Part 2: First Contact
They dropped the pack off on Tomas’ porch; he followed Kari home to help explain the new tears in her coat. [Kari was notorious for damaging her clothes. She spent the bulk of her free time exploring the mountains, tirelessly searching for a pass to build a road through them. She was rarely hurt on her expeditions, but her clothes frequently suffered a more tragic fate.] Bringing a witness provided the sway she needed, and her mother grudgingly agreed to mend the damage without assigning consequences, though not before making it clear she was on thin ice. [It was hard for us back then to get more of almost anything. Caravans came through, sure, but they were few and far between during the winter. Leather was a commodity we couldn’t make much of for ourselves; we didn’t have cows to spare.]
Tomas walked back on his own. He had no pack to carry and was now far enough away from the mountains that he wouldn’t be bothered by wildlife. It was a walk he’d been making his whole life without incident.
Thus, it was rare for him to encounter anyone on the road home from Kari’s, particularly after dark. He did that night: a robed and hooded man coming from the east, headed toward the village. He had nothing but a small satchel at his hip, sandals on his exposed feet, and seemed to be wearing nothing warm under his loose robes, which were strikingly red. The hood came low over his face, and in the light of the full moon, Tomas could almost see an odd symbol upon his chest: a black splotch against the crimson. Fine details, though, escaped his dark eyes.
“Is this the way to town?” His voice was raspy; the words seemed to slither from under the hood.
“It is. Here, take my coat. I’m closer to my house than you are to town, and it’s only going to get colder.”
The man shook his head and continued walking. Tomas tried to think of something to call after him, to warn him of cougars or frostbite, but somehow, he knew that his words would be ignored. Instead, he simply watched him disappear over the next hill, mystified by the interaction.
* * *
It was a few days before Tomas was in town again. Chores at home and in the fields occupied most of his time, and going into town was more of a commitment than free time in the evenings allowed. A trip to town required a reason, but that reason rarely took up the whole day. Going to town was the closest thing Tomas got to a real day off, and he made sure to enjoy his errands–and the time between them–as much as possible.
His first stop was always the inn. Invariably, Grant and a few of his patrons would smile and greet Tomas as he walked through the door, setting his pack down in a corner before approaching the bar.
“News from the road, Grant?”
“No news; not much traffic. Rumors, though, they’re sprouting up plenty.”
“Rumors, huh? Anything to do with a man in nothing but curious robes?”
“Met him on the road, actually. Same night as I was in town last, as it happens. I tried to give him my coat, but he wasn’t having any of it.”
“You know better than to give up your coat on a winter’s night, boy.”
“I was on my way home from Kari’s, already more than halfway. And it was warm that night, you remember. You mentioned it yourself.”
Grant rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “S’pose that’s fair. Cold doesn’t seem to affect him the same way it does us anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
Grant looked conspiratorially around and leaned over the bar, close to Tomas. “He’s been sleeping with the window open. I’ve felt the draft from my bed; Jillian and I had to get an extra quilt to stay comfortable. I’m lucky he’s my only guest.”
Tomas’ eyes widened. “But it’s been so cold the last few nights.”
Grant shivered with the memory. “You’re telling me.”
* * *
Memories of the stranger fresh in his mind and a hearty tavern lunch under his belt, he made his way to the bakery, a small sheaf of wheat tucked under his arm. The crisp, slightly bitter aroma of baking Black Dough greeted him even before he climbed the bakery’s porch steps. Chimes over the door tinkled as he entered, and Loretta, a robust woman with an ample waistline, greeted him with a smile. Her husband, Al, was nowhere to be seen. [Alfred the Baker wasn’t a bad man. That said, few would’ve leapt at the opportunity to call him a good man. Most days, he didn’t do much of anything. This left the operation of the bakery he’d inherited to Loretta, who accepted the responsibility with hardly a bat of her eyes.]
“Tommy! What might I do for you today?”
“Three loaves and a story, if you’ve got one.”
“Have I.” She took the wheat from Tomas, tossing it into a bin containing more of the same. “Fellow dressed to catch his death came in yesterday with naught but coin and demanded to buy some dough.”
“Red robes, I take it.”
“And nothing else!”
Tomas couldn’t help but smile at her fervor. “And he brought nothing to trade?”
“Grant said he warned the man after he asked where to find me. Didn’t do no good, though. He insisted I take his coin.”
“Was it at least good coin?”
“Naturally. Wasn’t happy about it, though. I don’t even know what he meant to do with raw dough anyway.” She took a sack from under the counter and picked up a fresh loaf of black bread.
“Oh, Loretta, there’s no need to give us the fresh ones. It’ll be hard as a rock by the time I make it home anyway. Save it for someone closer to town. Yesterday’s batch is fresh enough for us.”
Tomas jumped as she brought her hands down on the counter. “Yesterday’s batch isn’t fresh enough for the birds outside and bite your tongue for suggesting it!” Flour, black like soot, filled the air for a few moments, slowly resettling on any surface it could find.
Tomas laughed. “Fine, then. This morning’s batch.”
Loretta was less than amused, but she conceded to putting the less fresh loaves into the bag. “I swear. No matter how much more you look like your mother as the years pass, you keep sounding more and more like your father.”
“Grapes and vines and all that.”
“I suppose so. Be careful around that stranger, you hear?”
“I will, Loretta. Give Al my best.”
“If I see the lump. Stay warm!”
The chimes tinkled again as Tomas left the warm, aromatic building.
* * *
The final stop on Tomas’ list of errands was Cal’s workshop. [The blacksmith of our little Home at the time, Cal, was a big man. His knees didn’t fit under the tavern’s tables when he sat, and he had to stoop in every building in town except the ones on his property. He was thick, too, with arms bigger around than Tomas’ legs. Despite his stature, there was nobody north of the mountains with fingers as nimble as Cal’s.] Few men handled the cold like Cal, whose arms and legs were exposed beyond the knees and elbows. Warmer though it was by the forge at which he worked, Tomas still couldn’t remove his jacket in Cal’s shop, open as it was to the wind and the cold.
His back to the wall, Cal saw Tomas coming even before he joined him under his high ceiling. “Pleasant travels, I hope.”
“Always when they bring me here, Cal. How do you find yourself today?”
Tomas was amazed to see him wipe sweat from his brow. “Enjoying today’s warmth after the chill of the last few days. I’ve those hinges you dropped off last week. And a little something extra, too.”
“Cal, you shouldn’t’ve.”
“Oh, it took no time.” He produced a bar with several hooks attached. “For your coats. You have a few nails to spare, I hope?”
“For this? Certainly. Your ingenuity never fails to amaze me.”
“It was Grant’s idea, actually. For just inside the tavern door. Figured I’d work another up now that I know how, see how long it’ll actually take.”
“Speaking of Grant, have you met his newest guest?”
“Robed and hooded fella? Saw him headed back toward the inn from Loretta’s, I think. Munching on a fresh loaf of the local delicacy, he was.”
“You call raw dough a delicacy?”
Tomas’ eyes widened. “He demanded to pay coin for a lump of Loretta’s dough. Took it and left.”
“Bet that went over well.” A moment passed, then Cal straightened up, setting his hammer down for the first time. He scratched his beard. “How do you suppose…?”
“I’m not sure, Cal. Grant said he’d been sleeping with the window open, too. Arrived that last warm evening a few days ago.”
Cal was already pulling a warmer layer over his cotton shirt. “We’d better go have a little chat with Grant. It’d be wise for someone that close to him to have as much information as possible.”