Dalin huffed as he hiked up the side of the grassy hill. His breath left the faintest white fog in the air. It was still early in the morning and the sun hadn’t had time to chase away the chill of night. Thankfully, his homespun wool clothing kept him warm.
Once he reached the top of the hill, Dalin took a look around. In front of him, the hill sloped downward for about twenty feet before ending at a short cliff that had been dug over countless years by a creek. The rush of water filled his ears, because the stream was swollen with dirty water from the recent snow melt. The water flooded over the creek’s banks as it raced through the nearby hills.
Dalin grunted as he turned to study the fields around the stream. Gentle rolling hills surrounded him and there were few trees or even large bushes in sight. In fact, most the ground was empty of anything but the battered remains of last year’s planting. That was too be expected, since Dalin was a free farmer and these were his fields.
Spring had finally come, and over the past few days, its warmer winds had melted the last of the snow that had clung stubbornly to the earth. As a result, the air was had fresh scent and felt full of invigorating energy that prickled Dalin’s skin. After spending so much time indoors and sheltering from the cold next to the fire, winter’s hold on the world was finally over. The wait was over. Everything was coming alive again and the world was opening up.
As was usual for this time of year, the swollen rivers of the creek were doing some damage to Dalin’s fields, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t dealt with a hundred times before. Over in the distance, he could see that some portions of his livestock fence had fallen over. That would need to be fixed before he brought his animals out. Dalin sighed. The work never ended, despite the greying of his hair and the passage of years. Year after year, he struggled to keep his farm running.
“Well, I shouldn’t complain too much. The gods might think I’m ungrateful,” Dalin muttered glumly to the wind.
These were hard times, and most people had it worse than Dalin. The war had entered a lull, but that didn’t mean it was coming to an end. Far from it. It would pick up again eventually, as it had many times before. Thankfully, the fighting was far to the east, so Dalin didn’t need to worry about raiders. He also didn’t need to worry about press gangs, unless things got really bad. He was too old for military service and the recruiters had already taken his eldest son. His two younger sons were also still children and not fit for the army.
Broken earth near the creek’s bank caught Dalin’s Eye. He frowned as he saw some tracks in the mud near the creek. Taking a few steps closer, he reached the edge of the cliff and peered over it. Hmm, he didn’t know what had made the tracks. They almost looked clawed, and there were a lot of them. They’d obviously been made by several beasts, not just one. Dalin lived in the north-west part of Eloria. He wasn’t all that far from the border, but these were still civilized lands. They’d been cleared of most dangerous beasts long ago, and kept that way by the local lords. Briefly, Dalin considered the idea that the tracks might belong to goblins or even a hobgoblin, but quickly discarded that thought. The shape was all wrong. He’d seen goblin tracks many times. The pests were always pilfering feed from his barn.
Honestly, Dalin had no idea what could have made the marks in the mud. Some harpies landing to drink? That might be it. He’d never seen any of the beasts this far south, but he was fairly sure they were real, and not tall tales. Looking up, Dalin scanned the sky for signs of large birds, but he didn’t see anything suspicious. Overhead, the sun was hidden among a host of dull grey clouds.
Feeling reassured, Dalin decided to head back home. The ground out here was still a little too wet for any farming work to be done, but there was still lots of chores he could do elsewhere, like in the barn. His wife would also probably have breakfast ready for him soon, and he was getting hungry. Dalin grinned. His wife was a great cook, and her food was what got him up in the morning every day to face both the unknown and the long familiar struggle that was the life of a farmer, even if her nagging could be as annoying as braying donkey.
Dalin cast another quick look at the empty sky and then began trudging back towards his home. The mud wasn’t bad as long as he stuck to the high ground.
Soon, the side of Dalin’s small family farmhouse came into sight. It was a rough-looking building with stone walls on the first floor and plaster around the second floor. It had also had a thick thatch roof that gave it a cozy-warm feeling, and this was enhanced by smoke rising from the chimney. Over to the farmhouses’ right, there was a large wooden barn surrounded by fencing.
Smiling at the thought of filling his belly with a hearty breakfast, Dalin walked closer and the around to the front of his house. That was when he noticed something odd. The door was open, but no one was in sight. It was still chilly out, so no one would have left it open…
With the image of the mysterious tracks suddenly fresh in his mind, Dilan rushed over to the door. An uneasy feeling had settled in his gut and the hair on the back of his neck stood straight up.
As he ran closer, Dilan saw that the door wasn’t merely open, it had been smashed. The wood around the handle was broken and shattered where someone had hit it.
“Greta! Are you alright!” Dilan yelled as he approached the looming entrance.
There was no answer, so Dilan began to panic. There was a shovel leaning against the wall nearby, so he grabbed that before continuing. Terror filled his heart now but worry for his family pulled him into the home. They could be injured or being held hostage by deserters!
Desperately, Dilan hoped he was letting his imagination get the better of him, but he raised the shovel defensively as he stepped into the building. After being outside, his eyes were unaccustomed to the gloom, and it was hard to see through the shadows.
Over to his right, past the dark shape of the dinner table, he saw the struggling low flames in the fireplace. Taking another step inside, he frantically scanned the shadows. Oh, gods. Was that a woman’s arm he saw on the ground through the pantry door? Usually Dalin’s home smelled of herbs and spices, but now he thought he smelled the iron scent of blood. Oh gods. He didn’t know what he’d do if his family was hurt. They were all he had!
Letting his improvised weapon drop slightly, Dalin rushed over to the pantry to help his wife. That was when something dark and low to the ground leapt out from the shadows at him. Dalin instinctively tried to bat it away with his shovel, but it was too fast. The old farmer screamed as claws tore into his throat. Pain wracked his body and then everything went dark.
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