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Winter


NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Haru's Storyline.


     Somewhere in the distance, a crow cawed, twice, and the sound made Haru start. The bird’s lonesome call echoed across frozen fields, so that it seemed to come from everywhere at once, and, at first, Haru could not trace it to its perch. But then the crow cried again – lower, this time, and mournful – and that was when Haru spotted it, just a rustle of feathers among the flour-white branches of a bare tree.

     Haru looked at the crow, and the crow looked at Haru, before cawing one last time, and taking flight. It circled once, then flew east, a black silhouette against the cold winter sky, until it vanished into the distant, slate-gray horizon. 

     Haru was sad to watch it go. The crow was the only living creature she had seen that day.

     She had left her last real shelter over a week ago. It had been a warm, cozy place, with a cottage and a mill, nestled into the crook of a slow, winding stream. The miller and her daughters had given Haru food, and a roof for the night, and had resisted all attempts at payment, which left Haru feeling grateful but wrong. They had given her a pair of old boots, too, with oiled leather uppers, and corded soles, saying that the age-stiffened shoes had last belonged to a farmhand, long since departed, who had left them behind in error. Haru had tried to refuse, saying that she could not take them – that she had nothing to trade in return – but the miller had insisted, saying that it was only by the grace of the Goddess that Haru had not already lost her toes to the cold, and that they had no need of the boots, anyway. The miller would not be swayed, and so Haru – despite feeling overburdened with a sense of both gratitude and obligation – had accepted the gift.

     The boots did not fit – they were far too big. So the miller had torn strips from a flour sack, and wrapped them around Haru’s cracked feet, until she could walk without her heels sliding in the shoes. It was not comfortable, and it meant that she had to tread slowly across the ice-caked fields. But it was better than frostbite.

     The miller and her daughters had knelt with Haru, to ask a blessing at their hand-carved shrine. Then they had gathered outside to wave goodbye, telling her there was a little hamlet about three days walk, due south.

     Haru had said her thanks, and goodbye. Then she had turned and gone north.

     The further she walked, the quieter the land became. The fields she crossed lay silent, and fallow, and, even though she could no longer feel through her booted and wind-frozen feet, Haru could sense the earth’s distress. These fields were not simply quiet as they waited for spring. The land had been overfarmed, until the soil grew thin, and tired. It would take a generation, maybe, for the earth to replenish itself, and reawaken, even if no more seeds were sown.

     Something about that made Haru sad, and she thought again of the little mill house, where she had taken so much, yet given so little.

     The Goddess of the Fields was kind, and loving. But her bounty was not infinite. And every shock of wheat was a debt to be repaid.

     The land Haru walked now was rocky and uneven – not just fallow, but abandoned. The straight lines of trees once planted as windbreaks had grown thin in some places, jagged in others, where thin, strappy seedlings made inroads into the untilled fields.

     In the distance, Haru noticed a rounded shape rising from the windswept land, and, as she turned towards the little rise and stumbled closer, she found that it was neither a hill, nor a snowdrift, but the sloping, half-buried form of a sod house. The house had been dug out of the field more than built atop it, so that its roof rose just above Haru’s own height, and a short flight of narrow, rootbound steps descended down to the door, which hung half-rotted and open on its hinges. Small windows had once been cut into the front of the home, just above ground level, but their sagging eaves had grown heavy with snow, and sod, until they drooped like sleepy eyelids. A round, clay chimney rose from one corner of the house, but it was capped with snow, and gave no smoke.

     Haru could not tell for just how many seasons the home had been abandoned, but, judging by the state of the surrounding fields, she guessed it had been for some time. Still, as she stepped carefully down the narrow, icy steps, she took care to stop on the threshold, and she knocked with blue knuckles on the rotted-out door.

     “Hello?” she said, first quietly, then louder. When a third such entreaty also got no reply, she swung the door wide, and shuffled inside.

     The home’s interior was dark, and cold, but it at least offered respite from the chill wind. The earthen walls were bowed inward, and, in its center, the ceiling sagged so much that Haru could not stand beneath it without scraping her head. The home’s prior owners were long gone, and, absent their maintaining hands, it would not be long before the earth reclaimed its space. 

     There was no furniture inside. No logs by the hearth, no signs of life. Whoever the homesteaders had once been, when they had left, they had taken everything with them. All they had left behind were the yoke from a broken plow, and a moth-eaten sack.

     The burlap sack was of a size and shape used for storing barley, and, when Haru saw what it was, she felt a pang of raw hunger which nearly bent her over. She had not eaten in days, but she was used to long fasting, both from her years in the priory, and from her months of wandering since, and she had forgotten just how empty her belly was until the memory of food had stirred it from its slumber. And, although she knew that the chance of finding anything to eat inside the old, rotting burlap was laughably thin, she still crawled across earthen floor with what would have been unseemly haste, had anyone been there to see.

     With fingers made clumsy by cold, it took Haru some time to work open the string. When she got the sack open, and looked inside, there was no barley, but the sack was not empty. Instead, nestled among folds of burlap, she found a single, small dormouse, where it lay curled into a ball, with its tiny paws wrapped round its tail, as its chest rose and fell softly, while it slumbered the long winter away.

     Haru carefully drew the sack closed again, and nestled herself gently against it, the better to share whatever of her own warmth she had left. She sat on the cold, earthen floor, and looked down at the burlap sack, with its one little dreamer inside.

     “You had the right idea,” Haru said to the sleeping mouse.

     Then she leaned her head back against the sloping, rootbound wall, and – telling herself it was just for one second – she let her own eyelids drift shut.

 

* * *

 

     “She wouldn’t have come this far,” Lissa said, cupping her hands and blowing into them, before sticking them beneath her arms for protection against the numbing cold. “Besides, there aren’t any tracks.”

     “Well, there wouldn’t be, would there?” Lam said, forging stubbornly ahead, even as his sister stopped to rest. “Ground’s frozen solid. And she was headed this way, last you saw her, right?”

     Lam turned back to stare at Lissa, when his sister didn’t answer. He put his hands on his hips, and his face darkened.

     “You did say you saw her,” he said. “Right?”

     “Swear on our stores, I did,” Lissa said, shivering in her woolens. “But that that was over a mile ago, and she wouldn’t have come this far. She never runs this far, even last time she bolted.”

     “Last time, she didn’t have you chasing after her, hollering like a cat in heat,” Lam said. “And if you get switched for leaving the paddock unbolted again, it won’t just be you this time, because I promised Papa I’d keep an eye on you, and then you go and do some fool thing like letting the plow horse loose.”

     “She doesn’t like being cooped in the barn all winter,” Lissa said. “She likes to roam around.”

     “And I like being able to sit without smarting,” Lam said. “Anyway, that’s what the paddock’s for.”

     “I thought the paddock was bolted,” Lissa said, bouncing from foot to foot to keep warm.

     “Well, it weren’t,” Lam said, rubbing his fingers. “So you that’s on you, and you’re going to help me find her.”

     “I’m here, aren’t I?” Lissa said, and gave Lam a dirty look, before cupping her hands around her mouth, and yelling the plow horse’s name as loud as she could. “Biscuits!” she cried out, and then listened to the sound of her own voice echoing across the dead fields, before refilling her lungs with sharp, winter air. “Biscuits!” she yelled again.

     “What’s the point in all that?” Lam asked, as he re-wrapped his scarf around his face, and trudged onward across the hard-packed snow. “She never comes when you call.”

     “Can’t hurt,” Lissa said, struggling to keep up.

     “We can do without the noise,” Lam said.

     Lissa shot Lam another dirty look, which he pointedly ignored.

     They went on for another hour like that, crossing barren fields and ragged hedgerows, until Lissa was about to point out that it was getting dark, and they had better turn back, when Lam pointed to something on the ground ahead.

     “Look!” he said. “Tracks!” And he ran forward across the ice as best he could without slipping.

     Lissa – who tried to match his pace – called out after her brother, “Horse tracks?”

     “No,” said Lam, who had frozen in place, and was craning his neck oddly, as he studied the shapes in the snow. He bent forward and knelt down, so that his face was no more than inches from the ground.

     “What is it, then?” Lissa asked, as she finally caught up with Lam.

     To his sister, Lam said nothing. Instead, he simply stood back up, and pointed down at the ground.

     There, amidst the winter ice and snow, Lissa saw what looked very much like a footprint, in the shape of a wide boot. Except, instead of being pressed into the snow, the footprint seemed to have melted the snow entirely. On either side of the print, ice still clung to the frozen soil. But, within the outline of the wide boot, green grass grew from the otherwise barren field, and a yellow crocus bloomed.

     “Look, there’s more of them,” Lissa said, and, sure enough, the footprint was just one in a series – each one impossibly living and green – which travelled north through the field, like the steps of a shuffling gait.

     “That’s not right,” Lam said, taking a step away from the strange footprints, and shaking his head. “Something’s not right. We should go back.”

     But Lissa – damn her – was already following the odd trail off into the distance, and, swearing under his breath, Lam scrambled after her.

     “Biscuits!” Lissa called out, still running as fast as she could. “Biscuits!” she said again, and, this time, she was rewarded with a loud whinny that came from the same direction in which the tracks led.

     “Lissa! Wait!” Lam called out after her, but it was useless, so Lam ran, too, although he was careful not to step too closely to any of the strange footprints as he went.

     The unnatural tracks led them straight to Biscuits, who stood in the middle of the field atop a strange hill, with her tail swishing idly, and her head down, grazing. Much like the footprints, which led right up to it, the little hillock was not covered with ice or snow, but was instead green, and living. All along its flanks and crown, sweetgrass sprouted, intermingled with oats, and golden barely, and winter wheat, whose long, sinuous stalks swayed in the freezing wind.

     Lam said a hurried and silent prayer, and genuflected before the Goddess, before yelling out to Lissa again, “Lissa, keep away! Stay back!” But Lissa ignored him, as usual, and ran up the flowering hill to where Biscuits stood. The plow horse largely ignored Lissa, even when the young girl happily petted its flank, and went right on grazing on sweetgrass, even as Lam – breathless – drew up next to his sister.

     “What in creation’s wrong with you?” Lam scolded at her, even as the feeling of soft earth beneath his feet made him uneasy. “Can’t you see something’s unnatural here?”

     “Look,” Lissa said, “it’s not a hill, it’s a house. We’re standing on it!” And, even as she patted the grazing horse with one hand, she pointed her other at a small, clay chimney pipe which rose from the nearby soil.

     Lam hadn’t even noticed the chimney, which gave off no smoke, and was almost hidden among the wheat and the tall grass.

     “Lissa,” he said, trying to put his hand on his sister’s wrist, “we need to go.” But Lissa wormed free, and clambered down the sod roof in the direction of an earthen staircase, and what Lam assumed must be the buried house’s door.

     Lam thought about telling Lissa to stop, but what was the point? She was through the door before he could utter a word.

     Treading warily, Lam followed Lissa inside, where he found her standing, frozen, just a few steps across the threshold. She was shaking, but not from the cold, and he followed her eyes to the shape of a lone woman, who lay huddled in a far corner. She was hard to see, through the network of roots which grew all the way from the sunken ceiling to the earthen floor, and the simple green dress she wore matched the color of the grassy walls so closely that, from a distance, it was almost hard to tell where the woman stopped, and the earth began. She was lying there, silent, and still, with her eyes closed, and, as Lam crept warily towards her, she did not stir.

     “Who is she?” Lissa said, as she too picked her way among the web of dangling roots.

     “I don’t know,” Lam said, quietly, as he drew closer to the woman’s silent form. “But she must’ve frozen to death ages ago.” Even though it looked as if spring had come early inside the little house, the winter air was still bitterly cold.

     “Look at her hair,” Lissa said, and pointed, and, when Lam saw what she meant, he started.

     The woman’s straw-colored hair – which, from a distance, had looked normal enough – fell in gentle waves across her shoulders and face, as it should. But, towards the end, it changed, growing thicker, and fibrous – plantlike – until each strand of hair ended not in a simple tip, but in what looked eerily like a shock of wheat, or a heart of barley.

     Lam heard something move next his leg, and he jumped, raining a shower of dirt from the ceiling where his head bumped against it. His racing heart barely even slowed when, looking down, he saw that what had made the noise was nothing more than a little, frightened dormouse. The mouse looked back up at Lam, and, for a second, as the little mouse’s whiskers twitched, its eyes met his, before it squeaked, and scurried off to another corner.

     “Lam?” Lissa said.

     “What?” Lam said, still shaking from his momentary fright.

     “Lam?”

     “What?” Lam said again, louder this time, and he was startled to look up and see Lissa kneeling in the corner, next to the strange woman.

     Lissa was holding her hand just above the woman’s face, and her eyes were wide.

     “Lam,” Lissa said again, her voice a whisper, “she’s alive.”


"Winter" by OrcishLibrarian was originally published as part of the Expanded Multiverse project.

To learn more, and to read more Expanded Multiverse stories, please visit the Expanded Multiverse forum at No Goblins Allowed.


Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use. 

All works copyright their respective creators.


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