An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Hard Choices Kelven

Again and again, Kelven hammered at the manacle with a large, jagged stone, all with no effect whatsoever—at least no effect on the band itself. His arm ached from the strain and his hands felt raw from holding the stone so tightly. The manacle, however, appeared entirely untouched. There was not even a scratch in the infuriatingly smooth surface, or a chip in any of the four amber crystals that were so tightly set into the metal.

Worst of all, he could not determine any feasible way of getting the mancle off. Whatever curse the dying prince had bound him with, there did not appear to be any way to escape it.

Frustrated and angry, Kelven hurled the stone back into the trees.

“Feel better?” asked Tyra. His sister sat a few feet away, resting between the roots of one rock-like tree. She was clearly still exhausted, but a bit of water and bread from their rapidly diminishing stores had restored enough of her strength to allow her to support her own weight. Kelven stared at her for a moment, wondering how, after weeks of running, she could still look so lovely. Even with her mud stained face and long, tangled mess of honey coloured hair, he could still see signs of their late mother’s indomitable beauty.

“No, actually,” he replied after a moment. “I don’t.”

“What do you think it is?,” Tyra asked, her brown eyes falling over the manacle.

“I don’t know, but he told me I was bound. And that they would be coming.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think?” Kelven snapped. He felt his heart sink as his sister recoiled, as though from a blow. Sometimes it was difficult to remember that she was still little more than a child. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. I’m sure he meant his mother, or at least her gandjai. They will already know he’s dead.”

“Because his Flame will have gone out.”

“Exactly. The Law is explicit. Every member of the Relen’sík must be Born of the Flame. If they aren’t, they are sent into exile.”

“Like Carvesh.”

Kelven nodded. “And you know the stories of the Queen as well as I do. She already lost one son, and won’t take kindly to me sticking a knife in the other. She’ll be looking for us. If she finds us, we’re bound to wish we were already dead, and I’m sure this bloody manacle is intended to help her track us down. I may have killed the prince, but he’s sealed our fates just as surely.”

“So what do we do?” Tyra asked. “Just keep running?”

“What else can we do? This oversized bracelet isn’t exactly inconspicuous and she has spies everywhere. There’s nowhere in the entire Realm we can hide where the Queen can’t find us eventually. But if we keep moving, maybe we can stay one step ahead of her.”

“Why don’t we just leave the Realm?” She said it so simply, so casually, as though suggesting they go buy a loaf of barley bread from the baker down the way. For a moment, Kelven could do nothing but stare.

“Tyra, do you have any idea what you’re suggesting? The Stonewall’s all but impassable and nobody knows what’s beyond it, anyhow. Mesinia might be an option, but even if we had the coin to buy passage across the Yeartide, the waters are down during the summer. If we try to go north, we’ll get crushed by Titans or eaten by ice lions, and the everything south of Stormholt belongs to the Iria.”

“We could continue through the Fellwood,” the girl pointed out.

“No, no, no. We only entered the Fellwood because I didn’t think the prince would follow us here. I was wrong, but now that he’s dead, we should head south again, maybe toward Alora. We can’t stay here, Tyra, much less keep going. You’ve heard the stories of the Changelings who live beyond these woods. They wield dark magics, and there have been no peaceful dealings with them since the Moon Wars.”

“Maybe we can be the first,” Tyra responded.

“Maybe,” Kelven conceded, trying to conceal his frustration. It had always been this way between them. Where he saw the world with a simple, commonsense practicality, his sister saw it with a hope and unwavering optimism that could be both infuriating and refreshing. She was the sort of person who spoke of ideals and dreams of what could be, even in the face of the grimmest of situations, and it fell to Kelven to keep her at least partially tethered to reality. “But are you willing to put your life in their hands? The Queen may be cruel, but at least she’s human. Can you say the same of the Changelings?”

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