The Edge of the World




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When I first arrived in Nalbuz, it seemed the grandest place in all the Greenhall. I had walked all day from my father's sheep pastures. The wagon trail I was walking along crested a steep ridge, and below the city's towers caught the yellow sunset and seemed to glow from within. Never had I seen so many buildings in one place, or any buildings so broad and tall. It seemed like a place built for Giants rather than men and women. The Zountharflour, widening out as it found its way into the great bay beyond the city, was broader than I could have imagined any river being, like an enormous lake whose waters silently flowed on forever, unceasing.

The merchants smiled at me as I walked the streets of the city, wide-eyed and hardly aware of where I stepped. They were smirking at the new country boy lost in the city. I didn't mind; I thought them strange too, with their brightly dyed clothes and fussed-over hair. I had been warned of thieves, so I kept my money pouch tucked into my breeches. My father had sold three sheep to get the seven silver coins that would give me a place at the academy. I would have to work to earn my keep too, but without the money, so I was told, they would not even open the door for me. I had seldom held any coins before, and it was strange to think of the worth of three sheep tucked into that small linen pouch.

My favorite room in the academy buildings was the Old Moothall. Behind the high table hung a great map of the Greenhall, with all its many lands and realms. It took me an hour the first time to find Nalbuz, which on the map seemed nothing more than a small hamlet tucked away in the northwest corner of the world. If I bent my neck back, I could read the words inscribed in blue ink at the very top of the map: Meigil Gabar, the Great Chasm. It was a name I had heard in stories when I was a child. I was never sure if it was a real place or not.

Autumn passed quickly into Darkening, and Darkening into Winter that first year at the academy, and the bustling activity of the city streets was replaced by a somber chill. Snow was piled between the buildings and the daylight hours became few and bleak. I spent them mostly doing my chores: mopping the kitchen floors, breaking the ice on the stone pathways, and emptying the chamber pots in the masters' rooms. Most of my waking hours were spent in the long dark mornings and evenings, reading by lamplight and trying to understand a dozen subjects that I did not know even existed just a few months before.

Late one evening, I noticed Master Graiwar and Master Thoundmanar in the Old Moothall, apparently discussing something on the map. I stepped in and waited politely as they continued speaking. Master Graiwar then turned to me, stroking his bushy gray beard. "Yes, Alfroun, may we help you?"

"Forgive me master, I am just curious about this map. May I ask you some questions?"

Master Graiwar's eyes glinted. "A curious student! What a strange turn of events for us, Master Thoundmanar." He paused. "By all means, boy, speak up!"

"Well, sir, I see there at the top of the map, the words say Meigil Gabar."


"I was wondering what land lies beyond the Great Chasm."

"Well, son, you can read on the legend of the map, down here, that this is a map of all the Greenhall, the whole world. So there is nothing beyond the Great Chasm. That is the edge of the world.

Master Thoundmanar coughed politely. "Well, to be circumspect one might say it is the edge of the map. There are some books from the Time of Monarchs, and even earlier, that say there is a place named Stonemark beyond the Great Chasm, where Giants dwell. A whole other world, some seem to think."

"Now, Master Thoundmanar, the boy asked a direct question. Let's not confuse him with old legends and songs from long ago when men still dressed in skins!" I thought uneasily of the sheepskins that my mother had sewn into a simple tunic and trousers, which my father had worn for longer than I could remember.

"Master Graiwar is correct," said Master Thoundmanar, perhaps just to appear deferential to the other teacher. "Modern scholars know that there is nothing north of Meigil Gabar. I just thought we might take some amusement in the beliefs and fancies of ancient times. All the Greenhall appears on this map, from farthest north to farthest south, and from sunrise to sunset."

"Has anyone been there?" I asked. "One might take a ship and sail north across the Chasm. Or even stand on the shore and look across, to see if there is land on the other side."

"That would be a long and dangerous journey to undertake for such little cause, Alfroun. The Meigil Gabar is filled with grinding slabs of ice, even in the summer months. Sailing is impossible. And how could you see to the other side, when there is no other side to see?"

I thought of suggesting that one could walk over the ice on skis or snowshoes, but guessed that Master Graiwar's delight in the curiosity of students was beginning to ebb. I said, "Thank you, Master Graiwar, Master Thoundmanar. You have answered my questions. Good night."

That night I could not sleep. My mind was filled with the thought of looking out on the edge of the world, or beyond it. It was not far on the map. Surely it would not be difficult to simply keep walking, or paddle a boat, northward from the northern shore of Galarzgou, and simply learn the truth of the matter, once and for all. Could there be Giants? Real Giants?

That was how it happened that during the summer at the end of my first year at the academy, when I was expected to go home and help my father tend the sheep, I instead set out on a journey to the edge of the world. The gold merchant in the market seemed to be a well-traveled man. At least he told tales of foreign realms like Thagam and Rassal, and seemed to know where every item in his cart had come from, and how far it had traveled to grace the streets of Nalbuz. It was the opinion of the gold merchant that one should travel by ship from Nalbuz to Thaiwig, which, as everyone knew, was the northernmost habitable place on Earth. From there, one could travel on by whatever means presented themselves.

It turned out to be not quite as simple as that. The only ship bound for Nalbuz this summer was not a passenger vessel. It had come south at the beginning of Spring, loaded with furs to trade. The crew had stayed on in Nalbuz, trying to sell enough furs to return north with barrels of beer and iron knives and axes. But the furs had not attracted much interest, and now their plan was to compensate for their losses by hunting seals along the coast. I negotiated passage on the ship by offering to clean and do odd jobs.

It was aboard this ship, The Black Bear, that I became friends with a Giantkin fellow named Aithgar. He was just a few years older than me, big and brawny with tufts of curly red hair and a short red beard. He told me that his home was in the forests far beyond Thaiwig, and that he believed he knew how we might trek into the mountains and come to the Nauthfithur, which flows into the Meigil Gabar. He thought such a journey might test his fortitude, and he loved challenges of that sort. He warned me that the overland journey from Thaiwig would take many weeks, for the country there was rugged and there were few roads or tracks to follow.

The seal-hunting business turned out to be even less productive than the fur-trading one, so the crew was not in good spirits as the slow, tedious journey along the coasts of Atharlanam and Ioudlanam progressed. Aithgar, however, seemed to be always in good spirits, perhaps because his mind was on our anticipated adventure in the northern wilderness.

At long last, the ship captain spotted the inlet that would take us to Thaiwig. There, during the long twilight of evening, I saw the strangest and most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Curtains of light hung in the sky over the northern sea, yellow and green and shifting as I watched. "That's the Nahdweihl," Aithgar said softly, with a dreamy look on his face. He was coming home.

It took us eight days walking cross country just to get to Aithgar's home. Five wood cabins stood huddled together in a wet, gray-green valley. There was little growing here, except a stand of onions and a small herb garden near the door of the largest cabin. Aithgar's family came out to greet us - his mother, father, two uncles, an aunt, and four cousins. They were all big, heavy-set people like Aithgar himself, with broad faces and hair in shades of red and dusty yellow. Giantkin had something of a bad reputation in Nalbuz, as they tended to be crude and to settle grievances (real or imagined) with their fists. But here, in this remote place, I saw them differently. These were people who lived by their strength and stamina. It probably took everything they had in them to bring in enough food to survive the winter. If they were unused to the nuances of gentle conversation and niceties of urban life, it was hardly surprising, or something to fault them for.

We ate and drank well that night, as Aithgar's father told many stories by the fireside, and the beer flowed generously. I slept soundly, feeling welcome and very safe.

The last stage of our journey was difficult but happy. Although Summer was ending, the snows had not yet come. And although the hiking was often arduous, it felt good to be using my muscles and breathing the cool, fresh air, scented with pine. Aithgar made a good traveling companion, speaking little and pointing out the way with a nod or a gesture. For a young man, he seemed to have an enormous experience of the landscape to draw upon.

As we camped one night, I asked him the question that had been on my mind since we met. "Why are you called Giantkin?"

Aithgar's face froze for the slightest of moments, and then relaxed and grinned. I realized the question might have gotten me a fist to the chin, were we in Nalbuz, and unacquainted with each other. "Not hard to guess. We're big, you know."

"Well yes, that's true. But are you, like, related to Giants?"

Aithgar was laughing now, a big powerful belly-laugh. "I've never met a Giant. They're just in stories to scare children with. You ever met a Giant?"

Now it was my turn to laugh. "No, of course not. But maybe there used to be Giants, real ones. I thought you might know."

"Nope, sorry," Aithgar scratched his cheek. "You're the scholar, not me."

"Something just came into my head. There's a poem, Haulardzlei it's called. My grandfather used to recite it on special occasions. We'd all sit together and listen. There's a part that goes - mmm, let me see, yes: Gaizderir galun thaiz zaizi gaith / Thouh reimi and rainai thaiz eizi rai / Feinthan thau frouranan aidunum failer."

"I know that too," said Aithgar. "The ghosts call to him who goes / Through rime and rain by the icy road / To find the frozen Giant fells - Does it mean something to you?"

"No," I said, "not really. But I just thought that's what we're doing now. But the ice hasn't come yet, and I'm glad the ghosts are quiet for the moment."

Aithgar chuckled. "I don't think you can find Giant country by any road we can get to."

"I expect that's true," I said. I slept soundly, and dreamed of ice-covered towers of rock.

Aithgar led us up into the mountains now, and it was more climbing than walking. There was ice and snow here that never melted, and it was covering more and more of the rocky landscape. The trees were left behind us now, patches of dark green stretched out far below. Aithgar used a massive pick to give us footholds in the ice and rock when the going was too steep. We traveled like this for two days, and I began to wonder if our rations would hold out. Aithgar assured me we had two more days before we would need to turn back.

Finally, we reached a high rocky plateau. It was a like a great burden had been lifted, to be on flat ground again after all that climbing. Aithgar beamed. "If I'm right, we should be able to see the Nauthfithur from the other side of this plateau. Let's go!" We walked now with renewed speed and vigor. I almost forgot why I had come, I'd been so focused on the climb and the hope of finding the deep firth that was so near the northernmost tip of the Greenhall. It didn't seem at all like the edge of the world now - just a beautiful, high, cold, and rugged place that few humans had ever set eyes on.

Aithgar was right. Within an hour we were looking down in the Nauthfithur, a narrow neck of sea reaching inland as far as we could gaze. The slope leading down to it was a virtual cliff. We could not conceivably have climbed down if we had wanted to.

"I believe we are not far from the outlet of the firth," Aithgar proclaimed with obvious satisfaction. If we walk north now, we may be there by nightfall.

So it was, at long last, that we came to the end of our journey. The Sun had just set, and the long northern twilight flowed in like a gentle purple dream. We stood on the highest place either of us had even been, and looked northward, upon the Meigil Gabar, the Great Chasm at the Edge of the World.

We couldn't see either ice or water below us, just mist down, down, down into nothingness. Looking north, there was only violet sky fading indistinctly into the mist below us. I started to say, "I wonder if the mist ever clears here", but only two syllables came out. It wasn't right to speak. The question didn't matter. I was standing on the edge of world.

For the rest of my life, I never learned whether there was a land on the other side of the Chasm, or whether Giants walked there in truth or just in poetry. But my Giantkin friend and I carried a greater truth with us, all our days. We had looked into unspeakable mystery. Or, rather, unspeakable mystery had looked into us.

Nalbuz was a much smaller place when I returned.

Supplemental material for this story:

View a map of the northwestern region of the Greenhall (183K)

Hear an audio recording of the lines from Haulardzlei in Waizzbreg (mp3, 271K)

The Imaginarium is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2008 Tom Waters