There was something strange in the wind that night. Joe could feel it in his bones. He lay straight and still in his bed, listening. Everyone else in the house was asleep. Sim, his brother, had drifted off first, finding rest almost as soon as his head came to rest on the pillow. Lady, their little sister, was sleeping too. From the next room came the gentle snoring of their uncle and aunt. But Joe was awake.
His sleepless eyes wandered over the shadows that filled their little house. The table and stools looked normal enough, but the darkness made the old wood stove, with its cavernous black mouth, look positively monstrous. Joe sighed, sat up on his straw mattress, and rubbed his hands over his face.
Just then he heard a rustling outside, followed by the quiet clucking of the chickens, as if they too had woken to an unsettling sound. Standing quietly, Joe crept over to the front door and opened it. The little yard outside looked exactly as it should be—the chickens were in their coop, the tools put away, and the dirt courtyard still swept free of footprints, just as his aunt had left it.
But the gate was open. It squeaked softly as the breeze rocked it back and forth on its hinges. Joe yawned and stepped out into the cool night air, taking a moment to look up at the moon and then over to the castle towers before he walked to the gate. The great citadel of Arrens reflected the moonlight so clearly that it almost looked white. And there on the highest peak flew the long purple banner of the royal family, playing lightly on the night wind.
Joe smiled as he took hold of the gate. That banner on the citadel was a reminder of good things: the prince regent, Halbrinnon, had now taken up residence in his capital city, and soon there would be the festival of his coronation as king. And what a joy that would be! He could already imagine the scenes of revelry, with the city full of trumpets and flags, knights in bright armor, children singing in the streets, and the new king throwing open the doors of the keep to welcome the citizens to his kingly banquet.
Joe had hold of the gate now, and was about to close it, when he noticed the night mists that filled the streets of the city. Stepping out from his yard, he marveled to see his little alley as he had never seen it before: blanketed in a flowing river of fog, about as high as his knees. The mist swirled around him as he walked, and it shone in the moonlight like a stream of purest milk. He smiled and bent down to run his fingers through the fog.
Suddenly, something bumped up hard against him from behind, and he tumbled down to the ground. Before he could even turn his head to see what had happened, he heard a voice speaking to him.
“Oh! Sorry, lad. Please accept my apologies. I was hurrying along, and simply did not see you there. Are you quite all right?”
Joe looked up and saw a tall man in a dark cloak standing over him, his hand extended in an offer of help. Joe would normally have been wary of a stranger in the street at night, but this man had warmth and quiet strength underlying his every word.
“Yes, yes, I’m all right,” said Joe, letting the man pull him back up on his feet.
“I’m glad to hear that,” said the man. “I was on my way down to the Shepherd’s Gate to leave the city, and in my hurry, I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
Joe studied the man as he spoke. He had the hood of his cloak up, so it was hard to get a good sense of his features in the dimness of the moonlight, but Joe had the distinct impression of having seen that face somewhere before.
“Why the Shepherd Gate?” asked Joe. “I’ve heard that most travelers use the main West Gate—it’s a larger road, and safer at night. I can give you directions if you like.”
The man smiled. “Thank you, son, that’s very kind. But no, I have to use the Shepherd’s Gate. I’m trying to slip out quietly, so as not to disturb the city in the middle of the night, and I think there might be fewer prying eyes there. But thank you all the same.”
The man gave a nod of his head and a little wave of his hand, and then he was off again, walking down into the darkness of the street. Joe watched him go, his gaze following the slow wave and curl of the mist behind the man’s cloak. When he had disappeared from sight, Joe yawned again. A whisper of weariness crept over his mind, and so he went back into his yard, latched the gate, and then ducked inside and fell gratefully onto the warm comforts of his bed.