One warm, sunny winter day, a meeting was called in the center of town. Nobody could remember the last time this had happened, if indeed it had ever happened at all. Tomas stayed toward the edge of the crowd, watching. Grant and Jillian stood on a platform at the center of things, accustomed as they were to dealing with unruly crowds. [You’d think such a small, close-knit community would be free from bar room scuffles and large, angry arguments. You’d be incorrect.]
Cal was of the mind that if another winter like the one that had seemingly already ended was on its way, it was in his best interests to pack himself up, anvil and all, and try his luck over the mountains in Brin. A wave of concerned agreement washed through the crowd. [Brin is our sister town on the other side of Kari’s Pass. Not much more than a fishing village, but there’s always fish to eat in a fishing village.]
“Ain’t this the only place in the world what can grow Sootgrain? Be a mighty shame to rid the world of it.” Al had spoken up, which wouldn’t have been surprising had he worked a day since marrying Loretta.
“Hush up, Al. We all know you’re just tryna keep from anything sounds like work.”
“No, Cal, he’s got a point.” Loretta came to her husband’s defense. “If we don’t farm it, who will?”
“Has anyone tried growing it elsewhere?”
Loretta nodded adamantly. “Nowhere else anyone knows of gets enough snow. Even too far north of the Mountains and the Wheat can’t grow. You know that.”
Cal nodded pensively, but said no more.
“All told, I’m fer stayin’.” Al stomped his foot for emphasis. “Anyone wants to keep this town alive with me, they can stay too.” Having said his part, he wandered off in the direction of his home, and presumably, his liquor.
“Drunk as he is, he’s got a point and I agree with him,” Jillian said to Grant, loudly enough that the assembled farmers and artisans turned their attention to her.
Grant nodded tiredly. “I’d never have my own inn in Brin. And I won’t work for another innkeeper. Long as there’s drinks to pour, bet your hide you’ll find me behind the counter of my inn.” Nods rippled through the throng at this. Even Cal sighed apprehensively and threw a wary glance in the direction of the newly cleared pass.
“But how?” Tomas didn’t know who said it; the voice came from somewhere in the middle of the crowd. Everyone leapt at that, and a cacophony of different ideas, solutions, and pessimism overwhelmed what semblance of order there had been.
Noticing Kari approaching the edge of the crowd, Tomas did his best to catch her attention. Once their eyes met, she made her way around the mass of arguing townsfolk to stand beside him, her expression grim. “What do you make of all this?”
“It’s bad. I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, and it’s not because of the smaller meals.”
Kari just nodded in bleak agreement.
“You don’t think…” Tomas trailed off.
“I think I do, but we won’t know ‘til one of us says it.”
“The Stranger. In the red cape. The field that night. What if all this,” he gestured to the arguing farmers, the unfrozen lake, the empty fields, “is because of that night?”
Kari nodded again before saying, “And even if it is his fault, what could we do about it?”
“Well, there’s got to be something. Even if our families stay, there must be answers south of the Mountains.”
For a moment, it was quiet between them. They listened to their friends, people they’d known their whole lives, arguing endlessly, knowing in their hearts there was no easy answer.
Tomas looked up into Kari’s eyes, seeing the answer to a question weighing heavily on his heart. “I have to,” he said quietly.
“I know. Let’s go.” She motioned to where Grant and Jillian were standing, fruitlessly trying to regain something resembling order over the town square.
Kari led the way, parting the crowd gently with her bulky arms. Tomas followed in her wake. People began to notice; [Kari wasn’t inhumanly tall like Cal, but he was the only one in town taller than her.] They watched as she walked, her jaw set determinedly. It was quiet again by the time she’d reached Grant and Jillian, who just looked at her questioningly.
She gestured vaguely toward the crowd. “May I?”
Grant shrugged. “By all means.”
“Thanks, Grant.” She turned to face the crowd, and after several quiet moments, began to speak. “Folks, it’s bad. No sense beating around the bush. We can’t leave, though. Surely, you all see that deep down. Folk come from places I’ve never even heard of to buy what only we can give them. Winter is when we’re strongest, and winter doesn’t always come when it’s cold out.” She gestured toward the clear, blue sky. A few people nodded.
“This is the coldest winter I’ve ever been through, and it’s not over yet. It’s not over yet for any of us. In fact, for some of us,” she locked eyes with Tomas, “it’s only beginning.
“Some years ago now, a stranger came through that had many of us in a knot for more time than I care to remember. He left quietly, though, and we worried about other things, as is our way, but the last time anyone saw him, something unnatural followed in his wake. I can’t relate all the details, as it’s not my story to tell. I will say that it left a very close friend of mine in a bad way for some weeks after, and even still he sometimes suffers. For that reason, Tomas and I have to go and learn anything we can about him and the things he’s done to our Home.” Murmurs began to spread through the crowd. “Please! Tomas will tell the whole story to Grant and Jillian, who can relay it to anyone who will listen after we’ve gone.”
Kari pulled Tomas from the crowd to stand next to her, facing them, the Mountains sitting impassively in the background. She gestured for him to start talking, and after a moment’s thought, he began.
“I wish there were more for me to say. I’m just as scared as the rest of you. But I promise I’ll find us answers—answers to questions I’ve been asking myself for years now. I don’t know what waits for us beyond the Mountains, but I won’t give up until we find those answers. As Kari said, I’ve tasted true fear, and I don’t leap at the thought of tasting it again, but if anything within my power will put Wheat in those fields,” he raised his right arm and pointed meaningfully to the east, across himself, never turning from the crowd, “I swear I’ll do it. Go home, now, and be with your families. There’s nothing more to be gained from this.”
It was quiet for a moment, then the crowd started to disperse, still muttering about what they thought was best. Tomas turned to Grant and Jillian. Unable to read their expressions, he said, “I’m sorry to thrust responsibility on you like this.”
A wry smile crawled across Jillian’s face. “Why are you apologizing? It was Kari’s idea.”
Jillian’s smile crept onto Tomas’ face. “I guess I’m apologizing because I agree with her.”
“Fair enough. Might as well sit down and have something to drink with this, eh, husband?”
Grant sighed heavily, more from relief and exhaustion than anything else. “A drink or two is definitely in order.” He looked appraisingly at Tomas, then Kari. “This better be some story you two have.”
* * *
Jillian smirked over her wine at her husband. “I’d say that’s ‘some story,’ wouldn’t you?”
Grant rubbed his chest thoughtfully. “Yup, you kids didn’t disappoint. Never thought I’d be hearing about magic in our fields—much less telling others!” He shook his head. “How do you plan to execute this quest for answers?”
“We were actually hoping for a little help on that part. We’ll bring soot, seed, and sheaf to trade, along with any coin our families can spare, but where should we go?”
“Vacen is probably your best bet. There’s a path that follows the Lake through the Vaç Forest right to it. That’ll be two days’ walk from Brin. Roads’ll take longer. Y’all have the supplies to camp?”
“How do you think I spent so much time in the mountains?” Kari sat a little straighter as she said it.
Grant smiled. “Fair enough. I’ve got no more advice to give, truth be told. Jill?”
She shook her head, taking a pensive sip of her wine.
“In that case, you kids better head home and be with your families. I suspect they’ve got a road as hard as yours ahead of them.”
“I have to say, Grant. I hope you’re wrong.”
“Me too, Tomas. Me too”
* * *
They spent the next day preparing and saying goodbye to their families, and that night at the inn. Early the next morning, they set out over the mountains for Brin, where they spent the next night. In the morning, they assembled food for the road, which the townspeople of Brin were quite willing to donate, and set off southward, with the Lake on their right. [If I seem uncharacteristically vague about the time between the town meeting and Kari and Tomas’ departure from Brin, it’s because so was Tomas. These pages are full of short, matter-of-fact sentences and very few specifics. Leaving Home must have been devastating.]
* * *
They walked all day at a comfortable pace. Not along the beach, as sand is miserable to walk through, particularly when all that you possess is in a pack on your back. Instead, they followed a trail perhaps twenty feet from the edge of the water, which wound its way among the undergrowth and between the tall evergreens. Naturally, Kari tended to walk more quickly than Tomas, so he led the way. He knew to keep his pace brisk, and she didn’t mind walking a bit slower than she normally would. They’d been hiking together all their lives, so their time on the trail calmed them, familiar as it was. Winter’s end was unseasonably warm south of the mountains, too, and warmer again than their Home. [By no means were they truly warm, though. The Vaç is mostly evergreens, so the canopy kept the sun off their backs. Add to that the chill wind off the Lake, and it became a stark reminder of how things should be, what exactly it was they’d lost.] As the sun began to edge toward the water’s surface, they stopped to set up their camp in a small clearing.
“Do you know how to set up a tent?” Kari looked quizzically at Tomas after they’d dropped their packs and rested for a moment.
Tomas shrugged. “I never had to learn. You always either went into the Mountains alone or with plenty of volunteers, so it never crossed my path.”
“Well, then. That makes wood collecting your job. You can build a fire; I know that for a fact.”
Tomas grinned. “That I can do.”
Kari began unpacking the pieces of their tent as Tomas wandered deeper into the forest. He returned just after the sun had sunk below the horizon, and in the failing light, the two friends lit a small fire.
Soon, it was a decent little cooking fire, and they set their travelers’ meal of small steaks and big potatoes to cook on a flat rock nestled among the coals. There wasn’t much conversation between them, but neither suffered for it. They were both lost in their own thoughts, their own fears. He sat with his back to a tree, catching glimpses of the brightening stars when the wind moved the trees. She was cross-legged on the other side of the fire, staring deep into it, the Lake spread out behind her.
Eventually, Kari knelt over the fire and flipped the meat with her bare fingers, renewing the chorus of sizzling grease. She took a deep breath through her nose as she sat back down a healthier distance from the heat and froze. She took another deep breath, through her nose again.
Tomas looked at her questioningly.
“What do you smell?” she asked him.
Tomas considered it, taking a deep breath of his own. “Wood smoke and half-cooked meat. And evergreen, of course.” He patted the trunk behind his back.
Kari shook her head. “There’s something else. Or there was. I’m not sure, it’s gone now.”
They shared a shrug and went back to their thoughts, waiting for dinner to be ready. Once it was, it wasn’t long before it was over. It was bland but filling, and afterwards, Tomas fed the fire until it grew to a warm, hypnotic blaze. They sat watching it for a while in dazed, comfortable silence as the last of evening’s light faded into a moonless night.
Kari started sniffing the air again.
Tomas tried again as well. This time, he caught a whiff of something foul. The best word for it is musty, like the dampest corner of a cellar, though this was far more intense. Soon, the stench was palpable.
A sneer wormed its way across Kari’s face as she stood up. The corners of her mouth turned down as one side of her upper lip curled. Her brow furrowed and lowered as her eyes opened wide against the darkness.
Tomas stood too, looking this way and that for anything unusual.
The sound of a branch breaking echoed from the south.
Kari and Tomas swung to face it, the Lake on their right.
Something heavy and hard slammed squarely into Tomas’ left shoulder, knocking him to the ground inches from the fire. Instinctively, he rolled away from the heat, striking his already throbbing shoulder on a root. His hand went numb for a moment, then pain arced through his whole left arm. He sat up and scooted his back against the nearest tree, breathing hard. Embers and sticks, still aflame, lay strewn about.
“I don’t suppose you saw it.”
Tomas shook his head, cradling his injured arm. The last of the flames went out, leaving only glistening coals.
Kari was just a shadow now, looking and listening intently to the silence that seemed to envelop them. Slowly, one at a time, she cracked her knuckles, each pop reverberating among the trees and piercing the silence.
She spun around to face north, raising her hands to catch the dark shape that flew out from among the trees. She redirected the pounce to her left, throwing the creature toward the Lake.
It snarled as it hit the ground, an angry sound unlike any Tomas had ever heard, and cut a strikingly feline figure in the starlight as it streaked toward the water, throwing itself below the surface.
Neither of them moved until the starry reflections on the Lake’s surface stilled.
Kari began collecting the pieces of the scattered fire and rebuilding it over the waning coals. The mustiness slowly faded from the air.
“Are you?!” She cut him off, anger chilling her tone.
He didn’t have an answer. It was quiet until the flames leapt up again.
“Were you hurt?” Kari looked across the fire at Tomas, apology plain in her eyes.
Tomas nodded. “My shoulder,” he said, flexing his hand and clenching his fist.
“The arm’s okay?”
Tomas nodded again, rolling his shoulder experimentally. It popped loudly. He grimaced. “What about you?”
Kari looked at her hands, palms toward her and fingers spread. “Everything works.” She closed them. “Go to sleep, I’ll take the first watch. Want something for the pain?”
“It’s more of an ache now. I feel it when I move it, but it’s not restrictive. Make sure you leave yourself some time to sleep, please.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll get your fair share of watch duty.”
Tomas smiled wanly. “Good night, Ri.”
“Good night, Tom.”
Exhausted, they spent that night facing away from each other, though neither of them knew it. Tomas faced southward in their little tent, toward Vacen, the city Grant had suggested. Kari dozed with her back to a tree, facing north. It was the direction from which they’d come, the direction of her Home.