Saaro leaned in the doorway of the dining hall, watching the sun set over the western range. Crisp, early spring air caressed his cheeks. Low murmurs of talk from inside became a gentle hum in his ears. The distant peak of the Old Man glowed fiery red, most of its towering height still blanketed in snow. Rising opposite the lower western range, it watched over the valley—beyond it, the broken plains. Beyond that… none of Saaro’s generation knew, but the older mountainers, as one, maintained a resolved silence on it. They knew what waited out there, but they planned to take that knowledge to their graves.
Saaro chewed on his cheek, giving himself over to the mystery, the what-ifs and the might-bes. When he wasn’t caught up in reliving his nightmares, he liked to imagine the other people that might live over the mountains and across those far, far plains.
Elder Ekkir’s ringing laughter broke through Saaro’s reverie and he turned away from the last rays of daylight to join the rest.
Forty mountainers could sit without being crowded in the plain dining room. For official business, the benches and tables were pushed against the walls, clearing an open space for addressing the elders as they listened from high seats at the room’s raised end. They filled most of the space tonight. In the far corner, a cluster of third gens huddled around Ekkir, their wide grins telling Saaro part of the story, the beet-red color of the older Forest telling the rest.
Cale occupied a seat near the door, Zarra sitting across from him. Saaro eased down between Cale and Travik, the mountainers’ sour-smelling butcher. He had a smooth face and impeccable hygiene, but the preserving spices he used so generously in his shop tended to react on contact with skin, generating his characteristic odor.
“Keeping out of trouble?” said Travik, turning his crooked smile on Saaro.
Travik chuckled. “I’m sure.”
Saaro had some pride in his reputation as a jokester in the valley, but he couldn’t claim responsibility for the most memorable pranks. At best, he could claim the runner-ups.
“You’re talking to the wrong guy,” said Saaro. “He’s the one that starts most of it.” He nudged Cale with his elbow.
“Is that so?”
Cale said nothing, but a slight smirk betrayed him, at least to Saaro. He pretended not to notice Travik’s appraising stare.
“Yet, he’s never been caught in the act…”
Travik grunted, nodding, though he clearly didn’t believe him.
“You’ll see someday,” assured Saaro. “It’s not always me.”
“And someday I’ll see the Old Man coming down the mountain to ask me to dinner.”
Saaro sighed, turning his attention to the stew that someone had placed in front of him while they talked. Travik turned to one of the Ratchet boys and it seemed like Saaro might steal a moment of peace. The spicy aroma of peppers rose to his nose. Fame had its disadvantages. He just wished he really was the master.
“…Crone’s making the brew right now,” said Zarra.
“How do you know?” said Cale. “She tell you all the details of the Old Man’s offering?”
Zarra shot him an icy look. “You can see the smoke coming from the chimney.”
“It’s still cold at night. It’s just a fire.”
“Oh.” Cale lifted a spoonful of stew to his lips, avoiding her eyes.
“Isn’t it early for that?” said Saaro, joining the conversation. “We haven’t even had the last snow yet.”
“You know the machines,” said Cale. “They’re temperamental. Who knows if they’ll last another year. We need the blessing.”
“Ekkir seems to think it will be a good year.”
“Ekkir’s too positive. If we could just—”
“I know,” said Saaro, cutting him short. They had talked about it many times before.
Reliance on that old technology didn’t sit well with him either. They were raised on the same stories. Cale believed in both the machines and the blessing, and Saaro knew that he’d feel more secure if they could have the best of both. Most of the machines had fallen into disrepair.
A surprising gust of cold whipped past Saaro’s face. Groans broke out at the table and Jayn Rachett sent her youngest scurrying to close the hall door. Distant rumbling rolled through the room, through Saaro’s bones. “Storm tonight,” said Saaro, mostly to himself.
Next to him, Travik grunted. “’Tis the season.”
Saaro gulped down some stew. He turned to Cale and Zarra. “Wagers?” Jayn heard him and cast a disapproving frown his way. He lowered his voice. “I’ve got a mark that says we hit seventy.”
Zarra’s brow arched.
“I hate it when we do this,” muttered Cale.
Saaro looked at Zarra. “What about you?”
“I’ll take seventy-five. I don’t have a mark at the moment, but I’ve got something that should work.”
Saaro turned back to Cale. Cale looked sideways at him before blowing out a frustrated breath. He downed the rest of his dinner with a long gulp and rose from the bench.
“Fine. Put me down for sixty-five.” He marched to the door and cracked it open enough to slip through, heading out into the near dark.
Even in that brief moment, the wind howled through the breach, eliciting renewed groans. Mountainers gathered their things, sensing an end to the evening. Saaro watched for a moment, his thoughts elsewhere. He stood, lifting the bowl to his lips and throwing back the last of his own stew.
It ran down his throat like liquid fire—liquid fire pepper to be precise. For the brief moment before peak burn struck, he replayed the meal’s events. He never saw Cale do it. Saaro leaped to find the nearest pitcher of drink. He coughed and sputtered, spewing a stream of curses as he spun. Zarra’s laughter rang in his ears as precursor winds shrilled in the corners of the hall.