A cold wind swept down from the mountains, over the mires and forest and across Egan's face, ruffling his auburn hair. The chill was deep, bone wearing at best and unusually cold for this far south. Egan stood staring at the mountains, a small line of snow visible below the clouds hiding the peaks. Though the mountains were many leagues in the distance, he felt drawn to them, as if thin threads gently tugged at him when he least expected it. He felt a growing tension building inside of him. His thick shoulders and sturdy frame seemed to lean forward. It was as if at any moment he would be swept off of his feet and pulled to those massive rocks looming from afar, the Mountains of Danna.
Stories of dark figures, of monsters that lurked in the rocks to capture you if you ventured too close, were often spread through rural communities. Though his family was only a little short of half a day's journey to Wing Haven, they didn't have any neighbors much closer. Egan believed the stories were to keep adolescent children from running off from their homes to explore the dangerous countryside. Egan knew they were just stories. But, was it the stories what was drawing him to keep looking at the Dannas? He had done his share of exploring, the Harden Forest to the east that ran all the way north to Wing Haven and ran west and east south of the farmstead. He had hunted there often. He had traveled south through the forest to the edge of the mires when he was younger looking for the fabled Egle Maer, a fictional creature from youthful stories thought to give long life. Egan laughed quietly and shook off the day dream thinking that he was foolish and returned to tending to the wagon. He was getting himself get worked up over nothing. Giving one last glance to the Dannas in the distance, he tied down the bags of grain, double checking that they were stable and fit to ride without bursting.
The fields had provided well for the family this year. His pa, Harl, had held a smile since the last of the grain had been harvested. It was the happiest that Egan had seen his pa in years. Crop yields had been up and down over the seasons, but this felt more like a windfall for the family. He hadn’t believed that there was anything that could bring the smile lines back to his face after Nuen had left.
Nuen was Egan’s older brother. He was five years older than Egan, twenty-two since half a month passed. He hadn’t left the family on good terms. An argument had broken out between pa and him. They had fought, had thrown punches and yelled before Nuen had gathered up his things and walked out with a bloody nose and a black eye, disappearing in the darkness towards Wing Haven. Egan wasn’t even sure what the fight had been over. It was not the topic to bring up to Harl, not if you didn’t want to see his temper start to simmer. That had been six years ago, and he hadn’t seen his older brother since. It was strange that the memory would creep up now, after all this time. He did miss Nuen. He hadn’t been the best brother to Egan. He had mostly ignored his little brother, but sometimes he could be cruel, teasing him or beating him up for no good reason. But, Egan still loved him, even after all this time.
Egan walked to the front and checked the horses. He checked and double checked the straps and buckles of the harness. His pa was inside the house gathering his sisters and mum. It seemed that getting ready to leave always took longer than the actual trip. Moments later, Sissy and Alma came running out of the house. His twin sisters were chasing each other, playing like always. Egan couldn't help but smile when he saw them. Six years old and not burdened with the trials of life yet; he almost envied them. Behind them came his mum, Alyssa, and his pa, smiling, hand in hand. It was a beautiful sight. Today, the family would be going to the city of Wing Haven, to sell the surplus grain. It was a yearly event, a kind of celebration for the hard work that brought in the grain. It was the nearest city to where trade was profitable.
Wing Haven was a trade crossroads in the Prendarin Empire. Trade from across the Empire often ended up there eventually. It was a border city, but it was a large bustling city despite that. Wing Haven was a fairly profitable city. It was its location that aided it, Harl often told Egan. It was so far from Andolahn that Emperor Nalnen often forgot that it existed. The rest of the empire had to deal with heavy taxation and forced draft into the imperial army. Egan thought of himself as lucky to live so far from all that chaos. The Empire had ruled this area for around five hundred years. The memory of the Council of Nations was merely a mention in old stories. Harl had told him of the stories growing up, proud nations that tried valiantly to push back the invaders with no avail.
Egan picked up his sisters and placed them into the wagon as Harl helped his mum into the seat. He grabbed his bow and quiver and climbed up into the back of the wagon sitting on the sacks of grain as his pa started the cart forward.
Egan felt a chill run down his back and realized that he was looking at the mountains in the distance. He looked at the countryside and realized that he was already a couple of miles away from the farm. He never got lost in his thoughts. He quickly scanned the horizon to the west of the cart and the tree line to the east. There wasn't much of a chance that thieves would be out this close to the farm, but it was his job to keep an eye sharp for suspicious activity anyway. Egan made a point to keep his eyes away from the mountains in the distance, purposely looking only to the sides of the cart and below the horizon back towards the direction of the farm. He couldn't afford to lose time as he had done already.
In all the years that he had journeyed to Wing Haven with his family, there had never been an attack on the cart. He was seventeen now, his fifth season with the bow as protection, and he didn't want this to be the first time that an attack came, caught dazing at the mountains, tinged purple with the white gossamer film obscuring the peaks. Egan shook himself as he quickly pulled his gaze from the looming mounds of rock in the distance and continued scanning the yellowing grasses of the autumn countryside. He chided himself again, under his breath.
Turns passed as Egan scanned the landscape, careful not to let his gaze drift when the city of Wing Haven became visible in the distance. The hills passed by to the west and sparse trees with turning leaves to the east. The beautiful colors passed by as the cart moved slowly forward. The forest ended abruptly about a mile ahead and plains took over scattering out on both sides of the dirt road. The tall grasses of these untouched plains leaned in the chill wind. Egan buttoned up his sisters' coats and pulled his cloak tighter to himself.
As he looked toward the direction of Wing Haven, he realized he was looking forward to seeing his friends. He didn't get to see them very often. In fact, this yearly trip was usually all the time he spent with them. None of his friends were extremely close with him, but this was probably due to the lack of time that he saw them. One day a year really wasn't a good basis for friendship, but he did have fun with them when he came to town. He looked forward to going to the Rancid Blossom. His friend, Bragg, picked this tavern as their hang out because of the horrible name. Egan could taste the ale already, and his mouth watered.
He patted the inside of his cloak and felt his pipe. Thrusher weed wasn't the most expensive type of weed to smoke, but he liked the taste; so it didn't bother him much. He felt the bulge next to the pipe and noted that he had a full bag of Thrusher to smoke as well. He nodded to himself and looked out over the plains and saw lines of horsemen riding. He sat up and noticed their black cloaks over gleaming armor. Egan wondered why the patrols had been sent out over the country this far from the city. Egan and his pa had heard rumors that the Empire had been increasing their numbers around Wing Haven, but no one had known why. The word magemorphs had been tossed around, but Egan always laughed it off.
Fairy tales and nonsense stories were all it was. His pa had told him the stories of magemorphs as protectors of the land before he would go to sleep as a child. This was contrary to what the Empire told as their stories. They claimed that magemorphs were terrors to kidnap you in the night for their supper. All the stories were nonsense. There were no such things as magemorphs, men turning to massive wild beasts was impossible.
The wagon bounced as the dirt road turned to cobbled stone. The cart was about a mile from Wing Haven now. That large bump in the road was an instant indicator for their location. The wheels ground on the stone making the ride smoother but louder as well. The city grew larger as they approached. The black coated soldiers appeared more frequently as well. Egan could see the large wooden wall growing large as they crept toward the city. It was a familiar site for his family, but it still took his breath away every time that he saw it. The cart stopped at the gates and a soldier approached the wagon.
"What is your purpose for Wing Haven today," said the soldier as if he'd said this same phrase consistently throughout the day.
"We're here to sell grain," replied Harl.
"Very well, carry on," said the soldier as he eyed the cart.
Egan glanced to the right side of the cart as they entered through the tall gates of Wing Haven. As he did so, he saw a strange figure that looked to be wearing a long black cloak with its hood drawn up. The figure turned his way, but all Egan saw was a black void where a face should have been. Egan stiffened at the sight. He felt hollow, as if the figure was staring straight through him. He wasn't afraid, but he felt insignificant being measured by that black gaze. He closed his eyes tight and shook his head. When he looked up, the cloaked figure had disappeared. He began to wonder if the stress of the journey was causing him to see things. Perhaps his preoccupation with the mountains was causing his wits to drain out of his head.
The cart continued down the wide street. People cluttered the paths along the front of merchant stands and businesses. The cart and other traffic caused the crowds in the street to part. Egan saw people of all different kinds of backgrounds gathered along the side of the street. The most obvious thing that occurred to Egan was the heavy presence of Prendarin soldiers. They gathered on street corners and patrolled down street after street. They were seen coming into and out of businesses all down this avenue. It was peculiar for sure. Last year there hadn't been a single soldier in the streets. The city guard had done their normal patrols, but not a single guard could be seen today.
The sky to the north had begun to darken and approach the city. It was a strange formation and moved with incredible speed. The clouds seemed to bend around the city like fog snaking around a large post. The sun hadn't reached its zenith yet but was alone in the sky as the clouds encircled it. Egan felt a chill run down his back again. The day was eerie. The strange feeling that crept inside him when he looked at the mountains to the south, the cloaked figure with no face, the soldiers amassed across the countryside, and the strange clouds all seemed to be too much to blame on coincidence. The shiver caused the hair on Egan's arms to stand on end before he could push away the feeling. The cart stopped in front of a long building, much like a warehouse. "Egan, wait here until I give the word to unload. I need to speak with the harvest master," said Harl.
Egan nodded, and helped his mum down off the wagon. He then began lifting his sisters out of the wagon. They laughed and gathered at his mum's knees, clutching at her dress.
"Egan, are you alright, son?" asked Alyssa.
"Yes, mum. I've just got a lot on my mind, that's all."
"You look worried. Don't worry your little head. Nothing is going to happen."
"I know," said Egan, forcing a smile to his face.
"Try to enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be a happy day," said Alyssa, smiling a broad grin.
Egan smiled a real smile. "I'll do my best." The warmth of his mum's mood was contagious. His mum was always smiling and optimistic, even during the hard years. Her mood carried the family through many rough harvests and winters. He didn't want to know what the family would have done without her.
Wing Haven swarmed around Egan who now leaned up against the cart waiting for his pa to give him the order to begin unloading the grain. Egan glanced up and saw that the black clouds had completely surrounded the city of Wing Haven and were roiling like a pot boiling over a fire. His unease only intensified with this. He decided it was probably best to ignore it and promised to himself that he would not look at the sky again.
The sound of Harl's voice broke Egan's concentration. "Okay Egan, let's stack the grain here. One of the men inside is going to bring a cart around and load it.” He looked up at the sky. "Mighty strange weather we're having isn't it." Harl scratched his head as he looked up, "I don't think I've ever seen clouds act like this in my entire life."
It took every ounce of Egan's will power not to look at the sky. He knew what it was doing. He began to unload the bags of grain with his pa and stack them alongside the harvest warehouse. It took them the better part of a whole turn of the clock to unload and stack the sacks of grain in neat interlocking columns. After placing the last sack onto a pile, Harl brushed off his hands.
"Now that that's done, we can all go have a little fun. I know your mum wants to stop by the dress shop and take the girls for some candy. What do you have planned?”
"I'm meeting up with Bragg and Jaharen. Don't worry. I won't be long. I promise," said Egan.
"No worries, son. Have fun. Just meet us at the gates in about a turn."
"I will," said Egan, waving as he began to walk down the side path toward the Rancid Blossom.
Only after he had gone a few blocks did he dare to look up, already knowing what he would see. Rolling black clouds loomed around the city, a circle of clear blue sky with the sun about a turn from its noon point. That eerie feeling was back. He couldn't shake the feeling, something was wrong, and the pull was back as well. It was the strangest and most disconcerting feeling that Egan had ever felt. Nothing he did would shake the feelings off. He could feel the pull to the Dannas, and it felt like those clouds overhead were pressing down on him, trying to crush him into the ground like an insect. The feeling caught at his breath and pulled on his legs. He just kept walking. It was the only thing to do. Keep walking. Don't give in to the fear and suspicions. Keep moving forward. He was sure that seeing Jaharen again would at least make him forget about these feelings. Egan looked back down at the street, pushing forward; dread dragging at his feet, uncertainty weighing him down. Something terrible was going to happen today, and he didn't know what it was.