The Edge of the Map
An extract from a short story I wrote set in the world of Frostheart and featured in
The Puffin Book of Big Dreams
Today is the day you begin your journey towards adulthood. Today is the day you embark upon your Proving!’ For the last ten minutes the Star Seer, a master navigator, had been giving what the little girl suspected was a very rousing speech, but she’d barely heard a word of it. She’d been far too busy struggling to keep her breakfast down, which wasn’t made any easier by the fact that her heart was thumping against her ribcage like a demented drummer. ‘When you return,’ the Star Seer continued, ‘you will have proven your worth, and will be welcomed back as true Drifters – the bravest explorers the world has ever seen!’
When you return, the little girl thought. More like if. She grasped her folded kite tightly against her chest so that the wind wouldn’t tear it from her arms. This kite would lead her Ice Cutter snowboard across the frozen land, away from everything she knew. The girl had been looking forward to the Proving all her life, but now that the day had come she found herself wishing she could just carry on with her explorer lessons, as though nothing was changing at all. She knew the Proving was incredibly dangerous. Some children didn’t make it back at all. But it was tradition. It was just how things were, how they’d always been. When Drifter children reached ten winters, they had to leave the safety of the Convoy, a fleet of large, roaming, enjin-powered sleighs, on a quest to discover uncharted land and mark it upon the map.
That was all well and good.
Fun, even, maybe.
But when you add in a dangerous world, endlessly sprawling and unforgiving, and the tiny fact that it was infested with gigantic Leviathan monsters that wanted to devour you... well. It dampened one’s enthusiasm somewhat.
The little girl looked across at the other children who were lined up beside her on the edge of the sleigh’s main deck, the frozen landscape rushing past, blue-purple in the chill morning light. They also looked tense, cloaks thrashing about in the air, grasping their kites like they would their mothers. Their knees knocked together despite their efforts to look brave. Their boots were locked into their Ice Cutter boards, making their trembling legs all the more obvious. She saw someone barfing for the second time that morning. But the girl found relief in their nerves.
Least I’m not the only one.
She gazed out at the Convoy that ran alongside them – the vessels the girl had called home her entire life, twisting and turning across the land like a shoal of fish. It was an incredible sight. One she would miss. For the first time ever, she’d have to leave it behind.
All on her own.
And yet, this wasn’t what was bothering her. Not really.
The little girl let out a long, shuddering breath. The Star Seer was still banging on about how important the day was. She gazed over her shoulder at the crowd of people who had come to bid the children farewell. Families and friends, both pride and worry etched on to their faces. The girl spotted her older brother and sister, who made grotesque faces at her the moment she caught their eyes. They’d already completed their Provings and had been boasting about it ever since. She’d been so looking forward to showing them up when she did hers, but now she found herself wishing she’d asked them for advice.
They continued to stick their tongues out, their eyes boggling.
On second thoughts, maybe she didn’t want advice from those two. She returned a grotesque face of her own, one she had dubbed ‘the Creature of a Hundred Chins’.
Her pa stood behind her gurning siblings. Usually so strong and brave, he now looked fragile and afraid, his lips quivering, eyes shining with worry.
‘My baby, my poor baby girl... all by herself...’ Then he buried his head in her ma’s shoulder, bawling his eyes out.
‘Don’t you worry, she’s a big girl now,’ her ma assured him, patting his head. ‘She can take care of herself.’
Most children would’ve taken comfort from these words, maybe even pride. But not this one. This was exactly the reason why the girl’s limbs trembled, her heart raced and her breaths came short and fast. Her ma had been all smiles and support, as always. But she seemed about as concerned for the little girl’s wellbeing as if she were just taking a lovely stroll across the deck, and wasn’t, in fact, about to embark on a potentially life-threatening journey that could take years to complete, if she managed it at all.
The girl’s ma was a legend amongst their people. She was famous for having completed her Proving in record-breaking time, and she’d only been eight winters old when she’d done it! Since then, she’d charted more of the world than any other Drifter in living memory, with more daring deeds and courageous journeys than most would even dream of.
But what if I’m not as good? the girl worried. What if I’m...rubbish, or... or I don’t discover any place new? She gulped, her spit sour. What if I let her down? She’ll be humiliated! The girl looked to her ma for any sign of doubt or concern, anything that showed she didn’t expect the world from her daughter. But she simply gave her a calm smile, the briefest nod of her head.
‘You’ve got this,’ she mouthed.
I don’t got this, I don’t got this, the girl panicked.
‘And now, children of the Convoy, after my brief words of encouragement,’ the Star Seer announced, still yammering on, ‘it is time for you to depart!’
The line of children tensed as one. The little girl felt her throat tighten as adrenaline pumped through her veins. ‘May the stars guide your way and your compass point you true. Let the Proving begin!’
The children released their kites, frames snapping open and skin sails catching the gusting wind. Gripping the bridles that trailed from the kites, the children flew off the deck, one after the other. The girl left her belly behind, her long, half-shaved hair whipping behind her as she flew through the air. She stole one last glance at the sleigh behind her.
Time seemed to slow for a moment, or perhaps it was for an age.
Because there, amid the cheers of support and sorrow from the watching crowd, the girl saw it.
Her ma was holding her hands to her mouth with worry.
And was it the girl’s imagination, or had her pa grasped her ma’s shoulder ever tighter, to help ease her fears, to reassure her that everything would be OK?
The sight set the girl’s heart alight.
She bent her knees, bracing for the impact as the ground raced towards her.
In a spray of powdery snow, her Ice Cutter hit the ice, and her kite pulled her along the landscape at breakneck speed. She laughed at the thrill of it, weaving in and out of the other children, her heart singing. Her ma was worried! She’d been acting calm for her sake, probably hoping it’d make the whole thing easier.
‘Eat my snow!’ Astra, one of the other children, shouted. ‘I’ll beat all of ya!’
‘A race?’ The little girl laughed. ‘Please, give me a real challenge!’ She yanked on the bridle, adjusting her kite as she sped across the snow, leaving the Convoy, her family, her home, behind.
But it didn’t matter. Not any more.
I’ll prove to Ma she ent got a reason to worry. I’ll prove that I’m worthy of her legend! The girl grinned, her brows narrowing with determination. My name’s Lunah. You probably ent heard of me yet, but you will.
You can bet you will.