It is an unremarkable summer day in Heldren: a small, quiet hamlet in sunny Taldor. Alder, the farmer, leans against the cart he’s parked in front of the town hall; his straw hat is pulled low to shade his eyes and he’s chewing on a piece of straw. His tomatoes and leeks ripen in the sun, unbought. The soft, persistent zoosh-swish of the nearby sawmill pervades the town square.
Old Mother Theodora hobbles into the square from the east, clutching a small burlap sack. Step by step, she inches her way across the dusty expanse of street. She reaches the Lady—a tall statue of pure white marble that rises from a plinth in the center. They say that she once was a beautiful woman, the Lady. They say that she was the town’s founder, long forgotten to time; or a forest goddess, fierce and beautiful. Some, over their cups, whisper that the Qadirans use her to spy on their Taldan foes, but no one takes them too seriously. Dust and wind and many turnings of the seasons have smoothed her features into obscurity, in any case.
Theodora eases her creaky bones down onto the Lady’s pedestal, letting out a long sigh. She mops at her brow, closes her eyes a moment.
A tall, blonde woman—she has some Ulfen blood, by the look—emerges from the Silver Stoat, Heldren’s only tavern. She starts across the square, eyes on Alder’s cart. She sees Theodora, though, resting in the statue’s shadow, and stops to exchange pleasantries. She offers the old woman a sip from her waterskin, which is gratefully accepted.
“Gods bless you, Kale,” the old woman says, “it’s a scorcher today.”
“It is,” Kale agrees. “Menander’s brought up some extra beer from the cellar. We’re expecting a lot of thirsty farmers by dusk.”
“I should think so. Knew it would be a hot summer,” Theodora winks. “Read it in the cards. When there were still frost on the ground, I laid out—” She stops suddenly. Sniffs the air. Her expression sours, her brow furrows.
“What is it?” Kale asks, looking over her shoulders.
“I…” Theodora hesitates. “I smell a foulness,” she whispers.
“Foulness?” Kale turns about. “Do you think Perkin’s got some bad chickens or something?” She turns back to Theodora… then follows her eyes up into the sky, out over the Border Wood.
A column of blue-white fire descends from the rapidly greying sky toward the wood. As they watch, a thin, high whistling rises. It starts out quiet, like the wind; then it increases in volume, drowning out the sawmill, the buzzing flies, and all the sounds of the day. As the whistle reaches its loudest and most piercing, the column of fire plunges into the woods… and falls silent.
Theodora opens her mouth to speak, but is interrupted when a thunderous boom echoes out from the forest. Moments later, a shockwave rumbles through the town, knocking Kale to her knees. Theodora clutches at the base of the Lady.
A few diminishing aftershocks shake the village square, and then Heldren falls eerily silent. Finally, Kale lets out a held breath… and it fogs in the air.
She turns to look at Mother Theodora, and a lone snowflake flutters to the ground between them and melts on the hot cobblestones. A wind rises up, blowing from the Border Wood. The temperature plummets.
“Quickly, to the Stoat!” Kale shouts, leaping to her feet. She puts an arm around Theodora to help her rise, as Alder scrambles to throw canvas sheets over his wares. The first flurries blow through the square just as the two women reach the weathered, wooden door of the tavern.