The Edge of the World

 

“To the Edge of the World,” murmured Dod the Wildesvin not for the first time, rowing down the river with muscles knotted in pain, eyes half-closed.

“And why are you going there?” asked Skalda, sat opposite him in the boat.

“To ask the Gods why …”

Wildesvin were a boar-like race that walked on two cleft hooves and stood as tall as a man. They had boar-like heads with sharp ivory tusks on either side of their short snouts, beady eyes, and bristly brown fur covering their frames. Their furry hands were dextrous enough to row, although normally the race abhorred the water, being unable to swim well.

Dod, however, had built a boat many years ago, inspired by human stories heard at Jaata Murgen during the winter months when they hid from the swarm of Snikelax – named onomatopoeically for the sound their six feet made as they ran and the sound of their clicking mandibles. Hearing tell of humans brave enough to travel across the oceans on bits of wood, Dod had resolved to attempt something similar, starting on a smaller scale, of course. He had bothered the humans at Northbane with endless questions, to the point of vexing them, and had come away with a vague understanding of how to craft a basic skiff.

When winter had passed, he had returned to his home in the north with his newfound knowledge and then spent a frustrating year building a boat with planed cedar and pine by trial and error more than by any accumulated knowledge. He had finally tested a waterproof boat in a small lake just before the following winter and had then been forced to give up when the lake froze over.

He had gone south with his brethren to Jaata Murgen once more, to hide from the Snikelax in Northbane fortress, and had bided the winter there once more, fighting off the Snikelax by night and eating roasted meat, smoking baui and drinking ale with the humans by day. When the thaw finally came – more a mild rise of temperature than an actual thaw in the north – he had returned north to what the humans called the White Wastes, his home. As soon as the ice unfroze and a patch of water became available, Dod set about boating, testing his skiff and learning to row with delight. Though still afraid of the water, he had found that – when dumped in – he could just about paddle to shore as long as it was not far away. He had been thrilled with his new hobby and had taken it adventuring wherever the water flowed.

In time, he had found a mate, Ilva, and sired a son. When his son, Garva, had come of age, Dod had taught him how to row the boat, too, and it had become a family activity that they all thoroughly enjoyed every summer. Ilva and Garva had enjoyed it right up until the end.

Dod blinked away tears at the thought and looked over his shoulder to view their course. The river was such a pale blue that it still looked frozen, though it was not, brightening to white in the distance where it reflected the snow’s unsullied radiance. The water flowed so smoothly that it became a mirror, recreating the firmament in its depths. He straightened up and returned to the middle of the meandering river, furthest from both shores.

Snow-marbled mountains rolled ruggedly past on one shore, the ridges undulating across the sky like a snake’s course; an unending, rimy fir forest on the other. The snow seemed to soften the landscape, take away the hard edges and make everything look smooth and serene. It may have been summer, but the snow was ceaseless in the White Wastes. Today, however, though frost clung to all in sight, the blue of the sky was broken only by white clouds that looked soft as cotton and white-winged buryblurts, honking as they soared. In the distance, where the mountains hazed to blue, Dod could not tell where the snow ended and the clouds began, as if reality became one with the ethereal.

“To the Edge of the World at the river’s end,” he slurred.

“How do you know the Edge of the World lies at the river’s end?” asked Skalda. “Has anyone ever seen it and returned to tell tale of it?”

“Nobody has seen it and returned,” Dod replied, “but everybody knows. The river goes over the Edge of the World.”

Skalda shook her head at his logic. “And when you get there, you will ask the Gods why?”

“Yes …”

“Why what?”

“Why they took my family from me.”

Skalda was silent awhile then, looking down pensively. Dod eyed her blearily. She appeared to him as a female Wildesvin, smaller than he and tusk-less with lighter ochre fur, but he knew she was not as she appeared. She seemed to be speaking Wildish to him – the language of his people – but he was not sure that was not some trick, too. Her clothes, all made from pure white arctic bear fur, made Dod feel dirty and unkempt in his old bearskin coat and breeches. Both were shoeless on account of their hooves.

“Why are you here?” he asked her.

“Where else would I be?”

“Why?” he insisted.

She sighed. “Who else would be here for you if not I?”

Silence captured him at that. The sky and the river darkened a shade from periwinkle to robin’s-egg blue.

Eventually, though, he mumbled, “Are you guiding me, Skalda?”

“You could say that. Soon, you will be where you belong.” After a lengthy spell of silence, she said, “How did your family die, Dod?”

He sighed. He did not want to talk about it just then, but he was on his way to the Edge of the World, so he knew he might not get another chance.

“A sickness came upon my village,” he said dully at last. “It gripped us fast and would not let go. Those that it took into its arms were visited by the sweats first, then diarrhoea. Cysts as big as a fist grew in their armpits and groins then, sucking out all their energy until they could not move at all. Then, the cysts popped … and they died … misshapen, covered in pus, stinking like rot. My beautiful Ilva … my little boy, Garva … I was telling him a stupid story about how cannibal Wildesvin become Wendigos when he … when he …”

He broke down into sobs, giving up on rowing and letting the tears fall while his body shook.

Skalda let him cry awhile, sadness shining in her eyes, then she said softly, “What is a Wendigo?”

He thought she was just changing the subject for his benefit; all Wildesvin knew of Wendigos.

“Wendigos are Wildesvin who eat the flesh of their own people,” he explained, wiping his eyes. “Legends say that something happens to their minds and their bodies when they do so, and they are … changed afterwards. Cannibal Wildesvin become monsters, not entirely mindless but controlled by bloodlust and the need to kill and feed again. They become skeletal and sunken, with hungry eyes flecked the colour of blood.”

“You’re starting to look a bit skeletal yourself,” she said with a small smile. “You know, it’s been days since you ate anything, Dod.”

“I don’t need to eat,” he murmured, picking up the oars once more. “I need to find the Edge of the World.”

Thoughtful a while, Skalda then said, “Do you see the Crawler over there?”

Dod peered at the shore, spotting a six-foot-tall bug with a black carapace standing amid the shadowy pines. The Crawler waved a serrated raptorial foreleg at him. He thought that strange, since the giant insects were not considered in the least civilized and were known to be far more likely to rip off your arm and eat it than wave, but nevertheless he dutifully waved back, even managing a small smile.

“I see it.”

Skalda smiled sadly and shook her head.

“Tell me about your village,” she said in time.

“Oh, it was perfect,” Dod bumbled. “Just perfect. Quiet, peaceful. My family and a few others lived in igloos deep in the shelter of the forest there.” He waved a hand vaguely toward the firs lining one shore. “We grew food in summer where we could, and we hunted for food in winter. We ate snow when there was no water. Our children played in the drifts, climbed the trees, chased the hares and the buryblurts. My mate and I made love in the afternoons when the children were out playing … And we went boating every summer, too. All together, my family and I.” He sighed. “It was … perfect.”

“And the people there?” prodded Skalda. “They were good people?”

“The best people.”

“Do you remember what happened to them? Do you remember if they all got sick, too?”

Dod nodded. “They all got sick … all of them.”

“And … that’s all you remember?”

Dod nodded. “I left after … after … my mate and my son …”

Following a thud, the little skiff jolted suddenly, almost throwing Skalda overboard while Dod hung on to the oars. Shaken, they both cautiously peeked over the sides and then yanked their heads back when they spotted sinuous forms winding through the water and powerful flipper tails splashing, propelling the creatures at speed directly towards the boat. With another crash, the beasts slammed into the skiff’s sides once more, near capsizing it and spraying icy water over those inside. 

“It’s the Tizherug!” Dod cried, heart hammering in his mouth, belly full of butterflies. “The snakes before the Edge! I thought them but a myth!”

“They seem a solid enough myth to me,” Skalda shouted back, peering around in alarm. Dod wondered why she was affecting fear; what did she have to be afraid of?

“Maybe they’ll go away when they realise they can’t eat the skiff?” Dod suggested half-heartedly.

The sound of splintering told him the Tizherug were chewing through the wood without difficulty.

“Do you have another plan?” Skalda yelled over the swishing and cracking.

“Nothing else for it … we’ll have to beat ‘em off! Grab an oar!”

He slipped the oars from their crude oarlocks and threw one to Skalda, who caught it deftly despite the violent shaking of the skiff. Then, leading by example, Dod hefted his oar high and brought it down hard on one of the snakes surrounding them. The shifting creature was hard to hit, however, and all he achieved was splashing cold water in his own face. Blinking and bellowing in incoherent outrage, mad at himself for his folly and at the snakes for attacking him, he swung his oar up and down again and again as if crazed. The boat keeled from side to side, coming perilously close to tipping time and again, but somehow it stayed upright, its pace brought down to a crawl.

Slapping at the river over and over, Dod eventually learned to better predict the Tizherug’s movements and started to score hits on the serpents with loud clunking noises. The snakes hissed and whined when he managed to strike them, and then – as he was growing more confident – one almost bit his head off.

Propelled by its great flipper tail, one of the Tizherug launched itself out of the river, flying up and over the boat, its needle-toothed jaws snapping shut bare inches from the astonished Wildesvin’s visage. Its smooth, seven-foot blue body – more like a giant pike than a snake, Dod saw now – curved in the air as it tried desperately to reach him and bite off his nose, but it could not quite reach. Time seemed to slow to a drip-drop then, and Dod could see every bead of water as it dropped from the Tizherug and pattered down onto the skiff or the river.

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