An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Battle of the Great Oak Carvesh

Perched high in the concealing branches of the Great Oak, Carvesh shifted in discomfort and gut-wrenching anticipation. It was already well after midnight and he had been holding the same arrow nocked to his bow string for several hours. He was not much of an archer—especially compared to Madik—but he had more practice and experience than Jadoc, who was crouched behind him. An old but well-maintained sword was strapped across the big farmhand’s back. Carvesh prayed that things would not go so far wrong Jadoc would need to use it.

Madik was perched another branch. He was no more than ten feet away, but it might just as well have been been a full mile. Clad in his brown cloak, the hunter was so still and unmoving that he was nearly impossible to see. The only visible movement was the slow rotation of his head as his gaze shifted between the trap—a nearby pasture where the three bulls had been carefully tethered—and the surrounding hills. The quiver on his back was well stocked and, like Carvesh, he had an arrow nocked—except that in place of the normal iron head was a single ball of pitch, covered by a strange red powder. It was something that Quelana had given them.

“Where are they?” whispered Jadoc.

“Quiet,” came Madik’s harsh reply. “They’re coming.”

Carvesh squinted against the darkness. At first he saw nothing beyond the night’s deep, indigo shadows. Then, all at once, the shadowbeasts appeared. They came quickly and violently. The first burst from the shadows, crashing into a big black bull before the unfortunate animal even knew what was happening. An instant later, it was joined by another. And then a third, and a fourth. Each looked nearly identical to the beast that had mauled Trent, with the same powerful bodies, the same black scales and the same glassy eyes.

“Fire!” Carvesh commanded.

Madik loosed his arrow. As it whistled through the air, its head suddenly burst into flame. When it struck a carefully positioned pile of oil-drenched straw, the entire thing ignited. Great orange and yellow tendrils reached for the sky, spreading along the  permitter of oil and strong spirits until it completed a ring of fire that trapped both the bulls and the shadowbeasts within. With new light by which to see, Carvesh gasped. He had miscounted, and badly. There were not four beasts down there.

There were more than a dozen.

If the monsters noticed the flames, it was as little more than a minor inconvenience that chased away the concealing shadows. Otherwise, they focusing intently on their prey. The black bull had gone mad with fear and rage. Lashing out, it attempted to gore the closest shadowbest. One great horn drove deeply into its shoulder and it thrashed violently, trying to get away.

All movement came to an abrupt end when a grey-feathered arrow pierced its black eye. As it died, it dissolved into that same black powder that Carvesh had seen the previous night. An instant later, a second arrow tore through the night, burying itself in another shadowbeast’s open maw. Like its brother, it too turned to dust.

“Bloody ash and holy ember,” Jadoc muttered in horror.

“Don’t just sit there!” yelled Madik. “They’ll be coming for us soon.”

The hunter was right. Two of the bulls were already dead and the remaining shadowbeasts were turning on the third. They would tear it to shreds in a matter of seconds,  and that would only leave the humans perched in the Greak Oak. Carvesh did not know whether the beasts were adept at climbing, but he was certain that they would be able to tear the tree apart splinter by splinter.

He drew back his bow string, took aim and fired. His arrow struck against one of the beasts’ hard, black scales and fell harmlessly to the ground. He drew another arrow and fired again, with similar results. It was only on his third shot that he managed to strike true. His arrow split two scales and penetrated deep into one beast’s neck. It roared and something like tar flowed from the would, but it did not fall.

By now, all three bulls were dead, and the shadowbeasts were turning their attention on the tree. Madik’s relentless assault had slain another two, but their numbers were still so great that they seemed to rush towards the Great Oak like a wave of shadow and darkness. They bore through the flames without a second thought, seemingly protected from harm by their armour-like scales.

So much for that theory, thought Carvesh as he loosed another arrow. It struck black scale and fell away. Madik followed with a shot of his own, piercing yet another eye and turning another beast to dust.

Then they were at the tree. Glassy, black claws flashed in the firelight, digging into the thick bark as the first beast began to climb the tree, growling loudly. Another arrow drove deep into its throat and it fell away, but there was another right behind it, coming more quickly than Madik hope to fire. Instead, Jadoc lashed out, his powerful arms driving his sword with enough force to knock the shadowbeast backward. It lost its grip on the tree and fell back, landing hard on the ground.

It simply leapt back to its feet and came at them again.

“There’s too many!” Carvesh yelled.

“Shut up and climb higher,” Madik countered. Somehow, the hunter had managed to scamper into the higher branches. He loosed another arrow, slaying a shadowbeast that had come dangerously close to Carvesh’s own leg. Startled, the farmer clubbed the beast in the face, even as it too turned to dust. Then he turned and followed Jadoc higher and higher into the branches of the Great Oak.

He had just reached out to grab a nearby branch when some instinct urged him to look down. One of the shadowbeasts was right bellow him. It swiped at him, and while Carvesh just managed to twist himself out of danger, the razor sharp claws tore through the branch he was clinging to. He drove his foot down with all the force he could manage, and somehow, it was enough to send the beast crashing to the ground. Without anything to hold onto, however, Carvesh also found himself falling backward.

Only Jadoc’s quick reflexes saved him. The big man’s hand seemed to appear from nowhere, wrapping around Carvesh’s wrist and pulling him upward. He felt something pop in his left shoulder, and for one excruciating moment he thought he might black out.

“I’ve got you,” Jadoc said, lifting him to up to another branch.

Somewhere below, a loud crack echoed through the night. Carvesh looked down just in time to see one of the shadowbeasts fall to the ground, pulling a branch with it.

“They’re too big,” Madik said, taking aim again. “These small branches won’t hold their weight.” He loosed the arrow, striking true and sending another beast to its death. “I could pick them off one by one from up here—except I only have one arrow left and there’s six of them.”

“Maybe we can wait them out,” said Jadoc, even as another of the creatures fell back to the earth.

“Unlikely. They’ll bring the tree down long before then. And us with it.”

“Then we’re as good as dead,” Carvesh growled from between clenched teeth.

“Perhaps, but what’s that?,” Madik said quietly, pointing back towards the carcasses of the slaughtered bulls. “Look there.”

Carvesh saw nothing at first. Then he gasped in surprise as another figure strode into view. This was no shadow beast. He stood erect like a man, except that he was unlike any man that Carvesh had ever seen. Though obscured in a long, ruddy cloak and a deep cowl that hid his face, the stranger was more than large—he was immense. He carried a broad-bladed claymore that was as tall as Carvesh himself as though it were nothing but a short sword. A mammoth shield was strapped to his other arm, and he carried two smaller, but equally deadly-looking axes strapped to his broad back.

The man drove the tip of his sword into the soft earth, then reached into his cloak and withdew a curved object that be brought up to his deeply cowled face. A horn! A single clear blast resounded through the night. The shadowbeasts turned, setting their attention on the stranger. They growled and hissed then rushed forth—six massive beasts closing like death one just man.

Seemingly unfazed, the cloaked simply retrieved his blade, planted his feet and prepared to meet the attack.

Stay Up to Date

There are all kinds of ways to keep up with the latest instalments of An Unfolding Tale. Subscribe to the newsletter for exclusive content, or follow the Tale through RSS or social media!