An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

A Need for Shelter Carvesh

Silence lingered like the morning fog over open water. It hung in the air like and an invisible barrier, blanketing them from the rest of the world. Carvesh found that he could do nothing but stare at the small mound of black ash that was all that remained of the demon. It was gone. Over time, all trace of its existence would simply vanish. Already, its merger remains were being lifted and blown away, like dust in the wind.

But nothing would wash the memories from Carvesh’s mind.

He had slain the demon with his own hand—though not in the way he had intended. His stroke had been meant for its eye, for what had seemed like its only weakness. Instead the blade had cleaved through its skull as easily as a scythe through the autumn’s wheat. Encased by its bony armour, the demon had taken dozens of blows from one of the most accomplished swordsmen in the Realm. How was it that Carvesh had felled it with a single, misplaced stroke?

Tearing his eyes from the lifeless ash, he looked at his sword. Even in the dying light, the blade gleamed, bright and untarnished as on the day that Jayslen had first brought it to him. Not an ounce of blood or gore marred the smooth surface of its steel.

What just happened? Carvesh wondered.

Then as if in response, he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. “Well done,” said Aurin. “You found a weakness in its defences.” He spoke with a tone of calming assurance, but his emerald eyes told a different story. He did not believe his own words. Carvesh open his mouth to respond, but was cut off. “We’ll speak more of this later. For now, we have more pressing matters. I take it that’s the boy we’ve been looking for?”

Dane had emerged from his hiding place. His eyes were wide with fear and wonder. Was he watching? Did he see what I just did?

“That’s him,” Carvesh replied. Remembering the wooden disk, he turned to find it sitting where he had dropped it. With its carved face resting on the dirt of the Kingsway, it appeared so simple an unassuming that he could easily have mistaken it for a stray part that had fallen from a passing cart, or perhaps a child’s lost toy. He bent down to pick it up. Then, turning it over several times in his hand, he walked over to where Dane stood and placed the disk back in the boy’s hand.

“Thank you,” he said simply. “It saved us all.”

“Is it really gone?” Dane asked. His voice was weak and unsteady.

“Yes, I think it is.” The boy broke into tears. He threw his arms around Carvesh’s waist, buried his face in his shirt and began to sob. All of Carvesh’s fatherly instincts rose up in response. He lifted the boy, cradling him in his arms, just as he had done so many times with Alek and Jayne. “It can’t hurt you any more,” he whispered soothingly. “It can’t hurt any of us.”

“I hate it,” the boy whimpered softly. “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.” The words stabbed at Carvesh’s heart like a hornet’s barb. The boy was too young to know the venomous meaning of hate. Yet it was unmistakable in his voice. Behind the stream of tears, there was anger and pain and bitterness—the fruits of an innocence that had been stolen too soon. Carvesh sought for soothing words as the boy wept softly on his shoulder, but none would come. Instead, he simply held the boy and turned back toward the rest of his companions, praying that there was some comfort to be found in his arms.

“She needs a healer,” Carwell said as he knelt down beside Quelana.

“She is the healer, my Lord” Jadoc countered. “There’s no one around here who knows her craft better than Quelana.”

“That’s the plain truth,” said Madik. “What she needs now is a good rest. She won’t get that if you carry her all the way back to town. Besides, it’s getting dark, and we all know what that means. That thing isn’t the only monster out there.”

“What about the horses?” pressed Carwell.

“The darkness’ll be full by the time we find them all,” replied the Hunter, bending down to retrieve Quelana’s satchel. “Besides, she’s in no condition to make the trip. Even if you laid her over a saddle, the ride would only do her more harm than good. That wound looks frightfully dangerous. Still, I can’t disagree that she needs help.”

“What do you suggest?”

“I know a thing or two about basic medicine. It’s a helpful skill when you’re out in the wild for months on end. If we can find some place safe, I reckon I could prepare a simple salve to keep the wound clean and a draught to take some of the edge off her pain. Try to keep her alive until morning, and hope that she’ll be able to provide a bit of guidance once she wakes.”

“That’s a big if,” said Jadoc. “There’s not much around here but wilderness and open pasture. If we can’t get her on horseback, the closest farmstead is still an hour by foot, and that’s setting a decent pace.”

“True enough,” muttered the hunter. “True enough.”

“Well we need to do something,” said Carvesh. “And we need to do it quickly…” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Winter turn her head abruptly, sniffing the air as though she had caught a fresh sent. Instinctively, he held Dane closer and turned in the direction the she-wolf was gazing. She was not displaying any of the aggression that she had shown before the appearance of the demon, but that did little to calm Carvesh’s nerves.

For several tense moments, silence once again spread out across the Kingsway. Then, a deep but familiar voice rumbled from out of the growing darkness. “There is a safe place,” it said. “Not far from here.” A moment later, the golden light of fading twilight seemed to coalesce. Dancing shadows came together into a single, hulking figure. The stranger’s face was hidden deep within the shadows of his deep cowl, but Carvesh immediately recognized him as Taarumachk—the lone swordsman who had saved them the previous night. He loomed over them like a great, shadowy monolith.

“We meet again, Carvesh of the Great Oak.”

“So it would seem. Well met.”

“You know this man?” asked Lord Carwell, keeping his eyes fixed firmly upon the giant that stood before him.

“We’ve met once. What are you doing here, Taar…” Carvesh struggled to make his tongue pronounce the strange name.

“You may call me Taaru,” growled the swordsman. “I had caught the foul scent of the Sjataki and was tracking it. I came upon this place just as you delivered the final blow. That was deftly done. The nightstalkers are protected by the powerful magics of the Remnant. They are not easily slain.”

“You mentioned a safe place?” said Carvesh. He was not certain that we was yet ready to discuss what had just happened with the demon.

“Yes. There is a small ravine, not far from here. The streams that carved it out from the land have long since vanished and there are a series of small caves that should provide shelter.”

“What about the shadowbeasts?”

“They will not find you in this place.”

“How can you be certain?

“There are many powers in this world—ancient powers that can keep us hidden from the servants of the Remnant. The ravine flows with one such power. The jychra will not come to that place—or if they do, they will not leave again.”

“Is it defensible?” asked Lord Carwell.

“You will have no need of weapons.”

“After what just happened, I’m not sure that we’ll feel safe anywhere at the moment” replied the Lord. “I ask again, is it defensible?”

The question seemed to hang like a spark in the silence that followed it. Carvesh found himself holding his breath as he waited to see if that spark would fade harmlessly into the night, or if it would somehow ignite Taaru’s anger. The giant man had already proven himself to be a fierce swordsman. Carvesh did not think that Carwell—as exhausted as he was—had any hope of besting him.

“I think you will find that it’s formation and positioning are tactically sound,” responded Taaru after a moment. “Obviously, we will not have the advantage of high ground, but the ravine is narrow enough that, should it come to a battle—though I assure you that it will not—the enemy will be severely limited in both numbers and movement. So yes, it is defensible.”

Carwell then turned to Carvesh. “You trust this man?”

“He saved our lives last night, and I’m certain that he has no love for the shadowbeasts.”

“‘The enemy of your enemy is not always your friend,’” said Carwell, quoting from the Teacher’s Book of Wisdom.

“No,” agreed Carvesh, “but he can be an ally, and does not the Guardian also tell us to ‘hold fast to he who fights beside you, for he is as your brother’?”

“Ashes and Embers, boy, you truly are your father’s son. You certainly have his sense of honour. Let’s also hope you also have his judgement of character. If you truly believe that this man does not lead us into further danger, then by all means let us follow him to safety. But someone needs to return to the village. They’ll need to know that we found the boy and that we’re safe.

“Goodman Jadoc, I’m afraid I will have to ask you to take Banner and ride back to Kervale for us. I still cannot let Carvesh ride off unescorted, and Madik needs to stay behind to tend to Quelana. That leaves you, I’m afraid. You may take the boy, however, and see that he is delivered safely to his aunt.”

“I want to stay here,” sputtered Dane.

“I’m afraid not, my boy,” said Carwell firmly, his tone falling somewhere between that of a commanding Lord and a stern father. “We’ve already gone to a great deal of trouble to find you. I want your returned to the safety of the village. We will discuss whatever foolishness drove you to run off on your own when we return. Understood?”

“But…”

“This decision is final. I will hear no argument. So I ask again, am I understood?”

“Yes,” replied Dane meekly.

“Excellent. Jadoc, after the boy is returned safely, seek out a man named Linden. He is my second in command and was at the healer’s home, being treated for minor wounds. Tell him everything that happened tonight, then lead him back here to meet with us in the morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Excellent. Let me help you with Banner. He’s a good mount, but can be a bit temperamental.” As they went to fetch the warhorse, who had retreated a ways down the Kingsway during the struggle with the demon, Dane threw his arms around Carvesh. He did not say a word, but when the boy allowed himself to be lifted up onto Banner’s back, several minutes later, Carvesh was holding the mysterious wooden disk in his hand.

“Stay safe,” Jadoc said.

“You too.” The farmhand nodded, turned Banner west, towards Kervale, then snapped the reins. The warhorse responded by breaking into a brisk trot, which quickly built into a full gallop. Moments later, the horse and its riders melted into the depths of the growing darkness.

“Shall we be off, then?” asked Taaru.

Carvesh bent down and lifted Quelana gingerly in his arms. She moaned softly and her head turned to rest against his chest. The bitter tang of the chewed leaves that she had pushed into her wound barely masked the sharp odour of blood and flesh.

“Let’s go.”

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!