, big enough to feed a family of ten for a month. But the fish had gone after the Wallrise. Some said it was the god’s curse on mankind for daring to split the earth in two.
Bittern, however, didn’t seem to think it was a curse. “When the thaumaturgists raised the Wall, the god saw we could make our own miracles,” she said. “We showed him we didn’t need him anymore. He’s not punishing us. He’s giving us what we wanted.”
Durly felt bloated from the ale. After that, the conversation only grew darker. More men continued to straggle in, all bringing news of the Ashen Monks. It wasn’t news Durly cared to hear. The brother had gotten the whole village riled up, it seemed, but his sermon of resistance against the Ashen Monks seemed to have the opposite effect of what he’d intended; the men mostly spoke in favor of the renegades’ goals. The god was dead, they said. The temples were nothing but a burden to the smallfolk. The brother would be better off out on the sea like the rest of Brindlecove’s men. Why wait for the Ashen Monks to show up? Fishermen had good hot fire like anyone else….