Part One: Deliberation
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.”