An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Through the Streets of Zayen Dian

The great morning sun broke like a fierce red eye over the eastern horizon, gazing defiantly at the tall bank of dark clouds building in the west. There was a noticeable chill in the air, accompanied by that damp and familiar smell that held the promise of rain. It was hardly a pleasing prospect to Dian, who was already well outside of the stark but dry walls of the Citadel, riding with Sheeva, Emilia and the Magi Jaspar through the once-familiar streets of Zayen.

As a young orphan, he had known those streets well. Now, the passage of time seemed to have changed the city, though he could not have said precisely how. Grey stone and brownish-red brick still dominated the architecture in all but the richest and poorest of districts, and the streets were filled with the same hustle and bustle that had once been a daily part of his boyhood. Merchants hawked their wares on nearly every corner, and where they were not to be found, street performers or courtesans willingly filled the gaps. Carts filled with breads, fresh produce and other goods were pulled by horses, donkeys and oxen.

It was all just as Dian remembered it, back in the time before Azental and his Joining. Then why does it feel so different? he wondered. Why does it feel so much smaller? It was a strange feeling, since Zayen remained the single largest city in all of Tarvayes, sprawling for several miles in every direction as it climbed up towards the summit of the small, flat-topped mountain into which the Citadel had been constructed. There was just something about the city that felt cramped and suffocating, in a way that he never remembered as a boy.

It’s the difference between your cities and the open freedom of the natural world, said Azental. You’ve spent so much time out there, that it doesn’t feel as comfortable in here.

You’re calling the Fellwood natural? Dian asked.

You know what I mean.

Yes, I suppose I do. I have to admit, I’m already looking forward to getting free from the city and down into the Vernum Forest—and not just because Larus will be there waiting for us. I long for the open air.

Dian had been disappointed to learn that the Druid would not be making the first leg of the journey with them. Instead, Larus had already departed earlier that morning. He would be riding swiftly, toward a small outpost in the woods, where they were scheduled to meet him in several days time, along with a number of other Hunters. The Magi, Jaspar, who appeared to have been tasked with the responsibility of leading the expedition, seemed wary of drawing too much attention. If they all left together, he had said, accompanied by more than a dozen Hunters, they would surely attract more than a few casual eyes.

Of course, as with almost everything related to this strange journey, Dian did not understand why they needed to avoid such attention. At first, he had thought it might have had something to do with Zaymenar, but quickly dismissed the idea. Surely Jaspar and Kaden would not have been able to organize such a large expedition without the the knowledge of the other Magi. There would be too many expenses involved, and in recent years the Citadel had developed a reputation for not giving up a single shekel without carefully considering the expenditure from every possible angle.

Seated awkwardly on the small horse that he had been given—or maybe it was a large pony—Dian continued to wrestle with the question, along the dozens of others that were still floating around in his mind. Sheeva rode beside him, mounted on a large and broad shouldered bay named Timber. She remained quiet and sullen for the most part, though whenever she caught Dian’s eye, she would smile or offer some half-hearted jibe. More often than not, however, her hard, blue eyes seemed to be fixed intently on Jaspar, who was riding several paces ahead with Emilia.

As for the Clerk herself, Dian could not even begin to understand her unexpected behaviour. Although he was not foolish enough to mistake it for friendship, she had shown a certain warmth and kindness the previous day. There was no hint of that now. He caught her scowling at him once, but for the most part she seemed intent on ignoring him completely. Did I do something to offend her? Was it what I said last night, about being glad that she would be coming on the journey? He could not  fathom how such an simple comment could have caused any great offence, but he was no expert on social decorum. Perhaps he had broken some unspoken rule. He would need to ask Larus once they met up with him.

The first three quarters of an hour passed in this way. As Dian swayed back and forth on his mount, his mind bounced from one thought to another, rarely lingering on any particular subject for long. There was always another question waiting on the periphery of his mind, ready to swoop in and send his thoughts scattering in another direction. It was an old habit, and one that had always driven Azental mad with frustration.

Wrapped as he was in his own confusion, Dian was caught somewhat unawares when Jaspar suddenly lead them off the main road and down a street so narrow that it could nearly have been called an alley. Riding single file, they came to a halt a few hundred yards down the road, directly before a three storied building. A simple sign hanging over the door identified it as the Dancing Doe.

“What are we doing here?” asked Emilia. “I thought we wanted to make the woods by the end of the day.”

“There’s still plenty of day left, my dear,” responded the Magi, sliding down from his own saddle. Emilia seemed to bristle at the comment, but said nothing.“I thought you might all care for a bit of a late breakfast. They make the most delicious raisin cakes here in the mornings. You really all need to try them. Come, I’ll even pay. The owner is an old friend of mine.”

When Sheeva glanced at Dian, her own unspoken questions reflected in her eyes, he could only shrug in response. If the Magi wanted raisin cakes, who was he to argue? Dian already suspected that he would be spending a great deal of time in the saddle over the coming weeks and, though they had been riding for less than an hour already, the Watcher was eager to have his own feet planted firmly on the ground again.

Determined to maintain at least some semblance of dignity, he began his careful dismount. Moving slowly and gingerly, he was just about to plant one foot on the trampled dirt road when his horse took an unexpected step forward. Startled, Dian fell and landed awkwardly, causing him to stumble backward into Emilia.

“Watch yourself!” the Clerk snapped, scowling angrily as she turned to follow Jaspar into the Dancing Doe.

“Someone has venom in her veins today,” muttered Sheeva. “Watch that one, Dian. She might just bite your head off.” Cheeks flush with embarrassment, he could only nod in sullen agreement.

This journey was not starting off well at all.

Inside the building, they were met by a stocky, thickly-beared man wearing a strange, bucket-shaped hat and a well-stained apron. The man embraced Jaspar with all the energy and enthusiasm of a close relative, all the while spouting inane compliments to the women. To Dian here merely offered his hand, though with what appeared to be a genuine smile.

“Come, come,” he said to them. “I’ll seat you in the back room, where you can enjoy some privacy.” It struck Dian as an odd comment. There were only two other people seated at the dozen or so neatly ordered tables in what appeared to be the main eating area. It was still early in the morning, however. Perhaps the owner expected more patrons to being arriving shortly.

As Dian walked through the narrow doorway of the room into which they were led, all thoughts of courtesy and privacy vanished. Two other men were already seated there. The first was a stranger, clad in brightly coloured clothes. Several locks of his long black hair had been braided together with strands of thin red ribbon. He had a roguish look about him, and the sort of wry smile that would have made Dian avoid him if their paths had crossed in any other circumstance.

The second man was not a stranger at all. His name was Alstor, the First Watcher, leader of the Order of Watchers and Dian’s direct superior. He had always been the sort of man whose expression seemed dour on the best of days. Today, it was as dark and ominous as the storm clouds gathering in the west.

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