There was only water, and then, a small raft.
Essa hadn’t realized that the end of the world was so calm. Like the pause of heartbeat and lung at the end of an exhalation, there was that same kind of dead-air, of waiting, of uncertainty whether another breath could be drawn.
Far different from the rocky coastline, the capricious currents, and the storms that shook and spun until her bearings were more tangled than a rogue fishing net dredged-up from the reef.
The water was still. A moment between moments, with only the ripple from her paddle and the bow of what had once been a boat, before the waves, before the dark, before the wind that scooped her like a gull scoops an oyster and dashes it to splinters.
But instead of relief, of sanctuary and rest, this was an uneasy quiet.
For only gods and monsters lived at the end of the world, and Essa had come to beg and barter. To sacrifice, if necessary, if that was the price asked. Out here, or in the Wilds, there was no guarantee who would answer first: one who could be persuaded to help, or one who would devour with the swift ruthlessness of a winter gale.
With one last smooth stroke, she lay the paddle down and drew a whale-bone knife from her seal-bladder pack. The trick was where to cut, where it would bleed deep enough to summon, yet where it could easily be bound and would not hinder movement. Hands were definitely out. It would be impossible to make the long trek back.
If there was a long trek back.
Choosing where to cut, that was a small, manageable decision. Thinking about what would happen after...
Essa lurched back from the edge, the paddle knocked wide with a splash. It was the reflection of her own eyes that had spooked her. Too wide, too scared, too young-looking for a warrior, for the one chosen and blessed by her village.
Blood thrummed in her ears, pulled and pushed by the gravitational force of her fear.
This too was small. This too was manageable.
It was important to master what was in her reach, because so much was not. Not the ocean, not the sky, not the run of fish spawning in the rivers, and certainly not the gods and monsters at the end of the world.
Retrieving the paddle, yes, that was within her means. The seal-intestine towline was strong, supple, and still tied tightly to her ankle. Essa pulled it in, span after span, the paddle slicing a low wake until she dipped her hand and fished it to safety. Snug at her side, she rolled the towline and tucked it into the open mouthed pouch strapped below her knee.
She crept forward and stared past her reflection, past the surface, past what she could see and control, into the far-off deep.
And above her temple, along the hairline, she cut, and she bled.