An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

A Watcher in the Shadows Dian

Perched in the shadows high above the two pale-skinned strangers, Dian could hardly believe what he was hearing through Azental’s highly turned ears. He had always known that the hated Relenians had some ridiculous preconceptions about his people—his teachers at the League of the Stone had explained how the Firelords of the east ignorantly believed that Joined Ones could actually transform into their totems—but he had never for a moment doubted their humanity.

It seemed that the reverse did not hold true.

“Oh come now, Kelven,” said the surprisingly beautiful young woman, who Dian guessed to be no more than sixteen summers—just a year younger than himself. “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course they’re human. What else would they be?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve heard that they have dealings with the Iria.”

“So did our people, years ago. Are we any less human because of it?”

“That was different,” the man called Kelven insisted. “That was before we knew them for what they really were! Bah, this is senseless, Tyra. We are not going to travel all the way through the Fellwood. I promised mother that I would protect you after she died and she’d find a way to skin me from beyond the grave if she even thought that I would take you there. Now try to get some rest. Everything will seem better in the light of morning, I promise.”

When the young woman smiled, it spread across her entire face. Even her eyes seemed to fill with an infectious joy. “Yes, of course. I love you, brother.”

“And I you. Be sure to sleep in your cloak. It’s getting strangely cold.”

Dian had not noticed the change in temperature until the Relenian mentioned it, but there did seem to be a bit more of a bite to the night air. In fact, it seemed unseasonably cold. It was only by unhappy chance that the responsibility of watching the Fellwood had fallen onto his shoulders, but he had been fulfilling that duty for three years already and could not remember having ever felt such cold in the middle of summer.

Not that it particularly mattered. Azental’s feathers were more than enough to protect her body from the cold of the night, and soon she would be taking wing back to Zayen, where Dian’s sleeping body was waiting for him. He would report what he had witnessed, of course—of the killing and the two Relenian strangers. The League would probably send Runners to investigate his report, but by that time the two pale-skinned strangers would be well on their way, traveling to Alora, wherever that was. Dian had little knowledge of the world east of the Fellwood.

Still, he remained perched in the trees for several moments, watching as the girl called Tyra curled down under her cloak. The forest’s rocky ground could not be comfortable, but if it bothered her, she have no indication, closing her eyes and seeming to fall quickly into sleep. After several moments, her brother came to sit near her, holding his rusty, bloody knife in one hand as his clear blue eyes continued to survey the shadows of the night.

Dian, who had never known his parents much less any brothers or sisters, felt a sudden pang of jealousy as he watched Kelven keep his silent vigil. He suddenly found himself wondering what it might be like to have had a sibling, or if he might even have brothers or sisters living in one of the other cities or villages. The thought stirred within him a longing to return to Zayen, to his own chambers. As empty and lonely as they could be, it was the closest thing he knew to a home, and vastly preferable to the company of dead, petrified trees.

Let’s go home, he told Azental.

Agreed, replied the raven. I believe I’ve had quite enough of the Fellwood for one night. She was just about to take to her wings when a shadow blacker than the blackest night fell over everything. An ear-piercing shriek shattered the silence of the night and there was a rush of icy wind so strong that it knocked Azental from her perch. She flapped her wings violently, fighting to gain altitude and break above the tops of the trees. She was thrown into one branch, then another. With every impact, Dian felt the stinging pain tear through his totem’s body, but the raven refused to give up the fight.

Then, as suddenly as it had come, the darkness and cold wind vanished. The quiet stillness returned to the Fellwood as though nothing had ever happened. Confused and disoriented, a voice drew Dian’s attention back to where the Relenians had been resting. The man called Kelven was on his feet, screaming and trying to look in every direction at once.

Of the young woman, Dian could see no trace. She was simply gone.

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